Sacramento — Hundreds of inmates at one of California's highest-security prisons, where a fourth are mentally ill and most are serving time for violent crimes, have participated in a rehabilitation program affiliated with the Church of Scientology, which rejects traditional mental health care.
The rehab program is offered at Corcoran State Prison by Criminon International, a secular arm of Scientology, a fierce opponent of psychiatry and anti-psychotic drugs given to mentally ill prisoners to regulate their impulses and behavior.
California prisons are under a federal court order to provide all necessary treatment, including medication and therapy, for mentally ill inmates. Experts both in and outside the prison system say Criminon's presence could undermine the ability of licensed clinicians to treat mentally ill inmates. They and others worry that if inmates reject therapy, they could pose a danger to themselves or others. Authorities at corrections headquarters said they have no evidence that has occurred. Those officials also said, as Corcoran officials initially did, that they were unaware of Criminon's presence at that prison or other lockups. Most said they knew little or nothing about Criminon.
But corrections department memos, along with other documents and interviews, show those officials do have some familiarity with the organization, and some have promoted its use. It is unclear how Criminon's program, which is voluntary and conducted by correspondence, began at Corcoran or other prisons. But a Criminon document obtained from Corcoran states that the program has been operating there for at least 15 years. It appears to have spread by word of mouth among inmates, with help from some prison employees.
Prison officials, responding to questions from The Times and the concerns of some employees, in recent days have begun examining the use of Criminon's courses at Corcoran.
"We are currently reviewing all staff actions related to Criminon," said corrections spokesman Todd Slosek. The inquiry comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration embarks on a major reorganization of the $6.5-billion-a-year youth and adult correctional system. The amount Schwarzenegger plans to spend on rehabilitation remains unclear, although he recently proposed adding $18 million to programs aimed at reducing recidivism for adults and providing more help for juveniles. The governor also reversed an earlier decision to cut $50 million from such programs.
"Hallelujah," said Rena Weinberg, president of Criminon's parent organization, the Assn. for Better Living and Education, based in Hollywood. "Somebody finally is saying, 'Let's get something changed so people can get help.' "
Criminon executives say that while the Church of Scientology and some of its organizations preach against psychiatry, Criminon focuses on rehabilitating criminals by restoring their self-respect. Its teachings are based on the philosophy of Hubbard, a science fiction writer who founded Scientology in the 1950s. "L. Ron Hubbard's social betterment programs," Weinberg said, "are very much about helping." But she added: "One of psychiatry and psychotropic drugging's worse nightmares is Scientologists. Let's be real."
Some observers say there is no difference between the church and its secular arms. "They're trying to draw a fine line," said former Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, who sponsored Proposition 63 last year to increase funding for mental health services outside prisons. Scientology was the most vociferous foe of the measure, which passed. "The bottom line," Steinberg said, "is that all of their programs fall under the umbrella of Scientology, and Scientology's views on mental health treatment are well-known."
An opening Criminon course for inmates is based on a Hubbard booklet called "The Way to Happiness" and includes 21 sections, followed by questions. The readings cover basic ideas: People should brush their teeth and bathe, get adequate rest and be temperate and monogamous. They should honor parents, treat children well, be tolerant of religious practices and not steal or kill. "The way to happiness does not include murdering your friends or your family," one lesson notes. "It does not include being murdered yourself."
Inmates who take the courses study such directives and respond to written questions in short essay answers. Outside supervisors grade their responses. To help the supervisors, Criminon provides instruction manuals. One Criminon instruction manual obtained from Corcoran prison says: "If [inmates] are on psychiatric drugs, encourage them to get off. Psychiatrists are heavily into the prison system. Most jails and prisons have a staff psychiatrist that goes in daily and gives dosages of various and sundry mind-altering drugs to the inmates. Most of the time this is a ploy to keep the inmates sedated so that they don't cause trouble."
Criminon executives said in interviews that the manual, which was kept at the prison's administrative offices, was outdated. A different manual provided by Criminon leaders last week makes only a passing reference to psychiatry, saying a reason inmates may seem angry is that "some of them are on psychiatric drugs and have strange side effects as a result."
