Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Until I watched the documentary prison terminal I had not given much thought to what the end of life is like for a prisoner serving a life time sentence.  The Prison Terminal film was nominated for a 2014 Academy Award in the category of Documentary Short Subject and it is currently being shown in the channel HBO. 

Filmmaker Edgar Barens transports us to the inside the Iowa state maximum security prison recording how the terminally prisoner Jack hall lives his final 6 months (even his last breath). As the film evolves we meet 82 year old Jack Hall who was once a decorated World War II veteran who fought in battle and was a prisoner of war. He spent 21 years in prison of which the last 12 where in the infirmary wing.  Jack Hall’s youngest son had problems with drug use and committed suicide.  Hall was serving a life sentence after being convicted for killing his late son’s drug dealer.  When we meet him he is a debilitated man who has struggled with PTSD, tobacco and alcohol problems and who is struggling with COPD. He is aware of the short time he has to live and is resigned to die in prison:
 “I’m going to get out of here one of these days… in a box” Jack Hall

Jack Hall has the fortune of being in one of the few prisons with hospice services.  They have two hospice rooms that look similar to a standard inpatient hospice unit room. The rooms have been fully decorated with donations and furniture built by prisoners.  Hall has an interdisciplinary team with a nurse, doctor, social worker, chaplain who meet and develop care plans like any outside prison hospice patient would.  Prison hospice is different in that security is an integral part of part of his team. 

There are three inmate volunteers (Herky, Glove, and Love) who are taking care of Jack Hall.  These inmates are murderers serving life sentences in prison.  They keep Hall company, they bathe him, put lotion on him and they become their friends and caregivers. Serving as hospice volunteers for these inmates is rewarding and gives them a sense of purpose:
“When you find yourself doing a life sentence, the thought of your death comes to mind. So when the prison administration started looking for guys to do volunteer work in the hospice program I said sign me up.” Glove
“When I started hospice I thought it would be about what I could give to the patient or what I could do for the patient to make them feel better. But when you do when you do what you do; the feeling you get back from then you can even describe it. I get the feeling in the inside that for once I’m somebody that nobody thought I could be” inmate hospice volunteer

Jack Hall and inmate volunteers at bedside
Like many hospice patients Jack Hall has some unfinished business. Hall says goodbye to his friends, and establishes a relationship with his older son (who turned him in for the crime), and even manages to quip a goodbye to his doctor “see you in hell”.

When Jack gets very weak he goes in to the hospice room, his symptoms are managed and the volunteers are always by his side.   He dies and he is taken out of prison in a bag.  Due to his murder conviction he is no longer deserving of military honors, a military funeral or burial in a national cemetery.

What would have happened to Jack hall if he had been in a prison without hospice?  

He probably would have died alone shackled to his bed and struggling to breathe in his cell.

There are 1,800 prisons in the U.S. and only 75 have a hospice program and 20 of those run by inmates.   In the year 2025 it is estimated that 20% of the prison population will be elderly. These inmates have committed terrible crimes for which they are paying by serving time in prison. They are dying with many chronic conditions and should be treated humanely at the end of their lives.
Prison terminal is being shown in prisons; I hope it leads to more prison hospices being established.

I suggest you read the prison terminal press kit to learn more about how the documentary was made and more details on the people shown in the movie.

you can learn more  recent news by following the social media sites for prison terminal:
If you are interested in watching a previous documentary that Edgar Barens  did over a period of two weeks in the Angola prison hospice you can watch it on Youtube:

1.HBO documentary Prison terminal the last days of private Jack Hall accessed on 4/16/2014 at
2.Press kit and press contacts for the film Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall. Accessed 4/16/14 at
3. John Walters. HBO Documentary 'Prison Terminal' Shows the Human Side of Dying in Prison. Published by Newsweek 3/31/14 Accessed on 4/16/14 at
4. Bruce Reilly.  Terminal Illness in Prison.  Published by the LA Progressive on 03/27/2014 Accessed on 4/16/14 at
5. Human Rights Watch  US: Number of Aging Prisoners Soaring published 01/26/2012  accessed 4/16/14 at
Follow Dr. Jeanette Ross on twitter @rossjeanette

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