WARREN — Steve Carpentier still sees the face in his dreams: Delirious and agitated, a dying inmate at the Maine State Prison cried out over and over that he was drowning.
“I just grabbed my arms around him and called him by his first name. I said, ‘I gotcha. I’m not gonna let you drown.’ Then a smile came across his face,” Carpentier said.
Carpentier, a wiry man with blue eyes, has served 28 years in prison for murder, but he and other violent offenders volunteering for hospice duty at the state’s maximum security prison are finding an untapped reservoir of empathy by caring for their fellow inmates in their final hours.
The program is part of a trend at prisons where inmate populations are aging along with the rest of America. There are now more than 60 hospice or end-of-life programs in prisons across the country, but this is the only one in Maine, officials say.
In Maine, the hospice program uses therapy dogs and soothing music to help inmates in their final days. All volunteers are trained and certified in hospice care. There’s even a band called Sounds of Comfort that was formed by the hospice volunteers and that will perform this week for the first public concert inside the Maine State Prison.
“I don’t think anyone should die in prison. That’s just wrong. But it is what it is and you can’t change that. So the best that we can offer is the opportunity for the person to pass with dignity and respect and a companion and compassion,” said Nathan Roy, who’s serving a 10-year sentence for sex crimes.
There are currently a dozen volunteer participants, 10 of whom are serving convictions for homicide.
The program is the brainchild of Kandyce Powell, executive director of the Maine Hospice Council.
She persevered in winning over skeptical prison officials over an eight-year period. The program launched six years ago. All the participants are vetted by the prison administration, and she interviewed the latest class of volunteers.
The inmates learn much about themselves through spending time with others during their final hours, Powell said.
“By providing care for another human being, what they’ve found is they’ve plumbed the depths of their own humanity and they found that person – that tender, caring, gentle person – that they just didn’t allow to surface before,” said Powell, who visits the prison each week.
It’s not easy work.
Volunteers clean soiled bed sheets, change catheter bags and keep patients clean. They’ve watched brain cancer and dementia steal a patient’s personality. Patients are sometimes verbally abusive or violent.
Often, the volunteers say, dying inmates resist the medical staff’s best efforts to help them. But those same unruly patients tend to relax and accept care administered by fellow inmates.
“Once you spend so long in here, they become your friends, your family members. And you have to be there to take care of them,” said Wes Knight, 44, of Rockland, who’s serving a 45-year sentence along with his brother for murder.
The hospice program has earned the respect of the volunteers’ peers. All inmates – young and old – realize they could end up needing the care.
Michael Tausek, deputy warden for programs, said the program has been a win for dying inmates, prison staff and the hospice volunteers themselves. Society could be a winner as well, he said, because inmates who develop a sense of empathy are less likely to reoffend.
Robert Payzant, who’s in prison for robbery and aggravated assault, was there looking in the eyes of a fellow inmate as he took his last breath last month. During the final hours, volunteer inmates were posted in pairs in a 24-hour vigil to ensure that the dying man’s needs were met.
“I think we get classified as people who don’t care. But there are a lot of good people here who have that capacity and desire to help someone else,” he said.
The music started as a form of therapy for dying inmates.
Payzant, 47, of Freeport, is one of the singers in the band. The other is Roy, 35, of Bangor. Carpentier, 60, plays mandolin. A fourth man, Chris Shumway, 28, of Caribou, plays bass. Kevin Knight, 42, of Rockland, is the “sound man.”
Roy, who also plays guitar, said some tones can raise or lower a heart rate and some rhythms help with respiration. The songs they’ve created together focus on dark subjects but also on redemption. One of their songs, titled “Darkest Before The Dawn,” was written by Roy’s mother.
“They sing a song, ‘I Am Redeemed.’ There’s a line in there that ‘I’m not who I used to be,”’ said the Rev. Kevan Fortier, the prison chaplain, after a recent practice in the visitor center, where the band will play on Wednesday. “They’re growing every day. They see that there’s more to life.”
There’s little doubt that the volunteers have been changed by what they’ve seen. They say they’re committed to ensuring that inmates can pass with peace.
Carpentier said the images are seared into his memory. And even though the care is difficult, he knows that he’s making a difference for inmates.
“I still see that man’s face every now and again when I’m sleeping. And I see that smile. It really touches the heart,” he said.