'Prison Terminal': Kidnappers Care for Murderers at End of Life

Film that follows gentle death of ex-POW is short-listed for an Oscar.

ByABC News
December 18, 2013, 9:55 AM

Dec. 18, 2013— -- Hospice workers gently adjust Jack Hall's oxygen tube and lovingly massage his withered hands, making sure he is not alone as death approaches.

Hall, an 82-year-old former World War II prisoner of war who is serving a life sentence for murder, has spent nearly a decade in the infirmary at Iowa State Penitentiary with a terminal heart ailment. But now, struggling to breathe, he is in his final weeks.

His unlikely comforters -- kidnappers and murderers -- are paid nothing for their hours of care-giving to a growing population of aging inmates. These volunteers do it willingly, knowing one day they, too, will be old and can look forward to a gentle end.

"Prison is cold, but death is colder," says one hospice volunteer. Another says he benefits as much from the all-volunteer hospice program as those who are dying. "For me, I'm somebody no one thought I could be."

This unique program is the subject of a compelling HBO documentary, "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," which was shortlisted this fall in the short-subject category for an Academy Award. It is scheduled to air in March.

Chicago-based director Edgar Barens lived and worked as both sound man and camera man for six months at Iowa State, one of the nation's oldest maximum-security prisons, gaining the trust of Hall and his fellow inmates. With Hall's permission, he captured the profoundly intimate moment of his death.

"The problem of prisoners dying is getting worse and worse because we are sentencing people for so long," Barens, 53, told ABCNews.com. "I wanted to show the urgency of the situation. It's a huge problem and the states are grappling with it now."

The prison population is aging as more than 200,000 elderly inmates are incarcerated nationwide. Of the 1,800 prisons, 75 have unique hospice programs and only 20 use prison volunteers, according to the film.

"Although these guys did some horrible things, they all, in some way want not to absolve themselves, but to seek some sort of redemption." -- Director Edgar Barens

Without in-prison hospice, these men would be sent off to state hospitals where they would die shackled to their beds without being allowed even a family visit.

"Apart from showing compassion, even with murderers and kidnappers, I also wanted to show that compassionate commutation or medical parole is rarely used," he said. "Many die and not as peacefully as Jack Hall."

Hospice not only benefits the dying, but their prisoner caretakers as well.

"Although these guys did some horrible things, they all, in some way want not to absolve themselves, but to seek some sort of redemption," said Barens.

Barens was given unprecedented access to the penitentiary, largely because of a film he had done on a model program in Louisiana: "Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door," while working as media projects coordinator for the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture at the Open Society Institute.

When he approached Iowa State, they had been using his short film as a training video to jump start their own hospice program. "I was flabbergasted," he said. "They gave me carte blanche in a maximum-security prison. … It was a dream come true."

The prison gave Barens housing where their doctors live and even provided a full basement for his production equipment. Barens said he stumbled across Jack Hall, a curmudgeonly but sympathetic character, who was serving time for murdering a drug dealer by cutting his throat.