Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. - Oscar Wilde
There’s a scene in the film The Work when a man is wrestling — very literally — with explosive, pent-up rage. In a group therapy session inside New Folsom Prison, he grapples against a throng of inmates, veins bulging, his voice a roar of pain and anger. A facilitator calls to him. “Everybody is getting this [anger] sideways, Brian...girlfriends, friends, strangers...”
After screening The Work to a group of young people in Portland last fall, my friend Mike invited me to attend a similar prison immersive hosted by Jericho Circle Project inside the walls of a medium security correctional facility for men in Massachusetts. Mike saw how moved I was by the film and offered, “You know, you can go and participate in this yourself if you really wanted to experience it.” I needed some time to consider and set about figuring out an excuse to dodge the invitation. But try as I might, I couldn’t find a good reason not to accept. I took a nervous breath and said yes.
I was among a mixed group of forty-odd men, many dressed in prison blues and serving long or life sentences, and others voluntarily visiting from outside the prison. Together, we created a container that’s rarely available to men in the U.S.: one that encourages vulnerability, accountability, and emotional honesty and allows for the open and frequently visceral expression of shame, rage, grief, and often cathartic joy. It was also very raw.
Because of institutional discretions and confidentiality agreements, I can’t go deeply into detail about my weekend. But it was not unlike the scenes that make up The Work. What I can share is that the weekend was a transformative experience, often shocking in its simplicity and liberating in execution. Men stepped forward to confront the places we feel lost, stuck, or broken. We owned or identified the pain we’ve caused others and ourselves and processed trauma together. Sometimes we found reconciliation, but we always supported each other through the process.
Visitors to the prison are referred to as ”outside men,” inmates as “inside men.” Instead of “prisoner” or “convict,” the terms minimize the delineation between us — lest the outside men are tempted to slide into some sort of savior mentality. We’re all here for each other and we all have work to do. The irony is that I went to prison to begin to get free.
Amongst each group of men are trained facilitators, experienced in the process, and new men like myself. Many of the outside men had previously engaged in trainings through initiatives like the ManKind Project; the inside men have, at minimum, attended eight Jericho Circle-facilitated weekly sessions within the facility. I was the least experienced person in the room and felt a bit like a freshman who ignorantly registered for an advanced course. But that newness was also honored and welcomed into the process.
Personal stories, confessions, and tears flowed throughout the weekend. Men talked out interpersonal differences to clear the air of conflict. A common theme emerged of abusive and physically or emotionally absent fathers as did the arc of an emotionally unresourced childhood that bent toward incarceration. Though there are legitimate social injustices that determine who ends up in prison and why, I became keenly aware that most of us are a mishandled moment of rage away from entering the carceral system.
I felt some initial guilt about participating in this program. Surveying the havoc men wreak in this world — they’re the majority perpetrators behind the recent flood of sexual harassment disclosures, mass shootings, the initiation of war — should we men also be deserving of the most potent medicine? But when we don’t confront our unaddressed trauma or depression, it comes out — like Brian’s did in The Work — sideways, in caustic harm to our communities and to ourselves.
The deep work that happens through Jericho Circle, as well as efforts like the Inner Circle Foundation (as depicted in the film), feels potent and timely. For “inside men,” it has helped to mitigate prison violence, lower recidivism rates, and pave the way for meaningful reentry after release. The Jericho Circle experience is not intended to be a quick fix. It is a perspective-shifting step toward the long, often slow work to change the old, dysfunctional patterns that no longer serve us. The program doesn’t dismiss men’s traumas or betrayals, those challenges and the abrasions of the outside world are acknowledged as real. But it holds a mirror to how we confront and reconcile with them and charts a new course toward productive responses.
I left the weekend with a personal toolkit of how to listen to and more expansively see the people around me and the struggles we’re all engaged in. How to slow down in my rush to judge and respond. And a gravitation toward people who are willing to engage with heartfelt honesty and openness, even when that exchange is critical or uncomfortable.
In The Work, Brian, exhausted, realizes he doesn’t need to lash out to prove himself. That there might be another, less toxic way. In the midst of #metoo movement revelations and in the shadow of high profile suicides like Anthony Bourdain’s, The Work models a roadmap to a healthier, less toxic masculinity for us all.
Jon Courtney is Co-founder and Events Programmer at SPACE.