A new drug treatment center uses saunas, vitamins and, some say, Scientology to rehab inmates. Now they have state money to do it.
Julio, a 30-year-old Clovis native with big brown eyes and close-cropped hair, used to be a paint sniffer. These days he sees himself differently.
"You don't enter rehab because you're healthy and stable," he says. "And the last six months haven't been easy."
Julio has spent the last six months at the Second Chance Center, a new and controversial program to which nonviolent offenders can be sentenced as an alternative to jail or prison.
According to Second Chance, Julio was the very first inmate admitted when they opened up last September. His testimonials have since been featured on the program's Web site.
"The most significant change that I saw in myself is the fact that Julio is not defined as a paint sniffer," Julio tells SFR during a recent tour of the program's Westside Albuquerque
facility. "That's not the definition of Julio. Julio's definition is not 'ex-felon.'"
Julio is one of 56 offenders currently housed at the facility who are participating in a program that is, without question, outside the box. Inmates spend hours sweating in a cedar sauna and take large doses of niacin and vitamin B. Detox is only part of the equation. The program also incorporates role-playing exercises, class work and an emphasis on moral development.
The program was not developed by addiction specialists or criminologists. Rather, almost all of Second Chance's program was developed by L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Much of the program's materials can be traced to Scientology teachings or practices, and some of its funding has come from prominent
Scientologists and programs supported by the church.
Now, the state of New Mexico also is a backer. Despite controversial reports on the program in January from The Wall Street Journal (followed by a story in the Albuquerque Journal), Republican lawmakers pushed through a $375,000 allocation to Second Chance in the recent session and Gov. Bill Richardson signed off. That amount was far less than supporters had hoped for but enough for Second Chance to continue trying to prove itself.
Second Chance officials would like to see the current number of inmates jump to 300, eventually 600. According to John Brennan, a former chief district judge for the Second Judicial District and current admissions director for Second Chance, that would make it New Mexico's largest secure rehab facility, ever. "We might be
already," Brennan speculates.
Given New Mexico's well-documented alcohol and drug problems, its overcrowded prisons and lack of inpatient rehabilitation centers, many welcome the program with open arms.
But not everyone.
Second Chance officials insist their program, though based on theories and techniques developed by Hubbard, has no connection to the religious aspect of Scientology. Critics call the distinction meaningless.
While Second Chance organizers insist such concerns are unfounded, they do acknowledge that what they are doing may be a hard sell.
"We understand 1,000 percent that we're probably pretty strange looking," Nancy Dunham, deputy executive director for Second Chance, says. "We understand that."
From the outside, Second Chance looks like a sterile, barbed
wire-ringed building located on Albuquerque's desolate far west mesa.
Inside, down a long linoleum hallway, windows on either side peek into pods where future residents may one day live. Currently, only one such pod shows any signs of life, with clothes and towels
hanging from several rows of metal bunk beds.
At the end of the hallway, the prison gives way to the sauna. It is stuck in the back of a large room and looks out of place-stained wood contrasting vividly against rough cinder block. The sauna is large and can accommodate more than 30 men at one time.
The detox portion of Second Chance lasts for four weeks, during which men spend four hours a day in the sauna. Those hours are interrupted only by short breaks to drink water, eat raw veggies or take a shower. The treatments are generally preceded by physical exercise, usually running.
"I chuckle," Dunham says, "when people describe this as a spa."
Also known as a "purification rundown" in Scientology circles, use of the sauna detox is based on Hubbard's belief that toxins from drugs accumulate in the body's fatty tissues.
That, in turn, contributes to cravings, which make it that much harder for addicts to kick the habit.
Sauna treatments and vitamins, as well as "nerve assist" massages given by fellow inmates, are all intended to rid the body of these toxins and pave the way to long-term recovery.
On a table outside the sauna, two large bottles of extra virgin olive oil stand next to rows of little plastic cups. In addition to vitamin doses-potassium pills for dizziness, calcium magnesium shakes for strong bones-participants also take shots of olive oil.
The idea, drawn from Hubbard's research, is that to "clean up" fatty tissues polluted by drug toxins, fat broken down in the sauna detox needs to be replaced by an external source of oil.
