Sign up for our free newsletter
Criminon’s push into the District’s corrections system has critics wondering about its roots in Scientology.
Several years ago, when Rudy Owens, 58, first saw a flier for a self-improvement course on a bulletin board inside Lorton’s Minimum Security Facility, he thought it was bunk. “It said, ‘For those who are trying to change their life, get in touch with this program,’” he recalls. “My first impression was that it was just someone else coming to the institution to make money off the inmates.”
The course advertised on the bulletin board was offered by Criminon D.C., a local branch of an organization that seeks to rehabilitate criminals by using the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the late science-fiction writer. Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in 1952. “I knew Criminon came out of Dianetics that L. Ron Hubbard proposed years ago,” says Owens. “I was not totally aware what Criminon was about, but I knew it came from that direction.”
At the time, Owens, a D.C. native, was on a repeat visit to Lorton on a parole violation. By then he’d been in and out of institutions all his life. As a little boy, he spent time at the receiving home for children for fighting and housebreaking. He later served a five-year sentence in Lorton’s Youth Center on a grand-larceny charge. After he got out, Owens says, he fell into boxing and what he describes as “all the other negative things that go with it.” Over the past 20 years, he’s been in prison a few times, mostly on drug charges.
A follower of the Nation of Islam, Owens says Criminon’s connection to Scientology didn’t faze him, and he decided to give it a try. “I’d been into different programs,” he says, “but nothing seemed to work for me.” Soon, he was a devoted Criminon disciple.
What hooked Owens on Criminon was its “Communications Course”one of several he took at Lortonin which students are paired up to practice different elements of communication. “The basic thing they teach you is that you can learn how to communicate with people to get your point across very plainly and very simply, and if you use this technology competently, you can get people to agree with what you are trying to accomplish,” he explains.
Owens often uses the word “technology”also a popular term in the Scientology lexiconwhen he describes Criminon’s programs, and he sees no tension between his embrace of Islam and Hubbard’s ideas. “My religious concepts are right in line with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, because I understand what the approach is about,” he says. “I know what it can do for an individual to make him a better person if he would take time out and investigate what he is.”
What often turned some Lorton inmates off, says Owens, wasn’t so much Criminon’s Hubbard-inspired message as its messengers. “[Inside Lorton,] people were suspicious of a bunch of white people coming with something to liberate black people from what had held them in bondage all their lives.”
Since Owens left Lorton in May, he’s made it his mission to spread the word about the program to his fellow ex-offenders and their families by volunteering to be Criminon D.C.’s director of programs. Owens wants to be an inner-city ambassador for the program. “I’m the liaison to the grass roots,” he says. “When people see a bunch of people who don’t look like them, they get suspicious. I can go in and fit in. I look like part of the picture. People trust me.
“Now that I’ve come home,” he adds, “I’m giving back what was given to me.”
Criminon D.C. hopes to grow through the word-of-mouth recommendations of participants such as Owens. It has offered a limited number of its courses inside Lorton for the past five-and-a-half years, but now that the prison is closing, its organizers are shifting their attention from inmates to ex-offenders returning to the District from prisons across the country.
Over the past several months, Criminon has aggressively courted case managers at halfway houses and parole and probation officersanyone who’s in a position to refer ex-offenders to programs. In September, the group had a coming-out of sorts, manning a booth at the first annual Metropolitan D.C. Ex-Offender Job and Human Service Fair, organized by the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice. And Criminon officials recently approached D.C. Department of Corrections officials about voluntarily offering their programs in halfway houses, through which all D.C. felons must pass before they are released.
D.C. Department of Corrections spokesperson Darryl J. Madden says officials are considering the offer. “On the surface, [Criminon] is a significant program,” says Madden. “It addresses self-confidence, life skills, and substance-abuse issues. We will review it on its merits. As with any group, we want to be very selective about what we expose our detained population to.”
Criminon D.C. was formally incorporated in 1997, 25 years after Criminon International was organized in New Zealand. Criminon D.C.’s executive director, Dagmar Papaheraklis, says that before 1990, Criminon mostly offered correspondence courses. She got the idea to start a program at Lorton after Joan Lonstein, president of Criminon International for the western United States, visited D.C. in 1996.
According to Criminon International’s promotional booklet, Lorton is just one of the 400 correctional facilities worldwide that have offered the program. The booklet lists offices in five states and the District of Columbia, as well as in nine other countries. Criminon is a subsidiary of the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE), which is listed among the 114 Scientology-related organizations to which the Internal Revenue Service granted nonprofit status in 1993.
