Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Kerwin Kaye. Kaye is Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He is the author of the recent publication, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, from Columbia University Press.
Setting the Scene
Dr. Kerwin Kaye
Most of those who study the history of drug treatment are probably already aware of the troubled story of Synanon, the first therapeutic community (or TC) for the treatment of drug addiction. Initially founded in 1958 in Santa Monica, California, Synanon was led by Chuck Dederich, a charismatic if sometimes abrasive figure by all accounts. While Synanon enjoyed approximately a decade of favorable media coverage (including praise from the California governor, a U.S. Senator, and a made-for-TV movie that valorized its approach), by the 1970s, press coverage turned decidedly negative. Dederich ordered all of the residents within Synanon to change their romantic partners, and decided upon the new pairings himself. Dederich also created an armed wing within Synanon called the Imperial Marines, and ordered those within the unit to prevent any of the residents from leaving. When one woman successfully fled and managed to get a lawyer to aid her legal case against the organization, that lawyer found himself the victim of a rattlesnake that had been placed in his mailbox on Dederich’s orders. Dederich was forced to step down from his leadership position within Synanon, but — as Time Magazine put it in 1977 — the organization was now seen as “a kooky cult.”
Yet Synanon’s years of apparent success with addicts helped generate the formation of numerous spin-off organizations. And while Synanon eventually refused to work with the criminal justice system (after failed efforts at doing so), many of these new TCs did just that. The first of these was DATOP, which stood for “Drug Addiction Treatment for Probationers.” While it soon became a stand-alone organization (changing its name to Daytop Village), the original program was directly founded by the Kings County (Brooklyn) probation department, with admission initially restricted to male felons in the care of the probation department. Phoenix House soon followed in 1967, taking clients from New York City’s Addiction Services Agency. By 1969, a survey for the National Institute of Mental Health revealed no fewer than forty drug treatment programs that described themselves as “therapeutic communities,” all adopting the same treatment methodology and philosophy pioneered at Synanon.
Synanon’s approach to drug treatment relied heavily upon a combination of strict discipline and personal attack. Synanon established the first treatment-oriented “boot camp” for teens, for example — called the “Punk Squad” — which served as a forerunner to countless other boot camp treatment programs. More generally, Synanon worked to develop the practice of “attack therapy” and disseminated it into a broader therapeutic context, acting as a stimulus and forerunner to programs as diverse as “Tough Love,” “Scared Straight,” and possibly Erhard Seminars Training (EST). Within Synanon, Dederich and his acolytes openly referred to their techniques as “brainwashing,” arguing that people — and especially addicts — needed to have their “brains washed out” periodically, and comparing the process to bathing.
The success of Synanon’s model within the criminal justice system depended precisely upon its perceived “toughness.” Whereas an earlier generation of “therapeutic communities” had worked with criminal justice institutions in promoting a certain type of limited democratic control within prisons, these “democratic TCs” were precisely the types of programs which were targeted as “coddling criminals” when the new push to get “tough on crime” rose in the 1960s. The other primary alternative to Synanon’s model of TC toughness — programs founded upon behaviorist principles — soon proved to be too tough. As stories began to circulate about inmates within a federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, being shackled all day long by both arms and legs to their steel beds (as part of Project START), questions of constitutional legality were quickly raised and the program was scuttled. Synanon’s “hierarchical TC” proved to be the only politically viable alternative for those wishing to promote rehabilitative regimes within the criminal justice system.
The Rise and Fall of Asklepieion
While most of the TCs that rose in the space created by Synanon worked with addicts who were referred through criminal justice systems, some wanted to create programs within the space of the prison itself. Synanon had itself opened a TC — open to all inmates, not just drug users — within the Nevada State Prison near Carson City in 1962. Synanon’s prison program was closed in 1966, however, when the prison moved away from a rehabilitative model of custody. By this time, prison administrators in general were evincing less and less enthusiasm for rehabilitative programs directed at inmates — by 1974, the famous “nothing works” report by Robert Martinson concluded that such efforts were pointless — but the federal government nevertheless continued to offer some support for the treatment of not just drug users, but inmates of all sorts.
