Friendship Behind Bars

Over 20 students, faculty and guests gathered in Lecture Center 104 for an afternoon screening of filmmaker Edgar Barens’ documentary “Prison Terminal” on Thursday, Oct. 1. Sponsored by the sociology department at SUNY New Paltz, the documentary was screened in conjunction with “Beyond the Bars,” an art exhibit on display in Catskill, New York featuring artwork by people who were incarcerated or about incarceration from the Hudson Valley. Barens was present for a question and answer session after the screening.

According to assistant sociology professor Alexandra Cox, who organized the event, “Prison Terminal” addresses a fast-growing problem many prisons are currently facing as a result of mass incarceration and extended prison sentences from the ‘70s and ‘80s;  prisoners with life sentences, or “lifers,” aging and dying behind bars. Many of these inmates die alone in their cells, or are shackled to stretchers and rushed to the hospital, when they realistically pose little threat to others.

The poignant, cinema verité-style film follows the last few months of the life of Private Jack Hall, a decorated World War II veteran who was sentenced to life in prison for murder at the Iowa State Penitentiary. At 82 years old, Hall suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The inmate elected to spend the last days of his life in the penitentiary’s hospice program, a unique program for the elderly and ailing behind bars. The program offers comfortable accommodations and physical, mental and emotional support from volunteer inmates, who are specially trained during 14-week hospice volunteer training courses to deal with ill patients and incumbent death.

Barens, who works with the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, began this project on his own as a labor of love in 2006. He struggled to obtain funding for the project and even with backing, it took him nearly 10 years to finish making the film. After six months of filming inside the prison, the filmmaker had collected over 300 hours of footage, according to his website. Most of his production days lasted 12 to 15 hours, during which Barens established life-long friendships with inmates, hospice volunteers and infirmary employees at the penitentiary.

To film “Prison Terminal,” the filmmaker was granted 24/7 access to the Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison, for a full year.

“This was truly an unprecedented amount of freedom,” he said.

Authorities at the prison had seen Barens’ previous work about a similar hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and wanted to continue his mission of promoting these programs, which are still rare even almost a decade after Barens filmed this documentary.

“[Iowa] was actually using my previous film as a training tool at their hospice 10 years later,” he said. “They knew me, they knew my work and they trusted me.”

Yet Barens had to obtain the trust of inmates and employees at the prison, too. He spent his first two months gaining this trust; in fact, for his first month at the prison, the filmmaker said he left his camera at home.

“For someone, an outsider, to suddenly be given that much access to a prison … not everyone was friendly to me,” he explained.

With Hall’s permission, Barens was able to document every moment of the inmate’s ending life, from his slow decline in health to his eventual death in the hospice program.

Cox chose to screen Barens’ film because it shows some of the beautiful things that can happen behind bars. Popular media vilifies prisoners, creating an inclination to treat them as animals. “Prison Terminal” beautifully conveys some of the intimate and tender friendships that can blossom between incarcerated men, she said.

Audience members concurred, sharing their emotional reactions to the redemptive and rehabilitative qualities of volunteer hospice work for inmates. Barens said that prisoners have very few opportunities to physically touch each other, especially men. The fact that volunteers at Iowa’s hospice program could touch each other and show this tenderness and friendship were vital to the program’s success and significance.

“In prison, you’re whittled down to zero, and you stay that way,” Barens said. “I think this program, above any other program [at the prison], worked on so many levels to really humanize inmates and make them feel like they’re actually worth something.”