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Who will be criminalised in the post-Roe USA?

8 May, 2022 - 22:58
A picture of a blue van with its rear covered by large pictures of babies and foetuses with the slogans "Choose life not death", "Let me live", "Abortion shame", "Abortion causes breast cancer" and "Hitler's Holocaust" printed on them. There is an American flag transfer on the left side of the van.An anti-abortion protester’s van in Birmingham, Alabama

Last week a draft of a ruling by the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court was leaked to the American news site Politico (PDF of the document itself here) which indicated that the court will overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which prohibited the states of the US from entirely banning early abortion. The opinion, written by Samuel Alito (appointed by GW Bush) and apparently favoured by four other conservative judges, claims that the earlier ruling was “egregiously wrong”, that “its reasoning was exceptionally weak”, and that it constituted an “abuse of judicial authority” which invented a right which had no constitutional basis nor any precedent in US history. This will be the culmination of a long war of attrition by the American religious Right; under Bush junior and Trump, a series of ‘conservative’ judges have been appointed to the Supreme Court in the expectation that Roe will be overturned once they achieved a majority. In recent years a number of states have introduced laws which are directly aimed at provoking a challenge to Roe, while others have introduced “trigger laws” that would outlaw abortion as soon as Roe was struck down. Some states also have laws from before Roe on the statute book which some prosecutors have made it clear will be reactivated if Roe is overruled, with one Republican county prosecutor in Michigan saying would be prosecuted without exemptions, including situations where the mother’s life is in danger; in at least one state, legislators intend to outlaw the use of hormonal and emergency contraceptives and IUDs on the grounds that they are in fact abortifacients.

Abortion is one issue where a lot of people inclined towards conservative views have taken the other side because of the sheer extremism and irrationality of those they might have stood with. In many countries, any debate about abortion founders on the possibility that it may lead to the situation in the US where anti-abortionists have killed doctors as well as harassing women and bombing and burning the clinics; the irony of all the talk of saving babies is that their behaviour may have made abortion easier everywhere but in the US. People are very much aware of the hypocrisy of “pro-life” campaigners who resist the expansion of public healthcare, or gun control, or who support the death penalty despite evidence of racism in the police and justice systems and their carelessness about the conviction of innocents. In recent years, a number of countries in Latin America have passed laws outlawing abortion with no exceptions, including to save the life of the mother, similar to the constitutional amendment passed in Ireland in the 1980s and only recently repealed after it became obvious that women were dying, sometimes for the sake of foetuses that could never have been saved. Both in those countries and in reactionary states of the US, women have been sentenced to long prison terms after suffering miscarriages which it was deemed that they had contributed to by using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, or it was wrongly supposed that they had induced their miscarriages. It does not always appear necessary to prove a causal link between the woman’s alleged behaviour and the miscarriage (perhaps this will help the woman appeal, though she will by then have spent several years in prison). These women were often poor or from Black or Latino background, and it was the prejudices of the doctors (that “these people” are drunks or drug addicts and can’t be trusted to look after their children) that led to the police becoming involved in the first place.

Miscarriage is extremely common; one in eight known pregnancies end in miscarriage (many more miscarriages happen to women who do not know they are pregnant) and ‘only’ 1% are affected by three or more miscarriages in a row. I used to know a family where the mother had seven miscarriages in between the births of her second and third son. Infanticide is a crime, which is as it should be, but in the UK in the late 90s and early 2000s, a series of women were jailed for murder because they experienced multiple cot deaths which a then influential paediatrician claimed did not happen; two cot deaths was ‘suspicious’ and three, unless proven otherwise, was murder. This ‘science’ has since been debunked, but it left grieving mothers in prison for several years, children without their mother and marriages destroyed; one of the mothers died only a few years after she was released. A total ban on abortion will result in mothers being investigated for illegal abortion when they are grieving the loss of wanted babies; anything she had done which has ever been linked to increased risk of miscarriage will be used against her, especially (but not only) if she is poor or not white, because these irrational, predatory politicians and prosecutors will be looking for opportunities to get convictions. Following the scent of blood, in essence.

