Prisoners to Prophets
excerpts from chapter 11 of FLASHBACKS, an Autobiography by Timothy Leary
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher ©1983, 1990 Timothy
By spring we had given psychedelic drugs to over 200 subjects
and had learned a lot about how to run sessions. Eighty-five percent
of our subjects were reporting that the experience was the most
educational of their lives. These testimonials were pleasing because
most therapies, including psychoanalysis, traditionally reported
around thirty-three percent positive change.
As scientists we were still dissatisfied. We were faced with the
unavoidable problem in the field of psychiatry. How do you demonstrate
that someone has improved? Self-appraisals are an important index
but inconclusive; heroin addicts and born-again Christians claim
to feel better but others might disagree. There didn't seem to
be an objective way to keep score on life changes. Half of the
people coached might have loosened up and half might have gotten
their lives more tightly organized, and for any or all of them
the changes might have been a genuine improvement. Half might
have increased the intimacy and closeness of their marriages,
and half might have left their spouses. Some might have benefited
by making more money, some by making less. We needed clear statistical
indices, like batting averages, for the game of life.
About this time a call came from two officials of the Massachusetts
prison system, requesting that Harvard graduate-interns be assigned
for research and training. They expected a quick turn-down. Just
as prison guards were the bottom of the law-enforcement hierarchy,
prison work was at that time the pits of psychology. Criminals
simply didn't change.
Much to their surprise I invited the prison officials over for
lunch at the Faculty Club. I welcomed the chance to get into a
prison and initiate a volunteer rehabilitation program. I had
two purposes in mind: first, if we could change the behavior of
violent criminals with our drugs, we'd demonstrate that our methods
and theories worked where nothing else did. Second, prison rehabilitation
would provide us with the behavioral scientist's dream, an iron-clad
objective index of improvementthe recidivism rate.
The return-rate in Massachusetts prisons was running seventy percent.
I felt we could decimate that percentage. What a boon to societyconverting
violent criminals to law-abiding citizens! If we could teach the
most unregenerate how to wash their own brains, then it would
be a cinch to coach non-criminals to change their lives for the
A deal was made over lunch. I agreed to send Harvard graduate-interns
into the prisons; the officials agreed to get clearances from
the wardens and correctional psychiatrists for us to give drugs
A week later I drove out to the prison. I wore my Ivy League tweed
uniform. I even wore leather shoes for this occasion. Warden Tom
Grennan, a fellow Irishman, was impressed and pleased. A Harvard
psychologist had never come around before.
Next I had to get the approval of the prison psychiatrist. This
could have meant trouble. Shrinks didn't usually like programs
of head expansion, and medics liked to preserve their monopoly
I walked nervously down the hallway to the metal cage that opened
into a prison cellblock. Rang a bell. A slot opened. A guard looked
out, nodded, and opened up a second metal door. I walked through
the prison with a sense of foreboding. And precapitulation. I'd
been here before and I'd be here again.
CONCORD STATE PRISON
I walked through the first tall cellblock, across the prison yard
to the hospital. Bell, peephole, metal hinges creaking. Entered
the hospital. Knocked on the door of the prison psychiatrist.
It opened and facing me was good news. The prison psychiatrist
was black and definitely avant-garde. Hurray! Philosopher Thomas
Kuhn said that when you wish to introduce change-technology to
a culture, you'll find your best allies among the outsiders, those
whose alienation from the establishment makes them more open to
Aside from being a black psychiatrist Dr. Jefferson Monroe [Madison
Presnell] stood out in the primitive period of 1961 as another
kind of raritya sophisticated psychiatrist. Impeccable, graceful,
hip. He had a twinkle in his eye and a wise, cool way of looking
at you. He was definitely ready for something new.
A few days later Dr. Monroe paid a return call at the Faculty
Club and then came to a staff meeting at the Center. We put him
on the Harvard payroll as a consultant. The following Sunday he
brought his wife over for cocktails.
"Your plan to teach prisoners to brainwash themselves is
simply delicious. There's even a slight chance you can pull it
off. Do you know what that might mean?"
"A great boon to society," I suggested.
Dr. Monroe crossed his legs gracefully and laughed. "My dear,
you don't really understand what you're getting into, do you?
Sooner or later you're going to discover that law enforcement
people and prison administrators have no desire to cut crime.
They want more crime and more money to fight it. I'll cover you
from the medical and psychiatric end, but sooner or later, if
your methods work they'll start coming down on you. Reporters,
bureaucrats, officials. 'Harvard Gives Drugs to Prisoners!' And
you're going to have to do the impossible. Cure prisoners with
your left hand while you try to hold off the entire bureaucracy
with your right. "
"So what? If it works."
