Since 2000, hundreds of men—civilians and convicts—have participated in Inside Circle, a support group and intensive training session that began at Folsom State Prison, a maximum-security facility 30 miles outside Sacramento, California. They came here to do “the work,” which can mean very different things to very different people: it can mean openly sobbing in a world that shuns emotion; it can mean allowing yourself to feel and hurt and rage and scream, to understand that your wounds can be your strength; it can mean seeking answers to the questions you cannot silence, and trusting that they lie somewhere within you.
Inside Circle was founded in 1996 by Patrick Nolan, an inmate serving a life sentence for murder who was looking for a way to address the “pain and hopelessness” he said he felt among prisoners at Folsom following a riot that resulted in the death of a fellow inmate. With the help of both ex-convicts and supporters on the outside, Inside Circle evolved to include intense four-day sessions, which were featured in the award-winning 2017 documentary The Work. During these sessions, participants break down emotional barriers and challenge the misguided notions of masculinity that taught them they could never show emotion and never cry.
The work may have begun behind prison walls, but it also continues on the outside, for the civilians who participated in the program and ex-convicts who have been released on parole. Here is what it means for five men, some of whom were featured in The Work, all from very different walks of life.
Eldra Jackson III
At least once a month, Eldra Jackson III takes his family out on their four-person speedboat, often to a favorite spot on Folsom Lake. From the water, Jackson can see the razor wire of the state prison where the 46-year-old once believed he would live out the rest of his days.
“It’s funny,” Jackson says one recent Sunday, sitting in his home with his wife, Holly, as his 2-year-old son naps and his 12-year-old stepson plays video games. “We were laying out yesterday and looking up at the sky, and the sky was super blue, with puffy white clouds. I knew that the sky was the same as the one inside. But I’ve been inside and I’ve looked up at the sky and seen this same sort of sky, and it just looked different.”
A lot looks different to Jackson these days. Since beginning work with Inside Circle in 2004 and learning to work through the trauma that set him on a violent path that led to his becoming a member of the Bloods, he has come to see the world through a different set of eyes than those of the angry kid who tore through Sacramento stealing cars, dealing drugs, and running guns.
It took him decades, as well as a life sentence for attempted murder at the age of 19, to get to this place. During his first decade of incarceration, Jackson was transferred from prison to prison because of his behavior, and was often held in solitary confinement for stabbing and fighting other inmates.
“The year I spent in county jail, I spent it in preparation for prison,” he says. “I got there and found the biggest knife that I could find and made certain that people looked at me like, ‘Yeah, he’s an idiot. Leave him alone.’”
In 2000, about nine years into his life sentence, Jackson ended up at Folsom, where Inside Circle had just been formed. It was in the circle that he finally explored the driving force behind his criminal actions. When he was seven or eight, he had been molested by his teenage babysitter and raped by her brother. The brother had threatened to rape Jackson’s four-year-old sister as well if Jackson didn’t have sex with him, and Jackson had emerged from that trauma believing that “caring about something, loving somebody, giving a damn, that puts me in a position to get hurt.”
It was emotional and difficult to open up that piece of himself, but Inside Circle is about breaking down cultural constraints around masculinity and helping men get in touch with their feelings. And it was liberating, Jackson says. For the first time in decades, he let himself be vulnerable. And by allowing himself to feel, he was able to take control of his life again.
Jackson was released on parole three years ago. He returned to Sacramento, the same city where he had come of age with the mind-set that he must hurt others before they could hurt him first. But now he travels those roads as a husband and father, fear and apathy no longer dictating his actions. He married his wife, Holly, whom he met after she became his pen pal while he was still in prison. Soon after came Eldra Jackson IV—the child Jackson never dreamed he would have. And now, as a traffic technician for a private company, his work sometimes brings him right near the prison he thought he would never leave alive.
These days, he goes out to Folsom Lake and relaxes under the same trees he once stared at from the yard of the prison, wondering about the people at the lake, splashing and carefree and unburdened. Now, he is one of them, buoyant and light atop the gentle waves.
Rob Allbee’s father beat the hell out of him when he was growing up, and before that, his father’s father beat the hell out of him, and his father’s father’s father beat the hell out of him. It was a cycle of pain and generational violence that shaped Allbee into a pissed-off kid from Sacramento who got hooked on heroin and was in and out of prison.
