Strong Medicine for Prisoner Reform: The Concord Prison Experiment

Spring 1994 Vol. 04, No. 4 Laying the Groundwork

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THE NATIONS recent editorial, Jailhouse Crock (January 31, 1994), was only partly correct in observing that the United States doesn’t have a crime epidemic. It has an epidemic of imprisonment. For while true that the number of people in prison doubled from 1983 to 1992 while violent crime rose only 3.5 percent, the problem is even more basic than how many are jailed or even the length of their sentences. Theres also the question of why so many inmates, once released, commit new crimes that trigger mandatory longer sentencing for repeat offenders. From that perspective what were experiencing is a recidivism epidemic.

Currently 80 percent of U.S. inmates are recidivists. This reinforces Elliott Curries point ("What’s Wrong with the Crime Bill", same issue) that prisons are "arguably our most spectacularly failed social experiment". And one of its principle failures has been to repeatedly botch societys single best chance to disrupt the recidivist cycle while the inmates are incarcerated. Thats when they have plenty of time on their hands. They also have fewer distractions than on the streets, where old, bad habits are rekindled and inflamed. Its a great opportunity to challenge them, somehow, to challenge themselves to stop playing "cops and robbers" for the rest of their lives. That it’s so far been a wasted opportunity is one of the factors contributing to these statistics:

  • The number of inmates in federal prisons jumped from 24,000 in 1980 to 86,000 in 1993. This is projected to reach 100,470 by 1995 and 136,980 by 2000. In 1991 it cost an average $20,072 per year to keep each of these people in jail. Total federal expenditures for corrections was $1.6 billion.
  • The number of inmates in state and local prisons rose from 295,363 on December 31, 1980 to 732,651 by the end of 1991. The average annual cost in California that year was $25,000 for each of the state’s 100,000 inmates. Nationwide, expenditures for state and local corrections totaled $25 billion.
  • In addition to $3 billion for new and existing prison facilities, the proposed Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993 would allocate $9 billion for more police. But spending more on law enforcement almost certainly will make things worse. The U.S. already imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world 455 per 100,000 in 1992. Second-place South Africa is far behind at 311 per 100,000.
  • Even if limited only to hardcore criminals sentenced to maximum terms of more than a year the U.S. incarceration rate in 1991 was 310 per 100,000. This compares with only 119 in 1960 when the Concord prison study was initiated. By 1980 the rate stood at 139, a relatively modest climb of just under 17 percent in 20 years. It then more than doubled (up 123 percent!) in the subsequent 12 years of punitive penal policies enacted by Presidents Reagan and Bush.

By now the causes of this trend are well-entrenched. We dont suggest that reversing it depends only on more effective prisoner reform programs. Currie’s article identifies other solutions that also must be implemented, including restoration of common sense into the sentencing structure. We certainly share his outrage that under the so-called "crime control" bill "a man can beat the living daylights out of his wife and possibly face nothing worse than a fine", while "three penny-ante drug deals will get you life in prison without parole."

But reducing the recidivism rate would pay big dividends. Taxpayers would be saved much of the increased spending proposed in the new bill. New tax revenues would be generated as inmates were returned to gainful employment. And best of all, there would be less human suffering on both sides of the crime equation: fewer criminals = less victimization.

Media sensationalism

Which emboldens us to propose a solution that many will find startling. It was discovered by Timothy Leary and a group of Harvard colleagues in the early 1960s and almost completely ignored until January 1, 1994, when the Boston Globe tried to sensationalize it as news in a front-page article titled "Inmates Used in 60s Test". The lead paragraph reported: "Harvard University scientists and state officials gave a group of Massachusetts inmates [at Concord State Prison] a dangerous hallucinogenic drug in 1961 to test whether the drugs would stem the tendency of criminals to commit more crimes". According to the article:

  • This study had "never been publicly acknowledged."
  • It was "overseen by the infamous professor Timothy Leary, a noted advocate of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in overcoming destructive behavior and realizing new levels of consciousness . . . [who] later went on to become a guru to the drug culture."
  • A former state prison official said the inmates were ‘probably not’ told of possible consequences of the drug, psilocybin, a synthetic derivative of psychedelic mushrooms.
  • A prison psychologist claimed that the drug is a "dangerous substance" which can cause hallucinations, perceptual distortion, psychosis and psychological addiction.
  • The same psychologist surmised that "academicians probably sought the mentally retarded and prisoners for experimentation because there was an unstated belief at the time that their lives were less valuable than others."

