November 18, 1999
The idea of rehabilitating ex-prisoners through respect and tough love crosses language and cultural barriers, a Tulane professor has found. Bob Roberts, clinical assistant professor in community health sciences and director of Project Return, a Tulane program located on the West Bank that rehabilitates recently paroled ex-offenders, regularly welcomes visitors from other countries to see his program in action.
The visitors' responses are at the same time emotional and grateful, Roberts says. "Their cultures are hurting just as bad as ours," he says. "Theyre looking for answers, too."
In Project Return, answers come in the form of an intensive, 90-day program that teaches conflict resolution and communication abilities, enhances job skills and includes substance abuse treatment and family therapy.
The backbone of the program is its community-building component in which participants spend days soul searching and confessing their past transgressions with the aim of forming a cohesive, cooperative group. African drumming sessions add to the sense of spirituality and community.
The program accepts 50 men and women for each session, each earning $2.50 per day stipend during their time in the program. Roberts says less than 10 percent of the 1,000 participants in the programs five-year history have returned to prison, compared to Louisiana's recidivism rate of 37.5 percent within the first six months following release from incarceration and 75 percent within five years.
Cities in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, California and Tennessee are currently developing programs based on Project Return, Roberts says. To spread the word to other countries, Roberts volunteers to meet with foreign groups touring the area through the Council of International Visitors of Greater New Orleans, an organization that arranges professional programming and hospitality for international groups in conjunction with the U.S. Information Agency.
Past visitors to the program include the assistant attorney general of Canada and the mayor of Mexico City, Roberts says. This summer, the Project Return staff hosted a group of 17 middle and high school teachers from the former East Germany. Lother G. Kopp, a staff member of Germanys Ministry of the Interior, led the group during its two-week tour of the Unites States.
Through an interpreter, Kopp described his groups reaction after its three-hour visit to Project Return. "I was able to identify and appreciate the philosophy on which Dr. Roberts put the program together," Kopp says. "This philosophy is marked by modesty, honesty and respect for one's neighbor."
Kopp says the teachers were impressed with the success of the program and moved when individual counselors, all ex-prisoners, told their stories of incarceration and redemption. "All members of the group understood the basic idea that it pays to reintegrate people into society as productive members of society," he says.
The appeal of Project Return is its grounding not in new technology but in ancient beliefs of respect and mentorship, concepts Roberts says modern society has forsaken. "It crosses cultural boundaries," Roberts says. "It has a universal truth to it."
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