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News Archive

The news items below date from 2015 and earlier. VISIT OUR BLOG for current information and commentary on the struggle against torture and other human rights abuses in the United States and around the world.

 

Milgram Experiment Update

Experiments show people still willing to inflict torture

Almost 50 years ago, Yale professor Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment testing whether "ordinary people" would be willing to administer severe – possibly even fatal – electric shocks to others, if told to do so by an authority figure. 79% of his paid volunteers were willing to continue increasing the voltage even after the "subjects" (played by actors) were screaming in pain and, in some cases, even after they were apparently unconscious or dead. Milgram was so troubled by the results that he himself stated that such an experiment could never be repeated.

Recently, however, Dr. Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University, has replicated parts of the Milgram experiment, although with a number of modifications designed to reduce the psychological impact on participants. His findings, reported in American Psychologist support those of the Milgram study: under the right conditions, when instructed by an authority figure, a majority of normal subjects (65% in this experiment) were willing to inflict painful shocks on another person. At the same time, the British Broadcasting Corporation reports that Dr. Abigail San, a clinical psychologist has also replicated Milgram's experiment for an upcoming documentary – this time, disturbingly, without at least some of the limitations imposed by Dr. Burger.

Psychologists & Interrogation

Sign on the barbed wire fence surrounding the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.In Major Policy Shift, APA Restricts
Psychologist Involvement in Interrogations

By an overwhelming vote, members of the American Psychological Association have approved a landmark measure, announced Sept. 17, severely restricting involvement by psychologists in interrogations at detention sites such as the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay and so-called CIA black sites. This marks a significant shift from the association's 2005 determination that it was "consistent with the APA Code of Ethics" for psychologists to consult on interrogations in such settings. The resolution states "psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the U.S. Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights."

Adoption of the resolution may mark the end of a long-running conflict over psychologists' role in interrogations. Psychologists have helped the C.I.A. and military develop questioning strategies, evaluate interrogations and determine their psychological impact. Although APA policy unequivocally forbids psychologists' involvement in torture — including 19 specific interrogation techniques, such as mock execution and waterboarding, used under the Bush administration — it has permitted consultation for "national security-related purposes." Yet a growing number of APA Two guards drag an orange jumpsuit-clad prisoner at Guantanamo Bay prison.members have been calling for the association to unambiguously prohibit psychologist participation. In 2007 the APA's governing Council of Representatives voted down a moratorium, but some members responded with a grassroots petition campaign for the current resolution, described by co-author Dan Aalbers in an interview with Democracy Now! The resolution was approved by a vote of 8,792 to 6,157.

The referendum was not initially expected to be implemented until the APA's next annual meeting in August 2009, but in a surprise move, APA President Alan E. Kazdin announced in an October 2, 2008, letter to President Bush that the policy was in the process of being implemented. The new policy does not change the APA Ethics Code and thus is not enforceable, but the association noted that such policy statements could be considered by its Ethics Board as well as by third parties in adjudicating cases. For example, state boards that have the power to suspend a psychologist's license often take violations of APA policy into consideration.

Crisis in Detainee Health Care

New Legislation Seeks to Improve Health Care for Detained Immigrants

Picked up for overstaying his tourist visa, Bubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea, was thrown into immigration detention in New Jersey — but when relatives found him at University Hospital in Newark, he was in a coma, after emergency surgery for a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages. He died four months later. As reported by Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein in The Washington Post, Bah's name is only one of 66 on a government list of deaths that occurred in immigration custody from January 2004 to November 2007.

After the inadequate and negligent medical care provided in U.S. detention facilities was exposed by the Post report and other media, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the Detainee Basic An immigrant woman, perhaps in a detention facility, washes her face at one of a long row of sinks.Medical Care Act. This would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to set standards for timely and effective medical and mental health care for individuals in its custody. It would also require ICE to disclose the deaths of those in their custody within 48 hours to the Justice Department's inspector General and ICE's own IG. Menendez' bill is a companion to the House's H.R. 5950, introduced on January 5th after a class action lawsuit by the ACLU prompted hearings by the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.

More than 300,000 men, women and children are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") each year. They include green card holders who have committed minor immigration violations, and asylum seekers who frequently have committed no offense at all except to request asylum. Others have been held due to administrative errors and, in some cases, whole families with small children have been held in detention. In the past five years at least 83 detainees have died in custody or shortly after release. Thousands have been denied treatment or access to medications.

