Moral Reconation Therapy—MRT® - History
History & Timeline of MRT–Moral Reconation Therapy®
In 1974 both Greg Little and Ken Robinson were in the process of completing their Master’s Degrees in the psychology department at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). Both of them were working with Dr. Paul D’Encarnacao, specializing in psychopharmacology research, and were in the joint M.S. – Ph.D. program. After a series of earlier publications on memory processes and morphine addiction1, 2, 3 the research had led to a critical point.4 Unexpectedly, the endorphin receptors were discovered in the brain by Solomon & Pert leading D’Encarnacao to abandon the research. He decided to both leave the university and quit teaching at the end of the school year in 1975.
At that time Robinson took a part-time job as a Mental Health Counselor at the Shelby County Correction Center’s new Mental Health Unit and Little took a part-time Counselor job in the same institution’s Drug Offender Rehabilitation Program (DORP). In early 1976, after receiving his M.S., Little was appointed Director of the DORP, which had begun in 1972 using what was called “Reconation Therapy” (see later section). The DORP was operating as a therapeutic community utilizing highly behavioristic principles. Little subsequently authored or coauthored 6 articles on the outcomes of the program along with several articles about prison reform.5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 He became especially interested in the phenomenon of one-day dropouts from the program and he and Ken Robinson teamed to publish two studies on that issue.11, 12 Both Little and Robinson left the psychology department in 1976 after receiving their masters degrees. Little transferred to the university’s Counseling Department and Robinson transferred to the Educational Psychology Department where both received their doctorates.
In 1980, in an effort to complete coursework and the Dissertation for his doctorate, Little stepped down from the DORP Director’s position and took on a counselor’s job in the institution’s Mental Health Unit. Robinson was still a counselor on that same unit but was also then working at a Memphis mental health center. Robinson eventually started and was the Director of the first Crisis Stabilization Unit in Memphis. In addition, Little served as a part-time consultant at the (FCI) Memphis Federal Correction Institution’s Delta Unit (the drug treatment unit) from 1979-1984 where he conducted drug education classes, held group counseling, and made a variety of presentations. In 1982, after receiving his doctorate, Little began work on several books and incorporated various concepts into his presentations at the FCI that were derived from ideas outlined in Ron Smothermon’s 1982 book, Transforming #1. That book served as the inspiration for what would later become MRT. These presentations were so well received by the federal inmates that FCI required that all their staff and 175 inmates go through all-day presentations based on what were then the prototype concepts of MRT. In 1983-1985 Little & Robinson joined together and established and operated a private mental health facility in association with a psychiatrist’s office in Memphis. This led to their understanding that offender treatment could be done privately and in out-patient venues.
In 1985 Little was again made the Director of the Shelby County Correction Centers’ Drug Program and a few years later Robinson went to work for Health Industries of America (HIA), which was the eventual birthplace of CCI. At that time they completed and published the first version of the book How To Escape Your Prison in 1986 through Eagle Wing Books, Inc.
First Full Implementation of MRT
In late 1985, after becoming Director of the Memphis-based Shelby County Correction Center’s Drug Abuse Programs (for the second time), Little moved to implement the developing MRT program in a the 30-bed program housing adult male offenders. Initially, the concepts of the steps and personality stages were presented to the inmates in talks given by Little. The exercises were developed and refined during this time by Little and Robinson. Ms. Kathy Burnette, the Assistant Program Director of the DORP, played a key role in implementing MRT within the existing prison-based drug therapeutic community. She was, in fact, the individual who operated the first MRT group. Numerous other counselors were involved with this early implementation. E. Stephen Swan was the Administrator of Programs for the institution. George Schellman was a key person in the success of the program. Others included Lance Needham, Thomas Jones, Stanley Lipford, Ken Currie, Carl Woods, and a host of inmates who held a host of discussions with us to refine all of the elements of MRT.
In 1987, Greg Little and Kathy Burnette implemented MRT at the Shelby County Jail for female offenders along with Jay Desiserio who was then serving as coordinator of jail programs for females. This implementation was the first where MRT was used on offenders who were not part of an institutional program, and the first with female offenders. Two groups were held each week for females housed in the “general population” at the jail. Around this time Robinson started working for Health Industries of America, Inc. (HIA). HIA began a contract with Shelby County in 1987 to conduct specialized aftercare groups with released offenders who had started MRT during their incarceration, but were unable to complete. In 1988, the former men’s Drug Program at the Shelby County Correction Center was renovated and female offenders were moved into the facility where several new programs were established. These included a drug therapeutic community utilizing MRT.
The rapid and obvious success of the new MRT-based program in the DORP produced a great deal of publicity and recognition in newspapers and journal publications. These factors led to the establishment of a new 40-bed drug unit in 1988 and the addition of a new 40-bed DWI facility in newly constructed buildings at the Correction Center. Both programs utilized MRT. Little was still the Director of both programs and Kathy Burnette was Assistant Director. In early 1990, the program was expanded to 240 beds with the Governor of Tennessee and the County Mayor present at the opening ceremony.
