Nearly 20% of prisoners in U.S. penitentiaries are elderly. Over the next decade, approximately 100,000 inmates, many serving life sentences, will die alone in their cells. As a result, some prisons have created hospices that enlist inmate volunteers to care for these terminally ill prisoners.
Oscar®-nominated this year in the category of Documentary Short Subject, PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF JACK HALL goes behind the walls of the Iowa State Penitentiary, one of America’s oldest maximum-security prisons, to tell the story of a terminally-ill WWII veteran serving a life sentence for murder who resides in an on-premises hospice unit staffed in part by fellow prisoners. Showing how the hospice experience can profoundly touch the lives of the incarcerated, both those nearing death, and those who may find a measure of redemption in caring for inmate patients.
In 2005, the Iowa State Penitentiary created a hospice program funded by private donations and prisoner contributions. Two infirmary rooms were set aside for terminally ill prisoners and set up by six inmate volunteers, all serving life sentences, who were specially trained to care for the dying. Director of nursing Marilyn Sales calls the hospice unit “a labor of love” for inmate volunteers, who work five days a week, ten hours a day caring for patients.
Filmed with unrestricted access over the course of six months, PRISON TERMINAL follows Jack Hall and the hospice volunteers who care for him. One prisoner volunteer says he feels good helping others, noting, “For once, I’m somebody that nobody thought I could be.” Likewise, the experience can have a deep impact on the ill prisoner. Don Skinner, Hall’s once-estranged son, visits him in prison throughout the final days of his life and believes the prison caregivers have changed his father. “It's you guys that have shown the compassion to my dad,” Skinner says. “And my dad ain't the guy he used to be.”
Filmmaker Edgar Barens has made documentaries, experimental shorts, music videos and PSAs. For the past ten years, his documentaries have explored issues in the American criminal justice system, and prisons across the country now use his work as teaching and training tools.
PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL was directed, produced and photographed by Edgar Barens; edited by Geof Bartz, A.C.E.; co-edited by Gladys Mae Murphy. For HBO: coordinating producer, Greg Rhem; senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.