"In the rush to detain tens of thousands of immigrants rounded up in worksite raids, or appearing at our borders fleeing persecution or civil strife, we have lost sight of the need to provide those in our custody with even basic medical care and a modicum of decency and compassion," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a co-sponsor of the legislation. Learn more…

House Holds Hearings on Detainee Medical Care

On June 4th, 2008 the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law met for a second hearing on problems with detainee medical care. Under the strict immigration laws of the Bush administration, the number of detainees picked up for deportation or waiting for political asylum has tripled, with many immigrants forced to live behind bars for months or years. While detained, they have reportedly been denied adequate healthcare, resulting in serious health conditions, trauma, and even death. To take action on this issue, contact Physicians for Human Rights or the Detention Watch Network.

Read/View Testimony on this Issue: June 4, 2008

Patient–Physician Communication

RESEARCH: Communicating Torture and War Experiences with Primary Care Providers

Erin Mehta, RN, PHN, and Maureen E. O'Dougherty, PhD, of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, conducted detailed interviews in 2006 with 32 refugee clients in the waiting area of a clinic in a Minneapolis suburb. Read Study...

  • 72% of participants reported that they had never brought up with their physician the ways they had been affected by political conflict and violence in their home countries.
  • 66% reported that no doctor had ever asked them about the political conflict in their country, and how they had been affected by it.
  • 81% of participants said they would like to talk to their doctors about war trauma; half said that they would do so if the doctor asked, or if it would be of help to their health.
  • The most commonly reported barriers to communication were that many did not consider the impact of the war on them to be a health issue, or a relevant topic for their clinic visit, and that many did not feel it was their role to initiate such a discussion.
  • 75% of participants indicated they would be interested in learning more about the impact of stress and trauma on their health.

A Columbian woman stated: "They got no time. They can hardly hear what is your actual problem." Asked if she would like to be able to talk with her doctors, she said, "Why not? Sometimes you don't know if the anxiety is a chemical imbalance or if you need to see a counselor, and it would be helpful to talk with someone."

A Liberian immigrant recalled a very helpful conversation with a physician, but said it was "years ago." She said she would talk about these issues again if given a chance: "If I see the doctor is concerned more than with health then I would bring it up."

New Bedford One Year Later

Women Workers Combine Efforts for Survival

Guatemalan women artisans brought together by an immigration raid at their workplace in New Bedford, Massachusetts, have formed Sabiduria Oxlajúj Noj a collective effort producing unique, hand-crafted bags and children's clothing inspired by Mayan aesthetic traditions. The project is an effort to support themselves and other community members while they await the resolution of their cases. Contact the group through their web page or download their flier.

On March 6, 2007, a year ago, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 361 immigrant workers in a sudden raid on the Michael Bianco factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts – a facility that was producing backpacks for the US military! The employees, mostly women with young children, were shackled and first driven to Fort Devens, 100 miles away, then shipped out to ICE detention centers throughout the country – most in Texas. Mothers and fathers, who had been working under sweatshop conditions and had few resources, were separated from their children for many days – their loved ones and friends had no way to contact them.

Activists and attorneys working with the detainees believe that many of those arrested were victims of torture, political violence, or domestic abuse in their home countries, and therefore have valid claims to political asylum in the United States. Attorneys from a number of organizations leapt into action as soon as they got word of the raids, and have obtained the release of around 200 of those held in detention. Most of the others have either been deported or have chosen to leave the country voluntarily. In the forefront of the legal efforts have been lawyers from the Immigration Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project or PAIR.

While this disturbing incident may have disappeared from most of the national media, it has not been forgotten by the immigrant communities and activists of New England, who held a commemoration on its one-year anniversary, and pledged continued opposition to arbitrary and inhumane detentions, and support to immigrant workers in New Bedford and throughout the region.

On March 6, 2008, The Boston Globe summarized the status of the case one year later. For their work on this project two of the lead attorneys from GBLS were recently chosen as "Lawyers of the Year" by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

Among the community organizations taking a lead role on this case and related issues are New Bedford's Organization Maya K'iché, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), and Centro Presente.

Physicians and Torture

What Do Medical Students Know?

Not as much as they should, according to a disturbing new study published in the International Journal of Health Services. The Refuge Media Project recently taped an interview with lead author J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist with the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School.

