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Hospice Behind Prison Walls

New film spotlights murderers caring for the dying

Prison Terminal

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is an intimate, unnerving exploration of death behind prison walls. The Oscar-nominated documentary centers on the final months of terminally ill prisoner George WilliamJack Hall and the prisoners-turned-hospice volunteers who care for him.

The 40- minute short, directed by Edgar Barens, draws from footage collected in a six-month period in the Iowa State Penitentiary, one of the nation’s oldest maximum security prisons. In 2006, Barens, a trained hospice volunteer, was granted round-the-clock, unprecedented access to the entire facility and its new hospice program.

Hall, an 82-year-old World War II veteran, was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed in 1977. Hall killed a man he said he believed was selling drugs to his teenage son.

Jack Hall, Prison Terminal
Jack Hall, Prison Terminal

But the film does not focus on his past. Instead, it captures Hall after 20 years in prison; most of it spent in a cell in the prison infirmary, after a heart attack left him impaired. A severe bout of pneumonia has caused him to rely on breathing aids.

“Why don’t you just shoot me and get it over with?” Hall quips at a nurse after she tells him he is going through inhalers too quickly. “I left you last night, literally. At one-o-clock last night I woke up and couldn’t breathe.” Each night, his door is closed and locked by guards.

Barens has described his experiences working in the prison as “soul sucking.”

“The incarceration of a loved one is also a concern, but of central importance is the ultimate dilemma faced by the incarcerated and their families– death behind bars,” Barens said in a statement. “With over 2.5 million people incarcerated in the U.S., one can readily see why dying while incarcerated is quickly becoming an enormous problem not only for the U.S. correctional system, but also for the millions of family members beyond the walls.”

Some of the most moving material involves the interactions of hospice volunteers.

“When they brought in hospice, they gave us an avenue to take care of each other,” says Bertrum Burkett a.k.a “Henry,” a 49-year-old prisoner helping to care for Hall. “When I started hospice, I thought it would be about what I could give to the patient. But when you do what you do, the feeling that you get back from them, you can’t even describe it.”

Of the nation’s 1,800 prisons, only 75 have hospice programs. Only 20 use prison volunteers.

Barens’ film reminds us that nearly 20 percent of prisoners in U.S. penitentiaries are elderly. During the next decade, some 100,000 inmates will die- many alone in their cells or chained to hospital beds.