A life sentence in Louisiana means life. More than 85% of the 5,100 inmates imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are expected to die there. Until the hospice program was created in 1998, prisoners died mostly alone in the prison hospital. Their bodies were buried in shoddy boxes in numbered graves at the prison cemetery. But the nationally recognized program, run by one staff nurse and a team of inmate volunteers, has changed that.

 

   
 

 
     
   
 

 
         
   

Now, when a terminally ill inmate is too sick to live among the general prison population, he is transferred to the hospice ward. Here, inmate volunteers work closely with hospital and security staff to care for the patient. The volunteers, most of whom are serving life sentences themselves, try to keep him as comfortable as possible. Then, during the last days of the patient's life, the hospice staff begins a 24-hour vigil. The volunteers go to great lengths to ensure that their fellow inmate does not die alone.

 

   
 

 
     
   
 

 
         
   

The hospice volunteers' efforts to create a tone of reverence for the dying and the dead have touched the entire prison population. Prison officials say that the program has helped to transform one of the most violent prisons in the South into one of the least violent maximum-security institutions in the United States.

 

   
 

 
     
   
 

 
         
   

The hospice volunteers must go through a difficult process to bury their own regrets and fears, and unearth their capacity to love. Grace Before Dying looks at how, through hospice, inmates assert and affirm their humanity in an environment designed to isolate and punish.