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Hospice in Prison Part 2: An interview with the Pastoral Care Workers

I don’t know ’bout religion
I only know what I see
And in the end when I hold their hand
It’s both of us set free

These are the ending lyrics to Bonnie Raitt’s song “Down the Hall”, an ode to the Pastoral Care Workers who care for their fellow inmates in the hospice unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California. On last week’s podcast we interviewed the medical director and the chaplain of the prison’s hospice unit (Hospice in Prison Part 1).  This week we turn our attention to the inmates. 

Pastoral Care Workers are inmates who volunteer time to care for the dying who come from all around California to spend their last days, weeks or months in the prison’s hospice unit, fulfilling a mission that “no prisoner dies alone.” 

On today’s podcast we talk with three of these Pastoral Care Workers, Jerry Judson, Jeffrey Maria, and Allan Krenitzky. We discuss with them why they decided to volunteer for the hospice unit, what a day in the life of a Pastoral Care Worker looks like, and among other things their thoughts on forgiveness, redemption, rehabilitation, and compassionate release.

We also had the pleasure to take a walk through the hospice unit garden with Mr. Gerald Hite. He taught us a little about the different flowers and plants, and along the way a little about why he does what he does.

While this is a podcast about volunteers in a prison hospice, I think it also serves as a lesson for us all about how we make meaning to our own lives and define ourselves by not only what we have done in the past, but what we do now.  One story that Allan told perfectly sums this up. He said one day his son asked his wife what he does for a living, and his wife said “Papa helps sick people.” 


Eric: Welcome to the GeriPal podcast. This is Eric Widera.

Alex: This is Alex Smith.

Eric: And Alex, last week we did episode one of Hospice in Prison. This week we’re going on to episode two, which is for me one of the most special episodes we’ve done in GeriPal for a very, very long time. What’s coming up in episode two?

Alex: Coming up we talk with three pastoral care workers who are inmates who have been volunteering in the hospice at the California Medical Facility prison for some time. We hear their stories, their motivations for doing this, their stories about regret, forgiveness and their ideas about the way the California and national prison system should change to focus more on rehabilitation, reform and eventually reintegration, rather than punishment.

Eric: And in the end, we have a very special part where we actually get a tour of their gardens outside of the hospice unit. So do listen to the end, because it was a really beautiful tour of the hospice unit. We have pictures of this online on our GeriPal website.

And before we get into that, I was recording before we actually sat down with Michele DiTomas, which was part one of this episode, as we walked into the hospice unit. So I started recording, and I’m just going to share this clip of Michele talking about two things, why she picked the song that she picked as she walked in, which we talked a little bit about in the last episode, but also about the role of the pastoral care workers. So take a listen.

Michele: So this is X corridor, it leads to hospice. And the song by Bonnie Raitt that I mentioned is actually based on… it’s called Down the Hall and this is the hallway. So I guess for her most recent album, she felt like she told a lot of her incredible, heartfelt stories in the past, and she wanted this album to have sort of a John Prine effect.

There were two stories I know of that had impacted her that she heard about. One was a young man who’d had a heart transplant, and it was her son’s heart that he was given, and he went to her house and allowed her to listen to his heart. So she found that incredibly moving, so that’s one of the songs on the album.

But the other was she read an article about our hospice in the May of 2018 New York Times magazine. And that article really, it’s by Suleika Jaouad, and it focused on some of the peer workers that we have. And she read that article and was very moved by the work that these men are doing, and so she wrote the song about that.

So it’s a wonderful song and when it came out, I played it for some of the men who were working back there. And there’s one gentleman that, he’s very sentimental, and I told him before I played it, I said, “You better get a few tissues.” And he did and then by the end, he had his head on the table and he had tears running down his face. And I actually shared that story with Bonnie’s manager and she just thought it was pretty cool that the whole thing had come full circle, the song that she was inspired by them and then they were so moved by the song that she wrote.

Eric: Well that was a nice little intro into the role of the pastoral care workers. Let’s go on to hear their story.

Thank you all three for being with us today for this podcast. Maybe I can get each of your names real quick.

Jerry: I’m Jerry Judson.

Jeff: Jeff Maria.

Allan: Allan Krenitzky.

Eric: And I’m going to start off with you, Allan. How long have you been doing this work?

Allan: About two years now.

Eric: Yeah. Can I ask, when you started two years ago, what motivated you to work here?

