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Grace Before Dying

Unforgettable photos at PRC capture inmates’ last days

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Grace Before DyingLloyd Bone, incarcerated at Angola in 1971 for murder, drives the hearse with the body of George Alexander to the cemetery after the memorial service and funeral planned and implemented by Angola’s incarcerated. Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Jimmie Burnett spent the final days of his life—and life sentence—being cared for by other inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. Also in the room with him was photographer Lori Waselchuk, who had rare access to the penitentiary’s prisoner-run hospice program for a magazine assignment.

The nation’s largest maximum security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary has been called the “Alcatraz of the South.” Of its 5,100 inmates, 85 percent are expected to die there. The prison’s hospice program—begun in 1998—is unique, allowing inmates to volunteer as caregivers for dying prisoners. Prior to the hospice’s creation, most inmates died alone in the prison hospital.

Waselchuk’s images evolved into the award-winning photographic documentary Grace Before Dying. An exhibition of a number of the project’s photographs is at BU’s Photographic Resource Center through July 10.

“For me, I was very interested in what it was like for caregivers to give so much love and be completely selfless with their patients, and the courage it took for them to do this,” says Waselchuk. “I was wondering what their journey was like coming from a place filled with anger and regret to becoming a caregiver, a journey of men who will never see the outside of the prison walls…but who at the same time can show tremendous humanity for someone else.”

Grace Before DyingCalvin Dumas (left) and George Alexander had been close friends for 30-plus years at Angola. George, given a life sentence in 1972 for possession of two bags of heroin, was cleared for release in 2006, but the governor never signed his release papers. Calvin: “If he dies, I hope he dies on the outside. It will hurt me hard if he dies on the inside.” Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Waselchuk spent two and a half years photographing at the hospice. Working with a Hasselblad XPAN II rangefinder camera, her massive black-and-white prints capture moments of delicate intimacy between dying patients and the volunteer inmates caring for them. The images, she says, are designed to capture how “inmates assert and affirm their humanity through the hospice program in an environment designed to isolate and punish.”

Of all the inmates she met during the project, Waselchuk says, it’s Burnett’s story that stands out most. Staying by his side through his final 24 hours, she watched as hospice caregivers rotated through their shifts, comforting him as best they could.

“One photograph shows one of the caretaker’s hands on Jimmy’s chest,” Waselchuk says. “I have a lot of comments from people who have a loved one who has died, and I feel that the picture resonates with them. It’s something touching, something real.”

Grace Before Dying: Hospice for an Aging Prison PopulationHospice volunteer George Brown comforts Jimmie Burnett, who received 24-hour care from his six-member hospice team. Touch is important and being present when a fellow inmate is in pain or dying is transformative. Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Waselchuk hopes that Grace Before Dying will provoke discussion about prison reform. (The United States has the largest prison population of any country—approximately 2.3 million inmates). “Considering the extreme costs of imprisonment, I don’t want people to change their ideas because of budgets,” she says. “I want them to recognize their sense of people’s lives, that certain men and women don’t need to spend the rest of lives in prison. I want to inspire conversations about our extraordinary incarceration rates in Louisiana and the country as a whole.”

Waselchuk’s Angola photographs have recently been published in the book Grace Before Dying (Umbrage Editions, 2011), with an introductory essay by historian Lawrence N. Powell.

“I’ll always sort of want to contextualize my work,” Waselchuk says. “Because I’m telling someone’s story, I need to honor their words with my own representation.”

Grace Before Dying is at the Photographic Resource Center Gallery, 832 Commonwealth Ave., through July 10; phone: 617-975-0600. The PRC is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is $4 for the general public, $2 for seniors and students with valid ID, and free to members and students of member schools. For more information, visit the PRC website or the official Grace Before Dying website.

John Fichera can be reached at jfichera@bu.edu.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Grace Before Dying

  • Anonymous on 05.27.2011 at 9:17 am

    A life sentence for two bags of heroin? Really?

  • JS on 05.27.2011 at 9:32 am

    Modern Day Slavery

    While Angola may provide its inmates with some small degree of humanity through the hospice program, Angola, and other Southern prisons, perpetuate government sanctioned, institutional slavery. The prison compels its inmates to plant and harvest the same crops, on the same ground, that slaves did 150 years ago.

    Also, Angola held three political prisoners in solitary confinement for over three decades; google “Angola 3″ to learn more about the case.

    Thanks to the artist for producing a photo collection that humanizes the victims of the South’s proud, peculiar institution 2.0.

  • Anonymous on 05.27.2011 at 10:13 am

    Modern Day Slavery

    While Angola may provide its inmates with some basic humanity through the hospice program, Angola, and other Southern prisons, perpetuate and propagate government sanctioned, institutional slavery. Inmates plant and harvest the same crops, on the same ground, that slaves did 150 years ago.

    There’s also the whole falsely convicting three political prisoners for the murder of a guard and keeping them in solitary confinement for over three decades thing. (Hint: google “Angola 3″)

    Thanks to the photographer for adding a human face to the victims of the South’s peculiar institution v2.0.

  • Anonymous on 05.27.2011 at 2:41 pm

    RE: A life sentence for two bags

    It must have been a third offense. Three felony convictions and they receive a life sentence

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