Abuse Can’t Be Measured in Volts Alone

Or, a Defense of the People Who Have Been Thrown Away

Mosaic of Minds and Other Musings
12 min readMay 10, 2024

WARNING: This essay describes an institution abusing human beings. This was hard to write, so it might be hard to read, too. Some things are so awful that even comprehending them hurts. Be careful.

Mosaic of Minds blog logo, featuring art with a literal “brainstorm” (a brain with lightning coming out of it) in the background.

Imagine a place that deliberately creates a climate of fear and extreme punishment to control those forced to live there. A remote-controlled electric shock over 20 times more powerful than an electric fence can hit you at any time — at meals, in the shower, even while sleeping.

You never know for certain when it will hit. But you can be shocked for infractions as small as swearing, saying “no,” or pausing more than 10 seconds in your class work. You’re always afraid.

When you respond to receiving an intense electric shock in a normal, involuntary human way — “tensing up” or “screaming” or even trying to remove the electrodes from your body — that earns you another shock.

You’re not allowed to cry, so you have to try to do it in secret. And don’t make the mistake of praying to God out loud to end your pain. You’ll be shocked for that, too.

Some people here have been shocked 100, even 200 times a day. There are electric burns on their skin.

But the real horror isn’t the painful shocks. It’s the constant surveillance.

It’s having to watch others being tortured right in front of you, and wonder if you’re next. And if you jump up or cry out in protest at this brutal scene, you’re shocked, too.

Some people have lived under this regime since they were as young as eight years old. Many are living here well into adulthood. Some people have been living here more than half their lives, and see constant surveillance and brutal punishment as normal.

No matter how intense the pain people experience, they will eventually become desensitized enough that it no longer controls their behavior. When that happened to people here, instead of abandoning the strategy, the powers that be upped the power of the shocks to the current level.

Although the regime takes pains to ensure no one will ever find out what happens there, a few people manage to escape. You won’t be surprised to learn they have nightmares about the place for years after.

But did you know it takes a long time to even realize that what was done to them was wrong? When that’s your constant reality, and you’re told you deserve it, you come to believe it eventually. You even send thank you notes back to the regime. “It’s a kind of brainwashing,” said one person who escaped.

This isn’t dystopian fiction. It exists in the United States, funded by taxpayer dollars from public school systems.

It’s called the Judge Rotenberg Center.

It’s the only place in the country that uses electric shock devices, called Graduated Electric Decelerator, or GED, to “manage” people’s behavior.

But, although the UN calls GEDs torture, the device itself is just the tip of the iceberg. The real horror is the way it’s used to create a culture of constant fear.

How does your perspective change if I tell you that the Judge Rotenberg Center is a “center of last resort” for students with severe emotional and behavioral problems?

Many were abused or neglected and abandoned by their parents and later adopted. Many grew up in poor, rough neighborhoods. Some were born with traces of illegal drugs in their system, thanks to parents who abused these substances.

Many inmates — the people the JRC was originally set up to house — can’t speak, have extremely low IQ, and injure themselves so severely it’s painful to watch. For example, they might bang their heads so hard against the floor that they risk brain damage. They might yell and hit and break things, because they lack control over their behavior at an age and size where they can cause damage. They might be incontinent (some behavior plans mention urinating at inappropriate times and places).

Their parents may feel physically unsafe around them, or just not know what to do with them.

In other words: these are the ugly disabled, the scary disabled. These are the people no one features in their campaigns for disability equality — because almost no one empathizes with them, and many are repulsed by them.

Does knowing who the victims really are change your feelings about the institution I described? Does it seem as bad as it did before?

If you imagined yourself suffering as you read, do you feel differently now that you’re imagining a severely disabled person undergoing that torture?

Do the constant surveillance, the climate of fear, and the intense, frequent electric shocks now seem like necessary evils?

If so, you’ve fallen into the same trap as these disabled people’s parents and the media.

You probably don’t empathize as much with these students as you would your friends and neighbors — because we don’t generally see these people as people.

We have no place in society for them. Even our institutions for people with disabilities and mental illnesses won’t take them. These are the people who have been thrown away.

The JRC receives taxpayer money from public schools because these schools are unable to meet their legal obligation to provide these students a “free and appropriate education.” So, the students arrive with court-ordered behavior plans.

Some were previously ejected from as many as a half dozen other institutions. Those institutions may have abused them in other ways — by constantly physically restraining them or drugging them to a zombie-like state. When he entered the Judge Rotenberg Center, a psychologist found Andre McCollins already “expressed a fear of strangers and of being hurt by others,” because he’d been abused and feared being hurt again.

We can live with that. We’d rather forget these people exist. We’d rather not know what happens to them.

Most of them can’t tell us when they’re abused. That, of course, makes them magnets for abuse. They may not have the intellectual or emotional resources to understand what’s being done to them and resist the JRC’s brainwashing.

