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Diamond Approach in the World: Prison Hospice Work

Diamond Approach in the World: Prison Hospice Work

We are introducing Diamond Approach in the World, a new feature that looks at how the orientation of this path arises in individual students and impacts their and others’ lives. This particular article by Noell Goldberg is the first in a series about students who work with prison inmates around the world.

Noell Goldberg started a hospice program in a men's medium-security prison in 2007 and continues to train and mentor inmates to sit with those dying in prison. She meets with the inmates monthly and has found this work full of moving and humbling surprises—and the men deeply affected by each other and by attending to those who face the most painful possibility of their incarceration, death. While she has also trained women in a maximum-security prison, most of this training and mentoring is with men.

To many people, dying is the worst thing they can imagine. To those who are incarcerated, dying in prison heightens the shock of impermanence and the sense of loss—the loss of hope, opportunity and redemption.  The hospice program creates another opportunity, one that supports contact with that which endures and nourishes and redeems, and to the surprise of us all, it does this in an environment that often seems antithetical to the discovery of true nature.

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Chris was in his mid-30s when he joined the hospice program, incarcerated for weapons possession and attempted murder. As a child, Chris had witnessed his 7-year-old cousin being thrown from the rooftop of their building by older boys and watched him die on the sidewalk. This story is not unusual in the lives of these men and women, most of whom have endured many traumas from which there was no real recovery. The lack of support and understanding has meant that in order for them to keep on living in the environments in which they endured, these wounds had to be patched over with the crusty hardness of “I don’t care. I will not be touched.”

So when Chris was assigned to Larry, an inmate dying of cancer, he saw something of himself. Larry threw anything he had at Chris or anyone who tried to attend him—food, words, soiled diapers. His whole being was organized around the rejection of his own deep need, and dying pressed hard against the fortress. Yet somehow, Chris recognized this. He was with Larry every day, and every day he’d say in response to whatever Larry threw at him, “I get it. But I love you, man.”  And every time, Larry would respond, “Get outta here with that shit.”

Then in his last hours, with Chris at his bedside, stroking his hair and holding him, Larry finally relaxed. Chris said, once again with the same sincerity and self-recognition that had guided him through this process, “I love you,” and Larry replied, perhaps for the first time in his life, “I love you too.” This may have been Larry’s first moment of knowing love, and his heart responded as hearts will when given the opportunity to be touched.

What inspired you to do this work?

When I was ten, my mother took my younger brother and me to a doll-making class. While Carl made a cowboy doll and the other girls made mini-princesses, mommies and Camp Fire Girls, I made a prison inmate doll. He looked mean and mad and stubborn. I embroidered an angry red scar on his left cheek, and his glare and sneer expressed a quiet fury. While I’m sure this doll said much about some of my own unexpressed feelings and defenses, it was also the first call for this soul toward one aspect of its living expression.

Sr. Helen Prejean, who was called to work with the incarcerated, said, “The men on death row are much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” I read this line many years after the inmate doll had been forgotten and was deeply affected. What someone has done in a moment of rage or fear or ignorance does not tell us all we might know about him, or what he might eventually—and with grace—know about himself, or about his nature.

How does your practice nourish, support, and enable you to do this work?

The first time I went to the local men’s medium security prison to introduce the concept of a hospice program, I wept at the sight of the razor wire. In those shiny, cutting loops of steel, rolling across the tops of the fences and encircling everyone within, I could feel the fear, the paranoia, and the loneliness that comes from living inside structures whose purpose is to protect but also to limit the possibility of freedom. I immediately understood that part of the practice would be to remain open to whatever chaotic, painful or hopeful expression presented itself while also remaining anchored in the silent stillness of Being.

For those who live and work in an environment where self-protection is the primary concern, everyone is, to some degree, tensed and vigilant. For me, the capacity to stay steady in the face of whatever arises brings a state of alert relaxation. This is a personal practice. This state also supports a field in which the inmates can relax some of their own vigilance and open to something softer and more open. And while openness requires allowing—making room for my own hesitation, doubt, deep love, grief and, sometimes, anger at the unnecessary suffering—it also necessitates the development of a certain muscle. Then, allowing, instead of being passive, is robust and active and supported by a kind of tensile strength.

