Robert Jackson stood with the two dozen other members of Boy Scout Troop 825, raised his right hand in the traditional Boy Scout sign, and took the oath to do his best for God and country.

Unlike other scouts, Jackson and members of his troop are not allowed to earn merit badges through mastering camping and other outdoor skills.

That is because they are prison inmates.

"We're trying to teach more long-term planning, how to live when they get out," said Mike Pitzer, who serves as adviser and scout master to the troop at the Kentucky State Reformatory.

The inmates are part of a rehabilitation program for emotionally and mentally disturbed prisoners serving time for everything from murder to sex crimes.

Becoming a member of Troop 825 is not easy. Inmates must have a mental or emotional problem that renders their mental age at 18 or younger, stay clear of disciplinary violations, have or work toward a high school diploma and be willing to follow the rules of the club. The Boy Scouts require scouts to be no older than 18.

The Boy Scouts authorize the use of their name, logo and methods, so long as the inmates do not retain any association with the organization upon their release, Pitzer said.

Brandi Mantz, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Boy Scouts in Irving, Tex., said the prison program has been successful in the past decade.

"It's always good to help those individuals work their way back into society," Mantz said.

Mantz said that the Kentucky scout program is the only one in the state but that others have been chartered around the country.

Instead of hiking, swimming and camping, members of Troop 825 -- who wear khaki inmate uniforms, along with tan-and-red baseball caps with the Boy Scout fleur-de-lis, to meetings -- earn merit badges for personal hygiene, balancing a checkbook and learning CPR and first aid. They also raise money to help other inmates and, occasionally, fund a trip by an outside Boy Scout troop.

"Some guys get here, find out it's work and don't want to come back," Pitzer said.

The inmates who did make it past the initial introduction say the program is helping them work past the issues that landed them in prison in the first place.

William Hiemstra, serving 10 years for attempted murder, said the program is teaching him to work better with other people.

"That was always a problem I had," the tattooed Hiemstra, 32, said.

Jackson, who speaks in a slow, deliberate manner and worries about how he sounds, said the troop has taught him practical skills, as well as how to trust people.

"There's a better life out there for me than doing crime and going to prison," Jackson said.

For others, such as former paramedic Paul Hurt, who is serving three life sentences for sodomy, or Marion Butler, who is serving a 95-year sentence for murder and burglary in Johnson County, the Boy Scouts is a way to occupy some time that might otherwise not be well spent.

"It kind of tames the beast," Hurt said. "I want to see the other guys succeed."

The Kentucky prison scout program, which started in 1989 as a way for prisoners to raise money and to keep inmates occupied, is part of what corrections officials call a national move toward preparing inmates for their eventual release from prison.

Both state-run and private prisons are now offering some sort of prerelease program for inmates ranging from therapy and job training to education, said Cole Carter, director of educational services for Corrections Corporation of America, which runs 65 prisons in 20 states.

"The programs give them some hope and, at least, makes them less likely to reoffend," Carter said.

Jim Dailey, Kentucky advocacy director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the programs do not do enough to prepare the inmates for release or to help them once they are out of the prison environment and on their own.

"That's the disconnect," Dailey said.

Dailey said that the Boy Scout troop is an "interesting idea" but that without post-release help, which the troop cannot provide, he is afraid inmates will fall back into their old lives.

"Many, unfortunately, will go back to the situation they had before they went into prison," Dailey said. "They don't know anything else."

But members of Troop 825 insist that the work they are doing is preparing them for life outside the fence.

Jackson, who is serving a 24-year term for murder and burglary, said the lessons he has learned will keep him from going back to prison, even without help on the outside.

"I grew up in the ghetto. I didn't have no respect for nobody," Jackson, 40, said. "I learned a lot about how to live in this little meeting right here. I'm ready for society."

Robert Jackson, 40, says the lessons he has learned will keep him from returning to prison after his release.Mike Pitzer, left, adviser and scout master of Boy Scout Troop 825 at the Kentucky State Reformatory, awards the rank of Tenderfoot to James Payton. John Fantini, treasurer of Boy Scout Troop 825 at the Kentucky State Reformatory, gives the Boy Scout sign as he recites the Scout oath with fellow inmates.