Is it true that bad people get bad experiences and good people get good ones? I have been arguing against this bit of conventional wisdom for quite a few years now, claiming that there is simply no evidence to support it.

The view  that good gets good and bad gets bad is an outgrowth of “what everybody knows,” or the conventional wisdom. Every known culture is loaded with these conclusions that people get what they deserve, the assumptions that have shaped human thinking for thousands of years: the dutiful person will be rewarded and the wicked punished, the diligent worker becomes rich and the idle is destined for poverty, prosperity is given to those who do right and catastrophe befalls the wrongdoer. If you routinely kill the biggest antelope or own the big house in the best neighborhood, it must be because you deserve it; the guy eating prairie dog or struggling along in the trailer park must live wrong.

Right? Well…wrong.

We all know of situations in which that simply doesn’t hold up. But the conviction remains. Ask a half-dozen people at the post office or supermarket what kind of people they think would have a distressing near-death experience. One recent comment is that “Some people seem to have hellish experiences for no apparent reason, but most have done evil things…The distressing NDEs I’ve seen have been by males who were bullies and a female who was atheist and an agnostic.” So, not only are they seen as people who do evil things, they are atheists and agnostics as well. No conscience and no God or spirituality. Wow.

Into this scene comes Marilyn Mendoza, a Louisiana woman with a PhD in counseling and a curiosity about what it is like to die in prison. She also wondered if the deathbed visions of dying felons might be especially difficult. So far as anyone knows, deathbed visions differ from near-death experiences only in the fact that their experiencers don’t come back afterwards. Otherwise, the descriptions are virtually identical. Mendoza’s findings are therefore applicable to the study of near-death experiences and are reported in the latest issue of the IANDS newsletter, Vital Signs.

Her study population is housed at Angola, one of the most notorious of U.S. prisons. In her words, “Angola is a maximum security prison that has been called the bloodiest prison in America. It houses 5,000+ men whose crimes range from murder, rape, and armed robbery to drug offenses. The majority of men who come to Angola die there. Prisoners, like many of us, not only have a fear of dying alone but have an even greater fear of dying in prison.”

This is a population almost guaranteed to produce distressing experiences of all types. Not only have they all “done evil things,” but they approach dying in great fear. And as Mendoza puts it, “What better population to explore the question of who is likely to have distressing [experiences] than a population of murderers and rapists?”

One humane quality that makes Angola exceptional is that it is one of seventeen U.S. prisons to have a hospice staffed by inmate volunteers. It was they who provided the information for Mendoza’s research. What she discovered was this:

“Twenty-nine inmate volunteers were interviewed with a range of experiences with the dying from five months to 13 years…Volunteers were asked, ‘Of the dying you have been with, have any of them talked about unusual experiences or seeing people, places, or things that you could not see?’ Twenty-six of the 29 volunteers said ‘yes’…not everyone had [one] that they were aware of, but the vast majority of the men did.”

I am adding the emphasis in this next paragraph:

As is common with most people, the majority of the [experiences] the caretakers described were pleasant. The most frequently seen visions were of family members. Caretakers reported that the dying saw mothers, grandmothers, sons, fathers, and other family members. The dying spoke of people waiting for them and calling them to come home. They told the caretakers about waiting for a bus and walking through a gate. One even spoke of seeing family coming to get him in a Cadillac. The dying also spoke of angels, beautiful gardens, gates and the Light. The men stared at corners of the room, at the wall and the ceiling. They reached for and called out to the deceased they saw. In other words, the dying prisoners saw and experienced the same things as the general population.

“The inmate volunteers did talk about some patients who were bitter and angry until they took their last breath. They were angry at everyone and everything, but especially at death. Only one account was given for a distressing experience for a patient.

I say it again, with renewed confidence:

There is not a shred of evidence that good people get good experiences and bad people get bad experiences. The conviction that types of NDEs and deathbed visions are tied to moral qualities and behaviors simply does not hold up. If it’s true at Angola, it’s true enough for me.