Grace Before Dying by Lori Waselchuk is a rare thing. It is a prison photography project that holds a mirror up to only acts of compassion and dignity. The love – in the form of palliative care – shared among incarcerated men at Louisiana State Penitentiary (known commonly as Angola) is not as rare as we might think among America’s imprisoned classes.

But, the hospice at Angola may be as rare as it seems.

Angola is not like other prisons. Some of the harshest State sentencing laws in the country mean that 85% of prisoners will never be released from the penitentiary. Angola more than most prisons has a burden of responsibility to its aging and dying lifers. The end-of-life care is given by a team of trained medical professionals and inmate-volunteers.

Waselchuk describes the preciousness of touch:

And then something happened. The carpenters eager to demonstrate their love for their friend, started to take over the care-giving tasks. Massaging Richard’s swollen wrist, Randolph explained that the rubbing helped circulate his blood and reduced the swelling. Very timidly, Joseph picked up the other arm, and Carlo began to rub Richards ankles.

The physical contact between these men was new territory. For Richard, this moment seemed beyond description … it seemed to me that he felt overwhelmed by it. It was profound moment of grace, during which these men allowed themselves to break physical boundaries and accept physical expressions of friendship.

I witnessed how the Angola prison hospice team sparked a movement of empathy that not only spread throughout the prison population, but also influenced the prison’s security and medical staff.

We as a society have a choice to make if we think prisons are suitable environments for the infirm and the dying to see out their days. The prisoners have their own decisions to make as to how they interact while we mull those decisions. And they act daily.

But the circumstances of daily routines are shaped by past events.

The frighteningly thorough foreword by Lawrence N. Powell describes the unrest, corruption and social violence both inside and outside Louisiana prison walls through history. In the 19th century, Major Samuel L. James, with the state governor “in his pocket”, ran Angola for profit, “When James died in 1894, he was worth a cool $2.3 million, or nearly $60 million in modern day equivalents.”

The early 20th century in Angola was brutal. In 1933 alone, 1,547 floggings with hickory sticks or leather bats were administered. A grand total 23,889 blows. By 1941 the floggings-per-year had climbed to over 10,000. Powell asks, “Who was doing the counting?”

Throughout the 60s and early 70s, conditions went form bad to worse. The early 70s “represented a nadir in modern Angola history. Inmate cliques and gangs tore the place apart. There was a raft of serious knife wounds and stabbing deaths.”

In 1975, a federal judge and magistrate in Louisiana declared the states confinement “cruel and unusual”. Even then political games were played. Funds for improving the fabric of Louisiana’s prison were appropriated for an extension on the LSU stadium. Then governor, David Treen attempted to legally sanction double-dunking as a solution to overcrowding; the courts rejected his proposal as ludicrous.

The big prison boom came in the 90s when former governor Edwin Edwards convinced the legislature, while incarcerated himself, to float bond issues to pay for prison expansion and decentralization. It was the biggest prison boom Louisiana ever witnessed.

Waselchuk’s photography is an act of witness but it does not ensure the ongoing operations of this sanctuary of humanity. The hospice is partly supported by the fundraising efforts of a cadre of prisoner-quilt-makers. Full colour reproductions of the quilts have their place in Grace Before Dying.

Just as I praised Edmund Clark for giving over a large portion of his book If The Lights Go Out to the letters of Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, so too I praise Waselchuk for giving pages of the book over to the quilt-makers. The auction of these quilts allows volunteers to buy coffee machines, radios and books for the isolation cells now serving as hospice rooms. Purchased items such as sweatpants, specialty foods and slippers provide the same small comforts we’d all hope for at our hour.

A quilt covers every casket on its way to the grave.

The prison atmosphere weighs heavy on anyone inside. Add to that, the gravity of death and burial, one might think Waselchuk’s book is hard to love, but as she asserts, ” This project is not about death. It is about life, its limits, and the choices made within those limits.”

Her photographs draw out the exhaustion, discipline and friendship of the volunteers, the physical pains and emotional toil of the dying and the persistent community from incarcerated and non-incarcerated persons working in the hospice. Grimaces are balanced by grins and past indiscretions are obliterated by present duty … some might call it heroism.

As close as we can get try to understand the tumult of emotions within those locked into a cycle of friendship and loss in a prison in the floodplains of Louisiana, these photos are the starting point.

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Grace Before Dying. Umbrage Books, Hardcover / $39.95 USD, 11″ x 8.5″ / 120 pages / 47 B&W photographs, June 2011, ISBN: 978-1-884167-22-5

View the Grace Before Dying website. You can see large online images at the Critical Mass website.

The Grace Before Dying exhibition is currently on tour. Lori is presently in Boise, Idaho and the show will continue to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., where Lori will speak on September 9th.

BIOGRAPHY

Lori Waselchuk is a documentary photographer whose photographs have appeared in magazines and  newspapers worldwide, including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times.  She has reproduced photographs for several international aid organizations including CARE, the  UN World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the Vaccine Fund. She is a recipient of the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s 2009 Individual Photographer Fellowship, a 2008 Distribution Grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute, the 2007 PhotoNOLA Review Prize, and the 2004 Southern African Gender and Media Award for Photojournalism. Waselchuk was also a nominee for the 2009 Santa Fe Prize for Photography, a finalist in the 2008 Aperture West Book Prize, and a finalist in the 2006 and 2008 Critical Mass Review.

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