I’m not wholly pro-choice; I support tightening up rules such as the exemption to time limits for a disabled foetus (and ‘disabled’ or rather ‘handicapped’ could mean something as trivial as a cleft palate, a condition correctible by surgery, as it is undefined; the example of a cleft palate is a real one). We need to understand why there are time limits for abortion: because it is morally unacceptable to end the life of the foetus because of a liveable impairment at a stage when when it is definitely a baby and could survive premature birth (especially in the context of modern healthcare). I have come across feminists, in particular, who use the most extraordinary euphemisms and circumlocutions to elide the fact that a foetus in late gestation is a human being, even if not a legal person (and ‘person’ as a legal term means something different from the word in everyday language, which simply means a human being), while some simply flatly deny it. This sort of extremism could have much the same effect as that of the “pro-life” side, and drive people onto the other side who were sympathetic to the idea that early abortion should be available for women who are desperate.

I haven’t read the entire opinion, which is 98 pages long including footnotes. I am no expert on American constitutional law but the fourteenth amendment (which Roe largely relies on) is not the only one that might be involved; where contraception is prohibited, where fantasies hold sway such as it being possible to re-implant an ectopic pregnancy in the womb (it is not, and a ruptured ectopic pregnancy will kill very quickly) and where little consideration is made for where a woman’s life is at risk, a case could be made that either or both of the first and fifth amendments (establishment of religion and right to life) are being violated: women will be expected to lay down their lives to suit a belief (that life begins at conception) favoured by some religions but not agreed with by everyone. The Alito opinion does not discuss these possibilities, so this could be a matter for future litigation, the result of which is not a foregone conclusion as judges with a conservative approach to the constitution do not always rule in favour of socially conservative opinions and right-wing demands. Americans have always looked to the federal government and the constitution to protect them from the caprices and prejudices of local politicians and however tendentious the reasoning in Roe may have been, without it some of the most bigoted politicians and officials in the US will have a free hand to persecute women who are in desperate situations, are grieving, or both. They simply cannot be trusted with this power.

Image source: Dave Walker (original image). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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Review of Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story

12 April, 2022 - 19:05
A picture of Jimmy Savile, a white man in his late 50s, standing on a railway bridge wearing a dark suit and tie. Behind him (off the bridge) is a four-track railway in a cutting with an InterCity 125 train approaching.Jimmy Savile in a British Rail advert from 1982

Netflix has released a two-part series on the British TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who over a decades-long career as a club DJ, radio and TV host, charity fundraiser and adviser to politicians and royalty, used his position, fame and connections to molest a number of women and girls both in media environments and in the hospitals he gained access to as a result of his fundraising and volunteering activities. While there were always rumours about this throughout his life, investigations went nowhere and the matter was only uncovered once he had died and could no longer sue for libel. This programme, I feel, does not tell us much we do not already know about the story.

In fact, it brims with Savile library footage; in the first quarter hour of the first episode, most of it was old footage of him and excerpts from his programmes. Most of the first episode was a career retrospective which hardly mentioned his abusive side at all. It almost seemed admiring; it gave the impression of a brilliant DJ and TV host who could be a bit weird and didn’t have much of a personal life but lived for the music and fame, but nobody seemed to suspect was actually abusing anyone. I get the impression that they would have done the same if they’d known him, or at least that they thought most people would.

The abuse angle is only handled in the second episode (and both episodes are about an hour and a half long and could both have been split in half). Most of the details are quite well known now: that he had a key to Broadmoor and was allowed unrestricted access to patients there; that he worked as a volunteer porter at the main hospital in Leeds; that he raised most of the money to build the new spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, one of the UK’s main spinal injury rehabilitation centres which at the start of the 80s was falling apart with ceilings threatening to collapse on top of bedridden patients. Staff interviewed said that without Savile, the new unit could not have been built. Yet at all three institutions, he was molesting patients and, in the case of Stoke, children in the community as well, one of whom was interviewed for this programme.

I was less aware of the police’s poor response to accusations against Savile as they were in fact approached on a number of occasions. On one, approached separately by three women, they told each that their accusations were uncorroborated, knowing that in fact two other women had made similar accusations. The programme played a police interview with Savile in which he told the female officer, addressing her as “young lady”, that he was know for being litigious. He denied everything, but the charm we know from his TV and radio broadcasts was replaced by a contemptuous and threatening tone. Clearly, the police had put up an inexperienced officer to do the job which should have been done by a pair of seasoned officers who would not have been intimidated. The interview was cut short. Less relevant was an anonymous letter that was read out, from someone claiming to be an insider and accusing Savile of being a “committed paedophile” (which at the time meant, and technically still means, an adult with a strong sexual interest in prepubescent children, not adolescents) with no specifics or evidence. It is not surprising that this letter was ignored.

