Friday, July 1, 2011

Defining Features

by Lisa R. Cohen

For the last two years, I’ve been in and out of prison. I’m out now, and have something to show for it – a documentary film I directed and produced called “Serving Life” that will premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on July 28. I’ll be writing about it in my next few blogs. It’s been two years in the making, and I’m mighty proud of our small production team’s heroic efforts. You can watch the promo for it here.

The film, executive produced and narrated by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, led us to the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola, aka “the Alcatraz of the South.”

I happen to have been to Angola many times in the past, and I know the place better than many. The 26 mile property, contained on three sides by the Mississippi River (except when it floods the levies there as it did last month) is an unearthly world unto itself, a throwback to a long ago time when Angola actually was a plantation, worked by forced emigrés from the African nation it was named for.

My first visit to the maximum security prison was over 15 years ago, and when I arrived this time around, on a sweltering July day, for a week of preliminary shooting, some things had changed. Since the ‘90s, under the current Warden, Angola has had so many outside visitors, they’ve built guest cottages on the premises. So this time we literally moved into the prison. Every morning we’d leave our cozy four bedroom cabin, overlooking a lake filled with with cedar stumps and sinister looking alligators, and head to the prison hospital.

There, tucked away in a corner of a chronic care ward, a group of inmates staffed the prison hospice. Day after day, these volunteers walked the chain length enclosed path from their dorms to the hospital, to wipe a dying man’s fevered brow, change his diaper, and, finally, to hold his hand while he takes his last breath. It’s a burn-out job. In fact it’s not a job at all, it’s all-volunteer. At Angola inmates work every day; the volunteers come to hospice before and afterwards. So it’s no surprise there’s a constant need for fresh recruits.

Our mission was to follow a new crop of inmate volunteers–watch them get picked, get trained, and then find out whether they were up to the task. If a hardened criminal can be taught to perform the ultimate act of compassion, what excuse do the rest of us have?

By last summer we were in full production. That meant weeks on end watching as these men tested themselves. What they learned about themselves, we did too, and the results were both chilling and life-affirming.

The first day at the hospital, I met probably a few dozen inmates. They all looked exactly the same to me, even though at Angola they dress in street clothes, a kind of informal uniform of jeans and colorful t-shirts that advertise the various prison clubs they belong to. But their faces all blurred together, impersonal, hard-lived, and I could only identify them by their charges–murderers mostly, armed robbers, a heroin-lifer, and multiple drug offenders.

As the days passed, though, personalities emerged, and pretty soon these men defined themselves–by their past criminal acts, their current struggle to redefine themselves, and their hopes for the future. (And they all maintain hope, even the ones who are destined to die at Angola, perhaps in a hospice bed.)

I met their children, their sisters, their brothers (some serving time in another part of the prison). I watched them recoil with disgust as they started training, but then come to embrace the most grueling parts of the work. I watched them make each other laugh– and me too–because that’s what you do in real life even in the darkest times.

I spent this week filming on the start of another venture, just the first days of a long, long haul. On Monday I sat in a room in Nashville and listened as a group of women bared their painful pasts. On Monday they all looked the same to me, just like Robert and "Animal" and Stephen did two years ago.

But by yesterday, as I said goodbye and headed for the airport, I’d begun to know their stories of courage and survival. These women were taking shape to me, and their message was that much more powerful. It made me realize, once again, that this is why I do it. And that getting the chance to pass on those stories can make us all a little more human.


TNelson said...

I took a minute to watch your trailer for the documentary. Very moving, powerful stuff that will be hard to watch but I've put it on my schedule. It might become "must watch" for those young people just entering a life a crime? It might make them think twice. Thanks...

DrGina said...

Wonderful work! Look forward to reading more and watching the film.