In another large room, inmates practice communication drills that also were developed by Hubbard. Six pairs of men
sit three feet apart in plastic chairs. Some have their eyes closed, sitting face-to-face, in total silence. Dunham says this can go on for hours.
Nearby, other residents engage in a "bull baiting" exercise where one hurls insults at the other, who is expected to remain silent.
"You stupid fat ass!" one goatee-wearing inmate blurts out at his pot-bellied "twin." When the recipient of the insult starts laughing, his provoking partner yells, "Flunk!"
Larry Cowles, the program's course supervisor, monitors the drills from the back of the room. A former college instructor with a background in criminal justice, Cowles emphasizes that much of the learning that goes on here is self-directed.
"Basically, we don't really teach here," he says, smiling. "We motivate."
The materials used at Second Chance are licensed from Criminon, a Scientologist-founded organization that runs prison rehab programs in more than 2,000 prisons all over
the world. Hubbard's book
The Way to Happiness
is required reading for all Second Chance inmates.
And Scientologist publications have lavished praise on Second Chance President Joy Westrum and her husband, Rick Pendery, Second Chance's executive director, for their efforts.
Nonetheless, Westrum and others insist the Second Chance program is not religious in nature. An Aug. 24, 2006 letter from Second Chance's corporate lawyer Robert J Desiderio (former dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law) states that Second Chance has no relationship with the Church of Scientology and describes its use of Criminon materials as the licensure of "secular technology."
"What we're doing here is criminal drug rehabilitation," Westrum says. "Giving people a second chance."
The secular versus religious aspects of Scientology, Westrum points out, are distinct. For example, in its religion, Scientology has a central "auditing" practice in which it uses an "e-meter"
(to monitor changes in a person's electronic resistance) to perform the audits. These are not a part of Second Chance. And only those who are "seriously religiously bigoted" can't see the difference, Westrum says.
That would include William Miller, a University of New Mexico addiction researcher who reviewed the program at the City of Albuquerque's request.
"The mark of Scientology is all over the thing," he says.
Even so, some say it's better than nothing.
Late last year, First Judicial District Judge Michael Vigil toured
Second Chance to see for himself "any connections with the Church of Scientology." Following the tour, his concerns were assuaged. Since then he has sentenced two inmates to the program. "It's an approach on drug treatment that's not for everybody," Vigil says, "but
I'm willing to try just about anything…The bottom line is we're just desperate for effective treatment."
Vigil's colleague on the Santa Fe bench, Stephen Pfeffer, also has referred offenders to the program.
"I like to have the option of sending people to a facility that is a secure facility where they can do drug treatment," Pfeffer says. "I like to have that in my bag of options."
So, apparently, do other judges. While most Second Chance referrals have come from district court, two Sandia Pueblo judges and six metropolitan court judges also have made referrals. These are generally made on the recommendation of either defense lawyers or prosecutors.
First Judicial District Attorney Henry Valdez doesn't give any such recommendations. "I am concerned with the Scientology aspect," he says. "Until we find out more about it, until it has more of a track record, we're very concerned."
Further, an e-mail sent in August on behalf of New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson (chief justice at the time) advises caution among judges in using the program.
That caution still applies, according to Arthur Pepin, the director of the administrative office of the courts,
because Second Chance has not yet been certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).
One former judge lobbying the judiciary to send criminals to Second Chance is John Brennan, formerly a chief district judge. Brennan says almost half of New Mexico's district judges have sent people to Second Chance. Brennan spent two decades on the bench before he was arrested in May 2004 on charges of drunk driving and cocaine possession. He subsequently pled guilty, gave up his law license and was sentenced to one year of probation. Now he consults for Second Chance.
He's not the only Second Chance staff member with a history of overcoming addiction, although he may be the most prominent. And while Brennan emphasizes that it's not his "primary motivation," he concedes that "in the back of my mind, there's the idea that by helping in this field, there might be some public redemption."
There has at least been, so far, some public support.
