“The Penal Colony”

(Editor’s note: This article was presented by former Ryan aide Joe Holsinger during his May 1980 presentation to a Forum on “Psycho-Social Implications of the Jonestown Phenomenon.” According to Holsinger, the article was written in January 1979 by a Berkeley psychologist “who has asked that his name be withheld.” It is almost certain that the author is Richard Ofshe, a professor of social psychology at UC-Berkeley and an associate of Margaret Singer.)

The shock and furor over the deaths in Guyana have quieted down. The whole thing has become a nightmare of the past, neatly packaged in our minds as “the biggest story of 1978”. And now it’s 1979. And perhaps it is this neatness that is disquieting. There are too few questions; everything has been neatly tied up: Jones was a humanitarian who went crazy; people needed a leader but were misled; 900 people killed themselves (or allowed themselves to be killed) out of devotion to a leader, etc. etc. If we take a closer look at the story of the People’s Temple and the deaths in Guyana, we quickly see that there are holes big enough, as we used to say, to drive a truck through.

The New York Times of Dec. 29 1978, carried a story under the headline, “Jones commune found stocked with drugs to control the mind”. A vast supply of psychoactive drugs had been found at Jonestown, including 11,000 doses of Thorazine, enormous quantities of Quaaludes, Valium, Demerol, and other mind controlling substances. Several questions immediately come to mind (but not to the minds of the NYT reporters): why did it take five weeks to either make this “discovery” or to report it?; is it possible to obtain and smuggle this quantity of drugs without the active help of pharmaceutical companies, organized crime, law enforcement agencies or the State Department, or a combination thereof? (Answer: no); and finally, what in the world were they doing with these drugs down there? Jonestown had boasted of the most complete, modern, efficient humanitarian system of medical care, complete with a staff and equipment that would make most of our stateside community clinics envious. Laboratories, the most modern testing and diagnostic equipment, nurses, doctors, therapists, dietitians, daily checkups for many residents, all in the interest of “serving the people”. Incidentally, the medical records from this most thorough system, we are now told, either disappeared or never existed. How to resolve the contradiction between the “humanitarianism” and the mind control and virtual slavery that we now know was going on at Jonestown? We have been trying to digest the explanation that Jones was a humanitarian who, in the end, went crazy and misled his flock. If we take a closer look we can see that there was a lot more going on.

Let us briefly recapitulate the media version of Jonestown and the deaths of 909 people:

The Peoples Temple was led by good people who did good deeds. For this reason, law enforcement agencies, the FBI, the State and Treasury Departments, the San Francisco Chronicle and others chose to ignore, for several years, reports and incidents implicating the People’s Temple in kidnapping, murder, smuggling, extortion, child abuse, theft and other little things. The People’s Temple was so humanitarian that they were able to smuggle $15 million in cash, an extensive cache of weapons and explosives and tens of thousands of doses of controlled pharmaceuticals out of the country right under the noses of the authorities. Not to mention that some of the early settlers of Jonestown had been virtually kidnapped from the states. The authorities, so impressed with Jones’ humanitarianism, ignored all reports of crimes, failed to investigate even major reports of misdeeds, in the states and Guyana, failed to notice all this smuggling, and, when Congressman Ryan submitted a request to the State Dept. for a visit to Guyana, no information about the group was available. We are talking about the same system, you will note, that is able to inform a cop who stopped you for speeding in Maine that you owe some parking tickets in California. Yet no one knew anything at all about the People’s Temple or the community in Guyana. It is now known that the San Francisco police and media, repeatedly declined to investigate reported crimes by the People’s Temple, and that the State Dept., FBI and other agencies had also, over the years, received complaints and reports of kidnapping, torture, smuggling and so on which they declined to investigate. Jones was so humanitarian they just couldn’t believe these reports. This comes as a great surprise to many of us – to learn that the police and FBI are moved so deeply by humanitarianism. Perhaps there is another reason. For one thing, the folks in San Francisco had a little support from the Mayor. You know, the one who got killed. The police and media concluded instantly that Moscone’s death had no relation to Jonestown, even though people had warned there might be deaths of political officials.

