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Chris Renton, an outside volunteer, is surrounded with support from inmates and other visitors during a group therapy session at Folsom State Prison in California.
The Frame

Intense and Raw, a Spotlight on Therapy at New Folsom Prison

In a new documentary, ‘The Work,’ inmates confront their fears in a quest for empathy.

One inmate allowed himself to mourn. Others came closer to understanding their humanity. Many of the men, all of them held in California State Prison-Sacramento, said they had been able to unearth repressed feelings. Each talked about “doing the work” to help themselves live better lives.

A new documentary film, “The Work,” captures a unique series of group therapy sessions at the prison in which inmates and outside volunteers reveal their deepest fears and experiences of betrayal. The sessions offer the men an opportunity to better understand themselves and to expand their capacity for empathy.

“I was looking for a change in my life, looking for a way to get healthy as a human being, searching for answers that I didn’t know how to get to on my own,” said Eldra Jackson III, a former inmate at the prison, which used to be called New Folsom and is still known informally by that name. “What I took away from participating in the sessions was a tremendous emotional literacy and a deeper understanding and relationship with myself to help me be able to communicate with others.”

An excerpt from the documentary film, "The Work."

The filmmakers Jairus McLeary, Eon McLeary, and Miles McLeary, who are brothers, learned of the therapy program through their father, a psychologist, who helps oversee the program. After entering the prison and participating in the therapy, the brothers were moved to document the sessions. “It was one of the most profound experiences I ever had,” Miles McLeary said. “I just did not know how to articulate that to people on the outside, so we had to show them.”

Begun by Rob Allbee, formerly incarcerated himself, the first four-day therapy session was held in 2000, and there have been one or two a year since then. In the beginning, outside volunteers were men the founders knew and felt could hold their own in a prison setting.

It took Allbee about a year to get the heads of the prison gangs to agree to be filmed for “The Work.” The prison chaplain, Dennis Merino, helped the McLearys win the warden’s permission. The film crew all agreed to go through a four-day session themselves in order to gain the trust of the inmates. In all, the McLeary family dedicated nine years to the project.

The volunteers from outside the prison decided to participate in the the therapy program for a variety of reasons. One man wanted to try to better understand himself and his past. His father, who was incarcerated, was absent from his life, and he was terrified of ending up in prison himself. Another participant, Brian Nazarof, was seeking an adrenaline rush. “I wanted to push past some of the states of mind that I feared most,” Nazarof said in a recent interview. “I wanted to be able to function while being petrified. To think and feel clearly, even when pushed back on my heels.”

The film follows the emotional journey of the 16 men in the circle through the therapy sessions. One prisoner, Kiki, tells the group that he hasn’t allowed himself to mourn the death of his sister. When the group encourages him to express his feelings, he breaks down into tears and lashes out with raw anger. An outside participant, Chris, recounts how his father never recognized his need for approval. By enabling the men to confront their repressed emotions, the facilitators, led by Allbee and James McLeary, aim to help them identify problematic behavior patterns and to rescript how they want to live their lives.

Jackson, also known as “Vegas,” spent 10 years in New Folsom and said he had been on automatic pilot before the sessions, reacting to situations rather than thinking about them. “I think that the one [discovery] that stands out the most was understanding why it was so easy for me to hurt people,” he said. “This program helped change my mindset, and how I think and view myself and how I view others.”

In the film, Jackson acts as a facilitator, helping his peers through the experience. At one point, he extracts a promise from a prisoner to not give up hope for his future. Since the filming, Jackson has been released on parole and is now employed as a foreman with a traffic control company.

“What I hope people take away from this film is that there are people in prison who are seeking to change their lives,” Jackson said. “There are men in the program who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’ll never see the outside of a prison, but they are looking to get in touch with their own humanity and help other people. It’s not to earn a parole date, not to get good graces from the court system or anything like that. It’s just so they can be the best person that they can be because what they’ve been up to this point just isn’t working.”

The Work” premieres Oct. 25 in Los Angeles and Oct. 27 in New York. It will be released nationwide in a limited number of theaters, starting Oct. 29.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the prison as Folsom. The correct name is California State Prison-Sacramento. The prison is informally known as New Folsom.