Since 2000, hundreds of men–civilians and convicts–have participated in Inside Circle, a support group and intensive training session that began at Folsom State Prison, a maximum-security facility outside Sacramento, California. They came here to do “the work,” which can mean very different things to very different people. It can mean openly sobbing in a world that shuns emotion; it can mean allowing yourself to feel and hurt and rage and scream, to understand that your wounds can be your strength; it can mean seeking answers to the questions you cannot silence, and trusting that they lie somewhere within you.
Each gathering consists of intense four-day sessions where several civilian volunteers and level-four convicts tear down their defenses and emotional barriers, laying their pasts bare in emotional and sometimes physical ways. The prisoners and civilians are brought face to face with the men they are and the men they want to become. They see themselves in each other and they not only hold each other accountable, but hold the space for each other to be vulnerable and challenge the misguided notions of masculinity that taught them to never show emotion.
Of the ex-convicts who’ve been part of Inside Circle and have been released on parole, none have found their way back behind bars. When compared to the nationwide recidivism rate of nearly 60%, it’s profound proof that group therapy and rehabilitative programs work. The 2017 documentary The Work features a powerful look into the Inside Circle, allowing us the rare look past the dehumanizing tropes to reveal a movement of change and redemption that transcends what we think of as rehabilitation.
Four men from The Work are featured in the following images.
In 2000, about nine years into his life sentence, Jackson ended up at Folsom, where Inside Circle had just been formed. It was in the circle that he finally explored the driving force behind his criminal actions. When he was seven or eight, he had been molested by his teenage babysitter and raped by her brother. The brother had threatened to rape Jackson’s four-year-old sister as well if Jackson didn’t have sex with him, and Jackson had emerged from that trauma believing that “caring about something, loving somebody, giving a damn, that puts me in a position to get hurt.” For the first time in decades, he let himself be vulnerable. And by allowing himself to feel, he was able to take control of his life again.
Jackson was released on parole three years ago. He returned to Sacramento, the same city where he had come of age with the mind-set that he must hurt others before they could hurt him first. But now he travels those roads as a husband and father, fear and apathy no longer dictating his actions. He married his wife, Holly and soon after came Eldra Jackson IV—the child Jackson never dreamed he would have. And now, as a traffic technician for a private company, his work sometimes brings him right near the prison he thought he would never leave alive.
Rick Misener, 56
Rick Misener spent most of his life making sure everybody feared him. That’s why he joined up with the Aryan Brotherhood soon after he was sentenced to life in prison in 1988 for luring two Marines into an armed robbery that resulted in murder of one of the soldiers. ‘If you can scare people, you can be respected. I would love that when we walked down the hall, people would move out of the way for us.’
Even within Inside Circle, he made others uneasy. At first, he only participated at a bare-minimum. At the start of each meeting he'd say, 'I'm Rick. I'm in.' And at the end, he'd say, 'I'm Rick. I'm out.' He did this for a year's worth of weekly gatherings. He was then thrown in the hole for possessing a knife and as angry and on edge as he was, he found that he couldn’t hide from himself anymore. I remember they had those little stainless steel mirrors on the wall, he says. So I turned, and suddenly I was eye to eye with myself. I hadn’t done that in a very, very long time. And I hated that dude, just hated him.
Once out of solitary confinement, Misener was ready to do the work. He had to come to terms with the fact that he had killed a man”something he'd been hiding from for years. It’s not just the person who died, it’s so much bigger than that he says. There’s a ripple that continues to this day because of that act. There’s 12 people in the jury who had to look at 8-by-10 glossies of someone who had their heart blown out. What impact did it have on them? What impact did it have on the ambulance drivers who had to pick that guy up?...not to mention on the victim's family.
After serving almost thirty years, Rick was recently released on parole. At his transitional home in Los Angeles, his housemates don’t know him as ‘Scary Rick’ or ‘ Crazy Snake’ as he was known in prison. To them, he’s the guy always willing to lend a hand, whether driving them to the DMV, starting men’s groups wherever he goes, or repainting the house trim in a vibrant blue.
I took a life, so I owe a life, Misener says. If I owe a life, the only way I can pay it back is by living my life in a way that affects people in a positive way.