Let us continue to the circumstances of Ryan’s visit. Despite the ignorance and the State Dept. and the opposition of embassy officials in Guyana, Ryan proceeded with his investigation. Does the following story, presented and orchestrated by all the media, make sense? After a two-day visit, Ryan and others are slaughtered at the airstrip on the eve of Nov. 18. Guyanese soldiers stationed there refused to get involved and no help arrived until the next morning. This is because there were no lights at the airstrip. Once more: a top-level U.S. party, with an official of the U.S. Embassy, are mowed down, yet no one will come because there are no lights. I thought helicopters had lights, but perhaps I’m mistaken. OK, the morning of Nov. 19, help arrives and Ryan’s group is evacuated. But it is another 24 hours before it occurs to anyone to check out the colony 1 hour away by jeep, or a few minutes by helicopter. Then the bodies, already decomposing, are discovered. Remarkable.

Once more: let[‘]s suppose the soldiers at the airstrip reported, via radio, that the Ryan group had been massacred, some were still alive, their lives were in danger, medical assistance was needed, etc. Did the Guyanese police and army simply decide it was too dark and they would worry about it in the morning? Did they report to the U.S. embassy? The U.S. military, it will be recalled, is capable of moving an entire army practically anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice. But it took 36 hours before anyone arrived at Jonestown to “discover” the bodies. More incredibility is yet to come.

On Nov. 20, 409 bodies are discovered and an additional 500 are reported missing, having escaped, alive, into the jungle. For three days, over 250 U.S. Air Force personnel, other military and intelligence investigators, and Guyanese military personnel search the jungle for the missing 500 people. Journalists, except for a select few, are forbidden from the scene. On Nov. 24, the officer in charge reports the body count “could reach 780”. On Nov. 25 he reports the final count as over 900. How to account for this mystery? The original number was a miscount, the Guyanese don’t know how to count, there were bodies lying under bodies (500 under 400) etc. etc. OK, what are we supposed to believe? In brief, that it took a search party of let’s say 500 military and police agents 3 days to discover that the missing persons they were searching for were lying dead right at their feet, and once they made this discovery, it took the same 500, 24 hours to count them all. Let’s go on.

A few questions were raised about the deaths by reporters who finally arrived on the scene. Why was there so much blood? Cyanide poisoning, it was explained, can be a bloody affair. Really? I didn’t know this. Despite massive mysteries about the causes and circumstances of the deaths, the U.S. Air Force rushed in, now that the bodies had been all “discovered”, embalmed them and removed them. The Air Force completely prevented an investigation of the scene, autopsies and toxicological tests. When asked why they did this, an Air Force spokesperson replied, “I don’t know”. In an action unprecedented in the annals of police science, Jones’ body was cremated even though the entire world was left wondering how he had really died.

Throughout all this, the media, apparently oblivious to the fact that neither the U.S. or Guyanese military and police were bothering to investigate these deaths, merrily continued to chime the absurd story of 900 suicides. There are surely few parallels to the total absence of investigative journalism associated with the events at Jonestown.

The implications are staggering. Putting it all together it looks to this author that there was a high level hands-off policy toward the People’s Temple dating back several years, that the 900 deaths not only weren’t suicides, but may have taken place over a period of six days, and that a cover-up by the military, State Dept. and media has been deployed so neat and total that no one has bothered to notice. The deaths themselves could be a cover-up. What could have been going on? The stash of drugs may be a clue.

Almost unnoticed among the many peculiar incidents following the tragedy was a statement made by a leading official of the National Institute for Mental Health. “What we need”, he opined within hours of news of the deaths, “is a government-sponsored research program on mind control”. We need to protect our youth and the American Way of Life, he claimed. The curious thing is that we already have had a mind control research project of which this official could not possibly have been unaware. The mind control research organized in the early 1950’s by our intelligence agencies, which extended by the 1970’s to include multi-million dollar projects supported by HEW and LEAA [Law Enforcement Assistance Administration] has been one of the largest coordinated research and development efforts in scientific history. Perhaps this official was simply carried away by scientific zeal. More likely, the mysteries of Jonestown can be traced back thirty years.

