Andre McCollins was eighteen years old in 2002 when he was a student at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts. Like many of the students at the center, a residential institution for people with disabilities, Andre is autistic and has other mental disabilities. One day in October 2002, a staff member told McCollins to take off his jacket. He said no. That was direct defiance and disobedience to directions from staff. The Judge Rotenberg Center staff then pressed a button on a remote control connected to a powerful electric shock device that McCollins, like dozens of the center’s students, was required to wear. McCollins screamed and dove under the nearest table in a futile effort to hide from staff members who were already clambering around chairs to grab his arms and legs. They hauled him from under the table, physically pinning him as they strapped him facedown into restraints. Once McCollins was immobilized on the restraint board, the staff continued to administer shocks. Over the next seven hours, they shocked him thirty-one times. On the mandatory report, all but two of the subsequent shocks were for screaming in pain or tensing up in fear of the next shock.
Since 1971, six students have died in separate but preventable incidents at the Judge Rotenberg Center, which was forced to relocate from Rhode Island and close its sister facility in California following continual allegations of abuses such as food deprivation, forced inhalation of ammonia, and prolonged use of restraint and seclusion (isolation in solitary confinement). Originally founded for the ostensible purpose of treating those with the most severely dangerous self-harming or aggressive behavior, the Judge Rotenberg Center now houses children, youth, and adults with a variety of disabilities, as well as some residents referred through the juvenile justice system as an alternative to incarceration. Over the past four decades since its opening, the center’s practices have spawned numerous state investigations, a Department of Justice investigation, and condemnation from two United Nations Special Rapporteurs on torture.
The center continues to operate today. Dozens of parents and other relatives of the center’s residents turn out in droves for the annual hearings on Beacon Hill, clamoring that the center’s treatment is necessary and life-saving for their children, who they claim would die from their self-injurious behaviors if left untreated by the Judge Rotenberg Center’s shock device. And so, year after year, the hearings function as little more than well-practiced ceremonies in which disabled activists like me come to protest the abuses at the Judge Rotenberg Center while parents deride us for daring to suggest that they stop trying to help their children in the only way they can conceive of.
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