Forty years later, Allbee broke this cycle when he began doing “the work” himself, looking inward to explore the emotions behind all this violence. And as a cofounder of Inside Circle, Allbee has helped countless other families break this cycle for themselves.
Allbee, 66, never planned to step into this kind of role. As an abused and angry child, he had acted out and been in and out of juvenile hall; then, at 17, his best friend was fatally shot by a police officer while the two were committing a commercial burglary. Because of California’s “Felony-Murder” Rule, in which someone dies in connection with a felony, Allbee was charged with his friend’s murder and sent to prison until he was 22.
He came out five years later full of a rage that he could only tamp down by shooting up heroin; he spent the next 18 years in a blur, “running amok, riding motorcycles hard and living that lifestyle, and shooting heroin and dealing drugs and in and out of prison,” as he puts it.
Because of these choices, Allbee was absent for most of his first two sons’ childhoods. But before his third son’s birth, he realized he was facing what could be his last shot at being the sort of father he wished he’d had. He was growing sick of living without purpose and beginning to look for the answer to a question he had been asking his whole life: What are we all doing here?
To find that answer, Allbee started writing, traveling, and joining local men’s support groups in the Sacramento area, which allowed him to break through the binds of toxic masculinity that had kept him out of touch with his emotions and to explore his purpose in the world. From there, he learned about the importance not just of emotional health but also of having a solid community and system in place to give and receive support while working through feelings.
“What we began to discover was that we were all carrying around these huge bags of emotions and just barely keeping control of it,” he says. “At these men’s groups, they told me, ‘Here’s a spot where it’s safe to feel whatever you feel.’ That was the first time anyone said that to me.”
One day, an inmate named Pat Nolan asked Allbee, a published poet, if he would come to Folsom State Prison to teach a creative writing class. Though Allbee had sworn that he would never again set foot inside a prison, he agreed to Nolan’s request and soon came to realize how much the men in Folsom needed a peer-to-peer support group.
What Allbee and Nolan started became Inside Circle the year after Nolan died, in 2000, and now includes a four-day intensive training in addition to the support group, which meets once a week. Since 2000, more than 40 men who have gone through the program have been released on parole. For these men, Inside Circle was the push they needed to leave behind prison politics and violence, to rediscover their humanity and become worthy of release. None have returned to prison.
“We say in the circle, ‘Only hurt people hurt people,’” Allbee says. “A lot of these men have no example in their lives of what emotional, mental, or spiritual health looks like, and unfortunately, in prison, we don’t really do a good job of protecting or helping to manifest that example. But if they start to see someone else having a different life, they realize they can have a different life too.”
Rick Misener spent most of his life making sure everybody feared him. The Sacramento-area native knew he would never be the biggest or the strongest, so he had to be “the craziest, the toughest, the meanest.”
That’s why he joined up with motorcycle clubs after he got out of the Army in 1983, continuing down a path of crime he began as an overactive child bouncing in and out of juvenile hall in Northern California. That’s why he joined up with the Aryan Brotherhood soon after he was sentenced to life in prison in 1988 for luring two Marines into an armed robbery that resulted in murder of one of the soldiers.
“If you can scare people, you can be respected,” says Misener, 56, from his transitional home in Los Angeles. “And I loved it. I would love that when we walked down the hall, people would move out of the way for us.”
By the time he was transferred to Folsom State Prison in 1998, he had perfected this persona. Even within Inside Circle, people were uneasy.
“When he first showed up, I thought, ‘How the fuck did this guy get here?’” Rob Allbee says with a laugh.
One person to see through Misener’s act was Nolan, the Inside Circle cofounder. Nolan sponsored Misener’s admission to the group, but at first, the inmate participated only at a bare-minimum level.
“All he would say at the beginning of the meeting was, ‘I’m Rick. I’m in.’ And at the end, he’d say, ‘I’m Rick. I’m out,’” says Allbee. “That’s all he said for a year. A year of coming every week.”
Then Misener got thrown in the hole for possessing a knife—he said it was a misunderstanding—and as angry and on edge as he was, he found that he couldn’t hide from himself anymore.
