Prisoners to Prophets
excerpts from chapter 11 of FLASHBACKS, an Autobiography by Timothy Leary
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher ©1983, 1990 Timothy Leary.
By spring we had given psychedelic drugs to over 200 subjects and had learned a lot about how to run sessions. Eighty-five percent of our subjects were reporting that the experience was the most educational of their lives. These testimonials were pleasing because most therapies, including psychoanalysis, traditionally reported around thirty-three percent positive change.
As scientists we were still dissatisfied. We were faced with the unavoidable problem in the field of psychiatry. How do you demonstrate that someone has improved? Self-appraisals are an important index but inconclusive; heroin addicts and born-again Christians claim to feel better but others might disagree. There didn't seem to be an objective way to keep score on life changes. Half of the people coached might have loosened up and half might have gotten their lives more tightly organized, and for any or all of them the changes might have been a genuine improvement. Half might have increased the intimacy and closeness of their marriages, and half might have left their spouses. Some might have benefited by making more money, some by making less. We needed clear statistical indices, like batting averages, for the game of life.
About this time a call came from two officials of the Massachusetts prison system, requesting that Harvard graduate-interns be assigned for research and training. They expected a quick turn-down. Just as prison guards were the bottom of the law-enforcement hierarchy, prison work was at that time the pits of psychology. Criminals simply didn't change.
Much to their surprise I invited the prison officials over for lunch at the Faculty Club. I welcomed the chance to get into a prison and initiate a volunteer rehabilitation program. I had two purposes in mind: first, if we could change the behavior of violent criminals with our drugs, we'd demonstrate that our methods and theories worked where nothing else did. Second, prison rehabilitation would provide us with the behavioral scientist's dream, an iron-clad objective index of improvement—the recidivism rate.
The return-rate in Massachusetts prisons was running seventy percent. I felt we could decimate that percentage. What a boon to society—converting violent criminals to law-abiding citizens! If we could teach the most unregenerate how to wash their own brains, then it would be a cinch to coach non-criminals to change their lives for the better.
A deal was made over lunch. I agreed to send Harvard graduate-interns into the prisons; the officials agreed to get clearances from the wardens and correctional psychiatrists for us to give drugs to convicts.
A week later I drove out to the prison. I wore my Ivy League tweed uniform. I even wore leather shoes for this occasion. Warden Tom Grennan, a fellow Irishman, was impressed and pleased. A Harvard psychologist had never come around before.
Next I had to get the approval of the prison psychiatrist. This could have meant trouble. Shrinks didn't usually like programs of head expansion, and medics liked to preserve their monopoly on drugs.
I walked nervously down the hallway to the metal cage that opened into a prison cellblock. Rang a bell. A slot opened. A guard looked out, nodded, and opened up a second metal door. I walked through the prison with a sense of foreboding. And precapitulation. I'd been here before and I'd be here again.
CONCORD STATE PRISONI walked through the first tall cellblock, across the prison yard to the hospital. Bell, peephole, metal hinges creaking. Entered the hospital. Knocked on the door of the prison psychiatrist. It opened and facing me was good news. The prison psychiatrist was black and definitely avant-garde. Hurray! Philosopher Thomas Kuhn said that when you wish to introduce change-technology to a culture, you'll find your best allies among the outsiders, those whose alienation from the establishment makes them more open to change.
Aside from being a black psychiatrist Dr. Jefferson Monroe [Madison Presnell] stood out in the primitive period of 1961 as another kind of rarity—a sophisticated psychiatrist. Impeccable, graceful, hip. He had a twinkle in his eye and a wise, cool way of looking at you. He was definitely ready for something new.
A few days later Dr. Monroe paid a return call at the Faculty Club and then came to a staff meeting at the Center. We put him on the Harvard payroll as a consultant. The following Sunday he brought his wife over for cocktails.
"Your plan to teach prisoners to brainwash themselves is simply delicious. There's even a slight chance you can pull it off. Do you know what that might mean?"
"A great boon to society," I suggested.
Dr. Monroe crossed his legs gracefully and laughed. "My dear, you don't really understand what you're getting into, do you? Sooner or later you're going to discover that law enforcement people and prison administrators have no desire to cut crime. They want more crime and more money to fight it. I'll cover you from the medical and psychiatric end, but sooner or later, if your methods work they'll start coming down on you. Reporters, bureaucrats, officials. 'Harvard Gives Drugs to Prisoners!' And you're going to have to do the impossible. Cure prisoners with your left hand while you try to hold off the entire bureaucracy with your right. "
"So what? If it works."
