During her first months as a nurse at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Tonia Faust felt uncomfortable.
“It’s in your mind that (the inmates) are the worst of the worst,” Faust, 39, said. “They’ve done horrible things.”
Then the prisoners surprised her. They acted polite, they opened doors for her and treated her with respect — something she said she received little of as a nurse in nursing homes outside the barbed wire.
“It was in my mind at first,” she said, “but then you realize, they’ve done something horrible in their pasts, and they’re here, but they didn’t act out or act disrespectful to me or anything.”
Working as a registered nurse within the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary is far from ordinary. As Louisiana’s only maximum security prison, the penitentiary houses more than 5,100 inmates, and, according to prison statistics, 97 percent of them will never leave prison — 75 percent are serving life sentences, and for those eligible for parole, the average sentence length is 93 years, according to Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden.
Faust and the medical staff treat some of the state’s toughest prisoners, often with outdated equipment, under the constant supervision of guards. Yet Faust and others say they love their jobs.
“It’s a good state job. It’s a good work environment,” Faust said. “We all work together to get it done.”
Faust, a prison nurse since 2001 and a hospice nurse for the past year and a half, is featured along with nursing supervisor John Russell in “The American Nurse Photographs and Interviews by Carolyn Jones,” a book of black-and-white portraits and interviews with nurses from across the country. Jones started the project because “nurses need recognition from the public.”
Angola’s hospice program attracted Jones to Faust, who then recommended she interview Russell, too.
“The respect both of them showed toward the inmates was amazing,” Jones said. “Everybody is pretty much equal to them.”
The shift work-style schedule at the prison hospital attracted Russell, 53, to the supervisor job in 1995 after years at Baton Rouge’s Earl K. Long Medical Center. Seven days on, seven days off provides him plenty of time to spend at his home in rural Grant Parish. He sleeps at a house within the prison gates while at work.
It took Russell two to three years to stop feeling nervous about working with prisoners, he said. He started while the prison still carried the moniker “the bloodiest prison in the South,” when fights may have ended with one prisoner getting a 45-pound weight to the face, or a disagreement in the fields meant an inmate swinging a tractor disc at another prisoner.
A change in prison philosophy caused a noticeable difference in the types of wounds Russell saw. Inmates feared losing their hobby shop time more than punishments that had traditionally been doled out, he said.
“You watched it. Prisoners started figuring out (if) we behave ourselves, we can keep these privileges,” Russell said. “I watched these changes go on. I even watched them come into the hospital and not want to stay in the hospital as long.”
While violence still occurs, Russell said, and nurses still see prisoners attempt suicide, “major trauma with inmate on inmate has really slowed down a lot.”
After he became comfortable working with prisoners, Russell became a leader among the medical staff, said Faust, who recommended Russell be included in the book of photographs.
“He knows his business,” Faust said. “He knows his equipment and he knows what to do. If I go down, I want to open my eyes and see John over me taking care of me.”
Repairing old machines is part of Russell’s expertise. Much of the medical equipment — suction equipment and IV drip monitors — is second-hand, he said, and the inmates will help keep it functioning. Once batteries wear out, they hook up extension cords, something rarely seen in hospitals outside the barbed wire.
It helps to be “part engineer” to work at Angola, he said.
For two years last decade, Russell left Angola to return to Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge. Surprisingly, he said he felt less secure there.
“You just don’t have the security with people just walking in off the street,” he said. “Somebody is going to be disgusted with the speed in which something is happening. After being in here where there is nothing like that going on ... .”
On the outside, he had to do so much heavy lifting, moving 400-pound patients from a wheelchair to a bed. Orderlies — prisoners who have earned a job in the hospital — are more than willing to help him.
“My back is bad, bad from six or seven years of doing that. … I’ve got big, strong guys. I may have to bring a couple of pounds of hamburger meat once a month,” he said, while mimicking the act of making hamburger patties. “If that’s what it takes to keep ‘em feeling special.”
Nurses at Angola must be cautious about building relationships with prisoners.
“You have to be a certain kind of nurse to fit into the mold up here,” Russell said in “The American Nurse.” “You can’t get too attached to the inmates — that is frowned upon.”
Faust, who cares for prisoners at the end of their lives, gets to know inmates on a different level.
“I won’t sit here and say that I won’t cry my eyes out every time I lose one,” she said. “It’s hard. ... It’s very sad, but it is very rewarding.”
Jones, who interviewed and photographed Faust, said that Faust shows a level of empathy that few “mortals” have.
“She doesn’t want to know what anybody did,” Jones said. “She just wants to care for the patient.”
Early in her career, Faust worked in nursing homes and “I’ve been slapped around, kicked, wrestled to the ground, running after people. But as long as I’ve been here, it’s been a good work experience,” she said.
Old age and the death process often mellow even the most hardened prisoners.
“I’ll hear, in their younger days, they were something,” she said. “I get them and they are crying, and they’re telling me their life stories, and it’s sad. A lot of them had hard, rough experiences growing up. I get a different side of them than what they were before.”
Hospice volunteers help care for the dying, and money raised from the popular prison rodeo helps buy little things for hospice patients — M&Ms and grapes and other small treats.
Earlier this fall, the prison allowed Faust’s 14-year-old daughter to accompany her to work as part of a job shadowing program at her school. While her daughter became convinced she did not want to nurse, the prisoners’ demeanors impressed her.
“I let her walk around with me, and she was just amazed,” she said.
Often people ask Faust how she can even talk to prisoners, some of whom murdered someone, or care for people who committed violent acts.
“My response to them is that I’m not here to judge them or condemn that,” Faust said. “They’re in here for their crime. Just like they’re in here, I would take care of someone in the street the same way. Everybody deserves to be treated well.”
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