This year a documentary called The Work was released about a prison-therapy program in Folsom State Prison in California. The documentary follows a group of men from the outside who join a circle of maximum security inmates for 4 days of intense group therapy work. The film focuses on 3 men from the outside as they sit in a circle with other outside men and maximum security inmates and follows the jarring emotional journey that the group therapy work takes them on. I was asked by the director Jairus McLeary to be the stills photographer and an extra cameraman as part of the crew that went in to film one of these 4 day therapy retreats at Folsom Prison. I shot hundreds of images over those days documenting the group process as well shooting portraits of many of the individuals who participated.
My introduction with the Folsom Prison experience came about purely by chance. I met Jairus McLeary -the future director of The Work- in 2000 when Jairus McLeary and I were waiting tables together at a restaurant in the college town we lived in. We became pretty good friends and that year I spent Thanksgiving at his parent’s house. That’s when I met Jairus’ whole family, who all seem to be involved in some way even back then with Inside Circle Foundation’s work at Folsom Prison. Jairus’ dad James McLeary is one of the lead facilitators with Inside Circle and Jairus’ brothers went on to be his collaborators in making the film. At some point in my relationship with the family James and Jairus suggested that I try going to Folsom. I didn’t really know much about what the experience was about and they didn’t really offer up too much information about it other than vague anecdotes that Jairus would share about “this incredible process” he would take part in. For some reason I simply trusted them and took this leap forward into something I didn’t really know much about or what to expect.
In 2006 I went to Folsom Prison with the Inside Circle Foundation as an initiate, surrounded by strangers from the outside and the inside and I more or less unwittingly began a process that completely changed my life. I walked in a line into the chapel with other men from the outside and stood in a circle facing inmates, some of whom seemed to be just as in the dark as I was about what to expect. The next 4 days were the most transformative 4 days of my life. I walked into a room that became a safe space for the most intensely profound stories, emotions and experiences that I had ever encountered. There was something in the process too that I discovered for myself and that was learning how to be of service and support to someone else, outside of personal judgement. No one in that chapel, from the inside world or out, was there to hear my opinions. Because I had no idea what I was doing, I just did my best to shut up and listen to others and be of support in any way I could. I screwed up a few times but that seemed to be part of the process as well. Everyone got a chance to be heard, to do their work, to support and be supported. When it was my turn, I was challenged in a way that I had never thought possible and somehow got through it with men from the outside and inside by my side.
I consider going to Folsom the single most important decision of my life because it began a process that completely changed the direction of my life afterwards and opened the door to all the other important decisions I would end up making. It put me on a path of change that led to me examining what I valued in my life, what was working in my life vs. what wasn’t and how I fit in the world. It led to me meeting and marrying my wife, becoming a father, moving to a different country and pretty much who I became after that experience. I went back in 2008 and had a very different but very rewarding experience then too. It should be noted that there has not been a single prisoner who has gone through the Inside Circle Foundation program and Folsom prison who has gotten out of prison has ever returned.
I’m not sure when Jairus and his family began the process of trying to make the documentary happen but by 2009 everything had finally fallen in place for them to film. In 2009 the documentary crew went in to film the process which has been happening twice year for almost 20 years.
After 8 years, due to a variety of reasons for delays, the film was finally released in 2017 to much acclaim. It has won several awards in major film festivals around the world including 2017 Best Documentary at SXSW. It has earned 100% from Rotten Tomatoes and 4/5 stars from RogerEbert.com and IMDB to name a few. Follow the links below to watch the trailer and learn more about the film and the Inside Circle Foundation.
Learn more about the Inside Circle Foundation.