For the most part it is clear why people overlooked Savile’s obvious faults, his lack of qualifications and suspicions about his behaviour before giving him access to the newly paralysed and the mentally and physically ill: he was good for business, he was entertaining and there were a lot of people who loved him, not knowing what went on behind closed doors. He had cultivated friends across the British establishment, not only in the BBC but also royalty and the Conservative party. However, much as the NHS’s leadership were taken in by his celebrity also, this scandal says much about the dangers of making public services such as healthcare dependent on private charity. Perhaps at least one of these institutions would have been able to refuse his services if they had received adequate funding from the government.

Still, it’s non-essential viewing, and not recommended at all if you find the sight of Savile creepy because you’ll be seeing a lot of him. It doesn’t break much new ground and could be condensed into a couple of hours if they spared us the huge amount of library footage of Savile; they might have been able to fit in some more interviews.

Image source: SozLike, from YouTube.

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Did Putin do Brexit to us?

21 March, 2022 - 19:13
 How many more can we take?".Front page from the Daily Mail in August 2015

In the years since the Brexit referendum in 2016, it has become fashionable among Remainers to blame the result on manipulation. While the racist and xenophobic motives were plain from some of their advertisements (like the one claiming Turkey was joining, which it is not), it also transpired that people were targeted with advertisements on Facebook that appealed to their likely prejudices. It’s been reported that some of the financiers behind the Leave campaign had links to Russian oligarchs or embassy officials and also that Russian trolls and bots were behind a lot of pro-Leave misinformation during the campaign. The result is that a myth has grown up that the result was entirely the result of Russian interference and the referendum would have gone the other way but for it. I am not convinced.

My view is that the effect of disinformation and of the dirty advertising campaigns at most tipped the scales in favour of Leave. The vote was already in the balance and this was the result of two things. One was a long-running campaign of propaganda against the EU by the right-wing corporate media which had continually portrayed the EU as both a threat to British national sovereignty and a source of ridiculous nuisance legislation, regulating such things as what shape cucumbers could be sold in shops. Newspapers and politicians continually promoted the idea that the EU was a plot for German domination of Europe and that we would be sucked into a European ‘superstate’ or “United States of Europe” that we would not be able to extricate ourselves from. The collapse of federations in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia seemed to add weight to those ideas, irrespective of the fact that those federations were not democratic, nor made up of democracies. More recently, Tory politicians and press have railed against the Human Rights Act, a law which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law; they portray this as nothing more than an obstacle to “getting things done” when that means an ‘undesirable’ being locked up or kicked out of the country. In fact, the ECHR has nothing to do with the EU and protects innocent people as well, among them people with learning disabilities trapped in hospitals.

The other factor was the influx of migrant workers from eastern Europe in 2004 following those countries’ accession to the EU. Other EU countries did not allow this; when weaker economies are admitted to the EU, their workers are not allowed to freely work in pre-existing member countries for a few years. Blair decided he was above listening to people, however, and allowed them to freely live and work here. I have mentioned the problems with this policy before; no doubt many of the people who objected were racist, but it did result in a reorientation of industry towards using cheap and often temporary foreign labour, some of which was not even advertised in English. Blair, despite relying on the votes of working-class people in former heavy industrial constituencies such as his own on Tyneside (many of which defected to the Tories in 2019), failed to rejuvenate British industry and provide meaningful jobs for those dumped on the scrapheap by Thatcher. As a result, the EU was blamed and large sections of the working class voted to leave. They did not need any Russian-based disinformation campaign on Facebook to persuade them that the EU was the reason they were out of work, or at best had seen only banal, low-paid work without prospects available to them for decades. (The press, meanwhile, presented the issue as a threat, depicting it as a migrant ‘invasion’ and, like politicians, making no distinction between EU and non-EU migration.)

