Monday, January 25, 2010

A Credible Motive

by Lisa R. Cohen

I missed my slot on this blog in the last cycle because I was away in the slammer. Don't get me wrong -- I was comfortably ensconced in a two bedroom guest cottage with wood burning fireplace and fully stocked frig.

But the cottage was high atop a hill inside Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, aka "the Alcatraz of the South." A former plantation worked by slaves imported from the country it's named for, Angola holds some 5,000 maximum security inmates and spans 22 miles - "bigger than all of Manhattan," as the warden likes to say.

There were four of us packed into the two bedrooms, and the southern heating system couldn't compete with record freezing temperatures, but still, the housing was certainly bigger than the cells some Angola inmates inhabit, and much more private than the sweeping double-bunked dorms most of them sleep in at night. I am always cognizant and grateful when I go there that I can drive out whenever I want.

After our first night, I arrived at the Treatment Center, home to the hospice patients whose lives and deaths I'm here to chronicle. I was sad to see the Christmas lights that had twinkled around the guard shack when I visited in December were being packed up. The candy cane and Santa Claus-patterned gift wrap that had papered the infirmary office doors was gone, as the New Year ushered in a return to institutional white.

I was there with a film production crew to watch as the prison hospice staff selected a new crop of inmate volunteers. Executive Producer Molly Fowler (who took the photos of our trip); DP Tom Mason; Producer Jeca Taudte, and I were following the inmates for our new documentary-in-progress, ONE LAST SHOT: A Story of Redemption, see more info and trailer here.

One at a time, the applicants sat in the infirmary chapel, facing a security warden, the hospice co-ordinator, two mental health specialists and a classifications officer. One of the men considered each question intently as he sweated so profusely, it beaded up and rolled down his face. One was bowed over with the weight of decades spent at Angola. Several were still young, but they knew they were going to grow old and die there. Many are murderers.

"Why do you want to be a hospice volunteer?" asked Stacye, the hospice co-ordinator with a healthy bullshit detector. "I want to help in time of suffering," said one, in biblical tones. He'd watched his mother die of cancer, he informed the room. He probably had, and he seemed very sincere. Later Stacye told us she'd believe it when she saw it. "You have to prove it to me," she said, in tones that brooked no nonsense.

"I'd like to think someone will be here for me one day, when I need looking after," said another, enlightened self-interest at its most pointed. "I want to learn about life," said a third, a little cryptically, or profoundly, depending on the interpretation. He almost sounded like he was looking for an adventure - which didn't bode well for his chances.

I find all these answers somewhat unsatisfying. Mainly this is because I haven't yet heard one that works for me. "Why the hell would anyone want to volunteer to work in hospice?" is the more apt question I find myself thinking. I just can't fathom it.

Taking a dying stranger into your heart, watching him shrivel and weaken as he strikes out against death -- futilely -- and often against you, holds little appeal. Feeding him, bathing him, holding his hand as he slips away; who would step forward to embrace such a task? And yet scores of these inmates do.

Are they looking for special privileges? A sympathetic ear from the mostly female nursing staff? Some face-time on our air? Or, like Stacye says, will they show better than tell their genuine intent?

We arrived on a Sunday night. Executions in Louisiana have been all but put on hold, as post-conviction appeals wend their way endlessly through the courts. But that Thursday an execution was scheduled, the first in eight years. Gerald Bordelon (seen at right), convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter, was to be put to death at sundown that day. He had waived all his appeals; there was no paper trail to slow him down.

So on Monday, before the hospice job interviews, we watched from inside the execution chamber as the prison "strap-down" team held its final rehearsal for the big show. They practiced over and over cinching the buckles for each arm and leg, monitoring the heart rate, taping the IV line securely. Someone positioned a plastic trash can under the end of the drip, to keep the floor free of the saline which dribbled harmlessly out of the plastic tubing instead of feeding into the arm of the assistant warden standing in for Bordelon.

By Wednesday afternoon, the hospice folks had finished making their candidate picks -- eight new recruits made the cut. Wednesday night, my small production crew and I went back to the execution chamber building to talk to Bordelon. He was awaiting his death the next day in a cell just 62 steps away from the lethal injection table.

"What will God think about all this?" I asked him, as I faced him through the horizontal meal slot in the barred door. Our hospice film is about men who seek redemption, and we'd wondered if that's why Bordelon had chosen to waive his chance to hang on to life at least a little longer, possibly for decades.

"I'm not doing it so God will grant me forgiveness," he replied, "or for redemption, but if He's the God I believe in, maybe He will." Bordelon said he wanted to do it sooner rather than later to atone for what he'd done, to bring -- if possible -- some peace to his ex-wife and her family. Like the prison volunteer candidate, he seemed sincere, too.

There were more practical reasons, of course. The appeals process extends your life, but it doesn't extend the square footage of your floor plan, and an 8x6 cell is a rough place to spend years waiting. And Bordelon had been clear about one other thing. If he ever got out, he'd said, he would probably do it again. Better not to take any chances.

The next day it all went off without a hitch, and Gerald Bordelon showed rather than told his good intentions. And in the days that followed we went on with the rest of our shoot, interviewing our new hospice volunteers. Not all of the eight will make it through the next step -- a three-week training course, one week of class and then two tougher weeks on the job before graduating.

The inmates who've been doing this work for years will be putting the new guys through their paces and looking over their shoulders every step of the way. My film crew and I will be looking over theirs, to see who's "gaming" as the old hands call it, and who's got the real, credible motives.

All photos of One Last Shot production by Molly Fowler.


Kathryn Casey said...

Fascinating post, Lisa.

Rose said...

Very interesting.

Leah said...

Great post Lisa. I had a friend who went from being a banker to running a Hospice program. When I asked him what thw change was all about he said that "everyone is eager to help bring life into this world and I find that it is equally important to help life as it leaves this world." Those words will always stay with me and I hope that one day I will have the privledge of helping someone in this way.

Pat Brown said...

I guess I look at this a different way, Lisa. For a person who is not a psychopath, there are many different honorable motives and some selfish motives that may be in play. We do things because we truly care, because we like to alleviate suffering, because we feel important, because we want to balance out our sins, etc.

However, this man is a coldblooded psychopath who cannot be rehabilitated by others or himself. He has zero empathy for others. Hence, what he does is always, always about him. He is a narcissist. Even when he appears to behave in a good way, we cannot trust the pureness of any motive behind this. In fact, he could care kindly for the patients for two months and then kill one who annoyed him without batting an eye.

I know most people want to believe that there is some good in these guys, that they could have changed. But, history proves this is not true. I leave it to God to figure out whether the guy has a shred of humanity in his heart or is just faking it. I am happy to see him taken off the face of the earth and while he is on it, make sure he cannot hurt others ever again.

Anonymous said...

Pat apparently didnt READ your article and is confusing Gerald Bordelon with the applicants that were un-named and their crimes un-named.

Ah, well. She got to use her favorite word again.

Anonymous said...

You had and kept my attention. I read the whole post and found it very entertaining and interesting. I even liked the comments.