Cell ther­apy

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

The Guardian - G2 - - Lost in showbiz -

Jonathan Asser

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’

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