The MRT implementations in Shelby County received two awards from the National Association of Counties, one for the men’s drug treatment therapeutic community and the other for the Alcohol Treatment Unit. In addition, the first publication describing MRT in 1988 (Psychological Reports) gained a fair degree of notice.13
The First MRT Training
In 1988, not long after the Psychological Reports article on MRT appeared in professional literature, the head of Puerto Rico’s youth initiative programs visited the Memphis MRT programs in the Shelby County Correction Center. Dr. Salvador Padilla, who was also a Cabinet Member of the Governor’s staff, then sent several of his counseling staff to observe the programs in Memphis for a couple weeks. Padilla subsequently contracted with Dr. Little, Dr. Robinson, and Kathy Burnette to train staff and help implement MRT in over 20 program sites in the Commonwealth. This was done in 1988-89, and the first two-week long MRT trainings were held in Puerto Rico by Greg Little and Kathy Burnette. The first published reports from the program showed rapidly enhanced program retention and completion. The development of the book Character Development was done primarily for the youth in the Puerto Rico program and Robinson and Burnette subsequently provided training for that program in Puerto Rico, and then conducted several more MRT trainings there.
In 1990, several important events transpired to greatly increase the use of MRT. In late 1989, Dr. Robinson became President of the newly formed Correctional Counseling, Inc. (CCI), which was incorporated as HIA ceased operation. CCI then began conducting MRT groups in the general inmate population at the Correction Center under contract and also operated inmate aftercare programs in the community. Robinson, Little and others from Shelby County were invited to present Shelby County’s MRT implementation at the 1990 American Correctional Association’s mid-Winter meeting. This series of talks stimulated many states and agencies to consider conducting trial implementations. In 1990, Clay Huddleston of CCI signed the first contract with Eagle Wing Books, Inc. (the publisher of all MRT materials) to give CCI the exclusive distribution rights for 5-year periods. Variations of this contract are still in effect.
Later in 1990, Dr. Little left his position at the Shelby County Correction Center to teach in a substance abuse certificate program at a Memphis college. At the same time, Little became the founding Editor of a monthly newspaper devoted to substance abuse and mental health treatment called Recovery Times. It reached a monthly circulation of over 28,000. Little served as Editor of Recovery Times until 1993 when he left both the college and the paper to assist in the burgeoning MRT trainings held routinely in Memphis and Oklahoma. Dr. Little worked for CCI as a trainer and as Editor of CCI’s publications, but has never held any financial interest or control in CCI. Also in 1990, Kathy Burnette began working at CCI as Clinical Director and MRT trainer, and several years later, Steve Swan joined CCI as a trainer and program evaluator.
From 1995-1998, Little developed a substance abuse certification program at Louisiana State University at Shreveport (LSU-S). The specialized material for each class was soon expanded into textbooks. LSU-S continues to provide university-accredited CEUs for MRT and other trainings. Little has authored or coauthored textbooks including psychopharmacology, counseling, crisis intervention, and obesity. He also has an avid professional interest in Native American issues and history. Little began writing a series of books on these issues in 1984 and has been published by ARE Press, Inner Traditions, and other publishers. See Little’s abbreviated vita for more details. Dr. Robinson remains the President of Correctional Counseling. Robinson has been a member of the National Judicial College and also on Native American Tribal Association groups devoted to effective treatment.
The First State-Wide Implementation of MRT
Oklahoma became the first state to implement MRT throughout its entire correctional system in 1990. The initial training was held at CCI’s office in Memphis and over a hundred MRT trainings were held at Oklahoma State University over a period of two years. Later state-wide implementations occurred in Washington State and elsewhere. Today, MRT is utilized in all 50 states and in 9 countries.
Dropouts, Behaviorism, & Reconation
MRT resulted from the experiences of Little and Robinson during their early years at the institution. Many offenders who participated in the 1970s-1985 drug treatment therapeutic community were highly functional and appropriate during their stay in the behavioral-oriented program. However, the failure rate after release was considered to be too high and dropout was a nagging issue. Understanding that the offenders had particular character and personality traits that led to this failure was one thing, but addressing these traits was quite another. MRT was a systematic method designed to address the issues peculiar to that population. It was either the first—or one of the very first—workbook-based cognitive-behavioral methods applied to offenders. MRT was found to significantly reduce dropout, increase participation by minorities, reduce disciplinary infractions, and lower recidivism. Over 200 studies have been done on MRT outcomes. MRT-treated offenders have been assessed for recidivism for over 20 years, which is, to our knowledge, the only such recidivism study ever done on offender or substance abuse treatment for an extended period. The outcome showed that even after more than 20 years, offenders treated with MRT still showed significantly lower recidivism as compared to appropriate controls.14
The term “Reconation Therapy” was conceptualized for fairly simple reasons. The term reconation was coined by Wood and Sweet in 1972 when they began the Shelby County Correction Center’s Drug therapeutic community (DORP). Conation is an archaic term, which was commonly used in psychology until the term ego replaced it (circa 1930). Wood and Sweet used it because conation refers to the conscious, decision-making part of the personality. Thus, reconation was an attempt to have offenders reevaluate their decisions. The moral part of MRT comes from the moral development structure proposed by Kohlberg. MRT is a process that seeks to raise the moral decision-making strategy of individuals.
