Oscar-nominated film focuses attention on serious topic

Prison hospice worker with Jack Hall

A prison hospice volunteer prays with Jack Hall in a scene from “Prison Terminal.” Psychology Today calls the film “astoundingly tender.” Photo: HBO Documentary Films

Edgar Barens left the Academy Awards without a golden statuette Sunday, but he’s proud that his Oscar-nominated documentary has drawn attention to a difficult social justice issue.

Barens was nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category for “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.”

The winner in that category was “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a film about Alice Herz Sommer, who until her death Feb. 23 was the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.

Nevertheless, the Oscar nomination for “Prison Terminal” — a documentary about the final days in the life of a terminally-ill inmate serving a life sentence for murder and the hospice volunteer inmates who care for him in the prison’s hospice program — was a “dream come true” for Barens, media specialist in the Jane Addams College of Social Work’s Center for Social Policy and Research.

“But, just as important, is the fact that the issue I cover in ‘Prison Terminal’ will be receiving more attention than I could have ever imagined — a good thing — since the issue of end-of-life care in the U.S. correctional system is at an extremely critical juncture,” Barens said.

The documentary has been praised as “astoundingly tender” by Psychology Today.

“He has taken on what are probably America’s two least favorite subjects: prisons and death,” the New York Times said.

“It’s work that would fit credibly alongside Werner Herzog’s own recent documentary investigations into the American prison system,” said Hitflix.com.

Barens lived and worked as producer and cameraman for six months inside the penitentiary. Given unprecedented access to the entire prison, he shot more than 300 hours of footage for the documentary, which is just under 40 minutes long.

The film debuts March 31 on HBO.

“I think it’s testament to the compassion, the determination and the human spirit essential in making a prison hospice program function and blossom — especially in an environment not normally conducive to the celebration of humanity,” he said.

Edgar Barens on his way to the Academy Awards

UIC’s Edgar Barens on his way to the Academy Awards Sunday. He was accompanied by his mother.

Before “Prison Terminal,” Barens’ most significant documentary film was “A Sentence of Their Own,” which received the CINE Golden Eagle and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) award — the only national award recognizing filmmakers who focus on the criminal justice system.

Creasie Finney Hairston, professor and dean of the Jane Addams College of Social Work and director of the social policy center, supported the film’s completion as a center project.

Barens’ work has received funding from the Illinois Arts Council, the Open Society Institutes’ Project on Death in America and the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture, the Independent Feature Project, the Jane Addams College of Social Work, the International Documentary Association, with additional support from Working Films and the Blue Mountain Center.


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