When Jeff Smith was 17, he was already an alcoholic and tried heroin for the first time. “It used to take me three hours to get high when I drank. I could do the heroin and be there in three minutes,” he said. When his drug addiction eventually lead him to forgery and he was sentenced to the Shelby County Correction Center in Memphis, TN in 1987, he took part in a new program called MRT, or moral reconation therapy.
At the time, the program wasn’t successful in treating Jeff’s drug problems. When he was released on parole and returned to his old habits, his parents changed their locks to keep him out of their lives. But while Jeff relapsed, the MRT program grew from a pilot program in Shelby County to one that is now used in 47 states and eight countries.
MRT was developed by Memphis psychologists Dr. Greg Little and Dr. Kenneth Robinson, and was first used in 1985 as part of the Shelby County Correction Center’s drug abuse program. Robinson says it is now the most widely used inmate rehab program in the world.
The program was refined into a formal treatment method in 1987, and involves theories from psycholgists Carl Jung, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Little and Robinson formed a company called Correctional Counseling, Inc., and states on their website that MRT “seeks to move clients from hedonistic (pleasure vs. pain) reasoning levels to levels where concern for social results and others becomes important.” Put simply, MRT seeks to make inmates think about the way they make decisions. The term “reconation” comes from the archaic term “conation” and means getting offenders to re-evaluate their choices.
Robinson says most people who experiment with drugs and alcohol are like Jeff Smith, starting in adolescence. “You see those people making poor decisions,” he said. “It changes your ability to live.”
Little says that logic doesn’t apply to offenders. “The bulk of offenders, 60 to 90 percent, have diagnosable antisocial personality disorders, and most people with antisocial personality disorders abuse drugs or alcohol.”
Smith, now 53, says he was a good example of this. When he was on parole, he worked, but mainly to support his drug habit. “I made decisions to do what I wanted to do regardless of consequences. I lost several jobs because of alcohol and drugs,” he said.
After violating parole, Smith was sentenced to another 13 years in prison and was released after 6-and-a-half years. He then enrolled in the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center and entered MRT group therapy.
“I missed out on 35 years of my life with my family. I had always known the difference in right and wrong, but I didn’t always do right. MRT helps you realize those things are conscious decisions,” Smith said.
When he completed therapy, Smith became an MRT trainer. He now works as a carpenter, furniture refinisher, and antique pricer for the Salvation Army and is living with and helping care for his aging parents.
“MRT is very easy in the beginning,” said Little. “We ask them to buy into the program. Soon, they are slowly swimming upstream. We ask them to stand up and tell what they know is the absolute truth. … It’s that they are liars. We try to have them clear the air by telling us they’re liars.”
After admitting their weaknesses, inmates are then confronted with choices, which grow more and more complex. For example, they may be asked whether it’s right to steal if you can’t afford a prescription for your sick wife who might die without the medication. As they consider their answers, they have to think about the way they make decisions.
Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell says that the MRT program works, but that it doesn’t perform miracles. Standard rates for repeat offenders in the United States are 65-85 percent, and the recidivism rate in Shelby County is about 85 percent. But Little says MRT fares better nationally, with a recidivism rate of 60 percent in the short term and going down to 20 percent after 10 years.