It’s true that much of this was in fact the result of British policy and was not forced on us by the EU, but all the same, this had been inflicted and then maintained by governments who supported British membership for the trade advantages rather than any ideals about cultural enrichment. While it’s understandable that some people on Twitter overseas do not know about the history, it’s sad that many British people who have lived in the country all their lives and seen all this forget that there were real issues and not just racism, stupidity or disinformation behind that vote. So for anyone who wants to tell me to “go read Carole Cadwalladr” if I have any doubt about the Russian effect: I’ve read the Observer, the paper she writes in, since I was a teenager. I respect her for looking into the dirty campaign and the Russian connection. But it’s not the whole story. Much as it’s tempting to blame Putin for everything, we can’t. While it’s true that the result was convenient for him, the Russian role in actually making it happen was at most limited.

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How ‘fair’ is mandatory water metering?

13 March, 2022 - 22:15
Picture of Richie Kavanagh, an older white man with long, curly fair hair wearing blue dungarees over a white and blue stuffed shirt, standing behind a red plastic barrier of the sort used to fence off works on pavements. Behind him is a stone house festooned with blue and yellow flags.Richie Kavanagh singing his Water Meter Song

This week my family got a letter from the local water company, Thames Water, telling us that water meters are going to be installed on our street some time this month and that they will be coming to dig up our street to do it. The meters in question sit under the pavement unlike, say, traditional gas or electricity meters which are in the house and which you can read easily (or as easily as you can access the cupboard). A few weeks ago, a relative who lives in nearby Ewell, just across the border in Surrey proper, was told that her street was going to be dug up for the same purpose by the same water company which provides water and sewerage to most of London and the Thames Valley region (i.e. the Oxford and Reading areas) but not to the south beyond London which has its own water providers. I mentioned this in a tweet and was asked by the company to talk to them privately, which I do not want to do as it is clearly a matter of policy rather than a particular issue my household has with them.

I Googled phrases like “kingston water metering” and “thames water metering” and got no specific results about water metering being imposed on this area; there were a few stories about “rolling out” of “smart meters” (which send hourly reports to the company electronically) across various parts of TW’s territory over the next few years. They have the legal powers to do it under the Water Industry Act of 1991 and switching to meters has been encouraged over the years; newly built houses and flats always have them installed. But there has been no public announcement, no coverage of it in the local or national media and no public debate, and TW’s website tells us that metering is the ‘fairest’ way to charge for water use, because people only pay for what they use. But how fair is that?

It sounds to me like the standard Tory definition of fairness: that public services are mere conveniences that people may choose to use or not, and should pay for as they use them. The same logic is used to demand payments from people who use social care and other services for disabled people: it’s not ‘fair’ that people who do not use the services pay for them through their taxes. Similarly when councillors in wealthy districts or counties complain that their business rates or Council Tax cannot be used locally rather than being redistributed via central government. It’s never about people with the means to pay for services they might need paying more so that everyone benefits. Water is not used more by rich people; it is used more by large families, especially those with young children. True, households with large gardens which use the mains to water the garden might also use more, but this is not a reason to penalise the couple with young children or the disabled person who has extra laundry needs because of incontinence so that a person who lives alone, or a wealthy childless couple, can pay less. When water really is scarce, we have a system of hosepipe bans and drought orders to prevent water being wasted to wash cars or irrigate grass. We do not need to use this system every year, even during hot summers.

Water stress is an issue, of course, but it’s not the only environmental issue we face: another is the overuse of disposable products, such as nappies, most of which contain plastic and which all go to landfill, and we only have so much land we can use for that. The alternative is washables, but they require water, either from the household’s own supply or from a commercial laundry service. Where water is particularly scarce, disposables might be the better option, but in London right now it is not; washables clearly are better for the environment. Why is it fair to penalise people (mainly women) trying to conserve finite resources and reduce the amount they throw away (which also reduces the local refuse workload) for needing a resource which, at least in the immediate future, will not run out?

