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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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