Allan: For me personally, I’ve had HIV for over 35 years. So I go back to the AIDS crisis when it was a death sentence and it was horrible. And back then, mostly we took care of each other in the cells and it was like a family thing. There was no race or creed, anything. AIDs didn’t know any color or creed, so it was a family thing, we all took care of each other.

And I was here in ’93, they just started opening this program up, and so I was a part of it. And then being maximum security, we moved to Corcoran. We had a AIDs unit at Corcoran, we all lived there because we were all still relevantly healthy and we took care of each other. So I watched my friends die of AIDs, many of them, and I’ve watched all the side effects they had and diseases they had to go along with AIDs I’ve seen them. Pneumonia and everything else, so it was personal for me.

And luckily for me, the medication changed and HIV’s now for me, it’s not going to kill me, I just have to live with it and it’s maintained by the medication. My Hep C was cured, but when I came here, I felt an obligation to become a part of this hospice here. And my friend Jerry got me in here and it gives me a meaningful life to be able to help these people.

Eric: And you’ve been an inmate sounds like for 30 years?

Allan: 35 years.

Eric: 35 years. I hear a lot about how a lot of the people who die here too, their family is often the people that they’ve known here for decades, in addition to family outside and they may not have family outside. I can imagine it’s hard doing this work day in and day out, getting to know somebody and then having them die.

Allan: My wife has brought that up about… Because I’m an very emotional person and I think… She said, “I think the best person…” She said, “if I had a relative or something who was dying, I would want you there, you personally because I know how emotional you are and there’s a sincerity thing when you’re sitting in the bed beside someone holding their hand and they can detect how sincere you are if you really care.” And I do. And they can feel that. And that means something, other than someone who’s assigned to sit there.

But it’s a double-edged sword because most of the people who work here are very, very emotional. And it gives you sincerity. You really do care and you feel how profound it is to be with someone and comfort them in their last days. But the other side of that is it affects you deeply and there’s been times when I’ve tagged out with Jeff here and I’ll say, “Hey, go sit with this guy for minute. I got to go out in the garden.” I’ll go get Jerry, go out in the corner of the garden and I’ll cry, because it’s hard. It’s emotionally hard, but it’s also rewarding because I have such a meaningful life, especially when you see the family members of the patient are so grateful that you’re there.

And one of my best stories was the guy who came in and he wanted nothing from nobody. He didn’t want anybody in his room, “I don’t want nothing, I don’t want nothing.” He was hardcore. He was a tough guy. But I was sitting vigil with him and just sitting there, just reading a book, just there. And he never spoke, didn’t want anything. He just sat there. He was just look at the wall and he was dying. And he leaned over, rolled over, and he put his hand out to me and he looked past me and he looked away, but he kept his hand out. And I’m not sure what he wanted, it looked like he wanted me to grab his hand or something. So I grabbed his hand and he squeezed my hand really, really hard. Really hard. Hard as he could.

And then he turned his head toward the wall and closed his eyes. But he kept ahold of my hand, squeezing it hard. And he passed away not long after that. And it was just like if I hadn’t have been there, he wouldn’t have had that opportunity. So that touches you.

Eric: Yeah, I’m feeling touched right now. I also wonder, so I do hospice work too. I am there with individuals who are dying. I work at the VA. Really hard days. You don’t have to answer this question if it’s too much. Really hard days. It’s hard, I go home, I can just tune it out, do something else, maybe even have a glass of wine or something. I can imagine it’s hard going from this unit back to the cell that you’re living in. Is it?

Allan: Yeah. But the way I get around that is I spend most of my time here, seven days a week. And I look at that as I live in the dorm and I sleep in the bed. It’s just a bed to sleep in. I spend all my time here. And it’s a family environment, it becomes like a big family here.

Eric: And from that family, do you feel like you get the spiritual emotional support?

Allan: Well I do. My closest people… There’s people in my dorm, people say, “Hey, you know that guy over there?” And I’m like, “No.” He goes like, “He’s in your dorm.” I’m like, “I’m never there. I don’t know who those people are.” I know my guy who sleeps above me and each side of me, that’s it. I don’t interact with them. I go home at nine o’clock at night and I got to go to bed 9:30. So I get in bed and I’m asleep at 9:30 and I’m out. The people I associate with are right here. These are my best friends right here, Jerry and Jeff and Heid and Brian. And they’re my family and the patients here and the doctors and the nurses. And this is my family, who I spend my time with.

Eric: And Jerry, how long have you been doing this work for?

