SXSW ’17: Healing behind bars in “The Work”

For people who have no experience with the prison system, the media is often their source of information for what life is like behind bars. U.S. director Jairus McLeary says that’s ...
March 10, 2017

For people who have no experience with the prison system, the media is often their source of information for what life is like behind bars.

U.S. director Jairus McLeary says that’s how his opinion of penitentiary life was shaped, until he volunteered with Inside Circle Foundation (ICF). The California-based non-profit aims to give inmates in maximum-security prisons the tools to take responsibility for their emotional well-being using therapy.

McLeary says his experience working inside California’s Folsom State Prison in 2005 had such impact that he wanted to share his experience with the world.

“When I stepped inside that room, in the prison, it was so powerful—so not what I was expecting. It left an impression that kept coming back. I have never experienced anything like it: the truth and the honesty that happened in there,” he says.

McLeary says words often failed him when explaining to others his time in the program. He decided the best way to express his experience would be to film it.

He spent the next few years trying to gain permission into taping a four-day therapy session, which began with him getting the blessings from the founders of the ICF, who had to speak on McLeary’s behalf of to the inmates.

A discussion then took place about the potential repercussions of exposing what the inmates say during the therapy sessions. Once this was figured out, McLeary went to the prison administration for permission to film. It took about five years for this process to be complete, with shooting starting in 2009.

“We had to make people safe with the idea that we wouldn’t disrupt or do damage to the program—that the people who participated in front of the camera would be treated with the greatest respect we could give them,” says McLeary. “Nothing would happen in that room they didn’t want to happen.”

But there were other challenges that come with filming in a prison. As a security measure, McLeary had to send a notice of everything single piece of his equipment to the administration prior to shooting, which was then checked off when he was processed.

McLeary says once he was inside prison walls, he was concerned about how having a camera on the inmates would potentially change the way they would behave. He was also cautious of how his presence would influence the work the inmates were doing and the work within the system.

He asked his crew to take part in a retreat before filming so they knew what challenges to expect. When the crew began shooting, McLeary says it felt natural, and the inmates weren’t distracted by the cameras.

“There was an established relationship, not only with the administration, but with the men in the room,” says McLeary.

Raising money for the doc proved to be a challenge, with McLeary doing the fundraising with his family.

The money raised came from those who were sympathetic to the work being done by the non-profit organization or from those familiar with the process because they had either been in the therapy themselves, or were philanthropists. If people hadn’t heard about the program, it was difficult to secure funding, says McLeary.

“It was getting people to believe in a project that would have the power, if we are lucky, to add to the conversation of the types of people who are in the prison system. To not look at them as names and numbers, but as human beings,” said McLeary.

When director Gethin Aldous came onto the project during post-production to help shape the film, he also helped fundraise for the doc by soliciting individual donors.

Aldous hopes that a broadcaster with a broad reach will pick up The Work, to help inform the public about ICF and how it transform the lives of inmates by giving them the tools to transform themselves.

“There is this program that exists, that works. We just want to get this film out there as much as we can, to be seen, to be discussed, to be debated, for the men and their courage,” said Aldous.

  •  The Work world premieres March 11 at the Alamo Ritz 1
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.