from the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic
MAPS - Volume 4 Number 4 Spring 1994
Strong Medicine for Prisoner Reform: The Concord Prison Experiment
Thomas Riedlinger and Timothy Leary
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
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
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.
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.
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
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