Candy Latson – a Synanon original

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.

Candy Leading a Class for Prisoners
The entrance to the Prison

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 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.

13 replies »

  1. Hugh,

    I agree with you. I think a number of books have made a contribution to our understanding of Synanon. Each, including my own book, has deficiencies as well as strengths. I don’t see any benefit to ranking them. It does make me feel good to hear members of the Synanon community validating my book. You did that, and I appreciate your doing so. That’s the sum of it.

    I raised the question about Candy because I remember sensing from other people’s accounts that Candy was so charismatic that he really did compete with Chuck for respect and prestige and attention and emotional space — for adoration even — in the very early days of Synanon.

    Let me emphasize that it’s just a question. I do not know the answer. I wonder what other people who were around during those times would say to the question. Perhaps they would offer up a whole variety of answers.

    That said, it is not hard to imagine that those two alpha males co-existing in what was then a very small arena would crowd one another and that one would eventually push the other aside and that the other have to head out to a different territory. Kind of like two bull elephants jostling for dominance in the herd with one eventually surrendering and moving on to find new possibilities. It may be, as you mention, that Candy’s first priority was not power but women, but the holding of power and the ability to attract women does not appear to be unrelated. Yes? (I will ask my wife; you could ask Laurie (: ???

    And then there is this. When Candy left Synanon, he started his own therapeutic community, one that would compete with Synanon for recruits. That suggests he was not indifferent to holding the kind of power Chuck had.

    On the other hand, it could be that this theory I have floated about Candy is bunk. It would not be the first of my theories to deserve quick banishment to the trash can.

    About David Lale’s film. I was interviewed by David for seven hours on camera . . . and that was after he had read Paradise, Incorporated cover to cover and spent two hours with Sandra and I talking in our dining room.

    I feel he did the best he could with the limited resources he had available. To my eye, his short video was artistically put together. Also, it did convey the attraction of community that we all felt back in the day when we encountered Synanon. Or at least it conveyed it to me. For a fleeting but intense moment, I could feel the pull of community!

    On the other hand, I felt the video was severely deficient as a narrative. I mean really bad! I told David that as gently as I could in a note I sent to him.

    In the interests of getting to bed before 11 p.m. so that I can arise and get over to the tennis club at 6 a. m. to watch Kyrios and Djokovic play the Wimbledon finals, I won’t go through my criticisms of Lale’s narrative other than to say that I felt it presented some of the most vicious and invalid of the Synanon indoctrinations as truth and pivoted from starry eyed to horrified completely without foreshadowing or warning of any kind, thereby leaving any viewer who could not fill in the blanks for themselves to befuddlement, wondering what the heck just happened here?

    That’s my response in a nutshell. I do wonder why you felt burned by the video. I didn’t, just disappointed. Maybe we are simply using different terms to suggest closely similar takes.

    good to be in touch with you Hugh, amazing really . . . Cory’s Miracle on the Internet, that’s what this space is.

    best to you and Laurie (I did not know she had written a book; I put it on the list of books I want to read.)

    — david —

    • Hi Dave,
      Most important, according to Laurie, is that she wrote two books: Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, and Art: Why I Stayed With A Junkie Jazzman: Inventing A Marriage, They are good reads and both intersect with Synanon.
      I asked John Stallone who has good judgment about people and he doesn’t see Candy ever in an antagonist role toward Chuck. John says Candy revered Chuck.
      That whenever Candy would visit John in Sonoma they would visit the old property in Tomales, where Candy would speak of his love.
      John says he left for the money. Mitch Rosenthal offered him a lot of money.
      You may remember, too, the tape, The Tao Trip Opening. This was often played at the commencement of our trips. At the tapes opening C.E.D lamented Candy’s then recent splitting and forecast (not inaccurately) Candy’s eventual downfall. We do see that Jack Hurst may have presented that kind of threat to Chuck’s ego. And paid the penalty for it.
      Warm regards,

  2. An AMAZING STORY & MAN… Light-years ahead of his time & needs ANOTHER movie (2 ALREADY) done about his life/journey… TOOO TOO MANY stories from his (-) DASH… LOVE U ALWAYS Hollis Melvin “Papa Chicken” Latson!! Love ya son… Kayin Zaire 🥲🙌🏿

    • Hi this is Bob Geraghty Hollis was my best friend and mentor we talked every month he called me the Rabbi I loved him like more than family please let me know when and where there will be a memorial and I agree a book and a movie should be done I actually started a screen play years ago and he was on my talk show called Conflict his life was amazing I knew something was up when he didn’t answer his phone so sad the way he died 🙏🏻 If anyone is in Heaven he is with a chair right next to Jesus RPI

