Point of No Return
By Allen Johnson, Jr.
JUNE 22, 1998: In prison, nicknames often convey a sense of identity, even purpose.
Convicts at the state maximum security prison at Angola considered former Warden Ross Maggio (1981-1984) so tough they called him "The Gangster." The Angola reforms of the early 1990s, led by Larry Smith and Larry Jean, earned the state Department of Corrections trouble-shooting team the nickname of "Smith & Wesson." And at least one mass murderer at Angola is known as "Monster."
But few prison monikers may be more apt -- yet require more explanation -- than the nickname that inmates at the Dixon Correctional Institute at Jackson bestowed upon the co-founders of Project Return, Robert Roberts, a college professor, and Nelson Marks, a convicted felon and recovering drug addict. To the inmates at the medium-security prison, Roberts and Marks are called the "Odd Couple."
Project Return, the pair's unique New Orleans-based rehabilitation program for released offenders, boasts a 6 percent recidivism rate -- the rate of released offenders who return to prison -- despite its policy of seeking those most likely to land back behind bars: thieves, sex offenders and drug addicts. State corrections officials, meanwhile, say Louisiana's recidivism rate is 49 percent for all prisoners.
Project Return has won critical funding support from top Republicans such as Congressman Bob Livingston and former Louisiana Gov. David C. Treen as well as local business leaders and the pro-police Metropolitan Crime Commission.
"I have come not to spend [state] money, but to save money," Treen recently told the state Senate Finance Committee, which wants to reduce costs for housing prisoners. The state currently spends an estimated $110 million per year, a figure projected to rise by $55 million over the next five years.
Project Return costs $4,500 per person per quarter, and last year it became the nation's only prison "after-care" program to be funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, receiving a $750,000 grant.
Marks, 44, and Roberts, 54, say Project Return is a way to break the cycle of violence, drug addiction and imprisonment. Moreover, it can do wonders for the state's bottom line.
"Give us five years, and we can cut the [5,100-inmate] population of Angola by two-thirds," Roberts told Gambit Weekly. Another supporter, state Sen. Tom Schedler, R-Slidell, enthusiastically endorsed the program in a stage-whisper: "It can save us millions. ... It's a sleeper." It's the stuff movies are made of.
In fact, Project Return has become the subject of an award-winning Hollywood documentary narrated by actor Tim Robbins, the driving force behind another Angola-based film, Dead Man Walking. The Project Return documentary will make its local premiere Wednesday (June 17) at the Contemporary Arts Center.
But neither the movie nor news media reports about Project Return account for the founders' prison nickname. The moniker begins to explain their dual identities and individual motives in an unorthodox endeavor to cut crime while emptying expensive jail cells. The Odd Couple first met at DCI in 1989 during a dramatic confrontation in front of 50 other inmates attending a prison group therapy session. How each man got there is part of their story.
A disgruntled white dentist and a native of Shreveport, Roberts had one Ph.D. when he entered the prison facility to pursue a second doctorate in educational psychology at LSU. "I was also on my eighth or ninth mid-life crisis," he drawled from behind wire-rim glasses at his Project Return office, 1010 Common St.
He was bored with dentistry. "It just wasn't fulfilling -- drilling, billing and filling," he said. "I was interested in group psychology. It wasn't just an interest, though; it was a calling."
A disciple of psychologist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, Roberts had gone to DCI to prove to his dissertation panel that convicts could help rehabilitate themselves using Peck's theory of "community building."
Roberts had witnessed first-hand how his mentor's group psychology theory had bridged language and cultural gaps between Soviet and American mental health experts during a 10-day cruise on the Volga River. "I was bragging to my dissertation committee about Peck's success in the Soviet Union, and one professor on the panel asked, 'Can it work in prisons?'"
Roberts said he did not know, but he "called Peck that night. I said, 'Scottie, will community building work in a prison? And he said, 'I don't know. Why don't you try it?'"
Roberts decided to take a chance. He sold his dental practice, wrote a grant for the study and headed to DCI.
