The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has the reputation as one of the toughest in the United States -- the "bloodiest prison in the South" as its inmates say. More than 5,000 hardened criminals there are serving an average sentence of 93 years -- 85 percent of them will die in prison.
Angola, as most prisons, is a place of contradictions, balancing punishment with rehabilitation and even, in some instances, redemption. Amnesty International recently kicked up some dirt on Angola by calling for the end of the solitary confinement of two of the "Angola 3": armed robbers accused of murdering a prison guard there in 1972 and held in isolation for more than 30 years. On the other hand, at Angola, prisoners eventually earn the right to wear street clothes instead of denim uniforms, sleep in dorms instead of cells and attend a Bible college founded by the prison's warden, Burl Cain.
For some of these men, there is also the chance -- and the challenge -- to serve others in the most humbling, selfless and compassionate way imaginable: shepherding their fellow inmates through hospice care as they enter their last weeks and days of life in Angola.
A new documentary directed by veteran TV news producer, Lisa Cohen, and co-produced and narrated by actor Forrest Whitaker, tells the story of four of these inmates who have signed up to work as hospice volunteers and help their brethren at the end of their life sentences. Serving Life, which aired last night on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and encores tomorrow at 11am, shows a different take on the U.S. penal system's obligation to dying prisoners -- most of whom have committed crimes such as murder, robbery, rape and drug trafficking -- and those trying to change their lives before it's too late.
"I was skeptical going in, questioning whether or not this was a big con or whether we were being played, but I kept an open mind," said Cohen in a phone interview. "But this film is ultimately less about prison than it is about people's ability to rise up and do good.
"I saw these inmates do things I wouldn't be able to do, that most of Americans wouldn't be able to do. They were immersing themselves in the blood and the smell and the pain and coming back to do it again and again every single day."
Though Angola officials keep the background information on the hospice patients confidential to caregivers, most everything else about Serving Life is an open file. The film chronicles the process of recruiting, training and turning over the care of these patients to prisoners from a variety of different backgrounds whose own sentences range from 35 years to more than 60.
The crew, who benefitted from Cohen's previous relationship with the prison through her newsmagazine work with ABC and CBS, had nearly unlimited access to the prison hospice center -- a rare thing for journalists and filmmakers. They lived in prison guest housing, ate prison food and were "flies on the wall until people got used to us and gave up their defenses," Cohen said.
Established in 1997 under longtime warden Burl Cain, the Angola prison hospice is one of the first in the country and meets the standards of civilian hospice care programs. In the film, Cain, who also oversees a large farm and work program, explains his reasoning for bringing hospice to Angola, in addition to the obvious need to treat dying prisoners humanely.
"We're supposed to correct deviant behavior, that's what corrections is. I can teach you skills and trades and I'd just make you a smarter criminal, unless we get something in your heart -- unless we become moral," Cain says in a filmed interview. "The criminal person is a selfish person who gets whatever he wants by taking it. The way to be the opposite of that taker is to be a giver; the ultimate gift is to be the hospice caregiver.
"Hospice is a test. Have you changed or have you not? This is your way to prove it."
Ultimately, the men ultimately do prove it to themselves and to the warden, learning to stroke the heads of the dying, bathe them, dress them, wash their bedsheets, offer them words of hope on their last breaths and close their eyes when they pass. Justin Granier, one of the four who is serving life in prison without possibility of probation, parole or suspension of sentence for second-degree murder, sees the hospice as the way to transcend the walls and the razor-edged barbed wire.
"By now I should have done graduated, probably started a family, living another life, but instead I'm living the most abnormal life possible," said Granier, who says he was attending college and majoring in the medical field before his incarceration. "Getting involved in the hospice program would be a resemblance of my life had I not gone to prison."
"Serving Life", produced by Odyssey Networks, a multi-faith media coalition, encores tomorrow on the OWN network. Check www.oprah.com/own for local listings.