Bob Roberts is the founder of Project Return and author of My Soul Said to Me. Just before lunch, his GEL speech touched on prison recidivism, improving society, and the role of the soul. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk:
For the first 20 years of my career, I was a dentist. For the last 15 years of my career, I’ve done research inside a prison for three years and developed a project in New Orleans, Louisiana, called Project Return. That’s a project that invites people who’ve been in prison and are now in the streets to come in, take classes and learn something called community building. 77% of people who go to prison will go back to prison. One in four graduates of Project Return go back to prison.
We take the people who need us the most, people who have a high risk for failure. I have a staff of 30. 20 are people who have been in prison themselves. No one comes to Project Return and says, “You don’t understand my problem.” Today we release double the number of people we had locked up 20 years ago. Of the 650,000 released this year, the people who return to jail will do so within four years.
I get asked two questions a lot. One is, “What can we do?” The other is, “How the hell did you ever get into this?” I have researched both questions with equal intensity. For the first one, the soundbite answer is: Look in the mirror. What are we doing wrong? Among the Mayan Indians, they’re very good at this. In Mayan villages, when youth become brutal or violent, there’s a council that’s held by the elders in which they ask themselves what they did wrong that led their children to become so violent.
The other question, why did you do this, had nothing to do with my upbringing, nature, or nurture. I grew up in Shreveport. Shreveport is so conservative we call the rabbi bubba. It must be something about the soul. Now, I know next to nothing about the soul. So about half of this will be incorrect, but I’m not sure which half.
What has man believed about the soul since the beginning of time? In all of the literature across multiple cultures, there are common beliefs about the soul. What are those believes? First, that it exists. That it comes here from someplace else. That it comes here for a reason and with a purpose. Initiation is a misnomer. It’s really remembering.
The soul comes here to make the world a better place. And that means changing things. That generates passion. How can we remember again? All I can recommend is silence.