This may be related to something I have noticed out and about in recent years: that water pumps are being removed from filling stations and replaced with paid-for screenwash pumps, and that water pressure in toilets available to the public (in filling stations as well as cafes) is miserly. Public toilets are scarce, and in town centres the only available facilities are often in out-of-the-way places such as the second floor of a shopping centre or the back of a shop (and then, not on the ground floor) and again, with inadequate pressure. Even after two years of a pandemic whose risk can be ameliorated somewhat with hand washing, it is difficult to find anywhere to do that in a lot of public places, including supermarkets. At motorway service stations, the toilets (which are usually the only place to wash one’s hands) are often located at the far end of the service building, past all the shops and restaurants, and easier access routes to them blocked. Councils are no longer required to provide public toilets, leaving this often to private businesses loath to give anything away and whose toilets are often reserved for their own customers; many were removed in the 1980s, partly as a result of a moral panic about gay men using them to solicit others for sex (known as cottaging). The provision of clean water used to be regarded as a matter of public health; now, it is presented as an avenue for private profit.

I find it astonishing that meters can be imposed on a whole area with no publicity and no public debate. Meters have been available for years; if take-up has been less than the companies might want, this may be because householders want the security of a fixed bill rather than one which could rise dramatically for reasons beyond their control. And in future years, once everyone has been forced onto meters, the savings might be reduced as they are the norm, rather than a “good choice” that is encouraged.

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No excuse for racism

10 March, 2022 - 22:37
A filling station by the side of the road. The signs are a stylised yellow W on a green circular background. There are three blue signs on the approach, the first showing a petrol pump, the second a cup with the name 'WOG' below it, and the third a 'P' for parking.WOG filling station on the Ukrainian approach to the Polish border. (Source: Google Street View)

After Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of solidarity from people all around the world at the attack by the dictator Putin’s forces on a democratic country which had dared stand up to it and resist being dragged into the status of a satellite country to a corrupt, decaying former superpower. As soon as bombs began falling on Kyiv, the country’s capital, people began fleeing, mostly to the western borders with countries like Poland and Romania; more than a million refugees have fled the country. Among them are foreign students and others from African and Asian countries, and numerous stories have emerged of racist treatment they had received from border guards, the police, shopkeepers and others while attempting to leave the country. These include the use of racial slurs, physical assaults, being pulled off trains so that Ukrainians could take their place, being told to walk across the border, being left to sleep out in the open in the cold, being sent to the back of queues at the border as well as in food shops where, when they finally gained entry, they found no food of substance left as natives had bought it all. As remarks in the media that “you don’t expect this sort of thing in a civilised country in Europe” started to be noticed as well as the still festering issue of the African and Asian refugees stranded by Lukashenko at the Belarusian-Polish border who have received nothing like the warm welcome the Ukrainian refugees have in Poland, many of us started to form the conclusion that solidarity is only for White people and (as the experience of Bosnians shows) then only if they are not Muslims. Others remarked how disturbing it was that, even when bombs are raining down, people find time to be racist.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK made some laughable excuses for his countrymen’s behaviour: that the country had always been ‘homogeneous’ and people were not used to the sight of African and Asian people and one solution might be to segregate foreigners from natives at the border. This is very clearly inaccurate. This part of Europe has never been homogeneous: there are twelve official regional languages which include Russian but also Belarusian, Hungarian, Crimean Tatar and Yiddish. Over the years western Ukraine has been ruled by the Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians and Germans as well as Russians: the city of L’viv, the major city of western Ukraine, had four names over the course of the 20th century. The country is a popular destination for students from India and other Asian and African countries, particularly medical students. While these people would have been concentrated in the cities, surely people in smaller towns knew about them. This idea that they had never seen a brown face before is ridiculous.

And western Ukrainians are not, yet, traumatised by war. The Polish border is a long way from anywhere there has been any fighting, although there have been a few air strikes in some western cities including Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk but not L’viv. Knowing there is a war elsewhere in your own country, when that country is very big, is not the same as having direct personal experience of it. I lived in London through the time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were ongoing; there were occasional bomb attacks on the mainland such as in London, Warrington and Manchester (Guildford and Birmingham were before I was born) but I was a long way from the scene of each and I witnessed nothing and suffered no injury or loss, so I cannot have been traumatised by any of it. Even if you have suffered trauma at the hands of people who are in some way different from you, it does not give you the right to become a bigot or to become abusive and cruel to people who look in any way like your abusers if you later gain power over them (and Russians do not look like any of the refugees who have been abused in western Ukraine these past two weeks).