Besides offering courses in prisons and halfway houses, Criminon organizers have begun teaching at a group home that houses kids involved in the juvenile-justice system, according to Papaheraklis. Criminon organizers eventually want to open a Criminon “community-education center” in D.C. There are three such centers in the United States, all located in California, and Papaheraklis says she has already looked at a couple of potential sites in the city. With such a center here, Criminon volunteers say, they would be able to offer a full array of Criminon programs, including drug detoxification and rehabilitation, to ex-offenders and their friends and family, as well.
Church of Scientology critics, including former Scientologists, say that District residents should be wary of the program. They argue that what the organization presents as self-help “technology” is little more than watered-down church doctrine.
Criminon’s connections to Scientology have been enough to spark a probe in Britain. In July, the Independent reported that Britain’s Home Office had launched an investigation into whether Criminon U.K.’s effort to circulate promotional material to prisoners and probationers was really an attempt by the Church of Scientology to target “drug-addicted prisoners.”
Washington, by contrast, has proved to be friendlier turf. Promotional materials for Criminon include a June 11, 1998, letter from James C. Riddick Jr., then-warden of the Minimum Security Facility at Lorton, to Papaheraklis, commending her for her “extraordinary service to the D.C. Department of Corrections.”
D.C. inmates are already a central focus in Criminon publicity materials. Testimonials by D.C. prisoners who took Criminon courses at Lorton dominate a burgundy-colored promotional brochure for Criminon International. In undated black-and-white photos, Lorton inmates are pictured in classrooms poring over books, holding their Way to Happiness books, or sitting in a row at a Criminon graduation. No inmate names are listed, and quotes from inmates are signed only by initials and city: “K.J., Inmate, Lorton, VA.” And, like Owens, other former Criminon students have also gone on to volunteer for the organization.
Though many of Criminon D.C.’s volunteers are not Scientologists, the group’s leaders are. The local organization’s board of directors consists of Papaheraklis, her husband, George Papaheraklis, and James J. Jackson, according to corporation papers on file with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The Papaheraklises have been teaching at Lorton since 1996. Jackson says he taught at Lorton for only a year, a few years ago.
George Papaheraklis, who owns his own home-improvement business, was listed in a 1990 edition of Impact, a magazine put out by the International Association of Scientologists (IAS), as an “honor roll” patron to the IAS, according to a list of IAS patrons posted on the Web site of the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network, an organization based in Boulder, Colo., that collects information on Scientology. Patrons who make the honor roll either give $20,000 or recruit 20 members for the IAS, says Arnaldo Lerma, a Scientologist-turned-church-critic who lives in Arlington, Va.
Asked if he is a Scientologist, Jackson, a local tax attorney, demurs, saying, “Religion is a private matter.” However, in recent years, Jackson has been listed as a member of the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises (WISE), a Scientology-based management-consultant group, according to various lists of WISE members published by WISE and posted on several critical Scientology Web sites.
Dagmar Papaheraklis, on the other hand, explains that her desire to teach in D.C. prisons is rooted in her religion. “Through our studies in Scientology, the more our awareness goes up, the more we know there is a lot of need. Then we try to go and help,” she says.
Criminon officials and volunteers freely admit that what they teach inmates is based on Hubbard’s teachings. And they are sure to tell inmates so on the first day of class. They insist that their teachings are not religious, however, and though Criminon does rely heavily on the donations and volunteer efforts of Scientologists, it is legally separate from the church itself.
As proof of their good intentions, Criminon proponents note that the group offers its courses for free: by mail, inside correctional institutions, and at its California community-education centers. According to a program booklet, Criminon’s offerings include “Learning Improvement Courses,” which cover basic literacy and study techniques; the Communications Course, in which students learn to “recognize where communication has broken down in the past” and “to correct it in the present”; a “Personal Integrity Course,” and a class on “Handling Suppression,” a Scientology term for negative influences.
“The Way to Happiness Course,” however, is the “crown jewel” of Criminon’s offerings, according to the program’s booklet. In this course, students learn 21 moral precepts that include imperatives such as “Do not murder,” “Don’t do anything illegal,” and “Flourish and prosper.”
Members of the Church of Scientology, by contrast, pay to learn similar material, and they continue taking more classes to reach higher levels of awareness, according to Margery Wakefield’s 1991 account of her years in Scientology, The Road to Xenu. Members who reach the level known as OT IIIa process that according to Wakefield costs several hundred thousand dollars to completelearn what she calls “the secret of the universe.” The secret, says Wakefield, is that 75 million years ago, an evil galactic overlord named Xenu, faced with an overpopulation problem, sent millions of space aliens to volcanoes on the planet Teegeeacknow Earthand bombarded them with hydrogen bombs. But the souls of these aliens, known as Thetans, remain and attach themselves to humans, causing pain and suffering. The Thetans can be forced away, says Wakefield, only through a costly process called “auditing,” in which people pay to talk to Scientology counselors as they are hooked up to a device known as an “E-meter.”
