At SXSW, ‘The Work’ Builds Case for Prison Program That Breaks Inmates Down

‘The Work’ Builds Case for Prison Program That Breaks Inmates Down

The Work raises important questions about masculinity and violence, but the film’s ties to a controversial men’s movement cloud the picture.

It’s no easy task to shoot a documentary inside a prison, and for that coup alone Jairus McLeary, director of the new film The Work, must be commended. Though his cameras are restricted to a single room where a group of inmates, outside facilitators and other visitors meet for intensive support group sessions, The Work’s perspective is very much from the inside. Incarcerated men take center stage, speaking of the emotional turmoil of being locked up in California’s infamous Folsom State Prison. Ex-members of prison gangs speak of their experiences in the racially segregated yard. Some share their crimes and regrets. One young inmate opens up about losing contact with his child and considering suicide.

America incarcerates 2.3 million people, more than anywhere else in the world. Our enormous prison state defines who we are as a society, albeit in ways that most of us barely register. McLeary’s film, which took home the Grand Jury Award for best documentary film at the SXSW Film Festival, is worth watching if only for its unblinking, real-time record of lived experience inside an American prison. But The Work is also much more than that, for better and for worse.

On the positive side, The Work raises important questions about masculinity and violence. The style of group therapy in the film encourages the prisoners, many of whom are prone to rage and aggression, to dig deep into past traumas. Once a therapy subject is mentally situated in a moment of, for instance, childhood abuse or neglect, his peers and facilitators surround him, holding him by the arms and legs. He is then encouraged to surrender to his darkest feelings, often screaming and thrashing in anger. Next, the facilitator instructs the subject to remain in the moment a little longer. Without the outlet of violence or conflict, his only option is to feel the emotion he’s been avoiding. Often, this is profound sadness, and the experience ends with tears and a sense of renewal.

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“Right down there next to where we hurt the most is where our medicine is at,” one prisoner-participant explains. Watching several of these sessions play out onscreen, it’s easy to be convinced that there is something valid and vital in this work. Contemporary ideals of masculinity push many men towards a reflexive physical aggressiveness that can be immensely destructive. Any therapeutic approach that imagines and enacts a less toxic mode is worth a try.

The particular program on display in The Work, unique to Folsom, is led by a nonprofit called Inside Circle Foundation. The CEO of the foundation is James McLeary, the father of Jairus, the director of The Work. If documentary film is a kind of journalism, it would be appropriate for the director to address his familial relationship to the program onscreen, but he does not. Here the sense of cinema verité begins to falter.

Inside Circle Foundation has ties to a national network of men’s support groups called the ManKind Project, which operates entirely outside of the world of prisons. In some ways analogous to the Tony Robbins program, the project is a globally franchised network of personal development workshops, often involving paid weekend retreats where men are encouraged to relive past traumas and heal themselves according to a “mythopoetic” system loosely based on the teachings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Participants are instructed to keep the contents of the meetings secret.

Ten years ago, the Houston Press ran an eye-opening investigation of the local ManKind Project scene, suggesting that weekend retreats were engineered to keep initiates from escaping, that organizers fostered a highly sexualized atmosphere and that the forced confession of a deep childhood trauma might have led one initiate to suicide. It’s not in the scope of this review to adjudicate these charges, but it’s worth noting that the ManKind Project came under particular scrutiny for recruiting highly vulnerable initiates from 12-step programs.

This raises concerns when the Inside Circle Foundation writes on its website: “ICF has a working relationship with an international network of men’s support groups, the ManKind Project (MKP), outside the prison and across the country that will, as the program develops, ‘catch’ the inmates upon their release from prison and invite them to participate in similar support groups on the outside.”

All this is a necessary but hopefully not too damning digression. Yes, The Work should be read as a publicity film, on the same level as a church-produced document. But it’s also an intriguing primary source.

It will be up to others to determine if the magic we see onscreen holds up to analysis. By one measure, The Work is already quite convincing. So far, a title card tells us, 40 men who have participated in Inside Circle support groups have been released from prison. None of them have committed another crime. That statistic alone is enough to tell us that the conversation begun by The Work deserves to be continued.

Michael Agresta, an Austin resident, has written for Slate, the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

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Published at 3:53 pm CST
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