Eon McLeary and Manuel Ruiz on ‘The Work’ Documentary and Mental Health in Prison (Audio and Transcript)
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, a pretentious title, but the intelligence comes from my guests, not from me. And we have to, like to have a wide-range of guests with different life experience. And what I like about the guests today, they’re involved with a film called “The Work,” which does not convey, really, the excitement of the film. But it’s a chance to see inside this huge population of 2.3 million people in one kind of incarceration or another in the United States. And for most people, they’re kind of a throwaway population; out of sight, out of mind; the assumption that they’re criminals, that they’re not, cannot be rehabilitated.
And what this movie does is it visits a program that I think has been in existence for 17 years, which comes from the opposite way: it says, you know, these are important human beings; they have souls, they have feelings, they have experience; and they can be rehabilitated. And it’s a program that’s been successful, at least for 40 human beings, who, not one has returned, I gathered those statistics. So let me begin by introducing my guests, because you come from opposite sides of this.
First of all, we have one of the filmmakers, Eon McLeary, right here, who made the film. And then we have one of the stars, in a way, of the film; because the film centers on a program of confrontation that goes on twice a year for four days, and builds on a weekly program of self-examination and criticism, and kind of a 12-step program that takes place in Folsom Prison. Made famous by Johnny Cash, but also one of the big maximum-security prisons in California. And we have Manuel “Manny” Ruiz, who was there for, how long were you in Folsom, and you were also in Pelican Bay, probably the most fearsome prison in the country, or one of them.
Manuel Ruiz: I was incarcerated for a total of 21 years, and four of those years were spent in Pelican Bay. I was in Folsom two separate times, once in the early nineties–I’d say when I first came to prison, ‘92, I was there for a short term, and then I came back in ‘97.
RS: And you were 16, 17 when you–
MR: I was 18, I had just turned 18 when I was arrested for this crime. I committed my crime when I was 17 years old.
RS: And what was that crime?
MR: Attempted murder for a gang shooting, where I shot three men.
RS: And here in Southern California, or–?
MR: Yeah, right here in Southern California, in front of my neighborhood.
RS: You want to tell us about that?
MR: I grew up in San Gabriel Valley, I grew up in La Puente. As a teen, I was very high energy, and didn’t know how to direct my energy. And I had my friends, and we started being mischievous as youngsters. And that just led on to being more than mischievous, and I got into gangs. And in my teenage years, when I was 17, I got confronted by rival gang members, and it’s like during the early nineties there was a lot of drive-bys, a lot of shootings, and the gang problem was really taking off, and I was a part of it.
RS: And you’re also one of the stars in this film. Because the film involves, twice a year at Folsom, they admit people from outside, and they meet with people in the prison population who have been going through these weekly sessions. And there’s, it’s a confrontation going both ways. And in the film, you’re actually at one point with the person who’s come in, and these people are also looking for answers, and questions, and also maybe they could end up in prison if their life had gone a different way or goes a different way.
And what struck me about this film, every time I visit this subject, either through a documentary or what have you, or interviewing people, we’re reminded that, you know, the people in prison can be very smart, can be very complex, have been through a struggle. And they are us. And so watching this documentary, you are actually one of the leaders bringing sanity, including for the people who came in as outsiders, because they have a breakdown. And you spot that at the beginning, you say wait a minute, we’re not the only patients here; these outsiders are coming in because they, too, need this kind of treatment.
MR: Well, to me, I recognize that there’s a, in myself, when I got into the group, I was not in touch with my emotions. That’s the gist of it for me. I was out of touch with how I felt. I didn’t know how to deal with how I felt, and I suppressed a lot of what I felt. And that informed my behavior, and informed my decision-making. And the more I worked, doing the weekly groups where I was modeled by other men who had been doing this type of work, how to be in integrity, how to know what it is that I’m feeling and how to respond appropriately with the emotions that come up, I got better at it. And I worked with other men; we all learned how to be emotionally literate, and to work with our feelings.
