It’s hard to describe what Inside Circle is until you see it for yourself. Some might call it therapy, others a support group; it’s “not rocket science,” its volunteers repeatedly assert, yet it feels so revolutionary in its exploration of toxic masculinity that anyone who experiences it for himself may wonder if it could be the answer to all of society’s woes.
This inability to put into words something that has changed the lives of countless men was the force that drove the men of the McLeary family—James, the CEO of Inside Circle, and his three sons, Jairus, Eon, and Miles—to make The Work, a documentary showcasing the emotional self-discovery that comes with participating in Inside Circle, which takes place among inmates and civilians at California State Prison, Sacramento, part of the older Folsom State Prison complex.
The 89-minute film follows three men participating in one of the four-day sessions that McLeary, 69, brought to the prison program in 2000, expanding what was originally a weekly men’s support group for prisoners to something open to men from the outside as well. In the prison chapel, the film’s subjects meet with former members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Bloods, the Sureños, and various other racially segregated prison gangs, who leave their affiliations at the door each week to work through emotions they have been conditioned to hide for most of their lives.
All of James McLeary’s sons have gone through the four-day intensive training captured in the documentary and returned to the prison multiple times to help facilitate the sessions, which include introspection about the ways male-to-male relationships can help and hurt men and the people around them. The experience left a profound impression on all of them.
“I had never seen anything like what happens in that room,” says Jairus, 42, who codirected the film with Gethin Aldous. “What those guys were trying to do with one another, let alone with people from the streets—we just had a really strong feeling that this was something that people needed to see.”
There is no magic question or technique that eases Inside Circle participants into introspection. The circle itself is key—by creating a “sacred space,” the men feel safe enough to explore their pain. They place a candle in the middle of the circle as a central point, giving the group the feel of a campfire gathering, and regularly check in on each participant’s “state of being.”
“The trust and safety of the group is what allows a man to get to the rage place,” James McLeary says. “That rage is always sitting there because prison is an inhumane place, but it’s not acceptable to bring it out. The safety and trust of the group allows it to come out so the men can go on to work on whatever they need to work on.”
Within the first 20 minutes of the film, a tough-looking gang member named Kiki breaks down over his fear of never being able to mourn his sister’s death. “I don’t want to bottle up that little kid, that little kid who used to cry when his daddy would whoop his ass,” he says, crumpling onto the floor, sobbing and screaming as the other men close in around him and hold him on the ground.
It’s a jarring scene, watching a man with that sort of machismo swagger dissolve like that. But the most disconcerting part is realizing that one reason it’s jarring is that it’s rare to see any man express emotion as openly as Kiki does in these early moments of the film.
“This patriarchal, traditional way that men are brought up, especially in Western culture, is sort of in a warrior point of view in which there’s a stoicism you’re supposed to project,” McLeary says one morning during an interview in his San Rafael home. “As a man, there’s no emotion you really can show but anger, and anger is the cork in the bottle that holds down your other emotions.”
McLeary got involved in this line of work more than two decades ago, when he was 42. A forensic clinical psychologist who climbed his way out of the crime and violence of Chicago’s South Side, McLeary never thought that he had anything to work through, but when his brother-in-law introduced him to the ManKind Project—a similar sort of training in emotional literacy for men—“I got hooked,” he says.
McLeary began facilitating his own trainings around the country, attracting men looking for something more in life. The basis behind the trainings is what McLeary refers to as the 'rite of passage'—which involves men reaching their full potential with the support and backing of other men; an initiation into a new kind of manhood. The training sessions serve as a sort of ritual and ceremony that have fallen by the wayside in today’s society but are necessary for creating a sense of self within a community.
Around this time, Patrick Nolan, an inmate at Folsom serving a life sentence for murder, was looking for a way to address the heavy “pain and hopelessness” he said he felt throughout the prison following a 1996 riot that resulted in the death of a fellow inmate. Nolan began talking with Rob Allbee, a Sacramento-based ex-convict who had been attending men’s support groups on the outside and had been volunteering at the prison, teaching creative writing. Together, with prison chaplain Dennis Merino, they formed a men’s group in the prison, but now they wanted to take it further. They wanted the sort of intensive sessions that James McLeary was running.
“He came to me and said, ‘I’d like to pull one of these things off in prison,’” McLeary says of Allbee. “And I was like, ‘Dude, if you can pull this off at a level-four maximum-security prison, you can count on me.’ I actually never thought for one minute that it would happen. He called me six months later.” With the help of Bob Petersen and Don Morrison, civilians experienced in facilitating trainings and running men’s support groups, Inside Circle, as it exists today, came to fruition in 2000, just after Nolan’s death from hepatitis C.
From the beginning, Nolan had felt that the program needed to include men from the outside, not just to facilitate discussion but also so that these non-incarcerated participants might undergo the same sort of emotional self-discovery as the inmates. The exposure would work both ways for the men on the inside and those on the outside: the prisoners would get to interact with walking-and-talking examples of what their lives could be, and the non-incarcerated would gain a better understanding of a population that is too easily written off.
“Nolan always believed that the outside world should be part of the inside world, and if that was the case, then the outside world could not allow for this inside world to exist as it exists,” James McLeary says.
It took a lot of negotiating with the prison administration, which had to be convinced of the value of such a program. There are no guards in the room during Inside Circle groups, a necessary exclusion to allow the inmates to trust the group’s participants enough to reveal their vulnerability, and the inmates are often worked into a place of rage and violence. It’s something the facilitators prepare for by having the men in the circle respond in a way that will minimize harm, sometimes by coming in close or surrounding the hurting party with pillows.
