GALO: The scene in which Jack is suffering respiratory failure and must go to the emergency room showcases the extremes the State will go to follow rigid protocols. At the age of 82, unable to walk, having already spent 11 days in hospice, Jack is placed in an orange prison jumpsuit, chained and handcuffed, before he can be taken for emergency medical care. As a filmmaker, was there any time at which you wanted to intervene and demand that Jack be treated differently? If so, how did you overcome those urges?

EB: As a filmmaker who was allowed to go into this world — and that was an absolute privilege — I had to play both sides of the wall. I had to be accepted by the correctional staff — the security staff and the doctors and nurses — as well as accepted by the prisoners. The prisoners knew I was there to make a film about a program that was going to help them, because most were lifers in that prison. I didn’t have a problem warming up to or being accepted by the prisoners. It was very difficult at times to warm up to the staff. They didn’t necessarily want to work with me, because they are absolutely not used to having a camera in a correctional situation. So, I was plunged into the situation and, as a filmmaker, it was a dream come true, and I realized that I had to follow all these rules. You have to. It’s absolutely life or death in there.

You’re right — I saw Jack going through all this stuff but there was no way I could’ve intervened. They have rules and regulations, and even though Jack clearly couldn’t probably get out of bed or run or murder somebody as an urge, there was nothing I could do. As a filmmaker with a political edge, when that scene was happening in front of me, I saw the inhumanity of it all, but I also realized that this is something that most people probably wouldn’t like to have happened either. And I thought it was a great moment, because we can all see the ridiculousness of it but also the rules and regulations of why it has to happen. So I thought, as a filmmaker, this is a perfect moment of, “Oh, my God, are you kidding me? This guy can’t even walk and you have to chain him before he can even leave the place.” It’s a great scene. At one point, the scene wasn’t in the film and I thought it was going to be a huge loss, and then it came back. I couldn’t put myself in-between Jack and the administration, because I would’ve been asked to leave — and that would’ve jeopardized the entire film.

GALO: Were you trying to bring a raw understanding of prison life to the American discourse?

EB: One of the reasons I made this film is that a lot of people don’t even think twice about people dying behind bars. I was telling family and friends before I even started making this film what the film was about, and they were taken aback. I think the fact that some of us can get in there and show what people normally don’t see in sensational television programs… I think the majority of people think that everybody in prison is a sensational monster murderer, but, for the most part, 90 percent of people in prison have all done horrible things — that is for sure — but they’re not these monsters that we see on these sensational shows that we see every day.

GALO: You note at the beginning of the film that 20 percent of U.S. prisoners are elderly, and over the next decade, 100,000 inmates serving life sentences will die alone in their cells. Michel Foucault wrote that in order for the duration of a punishment to be useful to the guilty, it must also be useful to the society at large: “They must be able to consult at each moment the permanent lexicon of crime and punishment. A secret punishment is a punishment half wasted.” And yet this subject — the ongoing incarceration of the elderly and dying serving life sentences — is nearly absent from public discourse in America. Is there a time and place when life sentences cease to be useful to either the prisoner or society?

EB: I think that time is coming now. The sad thing about U.S. society is that we’re so hell-bent on punishment. I understand that. I understand why victims want their perpetrators in prison as long as possible, and if they have to die, let them die a horrible death in prison because they killed my family member. The truth is, I think, because of our sentencing — and harsh sentencing — and the fact that we are incarcerating so many people in this country, the crap is hitting the fan now when it comes to this elderly population growing. It’s a perfect storm — they’re all coming to this age where it’s going to cost a lot of money to keep them alive and behind bars.

As a society, I don’t think we are as forgiving as we could be — it’s rare that the system uses commutation or medical parole to let these guys out — and it’s going to be that way for a long time. That’s why I felt like this hospice program is the next best thing for these guys dying alone or shackled to some hospital bed. At least with this program, they can die with dignity. And that is a tough nut to swallow. A lot of people that watch this film can’t even believe there is a program like this, because they believe these guys deserve more than loss of freedom. They deserve to be punished even further behind the walls. But that’s not true. That’s not fair — because the punishment is loss of freedom. It can’t be any more than that. And that is a tough nut to crack for a lot of people.

GALO: The title of your film, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, draws attention to a theme running throughout — Jack’s service to his country in World War II. A three-time decorated war veteran, Jack is hailed a “warrior hero” behind prison walls, and your camera repeatedly zooms in on faded military photographs and a tiny toy soldier. And yet, he seems to be forgotten by the country he served so valiantly. Is U.S. incarceration of war veterans — who are taught, as Jack tells viewers, “how to kill and kill quick” — inherent to Jack’s generation, or do you foresee a similar pattern emerging with the return of our veterans today?

