"No One Farted
 When I Walked By"

an excerpt from the new book

MY SOUL SAID TO ME:

An Unlikely Journey
 Behind the Walls of Justice

by Robert E. Roberts, D.D.S., Ph.D., M.S.W.


INTRODUCTION

The excerpt, below, is from the new book, My  Soul Said to Me, the story of Robert E. Roberts  and the pioneering prison re-entry program he  developed called Project Return.

Bob Roberts turned his back on a lucrative dental  practice, left his family and his hometown, to  teach literacy in prison. For three years, he learned  first-hand about the deprivations and degradations  of America’s penal institutions. His program was  so successful at reducing inmate violence that corrections officials conspired to shut it down  and get rid of Roberts.

Roberts rebuilt his program on the outside, helping  ex-cons re-integrate with society. A five-year study by the Metropolitan Crime Commission certified  Project Return as the most effective re-entry program  ever, with only 25% of alumni returning to prison,  as opposed to 75% of those not in the program.  For an investment of $5 million over five years,  the Commission calculated taxpayers had saved $209  million in reduced crime, court costs, and prison  costs.

The first part of the excerpt documents the improvement  in the behavior of prisoners and guards at Dixon  Correctional Institution near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The second part relates one saga in the growing  effort by Warden Burl Cain to get rid of Roberts.  More information about author Bob Roberts and the  book, My Soul Said to Me, follows the excerpt.

"No One Farted When I Walked By"
 an excerpt from MY SOUL SAID TO ME

by Robert E. Roberts

As the weekly community-building workshops progressed,  I continued to witness a slow and steady upward  curve of trust and mutual esteem in the men of  Dorm 7. Life slowly improved in the dormitory as  the men began to use the communication skills they  developed in the workshop to work out their differences.  Men who had lived together in the dorm for years,  barely exchanging words, now began to share with  each other, sometimes even confessing things that  formerly would have put them in positions of dangerous  vulnerability.

When one prisoner admitted that he was a former  narcotics agent, the group accepted him and did  not seek retribution as they would have only a  few weeks earlier. When another man confessed that  he was a closet homosexual, no one in the group tried to rape him or put a claim on him. Even the  correctional officers noticed a change in climate,  reporting that the men seemed to be carrying on  meaningful conversations instead of the usual jive.

As they explored the new experience of being a  community, the men discovered useful and productive  things about each other. For example, several men  found that their parents and families lived in  the same neighborhood. Since some of the family  members had cars and others did not, the men were  able to arrange for carpooling on visitors’ day.  Visitations increased dramatically, which was very  positive. Research has long shown that increased  visitations decrease violence and the number of  infractions of prison rules. In addition, and not  surprisingly, seeing loved ones and friends on  a more regular basis had a calming effect upon  men who were incarcerated.

This carpooling — or more accurately, this type  of communication — would have been impossible  before the workshop. One of the greatest terrors  a prisoner lives with is the fear that an enemy  will try to retaliate for a real or imagined wrong,  and that his enemy will have a friend on the outside  harm or kill a family member. To actually volunteer  the location of one’s family took extraordinary  trust.

Over the following months, even marriages increased  with the men who were not lifers (many states allow  marriages in prison, the idea being that it stabilizes  the individual, both while incarcerated and upon  release). Some of the men told stories of phoning  family members who they had not spoken with in  years and apologizing for old wrongs.

It wasn’t a surprise that these changes brought  about a considerable decrease in violence and other  major rule infractions within the dormitory. As  major infractions decreased, however, minor infractions  temporarily increased. The reason for this was simple.

As the men learned to respect themselves and give  respect to others, they also began to expect it  in return. This meant that when a correctional  officer blew off at one of them, the individual  would respond by saying, "I don’t talk to you like  that and I don’t want you to talk to me like that." Andrew  told a correctional officer, "I don’t want to be  called Psycho anymore. My name is Andrew Webster."

Since the correctional officers of Dorm 7 did  not yet understand what was happening with this  group, they took these kinds of comments as insubordination  and wrote them up as minor infractions. Once I  had determined which of the correctional officers I could reason with and explained to them what  was going on, the situation improved.

The aura of extraordinary respect so permeated  Dorm 7 that among correctional personnel it soon  became one of the most coveted jobs in the prison.  On one occasion, I overhead a correctional officer  talking to the warden about the change in attitude of the prisoners. "Nowadays, during the count," he  said, "When I’m walking back up the aisle, they  don’t fart." I had to bite my lip to keep from  laughing. "Now, that might seem like a small thing  to you," he said, looking over at me, "but, really,  it’s not."

For many of the prisoners, the workshop opened  up a whole new world. Several reported feeling  as if they had been waiting for this for a long,  long time. Malcolm told the group that, for him, "The  world now seems to have a glow to it, so much brighter than I had ever thought it could be. I can look  at myself and see what a great work of art I am  and the greatness out of which I was created."

