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 antipsychotic 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-billiona-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."
Manual Called Outdated