Project Return Remembers How To Grieve

May 1, 1998

Dianne Ludlam

Rape. Murder. Assault. Violent crime confronts us each time we turn on a newscast, open a newspaper and, for some of us, even when we look out the window. When we as a nation think nothing more can shock us we are stunned by events like what happened in Jonesboro, Ark., where two young boys are accused of killing four middle school classmates and a teacher, and gunning down 11 other children.

We look on in horror. And we question how. Then we begin to blame. We blame the boys. We blame the parents. We blame the gun laws. We blame the justice system.

At some point the blame has to stop and we have to ask, "What am I doing that is contributing to the problem," says Robert Roberts, director of Project Return, a program associated with the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine's work in violence prevention and control. "We are not yet willing to take a hard look in the mirror," Roberts says. "What are we doing in the adult world that 11-year-olds are carrying guns to school and killing people? The problem this country has with asking that question is that we are so bent on blame. It is the weakest word in our vocabulary. We say, 'It's your fault. You are the one to blame.' The world is not black and white, although we keep wanting to see it that way." So far, America's solution to counteracting violence is to build more prisons, Roberts says. "We spend a little bit of money, a very little bit, on rehabilitation. But we are building, on average, four prisons a month. It's the growth industry of the '90s."

Roberts spent three years of research inside Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, La., developing the community-building workshop that is at the heart of Project Return. The workshop is based on the model designed by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled.

The program holds initial two-and-a-half day workshops with weekly follow-up meetings for three months. Roberts says if you want to rehabilitate, today's prisons are not the answer.

"Prisons are full of violence. We want to teach criminals to be non-violent, yet we place them in the most violent setting. We want them to be responsible, yet we take away all their responsibilities. We want them to be educated, yet we don't provide any education. We want them to get jobs, yet we don't provide job training. We want them to get off drugs, yet we don't have drug-treatment programs. Prisons are full of hatred, distrust, violence, fear, torture and rape. You can't mistreat in one room and treat in another."

Rehabilitation programs that provide job training and drug treatment sound like good ideas. Roberts, however, says they are missing a key element to success--grief therapy.

"We have forgotten how to grieve," he says. "We don't know when and how to grieve. Grief is not to make us feel better. It is to make us feel alive. If we are not going to feel grief, we are not going to feel joy. Soon we will not feel at all. We will be numb until something happens and we fall into the black hole of depression or rage. If we don't have a place to unload grief then there is no connection to gain compassion or reason."

Grieving is crucial to creating an environment of healing at the Project Return workshops. In the workshops, people open up and share their most private, painful memories, and the rest of the group doesn't attack or bully.

"If a man has been in prison it's been a violent life," Roberts says. "You can't offer him vo-tech training and drug treatment alone and expect him to get a good job if he still has unspoken rage. If he was raped, forced to walk like a woman, passed from man to man, sold for a package of cigarettes and all he hears at night are his own screams, he's not employable until he's given space to grieve."

In a recent documentary on Project Return, four former inmates began their segments by saying, "I've never told anyone this in my whole life." It is an archetype of how important grief therapy is to the success of the program. More than 800 men and women have gone through Project Return since it began in late 1993 with funding from private organizations. Roberts is aware of approximately 50 who have gone back to prison, but the recidivism information is anecdotal.

About 50 people from a waiting list of several hundred are taken into the program each quarter. The selection is based on need. "We base it on who is at greatest risk for going back to prison," Roberts says. The participants work in a computer-based learning lab to enhance math and reading skills and are assisted with preparation for the high school equivalency diploma test. Program staff help participants enroll in drug treatment programs and find other community services.

"We offer them computer education and employment skills. That's what makes us ordinary," Roberts says.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000