Do these incidents demonstrate that Ukrainians in particular are more racist than any other nation? Probably not; border forces the world over are notorious for humiliating people trying to visit from poorer countries and finding spurious excuses to send them back, Britain included. Over recent decades, anti-immigrant narratives have taken hold in many countries’ media, portraying refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers who have come to live off the benefit system and immigrants as criminals. Right now, the UK is the only one in Europe which still requires visas for Ukrainian refugees to enter, and those with family here have found it impossible to get the visas required. It’s possible that this display of racism stemmed from selfishness; people wanted to get out as quickly as possible (even though that part of Ukraine is still mostly safe), and used racism as an excuse to get others out of the way. It’s my country! Me first!

None of this detracts from the truth that the invasion was unjust, that Russia has no claim over Ukraine and no right to demand its subservience, that even if much of its population wants closer ties, this does not mean they want to be ruled by Putin’s regime (a fact borne out by local resistance even in Russian-speaking eastern parts of the country since the invasion) and this has intensified since they saw what atrocities the Russian state and military are willing to inflict; the same goes for anti-liberal or autocratic governments previously sympathetic to Russia (e.g. Hungary), who equally do not want to be reduced to vassals as during the Iron Curtain era, which now appears to be Putin’s aim. The invasion has finally resulted in a crackdown on the Russian billionaires who have used their mostly ill-gotten wealth to buy properties and businesses abroad, particularly the UK, and such a crackdown will be to the benefit of people living here who have found the cost of housing rise as the foreign rich buy up properties as ‘investments’ and to launder money. Putin has to be stopped; he and his regime bring corruption and oppression wherever they go. But this is going to be a hard sell for those who are seeing people like them abused as they try to flee to safety while their abusers are hailed as heroic defenders of civilisation, even if they had no sympathy for Putin themselves. Ukraine’s ambassador should be apologising to the victims of the appalling racist violence, and talking to his own government to fix this before all the solidarity his people received two weeks ago evaporates.

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Travesty of justice, travesty of science

10 February, 2022 - 22:02
The cover of Shouting at Leaves by Jennifer Msumba, showing a tree with yellow and red leaves falling on the ground, and a young Black girl in brown dungarees over a red and yellow striped T-shirt is standing next to it amid the fallen leaves. This is on an orange background. The title and author's name are at the top.

I recently bought and read the autobiography of Jennifer Msumba, an autistic YouTuber, musician and film-maker who lives at a group home in Florida who spent seven years at an institution in Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenberg Center (see earlier entry), which is notorious for using electric shocks to control the behaviour of many of its students. Last year, the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency which regulates not only food and drugs but also medical devices, finally (after a decades-long campaign by disability and human rights advocates in the US and abroad) banned the devices, only for the ban to be overturned by an appeals court which ruled that they could not ban devices for specific purposes, only in general or not at all. As a result, the institution has returned to using the device on 50 or so students. The true crime podcast Least Of These also covered the saga in an eight-part series, telling the story of its founder Matthew Israel, how he tried to build a utopian community off the back of a novel, tried his abusive behaviour modification methods on a friend’s child before starting schools based on it in both California and Rhode Island, the latter later moving to Massachusetts; she interviews Msumba in the 7th episode, published 23rd Sept 2021. (Shouting At Leaves can be ordered from Waterstone’s or your local bookshop or bought from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.)

Shouting At Leaves tells the story of Jennifer Msumba’s childhood, her family life, her school life, her friendships and how they broke down (in some cases very brutally), her experience of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and the onset of mental illness which led to her being withdrawn from high school and admitted to hospital, and then her progress through a number of hospitals, group homes, residential schools, the JRC and finally a spacious group home campus more than a thousand miles from her family where she has lived for 13 years now, where she has been able to pursue her interests very freely. I see some parallels with other stories of autistic people who have experienced a traumatic early adulthood and a history of being institutionalised; back in 2008 I watched a French film titled My Name Is Sabine (see earlier entry and this article from the Guardian), about the autistic sister of a French actress who was institutionalised in her 20s, spending four years in hospital, drugged and for a long period barred from seeing any of her family. Ultimately they moved her into a newly founded care home where she began to be weaned off the drugs and to have more control over her life and to be able to do more and to go out. Very often it is the changes that occur in the teen years, where brothers and sisters move away and the certainties of school are withdrawn, that precipitate the crises that lead to someone being hospitalised; often this lasts some years before their families are able to make arrangements for them to live independent or partly independent lives.