Jerry: Well, I started in 2015 doing the Jewish body washing after the death. And I was working in the chapel at that time, and I worked over there for about five years. And then I came over here and just got totally involved in this about four years ago.

Eric: What do you think got you involved? What about this place kept you here?

Jerry: Well, for me it’s about, I may have not chose this to be my community, but I chose the actions that led this to be my community. And I’ve always looked to try to help people spiritually to better themselves through spirituality, and who more needs help than in the end of life care. So that’s when I jumped into this all the way.

Eric: And when you think about your work over the last four years… Well, I turn it over to Alex to ask the question.

Alex: There’s got to be a lot of things that are very rewarding that are keeping you here. I’m wondering if you’re willing to share what makes it tough?

Jerry: What makes it tough? Well, like you were talking about earlier, when you get to know these guys and we just lost a guy that had been here for two years and when you know somebody and care for them for two years, and then you turn around and lose them, it can be trying. It can be hard.

But it’s the other things, like just the other day when we had somebody on vigil and a family member came in and they called the next day to talk to the chaplain and stuff, and they told the chaplain how appreciative they were and how much they could see that the people that were here with their loved one actually really cared about their loved one. And they didn’t feel that they would’ve made it as long as they had if they hadn’t been in an environment with so much love and so much caring and being taken care of in the fashion that they were. So that makes it worth it.

Alex: Jerry, I want to go back to the story that you were telling at the beginning when you first got involved. You said that you were washing the body. Is this part of a Jewish ritual?

Jerry: It’s part of a Jewish ritual, yes. It’s called Taharah.

Alex: Taharah. And you yourself are Jewish?

Jerry: Yes.

Alex: And I wonder to what extent you feel you are able to practice your religion here or spiritual practice and what extent you’re able to help the people in hospice practice there, for those who are Jewish here or other faith traditions, practice their beliefs.

Jerry: That’s one thing we’re really big on is making sure that their religious needs are met and that they’re respected. And to try to just help them in any way we can with honoring that.

Alex: And I wanted to ask maybe each of you, I don’t know if maybe I’ll turn to… Would that be all right if I talk to Jeff? Jeff, how long have you been working here?

Jeff: I’ve been doing this since 2014.

Alex: 2014. And how long have you been in the California prison system?

Jeff: 43 years.

Alex: 43 years, long time. Yeah.

Jeff: Since I was 17 years old.

Alex: Since you were 17 years old and how did you get started working here?

Jeff: I’ve been in prison almost 25 years at that point, and I started taking my spirituality more serious and I began to look around to try to find a way to serve my community, looking to be of service, looking for some sort of purpose. And one day I was in a chapel and I saw an article in USA Today about our hospice here. And I thought, “Well, that looks pretty important, maybe I could do that.” And so I went to my counselor and asked him to support a transfer here, and it went through and I came here and I became a volunteer to begin with. I had some other jobs. I was a principal clerk for about five years, and I would come over here after work at night and every day pretty much for five years, six years. Then I came to work here full time.

Alex: And what do you find Jeff rewarding about working in the hospice?

Jeff: Well, a lot of people think that… Or people ask me in the community here about you’re working with people that are dying. They’re always mentioning dying these people. And I don’t really look at it like that to tell you the truth. I look at it as I’m trying to help them live. Some of these guys are here for a year, sometimes longer, sometimes only a week. But it depends, I’m just trying to help them be as comfortable as they can be, doing whatever it is that they want to do to try to encourage them, to get them out of their shell, play games with them, music, whatever it might be, to sit with them, talk with them, whatever it is that they want. And I look at that as… And if it’s spiritual, it’s fine. I’ll read them whatever they want to read, I’ll pray with them. Not at all if that’s what they’re into or not into. And that’s the way I look at it is just trying to help them be comfortable and be happy.

Alex: Jeff, I just have to take a step back from the hospice itself and just note that of your life, if you looked at it as four quarters, you spent three of those four quarters in prison.

Jeff: Yes.

Alex: And I’m interested to hear from you what you think about this system that puts some people behind bars for three quarters of their lives.

Jeff: Well, now that’s a big question.

Alex: It’s a big question.

Jeff: I would say initially I was out of control. I didn’t respect people, the rules or law, and that’s why I ended up in prison. I think that the way the system worked at the time, it was punishment based and it didn’t really… They assigned these sentences and it wasn’t really about… People weren’t going home, lifers weren’t paroling, and you were just in the system and you did the best you could.