But even if they could manage all that, would we believe them? Or would we think “that’s so extreme it couldn’t possibly really be happening. You must have misunderstood what was going on; it was just part of your behavioral program, not abuse?”

After all, we say, they’re too disabled to understand things or be rational. So, why should we listen to them?

Their parents often believe there’s nowhere else for their children to go. The JRC, with its “no-expel” policy, is their only option.

Desperate parents actually feel grateful to the JRC for accepting their children. It’s not in their interests to look closely at what the institution is actually doing. Just in case, the JRC puts up an appealing facade to hide what goes on behind closed doors:

Stepping inside for the first time, Cheryl [mother of Andre, who was later given 31 shocks while tied to a board] was dazzled by the décor. There was nothing institutional about this place; the carpet felt five inches thick. “I thought the place was beautiful,” she recalls. “I thought these people really took pride in what they did.” She loved that residents lived in lavishly decorated houses — not dorms. The boys wore button-down shirts and dress pants. And there were surveillance cameras everywhere; she couldn’t imagine a better way to ensure that Andre wouldn’t be victimized again. (New York Magazine, 2012).

“there is a Wizard of Oz-themed reward center, complete with animatronics, where people who have complied with their behavior plans can experience things like shops and a beauty salon.” (Mad in America, 2018).

Of course, parents are never informed of the punishments their children receive.

In fact, the JRC’s staunchest supporters are parents!

As early as 1978, the State of New York tried to prevent the school from using aversives. They even threatened to stop sending students if the school didn’t stop. The effort ultimately failed, because parents defended the JRC.

The very people who should have protected their children, instead let the school torture them, and other children, for decades.

The only reason we know or care what the JRC is doing is that they stopped limiting themselves to the kids who’ve been thrown away. They started taking so-called “high functioning” students who can say what’s being done to them.

Everyone involved believes that because these students are so disabled, and no one knows what to do with them, the only alternative is drugging them into a stupor.

Matthew Israel says:

“The real torture…is what these children are subjected to if they don’t have this program. They’re drugged up to the gills with drugs that cause them to be so sedated that they essentially sleep all day.”

Parents who defend the JRC tell reporters that before they were sent to the JRC, their children “were hospitalized, retrained, drugged into stupors and secluded in padded rooms.” They describe the changes in their children as a “miracle” and even say it “saved their children’s lives.”

Even reporters uncritically repeat that narrative. Even Jennifer Gonnerman seems to buy into the JRC’s narrative — when it comes to the most severely disabled kids.

Reporters are horrified by the abuse of the people they interview, who can talk and don’t bang their heads on the ground. They rightly object that these are often racial/ethnic minority kids from poor neighborhoods.

But they say things like this (emphasis mine, to draw attention to her assumptions):

The history of the Judge Rotenberg Center -originally, the students who were there — nearly all of them exhibited very, very extreme types of self-abusive, self-injurious behavior, things like banging their heads or tearing their hair out or chewing on their fingers, and that was the original justification for an approach that involved pain or for eventually for the use of these two-second electric shocks.

Today, the school has about 220 or 230 students and, as we mentioned earlier, a little bit more than half are what are called high functioning. These are not students who are severely autistic or mentally retarded.

So the trouble rises when a device like the shock device, which was developed for very extreme cases of self-injurious behavior, then becomes instead a kind of routine disciplinary tool used on all different types of students. (Jennifer Gonnerman, in an interview with NPR, 2007).

In other words–to oversimplify slightly — the problem is using the device in non-“emergency” situations on “high functioning” kids — the ones who have ADHD or bipolar disorder and IQ above a certain threshold; the ones who aren’t “severely autistic.”

That implies that it’s okay for the “low functioning” kids who injure themselves to be treated that way, or that the “low functioning” kids need that.

No one needs that.

And that shouldn’t be a radical thing to say.

At this point, some readers will likely bring up the usual straw man argument: “So, do you want to let them injure themselves?”

Think about this for a minute: we are injuring people with electric shocks much more powerful than a cattle prod or electric fence…to prevent them from hurting themselves. Does that make sense?

But we also fail to take into account the damage done to them by the constant surveillance, the climate of fear, watching others be hurt, the utter helplessness.

The JRC is attacking their very humanity.

The JRC functions something like a totalitarian state, something like a concentration camp. There’s no way severely disabled people could come up with anything so damaging.

We’re hurting severely disabled people so much worse than they could ever harm themselves.

If we take the parents supporting the JRC at face value, they honestly believe a life of constant torture and surveillance is worse than none at all.

Personally, I would rather be “drugged to the gills” or chained to a bed for the rest of my life (and have no life) than suffer under a regime like this.

And I don’t take that lightly. I can get painfully bored within a minute while waiting for the microwave to finish.

I don’t know for sure, because I can’t ask them, but I bet many of these students would agree.