The results of these efforts can be seen with the example of Asklepieion (generally pronounced as-kul-LAY-pē-yen, though the more conventional Greek intonation, as-KLĒ-pē-on, was also sometimes used). Asklepieion — purportedly named by the inmates themselves for a temple honoring the Greek god of healing — was a hierarchical therapeutic community based upon a synthesis of the Synanon model with Transactional Analysis (“Primal Scream” therapy was also introduced into the program later on). The program was established at the federal maximum security prison at Marion, Illinois in 1968 where it was run under the direction of the psychiatrist Martin Groder until 1972 (the program itself continued until 1978).
Whereas most “democratic” TCs required an open atmosphere with “some degree of permissiveness and freedom to make mistakes” (hence they were introduced only in minimum security environments), Groder’s challenge in constructing the program was to establish a rehabilitation regime without disrupting the intense security arrangements in any way. Synanon’s “hierarchical” means of attacking the prison code seemed a plausible solution. If democratic TCs evoked contradictions between a “lenient” rehabilitative strategy that blurred boundaries between staff and inmate, perhaps the hierarchical TC could achieve change without disrupting or perhaps even reinforcing a security-oriented approach.
The federal prison at Marion was a unique location within which to operate a therapeutic community. With the highest level of security in the federal system, the institution had been built in 1963 as a replacement for Alcatraz. In addition to violent offenders, Marion also housed numerous prison activists who otherwise caused management difficulties in other facilities. In the wake of a series of rebellions in prison that crescendoed following the death of prison activist George Jackson in August 1971 and the uprising at Attica in September of the same year, federal authorities decided to gather all of the most “troublesome” organizers and move them to the facility at Marion, where — along with the other prisoners — they would be subjected to a series of “rehabilitative” techniques (including but not limited to Asklepieion) while under academic study. The historian Alan Gómez writes:
“To combat rising radicalism within prisons, authorities transferred prison activists from around the country to Marion. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, ‘Marion [itself] was an experiment’ as the rehabilitation programs developed at the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency, and Corrections at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale transformed Marion into a penal laboratory without legal and moral consequences” (2007: 68).
During April of 1972, approximately one hundred politically-oriented prisoners — including Akinsiju Ola (also known as Ed Johnson, editor of Black Pride), Imari Obadele (president of the Republik of New Africa), Chicano militant Alberto Mares, raúlsalinas (author of Un Trip through the Mind Jail y Otras Excursions  and raúlsalinas and the Jail Machine ), prison lawyer Lanier “Red” Ramer, and the Black Panther Eddie Sanchez (ibid: 69) — were thus sent from a variety of federal penitentiaries to be housed at Marion. “We are a dumping ground,” said Associate Warden Fred Frey a few years later. “There’s no denying that. We get all the adjustment problems in the federal prison system” (in Southeast Missourian, April 25, 1974: 14).
(From left to right: Imari Obadele, raúl salinas. Lanier Ramer)
The federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois.
While some participants in Asklepieion were enthusiastic about the program (some participants earned counseling degrees while in the program and went on to found similar programs at other prisons), politicized inmates rejected it in the strongest possible terms. In other circumstances, such individuals might have simply left the program, but in the coercive environment of the prison, this proved impossible. A report written by a group of prisoners (primarily Lanier “Red” Ramer; see Salinas, 2006: 143) was smuggled out in 1972, detailing their experiences and providing a useful “resistant” perspective upon the program. While only about twenty-five inmates participated in the program at any one time, participation was sometime voluntary only in a technical sense.
For some men, serving lengthy sentences with no hope of ever getting out and who had simply been warehoused for years, it was only necessary to indicate that participation could lead to an early release to secure volunteers. For others aggressive coercive means were used….H. Adams was given an isolation experience…the Associate Warden of Treatment threatening him with chemical straightjacketing, and the staff psychiatrist telling him that the only way he could secure his release was by joining his group of prisoners….Case managers would consistently tell people approaching a parole hearing date that since they had no record of participation in the experimental group, it was going to be hard to make a favorable recommendation on the parole board (in Menzel, 1974: 47).
