Massachusetts Vote Coming Soon on Bill to Protect Veterans, Disabled, and Elderly from Electric-Shock Training

Vote Coming Soon on Bill to Protect Veterans, Disabled, and Elderly from Electric-Shock Training


Decades of attempts to stop painful behavior modification will hit a milestone in February. Massachusetts Bill H.180 is a proposed ban on painful procedures to train disabled people.

Senator Robyn Kennedy is the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, which must vote on the ban by the February 7 deadline.

If the bill is passed it will cover all Massachusetts institutions for disabled people, including nursing homes, veterans hospitals, assisted living facilities, and residential schools for disabled students. They would be barred from using the psychological techniques called aversives, which are painful or inhumane behavior therapies.

Aversives are controversial punishments to change the behavior of disabled people. They have included pinching, punching, slapping, spanking with spatulas, water spray in face, noise helmet to block sound, ammonia in nose, hot sauce on tongue, food deprivation, liver powder on remaining food, electric shock on arms, legs, and abdomen.

The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, MA has used all of these aversives, and it is the only program in the US that uses  remote-controlled electric shocks to punish behavior. The founder of JRC, psychologist Matthew Israel, invented and patented a shock device called the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED).

The center compares the shock to a bee sting, but survivors of JRC have testified that it causes burns and severe, lingering muscle cramps. According to its website, JRC is “licensed to serve ages five through adult.” It has used the device on minors in the past. Each student’s shock program is approved by psychologists and by the Bristol County Probate Court.

Israel claimed that there are no negative side effects from skin shock. Professor Nancy Weiss, co-author of a book on the Rotenberg Center, reported that people who have experienced the shock at JRC describe it as the worst pain they have ever felt, and years later still have debilitating PTSD. “Electric shocks are not a professionally accepted approach to behavior management…You’re not allowed to use electric shock on prisoners, on prisoners of war, or on convicted terrorists.”

The JRC responds that using electric shock is “a treatment of last resort” for residents who harm themselves, but their court-approved programs allowed harmless behaviors to be shocked, including hand-flapping, standing up without permission, taking their eyes off of their work, nagging, disobeying orders, or making noises.

A lawsuit revealed video of staff shocking 18-year-old Andre McCollins 31 times over seven hours while he was strapped to a restraint board. The first shock was for refusing to take off his jacket; the other 30 shocks were for screaming while being shocked or tensing his muscles in anticipation of the next shock.

No other state allows this type of punishment. Instead, people with disabilities across the country are in programs of positive reinforcement. Taxpayers pay JRC tuition of $300,000-$450,000 per student, per year. In November Kennedy’s committee heard testimony from thirty-nine supporters of the ban and only four opponents.

Mainstream national disability rights organizations oppose the GED, as well as human rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations. Manfred Nowak, a UN monitor, condemned JRC for committing torture. Last fall the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in Massachusetts, allowed the shocks to continue. The court stated that opponents can “wait for a legislative solution.”

The next step of the legislative solution will come by February 7. If the committee votes in favor of the ban, it will move to the legislature. Speaking for CCHR, Colbe Mazzarella urged Massachusetts residents, “Call your state senator and your representative. Tell them to co-sponsor and vote for H.180. Let’s stop this torture now!”


For updates on the issue, visit

CCHR members holding over 1000 messages from supporters of the bill, delivered to Sen. Kennedy and others. (L to R) Colbe Mazzarella, Paul Bradford

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