The Inside Circle

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 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.

Each gathering consists of intense four-day sessions where several civilian volunteers and level-four convicts tear down their defenses and emotional barriers, laying their pasts bare in emotional and sometimes physical ways. The prisoners and civilians are brought face to face with the men they are and the men they want to become. They see themselves in each other and they not only hold each other accountable, but hold the space for each other to be vulnerable and challenge the misguided notions of masculinity that taught them to never show emotion.

Of the ex-convicts who’ve been part of Inside Circle and have been released on parole, none have found their way back behind bars. When compared to the nationwide recidivism rate of nearly 60%, it’s profound proof that group therapy and rehabilitative programs work. The 2017 documentary The Work features a powerful look into the Inside Circle, allowing us the rare look past the dehumanizing tropes to reveal a movement of change and redemption that transcends what we think of as rehabilitation.  

Four men from The Work are featured in the following images.

Rob Allbee in his backyard
Rob Allbee, 66

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.

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 full of a rage that he could only tamp down by shooting up heroin and he spent the next 18 years in a blur, in and out of prison. 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, he started writing, traveling and joining local men's support groups, 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. “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.”

He's the co-founder of Inside Circle.
In the circle we say, 'Only hurt people hurt people.'
Manuel Ruiz, 44

As a restless kid growing up in Southern California, 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.  Almost immediately after going to prison, he was thrown into solitary confinement 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.

After being transferred to Folsom prison, he became an Inner Circle participant. 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.

Ruiz uses that joy every day now.  In 2012, after serving 21 years of a life sentence, he was released on parole for good behavior.  In 2017, he met and married his wife 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.”
Manuel at home with his wife, Zury
When I thought I'd be in prison forever I thought, 'What am I going to do with myself?'

Eldra Jackson III, 46

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.

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.”  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 and 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.

Eldra at home with his son, Eldra Jackson IV and wife Holly
'Everything is different in prison. You look up and this same exact bright blue sky would look all grayed out.'

Rick Misener, 56

Rick Misener spent most of his life making sure everybody feared him. 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. I would love that when we walked down the hall, people would move out of the way for us.’

Even within Inside Circle, he made others uneasy. At first, he only participated at a bare-minimum. At the start of each meeting he'd say, 'I'm Rick. I'm in.' And at the end, he'd say, 'I'm Rick. I'm out.' He did this for a year's worth of weekly gatherings. He was then thrown in the hole for possessing a knife 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.

Once out of solitary confinement, Misener was ready to do the work. He had to come to terms with the fact that he had killed a man”something he'd 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?...not to mention on the victim's family.

After serving almost thirty years, Rick was recently released on parole. At his transitional home in Los Angeles, his housemates don’t know him as ‘Scary Rick’ or ‘ Crazy Snake’ 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.

Rick Misener on the porch of his transitional home in Los Angeles
Rick's folder of good behavior