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On August 2, 1965, William Benitez, an inmate at Arizona State Prison jumped down from his double bunk in the old cellblock where he was housed and made the following notation on his wall calendar: “Decision to set up Narcotic Foundation.” He also circled the 18th of the same month, his target date to approach prison officials to request permission to set up a drug rehabilitation programme inside the prison walls.
Officials denied permission for the following six months. Mr. Benitez’s request to start a programme consisting of twenty convicted drug addicts caused concern to officials who feared such a programme might pose a security problem (such programmes were rare in prisons during that decade). Officials had little reason to believe that the request of a habitual drug addict and repeatedly convicted felon would result in the worlds biggest rehabilitation programme.
Mr. Benitez persisted and finally assured officials the programme was needed and would not pose a threat to the safe and orderly operation of the prison. After being allowed to start the programme on a trial basis, he founded the NARCONON programme (NARCOtics-NONe) on February 19, 1966.
Today, the Narconon programme has spread from that one programme in Arizona State Prison to include community programmes in many states and countries such as Denmark, Italy, Holland, Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Colombia, Switzerland, New Zealand, South Africa, Ghana, the United Kingdom, Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Argentina and Brazil.
Until he died from a sudden illness in 1999, Mr. Benitez was a Hearing Officer with the Arizona Department of Corrections, the same system which once kept him under lock and key. Below, he tells his own story:
"I started smoking pot in 1947, when I was thirteen. Then I went on to injecting opium and other drugs when I was about fifteen. I started to get into trouble and was arrested for various crimes, so I decided to join the Marines to see if I could get away from drugs. Instead, I ended up getting arrested on drug charges during the Korean conflict, received a military court martial and was discharged as undesirable.
In the following years, I kept trying to stay away from drugs. Sometimes I could stay clean for a short while, then I would go right back on the needle again. I carried the monkey for about eighteen years, and it cost me thirteen calendar years of being locked up. In addition to doing time in the Marines, I did a Federal prison term and also was convicted three times in Arizona state courts.
On my last trip to prison, I pled guilty on December 22, 1964 to possession of narcotics. Because I was being sentenced as a habitual offender, the sentence called for a mandatory fifteen years, and up to life. I remember speaking to one court official and telling him how I was still going to leave drugs alone and maybe even start a drug programme. I remember his words so well: “The best thing to do with guys like you, after the first time, is take you behind a building and do you and everyone else a favour and put you out of your misery.”
My attorney arranged for me to go before the judge just before Christmas, feeling that the spirit of the holiday might be in my favour. It may have worked. I made my plea to the judge telling him of all the attempts I had made over the years to stop using drugs, such as joining the Marines, committing myself to hospitals for psychiatric care and therapy on several occasions, isolating myself in mining towns in a personal attempt to kick the habit, and even how two marriages had not helped me straighten up. I told him that in spite of all those failures, I was still going to make it and was going to find a solution to my problem, that I had not yet quit. He must have believed there was still a spark of hope for me. He sentenced me to the mandatory fifteen years, but instead of running it to life, he made the term fifteen to sixteen years.
After arriving at prison, a friend of mine gave me some reading material to keep me occupied while I was in the Orientation Cellblock pending transfer to general population. Among the material was an old, tattered book, Fundamentals of Thought, by L. Ron Hubbard. I had heard of his writings when I previously served a ten-year sentence at Arizona State Prison, but had never read them. I had always been an avid reader of books dealing with human behaviour. Yet, this small book impressed me more than anything else I had ever read before. I read it over and over and then purchased additional books by Mr. Hubbard and studied them very carefully during the following year, even into the late hours of the night in my cell.
The material identified human abilities and their development. I was amazed I had never run across such workability within a multitude of other works I had studied over the years. I’m not a gullible person when it comes to accepting new or different approaches or ideas. If they work, fine. Otherwise, throw them out the window. They either work or they don’t. I was tired of experimenting with so many ideas and philosophies, many having credence only because some “authority” had written them.
