Today, I am with a group of ADAPT protesters calling for the Trump Administration to release regulations prepared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and halt the use of contingent electric shock, a physically painful and mentally and physically harmful as a means of controlling disabled people.
The shock, currently used only at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts, should be recognized as the state-sponsored torture it is. The practice should be opposed by human rights groups. It should be stopped immediately. Moreover, the facility should be closed and an investigation into it should be opened.
The United Nation Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States signed in 1994, defines “torture” as:
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) is a behavior modification facility which uses manipulation of rewards (“reinforcers”) and punishments (“aversives”) to control the behavior of its residents and day program participants, These residents are disabled people, primarily autistic, with and without intellectual disabilities, and who may be labeled as emotionally or behaviorally disabled. It is the only program that still admits to using contingent electric shock as an aversive.
The specific device is called a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED). The children and adults subjected to the GED wear backpacks or fanny packs in which the GED and battery are carried, often 24 hours a day. The staff strap electrodes to their arms, legs, and/or torsos, and wires run from the electrodes to the GED itself. Staff members carry remote-control boxes with people’s faces on them, so that they can supervise several at the same time, and so they can deliver the punishment from a distance.
The way it works is this: A behavior plan is developed, and specific behaviors such as striking oneself or standing up from one’s seat are identified. Then whenever the person does something on the list, they receive a shock. This makes them less likely to do the same thing in this future. At the same time, if someone does something that the behavior plan says they should be encouraged to do more often, they receive a reward.
The GED is designed to inflict pain. That is its point. Unlike the police taser, whose point is to disrupt people’s motor control, and which also causes pain, the GED achieves its goal of modifying behavior by means of pain. Over the years, as the children and adults subjected to it have learned to cope with it, it has been modified 3 times, to increase the amperage and therefore the pain. The electrodes are set further apart than on the taser, so that the electricity burns through more flesh. The device also inflicts fear of future pain.
JRC says the pain is minimal, “like a bee sting,” but those who have been subjected to it report that it is quite painful. Even the original GED can leave entry and exit burn wounds, and survivor Jennifer Msumba has reported that she lost sensation in the skin of one leg for some time after a series of shocks.
People who have been subjected to it and former JRC staff report that the devices sometimes misfire and shock people at random, and that sometimes pressing one person’s remote will result in a second person accidentally getting shocked. Therefore people cannot even control the pain by means of conscientiously doing what the staff want. However, when the device is operating as it is designed to, the pain is intentionally inflicted as a punishment, or aversive consequences, of the person doing something that staff do not like.
Jennifer Msumba, a survivor of a 7-year stint in JRC and of the GED who has spoken out,
And it is done with the permission of the government. Most if not all of the people sent to JRC are taxpayer-funded, and everyone subjected to the GED receives a court order authorizing its use. These are not punishments for crimes, either; they are delivered immediately and without due process, and although aggressive or self-injurious behavior gets punished with electric shock at JRC, so do things like tensing one’s muscles (which a former staffer has reported people do in anticipation of the shock because it reduces the pain).
“You would think … it would be illegal, and people would go to jail for doing such things to other people,” said Msumba, “but no, judges were approving of this treatment. Judges are approving it. It has to get approved by a judge. Of course, everybody gets approved.”
In addition, the people subjected to the GED are all disabled. This is not something that anyone would be allowed to do to a non-disabled person, no matter what he or she had done. If a non-disabled person were to commit a terrorist act killing 5,000 people, it would be unacceptable to subject them to the GED; if a disabled person in JRC with a court order stands up from their seat without permission, staff have been told they “have to” shock them.
Moreover, a United Nations torture expert has already named the shocks as torture. Yet the practice, although it has been limited over the years, still continues, and a number of states, most notably New York, continue to send disabled people – more than 100 schoolchildren and 50 adults, at last count – there at taxpayer expense.
Although advocates had been working to close JRC for decades, the place suddenly gained national attention in April, 2012, when Andre McCollins’ lawsuit went to court. In 2002, McCollins, then 18, had been shocked 31 times, many of them while tied to a restraint board, after refusing to take off his coat, over a 7-hour period. A former staffer, Gregory Miller, told the world that 30 shocks in a day was not uncommon for “low-functioning” people held in the facility. His mother, who had believed sending him to JRC would help him, publicly condemned the GED and JRC.
The judge allowed sections of the brutal videotape of McCollins’ torture to be shown in court and filmed by TV crews to be shown on television. People across the United States were horrified.
Numerous claims JRC had been making were debunked. They had been advertising that the Graduated Electronic Decelerator was FDA-approved. The original GED-1 had been approved, but by this time they were using the GED-4. FDA announced it had not approved the GED-4. JRC had been advertising that the “treatment” they were offering was peer-reviewed and helped with the kinds of behavior disorders they said the people subjected to the GED had. But experts in the field repeatedly said that while contingent shock will initially suppress any behavior you use it on, those effects do not last after you stop shocking people. This is why some people have stayed at JRC for decades; any changes in their behavior cannot be sustained in a program that does not use extreme pain as part of a system of control. JRC had said that they were a facility of last resort, but again, experts like Nancy Weiss, Director of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities, told the world that there are methods that work to support disabled people who are aggressive and self-injurious, and that those methods do not involve inflicting pain.
In April, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration held hearings on the GED and heard from expert after expert that the device has no medical benefit and inflicts substantial harm. For a moment, it seemed they were prepared to ban it, and by April 2016, FDA actually had written regulations that would have done so. “FDA has determined that these devices present an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury that cannot be corrected or eliminated by labeling,” FDA reported. But neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration has actually put the ban in place. The shocks continue in Canton, Massachusetts.
Last September, I was with a group of ADAPT protesters who went to the Health and Human Services building in Washington, DC, to demand that FDA release the regulations and stop the shocks. A heated argument broke out between ADAPT organizer Bruce Darling and one of the assistant secretaries, who conceded that “of course” he would not ever use contingent skin shock on his grandchildren.
“Then why do we do this to the disabled grandchildren who are in this facility? Why do we do this to the disabled Americans who are in this facility? You can’t do this to enemy combatants, you can’t do this to people in prison, most Americans wouldn’t do it to their dog, but we do it to disabled people every day,” Darling retorted.
It’s time for the shocks to stop.
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