His future partner, Marks, took a decidedly different path to the prison. He arrived there from Angola in 1987 after serving more than seven years of a maximum 25-year sentence for bank robbery. A black eighth-grade drop-out and native of New Roads, Marks had entered prison at the age of 25.
His first run-in with the law was for burglary at age 9. ("I'd always been afraid to shoplift," he confided.) The son of working-class parents, he first stole to help keep his family off welfare after they moved from a farm into town. The youth's motive was soon displaced by drug addiction.
When he was 13, Marks and two cousins robbed an ice cream establishment of $13,000. By his own count, he committed 22 commercial business robberies in three states as an adult before he was caught, convicted and sent to prison as a first-offender.
Upon entering Angola, Marks recalled that he was one of about 30 inmates greeted by a prison colonel who said, "'Go get you a husband. Stay out of trouble and make the time pass.' I said, 'A what?'"
In a prison rite of passage, a new inmate -- or "fish" -- must show that he is willing to die defending himself against inmate "wolves" and potential gang-rapes or else submit to the degradation and violence of becoming another man's "woman." It's a brutal tradition, one definitively described by Wilbert Rideau, editor of the award-winning Angolite prison news magazine, in his 1992 book, Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars.
Marks was lucky, though. Melvin Smith and Henry Patterson, two older inmates serving lengthy sentences, showed Marks how to avoid the inmate "traps" that could get a new convict in trouble. Others, however, didn't have such good fortune.
One morning during his first month at Angola, Marks awoke to learn that an inmate five beds away from him had died overnight, his throat cut from ear to ear. "I had never seen anybody raped, murdered or set afire until I went to prison," Marks said. "I didn't know people could be so cruel."
At the same time, he had met "compassionate people" -- both prison employees and prisoners -- who helped prevent numerous inmate murders, rapes and assaults. It was in that climate that Marks successfully completed his general equivalency diploma and attended prison college courses offered by a visiting professor from Southern University. Later, at DCI, Marks became a kitchen cook and was entrusted with keys and the scheduling of other inmate workers. He lived in dormitory No. 7 on the day he and others were called out by guards for a reading evaluation administered by Roberts.
Roberts sat in a circle of 50 mostly black convicts in a prison meeting room. The group included a cop killer, drug dealers, sex offenders and armed robbers such as Marks.
Peck's theory of "community building" was about to meet its acid test. As applied by Roberts, the inmates would participate in a rap session designed to lower their emotional defenses and encourage mutual trust and respect. In theory, the convicts would help each other improve their reading skills, drug avoidance and other life skills they would need on "the outside" to prevent their return to prison.
Marks thought it was another "scam" by a professor with a grant, and he said so at the group's first meeting. He warned that the professor would publish his findings about the group experiment, and any inmate failures would basically reinforce society's contempt for convicts. He urged the convicts not to participate.
"I didn't trust him," Marks recalled of his first meeting with the professor. "He was another white educated man who had the answer. I thought it was another scam that would show we convicts were beyond help. I had seen it happen before."
Roberts said Marks "basically led a revolt of the inmates." The professor asked the recalcitrant convicts to give him a chance. Ultimately, they did. By the second day of the experiment, college-educated convicts like Marks were helping semi-literate inmates learn how to read and write better. The prison meeting room soon buzzed with excitement. "This could be a good thing," Marks told the group.
Tests showed the average inmate reading level increased by nine months in just seven weeks. Disciplinary write-ups at dorm No. 7 plunged dramatically over the same time period, but there were still problems. Tests had shown that three inmates could not read at all. "They were furious at us," Roberts said. "We had exposed them. They were suddenly vulnerable."
In prison, a man who cannot read is considered "mentally weak" and open to exploitation and attack by other inmates. "First, we apologized," Roberts said. "Then, we asked if there was something we could do to correct it." The answer was no. Roberts had learned a valuable lesson from the illiterate convicts: "An educated specialist who is technically skilled and culturally incompetent is a menace."