Then, seeing other people, whether other prisoners or people from the outside who do not know how to deal with their emotions, and just go through life with a mask–just like we would do inside prison, walk the yard and put on a mask. But nobody knows who I really am. Most times I don’t even know who I really am, unless I do that introspective work. Seeing people from the outside who aren’t in touch with themselves, it was easy to spot. And they might not be making the mistakes like, or the bad decisions like I did, or the people that I was doing time with. But they may not be that happy with themselves, and they may not be that happy with their lives and where they’re at. And that was something I definitely spotted with the guy that I was with. He wasn’t happy with his life and his place in it. That was obvious.
RS: OK. I want to ask you to tell me, what is it like to be in a maximum security prison. And you’ve been in some of the worst; I mean, you were at Pelican Bay and so forth. To me it’s almost incomprehensible; I’ve been in jail for maybe 24 hours or something, I mean I’ve been, you know, not always under good circumstances, but there’s been awareness there’s other people outside getting me out, that I have a good case, and so forth. And even that was terrifying, I have to admit. And then when I interview someone who’s been in for year after year after year, and in your case, when you first went in, you know, you didn’t even know if you’d be getting out.
MR: Yeah, I believed I wasn’t getting out of prison. And honestly, I was afraid when I was inside of prison. But I would never show that to anybody. The last thing I would ever show anybody is what I considered being vulnerable or weak, or what anybody else would say: That guy’s, you know, kind of soft or weak, or that’s easy prey. And so when I talked about people wearing masks, you know, on the outside–inside prison, we were all putting on masks, every time we stepped out of our cell doors. And yeah, Pelican Bay was a scary place to be; Folsom was a very scary place to be. But I did my best not to let that fear come up.
And I had to compensate, overcompensate to battle that fear. So I would, I would hurt other people. Yeah, that’s–it’s the best way for me to put it, just–I was so afraid, I would rather hurt other people than get hurt. And so I did. I got in trouble, I was involved with a lot of violence. And not because I was angry with anybody, not because I had anything against anybody else, but I would rather not be taken advantage of, and if people were afraid of me, then the better.
RS: Well, and in this movie, “The Work”–and why is that the title, by the way? Let me ask the filmmaker, Eon McLeary.
Eon McLeary: The reason that it’s the title, I mean, we kind of wrestled with what the title would be. But that’s, like, a colloquialism of sort of the organization, when you are sort of confronting whatever that place of pain is, or whatever that thing is you’re trying to avoid, it’s work. That is what your work is, and the whole package of what you will have to do to untangle all that, that’s your work. When [unclear] at the end, he’s sitting in the circle, he’s the one with the red shirt, you know, and he ties it all together and says, “This is the work.” You know, “This is the work, y’all.” And so we’re like, OK, that’s the title.
RS: By the way, this film is going to be available on, well, it is available by the time we broadcast this, on Topic.com. So with this conversation, my goal here is to get you interested, people listening to this. And you got to watch this. Because it challenges the basic mythology of the “lock ‘em up, throw away the key” mentality, which is being challenged across the country now. You meet human beings who, as you say, on the yard or previously, could be at each other’s throats. You got the white racist, you know, and you got the Native American talking about his mythology and history, and you got the most varied group of people in this film, in this little session where they’re going to be together for four days, but they meet weekly.
And they’re doing the thing that other people think you can’t do. And one reason I’m very sympathetic to this movie is over the years, I spent a lot of time paying attention to a group called Delancey Street. And that’s not the group involved here, but they do very similar kind of programs and break down your resistance and think about it a different way. So let’s talk a little bit about the group that you feature in this movie, that brought you together, the Inside Circle Foundation. I think your father–I’m talking to the filmmaker, Eon McLeary; I have to remind myself I’m on radio, I’m not doing video–but your father was involved with this group.
EM: Yeah, my dad, he’s a different kind of guy, and he has done this kind of work, really, all over the world. And in the late nineties he bumped into somebody–
RS: What’s his name?
