Thursday, December 19, 2013

Prison Terminal: Kidnappers Care for Murderers at End of Life
Short-Listed for Oscar, Film Follows Gentle Death of Ex-POW

Dec. 18, 2013

Hospice workers gently adjust Jack Hall's oxygen tube and lovingly massage his withered hands, making sure he is not alone as death approaches. 

Hall, an 82-year-old former World War II prisoner of war who is serving a life sentence for murder, has spent nearly a decade in the infirmary at Iowa State Penitentiary with a terminal heart ailment. But now, struggling to breathe, he is in his final weeks. 

His unlikely comforters -- kidnappers and murderers -- are paid nothing for their hours of care-giving to a growing population of aging inmates. These volunteers do it willingly, knowing one day they, too, will be old and can look forward to a gentle end. 

"Prison is cold, but death is colder," says one hospice volunteer. Another says he benefits as much from the all-volunteer hospice program as those who are dying. "For me, I'm somebody no one thought I could be." 

This unique program is the subject of a compelling HBO documentary, "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," which was shortlisted this fall in the short-subject category for an Academy Award. It is scheduled to air in March. 

Chicago-based director Edgar Barens lived and worked as both sound man and camera man for six months at Iowa State, one of the nation's oldest maximum-security prisons, gaining the trust of Hall and his fellow inmates. With Hall's permission, he captured the profoundly intimate moment of his death.

"The problem of prisoners dying is getting worse and worse because we are sentencing people for so long," Barens, 53, told "I wanted to show the urgency of the situation. It's a huge problem and the states are grappling with it now." 

The prison population is aging as more than 200,000 elderly inmates are incarcerated nationwide. Of the 1,800 prisons, 75 have unique hospice programs and only 20 use prison volunteers, according to the film. 

Without in-prison hospice, these men would be sent off to state hospitals where they would die shackled to their beds without being allowed even a family visit. 

"Apart from showing compassion, even with murderers and kidnappers, I also wanted to show that compassionate commutation or medical parole is rarely used," he said. "Many die and not as peacefully as Jack Hall." 

Hospice not only benefits the dying, but their prisoner caretakers as well.
"Although these guys did some horrible things, they all, in some way want not to absolve themselves, but to seek some sort of redemption," said Barens. 

Barens was given unprecedented access to the penitentiary, largely because of a film he had done on a model program in Louisiana: "Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door," while working as media projects coordinator for the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture at the Open Society Institute. 

When he approached Iowa State, they had been using his short film as a training video to jump start their own hospice program. "I was flabbergasted," he said. "They gave me carte blanche in a maximum-security prison. … It was a dream come true." 

The prison gave Barens housing where their doctors live and even provided a full basement for his production equipment. Barens said he stumbled across Jack Hall, a curmudgeonly but sympathetic character, who was serving time for murdering a drug dealer by cutting his throat.

"Jack had another son who committed suicide because he was strung out on drugs," said Barens. "He was out drinking with buddies and overheard one guy brag how he made money selling drugs to kids. With his mental frame of mind as a soldier, he thought of the guy as scum and had to kill him." 

Hall says in the film that he had been "trained" to kill in hand-to-hand combat as an Army Ranger. "And when he came back from the war, they gave him a carton of Lucky Strikes and fifty bucks," said Barens. "Jack tumbled into alcohol and was destroyed by the Army. He was damaged goods."
Iowa State's 30-year nurse administrator Marilyn Sales told that the film "brought tears to my eyes." 

She launched the hospice program in 2006 with a handful of inmate volunteers. At first, they were resistant to the idea, but soon they "put their heart and souls into it." 

"I called the cell house and asked them to send over five lifers who were trustworthy," said Sales, 69, who is now retired. "I knew it wouldn't work without the inmates. They came over grumbling, then we popped the ["Angola Prison Hospice"] tape in and there were just tears."

When she asked if they could handle it, three said yes. "For two of them it struck too close to home," she said.  "I knew that without them, we couldn't have a viable hospice program," said Sales. "I didn't want it to come from outside the institution." 

Hospice volunteers get a 14-week training course, learning "assistance in daily living." They work as orderlies in the 12-bed infirmary, change bedding, providing companionship, delivering food, and feed the ill and injured. Two of the rooms are reserved for the dying who receive 24/7 personal care and unlimited access to family.  "I think it's their way of giving back," she said of the volunteers. 
The program is financially self-sufficient with furniture made in the prison workshop. Local hospitals donated beds and quilts and other bedding provided by a local church. Lap blankets were knitted by a women's group. The inmates themselves buy videos for the hospice program.
Dying men like Jack Hall deserve the dignity of hospice, Sales said. 

