Whether unpacking the moral debate occasioned by capital punishment or finding larger meaning in the prison rodeo, documentary filmmakers are often quite at home behind the razor wire of America’s high-security penitentiaries. They love the prison milieu and enjoy unlocking the many complicated stories that lurk behind bars.
Too often, it seems, the camera’s presence has a sentimental, “Shawshank”-ian effect on both filmmaker and inmate, leading to a mawkish overload on certain redemptive themes, which are supplied by subjects too willing to move viewers (and themselves) to tears. For a skeptic, it can feel like a warm-up for the next parole hearing.
But this is not the case with “Serving Life,” a tender and evenhanded portrait of inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary — known as Angola to most — who have volunteered to provide hospice care to inmates who are sick and dying and at the literal end of their life sentences without parole.
“Serving Life,” which airs Thursday night on OWN, has much to teach us about the concept of compassionate care. Directed by Lisa R. Cohen and co-produced and narrated by actor Forest Whitaker, the film challenges our fixed ideas of what is owed the dying prisoner. The hospice volunteers and patients in “Serving Life” have committed crimes that include murder, armed robbery, rape, and selling drugs. Should they rot in prison for the rest of their days? It happens — one bedsore at a time.
The longtime warden, Burl Cain, says he has been moved by observing the kind of care his inmates are capable of giving one another. Hospice, Cain says, “is a way to die with your family. This [prison] is your family. . . . Hospice is the chance to prove — have you changed or have you not?”
Angola, infamous for its brutal history, has seen violent incidents drop 73 percent in the past decade, we are told. This dovetails with the advent of hospice and improved health care in the prison, but also other communal upgrades. The Angola seen here often appears as a tranquil, intentional farm cooperative — growing the food it consumes, paving its roads; its denizens attend Bible college and work to gain enough trust that they are allowed to wear jeans and hoodies instead of uniforms.
Cohen’s camera follows four volunteers in the prison’s hospice unit as they receive training and care for their first patients. The rookies include a murderer, an accomplice to murder, a bank robber and a drug thug.
Even in an alternate world such as Angola, death becomes universal. Anyone who has ever had a loved one tended to by a benevolent hospice worker will recognize the gentility, hard labor and rewards of the hospice way. The men learn to bathe and dress their patients and clean up their foul diapers and sheets. They hold the hands of the dying, stroke their heads, give them a shave, rub lotion on painful limbs.
Ronald Ratliff, who is serving a life sentence under Louisiana’s “three strikes” law, tells the hospice selection committee that he wants to become a hospice worker as a way to show that, after all the wrong he has done, “I do still care for people. [My mother] raised me right.”
Like many a prison documentary, “Serving Life” finds a lot to like in these criminals. What will move one viewer may anger a different sort of viewer, who believes a con is always a con. Even the inmates on the hospice team are kept in the dark about their patients’ criminal history, so as to be free of the tendency to judge one another. Thus, an armed-robbery convict nicknamed Boston is assigned to care for a cranky pedophile with an inoperable brain tumor. Working against factors of age, race and temperament, a friendship is nevertheless formed, and death is faced with newfound dignity.
“Serving Life” is another treat in what has turned out to be a bright summer of documentaries on cable networks and public television. Ratings-wise, things may not be going so great for Oprah Winfrey’s fledgling network, but I hope some of the programming fixes she and her executives have in store don’t include abandoning her “documentary club” concept. So far, OWN’s choices in this category have been top-notch. We need fewer reality shows and more reality.
(two hours) airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on OWN.