Citizens Commission on Human Rights
National Affairs Office
Washington, DC

Citizens Commission on Human Rights New England is relaunching its campaign to prohibit the use of devices that the FDA has recently proposed to ban after citing physical and psychological harm to those receiving electrical shocks from the devices.

The Boston-based chapter of Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) is relaunching its campaign to raise awareness about a controversial electrical shocking device used for behavioral conditioning in Massachusetts, following the failure of the state legislature to pass a bill that would have prohibited the device.

CCHR will work with other organizations concerned with disability rights and mental healthcare reform to inform Massachusetts lawmakers and the public about the physical and psychological harm resulting from use of “electrical stimulation devices” on the vulnerable population attending the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a school for disabled and autistic students in Canton, Massachusetts. The device was developed by a psychologist who is the founder of the school.

Bill H.180 would have prohibited in Massachusetts the use of devices which can cause physical pain to persons with disabilities for the purpose of changing their behavior. The bill, which has been introduced and reintroduced in the Massachusetts state legislature for more than 10 years, was allowed to die in the current legislative session without a vote.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed to ban the electrical shocking devices used on students at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, because of the physical and psychological harm the devices can cause.

The harm from the devices is detailed in a recent proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban electrical stimulation devices used for curbing aggressive or self-injurious behavior at JRC, the only facility in the U.S. known to use the devices. JRC staff administer electrical shocks through electrodes attached to a student’s arm or leg to cause a change in their behavior.

“These devices present a number of psychological risks including depression, anxiety, worsening of underlying symptoms, development of post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical risks such as pain, burns, and tissue damage,” the FDA wrote in its ban proposal.  JRC students with intellectual or developmental disabilities are particularly vulnerable, the FDA notes, because it may be difficult for them to communicate about pain or other harms they experience from the electrical shocks.

In 2010, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, referred to the use of electrical shock devices for this kind of aversion therapy as torture and sent an urgent appeal to the U.S. government to investigate.  Another U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez, said in 2012, “The passage of electricity through anybody’s body is clearly associated with pain and suffering.”  Mendez, a professor of human rights law, knew firsthand about that harm, having been tortured with electric shock during Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s.

The use of the shocking devices on vulnerable individuals may constitute a human rights violation, according to Colbe Mazzarella, president of CCHR New England. “We will continue to push forward at the state and federal level until this torture is abolished once and for all,” she said.

Exactly when the FDA could issue a final rule banning the electrical devices used at JRC is not known. In the meantime, CCHR is renewing efforts to prohibit the use of the devices at JRC, as well as to ban the electroshock machines psychiatrists use for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). To date, over 134,000 people have signed CCHR’s online petition to ban electroshock.