Following Synanon in calling the technique “brainwashing,” the group offered the following description of the practices within the program:
“[I]f it is felt by the staff and prisoner group that he is a vulnerable subject, he is moved into a new living situation, where he will be surrounded by members of the group at all times and where the environment in this area of the prison is programmed to reinforce desired attitudes and behavior.
In these new living conditions, group pressures are intensified. His emotional, behavioral, and psychic characteristics are studied by the staff and the prisoner paraprofessionals to detect vulnerable points of entry to stage attack-sessions around. During these sessions, on a progressively intensified basis, he is shouted at, his fears played on, his sensitivities ridiculed, and concentrated efforts made to make him feel guilty for real or imagined characteristics of conduct. He is introduced to bouts of sleeplessness and contact sessions. Every effort is made to heighten his suggestibility and weaken his character structure so that his emotional responses and thought flow will be brought under group and staff control as totally as possible.
…Everything of possible significance that he says, does or shows that he feels is reported back to staff officials on the program; who in turn use this material to devise and suggest specific measures geared to his personal susceptibilities for more advanced prisoners to use on him in subsequent sessions.
…To prove to the individual that this new state of being is a “winning” one, the reborn individual is given a variety of positive reinforcements from his environment at this point. These can take the form of allowing him to move into the somewhat plush quarters reserved for the elite among this group. Here a dozen men have to themselves the same amount of living space that sixtyfour (64) persons in the lower-class populace inhabit. This living space allows him to have (or have access to) stereo-sound equipment, tape recorders, a typewriter, a personal library, access to any publication from the free world, access to community persons in the forms of being allowed to have a local woman or other friends in his visiting list (idem).”
Reflecting on information he had concerning the program, the former Black Panther (and Marion inmate) Eddie Griffin offered a parallel set of recollections:
“In ‘game sessions’ members of the group accuse a person of playing games, not being truthful with the group, lying, and so forth, or the person is accused of some misdeed or shortcoming. Before he is allowed a chance to explain (which is considered only as more lying), he is relentlessly barraged by dirty name calling until he confesses or ‘owns up’ to his shortcomings. He is then accused of making the group go through a lot of trouble in having to pry the truth out of him. So, for this crime, he is forced to apologize.
‘Marathons’ are all night versions of literally the same, except that they include local community people who come into the prison to be ‘trained’ in the techniques. After so many hours of being verbally attacked and denied sleep, a person ‘owns up’ to anything and accepts everything he is told. After being humiliated, he is encouraged to cry. The group then shows its compassion by hugging him and telling him that they love him.
These techniques exploit the basic weaknesses in human (aggregative) nature, especially those weakness produced by an alienating society, i.e. the need to be loved, accepted by other people, and the need to be free” (1993: 5).
Groder — “widely regarded as one of the brainier and more enlightened members of the federal prison establishment” (Holden, 1974: 424) — described the attack therapy sessions as follows:
“Eight of them walked into the room and sat down — and I proceeded to rip them off, one after the other. I just shit all over them about all the things that had come to my attention that were so obvious to me about the trickiness, the lies, the misrepresentations, their attempts to get negative strokes by playing Kick Me, their inane dedication to stupidity, their tremendous fear of breaking any rules of the so-called ‘convict code,’ while at the same time being busily engaged in breaking them and covering up the fact — just the whole ball of dirty wax (idem).
Martin Groder, founder of Asklepieion. Groder later wrote Winning at Love: the Alpha Males Guide to Success (with Pat Webster, 2009) in which he briefly discusses the Asklepieion program and also identifies himself as a “total fucking asshole… translation: high-functioning, arrogant, grandiose, leadership-type male” (2009: x). In the same book, he also refers to himself as “an alpha” (ibid: back cover). In interviews, friends suggested that such self-descriptions were meant to humorously gesture toward problematic qualities he recognized and worked hard to address, noting his “trustworthy” and “impeccably honest” manner that was nevertheless sometimes “abrasive.” Groder passed away in 2007.
Despite this, the style of attack therapy practiced at Asklepieion was purportedly “less ‘violent’” than at Synanon” (Jones: 1979: 145).
