Former members of Scientology’s Sea Organization remember the movement’s harsh punishment programme, the Rehabilitation Project Force with particular horror.
Life in the Sea Organization, which was set up by Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard in 1967, was meant to be tough.
Former members have described a harsh regime, in which senior officers were trained to bawl out their subordinates like drill sergeants on a parade ground, and where a culture of bullying was rife.
But the most feared aspect of life in Scientology’s Sea Organization is its punishment programme: the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). More than one former inmate has described it as Scientology’s gulag.
Former Sea Org member Homer Schomer spent three months in the RPF in the 1970s, on board one of Scientology’s ships, the Apollo. “Life in the RPF was despicable and degrading,” he declared in a March 16, 1986 affidavit.
“You lost all sense of self-esteem, freedom and human dignity. It was a world unto itself and you felt like a leper,” he added.
RPF inmates could not speak unless spoken to and had to run everywhere, he said: living conditions were “damp, cold” and infested with cockroaches. They ate the food left over from the meals of the regular crew.
“Members of the RPF were forced to wear black boiler suits. We slept very little everyday and awoke each morning to swab the decks,” he added. “We were allowed 30 seconds to shower and had to be up and ready in the morning within 15 minutes.”
But Scientology’s leadership insists that criticism of the RPF is based on a misunderstanding – or a distortion – of its role. They say it is about rehabilitating wayward members.
“Sea Organization staff who would otherwise be subject to dismissal for serious and/or continuous ecclesiastical violations are offered a second chance through the RPF,” says a statement in the ‘Misconceptions about Scientology’ part of its website.
“Personnel ‘burn out’ is not new to organizations, but the concept of complete rehabilitation is,” the statement adds.
Those on the RPF enjoy study and religious counselling to address any personal difficulties they might have, says the statement. They work only eight hours a day improving facilities at their place of work, developing a sense of teamwork among the participants, it adds.
“The work allows the individual to regain confidence in himself and the pride of accomplishment.”
Although some critics of the program had “tried to intentionally misinterpret it”, the statement continues, they could not speak from personal experience.
“Those who know – graduates of the RPF program – attest to its enormous personal benefit, and their appreciation for being able to avail themselves of redemption as opposed to dismissal.”
But some graduates of the program retain bitter memories of their experience.
In all, Bruce Hines spent six years on the program, between 1995 and 2001: first at the Hemet base and then at the nearby “Happy Valley” ranch in the desert of southern California.
“There is no question that we were in confinement,” he said. “There is also no question that the program was designed to make us into obedient, unquestioning workers for the Sea Org.”
And yet he at first agreed to do the RPF because at the time he was, as he put it, a true believer. “I believed that Scientology offered the only road to salvation for all people and that it was the only thing in the world that could save mankind from a horrible demise.”
Once on the programme however, there was little chance of quitting. “From that point on I was under close, full-time supervision. I had to surrender my passport and my driver’s license.”
At the Hemet base, they were kept in a special compound fenced off from the other staff, he recalled.
“The area where we slept, ate, showered, and studied was surrounded by a fence at least six feet tall, which had motion sensors on it. The main security guard booth would be alerted if anyone touched the fence.”
He and a group of eight to 10 others were put to work doing manual labour, uprooting bushes and weeds and hauling rocks that weighed up to 200 pounds by hand or by wheelbarrow.
“Frequently, I encountered rattlesnakes, tarantulas and Black Widow spiders,” he recalled. “On one occasion a colleague on the program just missed being bitten by a rattlesnake.”
At night they slept in trailers, one for the men and one for the women, in triple-decker bug-infested bunk beds.
“All night long there was a night watch, or guard, who was a member of the base security force.”
When one night he tried to sneak out of the compound he was quickly intercepted and returned to quarters. And Hines witnessed two other escape attempts by a colleague, Maureen Bolstad.
The first time, one of the guards rugby-tackled her as she tried to run off. On another occasion, guards used a dog to track her down after she slipped away early one morning.
Bolstad herself recalls: “There were three – or maybe four – occasions where I was physically tackled when trying to leave.”
One time, in December 1997, she was frustrated at being confined to a room she got into a scuffle with one of the guards.
“He and I got into a fight and my hand was broken and I had several bruises on my rib cage because he had kept shoving me into these bookcases,” she recalled. She ended up with her arm in a cast.
“I actually did take a swing at him but I think he over-reacted, smashing my hand on the table like that."
It is hard to imagine her posing a physical threat to anyone. Bolstad is only 5’6” (barely 1.68 metres) and during her time on the RPF she was under-weight. Even now, a healthy 125 lbs, she is no heavyweight.
“No one had a car. No one had a radio,” Hines recalled. “No one could receive any magazines or newspapers. No one had a television. No one had a mobile phone. Such things were strictly forbidden,” he recalled.
On the RPF, you worked eight hours a day, seven days a week before any counselling, he said. And what Scientology described as therapy, Hines characterised as relentless pressure to admit that whatever you thought was wrong with Scientology or the leadership was in fact your fault.
“It is drilled into a person over and over that if they expressed some disagreement with Scientology or its main people or its organizations or their actions, then that person must have seriously sinned and have evil purposes,” he said.
One Scientology dictionary defines evil purpose as: "a definite obsessive desire to destroy."
He felt under such pressure during these sessions he even made up imaginary sins to satisfy his questioners, he said. Looking back today however, he saw it differently. “This surely sounds like mind control to me.”
Professor Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta, in Canada, would agree. He published a detailed study on the RPF in 1997, updating it in 2000.
One of Scientology’s most outspoken critics in the academic community, Kent’s study concluded that the RPF was about breaking people, physically and mentally, so they would conform.
He was so concerned about the stories of abuse he uncovered that he wrote to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“The gist of the reply I got was, ‘Look it would take people who just came out of that programme to come to us and complain about what had happened to them.’”
In the early years of its creation – in the Hubbard era – you might expect to spend only a few months in the RPF. Since Miscavige took over, say former members, some people have been stuck there for years.
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