Michigan Department of Corrections chaplain helps provide dignity to terminally ill inmates
By Monica Drake
Office of Performance and Transformation
Adrian Dirschell believes that no one should die alone – and, for Michigan inmates, he is working toward making this a reality.
Dirschell is the Institutional Chaplain at the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center (RGC) in Jackson, which houses the 152-bed Duane L. Waters Health Center. He helped the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) start its first hospice program – CHOICES (Choose, Health Options, Initiate Care, and Educate Self) – at RGC in 2015.
Dirschell was a sergeant at the time and, considering he had a Bachelor of Science degree in religion, he was asked if he would be interested in becoming a chaplain at the prison.
“At first, I said no. But afterward, it felt like an 80-pound weight had been dropped on my shoulders. I knew, then, that this was a calling that I was supposed to do,” he said. “I said I would take the job under one condition – that I could submit a proposal to provide a spiritual needs program for the terminally ill at the hospital.”
Soon after, Dirschell said that MDOC Director Heidi Washington approved his proposal for On Eagles Wings, a program which provides workshops, group therapy, and counseling for inmates diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Working with these inmates, he realized that many of them had been in prison for a majority of their lives, so they never had the chance to share their life stories with anyone.
“I was hearing them because I was facilitating the groups. But they had such interesting stories that needed to be told,” said Dirschell.
In response, he decided to implement Dignity Therapy – creating formal written narratives about the inmates’ lives. Dirschell said he and volunteers interview the inmates and digitally record what they have to say. Then the recording is sent to transcriptionists, and the transcripts are sent to the interviewer to compile into a biography.
The document is then presented to the patients so they can make any final changes. Then they work with one of the volunteers – Jim Nicholson, a calligrapher and artist – to create beautiful covers and dedication pages for their biographies.
“I hold on to the documents until they pass, and I mail it to the person(s) who they wanted to receive those documents,” said Dirschell. “I think the generativity documents help bring their lives to a conclusion. For someone who has been incarcerated for 30 years or more, in their eyes, there may not be a lot of meaning in their lives. But when they have an opportunity to tell their story and reflect, they always find something that they were proud of. This allows them to put their life in perspective.”
One inmate, nicknamed “Big George,” was particularly affected by Dignity Therapy. He had been in prison for about 40 years, and Dirschell said he couldn’t believe that someone wanted to hear his story.
“After we wrote his biography, he started getting really healthy and was transferred to another facility,” Dirschell said.
Dirschell didn’t see “Big George” again for about six months until, one day, he came into work and was bombarded by voicemails and emails. George wanted to talk to him.
“He was back in the hospital and wanted me to bring his biography. George reads it and then asks me to get the nurse. And he told her, ‘Just to let you know, I’m ready to die now.’ And, within 48 hours, George was dead,” said Dirschell. “He just wanted to be able to read it before he died. He wanted to be able to see it and know that it was going to his kids. Dignity therapy gave him the chance to share his story.”
Some inmates want their biographies to go to family and friends – others just want their stories to be shared with anyone. Dirschell said Director Heidi Washington will read many of the narratives, and he said he’ll get emails from her, asking, “Do you have any more biographies?”
“People read these guys’ stories and see the human aspect of prison. It brings dignity to the inmates, and it brings a little bit of clarity and humanity to all of us,” said Dirschell.
Another part of the CHOICES program is that other inmates are selected to work in the health center as Prisoner Palliative Care Aides (PPCA). The PPCAs help improve the quality of life of the men in hospice care by providing socialization (reading, playing games, compassionate listening, etc), bed baths, hair cuts or facial shaving, meal set-up, and accompanying them to the day room during “out” times.
“We’ve had guys who were Failure to Thrive and had dementia or Alzheimer’s. They wouldn’t go out to the day room, and their only contact became the nursing staff at the hospital. And then, all of the sudden, we brought these PPCAs in there. They had someone talking to them and hanging out with them. This was life-changing for these people,” said Dirschell.
Dirschell said PPCA is one of the most sought-after jobs in the prison system, with approximately 1,000 inmates applying for one of the 40 positions.
“Some guys told me, ‘I did this because I thought it would look good to the parole board. But doing this job, it changed me.’ Being a PPCA is probably the greatest lesson of empathy a human could get inside a correctional setting,” he said.
The whole goal of the PPCA program is for no prisoner to die alone, said Dirschell. When a physician determines that a person is actively dying, PPCAs will spend four-hour shifts in the room with the patient. Twenty-four hours a day, the patient will never be alone.
“All human beings deserve dignity. The end of life is probably one of the greatest moments to be able to provide dignity to another human being,” he said.