In interviewing Groder, Constance Holden describes the views he held on the goals of rehabilitation:
“The purpose of all these schemes is to help inmates develop self-esteem, resourcefulness, and skills that will enable them to find rewarding and socially acceptable employment and get established in a stable interpersonal setting, or, as Groder puts it, “a job and a woman” (Holden, 1974: 424).
The requirement for “a woman” and not a man was not a mere figure of speech. In 1975 testimony in front of Congress, Groder very un-self-consciously notes that “The only people routinely excluded from the program were notorious informants, flagrant homosexuals and members of organized crime” (93rd Congress, 1975: 37). This quick gloss — “a job and a woman” — serves to underscore the highly normalizing project that Asklepieion (like other TCs) was engaged in.
According to the original prisoners’ report, part of the Asklepieion program further involved the explicit development of a political orientation toward society accepting of its basic institutional structures and authorities:
“It is also driven into him that society, in the guise of the authorities, is looking out for his best interests and will help if he will only permit it to do so. Help him be ‘reborn’ as a highly improbable ‘winner in the game of life,’ is the way this comes across in the group’s jargon” (in Mitford, 1971: 135).
Success in Asklepieion was thus directly linked to an implicit political agenda that ran contrary to the strongly held views of the revolutionary prisoners being “rehabilitated.” Given all this, Asklepieion seemed to them to represent something of a worst-case scenario in terms of the possibilities of therapeutic communities, forcibly turning the full powers of the authoritarian therapeutic community against political prisoners in an effort to subdue and limit their ability to resist.
Asklepieion was nevertheless chosen as a model and duplicated in approximately ten different state projects around the country (Lipton, 1998: 220; five other hierarchical TCs had previously been created in various prisons, but none had been duplicated prior to Asklepieion; Wallace et al, 1990: 23). Funded in part by monies made available by the LEAA (Lipton, 1998: 220) — and with the strong support of the psychologist Maxwell Jones (who had popularized the earlier democratic TCs) — Asklepieion followed Synanon’s approach in seeking to use therapeutic communities to rehabilitate the all manner of inmates within the prison and not just those who were identified as drug users.
Martin Groder had even larger plans in addition to spreading Asklepieions across the US prison system. Groder was chosen to run a new prison at Butner, North Carolina, as a site for experimentation into various rehabilitative techniques. Groder’s idea was to test various rehabilitative approach within the facility and to disseminate those which proved efficacious. However, political pushback against the abusive nature of many of these programs created difficulties which ultimately proved too great for Groder to overcome. As the designated warden of the Bureau of Prisons’ new rehabilitative correctional facility, Groder was called upon to testify at congressional hearings concerning Project START. As a result of the fallout from Project START and the idea of experimenting on inmates, Groder was eventually removed as warden and the facility instead adopted the more politically palatable Morris Model (based on his book The Future of Imprisonment ). The “Morris Model” called for the implementation of counseling and a lenient custodial regime, with all participation in rehabilitative programs to be undertaken only on a voluntary basis that did not alter one’s sentence (from FBP, 2010-11: 7).
As for the Asklepieions, abuses within the programs — above and beyond the arguably abusive nature of the treatment itself — soon became a problem, and several state-run Asklepieions were forced to close. Opton reports that shortly after an Asklepieion-style program was initiated at the California Institution for Women, for example, a politically radical prisoner was “held on the floor by a guard while another prisoner beat her, fracturing several facial bones” during the course of an all-night “marathon” attack session (1974: 631). Four other programs in Arkansas were discontinued after two program staff members were arrested for drug and alcohol violations (Lipton, 1998: 220-1). While the prison environment itself creates enormous possibilities for abuses such as these to occur, it could also be argued that Groder — like Dederich — did not create sufficient institutional safeguards to ensure that either the original Asklepieion or the Asklepieions that followed could counter these tendencies.