Severely disabled, out of control, “low functioning,” low-IQ, incontinent, self-injuring, scary people are people. And they deserve better.

And that shouldn’t be radical to say.

How You Can Help

The United States Food and Drug administration needs public comments on its proposed rule banning the use of electric shock devices to modify behavior.

You can leave a comment here. I recommend reading the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s tips for how to leave a comment first.

Sources for Part 1

The title of this post was inspired by the late Mel Baggs’ blog post, “This is how I feel when I read a lot of posts about the Judge Rotenberg Center” (2014). They write: “Skin shock is showy and scary and it makes a good story and it makes it easy to see what is hurting people. But people can be hurt just as bad or worse without it…You can’t understand, maybe, why this is true. You think, maybe, that abuse, trauma, PTSD, CPTSD, can be measured in volts. It can’t. You think, maybe, that the destruction of lives is proportional to the visible destruction heaped on the body. It isn’t. It’s so much more complicated.” Please, if you can bear reading more about the JRC, read the whole thing. Then, read their post, “What makes institutions bad” (2012).

“An electric shock over 20 times more powerful than an electric fence”: The Progressive, 2023

“Even while sleeping”: NBC News, 2021.

“Swearing”: MassLive and NBC News, 2021.

“Saying no”: specifically, refusing to take off a jacket: The Center for Public Integrity, 2021 and ASAN’s #StopTheShock plain language fact sheet, 2024. NY Magazine, in 2012, provides the horrifying context.

“Tensing up or screaming”: The Progressive, 2023. Andre McCollins was shocked 31 times (while tied to a board and helpless) because he “tensed up” when shocked. His behavior plan said he would be shocked for 29 behaviors, including screaming and tensing up his entire body, which was described as a “health-dangerous behavior.”

“Not allowed to cry” : Mass Live, 2023, reported: “Crying was also a behavior that I got in trouble for, so I had to cry in secret,” Msumba said in video testimony used in an FDA hearing on GEDs.

“Saying you want to die”: CBS News reported in 2014: “I would ask God to make my heart stop because I didn’t want to live when that was happening to me. I just wanted to die and make it stop,” she told CBS News correspondent Anna Werner in an interview at her mother’s home outside Boston. “I thought, they won’t be able to hurt me anymore.” According to her behavior sheet, if she said things like this out loud, she could be punished for “verbal threats to harm self (to include comments about health dangerous behaviors or dying, such as … ‘kill me’-.”

“100 or 200 times/day”: “Even Dr. Israel has admitted a few students have gotten 100 or 200 shocks a day.

“There are electric burns on their skin”: CBS News, 2014.

“Having to watch others tortured in front of you”: Former staff member Greg Miller told NPR: “I kept seeing things I disagreed with, you know, student being attacked in front of 40 other students by a staff with a knife as part of his treatment and shocked while he’s in restraints and trying to keep the knife out of his face. And I saw that happen three times a week…”

“Being shocked for reacting to watching others being tortured”: Greg Miller told NPR: “who was I to question attacking the student, you know, staff attacking the student in front of 40 other students who are also — they were so traumatized by watching it we’d have to shock them, too. Standing up out of their seat, you know, and the reaction — we’d have to shock them for that. And it just — or throwing a tantrum(ph), or screaming just in reaction of watching their classmate get shocked and attacked, you know, with a knife by a staff yelling at him.”

“As young as 8 years old”: NBC News (2021).

“Living here well into adulthood”: The Center for Public Integrity, 2021. There’s a particularly heart-rending depiction of the people who were featured in the JRC’s “Before and After” videos as children — now in their thirties.

“No matter how intense the pain, people eventually become desensitized”: The (in)famous behaviorist Ivar Lovaas–who famously used painful “aversives” to make autistic children appear “indistinguishable from peers” — said from experience that “these people are so used to pain they can adapt to almost any kind of aversive you give them.

“They upped the power of the devices”: Mother Jones, 2007.

“They have nightmares about the place for years after”: Mother Jones, 2007.

“You even send thank you notes back to the regime”: CBS News, 2014, reports: “JRC says Msumba also sent positive emails to the school after leaving in 2009. When asked about the emails, Msumba told CBS News it took her two years to process her experience and recover from what she calls “abuse”.

“It’s a kind of brainwashing”: The CBS interview continues: “Msumba claims she endured a form of brainwashing.”

“The only place…” NBC News, 2021.

Thank you for reading. If you liked this blog post, please share it with others who might, too. Also, consider stopping by my main blog, Mosaic of Minds on Substack. You can support my work by subscribing to the Mosaic of Minds Substack, buying me a coffee on my Ko.Fi, or commissioning me to edit on Ko.Fi.



Mosaic of Minds and Other Musings

Emily Morson explains research on neurodivergent brains through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, SLP, & lived experience.