by Suzanne Labry
“Angola” Prison Hospice Quilts – Part I
The Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, housing more than 5,000 prisoners. The 18,000-acre site is also known as “Angola” after its location on the former Angola plantation, which was named for the African country that was the birthplace of many of the slaves who worked the plantation.
Nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South,” Angola has had a notorious reputation for much
of its history as one of—if not the—toughest, brutal prisons and work farms in the U.S.
So this this might be the last place on earth where one might expect to experience transformational change. But that’s what has happened, and quilts are an integral part
of the story.
Traveling On, made in 2009 by Steven Garner, Vashon Kelly, Robert Matthews, Scott Meyers, Isaac Turner, and Diego Zapata. Photograph by Lori Waselchuk and used with her permission.
Burl Cain, who served as Angola’s warden from 1995 to 2016, is credited with taking numerous steps to improve conditions and reduce violence (down 70%) at the prison. Darrel Vannoy, who took over as warden after Cain retired, has continued and expanded the creative programming that has led to a sea change in the prison environment at Angola.
One of those changes has bettered not only the lives—but also the deaths—of some of the men incarcerated at the penitentiary. Angola has an increasingly large group of elderly prisoners who grow ill and die there.
In order to help deal with the situations of these prisoners, Warden Cain pioneered a hospice program in 1998 in which inmates are the caregivers of their fellow prisoners who are dying.
Paul Krolowitz said goodbye to his longtime friend Richard "Grasshopper" Liggett, who was fighting advanced liver and lung cancers. Photograph by Lori Waselchuk and used with her permission.Terminally ill inmates are moved into hospice care when doctors think they have about six months to live. They are given extra privileges and a six-man hospice team of fellow inmates who have volunteered to care for them. The team members visit the patients regularly and provide physical, emotional, and spiritual support for them.
And in one of the more remarkable twists to this remarkable story, the men make quilts to comfort the dying while they’re still alive, and to honor them when they die.
Steven Garner, an inmate who works in the prison library, has been a hospice volunteer since the program began, and he was the one who is largely responsible for making quilts a part of the care regimen.
In addition to the quilts made for the dying inmates, two groups of hospice volunteers make quilts year-round in order to raise money to fund the hospice program. The quilts are sold at the annual Angola prison rodeo and the money raised is used to buy supplies to paint and furnish the isolation cells that now serve as the hospice patients’ rooms. Sometimes the money may be used to help fund traveling expenses for the families of sick inmates who may not be able to afford to visit their loved ones.
The volunteers drape a quilt called the “passage quilt” over an inmate when he dies as a way to add dignity to his death. If there is no family to claim the body or if the family cannot afford an outside burial, the inmate will be buried onsite and another quilt is draped over the dead man’s casket during the funeral service.
Mary Bloomer, a prison security guard, watches from the levee as prisoners form Field Line 15 from
Wolf Dormitory at Camp C at Angola, Louisiana's maximum-security prison. Photo by Lori Waselchuk
and used with her permission.
The quilts are an essential part of the hospice volunteers’ dedication to helping others die with dignity, and in so doing, to regain some of their own dignity as well. One volunteer said that it let him “do something the opposite of everything else I ever did.” To listen to the volunteer quilters talk is to hear a powerful lesson about the ability within all of us to change and to grow as creative and compassionate people, no matter what our pasts may have been.
The hospice program has transformed one of the most violent penitentiaries in the United States into the least violent maximum-security prison in the country. And quilts have had something to do with that.