Life Behind Bars

A unique and powerful documentary, The Work offers an insider perspective into group therapy sessions in Folsom State Prison, the maximum security institution near Sacramento, California. Just getting the cameras on the inside, amid some of the most dangerous inmates in the world, is fascinating in itself. But The Work offers further revelations. Twice a year, the prison opens its doors to a handful of outsiders to join these intensive sessions.

Directed by court videographer Jarius McLeary and Gethin Aldous, the result is potent and disturbing. Watching these hardened criminals – many of whom are serving life sentences and hold gang affiliations – break down in tears, howling in pain, as they go through a form of catharsis, is deeply unsettling. As disturbed as you might feel, eavesdropping this highly emotional and private soul cleansing, it is also transfixing to watch.

With the film’s participants going by first names only, The Work focuses just as closely on the three outsiders who join this pressure-cooker environment for four days. A Los Angeles bartender, a museum employee and a teacher’s assistant may, on the surface, seem like interested observers. Yet soon this trio are exploring their own deep-seated issues – parental rejection, an incarcerated father and so on – alongside these “Level 4” prisoners, and their breakdowns are just as shocking.

Shot in cinéma vérité style, with the camera hovering on the shoulders of the group, the level of intimacy that McLeary and Aldous obtain is quite startling. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s South By Southwest Festival, credit should also go to Thomas Curley and John M. Davis, the sound recorders who capture with unerring accuracy the painful cries of these participants.

Some may find the film’s lack of detail frustrating; there are no traditional talking heads-style interviews here. The experience is more immediate, with nearly all the scenes set inside the Folsom Chapel. Feeling like a long way from when Johnny Cash came and recorded his classic song At Folsom Prison, it’s an eye-opening insight into the psychological traumas felt by those who may never taste freedom again.

The Work opens in cinemas on 8 September. For more information:

James Mottram

1. Still from The Work. Courtesy of Dogwoof.