EM: James McLeary, Dr. James McLeary. He bumped into someone doing something like this on the outside, and that gentleman was in Folsom at one point, or in prison, incarcerated at one point. And he said, if we can do this in prison, in Folsom Prison, will you help? And my dad said yes, not expecting that that would ever come to pass; you know, why would an administration allow sort of all this infrastructure, you know, to come into the prison. But he called my dad up about six months later and said: It’s on. So my dad, he showed up, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into; I don’t think anyone did. They did a pilot program over old Folsom, which is a level two. And the warden said, if you can get it done on level two with no problem, you can bring it to the level four, which is on the same grounds.
RS: And just tell people what the difference is between these levels.
EM: Yeah. So the levels in California, it goes from one to four, and four being the most severe.
MR: Maximum security.
EM: Yeah, maximum security.
MR: So they’re security levels. So you have minimum security, medium security, maximum security, and then, like, supermax, they can’t go any further unless they shoot you to space. But basically, that’s what the level fours are, is maximum security.
RS: And that’s what the new Folsom is.
RS: And that’s what the film is based on.
RS: So you got the hardest of the hard here, OK.
EM: Correct. Yeah, they basically wanted to see, before they brought it in to the volatile sort of container, they wanted to see if it could go smoothly in the level two.
RS: And just for people who might think this is a nice, pie-in-the-sky idea that’s going nowhere, you’ve been, they’ve been doing it for 17 years.
EM: Yes, they’ve been doing it for 17 years.
RS: OK, so it’s real, and it works, to the degree that the people who’ve gotten out don’t come back.
EM: I mean, honestly, it’s not even just, I mean, from my personal perspective, it’s not even just that it works, they don’t come back. It’s, I’ve spoken with some of these men who’ve been on the outside, and they tell me a sequence of events where there was a conflict that was going to end badly for the other person involved, and if they had not done this training, maybe that person wouldn’t, other person wouldn’t be here. So it’s, it is, it basically just sort of removes the trigger–or it slows the time between the trigger and reaction. And it’s effective.
RS: Well, it’s–let me ask Manny, because you were one of the prisoners. When you look across, and I’ll describe you–well, tell me about your background. You’re–
MR: I’m Hispanic. I grew up in San Gabriel Valley. And like I said, my days of gangs were proliferate. I went to Catholic–I went to Catholic school. I was an altar boy when I was in the third or fourth grade. [Laughs] My family was, I had my mom and my dad until they separated when I was in third or fourth grade. I had a very nuclear family life where we sat around the table, prayed, pass the peas, how was your day at school. And I have that background, but I also have my friends that I grew up with, and we all got in trouble the same way as we got older.
RS: So when you were in this, in the film, and at Topic.com some people can see what we’re talking about, you’re one of the stars. And you’re looking across, you know, a small group–what, how many, about 12 in the groups?
EM: Twelve, 15, something like that.
RS: And there’s a whole series of these groups. You’re looking over at a guy who is avowedly a white racist, right?
MR: Oh, crossing the lines inside the group was a big, big thing. Because I’m Hispanic, and inside prison, racial lines are, to this day, are, they’re what we live by. So the whites hang out with the whites, the blacks hang out with the blacks, the Mexicans hang out with the Mexicans, you know what I’m saying. That’s how it is inside prison. The whole culture of racial boundaries inside prison is a bizarre world; it’s not like it is out here in the streets, but that’s how we live inside prison. So to go into a chapel, take off that mask, that yard mask, and to sit across somebody of a different race was a huge thing for me to do, from the first day that I went into the circle. I was the only Hispanic in that circle, Hispanic gang member in that circle. I didn’t have any of my peers around me; I had some white men, some black men, some Native American men. And I thought, well, it’s easier for me to say what I want to say and do what I want to do, because once we step outside, we are not going to talk to each other [Laughs] on the yard. I don’t have to worry about ‘em.
RS: But you’re showing vulnerability, I mean–
MR: Well, what I got from the first day that I walked into that circle was, these men were vulnerable. And there were older men; I was in my twenties, still, when I started going to this group.
RS: How old are you now?