I think that initially I was in a very violent environment coming right in. I had never been locked up before and it was a culture and environment that was totally alien to me. And so I didn’t think about anything like rehabilitation for many, many years. It was just trying to… In the beginning it was day to day, and then it was week to week, month to month, year to year after that until I could be able to stand on my own and then start looking at stuff like “What do I want to do? I’m going to be here the rest of my life. What do I want to do?” And eventually it progressed into wanting to improve my community and make it a better place because I’ve been in some pretty rotten places and this is a better place.

Alex: And you’re clearly doing great work, all three of you. And we did a podcast previously that we’ll link to in the show notes with a couple people who were formally incarcerated at San Quentin. And one of the things that they really hammered home with us, and they work with this group called Amend, is that people change and that you’re not the same person now that when you were 17.

Jeff: Or 20 or 30 or 40.

Alex: Right. And you are doing incredible generous work here in the hospice. Ought that count for something as people are considering whether you should be let out of this facility. Go ahead.

Jeff: Well, I was going to say, yeah, I think that we are who we are, and I think that everybody’s capable of change. The idea that you’re not capable of change is untrue. It’s a myth. People can change if they want to change and if given the opportunities, and I’ve been given opportunities that I was able to take advantage of. And I think that people have looked at what I’m doing and have given me some positive within this institution especially some of the biggest support I get from other officers and the community as a whole for what I do. And that makes me feel good about myself and that gives me some self-esteem. On the other hand, part of it is making amends and so I’ve just found suitable for the board, God willing, I’ll go home in a couple months and the governor will let me go home, and then I can continue doing what I do out there trying to help my community be better. Whatever the opportunities are.

Alex: Just want to give Allen and Jerry a chance if there’s anything on that they want to say on this issue. I also know that here in California, Governor Newsom has a proposal to shift the focus in the prison system, maybe starting with San Quentin from a punishment, a deterrent toward rehabilitation and eventually reintegration with society. Any thoughts about that? I see…

Allan: Yeah. My friend of mine wrote a really nice article about rehabilitation. And you have a situation where I have LWOP, life without possibility of parole. I’ve got 35 years in and I have no access to the parole board, no access for release unless commutation by the governor or changing the law or something and that’s just what it is. So it’s one of the reasons I work here is it gives me a meaningful life. I have to live here. I’ve got a beautiful wife, I’ve got little kids. My wife is an amazing woman and we get regular visits and everything, but yeah, I’m stuck here and I’m stuck here until they let me go or if they never do, you got to make the best of it. So having a meaningful life where I mean something in people’s lives, in the patient’s lives and their families, they’re appreciative of what I do and everything that gives me self-worth and an opportunity to make amends for what I did.

And my four-year-old boy, she asked him on the phone one time, “Where does papa do for a living?” He said, “Papa helps sick people.” That means more than me than anything in the world if my four-year-old thinks that of me. Laws have changed. They are changing, people are getting out.

But the article my buddy wrote was about lifers, like people who have LWOP or Draconian sentences and everything. You get to a point where they rehabilitating themselves and they’re past rehabilitation. They have rehabilitated themselves. They are different people. They’re not a threat to the community. If you let them out, they would contribute to community and it’s a waste of money to keep them in. So then it’s like it’s stuck in a limbo because there’s no way for them to get out.

And a common sense thing would be like anybody after 25 years in prison should be able to go to the board and get looked at and the board can do their job. And a senate bill that was going on recently, my wife was talking with the senator about it live as they were discussing it, and somebody had brought up, “So we’re just going to let Charles Manson out then.” I told him, “Hey, bring up a good point that Manson went to the board many, many, many times and died in prison. The board can do their job. They can protect society from people that shouldn’t be released. That’s their job. But after 25 years in prison, at least look at them. You can give them a 10 year, 15 year denial and then in 10, 15 years give them another 10 to 15 year denial if that’s what’s needed to protect safety. But then there’s also people who after 25 years, 30 years, 35, 40, it’s time to give them consideration. I’m not a threat to anything but some fish in the lake and I’m catch and release anyway. I’ll release them.

