THE USE OF PSILOCYBIN IN A PRISON SETTING
During 1961.-62 and the following academic year, Timothy Leary and I worked rather intensively with a small group of inmates at The Concord Massachusetts Reformatory for Men, to see whether their use of psilocybin would help them ne-gotiate the outside world upon their release from prison. In the course of our work with these men, I participated in three drug sessions, and shall here describe the first of these after outlining our work with the men.
The opportunity to take psilocybin was offered to the men as a vehicle for exploring the "hang-ups" that might prevent them from succeeding in the way they wanted. Tim com-pared our program with the New York Giants' film-watching sessions of the previous day's football game. Out of uniform and away from the tension and immediacies of the game, the players are able to observe their mistakes and take notes that will become the basis for changes in strategy the fol-lowing Sunday. Like these film sessions, the drug experience was to be a non-game situation, in which each of the men could remove himself from the hotly contested and closely played games in prison and break through the rigid defen-sive structure that being a "con" seemed to engender.
Planning sessions were held before taking the drug to help each of the four inmates in the group chart as specifically as possible the problems that prevented him from playing his game as he would like, and the point in his development at which they emerged. The others in the group worked with the inmate in question on this project, reviewing the past and commenting on the way he was getting on in the prison. Thus each man constructed a map of his psychological ter-rain so that when the time for the trip arrived he could find his way to the areas he wished to understand more thor-oughly. There was an air of expectation about these sessions, and for the most part each man seemed to be eager to help the others in their preparations for the voyage of exploration. After about three months of weekly meetings, all seemed ready, and the first drug session was held in the conference room at the antiquated prison hospital.
In two ways the drug session was a disappointment, both to me and, I feel, also to the inmates. First of all, there was a good deal of commotion throughout the session. Most of this was due to the many people, both other inmates and guards, who frequently peered in through the windows or even entered the room. This series of intrusions prevented the men from gaining much momentum in their own explorations, since they were largely at the mercy of whoever entered the room during the course of the day. All of us felt we had confronted many facets of ourselves during the session, but that there had not been the stillness and quiet necessary to extend an exploration beyond the initial encounter. Like Alice and the plum pudding, the introduction to a spirit conjured up by the drug all too often seemed to be the sign for its departure. While much of this rapid movement might have taken place under any conditions, many of us wondered afterward what the session would have been like if held outdoors, or at least away from the distractions of other inmates and guards.
The second source of disappointment during the day was the discovery that there was more hostility and mistrust among the men than the preparatory sessions had indicated. At that time, the men had worked co-operatively, brought together perhaps by their uncertainties about the forthcoming encounter with the drug, perhaps by their eagerness to behave as Tim and I wanted them to—as co-operating and mutually trusting human beings. The fact that each inmate was not taking the drug in the company of those with whom he felt comfortable produced tensions and seemed to prevent the kind of exploration and discovery that had been anticipated in the planning sessions.
Both these remarks must be modified by the reminder that the experience was a highly personal one for each man, and that our follow-up sessions were not of the kind that permit a full evaluation of what each experienced that day.
They are only general comments that follow from my own experiences, and discussions with others in the group after. ward. Perhaps my own experiences on that day may be th most direct way of describing what the effects of the drug. and the setting were like.
As we lay on our cots, which were arranged in a circle, th radio was playing, and the first feeling I remember after taking two pills (each containing twenty milligrams, I believe) was of elation. Music was emerging from the radio, undu= lating and uncoiling as it spread out across the room. So of the notes seemed to float in the air, while others skittered about on the floor, and the sense of time moving forward in unison was immediately broken. The music with its autonomy of movement had shattered the orderly progression of events. Sometimes as air, sometimes as water, it swirled about us, creating a world in which everything was mobile, almost plastic.
This mobility was present throughout the session and constitutes one of the most remarkable experiences of the day. It was as if the whole world, including myself, were pliable,- assuming any contour depending partially on external circumstance but essentially on the exercise of my own will power.
If I wished to be happy, I could be happy; if I was afraid, it was because I had chosen fear and welcomed it into my being. It might grow to greater proportions than I expected or desired, but the act of choosing was mine and reflected what I was. My choice set in motion great waves of feeling that frequently overwhelmed me, but throughout I sensed that the thrust of events within me was not merely a matter of mood or setting. Rather it was a response to my summons, as were the demons that surrounded Pandora when she lifted the lid of the mysterious and forbidden box.
Only two resources were available in the face of what seemed to be utter destruction, and, in a sense, each seemed diametrically opposed to the other. The first was an act of will, to choose to entertain other spirits than those about to engulf me. Since mine had been the choice to permit them entrance in the first place, I now had the freedom and the responsibility to banish them, to tell them that they had become too large and unruly to be welcome longer and that they must leave. During the first session I resorted to this method most frequently, and was surprised to find that these spirits left submissively.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this came during the afternoon, when I became increasingly anxious over the fact that we would have to leave at four o'clock. It seemed as though I would never be able to meet the responsibilities of pulling myself together and of walking out of the prison. I was a patient and helpless. My feelings and thoughts were spread out over an immense terrain and could not be col-lected in time. I was a prisoner like the others, a slave rather than a master. I was surprised to find that, when the actual moment to leave came, I was quite able to rise to the occasion. I remember knotting my tie and feeling my pow-ers of control and focus come marching back, as though sum-moned by this symbolic act. When I told myself that it was time to become well, to become active and to cope with the tasks at hand, matters changed almost instantly.
The other resource available to me in the face of helpless-ness and destruction was to place myself at the disposal of these feelings; to tell them that, if they wished, they could abduct and consume me, that I would follow their lead and would not do battle with them. During the second session I felt as though I were shooting up into the atmosphere in a rocket with no control over where it was going, and that my feet might never touch the ground again. I felt doubly mis-erable because I blamed myself for entering the rocket when I could have stayed away by not taking the drug. As I shot up through space, I was able to accept the fact that I was no longer in control of my destiny, and resigned myself to going wherever the rocket would take me. With that, the fear subsided and a feeling of great peace came over me, which remained for the rest of the session.
This account underlines the sharp break between the ex-pectations of the planning sessions and the intense personal realities of the drug experience. It was as if we had all planned to climb a mountain together and had worked on maps that would help us on the expedition. We had started out together on the trip, but each man encountered such storms that there was little chance to consult the maps or the others in the group.
This is where we began in our work with the men at Concord—with a large gap between the plans we constructed with our minds in preparing for the drug session, and the immensity of the day itself. I believe it would have taken a long series of drug and follow-up sessions before we could have emerged with a fruitful combination of planning and drug sessions—with a sense of how rational thought and self-examination could have combined with the revelations of the drug session to prepare the men for re-entry into society.1 Unfortunately, the development of such a program was impeded and finally stopped by the publicity surrounding the use of consciousness-expanding drugs.