Steve Hall was a member of the Church of Scientology from 1987 to 2004, and was a marketing staffer in Scientology’s international management headquarters in Gilman Hot Springs, near Hemet, California. He wrote the church’s advertising tagline, “Know yourself, know life.”
He spent years scripting speeches for Scientology leader David Miscavige and shooting videos for its conventions. He did it all as a volunteer, in return for room and board and a small amount of cash.
While famous Scientologists who donate their money to the church, like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, get to live their own lives at home, Scientologists who volunteer their labor instead can find themselves posted full-time at the Gilman Hot Springs HQ, which is an hour’s drive through the desert from Las Vegas.
During his time there, Hall says he occasionally fell out of favor with Miscavige and his lieutenants. It was then that he alleges he discovered Scientology’s dark side: its system of informal “reform” prisons for Scientologists who stray from the path.
Miscavige’s wife, Shelly, is believed to be hidden in a rural forest compound in California, for instance, according to Hall and Janet Reitman, an author of a book on Scientology. Church leader Heber Jentzsch hasn’t been seen since the mid 2000s, according to the Daily Mail. And former Clearwater, Fla., church leader Debbie Cook gave tearful testimony in court that she was held for seven weeks in “The Hole” at a desert compound, where she slept on the floor of a trailer, ate “slop,” and was once forced to stand in a trash can while water was poured over her head. (She settled a lawsuit with the church and is now banned from ever talking about Scientology again, according to the Tampa Bay Times.)
Scientology spokesperson Tommy Davis did not respond to two requests for comment.
Hall alleges he was held in two different Scientology prisons, one at “Gold Base,” the organization’s HQ near Hemet Calif., and another time in the basement and a dorm inside Scientology’s famous blue-painted buildings in Hollywood.
Hall—who is now a freelance web designer—agreed to tell us what being in Scientology prison is like.
BI: Tell us how you ended up being held against your will.
SH: My wife and I had only been there [the church’s HQ] a year. We got there in 1989. She was an ethics officer, basically in charge of correcting people’s ethics. David Miscavige was creating an environment of fear and intimidation by intentionally misapplying the subject of ethics in Scientology. I told her that. She apparently told others what I said, so I got assigned one morning. The executive director/international came into my office [with some other people] and said I had to come with them.
They told me I had to go with them to another building. They brought me into a room and they told me I was going to be assigned to the “Rehabilitation Project Force.” It’s basically, originally, a corrections program designed to avert having to fire people. Let them get fixed up and they can go back to their jobs. But under Miscavige it became a gulag.
I was escorted into a van and we were driven down to Los Angeles. I had $3 in my pocket and I didn’t have a toothbrush, nothing. I was escorted down into the basement of the blue buildings in Hollywood. Down there in the basement is where the RPF is based. I was assigned somebody to watch me, to make sure I didn’t try to take off. I was given some hand-me-down, raggedy-ass clothes to wear and told to get to work.
It’s hard manual labor during the day, and in the evening you had five hours to rehabilitate yourself.
BI: What was the labor?
SH: At the time we were building the Manor Hotel on Franklin Avenue. I did painting at first and later was switched over to carpentry. Everything you do, you’re given a deadline. When are you getting this door painted? Thirty-five minutes. If you weren’t done on time you had to do 20 pushups. You get 10 free minutes a day for personal time. Ten minutes! It’s basically like a chain gang. You’re not allowed to speak to anybody unless they speak to you.
BI: Why didn’t you just leave?
SH: If you took off, they go out to find you. And what would you go out with? You don’t have your money. You don’t have your car keys. What do I do about my wife? That’s the biggest deterrent. I want to see her again. You’re very torn.
BI: What was the food like?
SH: The food was not too bad. The breakfasts were great to tell you the truth in that one location.
BI: Where did you sleep?
SH: We slept in a dorm in one of the buildings. There’d be seven bunks, maybe nine people in a room. In the hallways there would be somebody on watch all night so you couldn’t run off.
People tried to commit suicide. Daniel Zimmatore, a guy that worked for me tried to commit suicide, that’s how he got out. He’s afraid to speak out because all his family will disown him. It’s brutal.
BI: How long were you held in the Hollywood building?
SH: That was 11 months. The only way out is to say how great everything is, you realize the error of your ways. It’s like going up for the parole board. You’ve got to say anything. You can’t say, “Hey this is fucked up, I want to see my wife again, give me back my car keys!”