The bedfellows rallying to Second Chance's cause are certainly
diverse. In addition to Brennan, former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez is the organization's lobbyist. The sponsor of the bill was state Rep. Anna Crook, R-Curry. Crook requested $3.6 million in recurring funding, a request that went nowhere.
But Crook was able to secure a combined $375,000 for Second Chance. She says she dedicated a portion of her
capital outlay funding, along with portions from Lincoln Rep. WC "Dub" Williams, Catron Rep. Don Tripp and Chaves Rep. Candy Ezzell-all Republicans-to keep Second Chance running.
The governor has already signed for the $375,000. But last year, Richardson vetoed $425,000 secured by Crook for Second Chance. "He said it was by mistake," she recalls.
Jon Goldstein, a spokesman for the governor, says it wasn't a mistake, but a lack of information that triggered the veto. This year the governor "feels comfortable moving forward with [Second Chance] on a trial basis."
For her part, Crook says she was convinced of Second Chance's validity when she visited a pilot project it ran in a Mexican prison. "I'm very passionate about it," she says. "If we can get these people's lives turned around to be productive citizens rather than locked up, that's my goal."
As for the obvious question: "I've been asked if I'm a Scientologist, if they've contributed to my campaign," Crook says. "The answer is no."
The rest of Second Chance's funding has come from a variety of sources. In 2004, it received a $350,000 grant from the federal Health and Human Services Department. And then there are private donations, more than 40 to date, including several hefty contributions from wealthy Scientologists. Among them, Randall Suggs,
co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, has contributed nearly $300,000, according to The Wall Street Journal report.
"We're blessed to have a lot of people who want to support us," Westrum says.
And, she adds, Second Chance is a bargain for taxpayers, costing about $55 a day per inmate, compared with approximately $70 a day in jail.
But these savings are not enough to convince everyone.
University of New Mexico criminologist Paul Guerin, who has
conducted some research on the Second Chance program, believes Scientology is the defining factor for most people when considering the program.
"The critics are typically people who are against Scientology," he says. "And those who support it are typically supporters of Scientology."
But not always. Joni Morales, a Santa Fe social worker with two clients in the program, praises Second Chance for being "out of the box, different and progressive." Her only objection seems to be with the name. "I think it should be called 'Last Chance,'" she says with a laugh.
Miller, the UNM professor of psychology and psychiatry, argues that it's "ludicrous" for public money to go to a program that has yet to have its methods and outcomes reviewed by scientific study.
"When you're going to put public money in, you want something a little more substantial than beliefs and
testimonials," he says. "The program has no scientific data at all. It wouldn't pass any scientific peer review."
Tia Bland, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Corrections Department, emphasizes that the department is not involved with Second Chance. "We don't think it's a good fit because first and foremost there's no statistical data that shows that the program works." She notes "other concerns," including the use of niacin supplements.
For its part, Second Chance cites the review of its six-year pilot program in Ensenada, Mexico. The studies were conduced by two Mexican universities, both in Baja California. By one estimate, only 10 percent of Second Chance graduates were incarcerated a second time. By contract, US Department of Justice stats put the national criminal recidivism rate at more than 60 percent.
"They need to drop this Mexican study," Guerin says. "There's not a program ever that has produced those kinds of results."
Guerin favors additional research. "It's important to keep an open mind and to test these things and see if they work or not," he says. Still, Guerin says an outcome study of Second Chance is at least two years out.
But there are programs that have been proven effective.
Miller cites Albuquerque's Community Reinforcement Approach, which was recently featured in the HBO series
as one such example. "And we know why it works," he says. "It helps the person get readjusted in the community and leading a life that is
rewarding without drugs." Second Chance, he says, works on the opposite principal: "…that you can somehow take an addict out from the community and take them to a special place and fix them and put them back and they'll be all right.
"That works for car repair," he adds, "but not for people."
The sauna detox favored by Second Chance also has become a punching bag for medical critics who dispute the underlying belief that residues from drugs in the body's fatty tissues cause cravings, and that heat stress and supplements remove them.
"I know of no proof that flooding people with B vitamins makes it more likely that people recover," Miller adds. His larger point, however, is that detox is really the least of a recovering addict's problems. The long-term problem is "getting someone to maintain their abstinence in the community."
