The Church of Scientology was founded by a science-fiction writer. The group allegedly collects intel on its members and critics, and forces workers into indentured servitude. In addition to attracting Hollywood celebrities, the Clearwater-based church also has a habit of buying tons of expensive real estate, including a new Miami headquarters, which opened in 2017 and received praise from former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
Now the church is recruiting inside one of Miami-Dade's main prisons. According to news releases and online documents Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union flagged yesterday, Scientology is running an inmate "rehabilitation" program called Criminon inside Everglades Correctional Institution in Southwest Miami-Dade. Criminon is a mail-based so-called rehab program based on the teachings of sci-fi writer and leader L. Ron Hubbard.
This past December 13, the Church of Scientology sent out a release announcing that 20 inmates had graduated from a Criminon course:
At the Everglades Correctional Institution graduation in August, over one hundred guests saw 20 inmates receive their Criminon certificates for the completion of a course. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when the inmates shared their experiences and life-changing successes. One example was “Billy”, who was imprisoned in 1991 for first degree murder and who lived a miserable life in his prison cell until 2014 where he started in the Criminon correspondence courses. The program, he said, changed his life forever. “I can honestly say that if Criminon was delivered every day to inmates, everything would be much better and that would be it!... Rehabilitation is possible!”
The Times-Union also reported that sessions are being taught at Everglades CI by an inmate who has passed the church's mail-order course.
The program sounds nice if you don't look too hard: Criminon's organizers say they're trying to build "a world without crime" and aim to teach offenders morality, ethics, and self-respect. The issue, of course, is that the so-called documentation and lesson plans are administered by the much-criticized church.
The church teaches its followers that negative spirits called "thetans" inhabit human bodies and cause all negative emotions. It teaches that you can remove thetans by "auditing" — confessing your misgivings, troubles, and anxieties to a church member. In reality, the church records and stores everything you confess — it has been accused for decades of using that material against people who try to leave the church or speak out against it.
At this point, a ton of evidence indicates Scientology is run by some pretty bad people: Hubbard was accused of collecting information on members so they couldn't leave and of forcing particularly devoted members to sign "billion-year" contracts to do backbreaking work. In 1976, for example, the church undertook something called "Operation Freakout," in which the FBI caught church members hatching a plot to frame Paulette Cooper, a journalist critical of their organization. The FBI said members tried to frame Cooper to get her either arrested or committed to a psychiatric institution. The church later paid Cooper an out-of-court settlement.
Hubbard's successor, David Miscavige for years tried to get the church listed as a religious group with the IRS in order to gain
According to Criminon's website, Hubbard himself laid the seeds for the inmate-rehab program as early as 1958. Hubbard seems to have devised the idea to recruit members from prisons — Criminon, in its current form, mails inmates written materials based on Hubbard's 1980 book, The Way to Happiness. It's largely milquetoast — it lists 21 "steps" to happiness that borrow heavily from the Ten Commandments and other canonical religious and spiritual texts.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Of course, things also get weird. According to program evaluations by the nonprofit Urban Institute, some of the tenets in the course directly reference terms used in Scientology. Inmates are taught how to deal with "suppressive people" or "SPs," a term that Scientologists use to label humans with negative or antisocial personalities. There are many reported examples, however, of Scientologists labeling church critics as "suppressive" enemies. Criminon materials online also claim violent crime is increasing in America — compared to the 1980s and 1990s — which is false. Crime is actually inching toward record lows.
Criminon documents also include some bizarre conspiracy theories, including one video that claims American prisoners are kept "drugged" and "sedated." Perhaps most importantly, Scientologists are virulently opposed to mental-health treatment, psychiatry, and therapists — Criminon refers people with substance-abuse issues to its sister program, Narconon, a Scientology-run drug-treatment program that has been called "medically unsafe" and "quackery." (Among other medically false theories, Hubbard taught that drugs are stored in humans' "fatty tissue" and can be flushed out of addicts' bodies through exercise and the use of saunas. Most physicians say this is not true.)
Zooming out, church critics claim that many of the church's allegedly "altruistic" charities are basically fronts to improve its public image after years of controversy and allegations of criminality. After Hurricane Irma struck Florida, the church sent volunteers to help clean up damaged parts of the state, including Miami. The nonprofit "outreach" efforts are alleged to be Scientology-recruiting vehicles. Criminon since the 1990s has been accused of being a way for the church to reach emotionally vulnerable prisoners.
Criminon has reportedly been operating in Florida prisons since at least 2005. That year, the Florida Legislature nearly handed the program a $500,000 taxpayer subsidy, but then-Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the bill.