MR: I’m going to be 45. So I was in my twenties, I had been incarcerated for five years. The thing, I was a part of that group from 1997 until I paroled–well, ‘til I left, in 2011. So like 14 years, I was going to circles once a week. And like I said, when I first started and I saw blacks and whites and Native American men right there, they were all in their forties. They had some stature, they had been around the, you know, prisons for a while, and they had some respect. And most of them were, if not all of them, were life prisoners, they were lifers; they were never going to get out. So seeing that, seeing older men, lifers, having some respect and carrying themselves in a different way, and speaking about themselves, speaking about what they thought and what they felt, blew me away. So the line, that racial line, was evaporated then and there. Because now it’s a human connection. I’m feeling my feelings, which I was afraid of; I didn’t know who to share them with, and I didn’t know what to do with them; I’m finding other men who feel the same way.
RS: Yeah, but in the movie, you make a–there’s a lot made about betrayal, when are you betrayed in life, and so forth. Didn’t you have that feeling, that when you get back out on the yard, they’re going to use your vulnerability against you, or you’re gonna–?
MR: Well, the thing about this group is that we built that trust up. We built trust with each other by–one of the greatest metaphors that we used, one of our mentors, one of my mentors, says: Well, if I’m sitting around guys that I don’t know, I’m not going to put my ace card or my king card up on the table; I might put a 2. I’ll put a 3, and see how it’s taken, see how people react. And if nothing bad happens, I’ll be like, OK, I’ll pull my hand back; then next time I’ll put a 4, or maybe a 6. You see, that’s how that trust–and we were all doing that with each other from the early days. So we were together for a long–there was like a group of men who were long-term members, and this trust got built up over time.
RS: When you say members, people should know we’re talking about the Inside Circle Foundation, which kind of convened all of this. And let me ask you about the role of religion. You talk about your own religious background. And to the degree I know anything about the effort to have rehabilitation in the prisons, it mostly is coming from religious organizations, particularly in the South, or you know, at least there’s the recognition that all of us have a soul. Does that come up in this at all?
MR: You hear “spirit” all the time. And so that’s a generic term, but it’s a capital “S” spirit, because I do rely on spirit; it’s that thing within myself, it could be whatever religious background a person comes from. Everyone uses and feels that term, because there is something happening when we come together with this intention, and we’re coming broken men with broken hearts. But when we do our work, there’s some healing going on; that’s spirit.
RS: It’s really interesting. Because you know, right now, the conversation has even been coarsened by our president, Trump, you know. And he refers very casually to “animals,” you know, anybody who was in a gang, they’re “animals,” and lock them up, we don’t want, we’re not hurting regular people, we’re hurting animals, you know. And that word would apply to some of the people that you’re in your circle with; I mean, they did, some of them, heinous crimes, they’re not claiming innocence, and so forth. And yet their humanity–and this is what’s powerful about this film to me–you can’t deny their humanity.
MR: Once their humanity–I love that word, I love that–is recognized and acknowledged by other people, if somebody else sees it in me, I’ll start feeling it in myself. But definitely that disconnect between my own humanity is what caused me to commit my crime in the first place. When I was 17 years old, if I didn’t care about myself, if I didn’t feel in touch with that, I could do anything to anybody without giving it much thought.
RS: [omission for station break] Our guests are “Manny” Manuel Ruiz, who was in prison for I guess 21 years, and Eon McLeary, who made this, was one of two directors, along with his brother, made this film, which is available on Topic.com. I want to switch the discussion a little bit about what’s happening with our prisons. And when we were talking before, the prison industrial complex has become a big industry. And you were mentioning, when you first went into the prisons they were gang-run, and you can describe that. And then they become a great source of–and we’re talking here in California, in case people are listening elsewhere, where Folsom prison is, where this was documented. But if you drive up the state, you know, on Highway 5, 99 and so forth, you go through one prison after another. And those prisons are now central to the economy of those communities, you know. And those are where the guards come from and so forth, you know. And you were describing kind of, well, now the guards have taken over, and they’re politically very powerful.
