Film Review: OWN TV’s “Serving Life”

An inmate-staffed hospice program in one of the roughest prisons in the U.S.

A still shot from "Serving Life"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.”

Dying inmate at Angola State Prison, from "Serving Life"

An inmate comforts a dying friend

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.

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12 Responses to Film Review: OWN TV’s “Serving Life”

  1. avatar Peggy Juneau says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this film. One on the hospice workers admittedly murdured someone who I knew very well and grew up in the same small town as her in Louisiana. To see him vunerable, regretful, and truly sorry for his crime touched me and in some way, honors my friend. It is remarkable what these men are doing in this program and I praise the Warden for implementing such a program. Everyone needs compassion and dignity when dying and everyone deserves it.

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  2. avatar Tiffany McColl says:

    The feedback we’ve already received here at SevenPonds from those who had the chance to see Serving Life last night is truly touching. Can’t wait to see it for myself. Thanks, Antal!

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  3. avatar Antal Polony (Contributor, SevenPonds) says:

    Thanks so much for reading. I very much enjoyed writing on this movie — highly recommended.

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  4. avatar Resheena Phinazee says:

    This was the best documentary ever… so moving and touching. In the begining of the show as the underscore displayed the crimes the inmates were convicted for I cringed. By the middle of the show I no longer focued on the underscore but the person.The volunteers provided care to the sick and shut in with such compassion and love. As the viewer I felt the volunteers receive that “ah-ah” moment , that it could be them laying in that same bed dying. Regardless of their circumstance they are still in a much better place. This documentary proves that regardless of years of bondage, hardship, hurt and pain, God can change our circumstance, heart and mind for the best in a blink of an eye. Breathe taking and life changing EXCEPTIONAL !

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  5. avatar Crystal says:

    Why would these people volunteer for prisons over something like Male-aWosh foundation or other foundations/charities for he terminally ill?

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  6. avatar Antal says:

    It’s the prisoners themselves who’re volunteering. Certainly not your typical hospice volunteers I would imagine. Big tough dudes with street names learning the importance of caring — pretty poignant stuff really.

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  7. avatar cynthia baniassad says:

    i’d like to be able to write to either boston or the man with his little brother dying of cancer. anyone know if that’s possible?

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  8. avatar Miss Guided says:

    Would you really describe the look in Boston’s eyes as insolent? I beg to differ. I see the soul of a man that’s been redeemed. I await the broadcast of a re-run. I think you should tune in also. You apparently missed something the first time.

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  9. avatar Teresa says:

    I watched this last night and wow!!this was truly an amazing documentary. I am starting soon to volunteer in a hospice near where I reside and I scared but so ready to do something to comfort someone in so much pain. It sucks the volunteers are in prison as I am a single 35 year old and I really believe watching this I just fell in love with “boston”. Is there any way to send a letter to him or to get in touch directly!

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  10. avatar Marco Rodriguez says:

    Boston, Charles Rodgers Boston. Would like to know if is possible to send letters or perhaps one day visit him in prision.

    Thank you

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  11. avatar Sabrina Stubbs says:

    I recently watched the heart felt film and i particular gained entrance in the life of (Boston) Charles Rodgers. If possible i would like to know if i could someday write him! 7

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  12. avatar Tisha Shepherd says:

    I would like to write to Charles “Boston: Rodgers however I am not sure how to get in contact with him

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