"Being human, sooner or later you'll make a teeny little
mistake. One of your subjects will revert. 'Harvard Drug Parolee
Robs Bank.' "
"As long as we do everything out front, no secrets,"
I said, "we can make a few honest mistakes."
"Maybe," said Monroe. "Look, here's the deal. I'll
back you all-out, until you goof. When they start coming down
on you, exactly at that point I'll have to protect my own pretty
black ass. 'Cause, I'm not you. I'm not the new Freud. So I'll
win with you, but I can't afford to lose with you."
On that basis we agreed on a plan: Monroe would line up volunteers
in the prison population for the drug project and I'd line up
Harvard graduate students willing to put their nervous systems
on the line taking drugs with maximum security prisoners.
A few days later I was visited by a graduate student named Ralph
Metzner. Metzner had a reputation for being one of the most rigorously
experimental students in the department. He wanted to work on
the prison project.
My first reaction was that Metzner was too academic, too dainty-British,
too ivory tower to walk into a prison and take drugs with hoodlums.
But Metzner said he wanted to learn how. So I guided a training
session for Metzner, his girlfriend, Dr. Monroe and his wife,
and graduate student Gunther Weil and his wife. This was the fifty-second
time I had taken psilocybin.
My study was the site of this experiment. Since this was an exploratory
training session, I told the participants to relax, have a good
time, and learn what they could. After a few hours of silent serenity,
Jefferson took over spontaneously as guide. His joking and warm
earthiness created a benign atmosphere. Ralph turned out to be
a natural inner explorer.
A few days later Ralph, Gunther, and 1, feeling a sense of camaraderie
as a result of the session, drove out to the Concord prison to
meet the six candidates Jefferson had selected from the pool of
volunteers. Two murderers. Two armed robbers. One embezzler. One
black heroin pusher.
In a dreary hospital roomgray walls, black asphalt floor, barred
windowswe told the six suspicious men about an experience that
could change their lives. We brought books for them to read, reports
by other subjects, articles that described the ecstasies as well
as the possible terrors. We spent most of the time describing
our own experiences and answering questions. We made it clear
to the prisoners that this was nothing we were doing to them.
There was no doctor-patient game going here. We would take the
drugs along with them. We were doing nothing to them that we weren't
happily doing to ourselves.
We also made a transactional research contract with the prisoners.
We said something like this: "We want to find out how and
how much you change during this experience. For this reason we
want you to take a battery of psychological tests before you eat
the mushroom pills. After three or four sessions we'll give you
the tests again. After you've taken the post-tests, we'll go over
the results with you. Nothing in this project is going to be a
secret." To the bored prisoners this sounded like a good
deal, so the following week each was administered a complicated
battery of psychological tests.
The prison project extended our research into a number of new
areas. We were dealing with a very different population from the
professionals and high-status subjects in the early research.
Second, we were switching from questionnaires and subjective reports
to objective measurements of personality change. And third, we
had to move from naturalistic settings to the most controlled
and least inspirational environment imaginablethe hospital
of a maximum security prison.
Six prisoners and three Harvard psychologists met for the first
drug session. During the morning I was to turn on with three convicts.
The three other prisoners and the two graduate students would
act as observers Then in the afternoon Gunther and Ralph and the
three observing prisoners would take the drug, and the first group
would act as guides. We brought a record player, tape recorder,
and several books of classical art with us. Otherwise the room
was bleak: four beds, a large table, and a few chairs. The bowl
of pills was placed in the center of the table. To establish trust
I was the first to ingest. Then the bowl was passed among the
three prisoners, who each took twenty milligrams. After a half
hour the effect started coming on: the loosening of thought, the
humming pressure in my head, the sharp, brilliant, and then brutal
intensification of the senses.
I felt terrible.
What a place to belocked in a penitentiary, out of light, out
of mind. I turned my brain towards the man next to me, a Polish
bank robber from Worcester. I could see him much too clearly,
every pore in his face, every blemish, the hairs in his nose,
the horrid green-yellow enamel of his decaying teeth, the glistening
of his frightened eyes, every hair on his head looking big as
a tree-branch. What am I doing here?
"How ya doing, John?" I asked with a weak grin.
"I feel fine," he answered, but I didn't believe him.
"How you doing, Doc?"
I was about to reply in a reassuring professional tone, but I
couldn't. It's hard to lie when you're in the power of the mushrooms.
"I feel lousy. "
John drew back his purple-pink lips. "What's the matter,
Inside his eyes I could see a yellow spider-web of retinal fibers,
optical veins shiny and pulsing. "I'm afraid of you,"
John's eyes enlarged, and then he began to laugh. I could see
in his mouth, swollen red tissues, gums, tongue, throat. I was
ready to be swallowed.