Westrum shrugs off the criticism from Miller and others: "That's fine," she says. "These individuals have no firsthand experience. They've never toured the program."
Alfonso Paredes, a retired UCLA psychiatrist and addiction expert, is the expert most often cited by Second Chance. He also serves on an advisory board for Narcanon, a related Scientologist-founded rehab program.
He describes Second Chance as "mainly a behavioral program," one that overall he finds "very, very interesting." But his support for the program is tempered.
"Effective is not a word I can use," he says, citing "very little systematic data" on Second Chance. Neither does Paredes support the program's sauna detox: "I've tried to persuade them not to use it," he says, but adds that it's "not the main part of the program."
But while there may be a lack of conclusive research associated with Second Chance, there have been positive reviews.
Late last year, a preliminary review of Second Chance by Value Options, an organization that evaluates drug treatment facilities for the state and awards grants, found that the program "appears credible." Although it did express safety concerns regarding the sauna detox and the nutrition protocol, and suggested further review.
A recent article in the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association publication notes that many facets of the program are hardly controversial, including the emphasis on cognitive therapy and literacy skills. The article also quotes one defense lawyer who
notes that Second Chance is the only treatment program that has ever sent a client progress report.
Positive anecdotal reviews also are not uncommon. Describing one of the inmates she monitors, Santa Fe social worker Morales reports progress.
"He sounds so much better than he did in jail," she says of a meth addict who talked about quitting the program but has stuck with it. "He's been there since November and he'll be done in May."
Morales puts a premium on the need to remove addicts from settings that have proved problematic in the past.
"You need to get them out of their environment, like a vacation from their life," she says. "That's why inpatient treatment is very important."
And one reason Second Chance is getting a chance is because there aren't that many other options.
This year, the New Mexico Corrections Department will spend
$3.7 million on a mix of addiction services for a statewide prison population that stands at approximately 6,500 inmates.
Those services range from weekly 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to nine to 15 months of "intensive treatment" for more than 700 inmates.
But even $3.7 million worth of services can appear like a drop in the bucket for a prison population in which 87 percent have been assessed as chronic addicts, according to the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico.
Outside prison or jail facilities, a smattering of treatment centers offer inpatient drug rehab for those lucky enough to avoid life behind bars.
The New Mexico Recovery Academy, a state-funded six-month program, is one alternative. In northern New Mexico, Hoy Recovery Program Inc. and the Santa Fe Recovery Center each offer shorter-term drug rehab services and receive some public funding.
Then there are explicitly religious programs-the "come to Jesus" programs, as social worker Nanette Farrelly calls them-such as Rock Christian Fellowship in Española, an 18-month
program that can't access public money because it's also a ministry.
Chris Varela isn't in any of those programs. The 22-year-old Santa Fe native is back at the Santa Fe Adult Detention Center after having spent more than two months at Second Chance. He left, he says, because the program wouldn't provide him with the anti-depressants he needs.
"They said I couldn't proceed with the program," Varela says.
But that doesn't stop the yellow jumpsuit-clad Varela, with both his wrists and ankles shackled, from saying good things about Second Chance.
"I liked it. They teach you how to hold your temper," he says, referring to the communication classes. "They provide you with vitamins; the food was good."
He says he'd gladly go back if he could.
Back at Second Chance, current inmates are equally enthusiastic
about the program. But they also are only allowed to speak to this reporter in Westrum's presence. And she doesn't hesitate to nudge them on several points.
"Is any religion pushed on you?" Westrum asks Jerry, an easygoing 45-year-old participant who has battled alcoholism most of his life. Later, Westrum instructs Jerry to talk about the sauna. "How did that help you?" she prompts him.
He says it did exactly what Second Chance says it does: "It sucks all that bad stuff out."
For his part, Jerry praises the program. Five months since he started, he can read better, and he's even lost weight. "I feel 10 years younger!"
Julio wears a cross around his neck on the outside of a gray sweatshirt. "The program has given me back my confidence," he says. "It's given me that ability to look within myself and say, 'I'm a champion. I'm a winner.' That's what I was created to be."