Go inside to go outside.
It’s one thing for a maximum-security prison full of violent offenders like Folsom to offer the type of in-depth therapy sessions it does, but it’s another to see the number of inmates with the courage and desire to attend. To be willing to leave your gang affiliations at the door and sit in a circle with men of all colors who’d kill you as soon as look at you in the yard with everyone else watching shows what’s at stake. These men have done horrible things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the capacity to change. When you’ve sat in a cell for years on end you begin realizing the difference between who you are on the inside and the identity you project outwardly. That’s step one.
As Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous‘ documentary The Work explains, Folsom offers a weekly program for men to share their feelings, work out aggression, and seek personal closure. Along with these meetings are two special four-day get-togethers a year where outsiders are allowed in to join. These private citizens could have many reasons for coming that often stem from their own hope to begin healing. In these situations each visitor chooses two inmates who have been in the program for a while to guide them through the process. Here are men who’ve taken lives and know they’ll probably never see freedom again opening up to strangers in a way that cannot help but humanize them in comparison to whatever preconceptions you might be bringing to the table.
In no way can what happens during these four-day intensives be described with effectiveness. You have to literally see it to believe it. I’m talking about a man with “Fuck A Bitch” tattooed on his neck begging the others to help him grieve his sister—to help him break free of the shield he’s forged to ensure he never emasculates himself by showing emotion to hardened men who feed off weakness. We watch him stand toe-to-toe with a former Bloods shot-caller who holds his eyesight, refusing to let him block the tears coming from deep down within his soul. The sounds that ultimately emanate from his mouth when he crosses that threshold are akin to a dying animal, a guttural noise of authentic pain mixed with incomparable release.
And just like we cannot prepare for the interactions about to occur naturally and serendipitously, neither can Charles, Chris, and Brian—the outsiders entering Folsom voluntarily. We assume these inmates are emotionless psychopaths without a redeemable bone in their bodies because that’s what we’re programmed to believe. We’re told there is good and bad with no in-between. This is why we inherently stigmatize ex-convicts, damning them for who they were rather than accepting them for who they’ve become. It’s not about achieving forgiveness or feeling remorse as much as allowing oneself the capacity to be vulnerable in a setting where vulnerability is a liability. It’s about opening those old wounds that may or may not have contributed to what put them here in order to begin to heal.
But it’s also about understanding how no trauma or betrayal is too small. Just because a prisoner’s memory of meeting his Navy father for the first time at age three resulted in a beating and a visitor’s memory of being rebuffed by his Dad resulted in his inability to keep a job doesn’t mean one was worse than the other. You don’t have to commit murder to prove your pain is greater than your neighbor, but you must accept his suffering as equal to your own to find the internal strength that’s necessary for growth. This is why the work is so hard. This is why you have to check your egos at the door. To get to these places is to open up the potential for rage.
So when someone’s ready to let it out, the others stand and surround him. They prepare for the physical manifestation of what ails him to arrive as screams, punching, and kicking. They huddle and keep him from self-harming or injuring others so as not to continue the cycle of violence that’s dictated his entire existence. A single word can calm him and another can set him off. It’s therefore the trust forged by being in the same boat and allowing themselves to be seen as more than their place in the gang hierarchy or social structure that keeps them safe. These releases occur here so they won’t in the yard. Homicidal thoughts can evaporate in the arms of an equal rather than compound with blood on a knife.
McLeary and Aldous have put their cameras on muscle-bound behemoths covered in tattoos as tears stream down their faces and hands comfort shoulders. This to me is the truly profound revelation beyond any personal steps taken down a road to psychological recovery: the way in which they strip away façades for naked humanity. Color is rendered meaningless, allegiances are paused, and judgment (although not at first courtesy of Brian and his desperate need to be knocked down a peg or six) is left at the door. For four days in this one room everyone is able to hit the reset button and contextualize their lives. They’re allows to remember back when they were young before the road to oblivion swallowed them whole. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.
I’m not sure you can watch them expel their negative energy without shedding your own tears at the sheer bravery of their actions. It can’t be easy for these inmates to seek help regardless of confidentiality or readjusted attitudes afterwards. “Men” don’t seek therapy and talk through their issues. I’m sure every other prisoner working out and doing their thing during this time know exactly who’s in that chapel and yet these men continue to go regardless. They know the darkness that exists within them and that they can help quell it in each other while preventing it from consuming outsiders who’ve yet to act upon it. They know the work it takes to step back from the edge and they possess the strength to stay away.