by Suzanne Labry
“Angola” Prison Hospice Quilts – Part II
No longer bound,
No more chains holding me.
My soul is resting.
It’s such a blessing.
Praise the Lord,
Hallelujah, I’m free!
These lyrics from the gospel song, I’m Free, are written on a special quilt that drapes the casket as it makes its way in the funeral procession of the deceased prisoner who is being buried at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (or Angola as it is known informally).
Steven Garner works on a quilt. Photograph by Lori Waselchuk and used with her permission.
The quilt’s colors are burgundy and gold; the colors adopted by the hospice volunteers to represent Warden Burl Cain’s vision for the program. Its sole purpose is to dignify the death of an offender who has died in hospice care while at the prison with no family to bury him. It serves as a symbol of the respect that the extraordinary prison hospice program and its volunteers confer on those they care for.
To understand how quilts became an integral part of the program, it is necessary to talk to Steven Garner, a prisoner at Angola prison.
Joy of Freedom by the Louisiana State Penitentiary hospice volunteer quilters. The quilt features symbols and icons important to the quilters.Steven is the driving force behind the remarkable quilts being made there. “I learned quilting by trial and error. I never knew how to sew before,” he says. “I was involved in the hospice program and we wanted to do something to raise money to help our patients because we don’t get any outside money. We talked about making all sorts of things to sell, but when somebody mentioned a raffle quilt, that got us interested.”
Each spring and fall, the Angola hosts the longest running prison rodeo in the United States. Thousands of visitors come to see inmates compete in traditional rodeo events such as bull riding, bareback riding, and bulldogging in what is billed as “the wildest show in the South.”
Almost as big an attraction is the Angola Prison Hobbycraft Sale, which runs alongside the rodeo and features a wide variety of arts and crafts items made by prisoners. Money raised from the sale of items can be used for a variety of purposes within the prison. It was for the Hobbycraft Sale that the prison hospice volunteers decided to make a raffle quilt.
“That first quilt we made, we didn’t have anything and we had to learn on our own. We made it all by hand. But we earned money for our program and people liked what we were doing, so it has grown into a thing where now we make five raffle quilts every year, two for the spring rodeo and three for the fall rodeo,” Garner explains. “We used some of the money we raised to buy a sewing machine and fabric and thread and then people started donating sewing machines and supplies to us. Now we are working on quilts all the time.”
The hospice quilters don’t make just raffle quilts. Perhaps most importantly, they also make quilts for the hospice patients they serve. Each patient is warmed by one of the quilts during his time in hospice care. The quilts add another layer of caring and comfort for the patients as they face their final days.
“It humbles me to be able to do something for somebody else,” Garner says. “It’s beyond words. It’s hands-on. Through quilting I can put a smile on somebody else’s face and do something for them. I try to put myself in their place, because we’re all gonna leave this life at some point.”
Garner is not the only hospice quilter and he is quick to include all the others in any recognition. “It’s not only myself, but representative of everybody who works on the quilts. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Somebody is good at cutting out. Somebody else has to figure out what we need to complete the quilt. Sherman Singleton is really good at figuring out colors. Each of our quilts has a theme. Sherman and I work on matching colors together. Miss Tonia is our commander-in-chief and she coordinates everything.”
Blue Print by Lawrence Jenkins, Allen Nguyen, Harun Sharif-El,
and Gary Tyler. Photograph by Lori Waselchuk and used
with her permission.
He’s talking about Tonia Faust, Hospice Program Coordinator at Angola. “It’s so odd to
see the guys making quilts because Steven, for example, is huge. His nickname is ‘The
Hulk’ and to see him hunkered down with his little spectacles and sewing is just mind blowing—you don’t expect it. These guys are amazing, and what they do is so impressive, it’s definitely a talent. They create beauty from scraps and those quilts just make someone’s world,” she offers.
“I remember one time one of the hospice patients was watching the rodeo and it was cold, so he had his quilt with him. After he passed, we sent the quilt to his mom, and she couldn’t get over it—she was so appreciative. It was just a little quilt made out of Minions fabric that somebody had donated, but it meant so much to her. People are really touched by the quilts and the fact that the guys have made them.”
When asked if he considers himself an artist, Garner is quiet for a bit before he responds. “I never see myself as one, but I always wanted to be one. Most artists do their thing with paint and brushes, but I do mine with fabric and thread. Other people tell me I’m an artist, so I guess I am. I’m choosing to give my gift to hospice, but it is not a prideful thing. It is humbling for me. I know someday my reward will come.”
The hospice volunteer quilters have become so accomplished that their quilts have gained renown far beyond the prison walls. Photographer and visual storyteller Lori Waselchuk is largely responsible for bringing recognition to the hospice program and its quiltmakers.
Tree of Life by Gym Quilter. Photograph by Lori Waselchuk and used with her permission.In 2008 she obtained a grant from the Open Society Foundations to fund the commission of four quilts by the Angola Prison quilters that would be part of a traveling exhibition featuring photos from her Grace Before Dying photo documentary project. Commission money went to the hospice program and Waselchuk has now donated two of those quilts to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture and two to the Historic New Orleans Collection.
“I wanted the quilters to be able to create quilts that were not meant for consumer culture but rather as art pieces,” Waselchuk explains. “The men are so talented—I wanted to encourage their creativity and I really wanted them to realize their own artistic capabilities.”
Historically, quilts have been the medium of artistic expression for those (usually women) who were limited by society with few other outlets for their talents. Society has placed limits on the Angola hospice volunteer quilters in other ways; nevertheless, through their quilts, their artistry is allowed to fly free.