THE END-OF-LIFE SENTENCE
A Conversation with EDGAR BARENS, the Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker of PRISON TERMINAL
By Tyler Malone
Edgar Barens” Oscar-nominated documentary short Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is a heart-wrenching look at a dying murderer. Jack Hall came back from World War II a war hero, but also as a drunk with killing engrained in him. By the time we meet up with him in Prison Terminal, he has been in prison for over two decades and he is dying behind bars.
Though there is little that can be said is lucky about this situation, Jack Hall is actually in luck. He is lucky that he is incarcerated in the Iowa State Penitentiary where private donors have set up two hospice rooms in the prison”s infirmary. Many prisons do not have hospice centers, and most elderly prisoners die alone in their cells or in the infirmary. Prison Terminal is the story not only of Jack Hall”s life sentence, but also his end-of-life sentence. It asks us questions about what the convicted felons who are dying in the slammer deserve.
Do they deserve nurturing care and humane treatment? As murderers, kidnappers, and rapists, you may think they do not. You may say that they didn”t allow their victims to die with dignity, so why should we let them? Prison Terminal responds with its own question: Shouldn”t we be better than them? Can”t we allow them to die in peace so that their end-of-life sentence is a bit more humane than their life sentence?
I spoke with Edgar Barens about hospice care behind bars, about prison reform, about his phenomenal short film, and about the upcoming Academy Awards.
Tyler Malone: Tell me a little about Prison Terminal and who Jack Hall is.
Edgar Barens: Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is a moving documentary that breaks through the walls of one of Americas oldest maximum security prisons to tell the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner, Jack Hall, and the hospice volunteers, they themselves prisoners, who care for him.
The film draws from footage shot over a six-month period behind the walls of the Iowa State Penitentiary and provides a fascinating and often poignant account of how the hospice experience can profoundly touch even the forsaken lives of the incarcerated.
Jack Hall is a WWII Ranger, POW, and decorated war hero, who at the age of 65 was involved in the murder of a local drug dealer. Jack”s youngest son, at the time, was taking drugs, so Jack felt this murder was somewhat justified. The murder landed Jack a life sentence at the Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) a maximum security prison. Years later, Jack’s son succumbed to drug addiction and committed suicide.
TM: How did you hear of his story and when did you decide to make a film about him?
EB: Two months into my six month stay at ISP, Jack Hall, who was a long-termer patient, had taken ill with double pneumonia. And while Jack was resilient most other times when this occurred, this bout took it’s toll on him more so than in the past. After a few weeks in the infirmary, Jack made the decision to sign the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) form and enter hospice.
I got to know Jack prior to his hospice days, as I got to know many of the prisoner patients who were either there for a short period with a temporary ailment, broken arm, stab wound, or the long-termer elderly patients who were in the infirmary for more chronic conditions.
So prior to his hospice days, I taped interviews with Jack and got to know a lot of his back story, mostly war stories and some stories about his crime and family dynamics. I really never thought Jack was going to be the focus of the film, but after his bout with pneumonia, it became clear that he was the person I was going to follow through the hospice process.
I got his permission to follow his story until and past his dying breath as I did from his family members who would visit him on a weekly basis. Jack was fortunate to have a loving and understanding family who also allowed me to film their most poignant moments with their ailing patriarch.
TM: The film makes a pretty good argument for why the type of hospice care offered in the Iowa State Penitentiary should be made available in prisons all over the country. Was your goal to advocate for that cause or did you just want to tell a story and let people take from it what they may?
EB: One of the primary reasons I made the film was not only to humanize the prison population and offset the mind-numbing prison show crap most Americans watch broadcast on a daily basis, but also to extol the benefits of this particular prison hospice model.
I wanted to use one man’s personal journey through hospice as an example of how such a no-to-low-cost program could be used throughout our correctional system, and not only provide dignity to a dying person but also generate rehabilitation and compassion among the prisoners themselves.
I much rather use the personal story and all its emotions and poignancy to generate social discourse on an important issue, than make some facts-and-figures type film that could prove to be a disservice to the cause through the use of mind-numbing stats and impersonal footage.
TM: You made another short film on prison hospice care titled Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door. What is it about this topic that has made you want to revisit it over and over again?
EB: Well for the Angola film, I was really only in that prison shooting for 2 weeks and I left feeling like I short-changed the guys in the program by not really getting to know them. So fast forward ten years later, and I find a new prison hospice program relatively near to me–five hours from Chicago–that was implementing the prisoner-run aspect of the Angola prison hospice.