“That first training was so intense that none of us could believe what had happened,” McLeary says. In all the group sessions he had facilitated prior to his first session in the prison in 2000, he had never seen anything as extreme as what unfolded in that room. Tensions ran so high that at one point an inmate threatened the life of another, but the men were somehow able to emerge from hatred to reach a place of forgiveness and peace. “Someone’s life was going to be taken, and it had gotten worked out,” McLeary explains. “I couldn’t believe it.”
McLeary felt it was only natural to get his three sons involved. They were all still in school at the time, with Eon was studying to be a lawyer. McLeary’s own awakening had opened up this world to them, allowing all three to mature into manhood with emotional literacy and an appreciation for their vulnerability—but still they were taken aback when their father asked them to go behind bars.
“Going there felt like coming face-to-face with a dragon,” says Miles, 39, remembering his first trip to Folsom in 2001. “It was 90 degrees, and it takes several hours to get from the parking lot to the chapel, going through these different gates. It’s a descent, and there’s no dialogue. It’s terrifying. And then actually getting into the chapel, and it’s just a room, and there’s no separation from the people inside? And then having to be authentic with people who define authenticity? It was just different layers of fear. But it was what I needed.”
What they found unique to this work was that convicts do not suffer fools. “You cannot BS your way inside a prison,” says Eon, 44. “They see right through you, and it’s scary.”
The McLearys were aware of the sort of perceptions people have of those in prison, and in making The Work, they wanted to show that these men are not just human beings but also human beings with value, with a gift for understanding the human experience that few people on the outside have.
“We look at them and see the worst thing they have ever done,” Jairus says. “Some of these men committed crimes when they were 18 years old, and now they’re in prison and they’re 40. To condemn a human being for something they did years ago, and then to show them as the person they are now and the things they are doing to become a better human being—I thought that was very important.”
Jairus, who grew up wanting to be a filmmaker and studied film, had been planning out the documentary for a few years before it became a family endeavor. Each family member possessed a certain skill set needed to see the The Work through to completion: James McLeary had already been in touch with the prison administration for some time, and Eon, a recent law-school graduate with a knack for talking to people, helped negotiate access for the film crews. Miles had the technical skills necessary for working with the footage and equipment, and the mother of the three brothers, Blue—the only McLeary without a film credit—provided much-needed support and encouragement to get her family across the finish line.
The dynamic of three sons collaborating with their father on such a project is especially significant; several inmates in the film share the influence their abusive or overbearing or absent fathers had on their actions later on in life. The New York Times review of The Work went so far as to say that “crime in this country could be drastically reduced if only more fathers were around to raise their sons.”
But it takes more than just showing up, McLeary says. His sons joke that for the longest time, they saw their father cry just once a year, whenever they’d watch It’s a Wonderful Life during the holidays. The tears always came at the same scene, when George Bailey loses his money and is overcome by a sense of despair. It was a moment McLeary was all too familiar with from having to provide for himself as a young man when his mentally ill mother and absentee father did not. During these viewings, he would tell his sons that he had something in his eye. But that unwillingness to express emotion changed after he started working with the ManKind Project.
“I think the one thing I learned from watching my parents be vulnerable is that as a parent, it’s the one job where you’re guaranteed to mess up,” Jairus says. “You’re going to make mistakes. I think what I learned from them was to be vulnerable while you’re making those mistakes, and then to be able to discuss those quote-unquote mistakes, and then those mistakes can turn into something positive.”
Improvements in the McLearys’ emotional health and connection to one another didn’t mean there weren’t tense moments during the making of the documentary. They had their share of personality clashes—as the father, McLeary had to fight the urge to act like the big boss—and because they began filming in 2008, right when the recession hit, they had trouble securing the funding they needed to complete the project.
The sons had been sharing a cabin in Topanga Canyon, outside Los Angeles, thinking that the arrangement would be temporary, a few years at most. Their finances eventually got so tight that Eon had to get part-time work at an outdoor clothing-gear store so they could buy a discounted hot plate to heat up water for showers when they couldn’t afford to pay their water bill. Jairus jokes that one of the film’s biggest investors was their landlady, who let them fall behind on their rent. “They looked like scarecrows every time I saw them,” says Blue.
The documentary was Jairus’s first film as a director, but McLeary had previously met Gethin Aldous, a director with documentary filmmaking experience. By stepping in as codirector, Aldous helped connect the family to others with expertise and move the project along.
Their efforts ultimately paid off, and the result is a film that humanizes prisoners while also making their suffering relatable by focusing on the non-incarcerated—including a bartender the sons met while living in Topanga Canyon—thereby sending a message that everyone carries a certain amount of heavy, legacy-defining emotional baggage. “They have the same pain,” Jairus explains.
The McLearys wanted to show that these men are not just human beings but also human beings with value, with a gift for understanding the human experience that few people on the outside have.
The family plans to continue doing the work, whether it be the personal introspection they do on their own every day or the work they do with the men of Inside Circle. McLeary continues to run sessions around the country and is working to expand Inside Circle to other prisons. Though it remains to be seen if there will be more family-produced documentaries to come, Jairus is currently exploring a way to tell the life story of Inside Circle cofounder Patrick Nolan. What is certain is that the McLearys will go forth, open and authentic and together.
“In The Last of the Mohicans, the scene when they’re all running together, the father and the sons, nobody is better than anybody else, each relying on the other person’s skill set in the hunt—that’s kind of how I see us,” says James McLeary, recalling the 1992 film. “We’re all in the hunt and we’re all relying on each other.”