"Well, that's funny, Doc, 'cause I'm afraid of you."
We were both smiling at this point, leaning forward.
"Why are you afraid of me?"
"Because you're a criminal. Why are you afraid of me?"
"I'm afraid of you 'cause you're a fucking mad scientist."
Then our eyes locked and we both laughed.
Voila. There it was. We had made a connection. The sun came out
in the room. For a while.
One of the prisoners, the heroin pusher, moaned and tossed on
"Are you all right, Willy?" I asked, apprehensive about
a potential threat to our newfound sense of security. Everyone
in the room watched, anxiously wondering if the prison setting
was just irretrievably wrong, if this was to be one of those dreaded
Willy lifted his head and gave a big grin. "Man, am I all
right? I'm in heaven looking down on this funny little planet
and I'm a million years old and there's a million things to enjoyand
it's all happening in prison. And you ask me, man, am I all right?"
When Willy laughed, we were all high and happy.
Jefferson checked in every now and then, walked around the room
like a dainty, graceful cat not saying much but taking it all
At six o'clock, as the afternoon session was winding down, there
was a bang on the door, and the guards came in. "Time is
up, men. Back to the ward." Ralph, Gunther, and I went with
the six prisoners back to the lockup part of the hospital, where
we smoked and laughed and compared notes on what we'd seen and
where we'd been.
Then it was time for us to go. We shook hands and promised to
return the next day for a follow-up. Ralph, Gunther, and I walked
out of the hospital, across the dark prison yard, rang the bell,
and waited until the iron doors opened into the guardroom. We
went through two metal doors, down metal stairs, past the clanking
steaming radiators, and outside the prison.
We laughed in triumph. All of us, Harvardites and convicts, had
passed a crucial test. We had put our faith in human nature and
the drug experience on the line. A bit of pagan magic had occurred,
and none of us would ever forget that brief day of grace. It was
a heroic moment in our lives.
The morning after the session, driving back to the prison was
like returning to some comfortable place in my skull. Strong bonds
of empathy had developed. We had been through the adventure together.
We had gone beyond the roles of Harvard psychologist and convict,
faced fear together, had trusted and laugh.
This time I felt at home in the prison. It always works this way
after a good trip. Your old reality fades a bit, and you incorporate
a new reality. This identification is not metaphorical. It is
neurological. In scientific papers we called this process re-imprinting.
This first session changed our status in the prison. As word went
out through the grapevine, prisoners approached us in the yard
to ask if they could sign up for the project. Guards and parole
officers stopped us to request that a favorite prisoner be admitted
to the group.
We spent the next two weeks discussing the prisoners' reactions.
Then we ran a second session for the group. This time the prisoners
were more sophisticated. There was no sitting around on chairs
in nervous anticipation. As soon as the energy began to radiate
through their bodies, they headed for the cots and closed their
eyes. For the next two or three hours they lay engulfed in the
visions, occasionally sitting up to smile or make some quiet comment.
After the third session the convicts repeated the personality
tests to measure changes. We brought the test results into the
hospital room and handed them to the inmates. No secrets. We explained
what the tests measure and what the results meant.
They had changed on the objective indices so dear to the heart
of the psychologist. They showed less depression, hostility, anti-social
tendencies; more energy, responsibility, cooperation. Their personality
scores had swung dramatically and significantly in the direction
of improved mental health.
By handing over and explaining their test results we were training
the prisoners in psychodiagnostics. The prisoners were becoming
their own psychologists. They loved it. There were fierce discussions
about personality characteristics as the cons played the psychiatric
We planned the next phase of the research. The convicts were to
select new recruits for the group. They would learn how to administer
the psychological tests. They would give the orientation lectures.
They would take over the project.
The prison became a training center. New graduate students were
assigned to experienced inmates for orientation and guidance.
In session after session the inmates guided the Harvards, and
the Harvards guided the convicts.
The energy generated by the sessions was felt beyond the prison
walls. The penitentiary session room became a showplace. Whenever
visitors came to Cambridge inquiring about psychedelic drugs,
we took them out to the prison. The convicts spoke about their
mystical experiences to Gerald Heard, Alan Watts, and William
Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, and the ex-king of Sarawak, as well
as to coveys of visiting psychiatrists. Our strategy here was
to do everything possible to enhance their pride and sense of
accomplishment. Every power we could turn over to the convicts
became a fiber in the body of self-esteem.
By fall 1962 we had over thirty-five convicts and fifteen Harvards
in the group. The men started being paroled at the rate of two
and three a month, so we started Project CONTACT. The ex-cons
and the Harvards were paired up in buddy-system teams, with the
Harvards visiting the ex-cons in their homes. There was a twenty-four-hour
telephone to rush help in case of emergencies.