Malcolm also saw the glow on the faces of the  other men in Dorm 7. "I’ve been watching men leave  this workshop and go back to the cell block to  call loved ones they haven’t spoken to in years.  And I ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?’"

Many of the prisoners agreed that nothing else  had even come close to the natural high they felt  after the workshops, the dizzy sensation of walking  two feet above the ground. Malcolm admitted that,  for him, the feeling was "greater than the high  I felt on heroin, and more intense than the euphoria  I had the first time I fasted."

Many of the prisoners were concerned how long  the effects of the workshop would continue. Many  were convinced that the changes would not last.  We knew they were right, unless the community-building  workshops continued. But they were wrong about  the changes within themselves. The years since  have shown that, whatever the results of our efforts,  none of the men in Dorm 7 ever really lost the  intrinsic worth of that experience with us and  each other. Whatever light had been turned on inside would stay on.

THE FINAL BLOW

During one of the ongoing community-building sessions  with Dorm 7, the door suddenly burst open and a  correctional officer announced that Warden Cain  wanted to see me in his office. I responded that  I would be there as soon as the current session ended. A few minutes later, the officer returned  and said that the warden wanted to see me right  away. Reluctant but worried, I closed down the  group and went to the warden’s office.

At the conference table sat the warden, his two  assistant wardens and Colonel Aucoin, who had covertly  been our only ally among the staff and who had  recently become the first black chief of security  at the prison. In addition, there sat the professor whom I knew from the department at Louisiana State  University that had hosted our study and administered  our grant — the same professor who had originally  talked me into taking the study to Dixon Correctional  Institution, where he was a long-time, personal  friend of Warden Cain. On several occasions, this  professor had asked me to let him use some of the  money in our grant for departmental purposes —  primarily for travel. I had refused him. As a federal  grantee, we were responsible to justify every cent  we used. Still, I continued to trust him and to  follow his advice on academic matters until, in  a conversation one day, he began to refer to the  prisoners as niggers. From that point, I knew this  man had nothing to teach me and, gradually, I ended all contact with him. That is, until this meeting.

The professor announced that I was being removed  as principle investigator of the grant and that  he was taking over. In addition, my salary was  being cut 30 percent and my travel benefits were  eliminated. This meant that the cost of my weekly commutes to the prison and lodging expenses would  have to come out of my own pocket.

My blood began to boil, and I could feel my soul  wanting to leap out of my body and choke off what  this man was saying. Barely able to remain in my  seat, I asked for an explanation. I was told that  I had "mishandled" some of the grant funds with which we operated the study. Without thinking,  I said, "You know as well as I do that’s a lie."

Then the strangest thing of all happened. The  professor got out of his chair and started toward  me. My mind raced. I suddenly remembered the time  when one of the prisoners left his seat and walked  across the circle yelling at me because I had not answered his question. He had stopped about six  feet in front of me and shouted every four-letter  word I had ever heard in my life. I remained still  except for gently nodding my head to encourage  him to get all of his rage out of his body so that  he could fully participate in the workshop. When  he had done just that, he walked calmly back to  his seat, sat down and began to laugh in a manner  that was in no way disrespectful. I told the group, "That’s  where our joy always lies hidden — underneath  our rage."

That strategy did not work this time. My former  friend kept moving toward me, and suddenly I saw  his fist coming. Since I had waited too long to  stand up, my only option was to lean back to avoid  his blow. Fortunately, the chair was the recliner  type, and it allowed me enough movement to get  out of the way. But in missing his mark, the professor  lost his balance, fell on top of me and toppled  my chair backward, sending both of us crashing  on the floor.

The next face I saw was that of Colonel Aucoin  as he was pulling the professor off of me. As I  leaped up, one of the assistant wardens, Bubba  McNeil, grabbed me and shoved me against the wall.  I had always intuitively believed that Warden McNeil was an even stronger covert ally to our efforts  than Aucoin. Sure enough, under the noise and fury  of the moment, I heard him whisper, "Don’t do nothin’." I  answered quickly, "Okay."

As I felt Bubba relax his hold, I knew in an instant  that this had been a set up to get rid of me altogether.  I also knew that Bubba had figured I might strike  back, and he was protecting me from falling deeper  into their trap. Later, Colonel Aucoin verified  my suspicions. To this day, I am deeply grateful  to these two men who risked their own well- being  for mine.

About the Book

MY SOUL SAID TO ME:
An Unlikely Journey
Behind the Walls of Justice
by Robert E. Roberts, D.D.S., Ph.D., M.S.W.
Published by Health Communications, Inc.
(ISBN 0-7573-0064-2, 297 pages, softcover, $12.95)
Available wherever books are sold, online or off.