EB: I know Jack’s generation for sure. A lot of people have come up to me after seeing the film saying, “Jack was just like my uncle who never talked about anything after they got back from WWII or even Vietnam. Or “was just like my uncle who came back and was a totally different person and never talked about what they did.” And I think that’s exactly what happened to Jack. By the army he was given cigarettes and money and told to forget what he did for those three years in North Africa and Europe and to try to lead a normal life. He couldn’t. He was plagued up until the last day of his life by dreams that would put him into a cold sweat. Back then PTSD wasn’t a thing. Basically, he was like the majority of guys that came back from that war — the Good War — they were told to just live life as you can. But there were a lot of guys in his generation who came back damaged.

When you think about it – 60 percent of our homeless are veterans. I can’t imagine that 60 percent of those people are WWII veterans. There are Vietnam veterans in that figure as well as our most recent war veterans. I think even though we are more vigilant about PTSD and helping people out when they come back from fighting, there are still so many people falling through the cracks. I think we need to stop wars, because these people are coming back now. And they say there are 22 suicides a day on average for returning vets from Afghanistan and Iraq. It might sound childish, but war is so wrong. We can’t be killing and annihilating each other and think you can plug back into a happy American life and not worry about the consequences. I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson, and I think that Jack is just an example of what happens to soldiers who do the right thing in our eyes — he fought the good war, but he came back damaged goods and fell through the cracks and became an alcoholic and a criminal.

GALO: And died a criminal. I read in the endnotes that he wasn’t given a hero’s burial.

EB: No. He was not. Jack had buddies who were veterans in the prison who said, “At least we’ll get our military burial.” They were all under the assumption that that was a given. Despite their crimes and why they’re in prison, they’d still get a military hero’s burial. Ironically, we were at Jack’s funeral, and before we took his body to the cemetery, the cemetery called Jack’s son and said, “We don’t want his body.” The body was in the hearse. His son asked, “What are you talking about?” And they said there was a law passed after Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building that no veteran with a felony could be buried in a military cemetery. The family didn’t know that. I looked it up, and, absolutely, it’s true. I don’t think many people know this. And Jack would’ve been so crestfallen, because he was hoping at least he got the honor — going through hell for this country. But that was the ultimate kick in the guts for him and his family.

GALO: You state in your production notes that “Of the current 75 prison hospice programs, only a handful of facilities have taken the risk to incorporate prisoners as hospice volunteers.” And yet, the mutual effects of such work are evidenced not only in Jack but in the caretakers. Harky, serving life for murder, says, “For once I’m somebody nobody thought I could be.” Your film premieres on March 31 on HBO. What are your plans for the film after Oscar season? Could it be a catalyst for change?

EB: Oh my. The whole point of me making the film, going back to when I started filming, was to use it as a catalyst for change. I know that sounds hifalutin, but I was brought up by two very politically aware parents. My brother and I were blessed to be involved in anti-war and anti-nuclear [movements]. We were constantly involved with protesting. And always brought up to question what was happening. So when I started making this film, my goal was to make this [hospice] program known. And this is a program that needs to be spread around the country, because we have 1,800 facilities, 75 of which have hospice. And of those 75, about 20 have hospice programs where they incorporate prisoners as hospice volunteers. And that is why I went to Iowa State Penitentiary, because they have a great hospice program that does just that.

I just got a travel grant (not all but a good chunk of money) — to take this film on tour this summer — The 50/100 Tour — 50 prisons in 100 days. I plan to take it to prisons on the fence or not even thinking about hospice in order to demystify it, because it’s not rocket science. It’s basically like a hospice out in the community but with another component of security. It’s a no brainer, and it’s not a budget buster. It’s pretty much a free program that you can man with volunteers and a staff that is open and accepting to make some concessions to get this program up and running behind bars.

GALO: What does it mean to you that HBO is broadcasting your documentary?

EB: The fact that it is being broadcast on HBO is much better than getting an educational distributor, because it can be seen by millions of people all in one night. With HBO, I almost hit my goal, but I am looking forward to taking it on the road. Not only will I get to take it to prisons and hopefully show it to the inmates, but I’ll also get to take it to universities and community centers along the road so people can realize that this is a program they can help create, if they really want to, in their local prisons.

GALO: Do you have a note to upcoming filmmakers?

ED: I was blessed by a great professor in film school at Southern Illinois University who stressed that when you make a film, you just don’t put it on a shelf and say that you finished it. You need to make it work and get it out there. The life of your film comes after you’re finished, with you pushing it and talking to people about it. That was pounded into my head when I was in college, and I’ve never stopped thinking that way. Especially for documentaries, if you are doing it for a reason, you really need to push it after you’re done.

GALO: Thank you, Edgar, for taking time to talk with GALO.

EB: Thank you.

The Oscar nominated documentary “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” premieres on March 31, 2014 on HBO.

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