ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Last November, in a cedar sauna cranked up to 160 degrees, a crowd of sweaty men read books and chatted amid mariachi music. They emerged to nibble from a tray of raw vegetables or take shots of olive oil.
This is not a spa. This is Second Chance, one of the country's most unusual alternatives to the nation's prison systems. Founded by a Scientologist and former real-estate developer -- and funded partly by federal tax dollars -- Second Chance is a treatment program for nonviolent prisoners with substance-abuse problems.
It is based on principles of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology religion, who argued that toxins from drugs and pesticides accumulate in the body's fatty tissues, making it difficult for addicts to kick their habit. Saunas and vitamins are intended to purge these residues. Facing few options for successful long-term ways to treat criminal defendants with serious drug problems, 24 of New Mexico's 84 district judges have sentenced more than 50 prisoners to terms at Second Chance.
Even before it opened its doors to inmates last September, Second Chance and its unconventional methods had ignited a controversy in New Mexico's legal community. At the center of the debate are two former friends and sometime adversaries. William Lang, chief district judge in the area that includes Albuquerque, doesn't want his colleagues to sentence inmates to Second Chance. On the other side is Judge Lang's predecessor, W. John Brennan, who was hired by Second Chance to convince judges to do just that.
"There's a dire need for a secure residential facility for defendants with substance-abuse problems," says District Judge Ross Sanchez. He has sent three inmates to Second Chance, where the minimum stay is six months.
But Judge Lang says he is "highly suspicious" of the program. "If it is connected to Scientology, just say so," he says. Second Chance officials and a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology say there are no ties.
For most of his 25-year career, Mr. Brennan was a highly respected member of the legal community. He and Judge Lang were close; Mr. Brennan presided over Judge Lang's wedding 18 years ago. But the men had a falling out in 2002, when Judge Lang unsuccessfully attempted to gather enough votes from judges to unseat Judge Brennan.
Then, late one night in May 2004, Judge Brennan was arrested. Within four months he had resigned as judge and pleaded guilty to drunk driving and cocaine possession. He was sentenced to a year's probation. Judge Lang assumed Mr. Brennan's post as chief judge of New Mexico's Second Judicial District.
Now a consultant for Second Chance, Mr. Brennan believes that Judge Lang is cool toward the program because of his personal grudges. "I think it has to do with me," says Mr. Brennan, who lobbies judges to send convicts to Second Chance. "I don't think it has to do with the program." He adds Judge Lang's own battle with alcoholism makes him skeptical of unorthodox treatment programs.
Judge Lang, who attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, says personal grudges have nothing to do with his skepticism about Second Chance. Judge Lang says he believes funding for treatment should go to existing programs that have a track record.
Now the $350,000 in federal funds granted to Second Chance is running out. Last month Mr. Brennan appeared with one state representative before New Mexico's Legislative Finance Committee and asked for $3.6 million for the program.
Second Chance is the brainchild of Rick Pendery, a former real-estate developer who says he has spent decades studying world religions with a focus on the writings of Mr. Hubbard.
In 1995 Mr. Pendery opened the first Second Chance program in Ensenada, Mexico, using his own money and funds from the Mexican government. His first attempts to open a program in the U.S. failed.
Then in 2002, Mr. Pendery gave a presentation on Second Chance to a conference of women legislators in San Diego and took about 60 of them to Ensenada. Anna Crook, a Republican state legislator from New Mexico, came away impressed, she says.
Ms. Crook asked New Mexico's Department of Corrections to work with Second Chance to establish a pilot project. The department declined because Second Chance isn't a "good fit," according to a spokeswoman. Undeterred, Ms. Crook says she then went to Washington and secured $350,000 for Second Chance from the 2004 appropriations bill.
With federal funds approved, Mr. Pendery says the "overwhelming majority" of the remaining $300,000 needed to start Second Chance came from businessman Randall Suggs, a Scientologist who owns a stake in the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. The state of New Mexico later allocated $300,000. Mr. Suggs didn't return phone calls.
