Ex-Convicts Tell Us How They Learned to Cry

How a rare program at Folsom State Prison changed lives.

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Jun 22 2018, 5:55pm

Image courtesy of The Work. 

Eldra 'Vegas' III Jackson served a partial life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping, but when when we recently chatted by phone, I immediately got the sense he’s now living a very different life. At first I heard a ruckus on the other end of the line—a couple of shuffles here and some outside greetings there before his voice, “I’m sorry man, I’m actually working right now,” he said. “Give me a sec.”

It takes a serious amount of self-improvement for a person like him to be in the situation that he’s in, and he credits it all to his involvement in a documentary called The Work, a glimpse into an emotional four-day self-help session for prisoners dealing with pent-up issues

In the documentary, (which can be seen here), testosterone-filled convicts like Jackson were placed in a single room at Folsom State Prison, engaging with civilians about everything from fatherhood, to manhood and weakness. Co-directors Jairus McLearly and Gethin Aldous eased viewers in by introducing cameras into a session without interference, as hardened inmates allowed repressed feelings to explode into eye-opening moments of fear and rage.

Years have passed since the reform program began in 2004 at Folsom State California, and it was October 27, 2017 when a portion of that session was released through The Work. The men themselves seemed so real back then. They were raw, truthful, and now free. After my viewing, I had to know if it was all as impactful as things seemed. What became of this prisoner Jackson and another participant like Manuel 'Manny' Ruiz? Did The Work really help? Did they learn anything? Was it worth it? Both men answered my questions.

VICE: How did you face all the shit you had going on before entering The Work program?
Eldra 'Vegas' III Jackson: The way most guys dealt with the sort of issues I had...with denial. Not recognizing or feeling like I had issues to begin with, in my mind I was always good and the issues came from everyone else. Somebody else told and somebody else snitched.

So how would all that manifest?
Jackson: Largely, it would manifest in me just wanting to hurt people and live a life that was self destructive to anyone in my way. If you were in my zone, you were at risk because I’d explode in any situation for any reason. Any slight and my response to that slight would be totally out of proportion to the infraction.

So you find out about this program, but how hard was it in truth, man? I have my own issues with being vulnerable. But this is a prison, where weaknesses can be used. It’s a lot to ask for.
Jackson: (Laughs) Oh most definitely. The first time I went in after my introduction and being welcomed, I actually got to witness a man in his work. My first impression told me that this was some heavy shit. But it felt like exactly where I needed to be because I could see the guy’s pain. I could see what it was doing for him and understood what the word “work” meant as it appeared to me. You could connect to it and I hadn’t had any kinda emotional connection like that with anyone in years.

Manuel 'Manny' Ruiz: Man when I first started with all that intensity and emotion, it was a slow progression. It wasn’t really shocking but it still blew my hair back. I had never seen anything like it. And it was only four of us at the time during that first session. Over time you get really hungry for it though because we were exposed to what it was like to do emotional work for the first time, and it was an eye-opener and intense. Everyone felt this something in their hearts that felt so strong and magnetic. We had to keep having it.

There are a ton of scenes where you’re playing the role of teacher, especially to a man who felt suicidal. How much of a blessing is it to know that you can be that real with a person in that kind of environment?
Jackson: Oh man, it feels like home man. It’s what my natural state is supposed to be, and everyone’s natural state. To be able to drop off all of the facade and say something from the heart without having to be judged. That’s a natural human state and that’s who I am. As prisoners with obvious issues, having a space like that will always feel like freedom to me man. Complete freedom.

Ruiz: I’m laughing because you said the word that came to mind, what a damn blessing. When I tell people that my 20-year stint in prison was exactly that, they look at me like I’m crazy. I learned about the kind of person that I am and the lessons that came along the way. I’m the kinda guy that had to put my hand on a burning stove before I knew that it could burn. So I walked into this program hearing men speaking their truths and that made me comfortable to just be in my own skin. In prison, you’re running counter to everyone else, trying to put on airs. But here, I don’t have to look like a killer or something. I can be sensitive, happy and have connections to what I feel. It’s why I love that word. It’s absolutely true.

I ask, because there’s this idea that prison does the opposite of reform. It actually removes you from a law-abiding society, and makes better criminals because you can’t really talk about this shit. Having been in the system, how do you guys view that?
Jackson: Man...listen, I learned how to cry and love. I learned how that it’s cool for me to be vulnerable and open in a way that allows others to love me as well. I also learned how to communicate openly and honestly about who I was and what I was thinking and feeling. That’s one of the strongest takeaways of a reform program like this. That moment of learning how to identify with feelings. A lot of us come in with a lack of emotional identification and that’s when things can get dangerous. Because people like me will act from an unconscious place where we can be subject to do anything to anybody around us.

Manuel 'Manny' Ruiz: I’ll chime in by saying that the culture from the top down, I’m talking about custody staff and the like, have a very jaded outlook on rehabilitation and prisoners in of itself. With good reason though I’d say. And so with that type of culture, I’ve seen prisoners who were seen as absolute pieces of crap and non redeemable. When efforts are made to bettering oneself, it’s looked at with skepticism. That jaded outlook from the top down becomes a culture where a person isn’t going to believe in the good they’re doing, even when attempting to. That was a struggle for me, to be amongst those attitudes in a prison that held me for 19 years. Their just weren’t enough people trying to get out, and for those that were on the way out, they’d keep to themselves. It was hard trying to find those ways to better myself absent role models and encouragement. You’re just seen as a guy trying to game the system so the belief in rehabilitation and reform is weak all around.

I watched it and saw the benefit that extended beyond just prisoners. I feel like you’d have to be self-righteous to watch not see the benefits of proper reform.
Jackson: Right. And my recommendation and challenge would be for anyone to participate in a program like this. Not just prisoners but everyone. If everyone did their own version of The Work to address issues about themselves along with the prison and court system, the things we’d associate with everything that’s wrong with them both would no longer be an issue. We’d have people more in touch with their own humanity and sense of self. An authenticity in knowing right from wrong in making decisions. We’d see this all from a whole different place.

Ruiz: Listen, we grew up reading the Art of War on the inside and we used it for negative reasons, to get the up on someone. But that quote where it says, “know your enemy as you'd know yourself and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat,” I began to see what it really meant over time. If I knew the people I victimized as much as I knew myself, and if they knew me as well as they knew themselves, we never would have had to battle. We’d be in touch with our humanity. If only we all were able to relate to each other purely on that level.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

Watch the full documentary The Work for free over at Topic.com.

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