What impressed me the most about [Hubbard’s] materials was that they concentrated not only on identifying abilities, but also on methods (practical exercises) by which to develop them. I realised that drug addiction was nothing more than a “disability,” resulting when a person ceases to use abilities essential to constructive survival.
I found that if a person rehabilitated and applied certain abilities, that person could persevere toward goals set, confront life, isolate problems and resolve them, communicate with life, be responsible and set ethical standards, and function within the band of certainty.
I finally realised I had developed the essential abilities needed to overcome my drug problem. Feeling myself on safe ground, I knew I had to make this technology available to other addicts in the prison. I thought back over the years of all the junkies I had shot up with, and remembered their most treasured conversation, “One of these days I’m going to quit.” I had found the means and was going to share it with them. That’s when I made the decision real by writing it down on my calendar page in my cell.
So effective was the technology I had learned, that I experienced a freedom long lost to me. The tall prison walls became only temporary barriers. I realised that my 6x8 foot cell was all that I needed as a command post. Even back then, I knew Narconon would reach international proportions, and even wrote an article on it in 1967, “The Purpose of Narconon.”
The programme was sanctioned by the warden, and it soon began to expand from its original twenty members. I then started to get requests from non-addict inmates who wanted to get into Narconon. They told me they were impressed with what Narconon students had told them about the programme and what the technology taught. I approached the Administration for permission to include non-addicts. At first it resisted, saying that non-addict members didn’t need the services of Narconon, and that they might disrupt the programme.
I demonstrated to officials that any person, inmate or otherwise, could benefit from Narconon because its attention was on increasing abilities, that we had an ethics mechanism built into the programme, and that the responsibility and involvement required of a member would soon dissuade anyone not serious about improvement. I convinced the prison officials. The programme met its expectations so well that seven months after the beginning of Narconon, I was asked to start another programme for young offenders housed in the annex outside the prison walls.
I then wrote to Mr. Hubbard about Narconon. He and his organizations supported our programme by donating books, tapes and course materials. We received hundreds of letters from throughout the world validating our efforts to make drug addiction and criminal or illegal behaviour a thing of the past in our lives."
Shortly after founding the Narconon programme, William Benitez researched his court conviction and discovered he had been tried under the wrong statute and was sentenced in excess of that prescribed by law. Upon return to court, Mr. Benitez was advised that he could conceivably be re-sentenced to time served and be released based on his eighteen months already served because of the miscarriage of justice.
The Narconon programme was only a few months old at that time and Mr. Benitez believed the programme would collapse if he didn’t return to complete it. Rather than petitioning for his immediate release, he requested a smaller sentence which would allow him to fully implement Narconon programme development. The Court re-sentenced him to four to six years, leaving him sixteen months to serve. Mr. Benitez returned to prison and developed the programme to its full capacity. As he states, “It was the best, but toughest decision I ever made in my life. I would have loved to walk away from that court a free man.”
The Narconon programme subsequently came to the attention of the public when reporters from the Arizona Daily Star secured permission from the warden to interview the inmate who requested to be returned to the walls. The Star printed a two-part series on the Narconon programme in August 1966. TV Channel 10 News from Phoenix also took its cameras to the prison to interview Mr. Benitez and members of the Narconon programme and to observe its functions.
Mr. Benitez completed his prison term and was released in October 1967. He moved to California to expand the Narconon organization and to make it available to persons in need. Mr. Hubbard and his organizations supported the effort, resulting in worldwide expansion.
Years later, Mr. Benitez returned to Arizona and was hired as Inmate Liaison by former Arizona Department of Corrections Director, Ellis McDougall, in 1981. Until his death in 1999, he served as a Hearing Officer on inmate complaints for the Corrections Director at Central Headquarters.
The video below has more about the history of the Narconon drug rehab programme.
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