In new documentary The Work, radical counselling sessions with maximum-security prisoners in a US jail make for extraordinary viewing, says prison psychologist and screenwriter
Three volunteers from the outside world – Charles, a bartender; Chris, a museum associate; and Brian, a teaching assistant – enter New Folsom Prison in California. They are there, along with other visitors, to experience and engage in group therapy over a “four-day intensive” with prisoners serving long sentences for violent and/ or gang-related crime. Their interactions, conclusions and traumas are all chronicled in a new documentary called The Work, directed by Jairus Mcleary and Gethin Aldous.
For 17 years, New Folsom prison has shown the insight and intelligence to allow extraordinary therapeutic work to flourish within its walls. Like my experience in the UK of developing new kinds of therapy for violent and often gang-affiliated prisoners – on which I drew for my script for the 2013 David Mackenzie film Starred Up – it is dependent on creating very high levels of trust with people conditioned by betrayal from early childhood.
We are told in an early title card that prisoners on the programme “agree to leave gang politics at the door, setting aside the racial segregation of the yard”. This bland statement belies the magnitude of the achievement shown in The Work. Some 50 or so long-term, maximum-security prisoners, a good many of whom might never be getting out and so have little to stop them, in a judicial sense, from acting violently, come together with no prison guards in a packed room for four days with unprotected outsiders. Instead of eating the volunteers alive, the prisoners deal with them in such a skilled, empathic and therapeutic way that each visitor appears to go through something not only healing, but also potentially life-changing.
This is prison therapy of the most valuable kind, where the fruits of the internal work done by the prisoners are clearly visible in the way they reach out so adeptly and compassionately to help others. As one facilitator (and prisoner) puts it: “This whole process of going down into the wound is not an end in itself. We’re looking for something – and we’re bringing something back out of that descent.” With no intrusion from a voiceover or from talking heads, the film-makers allow the audience to feel the power as the journeys unfold, as if we’re in the circle with everyone else.
The visitors don’t know exactly what they are letting themselves in for and Brian, the teaching assistant, is initially sceptical: “I’m having, let’s say, an impossible time not judging what the fuck’s going on ...” To start with, I struggled with the therapy-programme CEO’S chanting at the opening session, with all the participants obediently responding on cue. It felt more like something you would find in a cult rather than a psychotherapeutic programme. But then the programme’s co-founder, an ex-convict called Rob, placed things in a context I could understand: “I have no idea what it’s going to look like. I would be lying if I said I did. All I know is that there are a bunch of really intense, dedicated, committed men sitting in this cir- ‘We’re bringing something back out of the descent’ … the group therapy session at New Folsom prison;
some of the participants
‘In this circle is a bunch of intense, committed men willing to go anywhere with you’