Trailblazer

Published: November 1, 2009

SEVENTEEN YEARS ago, I was thrown into a cell in the Segregation Unit at Holman prison for conspiring to escape. I felt as if I had been pitched head first into the open jaws of a monster, a monster whose roar was the sound of steel banging against steel; whose moan, the whispering of schemers late into the night; whose cry, the whimper of tortured souls shadowboxing demons; and whose smell, a rank mixture of rat shit, body odor, urine, and disinfectant. The gullet of this beast—a narrow hall ankle-deep in trash and bits of food—fed nightly armies of roaches and mice. They grew fat at taxpayers' expense.

Every other day I was let out for forty-five minutes of fresh air. A guard escorted me handcuffed outside to a locked steel cage not much larger than my cramped, dirty cell. There, I walked in circles, exercised, and sometimes talked to the prisoner in the cage next to me.

One day I was given a cage next to that of a tall man with wire-rimmed glasses. Hands cuffed in front, he was doing pushups on the concrete deck. We struck up a conversation. I found Omar Rahman to be articulate, insightful, and self-confident.

Prison is a place where men can know each other for decades and talk about everything imaginable, yet never discuss the details of their crimes. So I never knew why Omar was in segregation. I did eventually discover that he, like me, was in prison for robbery and serving a sentence of 'Life Without Parole' under the Alabama's Habitual Offender Act.

Fortunately for Omar and me, it was a young guard who was firm but more patient and understanding than most who escorted us to our exercise cages. Aware that we liked to work out together, he usually put us in adjacent cages and often allowed us an extra few minutes of fresh air.

I was transferred to general population in the state's most secure facility, Donaldson Prison, in January 1993. A month later, Omar joined me. Our friendship grew and we worked out together whenever possible.

We also shared an interest in self-help, philosophical, and religious books. Our goal was to understand the nature of God through understanding ourselves. Our paths differed, however: Omar had committed to Islam years before at Holman and soon become Imam of the Sunni faithful at Donaldson. I had studied Christianity and then joined the Theosophical Society. Later, I completed courses in Hinduism and Buddhism and became an avid meditator.

Though at times we drifted apart, we shared many firsts during our sixteen years at Donaldson. When I helped form a small meditation group, he was among the first to join. Together we attended one of Donaldson's first self-help classes, a course in Emotional Awareness called "Houses of Healing." A few years later, when Donaldson became the first maximum-security prison in America to host a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, we meditated and slept on mats next to each other.

IT WAS a sweltering day in July, but cool and pleasant when I walked into the prison psychologist's office. Omar was sitting in his customary place, at a small table off to the side, filing index cards into a small metal box. I smiled and asked, "How's it going?"

"I'm making it," replied Omar, smiling back, how he always welcomed me.

"Well, looks like you've found yourself a cool place to 'make it.' Must be ninety-five out there." I went over to the psychologist's desk and waited until she finished at her computer. When she looked up, I asked, "You sent for me?"

"Yes, I did," replied Doctor Allen. "I want to talk to you about something."

"Okay," I said, sitting down.

"The Warden is creating a hospice program here to help with the growing number of terminally-ill inmates, and I wanted to know if you'd like to volunteer to be a part of it?"

"That's something we've needed for a long time," I responded. "Of course I want to be part of it." I turned to Omar. "How about you—you volunteer already?"

Omar looked up. "I'm not sure its something I should get involved in right now." He and Dr. Allen exchanged a knowing look.

The look they exchanged was subtle and quick and puzzling to me. I thought it odd that in all the years I'd known Omar, he was always one of the first to volunteer to help others, among the first to embrace new ideas, but not now, not this time. Maybe he's just involved in some other project I know nothing about, something more important. But what could be more important? I wondered.

Two weeks later, eight of us gathered in a conference room in the prison's administration area to begin our hospice training. We sat down at a long table. A warm, engaging man named Brandon Kinard greeted us. Brandon had already created hospice programs at other prisons in the state and had come at the request of Donaldson's new warden, Gary Hetzel.

Ironically, the new warden was the very same man who, as a young guard at Holman prison sixteen years earlier, had escorted Omar and me to our exercise cages. While we had spent those years seeking philosophical and spiritual truth, he had spent those same years seeking a more practical truth—working, going to school, and steadily climbing the Department of Corrections ladder to become Warden.