All I want to do is teach my boys how to fish, spend some time with them. But I got to give a pat on the back to Newsom and some of the Senators, Congressmen who are changing laws. There is a lot happening and it’s not easy to change but they are doing it. And Quaver Warden and people here, and Ms. Haley, there’s a lot of rehabilitation available, which wasn’t…

We’re old enough, been down long enough to remember when that there was AA or NA and that’s it. And it was more and more of a meeting place. And that’s all the rehabilitation that was available. Now there’s college, I have an AS degree in psychology working on a bachelor’s. He’s got a couple AA degrees. There’s education available and a lot of programs available that can give you self-help. And I’ve benefited from them. So I’m still in a lot of groups and they call up the groupies, we go to all these different groups, they’re available. So it’s happening, but is there’s people like me in my situation, I have no access to the board, no access to relief. There’s still a segment that needs to be addressed.

Alex: Jerry, my last question for you, and then I’m going to hand it back to Eric, see if he has any other questions. I want to ask you, Jerry, about compassionate release. And I know that you’ve probably seen people here get released and you probably see people here who’ve died before they get compassionate release. I wonder if there are any stories you could share that are sort of anonymized so that our listeners will be able to hear the essence of the story without disclosing too many identifying details?

Jerry: So yeah, I’ve seen a lot of people lately go home more often, but then again, I’ve seen guys that I’ve met and you’ve spoken with them and you know they’re not that person that they were when they committed their crime. There’s guys that I’ve seen that have had tons and tons of paperwork. If you were to stack it up, it would be two to three feet high off of the floor where they’ve been in all of these self-help groups where they’ve been facilitators in the self-help groups, and yet they die in prison. And I really don’t think that’s right. It’s not about where you live your life, but how you live your life. And I might be parroting what these guys have already said, but we can all change if we want to. And a lot of these guys have changed, and it’s a shame that they have to die in prison.

Alex: I can also imagine that it may be somewhat bittersweet when somebody does get released. In some ways you are incredibly happy for him, this momumentous thing. But also you may not know what happens to him afterwards. You may know this person for many months, if not years, if not decades.

Jerry: We try to keep track of them after they leave to find out just how long they spent out there, how much time they ended up having before they passed, or if they do pass. I don’t know of anyone that’s went out and not passed away as far as that goes, they haven’t succumbed to their sickness. But there have been a few people that have actually got to spend a little bit of time out there. But then you’ve had the other ones that have gotten out and within a couple days.

Allan: Yeah, I’d like to bring up a point about a compassionate release, medical release. Some of these guys, some of them, the judge sentenced them, they didn’t sentence them to die in prison. They sentenced them like a long period of their life. And if you only have six months left to live, you did a long period of your life already. And there’s some of them that are like, “Oh, well, but they were committing robberies out there and stuff now.” And they’re bedridden. It’s like now, they can’t even get up out the bed, it’s pretty much safe to release them.

And one of the things not considered by a lot of people is the family members. Because there’s been on occasion, and specifically I’m thinking of, I won’t say his name, but he got released and his daughter never met him and his daughter got to spend some time with him. That’s a gift to the daughter now because the daughter has a memory. Before then there would’ve been a memory of some this distant father that I didn’t really know, and he ended up dying in prison. Now she had the interaction she had with him the few months before he died and they watched the movies together. She’ll never forget that movie. And she’ll never forget that book that they read together. So it’s a gift to the family. So it’s not just about the patient, the inmate, it’s also about the family members, the wives, the daughters, sisters giving them some peace. So they need to be kept in mind of their consideration too.

Jeff: I do want to say something. Just a couple years ago, the compassionate release was not very compassionate. A few people got out and some that got them, they passed away before the process went. And Department of Corrections has streamlined it considerably. We’ve had some bills, a recent bill that also helped to streamline it. And so now it goes directly to the judge after the CDC looks at the medical issue of it, certifies it, that they meet a certain standard, then it goes right to the judge. But it really depends on the county. If you’re in Alameda County, you’re in San Francisco, they approve almost all of them. If you’re in Orange County or Riverside, hardly any. They opposed most of them.

And I look at it like he said, they’ve done most of their time, they’re getting ready to go. They’ve been given a designation. There’s not these guys that are getting out and all of a sudden having these spontaneous recovery and living this wonderful life. The average is a couple weeks, a month by the time, and they get to spend it with their family. And I understand that most of them have done terrible things, harmed other people.

And I think it’s about like it says compassion and mercy. How does our society treat the worst of us? And I think at that time when we get used to them, not those people anymore, they’re vulnerable, they’re weak, they’re needy, they’re scared, frightened, all of that. And it’s the gift to the family really, because we see the family comes in here and they visit with them in their room and they see that we’re taking care of them and they feel really good because they can’t do it. They want to do it, but they can’t do it. Those situations, it’s really good where they can get out and they can spend that little bit of time and feel good and die peacefully.