“I remember they had those little stainless steel mirrors on the wall,” he says. “So I turned, and suddenly I was eye to eye with myself. I hadn’t done that in a very, very long time. And I hated that dude, just hated him. It dawned on me: I’m either going to die here or I’m going to be put in the position to kill someone. And that would be my legacy. When they’d ask, ‘Who was Rick?’ that would be the story that would be told.”
When he got out of solitary confinement, Misener was ready to do the work. And it was agonizing. He had to come to terms with the fact that he had killed a man—something he had been hiding from for years. “It’s not just the person who died—it’s so much bigger than that,” he says. “There’s a ripple that continues to this day because of that act. There’s 12 people in the jury who had to look at 8-by-10 glossies of someone who had their heart blown out. What impact did it have on them? What impact did it have on the ambulance drivers who had to pick that guy up? That’s not even talking about his family. Here it is, 30-something years later—how many generations have been born that don’t get to know him?”
Misener was released on parole in December. At his transitional home in Los Angeles, his housemates don’t know him as “Scary Rick,” as he was known in prison—to them, he’s the guy always willing to lend a hand, whether driving them to the DMV, starting men’s groups wherever he goes, or repainting the house trim in a vibrant blue.
“I took a life, so I owe a life,” Misener says. “If I owe a life, the only way I can pay it back is by living my life in a way that affects people in a positive way.”
“When I’m lying there dying, I’m going to smile,” he adds. “Because even after all of my dirt, all the blood on my hands, I will have done more good than bad. I will have helped a lot more people than I hurt. No one is going to say, ‘Oh yeah, that dude’s ex–Aryan Brotherhood. That dude’s an ex-patch-holder.’ They’re going to say, that’s the guy who showed me how to mourn my grandmother’s death. That’s the guy who started 22 men’s groups when there were only four. That’s going to be my legacy.”
Manuel Ruiz’s wife, Zury, calls him her “big kid,” because he’s constantly in motion and as enthusiastic and eager as his four young stepsons. Their outings always end up surpassing their plans—what starts as a hike might turn into a drive through the night to catch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, almost 500 miles away from their Anaheim home.
“I sat around for too many years, just watching TV,” Ruiz says with a laugh one afternoon as he kicks back on a plush easy chair in the family living room. “I’m not doing that now.”
It took years for Ruiz, 44, to get to a place where he could embrace this side of himself. He was a restless kid growing up in Southern California when he fell in with a local gang. He started drinking and fighting and getting arrested for gang-related crimes; then, when he was 17, some rival gang members challenged him outside a taco stand. He pulled out a gun and opened fire on them, paralyzing one boy, and was sentenced to life for attempted murder.
Ruiz was just as violent after he arrived at Pelican Bay State Prison in 1993; he was thrown into solitary confinement almost immediately for stabbing another inmate and remained in solitary for almost four years straight. He whiled away the long hours by reading everything he could, from poetry to Shakespeare to nonfiction, which led to him to ponder the sort of life he wanted to live.
“I had accepted the idea that I would never get out of prison,” he says. “So I started asking these reflective questions: What am I going to do with myself, what is my life going to be like while I’m here?”
After being released from solitary, Ruiz continued to expand his mind by reading everything he could get his hands on, and he was eventually transferred to Folsom State Prison for good behavior. There, he met Pat Nolan and got involved with Nolan’s efforts to form a men’s group. Through that work, he learned that what he had once perceived as a weakness—the directionless, childlike energy that led him to a life of crime—could actually be a strength.
With all the rage and sadness in these groups, Ruiz explains, sometimes what the men needed was to be big kids. He introduced a fort-building exercise, and in one particularly memorable session got all the men to play a giant game of duck-duck-goose. “My medicine is joy,” he says. “Week after week of looking at our wounds and blood and guts, it’s draining. It’s tiring. Being able to smile and laugh and have joy is work for some men as well. That’s as hard as doing that other hard stuff. That was something I could do. It’s easy for me to be connected to my joy and bring that joy out.”
Ruiz uses that joy every day now. After he was released on parole in 2012, he met and married Zury, taking on the role of stepfather to four boys and a teenage girl with gusto. The family has an ever-growing list of all the things they want to do: go skydiving, scuba diving, and ice skating, and ride in a helicopter.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t get to experience life,” he says. “I got busted when I was really young and even when I was young, I didn’t push myself. There’s just so much out there. There’s a world out there.”