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A life sentence in Louisiana means life. More than 85% of the 5,100 inmates imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are expected to die there. Until the hospice program was created in 1998, prisoners died mostly alone in the prison hospital. Their bodies were buried in shoddy boxes in numbered graves at the prison cemetery. But the nationally recognized program, run by one staff nurse and a team of inmate volunteers, has changed that.

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Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Now, when a terminally ill inmate is too sick to live among the general prison population, he is transferred to the hospice ward. Here, inmate volunteers work closely with hospital and security staff to care for the patient. The volunteers, most of whom are serving life sentences themselves, try to keep him as comfortable as possible.




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Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Then, during the last days of the patient's life, the hospice staff begins a 24-hour vigil. The volunteers go to great lengths to ensure that their fellow inmate does not die alone. The hospice volunteers' efforts to create a tone of reverence for the dying and the dead have touched the entire prison population.





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Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Prison officials say that the program has helped to transform one of the most violent prisons in the South into one of the least violent maximum-security institutions in the United States. The hospice volunteers must go through a difficult process to bury their own regrets and fears, and unearth their capacity to love.




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Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Grace Before Dying looks at how, through hospice, inmates assert and affirm their humanity in an environment designed to isolate and punish.






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Photo by Lori Waselchuk
Photo by Lori Waselchuk

Grace Before Dying
Photographs by Lori Waselchuk

March 8–April 28, 2012

About the Photographer

Lori Waselchuk is a documentary photographer whose photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. She has produced photographs for several international aid organizations including CARE, the UN World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières, and The Vaccine Fund.

Waselchuk is a recipient of a 2010 Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities grant, the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s 2009 Individual Photographer Fellowship; a 2008 Distribution Grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute; the 2007 PhotoNOLA Review Prize; and the 2004 Southern African Gender and Media Award for Photojournalism. Waselchuk was also a nominee for the 2009 Santa Fe Prize for Photography; a finalist in the 2008 Aperture West Book Prize; and a finalist in the 2006 and 2008 Critical Mass review.

Press about the Exhibition



Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, The Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project, and Daylight Magazine. Exhibition curated by Umbridge Editions.