While the original Asklepieion at Marion continued until 1978, other Asklepieion programs lasted until 1981 when the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency resulted in their elimination due to “budgetary” concerns (indicating an erosion of already weak support for rehabilitation efforts than when the programs were initiated). The demise of Asklepieion signaled the end of efforts within the U.S. to use therapeutic communities to rehabilitate the general population of prisoners. While fewer and fewer efforts were made to “rehabilitate” prisoners as a group, the federal government and various state projects began to slowly offer increasing support for the treatment of drug users specifically. The federal government began to promote these efforts through programs such as Project REFORM (operating from 1987 to 1991) and Project RECOVERY (which operated from 1991-1992). These programs offered technical assistance to states in establishing prison-based drug treatment programs (mostly based on the hierarchical therapeutic community model) whose aim was to reduce criminality through a reduction in drug use (see Lipton, 1998). Whereas Asklepieion operated within the highest security facility within the federal prison system and might be directed toward any inmate, the new programs focused attention only on low risk drug offenders. The pattern of offering services only to “non, non, nons” (those convicted only of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenses), remains in place today, and has sharply defined the terrain of contemporary criminal justice reform (Gottschalk, 2015).
Note: I would like to thank the individuals who were willing to be interviewed in relation to Asklepieion, whether as friends of Martin Groder or as persons who lived at Marion. I would also like to thank Edward Opton and Professor Alan Gómez of Arizona State University, both of whom offered help in providing some otherwise impossible to find documents.
For more information on Synanon, see The Recovery Revolution by Claire Clark (2017) and chapter 3 of Enforcing Freedom (Kaye, 2019).
Alternatively, some sources suggest the acronym stood for “Drug Addicts Treated On Probation.”
There is some evidence that Dederich modeled parts of Synanon upon media reports of Chinese “brainwashing” during the Korean War that were circulating at the time. See Enforcing Freedom, pp. 244-7.
Though I eventually managed to obtain a complete copy of the UN letter thanks to the help of Edward Opton, the most complete publicly available version of the letter is presented in Menzel (1974). Menzel’s essay is included in a journal entitled The Campaigner, itself published by the Lyndon LaRouche led National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) at a time when LaRouche’s movement was still left-wing. Ironically, LaRouche’s NCLC began to use similar processes of attack therapy and what he termed “ego stripping” a year prior to the publication of this article, in 1973, seeking to “break CIA brainwashing” through the technique. LaRouche’s ideas regarding attack therapy were presented in The Campaigner’s “Beyond Psychoanalysis” (BP) issue (authored under LaRouche’s pseudonym, Lyn Marcus; September 1973). According to <www.laroucheplanet.info> (a website established by ex-members of LaRouche’s organization), the introduction of BP practices marked the turn of the NCLC into a “political cult with LaRouche as its unchallenged new ‘philospher-king” (from <http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/downloads/Appendix_BP_NEWTON.pdf>).The Weather Underground likewise engaged in intensive “criticism/selfcriticism” sessions in which the bourgeois and individualist proclivities of members — such as a desire to practice monogamy — would be sharply attacked by the rest of the group (see, e.g., Wilkerson, 2007: 266-82). Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers also introduced attack therapy practices into the UFW, directly adopting “the Game” through his contact with Synanon’s Check Dederich. The practice was viewed with dismay by many within the organization, and seems to have caused many organizers to leave the union (Shaw, 2008: 249-67; see also San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 19, 1984; Village Voice, Aug. 21, 1984; LA Times, Jan. 10, 2006). The Oakland chapter of the Black Panthers also briefly participated in “the Game,” as did (ironically) the Oakland Police Department (Olin, 1980: 172).
In notes from an interview with Groder conducted in August 1975, the lawyer Edward Opton recounts Groder’s explanation concerning the prisoners’ letter to the UN. The notes read: Genesis of UN petition — Kamer + Long were pissed off that some people went into the program that they wanted not to, and so they tried to find a way to sabotage it. They came up with brainwashing and then went to the library to see what they could dig up. One of the co-authors (Long) subsequently went through the program and now teaches it (document on file with author). I have not attempted to verify Groder’s claim, though it is notable that raúlsalinas cites the prison lawyer Lanier Ramer as the primary author of the UN document, (mentioning neither Kamer nor Long). While I have attempted to make available all information I have been able to gather about Asklepieion, any reader will necessarily have to assess the validity of the accounts. A second factual difference pertains to the claim that at least some participants in the Asklepieion program were coerced by guards to join (an issue Groder does not directly address). Most of the differences in the accounts, in any event, are not factual in nature, but merely different perspectives on the same activities. It should also be noted that Griffin’s critiques of the program (below), were written years after the program was ended, and thus cannot be seen as an attempt to “sabotage” the long defunct project. Though Groder’s comments dismiss this possibility, the fact is that some people simply disapproved of Asklepieion in the strongest possible terms, even as some others found it valuable.