"Being human, sooner or later you'll make a teeny little mistake. One of your subjects will revert. 'Harvard Drug Parolee Robs Bank.' "
"As long as we do everything out front, no secrets," I said, "we can make a few honest mistakes."
"Maybe," said Monroe. "Look, here's the deal. I'll back you all-out, until you goof. When they start coming down on you, exactly at that point I'll have to protect my own pretty black ass. 'Cause, I'm not you. I'm not the new Freud. So I'll win with you, but I can't afford to lose with you."
On that basis we agreed on a plan: Monroe would line up volunteers in the prison population for the drug project and I'd line up Harvard graduate students willing to put their nervous systems on the line taking drugs with maximum security prisoners.
A few days later I was visited by a graduate student named Ralph Metzner. Metzner had a reputation for being one of the most rigorously experimental students in the department. He wanted to work on the prison project.
My first reaction was that Metzner was too academic, too dainty-British, too ivory tower to walk into a prison and take drugs with hoodlums. But Metzner said he wanted to learn how. So I guided a training session for Metzner, his girlfriend, Dr. Monroe and his wife, and graduate student Gunther Weil and his wife. This was the fifty-second time I had taken psilocybin.
My study was the site of this experiment. Since this was an exploratory training session, I told the participants to relax, have a good time, and learn what they could. After a few hours of silent serenity, Jefferson took over spontaneously as guide. His joking and warm earthiness created a benign atmosphere. Ralph turned out to be a natural inner explorer.
A few days later Ralph, Gunther, and 1, feeling a sense of camaraderie as a result of the session, drove out to the Concord prison to meet the six candidates Jefferson had selected from the pool of volunteers. Two murderers. Two armed robbers. One embezzler. One black heroin pusher.
In a dreary hospital room—gray walls, black asphalt floor, barred windows—we told the six suspicious men about an experience that could change their lives. We brought books for them to read, reports by other subjects, articles that described the ecstasies as well as the possible terrors. We spent most of the time describing our own experiences and answering questions. We made it clear to the prisoners that this was nothing we were doing to them. There was no doctor-patient game going here. We would take the drugs along with them. We were doing nothing to them that we weren't happily doing to ourselves.
We also made a transactional research contract with the prisoners. We said something like this: "We want to find out how and how much you change during this experience. For this reason we want you to take a battery of psychological tests before you eat the mushroom pills. After three or four sessions we'll give you the tests again. After you've taken the post-tests, we'll go over the results with you. Nothing in this project is going to be a secret." To the bored prisoners this sounded like a good deal, so the following week each was administered a complicated battery of psychological tests.
The prison project extended our research into a number of new areas. We were dealing with a very different population from the professionals and high-status subjects in the early research. Second, we were switching from questionnaires and subjective reports to objective measurements of personality change. And third, we had to move from naturalistic settings to the most controlled and least inspirational environment imaginable—the hospital of a maximum security prison.
Six prisoners and three Harvard psychologists met for the first drug session. During the morning I was to turn on with three convicts. The three other prisoners and the two graduate students would act as observers Then in the afternoon Gunther and Ralph and the three observing prisoners would take the drug, and the first group would act as guides. We brought a record player, tape recorder, and several books of classical art with us. Otherwise the room was bleak: four beds, a large table, and a few chairs. The bowl of pills was placed in the center of the table. To establish trust I was the first to ingest. Then the bowl was passed among the three prisoners, who each took twenty milligrams. After a half hour the effect started coming on: the loosening of thought, the humming pressure in my head, the sharp, brilliant, and then brutal intensification of the senses.
I felt terrible.
What a place to be—locked in a penitentiary, out of light, out of mind. I turned my brain towards the man next to me, a Polish bank robber from Worcester. I could see him much too clearly, every pore in his face, every blemish, the hairs in his nose, the horrid green-yellow enamel of his decaying teeth, the glistening of his frightened eyes, every hair on his head looking big as a tree-branch. What am I doing here?
"How ya doing, John?" I asked with a weak grin.
"I feel fine," he answered, but I didn't believe him.
"How you doing, Doc?"
I was about to reply in a reassuring professional tone, but I couldn't. It's hard to lie when you're in the power of the mushrooms. "I feel lousy. "
John drew back his purple-pink lips. "What's the matter, Doc?"
Inside his eyes I could see a yellow spider-web of retinal fibers, optical veins shiny and pulsing. "I'm afraid of you," I said.
John's eyes enlarged, and then he began to laugh. I could see in his mouth, swollen red tissues, gums, tongue, throat. I was ready to be swallowed.
