Judge Rotenberg Center: A History of Torture

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The abuse of people with disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, MA, accelerated when its discredited founder, Matthew Israel, devised a money-making patent that would apply painful shocks to residents at any time of the day – while they ate, when they showered, even while they slept – via a remote-controlled backpack worn 24 hours a day. Israel promoted this abuse as behavior modification for mostly autistic people, and JRC soon became the only institution in the country to utilize aversive shocks despite overwhelming evidence debunking its usefulness. Since then, JRC has been paid millions in taxpayer money to effectively traumatize unwilling residents. New York City alone throws $30 million annually JRC’s way to warehouse more than 120 of its residents. You may ask: If this treatment is really torture, why is JRC still in business? One answer may be that JRC pays thousands to lobby lawmakers and government administrators to turn a blind eye. In 2010, JRC paid Rudy Giuliani’s law firm $100,000 for his influence peddling. You may say: Well, maybe this is the only answer for self-injurious behavior. It has been shown that abusive treatment, just like the torture of enemy combatants (which is, unlike the torture of people with disabilities, illegal), is less effective than other approaches. In short, there is no excuse for supporting JRC’s program of torture.

• SEE: JRC’s device being used as intended.


Hand cuffs on the doors to FDA

Hand cuffs on the doors to FDA

Opposition to JRC is neither new nor insignificant. For 30 years, families and advocates for individuals who have been traumatized at JRC have demanded an end to this treatment modality, long ago debunked by reputable experts and associations. Since then, dozens of disability groups have submitted their objections to the U.S. government. In 2016, following a UN report that identified JRC’s practices as torture, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) drafted regulations that would ban the use of aversive shocks. All it needed was the signature of the FDA Commissioner, under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Unfortunately, since the 2016 elections, the FDA has refused to release this ban on the domestic torture of innocent Americans.

By the time Alex Azar replaced Tom Price as HHS Secretary in January, the Department was well aware of the broad opposition to the torture at JRC. ADAPTers, in particular, have made phone calls, sent emails, signed petitions, repeatedly visited the FDA and HHS, joined the many other signatories on the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s letter opposing the shock, and stood vigil in DC 12 days and nights for FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to come out and talk to us. Despite what HHS is telling the media now, neither Commissioner Gottlieb nor Secretary Azar has agreed to talk to us.


Burn marks on Andre McCollins due to shocks

Burn marks on Andre McCollins due to shocks

When Andre McCollins‘ case went to trial in 2012, JRC defended the 31 shocks he received after not taking his coat off as a part of his treatment plan. In other hands, the electrical burns and other injuries he received – injuries he has still not fully recovered from 16 years later – were the result of the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) being used as intended.

• SEE: Fox Undercover coverage of torture at JRC.

Former JRC staff member Gregory Miller reported that what happened to Andre, who was a teenager in 2002 when he sustained permanent harm as a result of a dangerous “treatment,” was not atypical. JRC residents on the GED are often shocked repeatedly for minor infractions because they do not understand the rules or why they are being shocked and they repeat the action for which they are being shocked.

• SEE: Life inside JRC.


Former JRC resident and GED survivor Jennifer Msumba has told the world about the pain and injury caused by the GED, not just when it malfunctions and shocks residents in the steam after the shower, or when the remotes trigger more than one device because the frequencies are too close together, or when the staff test the remotes to ensure they are working, or when they are used in unintended ways, as they were in 2006, when a teenager was shocked 77 times during a “prank”, but when, as it was with Andre McCollins, the device is used as intended.


ADAPT activist protesting JRC

ADAPT activist protesting JRC

ADAPT opposes institutionalization. We know from experience that any person with a disability who can be supported in an institution can be supported in the community, and our 35-year history has been devoted to providing every disabled person with the resources needed to live in the community if they choose. This includes the JRC residents, who are mostly children and almost all people of color. Further, we know that disability is never a justification for neglect or abuse, let alone torture.

The FDA appeared to agree more than two years ago, when they announced that they had prepared regulations to ban the GED because the risk it poses to the health and safety of the people on which it is used is unacceptable.

Still, neither the Obama nor the Trump administration has acted to protect the tens of Americans being tortured at JRC, and Alex Azar, by stonewalling ADAPT and the media, continues to put innocent people warehoused at JRC in harm’s way. Thanks to the inaction of HHS and the FDA, how long before we read about another Andre McCollins and Jennifer Msumba? It is time for Scott Gottlieb and Alex Azar to do their jobs: meet with ADAPT and release the regulations!


Secretary Alex Azar, HHS
Phone: (202) 690-7000
Email: Secretary@HHS.gov
@SecAzar, @HHSGov

Commisioner Scott Gottlieb, FDA
Phone (888) 463-6332
Email: CommissionerFDA@fda.hhs.gov