    • Hugh,
      Thanks for another strong story. I am searching out everything you have posted here at Morning Meeting. You write with force and clarity.
      Thanks also for telling me that you and your wife think Paradise, Incorporated is the best book that has been written about Synanon. I feel that your saying that requires courage. It is not easy for people like yourself who experienced Synanon in the way you did to read my book and take a close look at what Synanon became, for that requires looking at what we participated in. It’s a bit like being in the Game as you describe it. Rationalization and shifting of blame becomes difficult. We go looking for the enemy and find out it was us. At least that was the case for me as I authored the book. Flattering myself that I was helping to build something that was a boon to humankind, I helped build something that became horrifyingly cruel and brutal.
      Here’s a thought about Candy Latson. It may be way off the mark, but I wonder what you might make of it. My thought is that Candy may have “left” Synanon, as you say, but also that he may have been manipulated out by Chuck Dederich.
      Candy was one of the few people in Synanon who could compete with Chuck for dominance and position. Did Chuck feel challenged and even threatened by him? Dederich was compelled by his personality to drive toward total dominance in Synanon. He moved it from a therapeutic community to a totalistic institution in which he had virtually complete sway over the lives of others in Synanon.
      In response to a request for help from Katherine Linton, who is part of a team that wants to make a documentary about
      Synanon (one that, like my book, attempts to bring out the beauty and accomplishments and compelling attractions of the community along with the horrors created by the corporation), I have been putting together a chronology of the steps that Chuck steadily took to build his dominance. I have speculated (and it is hardly more than speculation though if I remember correctly there is some evidence within and between the lines in Endore and Yablonsky) that moving out Candy Latson, his sole competitor, was one of the first and also a very important step in Chucks progression toward totalsm.
      I have been out of touch with the Synanon story for years. The call from Katherine, and especially this beautiful site put together by Cory to which Katherine directed me, has pulled me back in. I am fascinated and also surprised by how warm my memories are of folks I am encountering here.
      Thanks for being here. If you ever feel like chatting a bit, please contact me. One way to do it is via my website, I’ve got a little sample there of some stuff my company built. As a fellow carpenter you might get a kick out of it. We can talk shop. I am curious what you might think about the evolution of our industry since we first put on our gun belts over half a century ago.
      all best,
      David Gerstel

      • Dave,
        I never saw Candy and Chuck interact and I wasn’t aware of the early leadership competition in Santa Monica that may have been present. It wasn’t something thing that came to my attention or I even cared about. I always thought Jack Hurst would have been more of a threat and that he may have been crushed for it. But you may be right. Candy was a whole other order of magnitude. He was the Magic Man. I’ll ask John Stallone. He has good judgment. I’ll check out your site. Thanks.

      • Dear David,
        I woke up this morning remembering that you told me that I said your book was the best book written about Synanon. I am uncomfortable with my saying so. It was an exceptional book and honest story telling. Your masterful description of that Game in the Power House is the best ever.
        But other reporting and points of view come to mind such as Bill Olin’s book Escape From Utopia and Laurie’s accounts in Straight Life and Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman. I guess what I’m trying to avoid is having my imprimatur (publicly/commercially) endorse any conclusions you may relate to our latest filmographer. I felt burnt when I witnessed the beloved David Lale’s vapid promotional clip so your relationship to the newest movie producer makes me wary.
        I know I am exaggerating my importance in these matters, but I am all that I got.
        I also thought your theory—that Chuck was driven to force Candy out because Candy was a threat—is foreign to me. Candy always appeared more interested in women than power. Unless Candy was making Chuck uncomfortable in Games?
        Who would know? Lena?
        Please do not take my musings as a rejection of your offering of friendship or a lessening of my esteem and marvel at your accomplishments.
        Warmest regards,

    • I only met Candy twice after Synanon. That name does not ring a bell. John Stallone knew him better and looked out for him. He might know more.

  3. Omg…i was a Bronx teen when my father sent me to Synanon in 1970.. ended at Santa Monica..I later ended up at Tu Um Est a good move… about a year later I went home to the Bronx n visited Candy n the Oriental woman…wow remarkable experience..
    I am a retiree n grateful for the journey of my past…..I’m not good with computers… blessed…amazing n uplifting…I’m not keen with computers…stay well and blessed…. Marilyn from the Bronx….

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