VIENNA — “No one dies alone,” Karen Smoot said.
Smoot, health care unit director at the Shawnee Correctional Center, said she and her team were on “24-hour vigil” for an inmate in the infirmary.
He would be dying soon.
Gathered around Ernest Cornes’ bed, a clear-cased television humming in the background, seven men looked down at the 88-year-old whom they have grown so close to.
“Do you want some Sprite,” Kenny Harris asked.
With a hushed word and a slow nod, Cornes said yes.
Cornes is a slight man, his hands a bit puffy, his skin pale. A scruff of white stubble shadows his face. A blue knit cap keeps his head from the chill.
“These are all my guys,” he said in his slow, hoarse voice. A tissue in hand, one of the men wipes the tears that fill his eyes.
“These guys are going to be in my mind and what they mean to me until I see Uncle Sam’s evil grin,” Cornes said, acknowledging that his time was limited.
Smoot has been a nurse for about 20 years. She has worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections since 2016, and said hospice or end-of-life care is different for prisoners. They are not in their homes, in their own beds, and oftentimes are not surrounded by loved ones. But still, Smoot sees it as her job to comfort them.
“We’re tasked with taking care of him and providing for him the appropriate and humane end-of-life care,” she said.
Another thing that separates hospice care at Shawnee is the team of caretakers Smoot has assembled. The seven men that stood next to Cornes and have cared for his most intimate needs in the weeks he’s been in the infirmary were not nurses.
They are inmates.
Smoot said a 2017 directive came from the state that prisons in the Illinois Department of Corrections needed to implement some form of end-of-life care, and she decided to go a bit further. She created the Shawnee Hospice/Adult Comfort Care Program, which trains select inmates in the type of therapeutic, nonmedical care given to people who are nearing death. This means regular visits, playing cards, writing letters and even helping with bathing.
Smoot said that many who come to prison and through her program are not used to thinking beyond themselves — for some, that was a means of survival before they were incarcerated. The hospice program is a way, she said, for them to learn how to think about others.
“For someone who, like I said, has only ever taken care of themselves, or cared about themselves it’s a learning process for them to learn how to take care of someone else and not expect anything from it,” she said.
Smoot said many of the men she works with might have experiences with death, but not the kind they will experience in her program.
“It’s generally in a very violent situation. I saw my brother shot. I held my cousin while he bled out. Those type things,” she said.
Smoot said they likely have not been in a position where they are waiting for a death.
“I try to help them understand, ‘Well, this is going to be different. This process is different.’”
It’s not for everyone, though. She said some have had to leave because the emotion of the situation was too much.
“No judgement. You just let me know and we are good,” Smoot said.
'It scares you'
While the impact on the inmates needing care is important, the changes in perspective the caregivers experience can be world-changing.
“The lifestyle I lived, I’m from the streets and I never took time to take care of nobody except for my grandparents,” Kenny Harris said.
After joining the program and seeing people become helpless, Harris said he felt compelled to help them.
“I didn’t want to see someone going through that,” he said.
“It really changed my outlook on things in just a matter of days,” Alejandro Rodriguez said.
Many of the men interviewed for this story said the experience of caring for the sick and the dying made them think long-term, and even reconsider previous life choices.
“It definitely makes you re-evaluate your own circumstances, the situation in your life and what you’ve done and the carelessness that you had doing it compared to now. You think about your health more. You think about your decisions and your choices and what they can lead to in the future,” Kema Fair said.
The men talked about seeing people wearing the same uniform they put on each day slowly taken away by death, and a lot of the time the only support they have is from other inmates. No family, no friends.
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“It scares you,” Fair said.
But seeing mortality face-to-face is not the only influence the men talked about the program having on them. Part of it was Smoot, too.
“I can’t speak to my mama every morning … so I look forward to walking past her in the morning,” Isiah Evans said. To hear her tell him she is proud of him is something he looks forward to.
What’s more, they also don’t want to make her disappointed and it could be said that the program and its reputation has helped shape the men’s behavior.
“We represent Ms. Smoot,” Fair said, adding that everyone in the program wants to see it grow and would hate for it to get a blemish because of something they did.
“It’s a nice opportunity to be able to show the outside world that even while we are in prison we can do something positive and pay back some dues.”
All seven of Smoot’s workers volunteer without incentive. They do not receive pay like other prison jobs and there is no early-out, good time accrued. They all say they are there to help someone, and to help themselves. This help could come while they are on the inside, but when they are released all expect to take with them the insights and perspective they gained from participating in the hospice program.
When asked if they felt they could have learned these lessons without the hospice program, no one said yes.
“I pray that I would have," Harris said, "but, nah."
Fair said he has participated in several inmate programs in his time at Shawnee, but none, he said, have the ability to reach people the way the hospice program does.
“There’s a connection to reality in hospice that touches the deepest part of me that you can’t get from any other program, any other experience in life,” he said.
A tough sell
Smoot said implementation of the program wasn’t terribly hard — the state said they had to do it. But happy participation was a harder sell.
“The stigma is offender prisoners, inmates, whatever, are all cons ... and they don’t deserve our care and that’s not true,” Smoot said.
She said some of the correctional officers — though not all, she was very quick to point out — see the offense first and the person second.
“I’ve had officers come in and tell me, ‘Ms. Smoot, really. You know what he’s in for right,’” she said. Her reply is forthright.
“No I don’t, and I don’t care, because I’m going to provide these services whether they are here because they missed choir practice or whatever. It’s my job.”
Smoot was emphatic.
“These individuals are still human,” she said.
This point resonates with the inmates in her hospice care program, as well.
“We are people, too. We are human beings and we do have the ability to grow and to change,” Harris said.
Harris and the men around him said they are not just one thing, and they recognized their need to change in order to be successful when they leave prison.
“We can’t leave here the same way we came in here,” Evans said.
“It’s a part of rehabilitation for us. We need this,” Edhan Salkic said.
They don’t appear to be the only ones.
“I’ve had someone taking care of me 24 hours a day and doing a hell of a job,” Cornes said of his “posse,” as Smoot calls them.
“I don’t know if I could have made it on my own,” he said.
Fair said he and his fellow volunteers are a point of hope for the patients they serve, and possibly even for other inmates.
“We carry a light,” he said.
Isiah Evans stayed quiet through much of The Southern’s group interview with the volunteers, and even through much of their visit with Cornes.
He stood to the side of Corne’s bed, leaning on the windowsill. His eyes stayed on his friend. Between quiet musings and even some swells of laughter from the group, Evans slipped in a quiet message.
“We love you.”