We sobered them up, praised them to the parole officers, cooled
out angry bosses. In short we did what a family does for its confused
members. We kept them out of jail.
Soon our circus had grown into a three-ring extravaganza. There
was the in-prison group. There was the outside CONTACT project.
And there was the equally important task of keeping the state
administrators and officials happy. We sent out a steady flow
of memoranda and progress reports to the myriad departments that
had a jealous interest in the work of rehabilitating criminals.
Following Jefferson's sage advice we never let a week go by without
contacting the bureaucrats, making them a part of the action.
One morning in the second year of the project I came into Warden
Grennan's office to report the most recent statistics. We had
kept ninety percent of our convicts out of jail.
He listened politely but kept glancing behind me. When I finished,
he clapped me on the back and led me to the corner. "Look
at that, Timmy," he said proudly.
It was an architect's color drawing of a super-prison. "Look.
Two football fields. This wing is for admitting and orientation.
Two more cell blocks. Mess halls double in size. We'll have capacity
for twice as many inmates, and we can double the staff all the
way down the line."
His face was glowing. This was his fantasy coming true. A huge
prison and an organizational table twice as big to go with it!
"That's wonderful, Bill," I said. "But have you
forgotten? You're not going to need a larger prison."
His face registered surprise.
"Because we're cutting your return-rate from seventy percent
to ten percent. If you let us continue our project, you won't
need half the cells you have right now."
The warden laughed, in spite of himself. "I can't argue with
you, Timmy. You have kept these men straight, although I'll be
damned if I know how you did it."'
We were trying to figure this out ourselves. It seemed that two
major factors were bringing about changes in the convicts: first,
the perception of new realities helped them recognize that they
had alternatives beyond the cops and robbers game; then, the empathetic
bonding of group members helped them sustain their choice of a
Similar kinds of sudden behavior change had been observed in other
species. Conrad Lorenz, the German ethologist, and Nico Tinbergen,
the Dutch naturalist, were the first to describe imprinting,
a form of permanent learning assimilated in one shot, as opposed
to step-by-step, painstaking and often painful, punishment-reward
conditioning, which traditional psychologists and educators believed
to be the basis of change. Lorenz discovered the imprinting phenomenon
one day when goose eggs hatched in an incubator in his laboratory.
In the absence of the mother the goslings followed him around,
apparently because he was the only warm moving object on the scene.
The baby birds continued to focus on him, ignoring their mother
when she was brought to them.
Hundreds of experiments by Lorenz and others have demonstrated
that this immediate learning, which requires no reward or punishment,
occurs only during a critical period, shortly after birth or metamorphoses.
During this critical period the organism, rather than acquiring
behavior from the environment, hooks up an innate behavior
pattern to the environment. The nervous systems of mammals
and fowl respond to the first available stimulus, usually the
mother, activating and binding instinctual behavior. Birds, for
example, have been known to seek mothering from ping pong balls.
Baby giraffes have imprinted the jeep of the hunter who shot the
Psychologists were at first reluctant to apply the imprinting
principle to human behavior, probably because of the challenge
it posed to our notion of free will. However, the dramatic changes
in behavior that followed our prison experiments seemed to be
best explained by these concepts. The drugs appeared to suspend
previous imprints of reality (in this case, the prison mentality)
inducing a critical period during which new imprints could be
People tended to form powerful positive attachments to those present
during a trip, sometimes following one another around like Lorenz's
goslings. It was also true that I was becoming attached to those
present during my sessions.
Even more important than the bonding was the re-imprinting of
new belief systems and attitudes about others and society that
occurred during the sessions. In a positive, supportive environment,
new non-criminal realities were being imprinted. (And in some
weird and ominous way, I may have been re-imprinting a prison
mentality, a reality which I was forced to inhabit between 1970
Everything that I have learned in the subsequent twenty years
of drug research has strengthened my conviction that psychedelic
re-imprinting ranks with DNA deciphering as one of the most significant
discoveries of the century.
Unfortunately the subsequent controversy about drugs overshadowed
scientific implications of this experiment. Though we had dramatically
cut the crime rate, teaching prisoners to clear their own brains
of old programs and create new ones, the prison project was shut
down after Alpert and I were driven from Harvard. Our ex-cons
formed their own group, with the help of our colleague Professor
Walter Houston Clark. They continued to operate the Self-Help
program for fifteen years on their own.
Scientific tradition requires that important findings be replicated:
disproved or verified. There were and still are hundreds of psychologists
eager to perform experiments of this sort. The government remains
steadfast in its curtailment of meaningful psychedelic research,
though every other form of criminal rehabilitation has failed
and thousands are recruited into the cycle of recidivism each