Overview: 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 PRIVATE 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 World War II 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. Filmed with unrestricted access over the course of six months, PRISON TERMINAL follows Jack Hall (pictured) 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.”
Director and producer 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.
Expectations: As noted this was an Academy Award nominated piece. Since it is noted to be so automatically my expectations of what I hope to get out of it are on the rise. Surely there is some large emotional impact to be felt after the 41-minute documentary concludes. All of that hinges on the tone and approach this film takes. Though the clip shows a few quotes from Jack Hall and the hospice worker that does not indicate that they are interviewed throughout. It would be more impactful if it was told directly in the first person by Jack Hall and fellow inmates around him as opposed to voice over narration and some factoids up on the screen.
The subject matter of hospice care within a prison opens up opportunity to explore a number of points. It can explore compassion, redemption, forgiveness, atonement and the fear of dying; due to its Oscar caliber this film must ratchet that up three-fold. We shall see.
Gut Reaction: For those of us never in prison our image of the life and times of inmates is shaped by entertainment outlets. And since our focus is on HBO here I can use OZ as an example of, though there are more recent shows to reference for sure, the hardcore dangerous connotations we can imagine. PRISON TERMINAL shows us that that is not always the profile of every inmate in lockdown.
They are human beings. Certainly they are ones who have bad dire mistakes and it is hard to see some of them as nothing more than monsters, but they are humans first. They have hopes, memories, fears and a life story just like the rest of us. This story is about one such inmate – Jack Hall and the hospice program he in administered to while serving life in prison. Indirectly it tells a bit about the inmates who volunteer to assist the dying in the prison program. There is a sweep of emotion, mainly compassion, as we take Jack Hall through his dying days.
My hopes were actualized as full access was granted to chronicle Jack’s story. A family member even participates in his story. It is a first person account of Jack’s failing health and dying wishes. There was quite more to the story though the angle of the piece was the hospice care the Iowa Penitentiary has in place. In order for us to really invest in the compassion for Jack Hall we had to know something about him, something beyond the fact that he was a criminal. We learn that he was a decorated war hero for WWII conditioned to kill. It was a mental attitude that saw him killing the drug pusher that turned his son into a dope fiend and a suicide victim. His early life proves to be an interesting topic of its own not fully explored here because the focus was about the end of his life not the beginning.
His ending is shown in detail cared for my fellow inmates. It is a well documented case of the hospice and the need for these caring inmates, whether they are trying to redeem themselves or not, to take care of their own – right up to the zipping of the body bag. It should leave a lump in the throat for some.
In Conclusion: You can debate in the comments below about Jack Hall’s life and actions, but the point is for me is that at the end of his life he reverted back to the lost soul that he believed was being called home – bottom line. I liked the notion that the Infirmary Director notes in the film. It is required by law that an inmate’s fingerprints be inked and taken upon death but that before that body leaves the facility the ink will be removed – there is no need for inked fingers in the afterlife. There is a touch of humanity in prison; it is not all like OZ.
HBO air dates remaining are 04.03 at 11:00am; 04.06 at 5:45am & 3:15pm; 04.12 at 10:45am; 04.15 at 5;00pm and 04.18 at noon and can be found on HBO2 and HBOGo.