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Angola movie screened at prison

A standing-room only crowd filled the main chapel at the Louisiana State Penitentiary to watch "Serving Life," Lisa R. Cohen's documentary on the hospice program at the prison.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A standing-room only crowd filled the main chapel at the Louisiana State Penitentiary to watch "Serving Life," Lisa R. Cohen's documentary on the hospice program at the prison.

The movie follows four new hospice care workers and the dying inmates they care for. By the time it is finished, subtle sounds of crying filled the large auditorium. And, when the lights went up, many prisoners were still wiping their eyes.

The movie, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whittaker, will be aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network on July 28. But on Thursday, it belonged to the men at Angola, many of whom will end up in the prison's hospice program themselves.

More than 90 percent of those incarcerated in the penitentiary will die there.

In Louisiana, life sentences for the most part carry no prospect of parole. The prison averages between 35 and 40 deaths a year.

"We bury more than we release through the front gate," said Warden Burl Cain.

Cain instituted the hospice program more than a decade ago, saying his job was to punish predators, not "dying old men."

Since then, hundreds of prisoners have been helped through their final days by a group of volunteers — inmates themselves — who do everything from changing diapers and giving baths, to holding dying inmates' hands and praying with them.

To participate, volunteers must apply and then answer questions from a selection committee. The four new workers the film follows are serving 40 years to life.

"It was very hard for the volunteers," said Cohen. "In a way it's foreshadowing their futures."

Cohen, who teaches journalism at Columbia University in New York, had shot a documentary at Angola several years ago and knew of the hospice program. She later shot a six-minute trailer of the new film, which Whittaker saw and liked. He came aboard as the executive producer, and provided hands-on support, Cohen said.

The project then was pitched to Winfrey's new network, which bought it.

"We worked on it for two years," Cohen said. "We filmed over 500 hours and that's a lot."

A second screening is scheduled Monday in Los Angeles.

The finished film runs 86 minutes and traces not only the growth of the volunteers as caregivers, but their coming to grips with the mistakes they have made and what their lives have become.

"I did some bad things," said Anthony Middlebrooks, 38, who is one of the volunteers in the film. "But with this program I can do some good things. I liked the film. I think it showed what it's really like. I think when people watch it they will have a better idea about us and what happens in here."

Inmates were excited about the network showing next week, and said family and friends were looking forward to it as well.

"My family can't wait to see it," said Anthony Diggs, 42. "They've had it marked on their calendars for months.".

Thursday's filming was also shown throughout the prison on Angola's closed circuit television.

George English, 63, who is 33 years into a life sentence and a month into hospice care with inoperable lung cancer, watched it in the hospice chapel with a group of inmates and medical workers.

"I fought coming into hospice," he said. "But now I'm glad I did. The film shows what it's like. I know I can count on them to take care of me for as long as it takes."