"Jack was a cantankerous old coot for years," she said. "Jack was Jack and couldn't help [but] like him. His reason for a life sentence was very compelling. He righted what he saw as a wrong." 

Hall spent about six weeks in hospice, the only patient during most of the filming. Then a second prisoner, a 45-year-old dying from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, was admitted, but he was not part of the documentary because he was unable to speak.

Sales answers critics who say those who have committed violent crimes don't deserve compassion: "We have to be better at caring and compassion for people," she said. "They are paying the price by being in prison. They can't choose what they eat, what they wear, when they go to bed and when they wake up. When the gavel drops, it's a life sentence. It's over." Sales said hospice should be mandatory in all prisons.

"I am not the judge and jury," she said. "There but for the grace of God go I. One bad decision, one stupid mistake and you are there for life. No one should die alone." 

"Prison Terminal" will have its world premiere at the Irvine International Film Festival in California. Oscar nominations come out Jan. 16. 

Edgar Barens is currently a media specialist at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Copyright © 2013 ABC News Internet Ventures

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What people are saying...

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall challenges preconceptions about inmates and prison life in surprising and hopeful ways. Barens reveals the heart of humanity beating loud and strong within the harshest environments.

Faced with living and dying inside, the inmates we meet have chosen to live in community with one another. The commitment of the inmate hospice volunteers – and the competence and reverence with which they provide care – shows that dying people’s comfort and dignity can be preserved even in the least desirable situations. Our society could learn a lot from the example they set. A triumph of documentary filmmaking!
Ira Byock, MD, palliative care physician and a Professor of Medicine, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth; author of Dying Well and The Best Care Possible.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall transcends classification; it is more than a film about prison, and suffering or death.  It is a deeply layered story of how the human spirit overcomes the greatest fear of all prisoners - the degradation and isolation of dying alone in prison. This stunning film helps us to gain compassion for those that we both fear and ostracize. 
Susan Rosenberg - Human rights activist, adjunct professor, award-winning writer

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall shows us both the pain and the humanity of life behind prison walls. In doing so, it gets beyond the day-to-day politics of crime and punishment, and challenges us to think about how we can bring out the best in all of us, even those who may have committed terrible acts in their lives. 
Marc Mauer - Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and author of Race to Incarcerate
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is an insightful and sensitive documentary. Barens, given a rare opportunity to film within the correctional institution, makes the most of this opportunity. Viewers will undoubtedly marvel at the profound working relationships between prison staff and inmate volunteers.
Russ Immarigeon - Editor of Offender Programs Report

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Oscars: Eight Documentary Short Subjects Make the List

Forty films were submitted, and three to five of them will earn nominations.

October 10, 2013 - The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' documentary branch has selected a short list of eight documentary short films that will compete for the 86th Academy Awards.

The eight films were chosen from 40 eligible entries. Three to five films will be nominated in the documentary short subject category when nominations are announced Jan. 16

The eight films, listed in alphabetical order by title, with their production companies, are:
CaveDigger, Karoffilms. Jeffrey Karoff's film tells of Ra Paulette, an artist who digs cathedral-like caves in the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico.

Facing Fear, Jason Cohen Productions. Jason Cohen's directorial debut centers a gay man, who was attacked by a gang of neo-Nazis as a teen, and encounters one of his attackers 25 years later. 

Jujitsu-ing Reality, Sobini Films. Chetin Chabuk's documentary focuses on a screenwriter, Scott Lew, dealing with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Karama Has No Walls, Hot Spot Films. Yemeni-Scot filmmaker Sara Ishaq looks at one tragic day during the 2011 Yemeni revolution.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Reed Entertainment. Malcolm Clarke's film is a portrait of 109 year-old holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer, who offers her views on how to live a long and happy life. Clarke, along with Bill Guttentag, won the Oscar in this category in 1989 for You Don't Have To Die.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, Prison Terminal LLC. Shot over a six-month period at Iowa State Penitentiary, Edgar Barens' doc looks at the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner.

Recollections, Notrac Productions. Nathanael Carton's film concerns survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

SLOMO, Big Young Films and Runaway Films. Joshua Izenberg's film follows Dr. John Kitchin, a neurologist who abandons his career to take up rollerblading along the Pacific Coast.