My Soul Said to Me
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.
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.