Committing a crime doesn’t have to be the end of the story

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“Why is it that every time someone writes a story about us, they always have to include the worst mistake we’ve made in our lives?” asked Brandon, a Hospice Volunteer and prisoner at Maine State Prison (MSP).

Brandon’s question was for Lewiston Sun Journal managing editor Judith Meyer, attending the 2014 annual Maine Hospice Council (MHC)/MSP conference in a panel discussion on the pros-and-cons of news stories about the MSP Hospice Volunteers.

That year, the MSP Hospice Program, founded/funded 14 years earlier by MHC executive director Kandyce Powell, RN, was getting much well-deserved print, tv, and radio press coverage. In and out of MSP, the news stories had mixed reactions.

The MSP Hospice Program started with approval of Ms. Powell’s idea to train prisoners as Hospice Care workers, to minister to terminally ill or dying prisoners. This is a volunteer program. Prisoners’ applications are reviewed by an interdisciplinary team. Those accepted attend weekly hospice training sessions run by Powell

They receive no prison perks for their hospice work. The MSP Volunteers can leave the program any time. They can also be asked to leave the program by either prison officials or by their peers in the Hospice Program. Theirs is tough, but rewarding work.

Yesterday I went with Kandyce to MSP to record a discussion with her and eight MSP Hospice Volunteers. Starting at the June 2017 MHC/MSP conference, “Addressing Personhood in Healthcare and Rehabilitation: An Ethical and Moral Imperative,” the Volunteers had conversations about humanizing healthcare, with Stephanie Morrison, Teaching Fellow at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. Humanizing healthcare means seeing the whole person, not just the disease.

Kandyce led yesterday’s group discussion of how the prison Hospice work — including work with Stephanie Morrison — impacted each of the eight men. Kandyce travels in a few days to Scotland, where the MSP Volunteers’ comments will be discussed by Kandyce and other health professionals at the University of Edinburgh.

The eight Hospice Volunteers — four of whom I’ve known since 2013 — took great care to make sure our digital voice recording came out well for their Scottish audience. A bag of plastic wrapped candies lay on the table. “If anyone wants candy, take them now, so we’re not hearing candy wrappers crinkling on the recording,” said Steve.

Learning to care for other people, helping other people, through prison hospice, is a major positive for these men. So is learning to trust, and being trusted. Paco remembered his first meeting with Kandyce, where she outlined her Hospice program training. “How do you know you can trust us?” he asked. Kandyce replied, “How do you know you can trust me?”

Eighteen years into this program, the trust is evident. So is the personal hope that comes from that trust. “We are not worthless,” said another volunteer. And without at all minimizing why these men are in prison, they have a point about the destructiveness of forever being pigeonholed.

Which brings us back to Brandon’s question to Judith Meyer in 2014: If a reporter is writing a story about the good work of the MSP Hospice Volunteers, why also include the crime, “the worst mistake,” of these men’s lives?

Mrs. Meyer replied, “I don’t know.”

She then told the conference that she had covered for the newspaper lots of crime stories. “Someone commits a crime, they’re arrested, tried, convicted, sent to prison. End of story,” said Judy. That’s how she thought of those stories.

But, since coming to the MSP Hospice conferences, and seeing the work going on inside the prison, “I know now that’s not the end of the story. The story continues.” she said.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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