Though he does not specify, Groder’s reasons likely did not pertain to an extreme bigotry against lesbian and gay persons (close friends and family members of Groder say that he was not homophobic and that he worked well with lesbian and gay clients in his later private practice [interviews August and September, 2010]). Instead, a more subtle but still highly prejudicial expression of concern for order within the program seems to have been at issue: homosexual men were at times the object of rivalries among other “straight” men within the prison system, and were often blamed for any fights or deaths that resulted from these jealousies. In a book written at the end of his life, Groder listed the rules governing Asklepieion, including one specifying “No sex with others.” He writes: “Consensual sex within prison is unusual, and even if one of his volunteers had engaged in consensual sex, a jealous partner may come after him, so it is dangerous” (Groder and Webster, 2009: 172). It thus seems that it was this “managerial” concern for order that links “flagrant homosexuals” with other “socially disruptive” men such as “notorious informants” and members of organized crime. At the same time, the idea of blaming the gay-identified inmate in such an instance — despite the program’s philosophy in forcing prisoners to “take responsibility for their own actions” — seems somewhat contradictory, at the least. At a minimum, the ban against homosexual men must be considered a prejudicial decision that placed the alleged needs of straight-identified prisoners over the needs of gay-identified inmates. The end result, in which “flagrant homosexuals” were simply excluded from the program, shows how one must minimally qualify as a “real man” before there was any chance that rehabilitation could turn one from a “loser” into a “winner”; “flagrant homosexuals” were effectively placed apart from the category of “loser,” which was presumptively straight. In this regard, it is interesting to note that none of the members of Congress hearing Groder’s testimony questioned or challenged him about this exclusion in any way.
The inclusion of the word flagrant is interesting to ponder in this context. It seems unlikely that any overtly gay-identified men, whether “flagrant” or not, could have successfully participated in the program. Given the program’s intensely inquisitorial nature, any sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” solution seems unlikely. In the context of Asklepieion, it is therefore likely that all men identified as “homosexuals” would necessarily be excluded. At the same time, not all same-sex sexual contact carries idenficatory consequences with it (e.g. Kunzel, 2008), thus men whose “indiscretions” remained socially invisible might well have been able to identify and be identified as straight within the program.
I use the term “political prisoner” not because all of their crimes were necessarily “political” — some were arrested for armed robbery, for example — but because the punishment they received was directly related to their political activism (often, it seems, for activism conducted while within prison).
Though Jones felt that the Synanon method was too harsh (trying but failing to convince Dederich to alter the program during their single personal encounter; Vandevelde et al, 2004: 71-2), he nevertheless suggested that “the Asklepieion method may have advantages for certain ‘hardened’ clients and the model I espouse may suit better the more sensitive, short-term inmates” (Jones, 1980: 39; in Vandevelde et al, 2004: 72). Furthermore, Jones wrote on several occasions about possibilities of integrating the two TC traditions (Jones, 1979, 1984a, 1984b)., commenting that “It is evident that the programmatic TC [aka the hierarchical TC] does an infinitely better job for someone who is addicted to drugs that any democratic TC could achieve” (Jones, 1984a: 25; in Vandevelde et al, 2004: 73). At the same time, it does not seem that Jones’ support was unequivocal, warning that: “The drug-free therapeutic communities and the Asklepieion model in prison, use the power of the peer group in a way that to many people seems more persuasive and even threatening than therapeutic” (1979: 145; in Vandevelde et al, 2004: 72). It thus appears he felt some degree of synthesis was required, but seemingly on terms favoring the democratic model over the hierarchical one.
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