‘Serving Life’: finding redemption instead of hopelessness

Most of us have seen so many prison dramas for so many years that we’ve probably all wondered how we would do if someone locked us up and threw away the key.

A maximum security prison may be the closest thing to hell on earth that we can imagine, but a sensational new documentary, “Serving Life,” debuting tonight at 9 p.m. on OWN, introduces us to convicted murderers and sex criminals who manage to find a purpose in their blasted lives.

Director Lisa Cohen (below) spent months in Angola Prison in Lousiana where so many prisoners are nearing the end of life terms that a hospice program has become a major part of the facility.

Angola used to be considered one of the worst prisons in the country, but reformers have made it humane. The hospice is designed both to ease the final days of the terminally ill, and to give other prisoners the chance to do important work while they serve their endless terms.

Cohen takes us into the lives of four prisoners who are approved as hospice workers. We learn about the youthful crimes that got them sentences without a chance of parole — one of the men is serving life for being an accomplice, another for a contract killing he did for his boss — and their hope that they can make themselves useful in the direst of circumstances.

The film is the first entry in the “OWN Documentary Club” and is many cuts above average basic cable non-fiction programming.

Television is jam packed with lurid real-life crime shows, but few programs about the consequences of crime in the lives of criminals.

Oprah Winfrey deserves kudos for sponsoring such a serious and unflinching film that deals with two topics television generally shies away from — the possibility of positive change in the lives of “the worst of the worst” and what we can do to make impending death easier for the terminally ill.

(“Serving Life” will debut tonight at 9 on OWN, with a repeat airing at midnight.)

Joe Meyers