Criminon is only the latest in a series of Scientology-related community-service initiatives to hit D.C. Others have included “The Drug-Free Marshals,” a youth drug-education and prevention program created in 1993 by the Church of Scientology International, and the Community Service Guild, which local Scientologists formed a little more than a decade ago to provide tutors for D.C. public-school students. Both programs are still running. Scientology churches have launched similar programs in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and Boston.
The church has been criticized in the past for not making its connection to its community-service efforts more explicit. A 1993 Washington Post article described federal and District officials participating in a Drug-Free Marshals rally at the First Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, oblivious to the Church of Scientology’s sponsorship of the event. That scenario has been repeated elsewhere. In 1998, then-Palo Alto Mayor Dick Rosenbaum told a San Jose Mercury News reporter he was stunned to learn of the church’s involvement after he attended a Drug-Free Marshals rally.
One former Department of Corrections program manager who is familiar with the Criminon program at Lorton and who asked not to be named says that Criminon representatives gave him literature that mentioned Hubbard. But he says no one ever said anything about Scientology in any of the classes that he observed.
Critics contend that the line between what is secular and what is Scientology isn’t always clear. Criminon course materials don’t mention the word “Scientology.” They do, however, mention Hubbard and make extensive use of Scientology jargon. In the Communications Course, for instance, students are taught about “affinity, reality, and communication,” according to the former program manager. The Scientology Web site says that “the principle of affinity, reality, and communication” is “a tool of considerable importance in Scientology.”
Criminon also promotes, as part of drug rehabilitation, a secularized version of what is known in Scientology as the “Purification Rundown”a detoxification process in which participants take vitamins and minerals and sweat out “drug residues” in a sauna. (The Criminon booklet even features a picture of sweat-glazed inmates at a prison in Ensenada, Mexico, near Tijuana, crammed into a sauna they built themselves.)
In 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported that confusion over how books based on Hubbard’s educational teachings differ from those based on his religious ones had led Los Angeles Unified School District officials to question a bid by teacher Linda Smith, a Scientologist, to open a charter school. Smith later withdrew her proposal.
Former Scientologists say that the true aim of Scientology-based social-betterment organizations such as Criminon is not to rehabilitate addicts or criminals but to bolster Hubbard’s image and in turn foster greater acceptance of Scientology.
“The goal of Criminon is what [Scientologists] call ‘safeguarding’ Scientology…to make sure Hubbard’s name is well thought of,” says Tory Bezazian, who was a Scientologist for 30 years and until a few months ago a member of the Scientology Parishioners League, a group that takes on church critics. “Hopefully, [the participants] will also get on the Bridge [become Scientologists]. But the first intention is PR.”
Criminon D.C.’s leaders dismiss such criticism as mean-spirited. “Would it be good if [Criminon] helped Hubbard’s image? Sure. Is that the main reason for doing it? No,” says Jackson. “What Scientologists learn is a million times deeper than what we teach these guys. What we teach them is very common-sensical. Just because you learn to use a hammer to put up a picture doesn’t make you a carpenter.”
“Are people interested in dirt or in results?” says Dagmar Papaheraklis, who cites phenomenal success rates at the Criminon program at the Ensenada prison called Second Chance. The most recent study posted on the Second Chance Web site is dated 1998. That two-year survey found that out of 192 participants who were released, only 10 percent returned to a prison or jail in Ensenada before the study ended. The research was done by Dr. Jesus Cureces Rios, a Mexican criminologist and director in Mexico of a group called Reencuentro con la Vida (“Rediscover Life”). Rick Pendery, a Scientologist from Los Angeles who helped start Second Chance and volunteers for Narconon, a Hubbard-inspired drug rehabilitation program, has also been named as a director of Reencuentro con la Vida in Ensenada. Rios thanks Pendery prominently in the study.
Local Criminon volunteers such as Ricardo Eley, 40, also deny they have ulterior motives. Eley says he took Criminon courses three years ago while he was serving a four-and-a half-year sentence in Lorton for drug charges. He has been out of prison for a few months and now works for George Papaheraklis’ home-improvement business. “No one nurtured me before,” he says. “I always knew the potential I had, but the assistance I’ve been getting from George and his wife has made this much easier.”
Eley contrasts his current experience with the last time he got out of prison, more than a decade ago, after serving a 10-year sentence on a second-degree murder charge. He says that then he was able to find a well-paying job but quickly fell back in with “the wrong crowd,” continued abusing drugs, and ended up back in prison again.
“The church doesn’t have influence over the D.C. branch,” says Eley. “We’re not trying to recruit anyone. We’re strictly about improving your conditions.” CP