Review by Jean Lowerison
Primal screams, howls of anguish and men openly weeping are not things you’d expect to see from inmates in California’s Folsom Prison. But filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous give us just that in the fascinating documentary “The Work,” which shows a rehabilitation program that uses group psychotherapy to help these inmates, most of whom are serving long prison sentences for violent or gang-related crimes.
Twice a year, under the auspices of the Inside Circle Foundation – a nonprofit dedicated to helping inmates “explore the issues that prevented them from living up to their full potential.” Outsiders are invited to participate in a four-day intensive group therapy workshop, in which experienced inmates are paired with outsider newbies. Trained facilitators are always on hand.
Resistance is common (especially among the newbies), but because these men are here voluntarily, eventual breakthroughs are less surprising, though no less noisy, even violent (though calmed by other participants and facilitators). Because there are many groups in one room, screams, cries and howls may come from many part of the room simultaneously.
Most of these men express issues with their fathers, but what struck me was the frequently expressed desire “to feel again” from the convicts, juxtaposed with the nearly opposite desire from outsider Chris, who says, “I didn’t come here to cry and I don’t want to feel like I’m letting ’em down if I don’t.”
The Work concentrates on three outsiders and three inmates. Outsider Charles, a bartender whose dad was in prison when he was born, feels “this is a path I need to take.”
Long-haired Chris, a museum associate and aspiring writer, says he is “stuck” and wants this to “wake me up a little bit.”
Brian, a teacher’s assistant, is drawn to the excitement of the new, but is quick to judge the unfamiliar.
Rick, a skinny convict covered in tattoos, is a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He has been down the psychotherapy road before. Now he suggests to all, “We are just guys. For four days, let’s be what we could be.”
Dark Cloud, a member of the Native American Skins gang, wants to cry about feelings that he betrayed his mother years ago, when he chose to live with his father after the parents split. “I want to be vulnerable,” he says, “but every time I’ve been vulnerable, I’ve been hurt.”
Kiki has been in prison for 17 years for murder and robbery. “I want to be open, but I got fear,” he says. He especially wants to mourn for his dead sister.
Group psychotherapy has as much value and facilitates as much change as the participants are willing to undergo. The filmmakers’ fly-on-the-wall filming style allows viewers to get safely close to these men and their stories.
It’s remarkable that some of the breakthroughs threaten violence. It’s even more remarkable what happens in these instances: if they fail and look like they want to hurt someone, they are piled on scrum-style by the others, to keep them from hurting themselves or others. Watch what the others do when Dante, in for double life plus 55 years, expresses suicidal thoughts because he doesn’t get to see his son.
For those who wonder how much good this program does, here’s a statistic for you: In the 17 years the program has been in operation, the prison has released 40 inmates. Not a single one has returned to prison.
Those who think rehabilitation superior to warehousing.