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.

Recommended Reading
Truth in Justice