Eric: Do you guys have a little bit more time that I can ask some more questions?

Jeff: I’ve got all kinds of time. More than you know.

Eric: So Jeff, what does a day in the life for you look like?

Jeff: I do a little bit more things than these guys. They’re here longer than I am. I’ll get up at five o’clock. I have a puppy that… Right now I’m in the dog program. So I do dog training for a couple hours and then I go to G1 and I work with a patient over there that has, it’s-

Eric: G1 is what?

Jeff: G1 is a hospital wing. And so he has a lot of needs and takes up a lot of time. And so I’m able to go and relieve the nurses by help him with things that they would otherwise have to help that aren’t necessarily nurses duties. And then I come over here and maybe about 10, and I’m here till 8:30 at night.

Eric: And what do you do here?

Jeff: So, well, I might come in and I’ll assist the nurse, do showers. Some of the patients can shower themselves and some of them can’t. So they’re in the shower bed. We take them into the shower, we wash them up, we dry them up, we take them back to the room, put their clothes on. We assist the nurses to clean the patients, if it’s total care, where they might be incontinent, they can’t take care of themselves at all. So somebody has to do it. So the nurses here are wonderful and we assist them with the patients. Some of our patients are really heavy, two, 300 pounds, and most of our nurses are not that big and so we were helping them in whatever ways that they need help.

I will then maybe take a patient out to the garden and kick back out there with him. If he wants to listen to some music, I’ll go get a boombox, we’ll play some CDs, whatever he wants to listen to. He might want to write his mom and he’s not physically able to write anymore. I’ll write the letter for him. I’ll make a phone call to his family for him if he’s… We got patients that can’t even dial their own the phone or they don’t even remember their number. So they keep their numbers and we’ll dial it for them and I’ll say, “Hey, we hope for…” And hand him the phone. I might make him food. He might not want whatever it is they’re giving here and so I’ll make some burritos for him or whatever else he wants.

Eric: And I’m guessing you’re also keeping an eye on them, see kind of what symptoms they having. Are you relaying that to the nurses who can help treat their suffering, their pain, shortness of breath?

Jeff: Absolutely. Because we’re usually with them and the whole day. And so if we’re in the shower, we’ll see stuff. There’s bruises, there’s wounds that are developing. “Hey, he’s in there, he’s having a lot of pain all of a sudden. He wants some pain meds.” And so we’ll go relay that to the nurse. You can see their condition if they’re moving from where they’re able to take care of themselves to where they’re moving to where you have to help them with stuff. We’ll let the nurses know that, “Hey, he fell down. He’s not going to say anything to you, but he fell down because he doesn’t want to say anything.” And so we’ll go tell him, “Hey, you know, need to keep a closer eye on him or you need to have the doctor know,” and then they’ll go check him to see if he hurt himself. So-

Eric: That’s a busy day.

Jeff: Yeah.

Eric: Then nobody dies alone if they don’t want to or…

Jeff: No, even if they don’t want to.

Eric: So it’s 24/7?

Jeff: Yes.

Eric: From the volunteers here?

Jeff: There will be a guy all night as well. There’s just one over that works with the nurses at night. But when somebody’s on vigil, when they’ve been determined that they might have just a short time to live, there’ll be somebody with them 24/7 in shifts. And we have volunteers that come from the rest of the community here that will sit with them. Prisoners, that will sit with them as well.

Eric: And the title of your role is Pastoral Care Service? Or Pastoral Care-

Jeff: Services Worker.

Eric: Services worker. What role does religion and faith play in this, given that it starts off with pastoral care?

Jerry: It’s really all dependent upon the patient, what their needs are and what they want. We don’t force anything on anyone. We don’t preach to them. We see what it is that they want. And then like Jeff was saying, if they want the Bible read to them… Sometimes the family will tell you, “Could you please read a specific verse to the patient as often as possible.” So we’ll help them in any way that we can, in any way that they need.

Eric: And I’m wondering from your own experiences, what role does, maybe not your faith, but your spirituality, it could be your religion, what role does that play in what you’re doing here for yourself or does it?