Weinberg said Criminon instructors do not preach resistance to conventional mental health care. Since 1995, California taxpayers have paid more than $1.7 billion to provide psychiatric services in prisons. That year, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento ordered the state to improve the care of mentally ill prisoners. Roughly a fifth of California's 163,000 inmates are diagnosed with some type of mental illness. At Corcoran, a fourth of the 5,000 inmates have such a diagnosis. Schwarzenegger's top corrections official, Roderick Q. Hickman, whose agency must comply with Karlton's order, said he was not aware of Scientology's antipathy toward psychiatry. Nor was he aware of Criminon at all until recently.
"In my experience, I have never seen it," said Hickman, who started his career in 1979 as a prison guard. "I have never seen an inmate or heard an inmate tell me they are involved in a Criminon program."
Actress Jenna Elfman, a Criminon booster and a Scientologist, met with Hickman in Sacramento shortly after Schwarzenegger appointed him early last year and provided him his first detailed information about Criminon. Hickman said that while he has not given Criminon official sanction to operate, prisoners have a constitutional right to correspond with anyone. Inmates correspond with an array of outsiders, from Christian missionaries to devil worshipers, he said. So long as there is no security threat, they can correspond. Officers at all state prisons inspect letters coming in and out of the institution, though Hickman said correspondence course material generally would not raise inspectors' concerns.
Some who work in the prison system are dismayed that Criminon has operated without the oversight or involvement of mental health experts, given Hubbard's disdain of psychiatry. A prison official involved in mental health care issues in the corrections system, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired, said Criminon's beliefs seem to be "completely at odds with the accepted standards of care for mentally ill people."
"Our treatment is based on research and empirical data," the official said. "It is subjected to the rigors of the scientific standard. Theirs is not…. The more that is being uncovered, the more disturbing it is, and the more extensive it seems to be. People didn't bother to check."
A decade after Karlton's order, mental health care in prisons remains troubled. In some instances, court records show, inmates must wait weeks for treatment. In other instances, said attorney Keith Wattley of the public-interest Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in the case before Karlton, prisoners are overmedicated or given unsuitable medication. "Oftentimes, [prison authorities] medicate without providing other therapy," said Wattley, who hopes that pressing the suit before Karlton will help improve the system. "Most clinicians will say that is not appropriate." By pressing the suit before Karlton, however, inmates' attorneys hope to improve the system.
Attorney Jane Kahn, who has represented inmates in the case before Karlton since 1992 and focuses on Corcoran, said in a reference to the Criminon presence that she was "concerned about a program that might create a hostile work environment." As part of Karlton's order, a federal monitor reviews care of mentally ill prisoners and inspects the prisons. On a tour of Corcoran last year, the monitor and attorneys for inmates and the state noticed a paper posted in a cellblock housing some of the most acutely ill prisoners. It was a quote attributed to a well-known Scientologist, saying psychiatry should be "outlawed."
Scientology's goal, said professor Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who studies the group, "is to destroy psychiatry and replace it with Scientology's own treatments. Criminon is simply one of many Scientology organizations that hope to see this goal realized."
Kent reviewed the Criminon instruction material at The Times' request. "If inmates, through Criminon, adopt Scientology's rigid ideological stance against psychiatry," he said, "then mental health professionals within the prison and parole systems are at risk."
Nancy Pomerantz, Criminon's executive director, said she and other supervisors do not ask inmates whether they are on anti-psychotic drugs. Pomerantz said the organization has provided instruction to almost 1,800 California inmates during the last decade. She said 95 Corcoran inmates have completed 200 Criminon courses and 750 are on a waiting list for them. She said more inmates have participated at the state's other highest-security prison, Pelican Bay, in Northern California, which also houses mentally ill criminals. Pelican Bay officials were not aware of inmates taking Criminon courses, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. "We will service anybody who asks us," Pomerantz said. "We will help anyone who wants our help…. We're in and have been in almost every prison in California."
One former San Quentin inmate, Paul Sayler, 31, said he began taking Criminon courses while on parole last year. He said the instruction gave him "rules to follow, because the code I had kept getting me going in and out of prison."
"It changed my attitude," said Sayler, who continues to take courses and was encouraged by Criminon leaders to speak with The Times. Documents obtained from Corcoran dating from 1999 state that inmates were corresponding with Criminon as early as 1989. They include a glossy, 87-page book containing writings by Hubbard. A Hubbard essay in the book says: "There is not one institutional psychiatrist alive who by ordinary criminal law could not be arraigned and convicted of extortion, mayhem and murder."