Addressing the group prior to the start of our training, Warden Hetzel said, "The reason I asked Brandon to create a hospice program here at Donaldson is that I have a firm belief that no man, regardless of his crime, should have to die alone. Every man should be allowed to die with as much dignity as possible."

A week after my first training session, Omar told me he’d been diagnosed with liver cancer a month and a half ago. He didn't have long to live. I wanted to reassure him, but all I could do was stupidly ask, "Are you sure?"

"Two different doctors are sure," he said. "Its definitely liver cancer."

I grabbed his hand, then hugged him. "If there's anything I can do—," was all I could utter.

In short order Omar's health declined. He chose to stay in general population where close friends could look after him. But when his body filled with fluid and his legs and groin swelled and made it difficult to walk, he finally asked to be admitted to the hospice program. He was assigned a bed in a ward that had been set aside for that purpose.

I visited Omar every day. In considerable pain, he still welcomed me with his smile. Most days his mind was clear and we talked. But some days the pain made it hard for him to focus. I would just sit with him then. Sometimes, after taking medication, he’d be on the toilet for hours trying to relieve himself, often nodding off for a few minutes, then regaining consciousness to continue our conversation as if there had been no pause. More than once he vomited blood. I would alert the nursing staff, who were quick to respond and do what they could to comfort him.

IN 2008 the Alabama Legislature passed a bill granting medical furloughs to terminally ill prisoners who could meet certain criteria. Omar met those standards. With the help and support of Warden Hetzel, Dr. Allen, and the medical staff at Donaldson, he applied. But because no prisoner had yet been released under the new bill, and regulations had yet to be drafted, the process was slow. Months dragged by. And Omar got sicker and sicker.

Debilitating pain often made him delirious. He lost weight rapidly—thirty pounds over several days—then gained it all back and more just as quickly. His lower extremities swelled again; his testicles became the size of grapefruit. He could not even practice salat, his daily prayers.

Then, unexpectedly, the swelling decreased and his mind cleared. Omar was able to pray again. It seemed he was recovering. His appetite roared back and he ate all he could get his hands on. He paused at one point between bites to look up at me. "You know, Troy," he said apologetically, sadness and resignation is his eyes, "I've been selfish and greedy all my life. I've never been able to get enough—food, drugs... or even love."

Warden Hetzel allowed Omar's family to come into the very heart of Donaldson prison to visit him at his bed. He ate his fill of the food they brought him and gave the rest to other patients in the infirmary.

Some good days continued. Then the bad ones returned—days when he was in so much pain he couldn't get out of bed to relieve himself. He got angry with himself for being so helpless.

Six months had passed since he first applied for the medical release. He grew weary of waiting. The disease that had invaded his body had now also begun to eat away at his spirit. He wondered which would come first—death or discharge.

The Chaplain and the Warden visited him a few times every week to encourage and update him regarding his application for the medical furlough. Warden Hetzel seemed as determined as Omar to see it processed and approved. Once I overheard the Warden say to the Chaplain, "I'm gonna get Omar out of prison."

THE NEWS finally came: Omar's application was approved, the paperwork completed, his release scheduled for the next day.

After twenty-seven years in prison, Omar was free. His many inmate and staff friends cheered his release. A buoyancy filled the air inside Donaldson prison.

Thirty-six hours later, Omar died.

When I heard the news, I was angry. I told Tammy Schroeder, Director of Nursing, "I just don't understand why it took so long to process Omar's release papers. He should have gotten out a few months earlier and spent that time with his family."

"Yes, it’s a shame," she said. “But let’s not forget that Omar was the first prisoner in the state released under this new law. Now the process will be faster and easier for those who come after him. Omar was a trailblazer."

Dr. Allen concurred: “Perhaps she’s right. Maybe that was Omar’s final gift to all of us, especially to the terminally ill that come after him.”

Even in the process of dying, and in death itself, I thought, Omar was making a difference—in a new way—in the lives of his fellow prisoners.



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Readers Respond

In response to the writing above, readers are invited to share their own anecdotes or to provide relevant, objective information.

Rob Vlacancich, Birmingham, AL

Thanks, Troy, for sharing Omar's story. As a Hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator, I am most grateful for the few moments I get to be with people who are dying, and/or their families in their grieving process.

I am so grateful for hospice, and grateful that the state of Alabama is allowing it in the prisons.

 





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