Dying Behind Bars

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CORALVILLE, Iowa -- A cold winter sun tries to press through the clouds over the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, while the wires and fence contain the people inside. One of them, George Menter, has been here more than half his life.  When he was younger, Menter drove the fastest stock cars and broke the wildest horses.

"I was 18 when I started riding racehorses," he said.

These days, his body is frail and his hands are unsteady.

David Freeman is Menter's roommate. He was also his cellmate at a prison in Clarinda.

"So, we've been together 15 years," Freeman said. "That's a long time."

Both were diagnosed with cancer last year. Freeman has pancreatic cancer. Menter suffers from cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.  They were transferred to IMCC when it became clear there wasn't much more doctors could do for them.

Freeman continues to receive chemotherapy. Menter has refused additional treatment because the radiation made him too sick, he said.

"I told them I'm done. So they said, 'OK.'"

Menter said he has no regrets.  He doesn't regret ending treatment, and he doesn't regret committing the crime that resulted in his 45-year sentence.

"I shot my mom," he said matter of factly. "Shot her with a .22 right in the head."

He says she broke his legs when he was a toddler and told him he'd never amount to anything.  He says he'd pull the trigger again if they'd let him.

"I have no guilt to it," Menter said.

Freeman is serving a life sentence.

"They say I killed a guy. One of my best friends. It was an accident," he said.

Freeman says he was ready to die behind bars when he walked into prison 36 years ago and he still is.

"I'm ready for it. I'm ready for it," Freeman said.

As is Menter. They're well aware most people want nothing to do with them. Their own families have shunned them.

"My kids, they know where I'm at," Freeman said. "Once in a while, they'll write."

Menter said he feels as though people condemn him because he shot his mother. And many probably do, but not Kim Jeraco.

"I don't judge. I don't judge," Jeraco said. "You know, we've all made mistakes."

Jeraco oversees the IMCC Hospice Program, which was launched in 2002. It is funded entirely through donations and fundraisers.  The goal is simple, she says.

"Dying with respect, honoring their wishes, as much as we are able to within a prison setting," Jeraco said.

George Menter

George Menter

Jeraco views herself as a facilitator between staff, in charge of things like security and administering medications, and volunteers who provide emotional and physical comfort.

"And they are each other's family," Jeraco said.

Jon Schiefer is one of those volunteers, all of whom are doing time themselves. Schiefer is serving a 25-year sentence for burglary and sexual assault. The volunteers don't get paid for working in the hospice program, like they do at their other prison jobs, and they must undergo 20 hours of training.

"I always ask, 'Why do you want to do this?' And the majority of the time they say, 'I want to pay it forward because someday I'll be in that bed.' They know that," Jeraco said.

Schiefer said it also makes him feel important.

"It takes the focus off myself and it is gratifying just to see somebody else need me because we don't get a lot of that here," he said.

Right now, Freeman and Menter need him.

"It means somebody cares," Menter said.  "It means someone is going to be here when I'm ready."

George Menter has since passed away after being interviewed in December. He died Monday.