The Work

A stripped down documentary that gets to the core of the male psyche

It may be stating the obvious that nobody wants to be sent to – or visit – a prison. Let alone a maximum security prison that holds hundreds of killers, many of whom are likely to be inside for the majority of their lives. Yet, that’s exactly what a number of civilians do every year when they volunteer to visit the ‘Inside Circle’, an intense four-day group therapy program held at Folsom State Prison, California. The idea is for the inmates to emotionally connect with the civilians through intimate and demanding conversations, revealing their inner most vulnerabilities and states of mind.

You may wonder what the visiting men would gain out of this, and the answer is less surprising than you may think. The program exists for the free men as much as it does for the prisoners, and the testosterone filled atmosphere of a male prison serves as the ideal setting for both sides to strip away the armour of false masculinity that proves so damaging to the male psyche. By the time the four days are over, it appears that the non-prisoners are the ones who have gained the most from their heightened exchanges.

Director Jairus McLeary gains extraordinary access to a program that reveals the vulnerabilities of men who have spent an entire lifetime avoiding and repressing their emotions. The factions that divide the prisoners into their various groups in their day-to-day lives are left behind the moment they agree to enter the Circle Foundation program. McLeary himself was invited by his father over a decade ago and after refusing to take part at first, he has gone back every year since. The cathartic process is more akin to an exorcism at times as the men literally expel the dark energy that has weighed down their souls for as long as they can remember.

By leaving their gang or clique connections at the door, so too is any judgement about the crimes that have placed them here. McLeary focusses on six of the men, three of whom are prisoners and three visitors, providing an observational point of view as the sessions naturally evolve. The outsiders pair up with prisoner guides who have worked through the program on multiple occasions, walking them through step-by-step. There is Charles, whose absent father spent time in prison and fears repeating the same mistakes, Chris, a quiet museum worker who feels time is passing him by and Brian, a teacher frustrated with how his life has panned out so far.

Everything takes place within a large, stripped down room, with the men split into large groups. While the setting may be minimal, the emotional depths they delve into are viscerally powerful. Title cards offer a brief introduction but that aside, McLeary gives us fly-on-the-wall access without the need to revert to talking head testimony. All we need to understand about the group and the people involved is right there, laid out explicitly in front of us. It’s transfixing and utterly compelling to witness and for any male audience member watching on, opens up a further mirror of emotional reflection.

The Work poses questions not only about the redundant nature of the current prison rehabilitation process but how men are raised to abandon their emotions in their youth. As an elder member of the group states when he sees Charles bent over on his chair crying into his hand, almost shamefully “I used to cry like that too. But then I learned to sit up and cry like a man. It’s a beautiful thing.” The honesty these men are able to share with each other in this environment is tinged with a bitter sadness because even for the visitors, it takes entering into this extreme scenario to finally open up. It’s an epidemic that’s inherent within society and a reason why almost 80% of suicides are male. The Circle Foundation do not proclaim to know all the answers but they at least suggest an innovative and crucial way of addressing and discussing ways of dealing with the problems.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Sep 07, 2017

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