Brent is serving a life with mercy sentence at Huttonsville Correctional Center. He is a graduate of the Bible College, a peer mentor, and a proud father of two young men.
There was a time in my life when I don’t think I could have changed another man’s diaper or given him a bath.
But in 2015 – five years into a life sentence – I volunteered to do just that.
I was a freshman in the Bible College at Mt. Olive Correctional Center when I was asked if I wanted to take a class to become a hospice worker. The job was to provide care to other prison residents who were too old or sick to care for themselves. I wish I could tell you why I signed up. I just knew I wanted to do this.
A year earlier, I had enrolled in Malachi Dads, a prison ministry for incarcerated fathers brought to West Virginia by Calvin Sutphin, Founder of Catalyst Ministries in Charleston. There I learned that I was not unique with problems that could not be fixed. I began to see myself as someone who shared things in common with other men. We could change and we could give back.
Perhaps that’s why I felt called to sign up for hospice work.
I’ll never forget my first day. I was so nervous to meet the man I would care for. Gary[i] was serving a life without parole sentence, and he had been in prison since the Moundsville days. When you’ve been locked up for a lot of years, you have a certain way you like things done. That drew us together – I liked things in a particular place and Gary was the same way.
I prepared his food just the way he liked it. If it was a day he had radiation treatment, I had a pan ready since he was going to be sick.
The first time I bathed him, I was embarrassed to see him naked and so dependent on another man. We never discussed it, and eventually the embarrassment went away. When you’re caring for someone coming to the end of their life, you just want them to be as happy as they can be. So, I would make sure the water was hot like he wanted it. I would help him get out of his clothes and lower him into the bath. I would let him take his time and let that hot water soak into his bones.
Sitting with someone for 12 hours a day, you get to know them. He made it easy – he introduced me to his family. He asked me about my family and my kids. He taught me to find value in every relationship. He talked about the people he had harmed and what they went through all those years since his crime. You cannot take back anything you’ve ever done. But he talked about doing the next right thing.
One day in fall 2015, I was in a different part of the prison waiting for the daily count to finish. A correctional officer found me and told me to go to Gary’s unit as soon as the count cleared. On my way there I was met by a unit manager who told me that Gary had passed – just a month after his 63rd birthday. She was kind enough to say, “Maybe he cared enough about you that he didn’t want to pass while you were there.” They let me spend a few minutes with him. And because we were in a prison that allowed us to have a memorial service, we got to share our memories of Gary and to say goodbye.
It hurt to lose Gary. But I continued to provide hospice care for other men at Mt. Olive and St. Mary’s prisons. One of those men was Robbie, who had been a pastor before he was incarcerated. When I first met him, I had preached for the first time in prison. Every day we would talk about the news, about each other’s relatives we had gotten to know, and about life.
At this same time, my sister was taking care of my dad full time because he could no longer care for himself. Being with Robbie made me feel useful and helped me get through the guilt of not being there to help my sister care for my dad. Occasionally, Robbie would tell me to grab the Bible and read a particular verse. I would read it to him. Then it would hit me, and I would look up and see him smiling at me. Because it was just the thing I needed to hear.
This time I got to see my friend go. One morning in May 2020, a correctional officer woke me up and told me I needed to go to medical because Robbie wasn’t doing very well. When I walked into his room, he gave me the biggest smile. He could not talk, but he smiled the whole day. I knew this was going to be the last day that I got spend with the man who became my mentor, my family. Later that evening, Robbie took his last breath, and he wasn’t alone. That is all his daughter had wanted – that her dad wouldn’t die alone.
Still, I wish Robbie and my other friends had died surrounded by the family they loved so dearly.
This is possible under West Virginia law. An incarcerated person with an “extreme life-threatening” medical condition may petition for Clemency from the governor. A person who is terminally ill or has “an extremely serious” medical condition may receive a Medical Respite release from the governor.
And yet, this almost never happens. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, in the last 21 years, only two people were released by Medical Respite and only one person was released through Clemency from the governor.
In that same period, 478 people died in prison.
West Virginia prisons can expect to provide more costly end-of-life care. Since 2002, the number of people aged 50 and older in West Virginia prisons has nearly tripled. Today, people 50 and older account for one out of every four prison residents.
Prison changed my life in so many ways. In the hospice program, I learned that I could do hard things out of compassion and a desire to give another person dignity.
I hope our leaders will step up to create more sensible and compassionate policies for Medical Respite and Clemency. The men and women aging, ailing, and dying behind bars deserve that dignity.
[i] Name has been changed to protect privacy.
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