In 2006, Edgar Barens went to prison every day for six months. The Iowa State Penitentiary had granted the Chicago-based film-maker unprecedented access to shoot a documentary about the prison's fledgling hospice program.
There, he met and filmed the eponymous lead of his film, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, an 82-year-old World War II veteran and convicted murderer, suffering from heart disease and pneumonia. The 40-minute-long Academy Award-nominated documentary will air on HBO on March 31.
Hall spent his last days surrounded by family and inmates who volunteered as orderlies, but most inmates who die in prison have a much lonelier fate.
Fed by the national drug war and the long sentences that accompanied it, prisons have swelled with aging inmates, but in an interview with Graham Kates, Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report, Barens said few behind bars are offered palliative end-of-life care.
The Crime Report: Tell me about filming the movie. It's usually pretty hard to get cameras into a prison for even a short time; you were there for six months.
Edgar Barens: I actually had up to a year, but in retrospect I'm glad it was only six months, because no matter how great the program is, it's soul-sucking to be inside a prison for even half a year, let alone a year.
Because it was hospice and my whole point was to follow one person going through the hospice program, and to get to know the hospice volunteers who were also prisoners, I felt like I needed a long time. When you get put into hospice (in the outside world) you usually get six months to live or so. So that's why I gave myself this huge chunk of time.
TCR: How did you get access for so long inside prison walls?
EB: I used to work at George Soros' Open Society Institute. I worked at the Center for Crime, Community and Culture — they've changed their name since then — basically, they were looking at all the deficiencies of our criminal justice system. I started as a temp, but basically I convinced the director that I could do a short film for a conference they were starting on death and dying in prisons and jails. The issue, even back in the 1990s, was dire. People were saying, “We're putting people in prison for so long, this is going to be a perfect storm,” like it is right now.
We did a short film about the Angola (Louisiana) prison hospice. Angola if you know prison history, is pretty horrible. So for them to have a prison hospice, one of the first ones in the country run by prisoners, is pretty progressive.
I shot for two weeks and made a short nuts-and-bolts film about how to set up a prison hospice. Nothing sexy, but just informative. And because George Soros has an endless budget, we were able to send it out to correctional facilities all over the country and I know that we've helped jumpstart a handful of prison hospices out there.
Fast forward 12 years and I had always felt like I shortchanged the guys in Louisiana, because I was only there for two weeks. I wanted to embed myself and really get to know everybody involved. So I started looking for other prison hospice programs. I found the one in Iowa and when I approached them, asking if I could embed myself in their maximum security prison, I was expecting them to say 'No.'
But unbeknownst to me they were using that Soros film as a teaching tool. They already knew my work and they liked it. That's how I got absolute access to this prison, for up to a year. It was like, “Oh my god.” It was a dream come true.
TCR: Now that we're at a “perfect storm” as you called it, how important are hospice programs and are there alternatives to dealing with the rising population of old inmates?
EB: There is an alternative to prison hospices, but it's never going to be used: medical parole or compassionate commutation. (These) are never used, even when a person is just days away from dying. I think governors and wardens are very wary of suddenly giving someone freedom, because they're worried that maybe somebody will suddenly rally and, you know, go on a murder spree. Statistically, it's very very unlikely, but no one wants to take that chance to let someone go because they're terminally ill.
But the situation of the elderly in prisons is pretty dire, because of our long sentencing. We have guys in there who maybe aren't lifers, but if you go in at 40 and are sentenced to 30 years, you're going to be pretty fragile by the end of your term.
I wish commutations were available, but a lot of guys don't even have biological families any more, so hospice is probably the next best thing. Not only can you stay in the prison you're at, but you also have buddies who understand what you might be going through, because they're also prisoners and they're probably also destined to die in prison.
Most of the time, prisoners (without hospice care) either die in their cells, or in an infirmary or they're farmed out to some community hospital, where they're shackled to a bed with a guard outside the door, and their families aren't allowed to visit.
Think about how it would be to die alone in your room, with nobody allowed to visit. The prison hospice actually allows family members to come in, around the clock, while you're passing away.
TCR: That was one of the big surprises in the movie, I thought, seeing family members come in to the prison. What do you think that kind of access does for family members getting ready to cope with the loss of their loved one?
EB: When my grandmother died, for better or for worse, it brought the whole family together. That's huge on the outside, and it's actually bigger in a prison, because a lot of times the prisoner hasn't seen his family for years. Even if it's at the end, it's bittersweet, but there's kind of a reconciliation possibility there with your family members.
For other prisoners, the benefit of a hospice program is huge too. In my film, you see the inmates are trained as volunteers, they're also trained as orderlies, so they're enmeshed in the day-to-day routine of the infirmary. That's unique.
There are like 1,800 correctional facilities in the country, 75 have hospice programs inside and of those 75, 20 use inmates as volunteers.
TCR: Since this movie premiered, have you heard from any other correctional institutions about interest in this concept?
EB: Yeah, I actually have, it's somewhat surprising, I've actually had correctional institutions ask about buying the film — it'll be available in July — and this is what I wanted when I made the film. I wanted to extol the benefits of prison hospice, especially the kind that I'm showing in Iowa, that uses inmates in the process.
The goal is to get this idea out there and standardized. When I get the film out there, I hope it may even change legislation to make these programs standardized. Right now as it stands, these programs are few and far between and they're very fragile. They depend on whether a warden wants to do it. And if a warden retires and a new one comes in, the program can be axed in a day.
For the program I documented, the one who started it — Marilyn, who you see in the film — she retired and when she got out of the formula it suffered badly.
TCR: One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the respect that inmates give to Jack Hall because he's a veteran.
EB: The guys in this movie are kind of old school prisoners, and so was Jack. He came in when he was 65, so he was already an elder. He had done time in other prisons before, but never for murder. So he was sort of respected right off the bat, because of his elderly status, and then everybody called him “comrade,” because of his World War II history.
He was trained as a ranger and he was in the war for three years. He was captured and escaped, and was captured again. So he came back a decorated war hero, and also absolutely damaged.
That sent him into a spiral — as it did for many veterans — into alcoholism, depression and crime.
Graham, I'm telling you, when I talked to Jack it was like watching a movie. These stories were unbelievable. But these inmates respected him because he was a veteran. Believe it or not, there was an inmate who was kind of a historian and he did all this background-checking on Jack's stories — he had all these seemingly tall tales from his time in World War II. (The historian) actually wrote a 53-page book about his battles — and they all checked out.
But we didn't pick Jack out of a lineup. He just happened to be the next hospice patient when we were there.
TCR: It seems like you ended up getting kind of lucky, because his family seemed very willing to participate in the documentary.
EB: Absolutely. If I didn't get his family on board, the film would have suffered, because for hospice to really work it has to include the family unit. Jack was fortunate, because his family lived relatively close to the prison and they had a great relationship.
I would see them every weekend in the visiting room. So I was able to build trust and was able to be there when they said their final goodbyes to Jack.
TCR: What does it mean to you, and perhaps to the cause of spreading prison hospices, that this film was nominated for an Oscar?
EB: Oh my God. The fact that there's a possibility that the film and the subject it covers might get mass attention, really is a dream come true. I was brought up in a very politically active family and when I decided to do film, I wanted to do social issue documentaries that could hopefully change a little bit of the world, so this kind of recognition and the potential of the issue getting widespread attention was just beyond my dreams.
Hopefully it will make it obvious that while hospice is a great thing, there's got to be something else we can do for this system that's absolutely broken.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.