Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana has a long held and justly deserved reputation as one of the roughest prisons in the United States. With over 5,000 inmates and 1,000 prison employees, it is the largest maximum security correctional facility in the nation. Seventy-one percent of inmates are serving life sentences. According to Louisiana’s draconian justice system, there is hardly any hope at all that any of them will see freedom again. They will grow old, and they will die in Angola.
So it’s strange yet undeniably heart-warming to see that this troubled place has instituted the nation’s most successful prison hospice program, staffed almost entirely by inmate volunteers.
“Serving Life,” an 87-minute documentary directed by Lisa R. Cohen and narrated by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, aired on July,28, 2011, on Oprah’s OWN TV Network, and was the first original documentary produced by the network. The film focuses on the experiences of four inmates who volunteered and were accepted as caregivers in Angola’s hospice program. They passed a rigorous screening test to do so, and were then subject to a provisional period where they were watched closely by a mentor to see whether or not they could cope with their charges. Not all of them succeeded.
These are not your typical hospice workers. Says Warden Burl Cain, “This is the worst of the worst inmates,” a fact the film elucidates constantly. Each time an inmate speaks to the camera, his name is underscored by his crime and sentence. They are hard men, to be sure — murderers, armed robbers and rapists, nearly all of them. It’s all the more touching, then, to see them working with their patients with such care and feeling. There’s real empathy in their actions. The viewer can sense the hospice volunteer seeing and appreciating their own mortality. When one of his charges breathes his last breath, one of the prisoners comments reverentially, “It could be me lying in that same bed. Me and him are serving the same sentence.”
The most compelling subject, to this viewer’s mind, was Charles “Boston” Rodgers, an armed robber with a 35-year sentence and the hard eyes of a man who might well have done a whole lot more than that which he was arrested for. In the film’s beginning, he carries himself with something like an air of insolence. He’s become a prison minister, but so have many other Angola prisoners, encouraged by Warden Cain’s enthusiastic religiosity. But Boston breaks down when faced with his first “vigil” at the bedside of a dying man. He’s visibly shaking, and has to remove himself to the prison yard. “I’m not a robot, I can’t just turn off my feelings,” he admits.
He does better with his next one. And when his wife and 9-year-old son, who Boston hasn’t seen since he was 10 months old, come to visit him, she seems honestly surprised to see him shrugging off her attempts to share the blame for his actions. “He’s lost the attitude,” she says with disbelief.
“Serving Life” is not a particularly well-made film. Its quasi-religious, one-note message of redemption and change from within, begins to feel like a public service announcement after a while. Sometimes the prisoners come off as disingenuous, perhaps shining it on for the camera and scoring points for good behavior. But at the same time, some of them really do seem to be changing due to their work, really becoming better people. “Something within you gonna open up, or else, you’re not human,” one of the volunteers says. It is nearly impossible not to believe him.