But Marks, convinced of Robert's sincerity, helped him navigate the cynical prisontraps and pitfalls that threatened both Roberts and Peck's theory. "I gave him credibility," Marks said. "And he gave me credibility." The two became partners in a project to give hope to the hopeless, and that is how they came to be known as the "Odd Couple."
Roberts earned his second Ph.D. and set up Project Return in New Orleans with support from Tulane University. Marks was transferred to a work-release program in Baton Rouge a year before former Gov. Edwin Edwards pardoned him. By the time he got out, Marks had served 12 and a half years in prison.
Shortly before Marks' release, Roberts asked him to participate in a funding pitch to the New Orleans Business Council on behalf of Project Return. Marks spent a few days with his family in New Roads, then boarded a bus to New Orleans to join Roberts for the presentation just eight days after leaving prison. For the occasion, "Bob gave me an old blazer that didn't fit him," Marks said.
The Business Council meeting had been arranged with the help of an old college buddy of Roberts, and the results exceeded his expectations. "We asked for $30,000, prayed for $25,000, and got $150,000," Roberts said.
Since 1993, Marks and Roberts have co-directed the program, which claims to have successfully prepared 826 ex-offenders for the work force. Half the prisoners in Louisiana who recidivate do so in the first six months after leaving prison, Roberts said, so getting to them early is crucial.
Called the "most comprehensive program of its kind in the New Orleans area" by a veteran state corrections official, Project Return offers participants a 90-day "community building" program filled with job skills training and placement, computer literacy training, anger management, "rage" therapy and an intriguing seminar titled "How to Fight Fair (With Your Spouse)."
The program conducts random drug testing, takes client referrals by judges and probation and parole officials, pays its clients a critical $2.50 per hour for attending classes, and promises to help ex-offenders quit smoking tobacco.
"The toughest part of the job is to tell people, 'I'm sorry. We can't take you. We're full,'" Marks said. The waiting list currently has 400 names. "People on the list have gotten murdered on the streets."
Unlike many pre-release programs, Project Return does not exclude people because of violent convictions or poor prison conduct records. More important, perhaps, Project Return's 10-member staff consists of seven ex-offenders -- including Marks -- who can directly relate to the concerns of a newly released prisoner.
A Gambit Weekly sampling of 133 Project Return graduates from two classes (1996-97) showed a recidivism rate of 15 percent, nearly three times the program's stated rate of 5.4 percent. In our sample, 38 percent had not returned to prison, and the status of the remaining 47 percent was either unknown or there were errors in the numbers assigned them by various agencies.
Roberts said the discrepancies are explained by several factors. Project Return counts only clients that are returned to prison, while state authorities include parolees who are cited for technical violations such as failing to make the $43 monthly payment required for state supervision after an inmate's release. In addition, graduates come from several different jurisdictions, so keeping tabs on them means dealing with multiple bureaucracies.
Project Return's numbers are not independently audited, and Roberts acknowledges the program needs to improve its tracking.
Former Gov. Treen says an audit would help clear up any confusion over recidivism rates and should satisfy skeptics. "Even an 18 percent recidivism rate is tremendous," he said. And the cost savings is still dramatic.
Anthony Radosti, a retired New Orleans police detective and vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said follow-up should be an essential part of any rehabilitation program.
"It's a full-time job keeping track of these people and what they are doing," Radosti said. "If there is no follow-up, then there's a problem. Some are going to be troubled even after completing the program and getting a job. Five years should be sufficient. If you have a cancer removed and it has not come back after five years, you are generally considered cured."
Angola, meanwhile, has begun its own program designed to prepare convicts for life outside prison before they are paroled. Several hundred "short-term" inmates are enrolled in the new Pre-Release Exit Program (PREP), which Angola warden N. Burl Cain began last December.
Moreover, Louisiana jails and prisons have a number of vocational programs and substance abuse treatment efforts underway, said state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Melissa Cook.