"Well, that's funny, Doc, 'cause I'm afraid of you."
We were both smiling at this point, leaning forward.
"Why are you afraid of me?"
"Because you're a criminal. Why are you afraid of me?"
"I'm afraid of you 'cause you're a fucking mad scientist."
Then our eyes locked and we both laughed.
Voila. There it was. We had made a connection. The sun came out in the room. For a while.
One of the prisoners, the heroin pusher, moaned and tossed on his cot.
"Are you all right, Willy?" I asked, apprehensive about a potential threat to our newfound sense of security. Everyone in the room watched, anxiously wondering if the prison setting was just irretrievably wrong, if this was to be one of those dreaded "bad trips."
Willy lifted his head and gave a big grin. "Man, am I all right? I'm in heaven looking down on this funny little planet and I'm a million years old and there's a million things to enjoy—and it's all happening in prison. And you ask me, man, am I all right?"
When Willy laughed, we were all high and happy.
Jefferson checked in every now and then, walked around the room like a dainty, graceful cat not saying much but taking it all in.
At six o'clock, as the afternoon session was winding down, there was a bang on the door, and the guards came in. "Time is up, men. Back to the ward." Ralph, Gunther, and I went with the six prisoners back to the lockup part of the hospital, where we smoked and laughed and compared notes on what we'd seen and where we'd been.
Then it was time for us to go. We shook hands and promised to return the next day for a follow-up. Ralph, Gunther, and I walked out of the hospital, across the dark prison yard, rang the bell, and waited until the iron doors opened into the guardroom. We went through two metal doors, down metal stairs, past the clanking steaming radiators, and outside the prison.
We laughed in triumph. All of us, Harvardites and convicts, had passed a crucial test. We had put our faith in human nature and the drug experience on the line. A bit of pagan magic had occurred, and none of us would ever forget that brief day of grace. It was a heroic moment in our lives.
The morning after the session, driving back to the prison was like returning to some comfortable place in my skull. Strong bonds of empathy had developed. We had been through the adventure together. We had gone beyond the roles of Harvard psychologist and convict, faced fear together, had trusted and laugh.
This time I felt at home in the prison. It always works this way after a good trip. Your old reality fades a bit, and you incorporate a new reality. This identification is not metaphorical. It is neurological. In scientific papers we called this process re-imprinting.
This first session changed our status in the prison. As word went out through the grapevine, prisoners approached us in the yard to ask if they could sign up for the project. Guards and parole officers stopped us to request that a favorite prisoner be admitted to the group.
We spent the next two weeks discussing the prisoners' reactions. Then we ran a second session for the group. This time the prisoners were more sophisticated. There was no sitting around on chairs in nervous anticipation. As soon as the energy began to radiate through their bodies, they headed for the cots and closed their eyes. For the next two or three hours they lay engulfed in the visions, occasionally sitting up to smile or make some quiet comment.
After the third session the convicts repeated the personality tests to measure changes. We brought the test results into the hospital room and handed them to the inmates. No secrets. We explained what the tests measure and what the results meant.
They had changed on the objective indices so dear to the heart of the psychologist. They showed less depression, hostility, anti-social tendencies; more energy, responsibility, cooperation. Their personality scores had swung dramatically and significantly in the direction of improved mental health.
By handing over and explaining their test results we were training the prisoners in psychodiagnostics. The prisoners were becoming their own psychologists. They loved it. There were fierce discussions about personality characteristics as the cons played the psychiatric game.
We planned the next phase of the research. The convicts were to select new recruits for the group. They would learn how to administer the psychological tests. They would give the orientation lectures. They would take over the project.
The prison became a training center. New graduate students were assigned to experienced inmates for orientation and guidance. In session after session the inmates guided the Harvards, and the Harvards guided the convicts.
The energy generated by the sessions was felt beyond the prison walls. The penitentiary session room became a showplace. Whenever visitors came to Cambridge inquiring about psychedelic drugs, we took them out to the prison. The convicts spoke about their mystical experiences to Gerald Heard, Alan Watts, and William Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, and the ex-king of Sarawak, as well as to coveys of visiting psychiatrists. Our strategy here was to do everything possible to enhance their pride and sense of accomplishment. Every power we could turn over to the convicts became a fiber in the body of self-esteem.
By fall 1962 we had over thirty-five convicts and fifteen Harvards in the group. The men started being paroled at the rate of two and three a month, so we started Project CONTACT. The ex-cons and the Harvards were paired up in buddy-system teams, with the Harvards visiting the ex-cons in their homes. There was a twenty-four-hour telephone to rush help in case of emergencies.
