Oscar-Nominated Film Explores Prisoner-Staffed Hospices

Oscar-Nominated Film Explores Prisoner-Staffed Hospices 3

Jack Hall under hospice care the Iowa StatePenitentiary.

Edgar Barens directs and produces documentary films that explore many issues in the American criminal justice system. Prior to Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, Edgar’s most significant documentary film was A Sentence of Their Own, for which he garnered the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award. Barens’ work has received funding from the Illinois Arts Council, the Open Society Institutes’ Project on Death in America and the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture, the Independent Feature Project, the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the International Documentary Association, with additional support from Working Films and the Blue Mountain Center. He is a Social Documentarian at the Jane Addams Center for Social Policy & Research, University of Illinois at Chicago, and  received a BA and MFA in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University.  

By Edgar Barens

Three years ago I was making plans to walk the red carpet with hopes of bringing home the Oscar for my documentary Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall. The film covers the tough subject of dying while incarcerated.

While my documentary did not garner the much-coveted gold statuette, what I have been doing with my film after leaving Hollywood with my nomination has been more rewarding than the Oscar in ways I never imagined.

You see, I’ve been screening my film at prisons across the country, taking the idea of prison-based, prisoner-run hospices to correctional facilities— and I hope bringing change to a corrections system challenged by properly caring for their terminally ill.

We all know the statistics about the rate of  imprisonment in the US compared to the rest of the world, and it’s nothing to be proud of. For being the Land of the Free, we have more people behind bars than most other countries combined.

One statistic currently seeping into our collective consciousness has been the growing number of elderly people populating our prisons. Whether attributed to harsh sentencing practices or tough-on-crime policies, the sad truth is our correctional system remains unequipped for this silver tsunami that quickly swells on the horizon.

As our prisoners age and succumb to disease,  the system is failing to provide them with a dignified death while incarcerated. Many would ask why do we need to provide dignity in death for people who may not have had the same concern for their victims? To them I simply say as a society we need to be better than these people when they committed their crimes; a notion that is tough to swallow but painfully necessary if we are to move forward as a civilized nation.

In my Oscar-nominated film, I follow prisoner Jack Hall, an eighty-two year old WWII veteran, from his initial terminal diagnosis to his final breath. Jack was unfortunate in that his final days were destined to occur behind the walls of the Iowa State Penitentiary, the oldest west of the Mississippi. But by the same token he was one of the fortunate few prisoners to die in a prison hospice program, one of a handful that exist within the eighteen-hundred correctional facilities that dot our nation.

Oscar-Nominated Film Explores Prisoner-Staffed Hospices 1
Edgar Barens

Most terminally ill prisoners either die alone in their cells or offsite at a state or local hospital, shackled to a bed with a guard outside their door. No visitors allowed. Unlike most civilized countries, the US correctional system does not routinely grant compassionate commutation. Consequently, the creation of prison hospice programs is even more pressing as over 25% of all US prisoners will be elderly by 2020.

I made Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall to spread the good work of prison hospice and to ease the apprehension many correctional facilities have about starting a hospice with prisoners trained in end-of-life care.

Yes, there are certain rules that need to be bent and new security concerns to be addressed. But as the few prisons who’ve adopted such programs can attest, the benefits have been paid back ten-fold. Not only do the patients receive extraordinary end-of-life care, but the benefits ripple throughout the prison, changing ever so slightly the character of the institution.

For the bean counters out there, the good news is that this type of program costs little to nothing to implement, saving the taxpayer the expense of unnecessary medication when quality of life versus quantity becomes the deciding factor.

For many prisoner hospice volunteers the program has allowed them to be loving and compassionate. Caring for another human being redeems them in ways no other rehabilitation program can. The vast majority feel they are finally giving back with kindness and concern for the damage and destruction they left in the wake of their crimes.

My 50 Prisons in 100 Days Tour ended up taking more than  18 months to accomplish. I screened the film at over 50 prisons and many more universities, colleges, community hospice centers and towns around the country. Outreach on films of this type can be grueling and economically challenging at times. But when you hear through the grapevine that such-and-such prison just started their own hospice and your film was the catalyst—it’s all worth the effort.