PREP includes group therapy, conflict management, vocational skills, substance abuse counseling and religious programs. The unfunded initiative is a welcome inmate alternative to work on the sprawling prison farm or solitary confinement in Camp J, an ultra-maximum security facility with a reputation as a "pressure cooker."
Angolite editor Rideau, locked up at Angola since 1961 for murder, thinks "society should want to see prisoners released out of a program like PREP rather than straight out of Camp J."
Kerry Myers, another Angolite staffer serving life for murder, said PREP is still in its experimental stage, but the program has signaled to inmates that authorities "are looking to treat prisoners differently ... like men."
"We're trying to help [inmates] help themselves," veteran Angola Lt. Robbie Gayle said of PREP inmates. The 480 convicts enrolled in the program pose fewer concerns for security officials than when PREP started. "I never thought [that] would happen here at Angola."
But Angolite staffer Douglas Dennis, who has been serving a life sentence for murder at Angola since 1957, said, "PREP is only half the sandwich. You need post-release. That is where Project Return comes in."
There are potential pitfalls on the road to rehabilitation, of course.
Treen says the inherent danger in programs like Project Return is that the inevitable personal failures will be sensationalized to the detriment of an otherwise worthwhile program. "The media sensationalism is always the danger," said Treen. "That sensationalism distorts the objective analysis of the program. Any governor has to worry about that."
Like Project Return, the state's recidivism numbers are not independently audited. The Department of Corrections also lacks a strict program for tracking former inmates.
Treen agrees that all recidivism programs, including Project Return, should be audited to ensure effectiveness and accountability. And Angola PREP coordinator Gloria King acknowledged that despite the fledgling program's early success, the prison has yet to establish a way to measure its progress. By late May, two of 115 PREP graduates had been released back into society without any tracking process other than routine supervision by probation and parole officials.
Marks has been out of prison for more than five years. In his baritone voice, he has talked to business people, media and politicians about the violence and despair faced by many ex-offenders both inside and outside of prison.
"Would you rather have me running around with a ski mask and .45-caliber pistol, or in the position that I'm in today?" Marks asked.
That's a no-brainer. Marks now is a homeowner, the father of two children and a partner in an endeavor that could dramatically reduce crime. At the same time, Marks is not insulated from the hauntings of his prison past.
"I know [ex-convicts] who still make homemade beer and still carry homemade weapons, even with all the guns they have out here now," he said. "They are out of prison, yet they still keep food under their bed. They need some kind of help."
There is another aspect of crime that also needs to be addressed, Marks said.
"Something needs to be said about the victims," he said. "I always struggled with what to say to them. I wouldn't do it from prison, because I didn't want to sound like I was trying to get a lesser sentence."
In 1982, during his first Christmas in prison, Marks became a crime victim himself. "Someone stole postage stamps from me," he said. "At that point, I thought about the victims in the bank I had robbed in West Baton Rouge Parish" earlier that year.
Twelve years later, with the help of former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown and Liberty Bank & Trust President Alden McDonald, Marks returned to the Baton Rouge bank he had robbed -- to apologize.
"I was more nervous than the day I robbed the place," he recalled. A female teller said she probably would not have accepted his apology any sooner.
"The teller said when she saw that gun, all she thought about was her family, that she would never see her son again," Marks said. His head bowed slightly, his voice filled with remorse. "Her son was the same age as mine -- 3 years old."
Crime also has touched the life of his partner. Roberts has been a victim of five burglaries and one carjacking since moving into New Orleans in 1995. He and his wife recently moved to Algiers, but his personal trauma as a victim has not dissuaded him from his work with ex-offenders -- or caused him to abandon his philosophy.
"I'm a liberal Democrat who's in love with Republicans," the professor said of Project Return's hard-core financial supporters. But he says the project couldn't have happened without Marks.
"I disagree," said Marks, the other half of the Odd Couple. "I think there are a lot of other people like me out there. I would like to see some stories done on them."
If Project Return catches on, Marks may get his wish.
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