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I walk across the empty yard. It is 10 p.m. and everyone is locked up asleep for the night. But my day is just starting. I try and gather my thoughts before arriving at the palliative care unit. 

I work at the California Health Care facility and I have one person on my watch who receives one-on-one constant care in his cell. It has been three long days for my friend who has “tipped over.”

Most pass within two days, but he is holding on hard. Forty years locked up will do that. I enter his cell upbeat, talking to him, sharing my life, and telling him about what’s going on in the yard. These are things he’s heard for most of his lifetime. I am trying to reassure him that I’m here to keep my promise, to be by his side.

Five days ago, I wrote a letter to his sister for him, thanking her for her letter and pictures. I ask him if he wants to let her know how he really is. He says no, just send his love. I honor his wishes. We’ve known each other for about six months now, ever since his transfer from another joint, and we have bonded. 

We talk about his situation — stage 4 liver cancer — and its final outcome. It’s been hard for both of us. I have a decent coping mechanism. But my friend has pulled my heart strings to the max. 

The most heartfelt moment I’ve had to deal with is him begging me to go home and me telling him it’s not going to happen. He has me. I hold his hand and try to remain strong (trust me, it’s hard). 

Choices for end-of-life patients in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are few, not like on the streets. So we play the hand as it’s dealt. We have hospice, but that’s really only for the men who have days left. Palliative care is for the men who have months remaining, perhaps a year to 18 months. No matter what, a friendship happens.

During my watch, I grab my Bible and read scripture to him because he is Christian. Holding his hand, his breathing rattles, and I know it’s close. I talk to him, telling him it’s OK, that the Father has a place for him, and he continues to fight. 

I say words that I know he is listening to. An hour later he passes. He just fades away. I do what feels right. I touch his forehead, say a prayer, close his eyes, and say, “Goodbye Friend.”

I inform staff of his passing. The alarm goes off and 20 officers come running, making sure his death was natural. The doctor comes to call it, and finally the county coroner does his job. Then they take him away. 

I have no time to grieve. There’s still a job to do. Packing a man’s life into two boxes, pulling his pictures of family, friends, and loved ones off the walls, collecting stacks of treasured cards and letters filled with love from years gone. It’s the last thing I can do to fulfill my promise to him.

It’s so hard to remain professional. It’s taken time to learn this skill. I’ve not hardened to people passing, I just put into play the words of good ole King Solomon: “To everything there is a season and a purpose.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) 

The work is done. It’s quiet once again. My co-worker and I reflect and talk of his passing til the end of the shift at 5 a.m.

Walking back to my unit, I think about how today was the final price he paid for a “life without the possibility of parole” sentence. I arrive back at my cell. It’s dark. I sit on my rack and let the emotions come. My time…his time. Tears of loss. Tears of hope. 

Did I do all I could? What can I do for the next man? I lie down and close my eyes. Sleep comes quickly. Dealing with death is exhausting. 

I wake to another day. I take care of me. I clean myself, my area, do my program, then I share what happened with a couple of trusted friends. One is a Native American, one is a preacher. Both are inmates. Their advice is always helpful and very true. 

A few men heard what happened and ask questions. I try to explain as best as I can. Most men tell me they couldn’t do my job. I tell them they are wrong. Strength, honor, courage is in us all. It does not die, and I don’t allow the kindness in me to be replaced with the hatred of this place. I attribute the strength and kindness in me to the Human Kindness Foundation and the teaching of the founders, Bo and Sita Lozoff. Their clear and insightful teachings have guided me and with that I’m able to do this job. 

It’s 10 p.m. 

I walk across the yard, which is empty now. Everyone is locked up and asleep for the night. My day is just starting. I gather my thoughts.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Rick Allan Vance

Rick Allan Vance is a writer at California Health Care Facility in Stockton.