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.
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.
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.