The article strongly implied that the protocol used for the prison study was similar to that of unethical experiments conducted by other researchers in the 1940s and ’50s, when hundreds of U.S. citizens in hospitals, homes for the mentally retarded and other state institutions were secretly dosed with radioactive substances. This is untrue. In fact, the Concord prison study was specifically designed to go beyond even modern day guidelines for informed consent of subjects, as was partly acknowledged in a later Globe article buried far back in the newspaper.

Facts of the study

We believe that the public deserves even fuller disclosure of all of the facts that were stated incorrectly in the original front-page article. Though these facts have been publicly stated before, they have not been pulled together and described in the context of Learys "existential transactional" model for behavior changeitself an innovation and ahead of its time. Our purpose in making an effort at clarification is not to castigate any one news report or even to rehabilitate Timothy Leary’s reputation. We hope only to encourage fair assessment of a promising technology for prisoner reform that might prove useful in reducing the alarming rate of growth in the U.S. prison population. The facts are as follow:

The study, involving 32 inmates given psilocybin two to five times each in small group sessions in 1961-63, has most certainly been "publicly acknowledged" and described at length in dozens of books and articles since the early 1960s. Some of the books are still in print and most can be found on the shelves of public libraries or in used book stores. Among them, both Leary’s High Priest (1968) and his autobiography Flashbacks (1985) include lengthy, detailed accounts of the study.

It is misleading to name Leary alone as the person in charge of the study. In fact it was a carefully designed and responsibly administered group project involving several of his colleagues and graduate students at Harvard, state prison officials and even the inmates themselves, whose input was encouraged. Furthermore the study was begun and essentially finished before Leary became controversial for his work with LSD.

NONE OF THE INMATES was lied to or misled about the possible effects of psilocybin, good or bad. All were volunteers screened in advance using tests that ruled out anyone with serious mental illnesses. As Leary stated in High Priest, the "first thing we did was to tell the prisoners as much as we could about the psychedelic experience. We brought in books for them to read, reports by other subjects, articles which described the terrors as well as the ecstasies of the experience." They were told in plain language: "Nothing in this project is going to be a secret. Weve told you everything we know about the drugs before you take them and well tell you everything we know about you after you finish the sessions". Numerous other authors have confirmed this crucial point about the prison study.

Exaggerated risks

The psychologists representation of the dangers of psilocybin were exaggerated. Users sometimes do have unpleasant experiences but most often these are salutary. The prisoners in the study, for example, had a tendency to recognize with deep regret the pain that their dysfunctional behavior had caused others and themselves. This was part of the process by which they decided to try to stop wasting their lives, as seen in this statement by one of them: "At the time of the peak of the drug’s effect I had a terrific feeling of sadness and loneliness, and a feeling of great remorse of the wasted years It seemed to me that I was crying inside of me and [I had] a feeling as if tears were washing everything away. And I was hollow inside, with just an empty shell there watching time stand still."

During the sessions a prison psychiatrist was always in attendance to handle any adverse physical reactions. None ever occurred except for transient and minor spells of nausea and headache.

IT SHOULD BE EMPHASIZED that none of the researchers, Leary included, has ever claimed that psychedelics always produce only pleasant experiences. However, the risk of unpleasant ones is minimized by careful preparation of the users state of mind and physical surroundings. This was confirmed by many scientific studies long before the prison project. Over 500 clinical papers on LSD alone were in print by 1960 and more than 1,000 on all psychedelics by 1965. (Among the 40,000 people in these studies was a student at UCLA named Jerry Goodman, who went on to become an infamous guru to Wall Street investors under the alias "Adam Smith.") Not all of these studies were equally well-conducted. But the overall picture is clear: psychedelics showed promise in treatment of alocholism, resolution of mental distress for cancer patients and many other applications. A little digging by reporters would confirm this (SEE ENDNOTE) and help them avoid being duped as they have in the past. One example from the 60s is the Pennsylvania state official who claimed that some youths had been blinded for life when they took LSD and stared at the sun. Many newspapers ran this story on page one. He later admitted that this was a hoax hed cooked up to scare kids away from LSD. The retraction, like the Globe’s second story on the Concord prison study, was typically buried far back in the newspapers. Another rumor thats still being cited as fact by some proponents of the "war on drugs" is that LSD causes chromosome damage. This was discredited by scientific studies more than twenty years ago.

