Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Serving Life

by Lisa R. Cohen

Two weeks ago I traveled to Louisiana's maximum security Angola State Penitentiary. It was almost exactly two years since I'd begun Serving Life, the documentary that aired last Thursday night on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Back in July of 2009, months before OWN decided to fund the film, before Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker came on board as Executive Producer, I first went to Angola to check out their inmate hospice program.

There I met the inmate volunteers who staffed the program and I was skeptical - it seemed too good to be true. Murderers - serving life sentences - were caring for their dying fellow inmates. Washing their bed-sore covered bodies, changing their diapers, holding their hands while they took their last breath. It was the other side of death, not the one at the end of a sudden muzzle flash, but the slow and wrenching kind, leaving plenty of time for hard reflection.

It's a volunteer position; the inmates have regular jobs that come first. So there's a lot of burnout, and the hospice coordinator planned to pick a new class of volunteers from among the ranks of the prison's 5,100 inmates. I asked if we could follow along, from the application interviews through the selection through the training, and their first patients. This way, we could watch for ourselves to decide whether it was a con job. The prison said yes.

Two years passed, during which time I was there, off and on, and then on and on, with a skeleton crew of producers and camera men (and one amazing and nimble woman) who flew in from New York. One cameramen was local - an inmate named Sean Vaughn, whose innate talents blossomed over the course of production. He himself is serving life.

They say time passes slowly in prison, but it did pass. We met the incoming class of volunteers on a freezing January day, the record-breaking, coldest day in years. They seemed to be wearing every piece of clothing they owned, and with good reason.

We watched them train in June, and their T-shirts gave us continuity problems. So did the sweat that beaded up on their faces as they concentrated on practicing feeding, bathing and changing the sick, elder inmates in the hospital wards before graduating to actual hospice patients.

Angola is, well, let's just say unique, as prisons go. It's 26 miles of acreage, a huge former plantation bounded on three sides by the Mississippi. Most of the wardens, guards and other staff actually live inside the prison, in a town with its own post office, swimming pool, baseball diamond and 9 hole golf course (called Prison View).

At Angola, they decorate big time for holidays. Life size Uncle Sam cut outs and fireworks (yes, fireworks) on the Fourth of July, turkeys with crepe paper tails at Thanksgiving, and Christmas lights strung from the guard shacks. You can't fail to notice the seasons passing by. We were there for all of the major holidays, except Easter. I imagine there were brightly colored eggs, and the staff's children probably had a hunt.

Our team lived at the prison as well, in a series of small guest houses built to accommodate the endless stream of visitors who pass through Angola. The one we spent weeks in overlooked a small lake, and alligators occasionally skirted the dock, making us more nervous than any of the "trusty" inmates who wandered freely, carrying out their farm duties - raising cattle, fishing the lake.

And we filmed. Hundreds of hours at the hospital, in the inmate dormitories late at night, the cafeterias during meals, the churches and the workshops, the college classrooms and the inmate basketball court. But mostly, we filmed in the hospice, tracking the new volunteers' progress.

There was the ambivalent "Boston" who juggled doubts about his work with anxiety over his nine-year old son's impending visit, a son he'd never met. The convicted murderer Justin, who was serving life for being at the scene even though he hadn't pulled the trigger. The "three-strikes-you're-out" lifer Ratliff, who also helped care for his older brother at the hospital, a Crohns patient. And Shaheed, who very late in the game disclosed the tragedy in his life that had helped him change his way of thinking. They all proved my skepticism wrong.

Two years passed, including 4 plus months of filming, half a dozen deaths, 4 months of edit, and more late nights than I thought there were in a lifetime. The film was finished, and we wanted the inmates to see it. It felt very important. I flew down for the first time in many months and on a very hot July day, hundreds of inmates streamed into the prison's main chapel, along with Warden Burl Cain and many of his assistant wardens, several guards, and other staff.

I was nervous. More so than I'd be the next week in Los Angeles, at a private invitation-only screening filled with, among others, the new Co-presidents of OWN, Forest Whitaker and other media muckety mucks. There I'd have to get up and join Forest in a Q&A afterwards.

But this was harder. We'd followed these men around, shoving a camera in their faces for months, as they cringed, cried and peeled back their layers - something tough guys in prison never do. Then we'd thrown out 99.9% of it, shaped the remaining .1% into a dish of our own making, and now it was going to be projected up on the giant white wall at the back of the sanctuary. Not to mention broadcast nationally the following week.

Luckily I sat in the front row where I couldn't see anyone's face. It was very quiet, but I was thrilled when the audience laughed in all the places I'd hoped they would. It's hard to believe, but we'd worked very hard to include the humor - which there is in every part of life, especially the toughest parts. The AP reporter who covered the screening wrote afterwards that the room was also filled with quiet sobbing - I was too far away to hear for myself.

But afterwards the Warden spoke briefly. "It's incredible," he said, visibly moved and teary himself. "Many of you have a chance to change your lives, and this says you can do it... And
you're worthy of this film. You're worthy of what the public is going to think about you.... My encouragement to you is, you have a legacy. And you can't betray it. You can't betray this hospice program. So you just got to live it... We can't be counterfeit, and if we do, then we desecrate what you just saw. And we can't do that. So it draws out the best in all of us."

A lot of very positive reviews followed, including the Washington Post, New Orleans Times Picayune, and others. But the Warden's comments - those were the most rewarding I've gotten so far.

Serving Life encores this Wednesday night, Aug 3, at 9pm and then again at midnight. See the trailer here, and find out where it's showing in your zip code.


DrGina said...

What an inspiring project Lisa. Congratulations on a wonderful piece of work.

Mary in Austin said...

I was lucky enough to see your documentary the first time it was shown on OWN. It was fantastic in so many ways. Thank you.

Jonas in NOLA said...

Congrats, Lisa!