An associate warden, a chief deputy warden, a captain and a chaplain were aware of Criminon and may have been supportive of its use at Corcoran, according to the documents obtained from the prison. One of the main promoters is Gary Goddard, director of the prison's educational services. Slosek said Goddard may have sought to "create an illusion" that Criminon has been officially sanctioned. Goddard is quoted in a Criminon brochure extolling the program as "packaged in such a way that I can even use it with Secure Housing Unit inmates," a reference to the highest-security cellblocks. Goddard has written memos to superiors praising the group. In a system in which spending on rehabilitation has lagged, Goddard said in one such memo, one of Criminon's benefits is that its material is free. In a June 28, 2004, memo addressed to Corcoran Warden A.K. Scribner, Goddard said Criminon "has a long history of success in the rehabilitation of inmates on an international scale." The memo said 226 inmates in the highest-security housing units there had requested enrollment. Goddard faxed a list of the inmates to Criminon last June. About 120 of those remain at Corcoran. Of that group, 67 are included in the facility's mental health caseload, according to an internal analysis done by the prison.
Scribner did not receive the June memo, said his spokeswoman, Sabrina Johnson. Last month, Scribner met with a delegation of Criminon executives and Indonesian law enforcement officials as they toured Corcoran, Johnson said. Criminon provides services in Indonesian prisons. Scribner did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Goddard addressed an e-mail dated Aug. 5, 2004, to Hickman. The memo noted that Hickman had urged managers to "embrace the dynamics of 'out of the box' thinking that meets the needs of high-security inmates and the limitations that we are experiencing regarding budget shortfalls."
"I believe that the Criminon program goes a long way to make a dent in the needs of the inmates that we are attempting to reach," Goddard wrote. Hickman did not receive the e-mail, spokesman Slosek said.
Criminon has been using its involvement at Corcoran in fundraising pitches. On its website, the group asks followers for money to pay for courses and requests that they "supervise" inmates who sign up. "An official at Corcoran state prison in California challenged Criminon that if it will provide the books and supervisors, he will arrange for up to 1,000 offenders to do the Criminon program!" the posting says, without identifying the official. It adds: "This could open the doors to having paid-for Criminon programs that truly work instead of unworkable punishment sequence methods presently employed. Your help is needed to bring the miracles of the criminal rehabilitation technology of L. Ron Hubbard into this setting and create a center where people learn to live productive and useful lives."
Last month, California's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency website posted a directory of community organizations that "have partnered with us to help in our agency reform." At the top of the alphabetized list of more than 100 groups is the Assn. for Better Living and Education. The list includes the group's address, phone number and the services it provides. Criminon is on the list, along with such organizations as Kaiser Permanente Psychiatry and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Hickman said that he had asked Criminon for data showing that its techniques work. "If somebody believes something and they're willing to help influence someone to change their behavior, I'm not going to push them away," Hickman said. "I'm not advocating them. But I'm not pushing them away."
So far, Criminon has not provided the data he requested. The Assn. for Better Living and Education is paying for a study of Criminon's effectiveness by the Urban Institute, a research organization based in Washington, D.C.
Criminologists say there are no generally accepted academic studies showing whether Criminon's techniques work. Five leading academic experts on recidivism said they had not heard of Criminon or knew little about it and were not aware of any academic studies of it. "I have never seen any studies on its effectiveness," said professor Edward Latessa, head of the criminal justice division at the University of Cincinnati. California officials have reviewed a related program, the Narconon Drug Abuse and Prevention Program, which is another secular arm of Scientology and also is based on Hubbard's writings. California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, concerned about the use of Narconon in public schools, commissioned a study last year. The report, released in February, concluded that Narconon could undermine research-based drug-prevention efforts. The program failed to "reflect accurate, widely accepted medical and scientific evidence," the study said. O'Connell sent a letter informing California public schools of the study's findings. In an interview, he said he does not believe the Narconon program should be used in public schools, though he lacks the power to prohibit it; that decision rests with individual school districts. Weinberg said public schools' use of Narconon has increased since O'Connell issued his report; she predicted that Criminon would expand too. "People want what we've got," she said.