Several times in the past several months, I have ceded this column to prison No. 66129. Prisoner No. 66129 has a name, Mathiew Loisel.

He has written about graduating from college and the implication of education on the prisoner population. Most recently he wrote about his work with abused dogs and its symbolism for many prisoners.

Below, Mathiew writes a compelling and inspiring story about death and dying inside prison walls. We could all learn compassion reading his stirring account of the end of life of his friend, Boxcar; consider this latest essay by No. 66129.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” — Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, Nobel laureate (1875-1965)

'Learning What Compassion Is: RIP Boxcar'

By Mathiew Loisel

A few weeks ago, a friend passed away.

He did not, however, die alone. He died surrounded by friends and people who loved him.

The hospice team inside the Maine State Prison (MSP) made sure “Boxcar” received the dignity and respect he deserved in his last dying days. For us who were there, it was a blessing and privilege to attend to his every need. Hospice work is more than just providing care for the dying; it is about improving the quality of life.

Recently, Knox County District Attorney Natasha Irving visited the prison to participate in a roundtable discussion about re-entry. She stated she believed “nobody should die alone in prison.” Many in society know criminals are housed behind these walls, but many forget some die inside them as well. It’s easy to forget about and dehumanize those of us removed from society; it is easy to get apathetic toward a criminal.

Members of the prison hospice team actively combat such realities. It is done selflessly with loving care inside the infirmary. So much of life distracts us with insignificant and trivial matters. We tend to dedicate too much of our lives to attaining “things.” Forgotten sometimes is the humanity all around us; those who suffer, those left vulnerable and unfortunate. People most in need of help.

Under the guidance of Kandyce Powell, executive director of Maine Hospice Council, MSP hospice volunteers have learned to be aware of these realities, becoming beacons of loving grace for dying prisoners when nobody else will. Just because someone committed a crime doesn’t mean the life is less valuable, nor does it mean they should die alone. This is inconceivable to me. I can’t imagine being terminally ill, left without companionship, and forced to face death in the coldness of a secluded cell.

We seem to be living in indifferent times; compassion and understanding are not always guiding forces in human relationships. Divisiveness is supplanting the cornerstone of our democracy, civil political discourse and open debate. Intolerance is seeping into social policy, clearly seen in the current discussions on immigration. Society deals with matters of justice with retribution, not love or compassion as its foundation.

What is most confounding is that many in society believe our streets are somehow safer — society’s ills are somehow ameliorated — by incarcerating thousands each year. Society struggles with how to express genuine concern for those behind bars, but doesn’t put in the time to understand their struggles, their pains, or their histories. Few look at the “why” underlying it all.

The hospice team inside the prison refutes the status quo, choosing instead to exemplify the enlightened ideals of humanism, equality, liberty and fraternity; that which society professes, but unfortunately many disregard.

Black History Month is a time to mention that hospice members inside MSP consider themselves champions of social justice. We concern ourselves with the need to reaffirm humanity to everyone. While much of the world demands retribution for the wrongs we’ve caused — wrongs many of us have unceasing remorse for — we use our energy to try and heal the hurt inside these walls using the redemptive powers of love, compassion and understanding.

Kandyce Powell taught that behind every face we meet lies a story. If effort is not put forward to learn more, the “real” person remains hidden; on the other hand, in order to understand, learning to see the real person is the first step. Kandyce believes the alienation of people is a result of society’s unwillingness to invest time and effort in them. For her, this failure is the greatest enemy of our collective social well-being.

While I may not die inside prison, some friends will. Some of the bravest men I have met died behind these walls. In their last days, they demonstrated the hope and strength many of us wish to attain, but which often eludes our grasp.

In the face of death, these brave souls loved and spread cheer to others.

The timeless gifts received as hospice workers from dying friends, reveal that there is a dire need to exercise more love, compassion, and understanding in our daily interactions with one another. This is what will move society forward.