MR: I was talking about how they run the prisons. And so the emphasis is on, from my observations when I was inside, is that, what I’m saying, they run the prisons. The prisoners don’t have much choice anymore. What they say is what goes. And they have their finger on the button to let a person out the cell, or not let them out the cell. If there’s programs to help prisoners, it’s up to them to say yes or no. That’s a little bit of what I was referring to, how we used to have, prisoners used to have some control about how they ran their life inside prison. Not anymore; it’s very controlled. It’s very controlled from the top down, as a management, as a way of managing the prison population. As long as they’re managing it, it doesn’t matter if people are getting healed or if people are rehabilitating, or if people are learning job skills, education, so they don’t come back–that’s not an important thing anymore when, according to management, we just gotta keep everybody safe.
RS: You mentioned being in Pelican Bay, and the federal courts came down hard on Pelican Bay and said, no, this is cruel and unusual punishment, keeping people in solitary for very long periods of time, and so forth; I’m sure there’s some of that in Folsom, the new Folsom, also. But it’s interesting, if it becomes and industry and you’re in that industry, well, your product is getting more of these prisoners.
MR: In Pelican Bay, one of the famous things they say is, “This is the worst of the worst. These prisoners are the worst of the worst.” We talked earlier about how one loses touch with their humanity, how I felt I was lost, I didn’t feel I was in touch with my humanity. I didn’t think this when I was there for those four years, that I was the worst of the worst; I didn’t think I was that type of person. I didn’t think I was an animal, or anything like that. I wasn’t, you know, just a lost soul. I didn’t believe that about myself. But over those years of being treated as “worst of the worst,” when I was released, I had an inclination to hurt the man next to me just because they took the handcuffs off me.
Inside Pelican Bay, you’re always handcuffed. You’re shackled when you go to the law library, to anywhere–when you come out your cell, you are held in a restraint so that you cannot touch another person. So after just, I was only there for four years, remove the handcuffs from me, and the inclination comes up, says–you just let out a caged beast! Let me hurt the person next to me–for no reason! That struck me in my mind. It happened two times, within the first two weeks I was released, when it was just the physical thing of releasing the cuffs off my wrists–inside of me says, “Hurt somebody.” You know, act like a caged, an animal uncaged, a beast uncaged. That was, and I didn’t have that thought in my mind, yet that happened. And looking outside of myself, I said, woah–treating somebody as the “worst of the worst” starts to have an effect on them.
RS: Were you ever in solitary?
MR: I wasn’t in solitary, no. But I was in the secured housing unit, SHU, in Pelican Bay. And that’s where it’s you and your cellmate are the–you’re the only person you’re communicating and talking to and have contact with. So the whole thing of even having physical contact, if it’s just you and your celly, and every other time you’re outside your cell you’re just in shackles, has a psychological effect. And I didn’t know it, but it happened. And it is real; like I said, losing touch with your humanity–treat ‘em that way, and guess what happens.
RS: So let me ask you a question–I’ll turn to Eon McLeary, who, you’ve never been in prison, right?
RS: And so, but, talking to the two of you, I can’t distinguish between you, OK? That, to my mind, is actually a fairly startling revelation. Because the “animal” description is somebody who’s going to explode and punch you right away or kill you, or whatever, you know. You found yourself in this situation where you’re suddenly hanging out with people who are in that prison.
EM: Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I, I mean, didn’t grow–I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, kind of affectionately called the land of John Hughes movies, because all of John Hughes’s movies were actually filmed in my town–
RS: Which is where?
EM: Northfield, Winnetka, the North Shore of Chicago.
EM: And so it’s sort of an idyllic place. So my only interfacing with the police is from TP’ing people’s houses, getting caught drinking at parties when their parents were out of town. And so I had no connection with this whatsoever until my father, he came back from Folsom the first time that he went on kind of like a proto-training at a lower-level prison. He went there, he came back, he said “It blew my mind, do you want to come?” And I just said, yes. Because when–I mean, it obviously was kind of from a voyeuristic standpoint of, like, when will I ever be able to go into a level four, maximum security prison under these conditions? Because there’s no guards in the room, there’s no surveillance cameras or anything; you’re just in there sort of one-on-one. And it’s absolutely terrifying. I physically couldn’t stop shaking once I got in there. Like, I just had to give voice to that once, soon as I got there and I was talking to them, like, “I’m terrified.” You know, and the guy who I was kind of paired up with, he says, “I’m terrified too, I just can’t show it, ‘cause I’ll get killed in here.” You know.