Philosophical basis

Leary and his colleagues absolutely did not think that the lives of the inmates were less valuable than others. On the contrary, what they believed was that the inmates lives were worthy of a dedicated effort by society to bring them back into the fold. Though prison work in 1961 was considered to be the least interesting, lowest status work one could do in psychology, psychiatry and sociology, they jumped at the chance when invited by state officials to set up a prisoner reform project. The "existential-transactional" methods they had pioneered at Harvard were intensely humanistic and collaborative. In a manner that today would still seem radical, the research team rejected conventional concepts of how psychologists should help patients. Instead of seeing themselves as authorities it was assumed that their clients, including the inmates, knew best how to solve their own problems with minimal guidance from trained professionals.Leary and his colleagues believed that psychologists must be willing to leave the security of their offices and deal with people in real-life situations. They demonstrated this by doing non-drug work with children at an orphanage in New Bedford, with residents of a slum neighborhood in Roxbury and with alcoholic drifters in skid rows. At Concord prison they took psilocybin along with the inmates. In every case the goal was helping people learn to help themselves, a concept familiar today as "empowerment". This was the philosophical basis of the prison study.

Psilocybin’s effects

Psilocybin appeared to suspend psychological "imprints" (in this case, prison mentality), inducing a critical period when new imprints could be made. It caused the inmates to reflect upon their lives from a broader, more spiritually challenging perspective that included recognition of alternatives to criminal activity. Wrote another of them:

"Before taking this drug my thinking always seemed to travel in the same circles, drinking, gambling, money and women and sex, an easy and I guess, a fast life Now my thoughts are troubled and at times quite confusing, but they are all of an honest nature, and of wondering. I know what I want to be and I am sincere in my own mind when I say I will try very hard to make it so. I also know that the mushroom drug, in group discussions, and [in] tests, [and in] the group therapy is most important. Because there is also an opening of the mind, and you get a better understanding of yourself and also the people who are in your group. You feel more free to say and discuss things, which you generally do not do."

IN SHORT, THE DRUG HELPED inmates achieve a "conversion experience" by disrupting, at least temporarily, their dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior. Such patterns are the reason that most prisoners end up in jail again only one or two years after being released. By making the inmates more open to new possibilities psilocybin effectively pointed them in the direction of choosing to break this recidivist cycle. Their resistance to change had been strong but the drug was strong medicine.


Short-term results were sensational. Only 32 percent returned to prison in the first 10 months compared with an average 56 percent for Concord prisoners who hadn’t taken psilocybin as a "circuit breaker". Regretfully, lacking support groups such as special halfway houses recommended by the prisoners themselves and by the research team, most inmates in the study eventually reverted to their old behavior patterns, though what landed them back in prison was most often parole violations as opposed to new infractions. It is unfortunate that popular misconceptions regarding the safety and possible medical uses of psychedelics have so far prevented resumption of this promising research. Not more punishment and prisons but a more effective way to break recidivism cycles is clearly needed. Such a way was once discovered in the Concord prison study, then effectively suppressed from public knowledge by the government’s vilification of psychedelics. It is likely to remain suppressed so long as reporters and editors blithely assume that what the government has been telling them about these drugs is the truth or even close to it. We would urge them instead to remember that a maxim of their trade is to CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS. Only then will they be able to break free of the recidivism cycle of their own informational prisons.

Endnote: One of the best basic references on this subject is Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered (1979) by Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar. It is well-researched, concise and objective. We therefore recommend it to reporters even though it contains comments critical of Leary.