The MRT materials were refined essentially through trial and error, some inmate input, and ongoing research. The adult offender workbook of MRT was first published in 1986. The basic offender workbooks and its procedures currently utilized (How to Escape Your Prison) contains a majority of the work and refinements made to MRT over these years.
MRT was federally trademarked in the mid 1990’s and all of its workbooks and materials are copyrighted. Active Federal and state trademarks remain in effect and “MRT Training” is a servicemark. All trademarks and service marks are owned by Eagle Wing Books, Inc. Correctional Counseling, Inc. (CCI) of Memphis, TN currently holds an exclusive contract for the sales and distribution of MRT materials. Correctional Counseling also conducts most trainings either directly, or through agencies who have formed agreements with CCI to have their trained staff conduct training. CCI conducts online MRT training regularly from Germantown, TN (a suburb of Memphis). Many trainings in MRT, trauma treatment, implementation in private practice, and others are held numerous times each year, reaching virtually all areas of the United States.
MRT Expansions Into Other Treatment Areas
While the approach was first designed as a criminal justice-based drug treatment method, a host of other treatment adaptations have been made. These include DWI treatment, domestic violence, educational uses, and various problem-specific materials. Parenting, job attitudes, sex offenders, treatment readiness, antisocial thinking, juvenile, and educational versions of MRT have been widely employed. Newer applications relate to trauma treatment, special needs of Veteran populations, and mental health. Different workbooks based on the fundamental MRT concepts exist for each of these areas. It is known that over 3 million individuals have participated in one or another version of MRT since its beginning.
1 Kulig, B., D'Encarnacao, P. S., Little, G. L., & Bryant, R. C. (1972) Synthetic scotophobin in the rat: effects of intraventricular and intraperitoneal administration in several behavioral procedures (abstract). Society for Neuroscience, 2, 119.
2 Masserano, J., Little, G. L., D'Encarnacao, P. S., & D'Encarnacao, P. W. (1972) Tolerance effects of direct morphine stimulation in the anterior thalamus and ventralmedial nucleus of the hypothalamus of the rat (abstract). Society for Neuroscience, 2, 247.
3 Little, G. L., Robinson, K. D., D'Encarnacao, P. S., & D'Encarnacao, P. W. (1973) Effects of discrete CNS lesions on morphine addiction (abstract). Society for Neuroscience, 3, 213.
4 Fly, Russ. (March 27, 1974). Morphine addiction probed. MSU: The Memphis Statesman.
5 Sweet, R.S., Little, G.L., & Overton, J. R. (1977) Unit management systems in corrections. Quarterly Journal of Corrections, 1, 22-27.
6 Sweet, R.S., Little, G.L., Harrison, H.D., & Wood, R.W. (1977) Drug offender rehabilitation program: recovery rates, personality variables, and maintenance factors. Quarterly Journal of Corrections, 1, 13-22.
7 Little, G.L. (1977) The dilemma of prison reform. Quarterly Journal of Corrections, 1, 59-60.
8 Little, G.L. (1981) Relationship of drug of choice, race, and crime to entry in drug abuse treatment. Psychological Reports, 48, 486.
9 Little, G.L. (1981) Towards more consistent prison goals. Psychology: A Quarterly Journal of Human Behavior, 17, 31-33.
10 Welch, W.H., & Little, G.L. (1983) Survey of counselor functions at a minimum security county prison. Journal of Offender Counseling, 3, 40-47.
11 Robinson, K.D., & Little, G.L. (1982) One-day dropouts from correctional drug treatment. Psychological Reports, 51, 409-410.
12 Little, G.L., & Robinson, K. D. (1987) One-day dropouts from correctional drug treatment II. Psychological Reports, 60, 454.
13 Little, G.L., & Robinson, K.D. (1988) Moral Reconation Therapy: a systematic step-by-step treatment system for treatment resistant clients. Psychological Reports, 62, 135-151.
14 Little, G. L., Robinson, K., Burnette, K., & Swan, E. (2010) Twenty-year recidivism results for MRT treated offenders. Journal of Community Corrections, 19 (3/4), 15-16; 34.
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