As the prison population in the state of California has continued to grow, so too has the number of aging inmates. These prisoners are more prone to develop dementia for a number of reasons including depression and head trauma caused by fights. To help combat this problem the California Men’s Colony is using convicted killers to care for those inmates who can no longer care for themselves. “Dementia Behind Bars” follows three of these men, or Gold Coats (named for the yellow jackets they wear), as they attempt to repay their debt to society.
The story opens with a wide shot of the basketball court in the prison yard. The inmates slowly make their way back inside, and the gloomy, foggy day suddenly brightens. The sound of soft music can be heard along with the clanging of metal and birds chirping. This smoothly transitions to one of the inmates, a Gold Coat, explaining to his patient where they are headed. This simple explanation requires a minute of his time, illustrating the sense of confusion dementia patients experience and how much patience is necessary to care for them. This is paired with a photograph of the two inmates walking, one with their arm around the other.
The story is constructed in a clear and logical way. It begins by explaining how the program works, detailing what the Gold Coats’ duties are and the help available through the dementia ward. This transitions to the Gold Coats themselves, who are identified by name and their conviction on the lower third of the screen, telling how they ended up in prison. The rest of the story surrounds the issues facing prisoners with dementia and the shortcomings of the system to support them. It concludes by saying that although participation in the program does not guarantee parole for the caregivers, it is a beacon of hope for those with little to look forward to (patient and caregiver).
A variety of shots are used throughout the telling of the story. One sequence in which one patient is getting his fingernails filed by someone who is not his caregiver is particularly memorable. It includes a wide shot of the three men sitting on a bench, and then it shifts to close-up of the man’s hands, his nails jagged from constantly biting them. The sequence concludes with a medium shot from a low angle, revealing the height of the walls surrounding them.
“Dementia Behind Bars” is organized and paced very well. The transitions between the voice over narration, which tell of the obstacles facing dementia patients and the state of California’s inability to care for them, and the parts provided by the inmates, are seamless. The use of music, although brief, was a nice touch and definitely worked with the other components to help tell the story.
B-roll included conversations between the inmates. This mainly consisted of the Gold Coats explaining things to their patients or convincing them to clean themselves or stop biting their fingernails. Placed over photographs of the inmates showering or participating in meetings for dementia patients, the audio illustrated how the men were cared for on a daily basis. It also showed the patience required of, and present within, the caregivers.
The story clocks in at just under eight minutes, but at no point did I feel that it dragged on. In fact, I would have liked for the story to have gone on longer. It is a great example of a character-driven story because it is told through the eyes of those most involved with the program – the caregivers themselves.
Hearing a convicted murderer say how cleaning up another human being after an accident humbles him is revealing and draws the reader in. Watching him then fix that same man’s bed, asking how exactly he wanted it done, illustrated how the program is affecting those involved.
“Dementia Behind Bars” was one of the best stories I have viewed in a long time, regardless of medium. There was nothing in this story that did not keep me interested or that I did not approve of. If I were to change anything, it would be to prolong the already lengthy story. There was a brief mention of two prisoners who had been paroled after participating in the program. I would have liked to have heard from those individuals to see how the program helped them adjust to life on the outside, if at all.
I enjoyed this story because it contained equal parts quality information, visuals and sound. The use of conversation between patient and caregiver evokes emotion from the reader while illustrating what daily life is like for both parties. The Gold Coats reflecting on their crimes was also an effective means for drawing the reader in. The fact that the entire story was shot in black and white was fitting for such an emotional, and somewhat hopeless, story.
The authors’ goal was undoubtedly to raise awareness about an issue that does not get much attention but is a growing issue in our society. They accomplish this, along with what is the goal of any journalistic piece – they force the reader to ask themselves questions.
I know that one immediately popped into this reader’s head when I was finished. If one purpose of prison is to give the criminal enough time to force them to think about what they have done, what do we do when the criminal is no longer capable of basic thought, let alone self-reflection and contrition?