Massachusetts: The land where torture is legal

A protest against the use of shocks at the Judge Rotenberg Center; there are men and women holding signs saying 'Torture isn't treatment', 'JRC tortures' and 'JRC: the school that teaches torture'Before and during the Afghan invasion twelve years ago, it was hotly debated whether torture of terrorist suspects is justified, particularly (but not only) when a terrorist has been arrested and it is suspected that they may know of a “ticking bomb” or someone just about to plant one. In civilian justice systems in every western country that I know of, torture has been illegal for centuries, not only because it is inhumane but also because it elicits misinformation, as the victims tell their captors what they want to hear, or implicate personal enemies, or just say anything that will make the torture stop. It’s unethical and doesn’t work. The sale of electroshock weapons has been illegal in the UK since 1997, and according to Mark Thomas, who has campaigned against and written a book on the arms trade, “the mere presence of a brochure advertising them will get companies thrown out of arms fairs”, and he himself had a man arrested for demonstrating them at a security fair in Birmingham in 2007. There is one part of the western world, however, where the use of electroshock as a punishment is allowed: in the United States, at institutions for people with learning disabilities who display challenging behaviour. And the “challenges” can be very mild indeed.

Today the Food and Drug Administration has been holding a meeting on the use of electroshock at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a facility for people with learning disabililities, particularly autism, in Canton, Massachusetts. I first heard about the JRC in an article in Mother Jones in 2007, School of Shock and the author of that later published this article in New York magazine. The young man featured in that article, Andre McCollins, appears in a video that was ordered sealed by a judge around that time, but was played in court after Fox News appealed to allow it to be played, and broadcast (you can watch it here). The boy is shown being strapped face-down on the floor after first refusing to take his coat off (because he wanted to hide the fact that he had been made to wear someone else’s clothes) and then hiding under a chair, kept there for seven hours and repeatedly given electric shocks. He was hospitalised for more than five weeks and never returned to the centre, and was severely traumatised. He had not been a particularly challenging pupil; on arrival, he was described as “a well-groomed young man with a pleasant disposition” who spoke of “wanting to get his driver’s license, becoming a police officer, and having a girlfriend”.

I’m rather shocked that a place like this has been allowed to survive this long in an advanced country, particularly in a place with a liberal reputation like Massachusetts. Much as we have numerous examples of poor care for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems in the UK, a place like this would be shut down immediately if it were openly using electric shocks for any reason. There are other examples in the USA of the rule of law not being applied fully to children and people who are disabled: they tolerated the private “boot camps” run by the World Wide Assocation of Speciality Programs, which was the subject of numerous abuse complaints besides the basic facts of them depriving people of their liberty without them being convicted of anything, and the media, including the BBC, have given that organisation some free publicity. The Rotenberg Center had to get court approvals to use the device, which it made the students wear all the time, but the offences for which they were shocked includes acts which are not violent by any stretch of the imagination, such as screaming, attempting to remove the electrodes or tensing up his body, supposedly a “health-dangerous behaviour”. One former inmate, Jennifer Msumba, testified that the device would frequently shock students by accident and that, as had been previously observed by state officials when evaluating the school’s effect on people they placed there, she did not make any progress as a result of the device:

The meeting has been live-tweeted using the #jrchearing hashtag, and while it does not appear to be possible to view the event or the testimonies online, the gist of what was said is on that hashtag, most of it from Lydia Brown (@autistichoya) and Ari Ne’eman (@aneeman), both noted autistic self-advocates. There is a widely expressed distress that torture is legal in 21st century America and that people can be shocked because they may become aggressive or because they get out of their seat. It was apparently questioned as to whether autistic people can feel pain.

Picture of a young white girl with two pony-tails on both sides of her head, wearing a pink top. She has a birthday cake in a large bowl, with pink icing, brightly coloured sweets scattered over it, and seven candles and a large number 7.Why does it take an FDA decision to decide whether to ban the use of a weapon on disabled people who are not threatening anyone with violence or in any way breaking the law? It should be a simple criminal matter: it is assault, regardless of whether it could be argued that it may produce some reduction in harmful or disruptive behaviour. Disobeying an order in a school or other institution is not a crime, and it is no excuse to use violence, and when the person affected has a learning disability, punishment does not even work and the violence ultimately inflicted may be completely out of proportion to the original behaviour: for example, in 2006 a seven-year-old girl, Angellika Arndt (left), was killed by special school staff when they restrained her when she refused to stop blowing bubbles in her milk.

Autistic and learning disabled people are human beings. We are not animals in a zoo. We should not have the treatments that are banned for use on criminals, and used only by tyrants on those they call subversives or troublemakers, reserved for us in response to often entirely harmless behaviour or trivial annoyance. It is illegal to treat anyone else like this. Americans with a learning disability cannot be greatly more violent or uncontrollable than Brits, and British schools and clinics that deal with people with autism, ADHD and other conditions that can cause difficult behaviour do without them. It’s disgraceful, it’s assault and there should be no question about banning it.

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