The scientific development of mind control theory and methods was a top priority of the CIA from the day of its founding in 1947. Experimentation with hypnosis, drugs, isolation and other mind control techniques that had been until then conducted by the FBI and OSS were to be coordinated and advanced by the CIA’s project BLUEBIRD. In 1951, the CIA and military join forces to form ARTICHOKE aimed at the control and alteration of minds and personalities for interrogation, counter-espionage, induction of amnesia, and various other forms of psychic reorganization.

Also in 1951, the term “brainwashing” was introduced to the American public by the CIA-employed journalist Edward Hunter. The term quickly became associated with the “red menace” scare. The communists, according to our intelligence agencies and government leaders, had developed sophisticated demonic mind control techniques perpetrated on their own citizens and POWs. Horror stories of Soviet, Korean and Chinese mass psychological coercion flooded the American media. Socialism itself is a big mind control prison, some claimed.

To protect our boys overseas, and the American Way of Life, the CIA and military in 1953 organized MK ULTRA. MK ULTRA was dedicated to leave no stone unturned, no area of knowledge unexamined, no possibility untested, in the search for the key to the control of the human mind. The minds not only of individuals, but of groups and whole populations. Some of the projected uses of mind control technology were to be in covert military operations with chemical and biological substances, programming assassins and “Manchurian candidates” programming interrogation-proof agents, causing mental disorientation and disabling of individuals and populations.

It is difficult to imagine the scope of MK ULTRA. The documents that have been revealed are no more than the tip of the iceberg according to the CIA itself. There can be no doubt that the control of the human mind and behavior, of individuals, groups and entire populations has been a top priority and central strategy of US intelligence agencies for 30 years. MK ULTRA coordinated 149 projects involving thousands of experiments and “operations” on prisoners, mental patients, and others in the US and elsewhere. Tens of thousands of people were subjects of experimentation against their will or knowledge. The research of hundreds of scientists was coordinated, unknown to them, by CIA front organizations. MK ULTRA included research on the behavioral and mental effects of drugs, hypnosis, drugs, sleep and sensory deprivation, psychotherapy, group processes, behavior modification, biological agents, electrode implantation, ultra-scientific torture and ultra-subtle forms of group hypnosis. Every possible technique for influencing people against their will or knowledge was tested.

MK ULTRA LSD research involving hundreds if not thousands of unwitting human guinea pigs, resulting in suicides, mysterious deaths and ruined lives, is well known, as is the search for surreptitious means of drug administration through swizzle sticks, aerosols and skin contact. This is just one tiny corner of MK ULTRA in the 50’s.

Although this research was entirely illegal, violating the CIA’s charter and the U.S. Constitution, not to mention medical ethics and several international covenants such as the Nuremberg Code, the CIA was able to recruit the assistance of pharmaceutical companies, state hospitals and police departments in implementing drug experiments. Experimentation throughout the 50s, however, had some inherent flaws. Due to the extreme secrecy of the projects (documents indicate that secrecy was extremely high priority and that no means, including murder, were spared to prevent revelation of the program), experimentation under controlled scientific conditions was impossible. All areas of experimentation call for more controlled conditions while not disturbing the populace’s moral and legal conscience. MK ULTRA shifted gears.

Enter Dr. Edgar Schein, psychologist, specialist on brainwashing. At a meeting of top prison officials in 1961, Dr. Schein called for a veritable campaign of brainwashing, behavior modification an personality alteration of the U.S. prisoner population. Criminals, he argues, did not have a right to their personalities, and should be subject to mind control technology in the interest of society and preservation of the American Way of Life. The prison officials, not exactly renowned for their love of academics and psychologists, received Dr. Schein’s plea with great enthusiasm which became clear twenty-five years later. Dr. Schein had got by with a little help from his friends: he was working for the CIA.

