By Sherrin Fitzer
I look at the women prisoners sitting next to me and see tears streaming down their faces as the credits role on Edgar A. Barens’ film Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall—a 2014 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Truthfully, the women’s faces are a bit blurry as I too have tears streaming down my face. He has just screened the film to a small group of female prisoners and staff who hope someday to have a hospice program in place at their prison.
Barens, the Media Specialist at the Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research at Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago, is touring the country’s prisons screening his film in the hopes that it may encourage prisons to begin hospices in their facilities.
Over the next few months Barens’ plans to go to Nevada, California, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, and North Carolina. He has received a grant from The Fledgling Fund to help him with his traveling expenses.
Barens first became aware of prison issues when he was a young boy of 10-12 years old. His family hails from Spain and his aunts and uncles were political prisoners because of their anti-Franco views. Their imprisonment affected him as well as being raised by socially-conscious parents.
Prison Terminal was filmed over a six month period at the Iowa State Penitentiary and follows the final months of prisoner Jack Hall as he is cared for by fellow prisoners and dies in the prison’s hospice program. Barens had access to the prison any time of day or night. He slept in a basement across the street from the prison in a building the prison owned.
Jack Hall was serving a life sentence for the murder of his late son’s drug dealer. His son hung himself.
Barens became very close with Jack over the six months they spent together and stayed with him until the end when he filmed his death. Barens had gone through hospice training before he did the filming. Watching Jack take his last breath and being zipped into a body bag was almost more than I could bear.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to film it.
Barens describes Jack as a decorated WWII veteran, a POW who killed hundreds of enemy soldiers when he was a mere teenager. Barens says his war stories read like a Hollywood film. He was trained as a ranger in hand to hand combat and learned 101 ways to kill a man.
Jack suffered from PTSD and had to drink alcohol in order to sleep. Barens said that up until his death he still woke up in cold sweats from nightmares.
Jack and his family expected him to have a military funeral—to be buried in a military cemetery. They bought a plot next to his wife. On their way to the cemetery with Jack’s body in the hearse, they received a call from the cemetery saying they could not take Jack’s body. Since Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma a law was passed prohibiting veterans with felonies to be buried in military cemeteries. Barens said that if Jack would have known this he would have been crushed.
The young Jack served his country as he thought he should. He was forever damaged by this experience and received no help. The only thing that helped him was the alcohol. The final abandonment by the military came after his death.
Many people will say that Jack was a murderer and did not deserve hospice nor a military burial. Although I do not condone his behavior, I certainly understand it. I believe that parents everywhere can understand wanting to hurt a person who hurt their child.
Barens’ interest in hospice began while he was working at the Open Society Institute.
Having a degree in film production he volunteered when the Institute wanted a short film made of the hospice program at The Farm in Angola, LA. This film helped jumpstart prison hospices across the country. Barens states that “right now we have 1,800 correctional facilities in the country, and only 75 hospices are up and running. And of those 75, only 20 use prisoners as hospice volunteers.”
At the end of 2013, about 270,000 U.S. inmates were 50 years or older according to The Bureau of Justice statistics. With the “graying” of our prison population, hospices are both a fiscally and compassionately sound idea.
Cindy Chang says in The Times–Picaune May 15, 2012 that “Louisiana lifers used to get out on parole after serving 10 years and six months. The law was changed in 1979 to “life means life.” Since then, Angola has been filling up with men who, barring a rare reprieve, will spend the rest of their lives there.
The pardon board only intervenes in extraordinary cases, and even then, governors are reluctant to sign the release papers, fearing a politically damaging relapse. Angola’s much-praised hospice program, where younger inmates care for the dying, was born of necessity. At an average of $63.15 a day, a lifer who enters prison in his early 20s will cost taxpayers over $1 million if he lives past age 70.”
Barens believes that hospice programs in prison have a ripple effect. They do not help only the people being cared for, but the hospice workers as well as other prisoners.
Some of the hospice workers in the film were formerly badass prisoners and when young prisoners see them now doing this compassionate work it makes a difference in their lives. Watching these prisoners lovingly care for Jack—bathing him, sitting with him—was a profoundly moving experience.
Many people will die in prison and many people will say they deserve to die alone. I disagree.
Prisoners are so much more than their crimes. They are people who made mistakes and yes in many cases truly horrible mistakes. But they are still human beings. Most are remorseful and many—even in prison—find a way to help others. Let’s allow someone to hold their hand as they breathe their last.
There are two main purposes for Barens making this film.
One is to humanize prisoners. The second is to help get as many prison hospice programs started as possible. Someday we may see Barens showing his film on Capitol Hill in the hopes of having prison hospice programs mandated across the country.
If you know of hospitals, hospice programs or prisons that may want to screen the film please let him know.
Edgar Barens (Director) received his Bachelors degree and Masters of Fine Arts in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University. His body of work includes documentary films, experimental shorts, music videos and public service announcements, which have been screened at numerous film festivals, conferences, broadcast nationally and internationally, as well as distributed educationally.
Barens directs and produces documentary films that explore the many issues at play in the American criminal justice system. Prior to Prison Terminal, 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 – the only national award recognizing filmmakers who focus on our criminal justice system in a thoughtful and considerate manner.
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.
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