Sadly two opportunities to help Jennifer Msumba in her young adulthood were missed. She was admitted to hospital while in high school, and it was there that her OCD was diagnosed and some progress was made, although it was also there that she was introduced to psychiatric drugs which made her sleepy and caused weight gain, as they so often do. However, she was diagnosed after ten days or so and became a “revolving door” patient, being admitted again and again as she and her family found living together impossible, and while some staff were kind to her, others were cruel and favoured putting her in restraints for hours; in one case, a male nurse tried to kill her while restrained. As a young adult, she moved into a group home, which started out well, with staff that played games with the residents, took them out and taught them life skills, but the home was sold to a company that ran it into the ground, allowed the house to become filthy, did not engage with her or the other residents and failed to budget for food properly, nor keep her safe from other residents, including a male flatmate who stole from and bullied her. This led to a suicide attempt. Ultimately, she was admitted to a “state hospital” where she was kept in seclusion and restrained when she refused orders. So desperate to get out of there, she agreed to move to JRC despite her misgivings; the place was brightly decorated with Disney and Coca-Cola themes, among others, but students did not react to her presence but tapped mindlessly on keyboards. An old friend warned her that if she went there, they would shock her, but he was pulled away. But desperate to escape the ‘cruel’ State Hospital, she overlooked her misgivings and accepted the move to JRC; she notes that she did not even complain when restrained hand and foot to a stretcher for the journey.

There, she experienced the worst excesses of JRC’s notorious ‘treatment’ programme. For the first two months, she was kept restrained for hours at a time and expected to perform pointless tasks, barked at when she asked for explanations, and made to wear a nappy (unnecessarily). Then she was offered a place on their so-called GED programme (GED stands for Graduated Electronic Decelerator, the fancy name for the electric shock device they use) as a way of being able to sit at a desk rather than on a “restraint board” on the floor, which she gladly accepted, and was then presented to a judge in full restraints and a helmet which stopped her seeing properly. The device was contained in a backpack which weighed about ten pounds (for the batteries) and had electrodes which stuck to her arms, legs and body and was secured to her with a locking strap. This device was used to deliver shocks not only for self-injurious behaviour, which is its purported purpose, but for any behaviour the staff deemed undesirable: answering back, refusing to follow orders, shouting, becoming distracted from work, or pretty much any behaviour they deemed odd or irritating, as well as natural reactions to the shocks themselves such as screaming or tensing up, or to seeing others being shocked. The devices sometimes misfired, would continue shocking until disconnected, would activate when wet (and they were not removed when students were being bathed), and would sometimes be simply used for fun by staff. Staff were discouraged from showing any kindness to students or from chatting or socialising with them. As noted in the episode of Least of These she appeared on, staff were expected to “write up” other staff members for these and other real or imagined offences, including not delivering enough shocks.

You might ask how an institution has been able to continue such a scandalously abusive practice for so many years: the answer is that the judiciary have actively colluded and regulators have been cowed or looked the other way. There have been reports by inspectorates that go into great detail about the electric shock treatment, how it’s dished out at the drop of a hat and how it traumatises its victims and how no other school in the civilised world sees the need for it, and about how little interaction staff have with students other than barking out orders and terse corrections at them, and how inadequate the education is, and when authorities move to cut off funding or to withdraw students or, God forbid, close the place down, the school wheels out a few parents who claim that their children are so much better off on the shock treatment than in their previous placements where they may have been in restraints, or drugged into a stupor, or harming themselves (sometimes very seriously), and judges have accepted their arguments rather than the obvious: it’s torture, it’s abuse, it’s plainly unacceptable, and it’s unnecessary. So, the institution trades on the inadequacies of others: so many other schools cannot handle them, or don’t understand autism (especially as it presents in women and girls), and a lot of state hospitals are hellholes and do indeed drug and restrain people. As Jennifer Msumba said in her interview with Least of These, her mother was swayed by that argument and fearful to pull her out when she became her guardian because before being moved to JRC, she actually was like that. But why have state hospitals been allowed to become like that? Why is that kind of cruelty allowed there either?

