Erin Strecker
February 27, 2014 AT 02:00 PM EST

Come Oscar season, all cinephiles are ready to campaign for their favorite film. Are you Team Gravity or Team 12 Years a Slave? Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o? While movie fans have likely seen all the big nominees by this point, there are smaller categories where even some film enthusiasts may not be as well-versed. Leading up to the Oscars, EW will tell you all about one often-overlooked category: Best Documentary Short. Come back each day this week for a look at one of the nominees, and impress your Oscar party with your knowledge when the category appears on Sunday’s broadcast.

Today: Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, by Edgar Barens

There are many problems facing America’s prisons and prisoners. But while some are well-documented, there is the matter of what exactly happens to the inmates as they grow older and die that remains a little-discussed issue. The fact that there is no larger conversation being had about how we as a society deal with our aging prison population is part of what motivated Edgar Barens to takes viewers inside the Iowa State Penitentiary  — one of America’s oldest maximum security prisons — and tell the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner, Jack Hall, and the hospice volunteers (who are also prisoners), who help him.

“We have 1800 correctional facilities in this country,” Barens explained to EW. “75 of those have hospice programs. Of those 75 only like 20 use prisoners as hospice volunteers like my film shows. These prisoners are trained, they go through a 14-week hospice training much like people on the outside. These guys did the same thing. People came into the prison and taught them everything they needed to know about end of life care. So these guys are as prepared to deal with death as we are on the outside if we’d been trained.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you tell me a little bit about how you found out about Jack?

EDGAR BARENS: I was at the prison. I was determined to stay at the prison for up to a year. And looking back, I was only there for six months — by the time I found Jack and followed his story, he’d passed away in about six months. I found Jack by happenstance. I was in the infirmary filming. It’s a 12-bed infirmary, and two of those beds are for hospice patients. And for the first two months I was there, there was nobody in hospice. Nobody was terminally ill. If they were terminally ill they didn’t choose to be in the hospice program. They did have some long-term patients in the infirmary and Jack happened to be one of them. He’d been there for 10 years because he had heart problems and could no longer really defend himself in the general prison population. So I got to know him just as a regular patient there, and then 2 months into my stay he got pneumonia. He was already 82 years old, he always bounced back from his ailments, but this time it looked like it got the best of him. So he kind of fell into my lap by happenstance.

So you were just hanging out in the prison?

Yeah. That’s the way I work. I go in and kind of embed myself there. I knew something would happen eventually that would be perfect for the film….I just didn’t know what it was going to be. I did some preliminary stories with Jack even before he went into the hospice program – he had interesting stories, being a veteran, that background. So when he got so sick that he elected to go into the hospice program, I dedicated all my time with Jack and his family, who came in every week while he was ailing.

How much time would you spend in the prison in a given week?

I would be in the prison 12-15 hours a day. I would get there in the morning and then leave after the guys checked out back to their cells. Sometimes I’d even go back to their cells with them. I had access to the entire prison and I knew the story couldn’t just be told from the infirmary. People would want to see what the yard was like, how people were living in their cells. So 12-15 hours a day for 6 months.

Was it difficult to get permission to film in the jail?

I think if someone didn’t have my track record it would have been. Weird little dots were connecting: I made a film 10 years earlier about a hospice program down in Louisiana. And that little film was sent out to 100s of correctional facilities. Unbeknownst to me, when I went to the Iowa State penitentiary to do a more in-depth film about the same subject matter they were using my old film as a teaching tool. They knew about me, they loved this short film I made, so consequentially they said, ‘Yeah. If you want to do a longer film, a more in-depth film, the doors are open.’ As a filmmaker to get 24/7 access to a maximum security prison is an absolute dream come true. And they trusted me and knew my work. They let me pretty much shoot whatever I wanted for a year, if it took that long.

What surprised me most as you were shooting?

Apart from getting this access, it was how people eventually warmed up to me being there with a camera. The first month I don’t bring the camera out at all, just so I could get to know people and they could get to know me. Eventually, when I did bring the camera out, and I don’t know why, maybe it’s because we’re so media-savvy and stuff, people were pretty easygoing with me being in their face with a camera. And because I’d built up a friendship and a trust, it was amazing how they would allow me to record absolute personal moments. Looking back on it, the fact that Jack knew I was going to film his dying breath – it’s pretty amazing that he and his family agreed to it, knowing that maybe the film would be used down the road to help other people going through the same thing. So my biggest surprise is the compassion and the openness people received me with.

It seems like that might be a comment on our time, and how everyone is just much more aware of how to use the media.

Maybe! And they thought I was going to blow in and out. And I explained, ‘No. I’m here for the long haul.’ I’ll be here for up to a year if that’s what it takes. I loved being there and I knew it was a special time in my life but it was pretty personally damaging sometimes, just psychologically. Being in a prison, no matter how good the program you’re shooting is, is absolutely a soul-sucking place to be. It was pretty heavy. I don’t regret it, obviously. People shared their lives with me, which was a miracle, really.

Have you heard any response from the prison?

…To answer your question, no, they haven’t seen it yet as it stands. But I’m in contact with my buddies inside the walls, almost weekly because they now have email access, so we email back and forth. And I’m sending them press clippings about what’s happening and they are absolutely over the moon. The whole nomination thing they are flipping out over.

When people watch this, what kind of understanding are you hoping people walk away with?

When I started this film, I wanted to humanize these prisoners. We have all these shows that are absolute sensationalism, worst of the worst, and you’d think these prisons are all just filled with the worst humans on earth. The truth is, 95% of the people in those prisons did some stupid, horrible crime. Heinous things, too. But the majority of them are flawed but they aren’t monsters. I wanted people to walk away feeling that Jack just happened to be an inmate that I just happen to film and look at his story. They’ve done horrible things, let’s admit it, they have victims, but we can’t just throw away the key. We have to realize that we have to treat them with more dignity. Their punishment is loss of freedom, nothing more. They shouldn’t be tortured or put through agony, especially when they’re on the verge of dying. So that’s what I hope people walk away with: The fact that these prisoners are human beings, and we need to think about how as a society we are going to deal with the fact that there are many, many people getting old in prison, and many, many people destined to die in prison. And there’s a better way that they can die then what they are doing right now.

It was interesting to see all the stuff about hospice care explained. I didn’t realize how it would work in a prison.

The thing that’s unique about this program is it allows the prisoners to be loving and touching, for maybe the first time to show love to another human being. Through years and years of being in the prison, you don’t touch each other, you don’t do anything like that because of all the stigma that is attached to it. This is one of the first programs where they can hug each other, and say ‘I love you.’ It makes the healthy inmates who are involved with this program feel like they’re human again. So it has a positive effect not only for the guy that is dying, but the guy who is staying behind, which is great. There are very few programs in prison who make people feel that good.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is now in theaters, along with all the Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts. It will premiere on HBO on March 31.

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