By the late 60’s, behavior control and drug experimentation projects has been extensively implemented in federal and state prisons. The prisons experimented with an assortment of mind altering and torture drugs, psychosurgery, electrode implantation in the brain, electroshock, aversive conditioning, sensory and sleep deprivation, severe isolation, and so on. Simultaneously, prisons and police stations around the world where the CIA had the strongest influence, Brazil, Uruguay, Greece, Northern Ireland, built ultra-modern units for experimentation with mind-altering techniques.

A particular advantage to the use of prisons was that mind control methods could be developed on carefully controlled groups, raising the science of group dynamics to new heights. This science, incidentally, originated with the Air Force: Carl Rogers, a leading psychologist, learned last year that all his research on group process in the 50’s was funded by the CIA. “Token economy” systems were organized and highly coercive forms of group “therapy” became common. The best known of the latter was Martin Groder’s Asklepion Society in the federal prison at Marion Illinois. Based on a unique combination of transactional analysis and the brainwashing techniques outlined in Dr. Schein’s CIA sponsored book “Coercive Persuasion”, this program sought to alter the personalities of prisoners through the use of intensive group pressures and thought reform techniques, combined with isolation, sensory deprivation, and use of psychoactive drugs. Members of the “in-group”, known to the other prisoners as “Groder’s gorillas”, engaged in “confrontation” and “attack therapy” on the draftees into the program. The principles of the program included isolation of leaders, separation from outside influence and emotional supports, preventing the formation of subgroups and loyalties to anyone but the leader, the controlled use of psychologically ambiguous situations combined with intense psychological pressure, positive reinforcements for group loyalty and identification, use of character invalidation techniques such as public revilement and humiliation and forced confessions and forced submission to authority and the group’s values. Diet and sleep were at times severely restricted. Unlike other mind control projects, this was an experiment in the forced alteration of the personalities of groups of people based on the principles of group interaction.

By the early 70’s the federal government and some states were fully enamored with the concept of mind control and designs for more ambitious projects began to appear. Dr. Groder was to take his methods to the new federal prison at Butner, North Carolina where experimentation with the psychological, pharmacological and medical alteration of the personalities of prisoners to be greatly expanded. The proposed Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence in California was to undertake a massive program of psychosurgery, aversive conditioning and chemical castration, expanding the methods already employed at the California Medical Facility (prison) at Vacaville. While the “red menace” seemed to have abated, the American public has now apparently faced with the threat of masses of congenitally violent citizens running loose, most of them Black and other third world members. Only an extensive program of psychosurgery and the immediate expansion of mind control programs in mind control prisons could save the American Way of Life.

Many folks didn’t buy it. For years, prisoners groups, the Lawyer’s Guild, ACLU, National Alliance, and countless others fought against these developments. Unable to stand up to legal challenges, the more ambitious programs were forced into a temporary retreat.

The prisons were not the only sites of experimental behavior control programs. Schools and hospitals also received millions of dollars of federal funds for program development. While it cannot be proven that these programs were part of MK ULTRA, neither can it be proven that 2 plus 2 equals 4. We must use our powers of induction. Recently the CIA has revealed it has 130 boxes of unreleased mind control documents. Perhaps this will tell more, but then again, they only tell us what they want us to know.

One of the curious programs that appeared in the early 70’s was one called The Seed, in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. The Seed was a “rehabilitation” program for youths with a variety of problems, referred by the court, schools or parents. The techniques and principles of The Seed were remarkably similar to those employed by the Asklepion Society in Marion Prison, including attack “therapy” humiliations, intense group pressure, forced confessions, sleep deprivation and so on. An extensive spying and informing system was developed, an absolute loyalty to the group was demanded, above family ties.

Problems began to develop. Parents complained that their children had been brainwashed. Teachers noticed that “seedlings”, as successful graduates were called, had a hypnotized, robot-like demeanor and exhibited extreme group loyalties and conforming behavior. Some complained that it reminded them of Nazi Germany. The director of The Seed, a Mr. Art Barker had absolutely no credentials or background in treatment programs. Nor did any of his staff. This did not deter the combined forces of NIDA [National Institute on Drug Abuse], HEW and LEAA from supplying The Seed with millions of dollars in several years. Before the parents and teachers of Ft. Lauderdale could get too inquisitive about all this, federal funding was quietly terminated.

