Prisoners seek therapy in award-winning documentary The Work

The Work covers a four-day therapeutic retreat that happens inside the prison. PHOTO: FACEBOOK / THE WORK

SINGAPORE - Inmates in Folsom State Prison are risking their lives doing something outsiders would not associate with men behind bars.

They are putting their lives on the line to get therapy.

Jairus McLeary, director of the documentary The Work, says that the men in the California facility want to feel better so badly they are willing to cross the racial lines that split the prison population into gangs.

"You see Latino, Native American, Caucasian and African-American men talking to each other. That will never happen anywhere else," he tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco.

Information about who goes to the sessions is kept secret, lest the men are harmed for betraying the gang code, says McLeary, 43.

The Work covers a four-day therapeutic retreat that happens inside the prison. Inmates gather in circles and with the help of facilitators, open up for the first time about traumas buried in their psyches, sometimes from when they were children.

The Work will be screened on Sat Mar 23, 2 pm, at The Projector as part of the inaugural Happiness Film Festival. The screening will be followed by a dialogue session with former counsellors from the Singapore Prison Service and psychologists.

When the breakthroughs happen, they are dramatic - the large, sometimes well-muscled men explode into heaving sobs talking about fathers who walked out, or who physically abused them, while being hugged by fellow inmates of all races.

The programme they take part in is run by the non-profit Inside Circle Foundation, a group dedicated to providing opportunities for those in prison to help themselves and others through what it calls "human connection", with the goal of making sure that those released do not relapse, and those who remain inside no longer want to live violent lives.

The director's father, Dr James McLeary, is the chief executive of Inside Circle and an executive producer of the film. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the South by Southwest film festival in 2017.

The younger McLeary tells The Straits Times that having men lower walls they have built all their lives in the presence of men they trust goes some way in filling a cultural void.

In the West, the ritual of introducing boys into the community as men has largely been lost.

"We can get a driver's licence, or drink, or fight in the military, but do not have a specific ceremony for coming of age," he says.

Without it, there is a vacuum. That is when criminal gangs come in to provide boys with a sense of belonging and purpose, he explains.

"The gangs provide what's called a 'toxic initiation'," he says.

The Happiness Film Festival

Mar 20 - 24

Film screenings at The Projector, Golden Mile Tower, Beach Road

$15 for a single film, $36 for three different films

For bookings and information, go to

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