Death stands in the path of all prisoners here with a chronic or terminal illness. It may step out of their way for a time, only to reappear a little later on. When it meets them again, it may be a soft final breath in the night, a gasping cry that no one will respond to, the silent stiffening of rigor mortis, or the more violent manifestations – a blood-soaked corpse with an agonizing scream frozen upon a face for which no answers are given.
Maybe someone didn’t respond when they should have or didn’t monitor a person’s health conditions properly – culpability and liability often make the truth here as silent as death itself. After all, aren’t we just animals? How we are viewed seems to justify anything – and who would want to see their career destroyed over an animal? It’s much easier to invent a “truth” on a piece of paper.
So men with chronic and terminal illnesses, both mental and physical, are often in a fragile state of existence on the Coffield Unit [the largest prison in Texas], and I’m sure that similar circumstances exist in other prisons in Texas. These prisoners are treated, but money, staffing, negligence, and other factors often limit their health care to a great extent and, since prisoners in Texas are not paid to work, there’s not much they can do about it either. The result, ultimately, is that more of us die over physical complications or from suicide than we normally would.
Years ago, a prisoner here with AIDS saw the lack of quality health care he was given and the attitudes of the health care workers and prison guards regarding those inmates dying in prison. He decided to try to do something to alleviate this problem.
The prisoner’s name is Sam and he envisioned a support group for those in prison with chronic and terminal illnesses. The group’s aim was to offer compassionate support with the unavoidable issues related to their conditions — as well as help in leading fuller lives by teaching them how to use existing policies to obtain adequate health care. Physical, mental, and spiritual aspects relating to chronic and terminal health conditions were also to be dealt with in order to help these prisoners.
While many groups exist on this unit, most of them amount to political circles disguised as religious groups which serve no purpose other than to feed the selfish agendas of the prisoners and staff involved, regardless of the window dressing. The difference is that these groups usually harm those involved and encourage manipulation. These groups don’t deal with near life and death situations and have absolutely no impact upon the prison population (other than improving it by their absence.)
The group Sam had in mind deals with life and death issues. There are no rewards to win other than getting better health care and being able to help those people who no one else is helping even though they definitely need it.
Over time, Ms. Earl – a mental health worker here – took an interest in Sam’s idea and offered not only her time, but also her professional guidance – and the Survivor Group was born.
This was unprecedented in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. While TDCO [Texas Department of Correction] staff does come back as volunteers, sometimes (after they retire or go to work in other prisons), I have never seen a staff member volunteer on their own unit.
The reasons are many, from being treated in a hostile manner by their co-workers to being discriminated against in regards to advancements because other TDCJ staff suspect them of being too “inmate friendly.” But Ms. Earl, in a professional and unbiased manner, felt moved to support what any health care worker should – the health and safety of human beings.
Without her, the Survivor Group wouldn’t be able to help these prisoners on the deeper levels, which requires the direction of a professional. Ms. Earl’s wisdom and unbiased care is the main reason that conflicts and even violence do not flare up as prisoners discuss very personal, painful, and private issues in their lives.
I felt moved to volunteer to help with the group some years ago. I don’t have any pretty story about why – and I’m no more special than anyone else. I just felt moved to help these people. Sadly, no one else in the inmate population was even trying to at that time; even the supposed “holy rollers” didn’t reach out to the Survivor Group because there was no personal gain in it for them. Now there are a few in the group who have begun to help coordinate some of our activities as well. Dealing with the variety of people and issues involved can be challenging.
If the wrong advice is given to someone with a chronic or terminal disease, whether it is AIDS, high blood pressure, or suicidal thoughts, it can literally kill them. Getting through to persons of various socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds can be complicated as well, but there is a strong sense of community within our group and problems along those lines don’t seem to arise. In fact, while prisoners are often divided in terms of our differences, our diversity actually serves to enhance our dialogues during our sessions and it brings us an understanding of our lives outside of the group.
Another measure of the success of the Survivor Group is how comfortable members are in disclosing their stories. It can be difficult for a person to speak about health issues that they are ashamed of. And it can be difficult to get prisoners to care enough about themselves to want to attempt to resolve their issues. When a person has cancer in their genitals or has to wear diapers as an adult in prison, where circumstances make it difficult to keep it private, or when a person wants to commit suicide every day because of the rape or other abuse they went through as a child or an adult, or other issues far worse, it can take a miracle to even begin the healing process. When a person is facing imminent death, if you were facing imminent death, how easy would it be to help make you feel better or help bring you peace?
So we go on. Sam drags himself down the halls some days because it gets too painful to even walk with a cane, if he can even get out of bed at all. He has stopped taking his AIDS medication (as of this article, 12/14/14, this is still the case and has been for some months) due to the allergic reactions he was having. And he can’t get what he needs because it costs the state too much, even though unpaid prisoners in Texas still have to pay $100 for medical care, the highest it’s ever been and for the worst care we’ve ever had.
And Sam, with stage 4 AIDS, devotes the last days of his life, when he is able, to helping other terminally ill prisoners. Ms. Earl continues to bring us health information and advise. She cycles us through programs pertaining to grief, anger and bereavement. She helps people in the group to resolve issues with the medical department in mature and more effective ways and she volunteers her time in many other ways. And I continue to send letters to organizations requesting further resources, I read during the sessions from the material Ms. Earl provides, I set up for the meetings, help to organize our activities, take notes, and do whatever I can do for the group.
The prisoners in the group are there for each other as a family to go through anything – a daughter’s suicide, a family’s death in an auto accident, making plans for their own funeral, coping with guards who often delay or prevent them from getting the care they need and, in many ways, keeping each other alive and also in check when they fall into negative thought modes like self-pity or trying to use their condition to get things from others for sympathy.
The difference between the Survivor Group and every other group I’ve seen in prison since I’ve been here is life and death. If every other group disappeared, things would probably change for the better. If the Survivor Group disappeared, people would die or lose years of an enriched life and, even on the outside, the families and friends of the people in the group would suffer as well.
Now, Ms. Earl has formed a Spanish-speaking group to serve those with chronic and terminal conditions and it is my hope that other groups will form for prisoners dying in prison (with actual substance) on other units and in other prisons to serve those in circumstances where hope seems extinct.
Tracy Lee Kendall is serving 60 years in Texas for murder.