When I am present in a prison, I feel my own objective helplessness. There is a humility that comes in recognizing the logic that dictates the functioning of a prison—fear, self-protection, ideas of right and wrong, the tension between guilt and punishment—and all this creates a structure that functions in accordance with the beliefs on which it is built. Yet amazingly, the light of true nature finds ways to shine, sometimes feebly, sometimes brilliantly, but always with intelligence and love and something akin to True Hope.

How have you been impacted by this aspect of your work in the world?

I have certainly learned that the light of true nature shines everywhere. Working with inmates has expanded my sense of the many possible ways that humanness can be expressed. I have seen how very primitive a human being can be when that life has been denied the support and care that is needed for real development. I have also seen how a person can transcend the forces that imprison mind, body and spirit when there is even the smallest opening to our deeper nature.

Mostly, I have been humbled. These men and women are me, part of this pulsating organism we call humanity. To sit with someone who is dying touches the hearts of these men and women. And as they are reacquainted with the tenderness and responsiveness of their own hearts, the door often opens to the recognition of their own basic goodness.

In what ways do you see those you work with being impacted?

I sense that for all of us involved in this program, our awareness of the possibilities of experience and knowing and authenticity are expanded.

Max was incarcerated at 16 after murdering another drug dealer. He had been living on the streets without family or any other kind of support. He was 33 when he became one of the first participants in the hospice program. One day at a peer-support meeting, I told the men how I had been affected when we had been on our way to one of the prison hospital rooms to learn how to turn and position a patient. A female officer stopped the men and had them go up against the wall, legs spread so she could pat them down. I told the men that I had had to turn away. This was, to them, an unremarkable and ordinary humiliation, but it was one I had never seen or felt.  As I inwardly revisited that moment, tears ran down my face. I looked up and saw Max weeping into his hands. When I asked what was happening he said, “You were feeling what we have stopped feeling.” Max has now been out of prison for eight years, working as a carpenter.

Avram is an orthodox Jew released recently after a decade in prison. There are few orthodox Jews in this upstate New York prison, and when he joined the hospice program, his posture and self-presentation announced his “outsider” status quite clearly. But when he wrote, as part of the training homework, about summers at his grandparents’ farm, it was clear he had known real engagement in the world and love for both nature and family. He had been terrified of being the one in the room when a patient died, but when it finally happened he was open to the love and sacredness of the man’s passing. He stayed quietly in the room, offering his simple presence and attending silently. Over the years, more men “chose” to die with Avram in the room than with any of the other inmate hospice workers. Avram has returned to his family and a job in the produce industry.

Carlos was in his 30s, in prison for drug dealing. He was not legally in the country so was deported back to Colombia after release, leaving behind his family and those he loves. Before he left, he asked for as much information as I could get to him about starting a hospice program in Columbia. Hospice was not available there, and he passionately and resolutely wanted it to be. So he left the States armed with all the handouts from the training, whatever additional information I could provide, and his own experience of coming to care for, then lose, several men to whom he had grown close and whose loss he had felt deeply and with love.

What have been the biggest challenges in the prison environment, and how have you negotiated those challenges?

I struggle inwardly at times with inmates who are still engaged in what is sometimes called “criminal thinking.” Here, the orientation is toward gaining some kind of advantage, usually over a fellow inmate or “civilian” such as myself through manipulation, aggression, intimidation or simple deception. But if I allow the heart to feel the impact of these painful defenses against being vulnerable rather than let the mind run loose with its easy judgments, what arises are compassion, humility, and love and trust in true nature.

Occasionally, we have had administrators who felt inmates did not deserve a program that perhaps a loved one of their own could not access. Or they have believed that those who have made others suffer should not be comforted in their own suffering. Others expressed that it just required too much thought and planning to ensure that inmates moving in and out of the medical facility could be trusted. Here, will and steadfastness have seen me through. Something much larger than any one person’s opinion moves people into the field of this program, and bowing to that brings both humility and support.

What has been the single most important realization that has supported this work for you—and for those you work with?

Stepping close to people whose lives have been shaped by powerful forces unknown to me has had a tenderizing effect on the heart.  The heart expands to include more and more, gathering into itself the preciousness and sorrow and aspirations of these “others.” It is as if the heart welcomes back into itself what has been forgotten, excluded, left 

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