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Filming “Prison Terminal” Was “Soul Sucking”

Edgar Barens, director of "Prison Terminal"
Edgar Barens, director of Oscar-nominated “Prison Terminal”

Filmmaker Edgar Barens spent a grueling six months in-and-out of the Iowa State Penitentiary– one of the nation’s oldest maximum security prisons– gathering footage for his latest filmPrison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall. In 2006, Barens, a hospice volunteer, was granted unprecedented access to the facility’s new hospice program.

The Oscar-nominated short centers on the final months of terminally ill prisoner George William “Jack” Hall and the prisoners-turned-hospice volunteers who care for him. Hall, an 82-year-old World War II veteran, was sentenced to life in prison for a 1977 murder. Hall killed a man he said he believed was selling drugs to his teenage son.

Barens, a visiting researcher with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research, spoke to Life Matters Media about his experiences working in the prison.

Should prisoners near the end of life have more freedom?

Barens: The truth is, and I’m quoting the director of the prison hospice, the gavel already dropped for these guys; the judge made a decision, they are guilty, they are in prison– that’s it. They lost their freedom, and they shouldn’t be punished any further. The freedom to die with dignity is a human right.

Trust me, it’s not fun living in prison. I could barely do it for six months, let alone for 20 years. However, I have not had a violent act perpetrated against my family, and I can understand how some people will feel differently. But as a society, I think we should strive to be better.

At the end of the day, a prison is soul sucking. There are so many prisoners who don’t know what they’re worth, so many lives wasted in cells. Not all prisoners are like the ones you see on Lockup: Raw.

Were some prisoners skeptical of hospice care?

Barens: Many terminally ill prisoners don’t want to touch hospice, because they think it’s another way for the state to force them to die, instead of doing treatments. There are inmates who will just do chemo until the very last minute. They don’t trust the state to say “you’re terminal.”

Prison hospice programs have started to lift the veil of mystery surrounding the infirmaries, because they incorporate inmates into the programs. The wall of suspicion is breaking down, and the prisoners who work with the nurses don’t see bad things going on, the rumors they’ve heard.

Instead, they see the slow decline of someone’s health. Prisoners age an average of seven years faster, because of the stresses of being in prison; a 50-year-old is considered elderly. During the next decade, some 100,000 inmates will die.

Describe your relationship with Jack Hall?

Barens: Well, the first two months I was in the prison there was nobody in hospice. Jack was a long-term infirmary patient– he was in there for 12 years, and it was by happenstance that he became the next hospice patient.

I got to know Jack when he was in the infirmary, and he would always go back to his World War II stories– he went to war when he was 17 and came back when he was 20. I think those were very formative years for him.

I realized he was damaged by the war, and he killed probably hundreds of enemy soldiers with the knife– he was a ranger, he was trained to kill. When he got back home, the government only gave him some Lucky Strikes and money, and said “forget everything you did.” So, I think Jack’s story reaches back to the war.

Many people who see the film are sympathetic towards Jack– he killed a drug dealer who allegedly got his son hooked on drugs. But I’m not justifying what he did, there’s no justification for that.

My first death as a hospice volunteer was Jack.

How did you react to being nominated for best documentary short?

Barens: It was crazy, I never in my wildest dreams thought it would go this far. I went, and it was fantastic. I took my mom, and we walked the red carpet together.

I think this issue will get a lot more attention now. I shot over 300 hours of footage, and I plan on releasing some of it online.

“Prison Terminal” is available on demand for HBO subscribers

2 Thoughts on “Filming “Prison Terminal” Was “Soul Sucking””

  1. I watched Edgar Barens’ film “Terminal” several times and felt so uplifted in his clearest revelation of “hope springs eternal” and how we all can find beauty in the seemingly strangest of places.

  2. Until you actually read the details of the case and realize that his “selling drugs to his son” story is what he told people to make them feel sorry for him. Hall and another guy were hired to kill the victim to keep him from testifying against a third party. Quite a bit different from the story they use in the documentary to make you feel sorry for him. Hall seemed like an ok guy at the end of his life but everything you find out about how he lived (murder for hire, 8 wives, leaving his son at the age of 1, lifelong segregationist ) makes you realize there are a lot of people out there that are much more worthy of our sympathy.

    Simply being a war veteran doesn’t give you a pass to live a shitty life and ruin other people’s lives.

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