Allan: Well, I think most of us are very, very spiritual and some of us are deeply religious. Religion is important to me and my relationship with God has got stronger since I’ve been working here. And a lot of it is toward making amends and having a meaningful life. And the whole process is spiritual, no matter what their spiritual needs are. And it’s interesting also for people coming in with different spiritual needs. And we have a community of volunteers we can reach out to specifically who have different experience and different religious aspects, different religious denominations we can rely on. It’s like, “Oh, this person’s Buddhist, so who do we have who’s Buddhist?” Call them in and they can sit with them. So we have the resources to respect each person’s religious needs. And it’s always like, what do they need? And that may change week to week that they’re in here. What do they need? How much do they need?

Jeff: And I look at that too. The whole thing for me in many ways is spiritual. And I’m a Christian and I believe that it’s about service, it’s about acts. It’s not about what I say, it’s about what I do. And I find the patients that have some level of spirituality, whatever it is, whatever their religion or their beliefs are at the end tend to be far more peaceful. The passing is far more peaceful, it’s far more calmer as to somebody that is unsure about that and has a lot more fear. I see it over and over.

And so myself personally, towards the end, a lot of our who patients are in a lot of pain. Is the body shutting down? It breaks through the medication they get sometimes even. And personally, I feel that they’re going to a better place, and so I’m happy for them sometimes. They’re not suffering and if they believe they’re going to heaven and I believe they’re going to heaven, then it’s not such a sad thing. It’s sad in some ways and in other ways it’s not. I’m sad because they died in prison. I’m sad because their family wasn’t here because they don’t have family anymore. They were in prison so long, they’ve all died and there’s nobody here for them except us. And so it’s not always sad like that, it can be satisfying that I was there for them.

Eric: Before we end up, and I really appreciate the time that you’re giving us. I’m wondering, we like to ask a magic wand question. If you had a magic wand, what would you do? And specifically around hospice care, end of life care in prisons, is there something that you would change or make sure maybe we do differently or maybe other places do the same? I’m going to start off with you, Jerry. Any thoughts on that question? Or if anybody else wants to start off?

Allan: I would want every prison or every few prisons, every area where there are prison systems in the United States and the world to have a hospice like this and better. And to be open as this one is because somebody from an administrative prison, asked me, “How can we try to duplicate some of this where we’re at?” And I told them like, “Well, you can’t.” Because you either do it or you don’t, can’t do a little bit of it. it’s like where you’re at, you have all the doors closed and the doors are locked. And if someone hits a call light, you have to wait once a shift to go through and that that’s not a hospice. The doors have to be open. There has to be freedom of movement.

You have to have people like us. He’s like, “Well, how do I get inmates like you guys to work in my program?” You have lifer’s there who want a meaningful life. And you don’t have to pay them crap. You don’t have to do anything, but give them the opportunity to have a meaningful life and give them the freedom of movement and they’ll do it.

Then you have the nurses, they care, and you pick the ones who do care and you have to have an open system there. They can go in and out the rooms and interact with the inmates because the inmates a lot of them have a mistrust of medical staff and authority that’s been long ingrained in concrete for so long. They come here and you tell them, “This is different.” They go, “Yeah right,” but it’s us, the PCS workers, the inmates who they’ll open up to and who they trust. And nurses get a lot more information from us than they can directly from the inmate because they’ll befriend us and trust us and rely on us, and they’ll open up about their religious needs, their medical needs and everything else.

So my magic wand would be to have a place like this everywhere, because this is a rarity and there’s people who come here from other prisons and it’s a horrible situation they’re in because they’re locked away in a cell and they’re just locked away and they’re seen once every now and then. So they’re the interaction, the compassion is not there. So it’d be along those lines.

Eric: Jeff.

Jeff: I think I would want them all to get a compassionate release. I’d want them all to be treated equally and not so much because here it depends. If you’re a lifer or if you’ve committed a certain crime, you probably are not going to get your compassionate release. But if you’ve done something else, you can. And it doesn’t have anything to do with their medical, it doesn’t have anything to do with their condition because they all have the same issues, but depending on the crime or where they’re from, they either get it or they don’t. And it’s like a lottery, and I wish it was more fair and more even for everybody. That’s my magic wand.

Eric: Okay. Jerry, going back to you, you got a magic wand, what would you use it on?

Jerry: I would really like to just see the pain stopped. It’s hard to sit there and watch a patient and go through pain. This is a place where, sure, they treat that more than they would in other areas, but there’s still so much pain that we have to see day in and day out. If I could take it away, that would be the one thing I would really love to do.