Second Chance's next challenge was to persuade judges to send addicts convicted of either misdemeanors or felonies to the program. In September 2005, Mr. Pendery approached Mr. Brennan, who had recently returned from two months of rehabilitation at the Betty Ford Center. Mr. Brennan wanted to get back into the criminal-justice field, but says he initially wasn't sure what Scientology was. After trying some of the Second Chance treatments himself, Mr. Brennan was sold and signed on.
"In the back of my mind I thought five years down the line, if this works, I'll have some sort of public redemption," he says.
In August 2006, Mr. Brennan was scheduled to make a presentation about Second Chance to a panel of New Mexico criminal judges. Judge Lang made his opposition clear. "I suggested it would probably not be a good idea" for Mr. Brennan to give the presentation, says Mr. Lang. "The whole pall that (the arrest) cast over the court, and the great cloud of suspicion, had not completely lifted."
Ultimately, Mr. Brennan didn't make the presentation. He says he was told Judge Lang didn't want him entering the courthouse, an account Judge Lang disputes.
Last summer, Judge Lang cautioned many of New Mexico's district judges and Kari Brandenburg, district attorney for the Second Judicial District, about the program, he says. Ms. Brandenburg argues any kind of treatment -- however unusual -- is better than no treatment at all. "We need to have an open mind," she says. "If it doesn't work we'll get rid of it."
The center received its first inmate in September. Currently, about half of the inmates who are qualified to go to Second Chance ultimately go to the program, Mr. Brennan says.
Still, some judges are balking. "I'm not ordering or sentencing anybody to that program at this time," said Judge Denise Barela Shepherd at a Nov. 8 hearing where she sentenced a probation violator to prison instead. In an interview, Ms. Shepherd said there isn't enough evidence for her to conclude the program works.
Mr. Hubbard's principles have been taken to prisons before. For many years a program called Criminon, also based on Mr. Hubbard's teachings, has operated drug-intervention programs in jails. But Second Chance represents the first time in the U.S. that an incarceration facility has been designed around Mr. Hubbard's methods, which involve not just behavioral treatments but saunas and specific diets as well.
Located on a tumbleweed-strewn patch of desert, Second Chance's cement structure is ringed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Inside, linoleum hallways give way to an open dormitory. A nearby room houses the sauna, which is used by every inmate for a four-week period, five hours a day.
Inmates eat organic beef. They choose from an array of vitamins to ingest, including potassium pills if they're feeling dizzy, or bioplasma pills to offset salt depletion. Inmates addicted to heroin can get a massage, called a "nerve assist," from another inmate. Scientologists believe nerve assists help drugs depart the body.
In addition to saunas and specific diets, Second Chance focuses on helping inmates communicate more effectively, on the belief that better communication skills will reduce offenders' need to act out in negative ways.
One recent morning, Vincent Gutierrez, 29 years old, who has been in and out of jail for drug use since age 13, sat with a group of other inmates working on a series of communication drills that are also based on techniques developed by Mr. Hubbard.
One drill, called bull-baiting, is designed to help participants learn how to tolerate verbal assaults. Mr. Gutierrez stared into the eyes of another inmate stationed three feet away. As his partner yelled scripted statements at him like "You look like a frog!" Mr. Gutierrez was supposed to remain impassive. Another drill has inmates sit opposite each other, look each other in the eye and read lines from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
Mr. Gutierrez says the drills have helped him "figure it out the positive way instead of using my knuckles."
Mr. Pendery says that by addressing the root causes of drug abuse, his program reduces the number of inmates who return to jail after being released. He says a study shows that the Second Chance program in Ensenada resulted in a drop in recidivism rates to 10 percent from 83 percent over a six-year period. The Mexico program recently closed its doors after losing its government funding, he says.
Advocates say Second Chance also saves money because it doesn't require maximum-security guards and doesn't administer pharmaceutical drugs. It costs about $55 a day for one inmate in the Second Chance program, compared with about $70 a day for an inmate at the county jail.
Bill Miller, an addiction expert and a retired professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, reviewed Second Chance at the request of the city of Albuquerque. "There's a lot of use of sauna with the idea that you sweat out toxins in the system. I don't know of any scientific basis for that," he says. "It wasn't clear to me what sort of scientific basis there was even for the conception of the program to begin with."
Does it work? "Basically we just don't know," he says.