Judge Rotenberg Center tortures its disabled students

[Trigger Warning: This article describes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, including use of restraints and electric shocks.]

“Instead of showers, I was bathed tied to a restraint board, naked, while staff washed me, putting their hands over me. All in front of cameras, where Monitoring watched, including men. Being tied on a restraint board, naked with my private areas exposed to the staff in the bathroom and the cameras was the most horrible, vulnerable, frightening experience for me. I would scream out ‘rape, rape!’ And these were recorded as major behaviors for me” (Autistic Hoya, “Judge Rotenberg Center Survivor’s Letter,” 01.15.2013).

“It was very difficult to sleep at the Judge Rotenberg Center. There are several alarms in the room and over the bed. Every time someone moved in bed it would set a loud alarm off that could be heard throughout the house. Most of us on Graduated Electronic Decelerators had to sleep with the devices on. That means locks and straps that get all tangled around you and make it very hard to lay down in a comfortable way. I was very anxious to close my eyes, always fearing a shock for something I might not have even known I did. My fears came true one day, and I was given a GED-4 shock while I was asleep. It was not explained to me why I got this shock. I was terrified and angry. I was crying. I kept asking why? And they kept telling me ‘No talking out’…After this incident I really stopped sleeping. Every time I closed my eyes they would jump open, anticipating that jolt somewhere in my body” (ReunifyGally, “Letter from Former Resident at Judge Rotenberg Center,” 01.11.2013).

“A staff would rush in at various times during the school-day, yelling and screaming while entering the room and racing to the student, and place either a plastic knife or a metal spoon to the student’s mouth, and yell, ‘Do you want to swallow a knife? Do you want to swallow a knife?’ The staff would hold the plastic knife to the student’s mouth in a life-threatening manner, the student would scream loudly as though it was his last breath, and another staff somewhere in the room would push a hidden remote control button to shock this student who was already physically helpless to move his body an inch in any direction while being attacked” (Autistic Hoya, “Letter from Former Teacher at Torture Center,” 01.16.2013).

These accounts don’t come from Guantanamo Bay. They’re not from Abu Ghraib. They’re not from a prison camp in North Korea or a re-education camp in China. They’re not from a gulag or a death camp. They’re not from pre-1960s American psychiatric wards. In fact, all three of these stories are from survivors of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, a school for disabled students in Canton, Massachusetts that is still open today—running on taxpayer dollars.

I have been writing about disability rights for The Miscellany News for my entire four years at Vassar College, and today I write my final article. I don’t want to leave you with more kvetching, though certainly that is something I am quite adept at doing. So instead, for my very last op-ed, I am going to tell you, my loyal readership, a story about one of the worst places in America, and at the end I will tell you what you can do to help.

The story begins in 1971, when psychologist Matthew Israel founded the Behavior Research Institute in Rhode Island. The school housed autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities. The school would use physical aversives to dissuade them from undesirable behavior. At the time, aversives meant, “[S]praying children in the face with water, forcing them to smell ammonia, pinching them, slapping them, subjecting them to painful muscle squeezes, spanking them, forcing them to put hot peppers on their tongues, and forcing them to wear a white-noise helmet that emitted static” (Mother Jones, “The School of Shock,” 08.20.2007).

The center later moved to Massachusetts and was renamed after Judge Ernest Rotenberg, who ruled in favor of the institution during a legal struggle with the Massachusetts Office for Children, after the government agency had grown concerned about the staff abuse that led to the death of 22-year-old Vincent Milletich (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Prisoners of the Apparatus: The Judge Rotenberg Center,” 08.09.2014). Today, it is known as the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, or JRC for short.

The school still uses physical aversives on its students: most famously electric shocks. In 1988 Matthew Israel developed the GED, a device used to administer electric shocks on unruly students. The current model, the GED-4, can deliver a shock of 45.5 milliamps (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Prisoners of the Apparatus: The Judge Rotenberg Center,” 08.09.2014). According to the Electronic Library of Construction, Occupational Safety, & Health, 30 milliamps is enough to cause respiratory paralysis (Electronic Library of Construction, Occupational Safety, & Health, “Electrical Safety: Safety & Health for Electrical Trades (Student Manual),” 01.2002).

As one survivor stated, “The GED is harmful. Even the GED-1. I was burned many times, and I still have scars on my stomach from being repeatedly shocked there, by the FDA approved GED-1. The electrodes had actually burned into my skin. I experienced long term loss of sensation and numbness in my lower left leg, after getting a shock there. I felt searing pain all the way down to the bottom of my foot, and was left with no feeling in my skin from the knee down for about a year” (PsychCentral, “Judge Rotenberg Center: One Patient’s Story,” 07.08.2018).

This survivor went on to say, “[L]ife with GEDs is a life of constant anxiety. I experienced heart palpitations daily, had a very hard time sleeping and eating, and become rather paranoid, always wondering if I was about to get shocked and constantly alert in all directions” (Autistic Hoya, “Judge Rotenberg Center Survivor’s Letter,” 01.15.2013). According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Some students receive hundreds of shocks per day. One student received 5,000 shocks in one day. Students are shocked over an extremely long period of time—of the 109 students receiving electric shocks at JRC…48 have been receiving these shocks for at least 5 years” (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Prisoners of the Apparatus: The Judge Rotenberg Center,” 08.09.2014).

The JRC also uses restraint and seclusion to humiliate students. As one survivor attests, “I was put in a GED seat board, strapped onto a chair. They turned a key to turn it on and it would automatically trigger a shock if I stood up without asking. I was in the chair for several months. I was also put in a room by myself and put in a 4-point chair—feet and chest tied to chair. I was strapped to the chair, except when I was sleeping, for four months.” The mother of a survivor told Mental Disability Rights International that the during her son’s first few months in JRC, he son was put in restraints. She said, “When he was in restraints, they put him in diapers—he was a teenager—he was never in diapers before and he always used a toilet. But they didn’t want to untie him and let him use the bathroom” (Mental Disability Rights International, “Torture Not Treatment,” 2010).

Even the United Nations itself views these practices as a form of torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture formally called for the U.S. government to intervene. Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, in response to claims that the actions of the JRC are justified in the name of medical treatment, said, “[E]ven for a good purpose—because the same is to get from a terrorist information about a future attack, is a good purpose. To get from a criminal a confession is a good purpose…You cannot balance this. The prohibition [on torture] is absolute” (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Prisoners of the Apparatus,” 11.23.2015).

On April 24, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration held an advisory hearing that concluded that GEDs cannot be used without harming the patient. Still, the FDA has failed to ban the use of physical aversives on disabled people (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “#StoptheShock,” 04.29.2018). If you have five minutes, call the FDA, call your Congressperson, and please tell them that it’s finally time ban these devices. I believe in you. We can do this.

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