Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus’ exploration of life and death in the notorious Louisiana prison debuted at Sundance in 1998, where it won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. Its festival run also included San Francisco, Full Frame, Santa Barbara, and Florida, among several others. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and won two Emmy Awards.
Stack and Garbus, working with co-director Wilbert Rideau, then a death row inmate at Angola and the editor of the prison’s investigative journalism magazine, profile the lives of six other inmates in what is know as the country’s largest and most dangerous maximum-security prisons, once the site of a large slave plantation named after the African nation from which its labor was procured. Ranging from first timers just arriving to serve out their sentence to forty-year veterans, the men candidly discuss the realities of life behind bars as they reveal the circumstances that brought them there and the ways they’ve coped with the realization that, for 85% of its population, Angola will be their last stop before death – whether by execution or other causes. Starkly addressing the latter statistic, one subject, convicted for murdering his wife, is followed in his last months as he succumbs to lung cancer, while another man, who has already served 20 years of a 100 year sentence for rape, doggedly maintains his innocence but is perfunctorily denied parole consideration despite credible doubt. While the filmmakers don’t sugarcoat the crimes that many of their subjects have committed and admitted to, they powerfully point out the hypocrisy and injustice of a system that denies even the possibility of the rehabilitation that it’s supposed to support – rehabilitation that is demonstrable in several of the men whose stories they follow here, but who are doomed to live out the rest of their days behind bars.