Friday, January 15, 2016

Severe and Comfortless and Beautiful

My sister spent the last few weeks of her life in a hospice unit in a busy urban hospital.

The staff were friendly enough, and they did what they could to make her comfortable and ease her physical pain.  She had lots of visitors.  She carried on with her work as best she could.

It was horribly depressing.  Not just because she was dying.  But because it was, in every way, a damned hospital.  Which is exactly how it looked and felt.  The staff were hospital people, nurses and orderlies and nutritionists and doctors and clergy who stopped in when called (almost never by her) or when it was time on their rounds because they were nurses and orderlies and nutritionists and doctors and clergy and they had other duties on the parts of the floor that weren't in the hospice unit and there was all the record keeping and the . . . . 

And, as I said, it looked like a fucking hospital room, with all that entails, and none of which is cheery, no matter what.  Hospice unit be damned.

So my initial reaction, just a few minutes into watching Edgar Barens' (Oscar nominated - and deservedly so) documentary following the last days of Jack Hall in an Iowa hospice was to note the remarkable irony that the hospice unit in that film seemed far nicer.  The room was brighter and cheerier, the staff more obviously caring and attentive and focused not just on Jack's medical care but on Jack, on him, as a person.

Jack's 83.  He had a heart attack in 2001 and hasn't been the same since.  After a bout of pneumonia, his breathing falters.  He can barely get across a room.  Speaking leaves him unable to breathe.  Hell, he's dying - which doesn't stop him from having a cigarette at one point.  But by then, why not?

He's also a decorated veteran from WWII, and a survivor (yes, that's a proper use of the word) of the Nazi POW's death march from the Russian front to the American front.  

He's also, and (here I get to the "remarkable irony" part) a prisoner.  Iowa State Penitentiary. Maximum security.  Locked up for 21 years.  For murder.  And the hospice is in that maximum security prison.  It's staffed by a prison nurse and, more importantly, by some of Jack's fellow prisoners.  Black guys. Themselves serving life sentences.  In the same maximum security prison as Jack (who was, his son tells us, a "segregationalist").

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is nominally about Jack, and substantively about the very idea of a hospice program in prison, what it's really about, what makes you wail and cry - especially when (spoiler alert) Jack dies, is the other prisoners.

It's the ones who made the curtains over the window and the cabinet Jack's TV sits on.  It's the ones who tack Jack's photos on the wall facing his bed.  It's the ones who lift him into the wheelchair and then into the ambulance when he goes to the hospital. The ones who change his sheets and shave him and wash him.  

Who hold his hands.  And who, when he breathes his last, hold each others' hands over his body and pray together.

 --Excuse me, I had to pause for a minute to wipe away some tears even as I type this --

Whoever they are, whatever they did . . . .

Barens' camera takes it all in.  Day by day.  He has Jack speak - not surprisingly, his words are somewhat self-serving, acknowledging while at least half attempting to justify.  One of Jack's son's is there, visiting regularly.  Talking about the quality of their relationship - developed only after Jack had been in prison for 8 years.

Jack is, ultimately, pitiful.  You can't help but feel for him; Barens sees to that.  But it keeps coming back to the others.  The ones who take care of him and care for him.  Who tell him, finally, to let himself go.  Who zip up the body bag, and then unzip so the prison guard can be sure it's the dead guy leaving at the end and not some ringer working an escape.

The camera work is steady.  Close-ups when the person is speaking to it.  More distant (two shots or further) when we're to observe.  We meet Jack with several day's growth of beard as he speaks to the camera and tells his version of the story.
Well, my name is George William Hall, nickname Jack. Me and my son was-- younger son was livin' in Quincy. That's when the old boy got him on dope. He was about 14 years old. And he finally hung himself. And one day, this dope dealer was braggin' about how he made his money. He didn't make no more. I stopped him. So I got life up here. That was 21 years ago. I'll get outta here one of these days, in a box.
We see Jack being shaved, and clean-shaven.  Close up on the face as he speaks.  So to the men who care for him, bad teeth (missing teeth) but soft-spoken, gentle in manner.

There's some pedantry when the camera steps back and on-screen text tells us that 20 percent of the inmates in our prisons are elderly, that 100,000 will die mostly alone, in their cells, over the next decade.  Barens doesn't add that this is a change, that increasingly harsh sentencing over the last 30 years or so has been turning prisons into geriatric wards.  He doesn't need to.  

The question he asks isn't how we got here.  It's what to do now.  And he shows us a compelling answer.  

Of course, the answer raises its own question.  Just what's the point of this status quo?

"In everything that can be called art," Raymond Chandler wrote, "there is a quality of redemption."

I've quoted that often in this blawg. Edgar Barens shows it to us in Prison Terminal.

* * *

Prison Terminal is an HBO Documentary, available on HBO (or HBO Now - which offers 30 day free access (as a trial - they want you to pay after that) through March of this year.

My thanks to Edgar Barens for making the film available to me.  He asks (and who am I to refuse) that I give the film's website, which I did with a link the first time I named it, and also his twitter feed (whatever that is, I don't twit):  @prisonterminal

* * *
The title of this post is taken from Mary Oliver's poem "Snowy Night." 

Last night, an owl
in the blue dark
an indeterminate number
of carefully shaped sounds into
the world, in which,
a quarter of a mile away, I happened
to be standing.
I couldn’t tell
which one it was –the barred or the great-horned
ship of the air –
it was that distant. But, anyway,
aren’t there moments
that are better than knowing something,
and sweeter? Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness. I suppose
if this were someone else’s story
they would have insisted on knowing
whatever is knowable – would have hurried
over the fields
to name it – the owl, I mean.
But it’s mine, this poem of the night,
and I just stood there, listening and holding out
my hands to the soft glitter
falling through the air. I love this world,
but not for its answers.
And I wish good luck to the owl,
whatever its name –
and I wish great welcome to the snow,
whatever its severe and comfortless
and beautiful meaning.


  1. My wife was in hospice for a little over seven weeks she had a very aggressive cancer. I can relate to your post in more than one way.

    I grew up in Wisconsin where there was no death penalty so they must have had lifers die in prison. I moved to Iowa in 1964 and shortly after Iowa repealed the death penalty so more an more of the older lifers are dying. I was surprised the hospice unit was at Fort Madison the original one was at Anamosa.

    Having the younger lifers care for the older lifers is not a new idea. We found out the hard way that LWOP means that they die inside the prison walls.

    There was an attempt to reinstate the DP but we were able to stop that. It was a bitter fight that left wounds that did not heal. There may be a few legislators left that were involved in that vote but with a mostly new set it could come up again.

    Thanks for your post. Sorry about your sister.

    1. Thanks, John,

      They always want to bring it back, but it turns out to be very tough.

      I'm sorry about your wife.


  2. Thanks for your post. I am wondering if there is any aspect of our criminal justice system that actually works as it should.

    My son was recently convicted of a crime that he did not commit. At first I thought that police and prosecutorial misconduct happened in our case only. How naive I was! Apparently, it happens all the time. What galls me is there is no penalty to these folks even when it clearly shows that it was willful.

    Thanks for taking the time to write!