BI: Was there any violence?
SH: There wasn’t any violence that I saw in the RPF. However if you created trouble then there’s another RPF called the RPF’s RPF, where you get the very worst of the labor. You have too go down into tunnels under the building, some kind of tunnels, like a giant grease trap or something. Rats Alley they called it. No one wanted to go down there. They reserve the most disgusting, horrific work of all for the RPF’s RPF. They get six hours’ sleep a night, max.
I had one friend assigned to it, just ’cause he said he wanted to leave. He was there for two months.
But they don’t physically hit you.
BI: Why do people stay if it’s this bad?
SH: Mostly they want to get that auditing, they want to get that counseling, so they’re loathe to create too much trouble because they’ll be banished.
BI: Where were you held the second time?
SH: I was at the international management center, in a 500-acre compound at Gilman Hot Springs [near Hemet], at an abandoned resort the church purchased in the late 1970s. It was the secret HQ of their international management, Golden Era Productions. In 1990 I was held for 11 months. In 1995 I was held for two months and interrogated every day. And there were numerous times after that.
BI: What did you do this time?
SH: They accused me, said my mother was somehow against the organization, that my mother was hostile. I told them that was ridiculous. Once again my wife snitched on me. She thought the right thing to do was to report. She thought she was doing the right thing. She told her people in that ethics department that I had done something they didn’t like, so I was put under house arrest for two months. I was ordered to disconnect from my mother and father. To cut all ties and never communicate with them ever for the rest of your life in any way.
David Miscavige got on a big kick of having people disconnect from their families. So I had a person from Miscavige’s office ordering me to disconnect from my family. I refused to do it. The practice of disconnection had actually been ended by L. Ron Hubbard in 1968. Miscavige put it back in 1995, or a little before.
BI: What do they ask you when they’re interrogating you?
SH: I was accused of being a plant and a mole for the CIA. They accuse you of all this stuff. Each day I was interrogated for two or three hours. They ran out of questions after two months. Are you a mole? Are you a plant? Stupid, inane stuff like that.
There certainly were a lot of spies and moles and plants in the org in the earlier decades, in the ’50s and ’60s it happened a lot. By the ’90s it was done. All that whole generation of the Cold War had died out and the new guys [at the FBI] didn’t care.
They finally found nothing I was doing was wrong, the whole thing was a mistake, and they acknowledged that, and I was allowed to go home and sleep again in my own bed, in an apartment building in Hemet, Calif., Kirby Gardens. I lived in room 102.
BI: Did you blame your wife for reporting you?
SH: I don’t really remember. I know I was angry. I forced an apology out of her, I’m sure. I think she apologized. Her intentions—she thought she was helping.
BI: Where did they make you sleep during that detention?
SH: I was sleeping in an old trailer. That trailer was by the swamp at Gold Base in Gilman Hot Springs. It used to be a hot springs. The springs dried up and left a swamp. On the back side was an old house with a trailer and I lived in that trailer for two months.
It was crappy. It was dusty. It’s inside a fenced-in area, it was like an old RV you’d tow behind your car in the 1970s. Pretty small, just a bed and a table. It’s in a fenced-in compound with razor wire and motion detectors and a sentry on a hill with a high-powered telescope so you couldn’t really get away.
I was selected to go work each day, and not allowed to go home and sleep with my wife.
BI: This is crazy. Why didn’t you just leave?
SH: We were volunteers. I thought it was crazy then. What do you do, do you just run away into the desert and hope you don’t get caught? They had a drill. They would contact every motel in the area, and say oh hey I’m looking for a guy, Steve Hall, he lost his wallet. Is he there?
They open your mail, they know all your details, your social security number, they know your bank account, they have your phone records as well. They know where you are. Then you bring you back. I know one girl who was locked down for two years. That was beyond dread, I didn’t want to experience that. You’ve got a lot of different factors working on you to make you stay a little bit longer. Maybe it’ll get better next month.
There’s a morbid interest to find out how much you can take. How tough are you?
BI: How did you eventually leave the church?
SH: When I left, I had to start over at 46 with no resume. I had no degree. You can’t put on your resume, hey I was in a cult for 25 years. You start from scratch. You leave with nothing. I finally left in 2004.