Are Electric Shock Devices Torture or Therapy?

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The use of electric shock devices on people with disabilities remains deeply controversial.

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At the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts—a residential school for people with disabilities—school staff use electric shock devices on students to curb behaviors such as attacking peers and instructors, head banging, and throwing furniture.

The school remains the only place in the United States where electric shock devices are used on people with disabilities to modify behavior, and the practice continues to be hotly contested by disability rights groups and mental health experts.

Electric shock is sometimes considered therapeutic when used for psychiatric treatment of patients who suffer from severe mental health disorders, such as psychotic depression. The school, however, does not employ electric shock devices for these purposes. Instead, it uses a graduated electronic decelerator (GED)—a remotely controlled device worn like a backpack and connected to electrodes placed on various parts of the individual’s body—where a two-second shock is administered directly to the skin.

Various behavioral health experts have described treatment incorporating negative, painful feedback such as GEDs as obsolete. According to these experts, modern research supports rewarding less harmful behaviors to develop positive habits, rather than discouraging undesirable behaviors with pain.

Trumpeting GEDs as a “life-saving treatment of last resort,” though, the school and parents of GED recipients have repeatedly defended its practices. The school has been using electric shock devices since the 1980s, and the decision to incorporate GEDs into a patient’s treatment, the school has argued, is carefully considered and is only used when approved by a court.

In 2012, the school drew new attention when a 2002 video of a student repeatedly shocked for refusing to take off his jacket went viral. In the video, resident Andre McCollins was reportedly restrained for seven hours and shocked 31 times. Following the incident, he was hospitalized for over a month and never returned to the school.

Many students are also unable to discuss their experiences or pain because they may be non-verbal. Students capable of communicating verbally, though, have reported being shocked for minor transgressions such as swearing, nagging, or failing to maintain a neat appearance. Others have described burn marks and muscle cramps that can last for days after being shocked, as well as long term psychological effects, such as fear of authority.

Jennifer Msumba, a former student of the school, reportedly described being shocked continuously with a GED as similar to “being underground in hell.”

Disability rights groups similarly argue that the school’s use of electric shock devices mirrors torture. The Center for Disability Rights, for example, has noted that these electric shock devices, which are permitted for modifying behavior in people with disabilities, are illegal to use on criminals or during terrorist interrogations.

In addition, other entities have condemned the school’s practices. In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a report finding that the school’s use of electric shock devices on its students violated the UN Convention against Torture.

The school’s practice, however, has been repeatedly upheld by courts in the United States. Despite numerous lawsuits, the use of GEDs has survived years of litigation in Massachusetts, where state courts have consistently upheld the school’s ability to use electric shock devices on its students.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated medical products and devices for 40 years. In 2020, the agency issued a final rule specifically banning electric shock devices for exactly what the school was using them for—curbing “self-injurious and aggressive behavior.” FDA has only banned two other products since 1983 and described its actions as a “rare step.” In the final rule, the agency cited the significant risks of the devices and evidence of potential long term effects, such as tissue damage, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In response, the school, along with a group of parents of GED recipients, sued FDA. Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the agency’s ban. In its decision, the federal appeals court held that FDA was improperly attempting to regulate the practice of medicine—a right Congress has traditionally delegated to states. According to the court, banning the use of electric shock devices to modify certain behaviors interferes with a practitioner’s authority to make medical decisions by limiting the availability of treatment options. FDA filed an appeal of the court’s decision with the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was rejected.

Lawmakers are looking to next steps after encountering roadblocks on the regulatory and judicial stage. Following the D.C. Circuit Court’s decision, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and several other senators published a letter praising FDA and the U.S. Department of Justice for filing an appeal. Although the letter has no legal or legislative impact, it may foreshadow legislative action.

Today, the school reportedly continues to use GEDs on approximately 55 of its 300 students. The future use of electric shock devices on people with disabilities may ultimately rest with the U.S. Congress or the Massachusetts legislature.