I watched The Work, the 2017 documentary about the group therapy sessions run at Folsom Prison amongst long-term prisoners.
The notes with the disc release make clear that this was a long project, taking up ten years of preparation before the filming could properly begin.
Rob began to speak to the prison shot-callers of the major gangs that participate in the group. These men are the top of the hierarchical political system inside and set the tone for the rest of the prison population on the yard. After we had their trust, they vouched for us with the other inmates and we could begin to approach the prison administration with a plan… With permission out of the way we were able to set our shoot dates and concentrate on what the convicts felt comfortable with in the room on that day. They hand-picked first-timers and facilitators among themselves who felt comfortable divulging personal information about themselves and doing the work under shooting conditions. We also reached a consensus that the entire crew needed to attend at least one 4-day event and get a layout of the location and the men in blue themselves, but most importantly do some of their own personal work to gain a sensitivity that would not disturb the very thing we were trying to capture.
We start with the arrival of a group of outsiders who have volunteered to take part in the session. These are all men between the ages of 20 and 50, who have their own issues about manhood and their dads, as we come to see. A full session takes 4 days, with the van driving them in and out each time, to meet the inmates in the large hall which seems to be the prison chapel. Although religion is not mentioned directly, several of the inmates taking part mention their belief in God, and the speeches given by the Program’s director have themes around personal salvation and redemption without clearly committing to any particular faith. The initial bonding experience is with a chant rather than a prayer.
The outsiders that we meet are guys with jobs like Museum Associate or Teaching Assistant. The inmates have been in major LA gangs as well as involved in kidnappings, and one chap mentions that he tried to cut someone in half, but didn’t quite finish the job.
We concentrate on one group of ten men, there are about 3 other groups we can hear making noise in the background. The members are miked up as the sound of voices gets muffled on the occasions that they embrace each other. A cameraman can be seen moving a rig about when we go into the session in which the lights are dimmed and the men have to get in fabric shelters and think about meeting themselves as a boy.
The discussion stages follow a rough pattern: one of the men is prompted to discuss his feelings, revealing the source of anger (usually triggered by an absent or violent dad), and he is driven to a peak of emotion, at which he breaks down, and is them swarmed by the others in a huge embrace, which may sometimes have to contain violent reactions from a subject discussing his feelings in detail for the first time in his life.
A discussion of “betrayal” on the 2nd day led one of the inmates to talk about how his drug addiction and criminal behaviour began when his best buddy told everyone what he’d told him about his first experiences with a woman. When the outsider Brian questioned his assessment of himself, things became tense between the two of them.
Brian seems to start reacting as he would if any other guy challenged him in a bar or at work… but he remembers he’s not in familiar ground anymore, he’s surrounded by real tough guys and he gets told to cool it down… and so he breaks down and admits that he feels violent when he’s disrespected.
His judgmental, critical attitude comes from his insecurity about living up to daddy’s image of a tough, self-controlled guy, which he isn’t when he’s sitting in a circle with some guys who really lived that life rather than just absorbing it from Hollywood and The Sopranos.
On another day, an inmate expresses his feelings of hopelessness and depression and hints at suicidal impulses, so another tells him to “grow up” and pull together.
The imaginative exercises provoke severe reactions from men who are being made to think about bereavement and neglect left unaddressed for decades.
The long-haired Daniel Radcliffe-lookalike who works in a museum also has his moment of catharsis, and finds a connection at the end with the ex-Aryan Brotherhood biker guy.
This process is clearly a purging of “toxic masculinity”, although the notes suggest that what went on in the group stays in the group and is not referred to in the gang-divided territory of the yard outside. So this could be simply a safety valve to regulate the least stable elements within the prison machine, but some of the attendees graduate to parole on the basis of progress through the screaming and sobbing. scenes. They don’t go back to their old lives, but it seems they don’t exist to go back to, and they have interrogated the memories already when they were put away. The Program validates a change that happened anyway, during all that time to think about what was expected of them in the old world and what they really wanted all along.