So there Rusty and I were, behind locked doors,  in a circle with fifty male prisoners. As soon  as our requested three minutes of silence were  over, Billy, a prisoner who was sitting next  to my colleague, Rusty, turned to him, got right  in his face and demanded, "What the f- you doin’  here – you come here to f- with our minds?" Billy  was not much bigger than Rusty, but he was solid  muscle. The expression on his face was serious  and focused. "They payin’ you to be here? How  much they payin’ you? Wisely, Rusty carefully  and calmly answered his questions with a brief "Yes," and, "Not  much."

Such was the tone at Dixon Correctional Institute  in Jackson, Louisiana, on day-one of Bob Robert’s  first workshop. Here, as part of his doctoral dissertation,  he would apply the community building model of  his mentor Dr. Scott Peck to a group of fifty prisoners,  nearly all African American, and chosen at random  by a lottery system. Meeting weekly, and intended  to last three years, the workshops progressed.  Men who had lived together for years, barely exchanging  words, began to converse meaningfully with each  other. Visitations increased from loved ones and  friends, and a considerable decrease in violence within the group of prisoners occurred as well.  When tested, the average reading scores of the  community improved an entire grade level every  seven weeks.

In My Soul Said To Me: An Unlikely Journey  Behind the Walls of Justice, Bob Roberts  documents every leg of this unlikely journey  straight through to the eventual sabotage and  demise of the program he implemented in Jackson.  Fortunately, although the author has us despairing  for the Dixon prisoners left behind whom we  grow to understand and care about, Roberts  is inspired to further his work by starting  what would become the country’s only privately  operated prisoner re-entry program funded by  the Department of Justice and the most successful  one of its kind.

What began as an experiment that benefited a few  hundred prisoners in Louisiana grew into Project  Return in New Orleans, a program affiliated with  Tulane Medical Center’s School of Public Health  and Tropical Medicine. Since its inception, Project Return has helped break the cycles of addiction,  crime and violence of over 2,500 former offenders  reducing their probability of returning to prison  from 3 in 4 to 1 in 4.

Two significant elements of the work Roberts practiced  in his original program and carries on at Project  Return involve grief work and African studies.  For the first time in their lives, participants  enter a safe environment for unloading emotional  burdens they have carried for years, burdens that  have weighed them down with guilt, shame, and grief  because there has been no place to lay them, no  one to acknowledge their suffering, no vessel strong  enough to contain their rage. From this process, participants cultivate an environment of "extraordinary  respect" for each other rekindling in them the  flames of dignity, courage, determination, and  destiny.

Exploring the darkest terrain of violence and  human suffering, and the brightest regions of redemption,  human dignity and hope, My Soul Said to Me will  change forever your view of criminal justice, your  appreciation of deep relationships and freedom,  and your ability to determine your own future.  It is a story of deceit and honesty, cowardice  and courage, prejudice and acceptance. Most importantly,  it is the story of the power of friendship and  the ability that lies within each of us to create beauty in the world through commitment, determination,  and the understanding that all of our souls came  here for a reason.

PRAISE FOR MY SOUL SAID TO ME

"…this worthwhile, important book offers a bright,  optimistic window onto the often horrific conditions  that still exist in prisons today."
–Publishers Weekly, February 2003

"I was privileged to participate in the community  circle of Project Return once, and I grasped immediately  the source for its success — community. This story is a refreshing testimony but it’s also a roadmap to community and healing. And, most importantly,  it’s a bright and gleaming sign of possibility  that will inspire others to create ways to reach  out and include the ‘least of these’ which our society tends to throw away."

— Helen Prejean, author, Dead Man Walking

"This is a passionate, sobering story that paradoxically  brings hope into dark places of the American psyche."
— Robert Bly, author of Iron John

"This book tells of one man’s courage [and] challenges the courage of us readers to face our passive complicity  that perpetuates the system."
— James Hillman, author, The Soul’s Code

"My Soul Said to Me is a dramatic story of both  personal and social transformation."
— Robert Moore, author, The Archetype  of Initiation

"It takes boldness, determination and an acute  sense of service to the world in pain to do what  Bob Roberts has done. His journey speaks to all  souls who have heard the call to live at the edge  courageously and sacrificially."
— Malidoma SomÈ, author, Of Water and  the Spirit

"Bob Roberts’ story is both incredibly moving  and inspiring. His healing model is both effective  and replicable. It goes right to the heart of the  matter. A must read for anyone interested in prison  reform and human potential."
— Richard Gere, actor and activist

"This book chronicles a unique journey which has  been successful in its goal of giving guidance  and hope to hundreds of ex-convicts, leading many  to productive lives and reducing the rate of recidivism.  It is a truly inspiring story."
— David C. Treen, former Governor of Louisiana

Copyright ©2003 by Robert E. Roberts. All  Rights Reserved. Please feel free to duplicate  or distribute this file as long as the contents  are not changed and this copyright notice is  intact. Thank You.