So I went over to ISP to propose a long-term embedding of a documentary filmmaker into their prison so I could truly focus on the men and women that made their hospice program run. Unbeknownst to me, ISP had been using my earlier film as a teaching tool for their prisoner hospice team. So when I showed up at their door, they already knew my work, trusted me, and basically gave me an open door policy, 24/7 for up to a year to the entire prison, not only the infirmary. A dream come true for a documentary filmmaker!
So my desire to get to know the prisoners, nurses, doctors, administrators, security personnel came true and for six months I was a 12-to-15 hours a day fixture in the prison. On a side note, I ate meals inside and outside of the prison, consequently I gained over 20 pounds during my stay at ISP. A running joke I had with the guys inside who were always jabbing me about my sudden weight gain!
TM: What do you think hospice care programs like the one at this Iowa prison do for the prisoners (both those that are passing away and those that help in the passing)?
EB: It guarantees that the dying inmate will NOT die in pain by providing palliative care until their final breaths. It also guarantees to the dying prisoner that they will not die alone. For even if they have burned bridges with their biological family members, they’d have the certainty that there would be a prisoner hospice volunteer at their side as they passed away. A HUGE difference to how most dying occurs behind bars in this country.
For the prisoner hospice volunteers, the benefits of being involved in the program were ten-fold. Not only were they trained as hospice care takers, but they were also trained to be orderlies in the infirmary. So to have such trusting position within the prison system was absolutely life-changing for these men. And to have the trust of the medical staff and security staff was also a HUGE move forward for the entire prison!
Eventually, these men who were trained as hospice volunteers performed the ultimate in compassion as they sat with their dying buddies until their final breath. Not all deaths are pleasant, some are ugly and emotionally troubling, but these men pushed through and did what most people would never think about doing.
TM: What do you say to people who think that these criminals don”t deserve to be cared for this affectionately in their dying days? People who might say that we are giving them a better and more dignified death than the ones they forced on others?
EB: I am asked that many times and I simply say we, as a society, need to be better than these men were when they committed their crimes. We must rise above the vengeful tendencies, realize that their punishment is their loss of their freedom and not more torture behind bars. Therefore, to provide these people, most of whom did pretty horrible things to other people, care and compassion during their dying days is something a civilized society must do.
TM: I know you are an advocate for various aspects of the American justice system. What other reforms would you like to see in our prison system besides just the addition of hospice care?
EB: I think education should be brought back to the prisons as a true form of rehabilitation. It is sad that society balks at paying for the education of the prisoner while at the same time bitches about how much it costs to keep these people behind bars for years and years. And when these people do leave prison, with no education and no rehab to speak of, we expect them to survive and vilify them as they return in large numbers back to the prisons where they came from!
I think great programs, which are few and far between, can be seen in the Bard Prison Program that can boast of almost a zero recidivism rate for graduating prisoners. Funny, Governor Cuomo, just today, asked to spend $5,000 per prisoner for education–something that, if done, will ultimately change the way these men and women return to society and prosper!
TM: Where were you when you heard you were nominated for an Academy Award and what was your reaction?
EB: I was screening at Irvine International Film Festival that day, but that morning I was watching the announcement live from LA on TV and I also had my laptop on to the Oscars site. I started getting congratulatory text messages from friends and family during the broadcast and was weary at first because I thought everyone had jumped the gun. Needless to say, I forgot to refresh my laptop screen, so when I did the list of five nominees went up and I basically starting weeping as the phone and texts started rolling in. It was an amazing morning.
TM: Though the shorts categories are notoriously unpredictable, from all I”ve read on the topic, you seem to be the frontrunner for the documentary short category. Will you be going with a speech prepared?
EB: I will have a list of certain people I want to thank, in my tux pocket, just in case I blank out. But I’m much better winging it when it comes to speeches. Though the factor that 1 billion people may be watching, may make me want to wing-it less.
TM: What do you think winning the Academy Award would do for you and for this cause?
EB: Already the notoriety of being nominated has catapulted this issue into the forefront more than I could ever have imagined. If I am fortunate to take the Oscar, then the issue will absolutely move into the public eye and psyche at even greater heights. Again, a dream come true for a social issue documentary filmmaker!
For me, should I win the Oscar, I think it will be easier to make films on topics that most people don’t give a second thought about, without having to compete for funding that is increasingly difficult to secure. Also, and I’m not too sure this is totally true, but maybe I won’t have to work as a phlebotomist at the local plasma bank, or as a used car salesman to finance my next film!
Edgar Barens is a filmmaker nominated for an Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards for his documentary short Prison Terminal.
Prison Terminal will broadcast on HBO on March 31st, 2014.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of HBO
Design by Francesca Rimi
Photography Courtesy of HBO