SERVING LIFE (TV)

Summary

This documentary film, one in a series created by the Oprah Winfrey Network Documentary Club, is about prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary who volunteer with the jail’s hospice program. The program begins as the prison, also known as Angola, is described as housing “the worst of the worst” criminals, the average sentence of whom is 93 years. The prison once had a reputation as “the bloodiest in the South” because of its excessive internal violence, but with the creation of educational programs and addition freedoms as rewards for good behavior, the violence has dropped significantly. However, 85% of the men die while inside the prison, and a hospice program was created for the men at the ends of their lives. Inmates who wish to volunteer as aides for the hospice program must apply and go through a screening process; those with disciplinary charges on their records are usually denied. Several different men explain their crimes and their long sentences, often for life without parole, and express frustration and guilt over their actions and the lives they might have led otherwise. A panel interviews the men about how they will handle issues of medical care and death and admit that they are often surprised by the men’s compassion and interest in helping. Warden Burt Cain, who created the program, explains that he wants to instill a sense of “morality” in the men and help them atone for their selfish behavior through giving. Eventually, eight men are selected as volunteers and the film follows four of them: Ratliff, Boston, Justin and Shaheed.

The four men are put through forty hours of “hands-on” training with longtime volunteers, and Boston admits that he is afraid of death. Justin is apprehensive about bathing and having intimate contact with the men’s bodies, and another volunteer comments that the two-week training process is a “baptism by fire” that tests the volunteers’ resolve. They assist in preparing a body for burial, and another man, Steven, works on a commemorative quilt that will be placed over the coffin. After the two weeks are up, the four newcomers “graduate” and are assigned their first patients. One man, Walter, has a brain tumor and struggles with issues of denial about his illness. He was convicted on several counts of sexual abuse of children, although only the nurses know his history; the inmate volunteers are not told about their patients’ crimes, as it might affect their decision or ability to care for them. As he assists the dying men, Justin thinks about the young man who died in the robbery for which he was imprisoned, and another prisoner, Albert, explains that he was convicted for a contract killing and was on death row, but was given a reduced sentence and now knows his “purpose” in life as a result of the hospice program. Elsewhere, Ratliff keeps up with his work in the construction program, and Shaheed tends to his duties as the prison’s imam, revealing that he turned to God after the death of his sons. Walter proves to be a difficult patient, and Boston struggles to assist him and remain non-judgmental. Another prisoner, Kevin, is brought to the medical center and seems to be suffering from cancer, but tests are needed for a precise diagnosis. He declines entering hospice care, however, saying that he does not want to give up.

Boston and Walter slowly begin to develop a friendship, and a man named Fred becomes increasingly ill. The others are assigned four-hour “vigil” shifts by his bedside to ensure that he does not die alone, and the four volunteers are upset as they watch him linger. Albert is allowed to attend his own father’s funeral outside of the prison and expresses his sadness that he was not able to be with him when he died. Fred passes away with Ratliff by his side, and the men are all affected by it. Kevin soon moves into Fred’s room, and his brother Roy, also imprisoned for murder, is upset to learn that his brother will likely soon die, saying that he feels guilty for not setting a better example and contributing to his imprisonment. Kevin’s tests come back and he is given two months to live, and Steven gets an idea for a special quilt for him and sets about creating it. Roy visits his brother and they have an emotional conversation about their lives and their relationship. Boston prepares for a visit from his family, including his son, whom he has not seen in nine years. He reunites with them happily, and his mother notes the positive changes in him. He explains to his son that he is in prison because of his own bad decisions but is working to improve himself and help others. Cain comments on the sense of forgiveness that can come at the end of one’s life, and Ratliff sits with Kevin as Shaheed helps Steven with the quilt. They present Kevin with the gift, and he is touched. His family soon comes, and he passes away with his friends and relatives around him. Realizing that he does not want to die without his family nearby, Shaheed calls his parents for the first time in many years, admitting that he led an “impure” life but now wants to make amends. Over time, the four men find that they have a “passion” for the hospice work and spend a good deal of time there, observing that hospice not only helps one die with dignity, but to live out the end of one’s life with love. Commercials deleted.

Details

  • NETWORK: OWN
  • DATE: July 28, 2011 9:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:24:30
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 106230
  • GENRE: TV - Documentary
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Documentary
  • SERIES RUN:
  • COMMERCIALS:

CREDITS

      Molly M. Fowler........ Executive Producer
    • Nick Stuart........ Executive Producer
    • Kristine Sabat........ Executive Producer
    • Maura Dunbar........ Executive Producer
    • Forest Whitaker........ Executive Producer
    • Jeca Taudte........ Producer
    • Lisa R. Cohen........ Producer
    • Patricia Nugent........ Line Producer
    • W.G. Snuffy Walden........ Music by
    • Burt Cain
    • Walter Chance
    • Steven Garner
    • Justin Granier
    • Kevin Hollingsworth
    • Roy Hollingsworth
    • Albert Lavalais
    • Anthony "Shaheed" Middlebrooks, Jr.
    • Ronald Ratliff
    • Charles "Boston" Rodgers
    • Fred Williams

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