Published September 24. 2003 4:00AM Updated December 22. 2009 12:51PM
East Lyme — Each Wednesday, Pernell Davis presses her face against the rectangular window in her door, waiting eagerly for a convicted killer.
That killer, Bonnie Foreshaw, strolls down a tiled hallway, eager to see Davis, who was convicted of selling a hallucinogen.
Both women are inmates serving time at Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Davis, 53, has served most of her sentence in the infirmary. Suffering from diabetes and a chronic lung disease, she is imprisoned inside prison, tethered by clear plastic tubes to an oxygen tank.
All week Davis looks forward to Wednesdays, the day Bonnie Foreshaw visits. As a part of York's hospice and palliative care program, Foreshaw spends two hours in her room, helping her clean the floor, make the bed and whittle away time gossiping about current events. The program – the only hospice in a women's prison in New England and one of the few across the county – will graduate its second class of volunteers on Thursday.
For Davis, the program offers a warm face and patient conversation behind bars. For Foreshaw, who became a volunteer in January, it offers a little more.
“It gives me a sense of worth and satisfaction,” she said, sitting on Davis' bed last Wednesday. “Just coming over here makes me forget what my issues are.”
Some of Foreshaw's issues include a 45-year prison term for fatally shooting a pregnant woman in a Hartford parking lot in 1986. She maintains that it was an accident; that she fired at a man who had been physically and emotionally abusing her for years and mistakenly hit Joyce Amos.
Foreshaw isn't eligible for release until May 2017. For her, the hospice program is an outlet. For prisons across the county, hospice and palliative care programs are a growing necessity.
“There is more death occurring in prison,” said Nealy Zimmerman, the Connecticut chair of the National Prison Hospice Association. She blames the rise on burgeoning prison populations, longer sentences and AIDS, among other factors.
“The need to take care of dying inmates in prison (is) evident.”
Palliative care improves the quality of life for a patient who has been diagnosed with a chronic disease, said Dr. Monica Farinella, the physician who oversees York's program. The focus can be subtle and comforting, like regular conversations that perk up people as they battle their disease.
When an illness progresses and death is imminent, hospice cares for the patient and their family, with the goal of peaceful, painless death, Farinella said.
While palliative care and hospice have long been commonplace in the outside world, the concept is relatively new within the walls of penitentiaries, said Zimmermann. Although the first prison hospice program was started by two inmates to care for convicts dying of AIDS in a federal prison in Missouri in 1988, the concept caught on slowly.
In 1998, officials started a hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a massive lockup with 5,000 inmates. About 80 percent of the inmates were serving life sentences, Zimmermann said. That meant 4,000 people at Angola alone were slated to die behind bars.
Angola's hospice program gained national attention on CNN. In 1999, Zimmermann and a handful of Connecticut correction officials traveled to Louisiana to see how they could bring elements of the program home.
In Connecticut, officials started the first hospice program at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a men's prison in Suffield. After eight weeks of training, they graduated their first class of volunteers in February 2001. Since the program began nine patients have died.
York followed with its first class in January 2003. For York's current hospice class, 45 women applied to be volunteers.
“There is no monetary incentive, no certificate, no diploma,” said Susan Sullivan, the inmate volunteer coordinator. “At graduation, they get two T-shirts. The people doing this program want to.”
Officials carefully scrutinize applicants, who must have at least two years left to serve and no major disciplinary incidents within the past year. They can't have a recent history of drug use or suicidal tendencies.
Once the field is narrowed, a six-person panel including correction officers, nurses, and social workers interview the inmates. They ask about their lives and their own experiences with death.
From the 45 who applied, 21 inmates were accepted into the program. For two months, the class met for eight hours once a week. Inmates learn about basic medical care, such as how to protect themselves from blood-borne pathogens and when to wear gloves. There's even homework.
Once they graduate, the volunteers become regular fixtures in the infirmary, visiting with the chronic patients, helping them write letters, bathe and clean their rooms. No women have died at York under the care of the program.
For patients such as Davis, the program provides her with company, easing hard, lonely days in an infirmary behind bars. For volunteers, it's more. Nancy Colon, 43, is serving eight years for second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle during a drinking-and-driving accident.
During her prison term, both of her parents died of cancer. Volunteering in the infirmary, she said, feels as though she is making up for something she missed when she lost her parents.
Now she is grateful to be there with others facing death, something she regrets not being able to do for her own parents.
“Emotionally, I'm able to help when I couldn't” before, she said.