by Hugh Kenny
Hollis Candy Latson was born in Racoon Bend, Texas, in 1936. He was fifteen years old when he saw his friend off to the U.S. Army Induction Center. Candy was black, 6 feet 4 inches, 185 pounds. The Recruiting Sergeant appreciatively spotted him and said, “ How about you? Do you want to go, too?”
“Why not?’’ Candy replied and was soon off to Inchon, Korea, where he met with racism, combat, death, and trauma. After his discharge, he escaped into crime and drugs. In 1958, he stumbled into the drug rehab pioneer called Synanon. He was the 28th person to join, and he stayed seven and a half years.
In 1964 when I met Candy, Synanon had taken on a new challenge. It had received a contract with the State of Nevada to introduce our behavior-changing techniques into its prison population. It was working pretty well for us ex-fiends in California, so Nevada gave us plenty of slack to have a go at their prisons.
Synanon leased a two-story house in Reno out on Dickerson Road. We were sedately tucked away yet within walking distance of the casinos.
There were twenty of us at the house. Charlie Hamer, in his sixties. was the director. But Candy and eight of us were the crew who went out to the prisons. Five mornings a week, we would climb into the Chevy van and drive 35 miles toward Carson City. We would make a stop at the minimum security prison and meet with a group there and then visit slasher and published poet Jack Rainsberger on death row or out to the honor camp, but the main event was always passing through the quarried stone portals of the maximum security prison — the oldest prison in the territory of Nevada — built in 1862, two years before Nevada became a state.
After clanging through a series of gates, we entered the sun-blasted arena of the yard, populated with its disparate, clandestine groups. Along one length of the yard were two large. dark cavernous rooms.
One of the rooms contained a gambling casino and its inmate clientele. It possessed card tables, wheels of fortune, and the sounds of dice rattling over felt-covered plywood. There it was. This was Nevada. Gambling is legal. So what could go wrong?
The other dimly lit room housed our Synanon program setup. All the prisoners who had joined our experiment hung out there and played the Synanon Game when we showed up and often in our absence.
Those in the program promised to abide by our precepts of nonviolence and personal honesty and lived together separated from the main population. If you know prison, you wouldn’t think a rehab group would attract the strong personalities that control the place, but that’s who we got to join, and consequently, Synanon had the respect of the yard. One of the keys was that Candy and the earlier crew, against all rules, precedent, and good sense, moved into cells in maximum security and slept there overnight for a couple of weeks.
Candy rolled through the Nevada State Prison as if he owned it. He was tall and ebony black. He strutted and moved with confidence and élan, always with something to say or a snappy return. He and consequently, we, moved around the penitentiary like it wasn’t full of very dangerous men. Men who hated black men. Black men who acted superior. How could these convicts, many of them lifers submit to joining a group visibly headed by a man black as coal and bold as brass?
I asked John Stallone who was tighter with Candy how this could be. John said, ‘‘That was just Candy.” That he was one of those people who had that power, that personality that saw them through. Candy didn’t know any other way to act. He didn’t know fear. He was too busy watching. Looking for an edge.
Synanon’s main tool was the Game. We were skilled at sitting in a circle and stating what we saw as defeating behavior in other people and sometimes even our own lives. These observations were made forthrightly and often with humor. The format was attack and defend, but if someone nailed you, you were nailed. Once the risk of getting punched in the mouth is removed from the equation, we are all able to voice some brilliant observations about each other. You find your intuitions validated, and it’s great fun.
This truth-telling — accusatory, instructive, or hilarious — produced the energy and the bonding forces to run the program. I remember sitting in a Game circle in this cave-like area set aside for us. Candy was having a difficult time getting his point across to one of the inmates, who chose to play the tough stand-up guy role. Candy needed to bring him down a notch. As an aside in Candy’s derisive soliloquy on the prisoner’s lack of character, Candy remarked that this inmate was the kind of sneak who would keep his cigarettes in his socks to avoid sharing them with his friends. Everyone’s eyes immediately shot down to glance below his cuff line, and there it was — the outline of a pack of smokes. He was sunk. Exposed. Humiliated. Laughed at. And given no choice but to laugh at himself and join the group.
All my years, I’ve chickened or egged that question. Did Candy intuit this character flaw that he predicted or had he glanced at the inmate’s leg and then tossed out this verbal snare?
