The Scientology-Based "Re-Education" Program for American Prisoners


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The Scientology-Based "Re-Education" Program for American Prisoners.

The Influence: The Scientology-Based "Re-Education" Program for American Prisoners, Sponsored by Goldman Sachs

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A few years ago, Abe Bergman’s 19-year-old son was court-ordered into a residential treatment program in Washington State for co-occurring mental illness and “substance abuse.” After he’d been in the program about a week, Bergman called and asked: “Can I come visit my son?”

The person he spoke to, a counselor, said: “No, he hasn’t earned enough points yet.”

“I thought,” Bergman says, “with someone with mental illness, wouldn’t it be good to have their family there? They said, ‘No. We run something call Moral Reconation Therapy here.’”

Bergman, a retired pediatrician and faculty member at the University of Washington, never was able to visit his son. He wondered, what was this mysterious-sounding “Moral Reconation Therapy” (MRT)? The term bugged him. It sounded like “trying to invent new words that don’t mean anything, but imply a certain specialness.”

So he talked to “six or seven mental health professionals—psychiatrists.” He asked them, “Do you know about MRT?”

None of them did.

He called the person who then ran the mental health office for Washington State. They’d never heard of it.

Finally, he talked to someone who worked in the criminal justice system. They’d heard of it, because MRT is used widely—according to the website of Correctional Counseling, the company that promotes and sells MRT—“in parole and probation, with juvenile offenders, in schools, halfway houses, drug treatment programs, jails, and venues covering the entire range of corrections.” It can also be employed “anywhere there’s substance abuse,” as someone associated with the program, who didn’t want their name used, told me.

In fact, according to the website, it is the primary drug treatment used in the US criminal justice system. MRT is used in all 50 states, and in six other countries besides the US. It’s on SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, which helps states, community-based organizations and others identify recommended service models.

John D. Berg, M.Ed., LCPC, is a public health advisor with the criminal justice team at SAMHSA. He says that MRT is “one of the most commonly used [treatments] within drug courts because it fits well with criminal justice-involved clients we serve.”

Correctional Counseling says that its treatment has been administered to more than 1 million “offenders.”

So what is Moral Reconation Therapy? And why has no one outside of the prison system heard of it?

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Semantics and Scientology

When I put to multiple people associated with Moral Reconation Therapy that people might balk at equating morals with laws, with teaching “morality” as a therapeutic treatment, they explained that the “moral” in MRT actually comes from Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of six stages of moral development. On their website, the authors state, as if anticipating this concern: “In this case, ‘moral’ does not refer to a religious concept, but rather the theoretical conceptualization of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.” In their workbook, the authors say that they draw on the work of Kohlberg, as well as a range of other well-known theorists like Carl Jung, Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget.

MRT has, depending on interpretation (some stages incorporate sub-stages), nine-to-16 levels of morality, ranging from “Disloyalty,” the lowest, to “Grace” (the highest). These stages—which don’t appear to share anything in common with Kohlberg’s stages (more on that soon)—make up the “MRT Freedom Ladder.”


What about the made-up-sounding word “Reconation”? Little and Robinson write:

“Prior to common usage of the term ‘ego’ in psychology in the 1930s, the term ‘conation’ was employed to describe the conscious process of decision-making and purposeful behavior. The term moral reconation was chosen … because the underlying goal was to change conscious decision-making to higher levels of moral reasoning.” Conation is in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an inclination (as an instinct, a drive, a wish, or a craving) to act purposefully.” Reconation is not in the dictionary.

There’s also something in MRT’s requirement of the acceptance of personal transgressions that is reminiscent of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I asked Influence columnist Maia Szalavitz, a journalist with decades’ experience covering subjects like mental health, addiction and addiction treatment, for her thoughts on MRT: It “shares all the negative results that people can get from 12-step programs in terms of moralizing,” she told me. “We don’t tell people with actual diseases that it is caused by their sinful nature—yet the implications in MRT seem to be that you chose to be a criminal, and it was your thinking that was wrong, and society was completely blameless. Trauma has nothing to do with it. It really cannot possibly be trauma-sensitive. Right there is a huge problem.”

MRT’s creators are adamant that their program is quite distinct from 12-step programs, though (and the similarities are not pervasive). They prefer to consider MRT “evidence-based” and a “cognitive-behavioral” treatment.

Instead of associating themselves with the 12-step movement, in the acknowledgments section of How to Escape Your Prison, Little and Robinson credit a man named Ron Smothermon with giving them the names and framework for the stages on the Freedom Ladder. Smothermon appears in online searches as a kind of self-help guru, author of texts such as Winning through Enlightenment, The Man-Woman Book and Conversations With Life.

He seems to have some associations with cult-like movements, particularly EST (Erhard Seminars Training), a self-help program trendy in the ’70s, and its repackaged descendent, the Forum (which was succeeded by Landmark, a more mainstream management training program, which today has clients like Reebok, Microsoft, NASA and Lululemon).

When the word “Scientology” began cropping up in my searches in connection with Smothermon, I delved deeper, and suddenly noticed a shocking similarity, one that was clearly not coincidental: MRT’s Freedom Ladder is an almost direct replica of Scientology’s “Life Conditions.”

Both include the stages, in the same descending order, of: “Normal,” “Emergency,” “Danger,” and “Non-Existence.” Then, Scientology has “Liability, while MRT has “Injury;” Scientology has “Doubt” while MRT has “Uncertainty;” and last, Scientology has “Treason” where MRT has “Disloyalty.”


The Scientology Handbook
says that the “conditions” are “states of existence.” There is something called the “ethics conditions” which “identify these states and provide formulas—exact steps which one can use to move from one condition to another higher and more survival condition.”

“Ethics is the means by which he can raise himself to a higher condition and improve his survival.”

Then the handbook gets into some intricate graphing—apparently you can graph your “statistics” to see what “condition” you are in—and takes off into some nonsensical but pithy warnings, like: “Correct scaling is the essence of good graphing” and “The element of hope can enter too strongly into a graph.”

MRT, thankfully, doesn’t seem to have incorporated the “statistics” component of Scientology’s “conditions” into its “Freedom Ladder.”

There’s a lot from Scientology it seems to have left behind. And overall, MRT seems less like a part of some nefarious Scientology plot to infiltrate the prison system, more a mish-mash of psychobabble picked haphazardly from 1970s self-actualization talk, Christianity, AA and yes, Scientology.

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Patron Meritorious
this is their typical move... they have to recruit staff from somewhere... they figure prisoners are the only people in the country who haven't already seen going clear, or are running out of foreigners trying to flee their country on a religious worker visa

inable, low income, addicted to drugs, criminal, can't afford the bridge? join staff!

able, high income, famous? become public!

public pay $1000/hr for service from staff making $1/hr, they're looking to recruit staff here not disseminate to the criminal public

scientology is a caste system to beat all caste systems

and what will they do with the felons? make them executives at criminon, it's scientology logic! where your ethics officer is a pedo rapist! whose the executive at narconon? the addict that used to shoot up 10 times a day

good thing businesses in the real world don't recruit with scientology logic