What can compassion do? Squelch rumors, train volunteers, and provide support at the California Institution for Women
In 2015, women at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona were traumatized by a sudden and unexpected death of a women in the Housing Unit who was very dear to all of us. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) housing, medical and responding staff all handled this death efficiently and sensitively. The Program Office called me, a program leader in our newly begun Compassionate Companions Program (CCP), to be present when the roommate of the recently deceased woman was informed. All of the community rallied to help those who reacted most strongly to this death. What became even more critical was to immediately squelch the rumor mill that the roommate did not inform staff quickly enough, or even that the room- mate was responsible for the death of her friend. A rumor partially inflated when staff followed procedure in placing the roommate in handcuffs while escorting her to medical for a routine evaluation. This poor roommate was traumatized by finding her friend unconscious.
I gathered all the CCP members in Unit A and asked them to help squelch this bogus and dangerous rumor, soliciting support from our housing staff. The CCP members were fantastic and within 24 hours the whole rumor mill had been put to rest. Each CCP member gave examples of how they squelched the rumors—in the medication line, dining hall, everywhere. This was a huge step in creating a culture of caring, empathy and cooperation at CIW.
To some, the concept of prisons and compassion seem opposed. Prisons are not easy places to live. There is so much internal struggling for power and dominance among prisoners, staff and protocols. But if ever a system needed more compassion, it would be the prison system where nothing, almost nothing, is given kindness or consideration.
The creation of Compassionate Companions Program here at CIW seemed initially to be a far-fetched, altruistic illusion in 2014. But with a little vision on the part of some administrators, a Compassionate Companions Pro- gram was begun. The purpose of CCP as authorized by then-Warden Hughes is to provide clearly defined support and compassion for fellow prisoners who are experiencing any serious illness, grief, loss or other catastrophic—emotional experience. Trained CCP volunteers maintain vigil for prisoners at end of life so they do not have to cross that thresh- old alone. The intention is to uphold their dignity and ease their suffering. The CCP does not provide crisis counseling nor does it replace nursing or medical care, but it does offer listening, companionship, letter-writing, and a broad range of support and friendship within the constraints of CIW regulations.
The Compassionate Companions Program is a nationwide program that provides training to community members—outside of prison as well as inside. Our initial volunteer group of 35 people at CIW received significant hours of training in palliative care, suicide and bullying prevention, and relation- ship/consensus building. Over the past few years, we have been able to train a series of new volunteers to continue the work. With clearance from administrative staff, CCP volunteers are able to visit with people at the end of life, those who have chronic illnesses or disabilities and are living in long-term care units, and throughout all of our housing units to help work to create a supportive community.
At the request of Mental Health Ser- vices, CCP members were asked to assist a woman who had recently received a terminal diagnosis. We went to see her after clearing our visit with housing staff and were able to provide support for her in several ways. We accompanied her to regularly scheduled medical visits and assisted in getting her immediate com- fort and needs met. She was having difficulty walking and needed a wheelchair, but prison bureaucracy was moving very slowly. She got a wheelchair that very day with CCP volunteers advocating for this basic necessity. The patient needed an increase in her weekly allotment of Depends. Once nurse was made aware of her dilemma, she got two more boxes that day and they promised to keep her supplied. We also reviewed her wishes for this last stage of her treatment.
She wanted to remain in her housing unit for the time being, and this was practical although not popular among staff. We supported this wish, and she was able to stay in her unit. We provided emotional support for her anxiety about her future.
She also asked for assistance in expediting her petition for compassionate release which her oncologist had written, but not in correct CDCR format. We accompanied her to a visit with the Chief Medical Officer who would make the final decision. Her release was approved and processed within a few days. These are classic examples of the ability of our Compassionate Companions Program group to sup- port one another and to bring a culture of change in a system that is generally insensitive, steeped in dominance and unaware of individual needs. We look forward to continuing to train new volunteers as needed and keeping this positive program going at CIW.