~ S P E C I A L ~ F E A T U R E ~
"No One Farted
When the Guard 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
"No One Farted When I Walked By"
by Robert E. Roberts
an excerpt from MY SOUL SAID TO ME
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
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
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
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
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 Author
ROBERT E. ROBERTS left a twenty-year career in dentistry to
devote himself to social reform and, eventually, the
creation of a revolutionary program for ex-offenders called
Project Return. For the past fourteen years, Dr. Roberts
has been actively involved in various aspects of community
building programs across the country, in Europe and the
former Soviet Union.
Dr. Roberts completed his undergraduate work at Louisiana
Polytechnic University in 1964, received Doctor of Dental
Surgery from Loyola University in 1968, a Master of Social
Work from Louisiana State University in 1987, and Ph.D. in
Curriculum and Instruction from Louisiana State University
in 1991. His research has been published in the Journal of
Offender Rehabilitation, Vol. 20, 1994. He is the Founder
and currently Executive Director of Project Return of
Dr. Roberts has received an enormous amount of recognition
for his work, including 1997 Role Model of the Year from
the Young Leadership Council of New Orleans; 1998
Extraordinary Contribution in Crime Fighting Award from the
Metropolitan Crime Commission (the first non-crime fighting
agency to receive this distinguished award); 1998 finalist
for the Harmony Award from the International Association of
Business Communicators; and the 1998 National Award for
Excellence in Crime Fighting from the American Judicature
Dr. Roberts, has been much in demand as an instructor at
workshops and conferences across the country and has been
interviewed on numerous radio talk shows, including
National Public Radio. Additionally, he has made numerous
appearances on various newscasts and television talk shows
on CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX, including the Ivanhoe nationally
syndicated news broadcast. Dr. Roberts and Project Return
recently received notable mention on the front page of The
New York Times and were the subject of a feature article on
the front page of The Los Angeles Times.
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
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 SomÃ, 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
-- 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
-- David C. Treen, former Republican 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.