Eric: Well, I want to thank all of you for joining us. Just being here very shortly it’s very obvious that the work that you do does reduce pain. When you think about pain, it’s the existential, it’s the spiritual, it’s the social. And I also think that there are a lot of people outside of these walls of this prison that they may not know, but they’re often searching for meaning and purpose and the stuff that you do, it just resonates over and over again. The theme of meaning and purpose in this role, in this job that you do as a PCS worker. I was wondering, is it okay, at the end of a podcast, we usually have Alex sing a song and Alex is going to sing. What’s the name of the song again Alex?

Alex: Down the Hall by Bonnie Raitt.

Jeff: Okay, we know that one.

Allan: We know that song very well.

Alex: It’s going to do the last few verses here.

[singing] “I used to run when I saw Tyrone. Knowin’ your place what it’s all about. Now he’s doubled up in pain and cancer eatin’ from the inside out. I sit and wait outside his stall to help him when he’s done. Whatever shame we might have felt. Well, that’s all come undone. I can’t undo the wrong I did. Give back the life I took. But maybe when it comes my turn, I’ll get a second look. I don’t know ’bout religion. I only know what I see. And in the end when I hold their hand, both of us set free.”

Eric: Thank you again.

Well, a very special ending to this podcast is that we had what was a really fascinating tour of the Gardens for the hospice unit. You can go online to take a look at the picture, but we just wanted to record it and show you what we heard as we did the garden tour together with one of the pastoral care workers.

Alex: And just of note, you can see our pictures if you go to our blog post and YouTube website, you can see this is a magnificent, beautiful garden space. And it’s all the more poignant because it’s framed by this giant fence with barbed wire at the top. So it’s this constant reminder of where you are and that for these dying patients, this is dying in the prison setting.

Gerald: So that’s that. This is called a Red Hot Poker and hummingbirds like this right here, that plant and next to it is sage. Next to that is your jasmine.

Eric: How long you been interested in gardening?

Gerald: As soon as they opened this garden up in 2018.

Eric: How long have you been here?

Gerald: I’ve been here since 1998.

Eric: How long have you been helping here in the hospice unit?

Gerald: For about 12 years. Prior to this, I worked at the Blind Project or the VOV, Volunteers of Vacaville, a master brailler and repairing the braillers for the visually impaired people. And then I was attracted to this place. They needed a clerk and then a clerk, and I became the coordinator then for back here and working with the patients.

Eric: What attracted you?

Gerald: I think it’s service, the heart and service, because over there I was doing the same thing, a service to the community with visually impaired people for their brailing. And you have the individual here who needs the end of life care, who needs this service as well.

Eric: Do the hospice patients ever eat the fruit and the stuff that you make here?

Gerald: Yes, they do. Especially the stuff in the bins that we’re growing for them. That’ll be the peppers. That’ll be the radishes, the carrots down at the other end or the tomatoes and the beans. So everything that we’re growing here is available for the patient if they would like it.

Eric: Well, thank you for your tour.

Gerald: Oh, we’ve still got some more.

This here is a desert willow. This has not bloomed yet, but when it does, it will attract… [fades out – end of segment with Gerald]

Eric: Hi Alex, that was one heck of a day. We’re recording this outro a day afterwards, and Alex and I were just thinking about as we woke up this morning, this is just still sitting with us. You thought about it all night, right, Alex?

Alex: Yeah, I dreamed about it. I was thinking about it as we were leaving, as we walked out of the sally port, we learned this new term, for this locked space with locks on both sides as you pass your ID through to the guard who lets you out. This is something that the people we talked with yesterday dream about, the inmates being able to just walk out of there and then get in a car and drive away and do what you want to do. Just incredible that thinking about Jeff who spent 47 years in prison after doing something when he was 17 years old. That’s just incredible. And as you noted, the deep satisfaction and sense of meaning they get from the work they do in the hospice, that’s their relief. Whereas for us, often we are exhausted at the end of the day.

Eric: We leave, we go home, we have a glass of wine, we decompress. That’s our decompression as we leave a really rough day. It’s fascinating that my rough day is their decompression. It’s their way to get out of where their cell is and into the hospice unit. And for them, that brings them meaning.

Alex: Yeah, charges them up.

Eric: With that we’ll end. We’re not going to do our usual request to support the GeriPal podcast. I’d like to just say, support the cause of this. Listen to the podcast and do what you can to help these people, especially those who are dying in prison.

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