But the biggest share of blame for allowing JRC to continue to abuse its students must go to the judiciary. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “in this land of litigation, the judges are sleeping”. In two states with famous universities that attract the brightest minds from all over the US and the world, judges have allowed an argument based on an elementary logical fallacy to be presented, and win: “it works for us”. That argument is the justification for every kind of quackery. The truth is that the shock treatment does not work, of course; it simply keeps their child quiet because they are afraid. They are enduring one awful life rather than another. But in actual science, including medicine, something appearing to work does not prove that it does what it appears to; one has to investigate what is causing what and whether the apparent good effect actually represents good health or the masking of a symptom, leading to something dangerous.

In allowing students to be placed on the shock treatment, each of which requires court approval, judges have turned their backs on good practice time and again. They admit as ‘evidence’ the JRC’s laundry lists of the students’ ‘inappropriate’, ‘destructive’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviours without investigating whether they even happened, whether they had been greatly exaggerated, whether they were provoked (and there is ample evidence that JRC’s staff provoke students into ‘behaviours’ to justify shocking and/or restraining them), whether they were understandable stress behaviours or harmless repetitive, odd or mildly irritating behaviours associated with some impairments. They allow students to be presented in restraints and helmets but fail to ask them any questions. This particular practice runs contrary to the behaviour in adult courts, where an accused person cannot be shackled as it is known that the appearance of a shackled person leads the jury to see them as dangerous. Even in juvenile courts, many states have outlawed shackling in court as it has come to be recognised that this is prejudicial as well as degrading to a young person who may be no more than a runaway, or near the end of a placement and appearing for administrative reasons. Yet judges in Massachusetts continue to allow a disabled person, adult or child, to be fitted with a device that allows a staff member to attack them at will, at just the touch of a button, on the basis of such thin evidence and obviously prejudicial presentation. JRC bucks trends, maintaining abusive practices that the juvenile justice and mental health systems have gradually abandoned.

On the subject of restraints, this is an issue with JRC’s behaviour that has flown under the radar somewhat, perhaps because the shock treatment is so egregious and has occupied much of the activists’ time and energy and ink, but it uses restraints in the same abusive way it uses the GED; as punishment, as humiliation, as torture, given that it is often used to keep people in stress positions. Jennifer Msumba noted that they use a device calls a ‘cross-over’ which keeps the arms even further down than the usual wrist/waist restraint used both in criminal justice and in the mental health system (especially during transport), and this is the first time I have heard of a restraint like that, which suggests that the JRC is inventive in this area of abuse as well. No other institution habitually transports disabled people shackled like felons; it would be a reason to close a place down in many jurisdictions, but not, it seems, Massachusetts. The GED is itself a restraint, as its weight is an encumbrance. A ball and chain, effectively. Yet, Massachusetts’ and New York’s judiciaries have turned a blind eye to these practices too, and even if the GED were outlawed tomorrow, the restraints would likely continue.

Most of the material about abuses at JRC are about events before about 2010. I am aware that they have ceased some of the practices described in Jennifer Msumba’s and others’ testimonies, including the four-point floor restraint/shock board, but the GED has been in continual use since then. Perhaps they have been less rash in their choice of victim, choosing less articulate victims and perhaps people with less involved parents. But it is clear that, with or without that particular form of torture, the people running the JRC are manifestly unfit to run any caring or educational establishment. They have no understanding of autism. They have no interest in looking behind people’s behaviour, only in curbing ‘problem’ behaviours that are not even always problems and may be communicating something. They have no compassion, they are not kind, they actively discourage and indeed threaten staff with the sack for both. They are abusive to their staff, expecting them to spy and inform on each other. They do not respect their students’ right to their families, let alone family life. For all the disabled people they present in court trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, their founder resembles a real-life evil doctor, one who carried out scientifically invalid experiments on unconsenting captives: Joseph Mengele (valid experiments on such captives would, of course, still have been criminal). He and his acolytes must be barred from any involvement in care or education for life, and prosecuted for their decades of abuses. Judge Rotenberg Center, this wretched institution, this wretched employer, must be shut down. In places where there are regulators and inspectorates with teeth, and where it is understood that Black and disabled people’s lives and rights matter, places like this get shut down. This happened to somewhere nowhere near as abusive as JRC in the UK very recently, with 24 hours’ notice. This can happen if there is the political will.

A link to a petition to ban the electric shock device can be found here.

An archive of material on the abuse at JRC and efforts to stop it or close it down can be found here.

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