A hospice worker holds the hand of a dying man in a hospital bed
Photo by kieferpix on iStock

On Oct. 16, 2020, my day started as any other. 

A hospice porter, I was preparing to check in on my patient. But a prison housing manager interrupted me and asked if I would live in the medical unit so I could assist medical personnel caring for inmates severely ill with COVID-19.

At first I felt reluctant because the virus was still a mystery. I worried for my safety. And not long after that conversation, I was confronted with news that my cousin and two close friends had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Despite my hesitations, I decided to go to the medical unit — in part so I could confront my greatest fear of dying alone. 

Since the pandemic began, there have been close to 500 COVID-19 cases at my prison, Jefferson City Correctional Central, in Missouri. At the beginning of the outbreak, back in 2020, I recalled 25 patients who contracted the virus and were sent to the medical unit, as well as another eight who died in the medical unit due to complications from the virus. 

I was among four hospice porters asked to live in the medical unit during the early days of the pandemic.

At the time, I was trying to prove my innocence regarding my murder conviction, so it was difficult not being able to go to the law library. I also missed going to the gym, being outdoors and enjoying the company of friends. 

But I knew these inmates were relying on us for help, so I had to be selfless and look at the bigger picture. 

Many of the patients I cared for didn’t have any family or people on the outside worried about their well-being. 

For some of them, I played that role. I grew particularly close with two patients who died from complications with COVID-19, losses that ultimately inspired me to continue caring for patients at my prison. 

One of those patients was Stanley, a 64-year-old who contracted COVID-19 and pneumonia. He was in such bad shape that an outside hospital sent him back to prison, saying that he would not make it because his lungs were so severely damaged. 

As he lay in his bed, I stared at him and imagined it was me fighting for my life. As time went on, we became close, and I did all I could to assist the nurses while they helped Stanley. 

He thanked us because he knew his condition was bad and that we were doing our best to keep him alive. He told me he didn’t have family or friends, so I took it upon myself to care for him as if he were my own family.

It was around this time that we received a patient named George. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Stanley understood that I had a passion to help others, so he did not feel neglected or alone while I was aiding George.  

George was a fighter. Just as with Stanley, we became close, and there were even times when George would not allow the custody staff to touch him unless I was present. 

You would have to be here to truly experience the joy these patients brought to our medical team and vice versa. We were a big family that relied on each other for strength and support.

Each nurse played a pivotal role in making this unit function, and the hospice workers showed great compassion to those who were dying. 

There would be times where George would make us laugh, and there were times where we cried. 

When we were working together to give him the best care, we were lucky if we got five hours of sleep.

At times our work got so chaotic that nurses wanted to walk off the job, and we four hospice porters lost hope. Staring down at lifeless bodies did something to us all emotionally.  

There was one pivotal moment when I found myself questioning life itself. What one of the COVID-19 patients said to me still lives in my thoughts. 

“Goldie,” the patient said, using my nickname. “It’s funny how cruel life can be, huh? I never smoked in my life, but I’m dying from lung cancer, and I have COVID-19.” 

He continued, “It’s okay because I know I don’t have long. But I want to know, Goldie, why do you do this kind of work?”  

“Because I hope that if I’m ever in your situation that someone would be by my side in my time of need,” I responded.

Two weeks later, he died.  

During the roughest times, I found myself stepping into an empty cell for a few moments to pull myself together mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  

Working alongside medical personnel as a hospice porter made me feel like a real human being and not just some worthless criminal. In 24 years of incarceration, that was the first time I felt a sense of self-worth.

We’ve done all this work to help and support ill and dying people, but we’ve received little recognition from prison officials. That makes me want to cry.

Nothing prepared me for that day when one of the hospice porters woke me and told me that George was no longer with us.  

A corrections officer even asked me if I was OK, because he knew we had been close.

People in society should know what this virus has done to those who are behind bars. Witnessing COVID-19 kill eight people has me questioning life and justice. Is death the only true freedom?

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Antwann Johnson

Antwann Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.