True conviction

The early morning prison grounds are quiet, pocked only with the summer rain puddles. The gate swings open spitting out a long, low buzz. Pony-tailed and spry, Lori Waselchuk marches through carrying 50 copies of her new photo book, Grace Before Dying. She might as well be carrying a mirror.

Gary Young, a spokesman for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, leads the former Baton Rouge photographer-turned-social-justice-crusader past a guard station, down a baby blue hallway and into the Hospice Chapel. Inside this humble oasis is a piano off to the side, a large pine cross on the wall and not a uniformed officer in sight. A few dozen inmates sit quietly in four rows of chairs opposite a small servery with iced tea and a large bin of sweet rolls.

These are prisoner volunteers who provide bedside care for the terminally ill among Angola’s 5,000 inmates.

They change bandages and diapers. They bring food to the hungry and water to the parched. They hold the hands of their dying friends and, in some cases, their enemies. They knit quilts to sell at the rodeo and pay for radios, books and TVs—anything for the comfort of the patients. These men are the subjects of Waselchuk’s book.

“When someone dies we clean the room and mop,” says 29-year-old Charles Rogers. “Most times the floors are still wet when they wheel the next patient in.”

This is true hard time, and few other inmates in the country are allowed to volunteer at this level. Waselchuk wants her book to change that.

“They become like family,” says 42-year-old Anthony Diggs. “Their wounds are your wounds.”

“How’s it going, movie stars?” Waselchuk asks, referencing Saving Life, the new documentary about Angola’s innovative hospice program that aired the night before.

As the inmates receive their copies of the book, Young pipes up. “Y’all need to sign this,” he says, holding a stack of photo release forms. “This is y’alls release. I really need to start calling it another name.”

At the end of the first row waits Gary Tyler, a 53-year-old lifer with a white beard, meaty arms and an angular grin aimed like a searchlight at Waselchuk. Tyler is president of Angola’s drama club and one of the original hospice volunteers.

“I hope this book dispels the perception that prisoners are all hardened people,” Tyler says. “Working hospice has made me a better man and given me a sense of responsibility and an appreciation for life.”

The inmates flip through Grace looking for themselves and their quotes while Waselchuk reveals just how far and wide their influence is reaching through traveling exhibitions—Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and in front of nearly every warden in the country.

“I’m in it,” Waselchuk says. “I’m in this to the very end. And this is my vision, so I’ll just say it: My goal is to get your quilts into the Smithsonian.”

“If we do that,” Nolan James calls out from the second row, “we got to be good.” gracebeforedying.org