Photography by Lori Waselchuk
Words by Kristy Ann Muniz
“There is a common ground in death. It’s the one thing that can unite us,” states a former Louisiana Correctional Facility nurse in Lori Waselchuk’s new book, Grace Before Dying. Through a series of heart-wrenching photographs paired with brief explanatory text, Grace Before Dying explores a program at America’s largest prison that allows inmates to volunteer in the penitentiary’s hospice, to remarkable results.
Hard work at the hospice seems to have provided the prisoners one thing that has eluded them during their lives: A sense of purpose. “Being a hospice volunteer has released all the hate and bitterness that was once inside me,” says inmate George Brown, in the book. “Before I came to Angola, I was only concerned about myself. Other people meant nothing to me. The hospice program has shown me another side of life. By caring for someone who has a terminal illness, I can ease their pain and not be the source of it.”
While perusing the soul-capturing images that occupy each page it becomes obvious why Waselchuk is an award-winning photographer. Each photo alludes to one large, lingering question: If criminals can learn to change — men who have taken lives are reborn as a result of working so closely to death – do others then have to learn how to forgive? Grace Before Dying, in forcing us to consider the inescapability of death, makes us question whether the past might be, as well.
I asked Waselchuk if the irony of this situation helps the inmates grasp the weight of their misdeeds. “The men that I’ve spoken to understand the gravity of the crimes they committed, but it’s different between each man,” she told me regarding the way they speak of their past. “Some men are shockingly frank about it, ‘that was then and this is now,’ and others speak really remorsefully, but I can’t say that just because of the tone—or the words chosen—that one is more remorseful than the other.”
Waselchuk’s ability to humanize those whom most of society has deemed unforgivable citizens is contagious. Her eerily relatable explanation of how the volunteers cope with their heavy sentences creates a warming feeling of unity, reminding us that in the end we all share the experience of being human.
“We all wake up one day OK about some of the things that are going on, and then other days we’re not OK. The volunteers feel that they have grown as human beings. They think they would be able to function in the free world and they have learned so many things, but they also understand that with the realities of the sentencing structure it’s likely that they will never be given a chance.” It would be easier to fight feelings of compassion for the men in Grace Before Dying, and others like them, if each had left behind a trail of blood, but not everyone incarcerated for life is a violent criminal.
Waselchuk claims that “the United States has the most severe sentencing structure in the world besides dictatorships—certainly in the developed world our sentencing structure exceeds all other countries.”
The broad range of criminals at Angola further emphasizes this point. George Alexander, prominently featured in the book, was sentenced to life in prison in 1972 simply for possessing two bags of heroin. Another man named Terry Kendrick is only photographed once, but nonetheless manages to grab as much attention as George. Convicted of first-degree murder, Terry was required to stay in lock-down due to his violent mood swings. “He was a hard one. He was in prison very young for a very violent crime and he was definitely a drug addict, so his mind never really went further. He never really aged,” says Waselchuk. Despite the extensive differences between these two men and their crimes, they were dealt the same horrifying fate of dying in prison. Situations like this suggest that sometimes our justice system is as barbaric as the criminals it was created to incarcerate.
For some, the longing for a new system may stem from places other than the heart. “People are rethinking (sentencing structures) not for compassionate reasons or being more generous towards all of our capacity for being human beings, but because of the economics of our prison system,” Waselchuk explains. “Economics more than anything will drive reform. If that’s the way it’s going to happen, then I think that it’s legitimate for activists to push that and for think tanks to talk about the costs of prisons.”
Waselchuk is conveying her message of reform through the book as well as a traveling exhibition in hopes that something more can be done. “I don’t know if anything really concrete has come from it, but I know that it is doing exactly what I hoped, which is to start conversations about end-of-life care and other issues related to the aging prison population, and somehow rethinking our very heavy-handed sentences in this country.”
There are currently two different shows circling the country: A fine art exhibit of large pigment prints and another containing exquisite quilts, which are hand-crafted by the hospice volunteers.“The quilters have discovered a creative voice in the work they’re doing. Their medium is both a form of expression and a concrete way to support the program they are building. That, to me, is an ultimate achievement in artistic expression.” Waselchuk’s goal for her future projects is as inspiring as the hospice program itself. “I want to focus my work on talking about what’s possible in each of us. I’m really interested in telling stories about what we are capable of as human beings to help each other, to create community. I want to talk about the issues that can help us move forward as a society.”
The fine art exhibit can be seen between November 23rd and January 15th at the Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. 111 Front St. Suite 208.