According to Richard Helms, MK ULTRA was terminated in 1974 and the CIA lost interest in mind control. The files have all been destroyed. Of course. The most massive effort ever undertaken in the social and medical sciences, spanning more than a quarter of a century, costing hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars, a strategy central to the CIA since its birth and it was just dropped. Everyone went home.

For those who can’t quite buy that scenario, what did happen around 1974? We can only speculate, but from what we know of CIA priorities and the evolution of MK ULTRA we can make some educated guesses. The following requirements faced MK ULTRA strategists: 1) avoid further legal confrontations; 2) continue experimentation with psychoactive drugs which were proliferating in ever more specific and sophisticated actions; 3) continue the research on group dynamics and the reorganization of the personality through intense group pressure; 4) find experimental settings that could be carefully controlled while resembling real life situations; 5) expand research on mass hypnosis; 6) combine mind control techniques with forced labor.

It is my hypothesis that at this time, just as in 1961, MK ULTRA not only didn’t retreat, but shifted to a far more ambitious program. It was at this time that the cults began to appear in full force, complete with multi-million-dollar financing, highly polished PR campaigns, connections with politics and organized crime and apparent immunity from investigation by police and other law enforcement agencies. It was also at this time that Synanon, the rehabilitation program for drug addicts and alcoholics took a curious turn, adapting the most extreme brainwashing techniques, while the doctor who brought humanitarian treatment methods to the drug rehabilitation program at Lincoln Hospital in New York was found murdered.

What is the evidence of links between MK ULTRA and Jonestown? First, the orchestration of a cover-up by the military, police, State Department and media, which even the most superficial review of the deaths in Guyana reveals, can only be conducted at the very highest levels. Similarly, the policy for several years of the press and law enforcement agencies to close their eyes to reports from People’s Temple and Jonestown, is not something that can happen spontaneously. Someone got to them. Can it be believed that investigations were halted by Jones’ humanitarian reputation? No, this can’t be believed. The apparent contradiction between the very modern and complete medical services in Jonestown, and the repressive use of drugs, behavior modification and other extreme coercive techniques up to and including murder, may not be a contradiction at all. We see it every day in the U.S. penal system, and in state psychiatric hospitals. The supposition that the CIA was actively involved in the formation and running of Jonestown as an experimental modern-day penal colony maybe too frightening to entertain. But it explains a lot more about the contradictions and mysteries surrounding Jonestown than writing it off as the craziness of a would-be messiah. The drugs, for instance, did not just appear. Someone brought them there. With a purpose. It was pre-meditated. Who did this? How was it done?

We know of at least one instance, The Seed, and there are probably many more, in which the federal government organized and ran its own little cult group on principles remarkably similar to Jonestown. We know of the involvement of the CIA (the Korean CIA, which is a subsidiary of you know who), with the Moonies, we know of the massive investments in these cults by right wing groups.

There are some startling parallels between the People’s Temple and the NCLC [National Caucus of Labor Committees], an extreme left group the [that] spun off from SDS in the late 60’s and now embraces the extreme right. NCLC also uses extreme brainwashing and indoctrination techniques on its recruits. It also tried to attract people disaffected with the system by progressive rhetoric and seeming alliance with the left. Its leader, like Jones, claimed to be omniscient. And like Jones, he is obsessed, apparently, with a phobia of the CIA. The NCLC is known to most progressives as a police organized group.

All this is not to say that the People’s Temple is of the same mold as the NCLC, or the Moonies, or EST. Or that the entire organization of the People’s Temple and the tragedy of well-meaning people being misled, can be explained as a CIA plot. It is to say, however, that we must open our eyes a little wider, get that gray matter working, refuse to be lulled to sleep by media absurdities. We know about COINTELPRO, we know about MK ULTRA, we can watch the alarming rate at which these cults are gaining influence. The line of thinking suggested here requires a lot more investigation. But it is investigation that must be done.

Originally posted on January 8th, 2020.

Last modified on January 16th, 2020.
Skip to main content