So here’s the new project I’m immersing myself in – a different side of Crime, Ink. But first, some history.
In 1996 I was producing for ABC News PrimeTime Live. I traveled to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, site of the film Dead Man Walking and one of the most notoriously brutal prisons in American history.
Correspondent Cynthia McFadden and I were profiling Susan Sarandon, the actress who played Sister Helen Prejean in the movie, but the piece had spun away from us and we found ourselves in the death chamber at Angola, interviewing Sister Helen herself. She understood the value of a good visual.
From there, it was just a short hop – ok, a very long one - to a one-hour PrimeTime Live special on the death penalty called “Judgment at Midnight.” Cynthia and I and a very talented production team installed cameras on Death Row, including two fixed cameras clamped to a condemned man’s cell bars round the clock.
We followed him for days, finally to the door of the death chamber, where we watched him walk in. Along the way, we also interviewed his family, the family of his victims, the lawyers for both sides, the guards, and his fellow death row inmates. And we spent a lot of time with Warden Burl Cain, who gave the orders for his death, a very media savvy man who told us, “If you’re going to be for the death penalty, you ought to see the way it all happens… see it from my shoes.”
It was a profound and humbling experience. Now, thirteen years later, I’m back at Angola for a look at another kind of death penalty. This time our story takes place inside the infirmary, following the lives – and deaths – of hospice patients who’ve been given months to live because of diseases like liver failure, cancer, or heart disease. Old men’s diseases inside walls where 9 out of every ten inmates is serving life, until they die, inside these walls.
But the story is less about the terminal patients than it is about the hospice staff, the men who care for the patients until they die, then care for their successors until they die, and on and on. The staff is made up of fellow inmates, also serving life sentences. Most are killers who will now see death in a different way, up close, lingering, with plenty of time to know and develop ties to the dying. For many it is the first time they’re developing these kinds of ties to anyone, as they help feed, bathe, carry or wheel their patients around. As the end approaches, they’ll change their patients’ diapers, sit with them round the clock in a vigil, pray with them, and finally, help to bury them.
In our proposed documentary, we’ll ask questions about what that work does to someone who cared so little about life before this. We’ll ponder redemption. I’d like to think I’m going into this with an open mind. But I wonder what the preconceptions of my readers here are.
Here is the link to the five-minutes-and-change trailer that came of our trip there last month. We’ll use it to raise funds and interest, to get our project made. The documentary is tentatively titled ONE LAST SHOT. Your comments are welcome. And if anyone has a better title to suggest, we're open to ideas.
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