Lock Up, Rub Down: State lawmakers push dubious Mexican drug rehab program
Phoenix New Times (Arizona)
November 15, 2001
By Amy Silverman
State Senator Tom Smith spent time recently in a Mexican prison. And loved it.
Now, Smith (who was just visiting the jail, not locked up in it) and some of his colleagues are clamoring for Arizona to be the first state to use an experimental drug treatment program for prisoners. Inmates would swallow massive amounts of vitamins, sweat in a sauna for up to five hours a day and massage each other.
At Smith's urging, officials at the state departments of corrections and juvenile corrections are devoting public resources to investigating the efficacy of "Second Chance," which is based on the principles of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
Second Chance, which also incorporates self-esteem and life skills training, has reportedly had remarkable results in Mexican prisons, including an Ensenada facility that Smith and others toured. But critics warn that the "body disintoxication" process -- which includes large doses of niacin (a vitamin commonly used to regulate cholesterol and metabolic rates) and is similar to the "purification" program Scientologists follow when joining the church -- does not rid the body of drugs and can be very dangerous. Others worry the program has not been adequately tested.
Smith, a conservative Republican from northeast Phoenix, was impressed when he visited the Ensenada facility and talked with some of the rehabilitated inmates.
"Only time they've gone through a drug rehabilitation program that has worked," he says.
The Second Chance literature explains the daily regime: An inmate is given supervised doses of vitamins and minerals, including niacin, that are adjusted according to his needs depending on "physical and mental indicators." After taking the dose, the inmate exercises for half an hour until his blood is circulating rapidly and he's sweating. Then he sweats heavily for five hours in a sauna (with water breaks as needed).
Christine Weason, a central Phoenix Democrat who also visited Mexico to observe the program, was charmed. At first, she says, she was frightened by the "hardened, violent prisoners" and put off by the "very run-down, dilapidated buildings" at the Ensenada prison. But the Second Chance inmates were clean and well-behaved, and she was told that there were no religious ties. "They just went out of their way to say this is not Scientology, this is not Scientology, this is not Scientology."
New Times received testimonials from several Second Chance graduates who say the program helped them.
Neither Smith nor Weason intends to introduce legislation regarding Second Chance. Weason hopes a private foundation will fund the program, while Smith is working to convince DOC's Terry Stewart and Department of Juvenile Corrections Director David Gaspar to redirect existing funds to Second Chance.
That could be a tough sell, at least when it comes to Stewart. Last spring, GOP Representative Mark Anderson of Mesa sponsored an amendment that would have appropriated $1.5 million to operate Second Chance. In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stewart blasted Second Chance, observing that no nationally recognized drug treatment expert or institution has studied the program. He also worried that its ties to Scientology were problematic and expressed safety concerns about inmates massaging each other and sitting in saunas.
George Weisz, Governor Jane Dee Hull's top adviser on law enforcement issue, criticized the methodology used in evaluating recidivism rates connected with Second Chance's claimed success.
Anderson's legislation was ultimately defeated. But now DOC spokeswoman Rhonda Cole says her agency is researching Second Chance.
DOC's deputy director for inmate health services is studying the vitamin "concoction," Cole says, and an assistant director is traveling to Ensenada to study Second Chance.
"We're also reviewing the legal context of the program as it relates to Scientology," she says.
ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner says, "Director Gaspar has instructed [staff] to obtain enough information on this program as possible. . . . We are awaiting completion of that evaluative process."
Scores of Scientology Web pages espouse the virtues of the "purification" process, but little has been written about possible risks.
The National Council Against Health Fraud evaluated a program similar to Second Chance several years ago and said that such detoxification methods do the opposite of what the Scientologists claim: Instead of releasing fat -- and thus toxins -- into the bloodstream, high doses of niacin block the release of fat and can cause liver damage.
Second Chance's literature includes a letter of support from one Los Angeles MD.
Felipe Gonzalez Castro, a professor of clinical psychology at Arizona State University and an expert in drug rehabilitation, reviewed Second Chance's literature and praises the self-esteem training, but questions the vitamin/sweat/massage component.
"The body detoxification seems useful at a basic level, but I don't know what evidence exists that shows that this is an efficacious component of a drug treatment program," he says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says Second Chance isn't under its purview.
Administering large doses of niacin and other vitamins "would indeed be a violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, but because . . . there isn't -- as far as we know -- a manufacturer or doctor actually labeling and/or marketing niacin for this use, then we defer to the states to handle this," says Crystal Rice, FDA spokeswoman.
Representative Weason acknowledges that she hasn't seen much support from mainstream medicine. But since other drug rehab programs have had such limited success, Weason is willing to give this one a shot.
She thinks costs can be cut from the original estimate that put treatment at $15,000 per inmate for the first year. The biggest up-front cost would be building the saunas, Weason says, but since it's so hot here in Arizona, she figures other accommodations could be made.
Weason's House colleague, Glendale Republican Roberta Voss, says that while she was also impressed with Second Chance, it has no chance here.
"When you see it in person, it's overwhelming. It's the most fascinating thing I've ever seen," says Voss, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and also toured the Ensenada facility recently.
But Voss believes what she witnessed -- the low number of medical personnel on site (just one, she was told) and the prisoners administering the program to one another -- wouldn't fly in Arizona.
"Would I support it? Yeah, I would," says Voss. "But I'm not sure how it would be implemented."