We sobered them up, praised them to the parole officers, cooled out angry bosses. In short we did what a family does for its confused members. We kept them out of jail.
Soon our circus had grown into a three-ring extravaganza. There was the in-prison group. There was the outside CONTACT project. And there was the equally important task of keeping the state administrators and officials happy. We sent out a steady flow of memoranda and progress reports to the myriad departments that had a jealous interest in the work of rehabilitating criminals. Following Jefferson's sage advice we never let a week go by without contacting the bureaucrats, making them a part of the action.
One morning in the second year of the project I came into Warden Grennan's office to report the most recent statistics. We had kept ninety percent of our convicts out of jail.
He listened politely but kept glancing behind me. When I finished, he clapped me on the back and led me to the corner. "Look at that, Timmy," he said proudly.
It was an architect's color drawing of a super-prison. "Look. Two football fields. This wing is for admitting and orientation. Two more cell blocks. Mess halls double in size. We'll have capacity for twice as many inmates, and we can double the staff all the way down the line."
His face was glowing. This was his fantasy coming true. A huge prison and an organizational table twice as big to go with it! Bureaucrat Heaven.
"That's wonderful, Bill," I said. "But have you forgotten? You're not going to need a larger prison."
His face registered surprise.
"Because we're cutting your return-rate from seventy percent to ten percent. If you let us continue our project, you won't need half the cells you have right now."
The warden laughed, in spite of himself. "I can't argue with you, Timmy. You have kept these men straight, although I'll be damned if I know how you did it."'
We were trying to figure this out ourselves. It seemed that two major factors were bringing about changes in the convicts: first, the perception of new realities helped them recognize that they had alternatives beyond the cops and robbers game; then, the empathetic bonding of group members helped them sustain their choice of a new life.
Similar kinds of sudden behavior change had been observed in other species. Conrad Lorenz, the German ethologist, and Nico Tinbergen, the Dutch naturalist, were the first to describe imprinting, a form of permanent learning assimilated in one shot, as opposed to step-by-step, painstaking and often painful, punishment-reward conditioning, which traditional psychologists and educators believed to be the basis of change. Lorenz discovered the imprinting phenomenon one day when goose eggs hatched in an incubator in his laboratory. In the absence of the mother the goslings followed him around, apparently because he was the only warm moving object on the scene. The baby birds continued to focus on him, ignoring their mother when she was brought to them.
Hundreds of experiments by Lorenz and others have demonstrated that this immediate learning, which requires no reward or punishment, occurs only during a critical period, shortly after birth or metamorphoses. During this critical period the organism, rather than acquiring behavior from the environment, hooks up an innate behavior pattern to the environment. The nervous systems of mammals and fowl respond to the first available stimulus, usually the mother, activating and binding instinctual behavior. Birds, for example, have been known to seek mothering from ping pong balls. Baby giraffes have imprinted the jeep of the hunter who shot the mother.
Psychologists were at first reluctant to apply the imprinting principle to human behavior, probably because of the challenge it posed to our notion of free will. However, the dramatic changes in behavior that followed our prison experiments seemed to be best explained by these concepts. The drugs appeared to suspend previous imprints of reality (in this case, the prison mentality) inducing a critical period during which new imprints could be made.
People tended to form powerful positive attachments to those present during a trip, sometimes following one another around like Lorenz's goslings. It was also true that I was becoming attached to those present during my sessions.
Even more important than the bonding was the re-imprinting of new belief systems and attitudes about others and society that occurred during the sessions. In a positive, supportive environment, new non-criminal realities were being imprinted. (And in some weird and ominous way, I may have been re-imprinting a prison mentality, a reality which I was forced to inhabit between 1970 and 1976.)
Everything that I have learned in the subsequent twenty years of drug research has strengthened my conviction that psychedelic re-imprinting ranks with DNA deciphering as one of the most significant discoveries of the century.
Unfortunately the subsequent controversy about drugs overshadowed scientific implications of this experiment. Though we had dramatically cut the crime rate, teaching prisoners to clear their own brains of old programs and create new ones, the prison project was shut down after Alpert and I were driven from Harvard. Our ex-cons formed their own group, with the help of our colleague Professor Walter Houston Clark. They continued to operate the Self-Help program for fifteen years on their own.
Scientific tradition requires that important findings be replicated: disproved or verified. There were and still are hundreds of psychologists eager to perform experiments of this sort. The government remains steadfast in its curtailment of meaningful psychedelic research, though every other form of criminal rehabilitation has failed and thousands are recruited into the cycle of recidivism each year.