But after those four days of being in there, it really was, I mean, you were speaking about humanity earlier, and that’s always the way I’ve described it, that it’s really the purest sort of interface with humanity that I’ve really experienced on that kind of scale. And so that’s sort of what kept bringing me back, and that was also sort of the impetus for the film. Because we would come back to, my brothers and I, to school or to work. And our girlfriends or our friends would, like–“Where were you? On your prison, you know, you were in prison for your vacation in California?” Because we were living in Chicago at the time. And we would try to explain it, and it just was a very, very difficult sort of thing to explain; it always sort of came down to this thing about humanity. That’s why I kept going, and I would say maybe one person out of every 10 persons who I would tell, they would say, “I want to go.” And that’s really how the program works.
RS: To remind people, the film is about, twice a year–there’s these weekly sessions, work sessions, and consciousness-raising, and thought-provoking–and then twice a year, people from the outside can come in, and they have a fairly large group, about 40 people come in or something like that?
EM: It’s about 40 inmates and 40 guys from the outside.
RS: Yeah, and they’re broken up into smaller groups, and they’re together for four days, basically. You know, and there’s confrontation, there’s breakdown, there’s a lot of crying. And I do want to mention, there’s one common theme that runs through the film, and that is the failure of the father. That, most of the people say, you know. And there’s one poignant one, I forget who says it, but the father gets out of jail and he shows up with some toy, and the kid doesn’t know, you’re my father–and the guy doesn’t know, you’re my father and you want me to play with a toy–no, I don’t even want to talk to you, I don’t know who you are. And then the father starts to abuse his son, who–
EM: From the military, yeah.
RS: Oh, he got out of the military.
EM: Yeah, it was the father came home from, he was like in the, he was in the Navy–
RS: Oh, from the war–so he wasn’t in jail, oh, I misunderstood, I’m sorry. OK, well, that makes it even more poignant, yeah.
MR: But the point is still the same. It’s the absent father. It’s that male, especially for men, that male figure who’s influencing, who’s showing and modeling to the youngster–manhood, emotions, teaching them. If that’s not there, then like for myself–let me say, if that person’s not there, that male figure’s not there, if that father is absent, then that young man is just left to his own devices to figure things out on his own.
RS: Yeah. And so let me just say, my own criticism, not of the film, but that you got to see more than this film. Because it’s no accident that we have absent fathers in many families; it has a lot to do with poverty, it has a lot to do with programs that we don’t have. You know, the welfare program basically only rewards people if there is an absent father, and so forth. And so there are a lot of issues connected. But I must say, it was really impressive in the film that the key point, I think almost every person said there was no role model of that kind, and there was a real feeling of abandonment. So let me, we’re going to have to wrap this up now, but the film is called “The Work.” It’s about a very successful and long-running program, 17 years, the Inside Circle Foundation has done it; the centerpiece here is at the new Folsom jail, which is the maximum security, one of the maximum security prisons in California. And I must say, we don’t give enough credit for documentarians. You didn’t make any money off this film.
EM: No. [Laughter]
RS: I looked at the first week’s gross, you know, and it was like $3,600. And I thought, wait a minute, some people spend that on a dinner, you know, for their friends–
EM: Yeah, and you can imagine it cost a lot to make.
RS: Yeah. And you say that with a smile on your face [laughter], but you know, it comes out of some other pot that you’re not paying, you know, or taking care of. It really is an incredible tribute to sort of idealism, and I want to take my hat off to you; I think you and your brother did a terrific job. So I want to thank you, Eon McLeary, and Manuel Ruiz, who plays a really central role in this film. So that’s it for another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. And see you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”Wait, before you go…
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