To our shock, Candy left Synanon in 197O. He helped start Phoenix House in New York and other rehab programs all over the world. He was friends with New York Mayor John Lindsey (Candy was Mayor of New York for a day), was friends with the Rockefeller family, and was a guest at Buckingham Palace. But he flew too high and alcohol dissolved the wax holding his feathers in place. He hurtled down and landed abruptly in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park smoking crack and answering to the nickname “Papa Chicken.” Then with a little help from his friends, he elevated his focus again and scrambled back up to Mount Olympus. He won a fifty-year-old lawsuit against the Veterans Administration for denying him a post-traumatic disorder claim and received a fat settlement. He bought a condo in Venice, California, and once again taught and internationally demonstrated an exemplary life.
John loved him and kept tabs on him. He phoned him. Nothing. Asked some of the neighbors. Nothing. Finally, John called the morgue. Yes, they did have someone matching his description. He was found dead in a parking lot. There was no identification on him, but cameras witnessed his collapse and saw no evidence of what we like to call “foul play.”
Because of COVID-19, there has been no memorial or celebration of his life. But in time, there will be. I am sure it will be a big event.
Over the years, Candy has contributed photos of his worldly adventures to the Synanon.org site. Here are some of them. If you have more to add, please send them along. —Cory Becker
“Psychiatry: Mutual Aid in Prison,” Time Magazine, March 1, 1963. Transcribed in Lewis Yablonsky’s Confessions of a Criminologist: Some of my best friends were sociopaths (2010), pp. 91–93.
Since Synanon House set itself up in Santa Monica four and a half years ago as a mutual self-help cure station for drug addicts, it has seen its fame spread across the country. And for good reason. Addicts given intensive treatment at special federal hospitals have a relapse rate as high as 90%; Synanon, which models itself on Alcoholics Anonymous and uses ex-addicts to give junkies the support and understanding they need to kick the habit and stay clean, has cut the relapse rate to as low as 20% …
The Unconnables. At the prison, Warden Jack Fogliani has set aside a whole tier of cells for Synanon. Occupying it are men who normally would be under maximum security. Yet this tier is the only one in which the cells are left unlocked at night. Each 4-ft. by 8-ft. cubicle is spick-and-span. On the walls, instead of calendar nudes, are reproductions of Van Gogh and artwork done by the inmates. Neither Fogliani nor the prison guard captain visits the Synanon tier unless invited.
“Punishment is not the answer, nor keeping a man locked up,” says Warden Fogliani. “These Synanon people can approach the convicts in a way that we can’t. They’ve been at the bottom of the barrel, too, so other convicts listen to them. It’s the voice of experience.” Bill Crawford, one of the Synanon leaders who moved to Reno, and an ex-addict himself, goes further. “The prisoners suddenly found they were with guys who, like themselves, have conned people—and therefore can’t be conned by the prisoners.”
Socrates in the Cells. Synanon depends heavily on group therapy, and it insists on a tough regime. Since both addict and nonaddict cons have made lying a way of life, absolute truthfulness is demanded. Any hedging, any attempt to shift the blame for their plight to others, is ruthlessly torn apart within the group. Even foul language is banned because it might snowball into a rumble. And the ultimate punishment is expulsion from the program. But in return, Synanon gives the addict, often for the first time, a sense of belonging to a group. Instead of a “fix,” it offers, by the example of the ex-addict leaders, hope that a cure is possible. And because the group governs and disciplines itself, it gives the addicts and other convicts a jolt of self-respect.
Often the starting point for hope is a timeworn epigram that is chalked on a slate, such as Socrates’ “All I know is that I know nothing,” or Emerson’s “Discontent is the want of self-reliance.” From there, the prisoners take it on their own, analyzing themselves and one another. But the strongest prompting toward a cure is the living example of the ex-junkies themselves.
Such a one is Candy Latson, 26, a Houston-born Negro who started using dope when he was 15. He has twice done time in Los Angeles County jail. “I got to the honor camp once there. I went in clean, but I came out hooked again,” he says. Through Synanon, Candy learned insight: “I kept telling myself I had four strikes against me: I had only a seventh-grade education, I was black, I was a dope addict, and I had a record. I was using my misfortunes as an excuse to keep using dope.” Last week, Candy Latson was in Nevada State Prison—not as a prisoner, but as an honored guest and Synanon counselor. He has been clean now for three years and is working full-time for nothing more than his keep and $2 a week spending money to help others kick the habit and stay clean.