The study was undertaken in response to recent concerns about the roles of physicians and psychologists in military interrogation. Its introduction notes that "Several reports have alleged physicians' complicity in the mistreatment of prisoners being held by the United States…Physicians may have advised interrogators as to whether particular prisoners were fit enough to survive physical maltreatment, informed interrogators about prisoners' phobias and other psychological vulnerabilities…failed to report torture, and altered the death certificates of prisoners who died as a result of torture."

A bound, hooded prisoner, on his knees, is menaced by a snarling police dog.The approximately 1,750 students who responded to an email survey were asked under what circumstances a physician would be ethically obligated to refuse an order from a superior officer to participate in an interrogation by:

  • threatening to inject the prisoner with a psychoactive drug,
  • injecting the prisoner with a harmless solution which the prisoner believes  to be lethal, or
  • actually injecting the prisoner with a lethal drug...

Twenty-seven percent of the students thought that the only  circumstance in which they would be ethically required to disobey was when they might cause the death of the prisoner, but more than six percent indicated that they would obey orders in any of these circumstances, even if told to inject a prisoner with a lethal substance – disturbing, but perhaps not too surprising, since 94% of them also reported that they had received less than an hour of instruction on military medical ethics.

Respondents were also asked about what interrogation methods would be permissible in a situation where prisoners refuse to answer questions about an incident in which U.S. soldiers have been killed: could they:

  • deprive the prisoners of food or water;
  • expose them to physical stresses such as heat, cold, or stress positions; or
  • threaten them with physical violence?

Thirty-seven percent of the students did not know that NONE of these methods are permitted under the Geneva Conventions. Thirty-four percent did not know that the Conventions require physicians to "treat the sickest first, regardless of nationality."

Only 3.5 percent of medical student respondents were aware that under existing law they could be drafted into the military if there should be insufficient physician volunteers.

Co-authors of the study are David U. Himmelstein, Karen Lasser, Danny McCormick, David H. Bor, Sarah L. Cutrona, and Steffie Woolhandler. It was published in the International Journal of Health Services, Volume 37, Number 4, and is available online.

UPDATE 3/15/08: Matthew Kauffman reports in The Hartford Courant that under proposed legislation the Armed Forces may offer bonuses of as much as $100,000 to recruit PhD Psychologists (only $5-15,000 for social workers and mental health nurses.) Mental health workers are currently in short supply in the military. If bonuses don't work, will a physician draft follow?

Chronic Indifference

Detainees with HIV/AIDS Face Health Risks

A new report from Human Rights Watch (December, 2007) argues that the United States Department of Homeland Security does not provide adequate HIV/AIDS care to immigrants who are detained in facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)– or in the hundreds of state, local, and privately-operated prisons where detainees are also held.

The report argues that the Department's guidelines for HIV/AIDS treatment and monitoring do not meet national and international standards, but that the agency does little to enforce its own standards anyway. It warns that, without improvements, "immigrant detainees with HIV/AIDS will continue to suffer and, in some cases, die in U.S. immigration detention."

The report cites numerous cases in which detainees developed resistance to AIDS drugs because they received inadequate or inconsistent dosages of medication.

23-year-old Victoria Arellano was reportedly denied treatment while held in a San Pedro, California detention facility. Although other detainees in her unit told guards that she needed medication, she was denied treatment and her condition worsened. When finally taken to the facility's health clinic, she reportedly told cellmates that she was taunted by the staff. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, one cellmate said that after she began to vomit blood, she "was told only to take Tylenol and drink large amounts of water…she died a week later." See the full Human Rights Watch Report.

Water-Boarding

A Lesson from the Killing Fields

In a recent BBC News column from Washington, Matt Frei writes about the controversy over whether the interrogation procedure referred to as water-boarding should be considered torture:

"The first time I came across the concept of water-boarding was in Cambodia in 1996. I was on a visit to Tuol Sleng, the school that had been turned into a concentration and liquidation camp by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. It was situated, oddly, right in the heart of the capital, Phnom Penh.

"I met one of the seven people - out of about 23,000 - known to have left the camp alive. He was a sculptor and he was saved because he was particularly good at depicting the smile of Brother Number One, Pol Pot. He took me on a tour of the camp, where most of his friends and seven members of his family were butchered.

"In one room, there was a small painting, barely noticeable amongst all the skulls, bones, chains and hammers. It was a naive drawing of a man strapped to a plank, a board, if you like, with another man pouring water over his face with a metal watering can. The kind you use for watering flowers.

"The face of the man lying down was covered in a blue cloth. The painting looked fairly comical, as if someone was irrigating a human face. "Water torture," my friend explained. "You think you die." Read Frei's complete column...