explainer

Inside 'The Hole', the secret prison camp Scientologists don't want you to see.

Debbie Cook was an eminent member of Scientology‘s leadership team. A senior executive and successful fundraiser, she spent 17 years as head of Flag Service Organisation, the church’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. “She was like the mother of Scientology, really,” one former high-ranking executive told The Village Voice.

But in the Summer of 2007, something changed.

While on the phone to church leader David Miscavige one afternoon, she heard a loud thumping on her office door. Unwilling to hang up on her boss, she ignored it. Before long, her window was being pried open by two men. Church employees.

“Are they there?” Miscavige asked her.
“Yes…”
“Goodbye.”

Debbie Cook was dragged out through that window and taken to the church’s mysterious prison; a place described in chilling detail by several defectors, a place that the church insists doesn’t actually exist.

‘The Hole’.

Video by A&E

What is The Hole? Does it really exist?

According to accounts of former members of Scientology, The Hole consists of two double-wide trailers at Scientology’s compound in Riverside County, California. Previously used as offices for the senior management, the buildings were reportedly co-opted for use as a gulag-style facility some time around 2004.

There were bars on the windows, guards, and a large security fence with motion-sensor lights and security cameras, many of which faced inward.

Reports, including court testimony from Cook, claim dozens of senior executives have since been sent to The Hole as punishment for perceived misdeeds, and many have remained there for months at a time. They were reportedly forced to sleep beneath desks, were given small amounts of almost inedible leftover food, and were only permitted to leave for church events or to shower a nearby maintenance facility – even that meant being marched two-at-a-time under guard.

During their confinement, executives were reportedly humiliated, insulted, physically abused, and forced into making admissions about their ‘transgressions’. Some of the confessions were founded. Many were not. But under the pressure, the conditions, most admitted to them anyway.

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Cook, who was sued by the church in 2012 for sending an email urging executives to reform the church’s practices, told a court of the duress she was under during her time as a Scientology employee. Among her account, were details of her horror seven-week stint in The Hole, where she was imprisoned with 100 others due to (false) suspicion she was gay. As reported by ABC, she spoke of a 12-hour ordeal in which she was made to stand in a rubbish bin while executives screamed in her face, poured water over her and called her a lesbian. She also claimed she was slapped across the face.

Cook also testified that she witnessed fellow detained executive Mark Ginge Nelson being beaten and forced to lick a bathroom floor for 20 minutes. And that for periods, the electricity would be cut to the building, leaving its occupants to roast in close-to-40C heat.

David Miscavige reportedly started The Hole. Image: Getty,

Mike Rinder, another escapee told The Tampa Bay Times, of being hounded into bizarre confessions: "The 50 people there are all screaming at me, telling me I've got to confess – I've done that, why don't I just admit it? I stole money, I had affairs – people would just literally dream up bullshit and start screaming it out, and then the mob goes crazy: 'Oh yeah, it must have been that!'"

Tom De Vocht, who was also in The Hole, claimed that imprisonment would make people "wild and out of control: "I punched somebody. Everybody was punched. And screaming and yelling. It just got like, 'What the hell is going on here?'" he told The Times. But he felt it was a case of eat-or-be-eaten: "If I don't attack I'm going to be attacked. It's a survival instinct in a weird situation that no one should be in."

Others were reportedly forced to crawl on their bare knees for hours, the paper reported, until their skin was raw.

Cook ultimately escaped after she was withdrawn from The Hole to assist with a major church event. The moment she and her husband were left unsupervised, they fled in a rental car. Though church employees ultimately caught up with them, she was finally able to sign a severance agreement with the church after three weeks under guard.

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"I would have signed that I stabbed babies over and over again and loved it," she later testified during her court case, according to ABC. "I would have done anything, basically, at that point."

Has there been an investigation into The Hole?

Yes. The FBI opened an investigation into people trafficking allegations in 2009, after the accounts of defectors who'd been in The Hole were reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

The paper reported that FBI officers spoke to escapees and monitored the compound via aerial surveillance. However, the probe was halted after a District Court judge ruled on a case brought against the church in 2012 by two defectors.

The couple, Marc and Claire Headley, sued Scientology under human trafficking legislation - they argued they'd been kept from leaving via isolation, threat of physical abuse and the fear of being chased. But the judge found in favour of the church, which she was protected under a 'free exercise of religion' clause. The ruling made any similar case being built by the FBI almost impossible to win.

Besides, despite very public claims, including that made under oath by Cook, Scientology denies the mysterious prison is real:

"The Hole does not exist," a spokesperson told the Times, "and never has."

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