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Psychiatry and Politics

In response to:

Victims of Soviet Psychiatry: A Report from Honolulu from the October 27, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Psychiatric Terror: How Soviet Psychiatry Is Used to Suppress Dissent by Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Robert Coles writes (NYR, October 27):

I kept pointing out that Chile and Argentina, for all their awful crimes, do not use psychiatrists as adjuncts of the secret police or the state’s system of political repression. I spoke of my own experience in South Africa where apartheid is buttressed by an ideology in no need of psychiatrists: Calvin and original sin and predestination, certainly—but not Freud, and not Pavlov.

Later he writes:

As for the very real social and racial inequalities in the West…or the various misdeeds of our government, none of these in any way eliminates the need for a profession to condemn a quite special wrong: the organized and recurrent use by a government of psychiatric diagnosis and so-called therapy (hospitalization, drugs, electric shock) in the service of political punishment.

I would like to briefly discuss Chile, South Africa, and behavior modification programs in US prisons.

In 1976, a disturbing report was presented to the Twenty-First International Congress of Psychiatry in Paris concerning conditions in Chile. While by 1976, approximately 80% of those involved in psychology had been imprisoned, killed or exiled, many of those remaining were working with the “secret police or the state’s system of political repression,” a situation Mr. Cole denies. At one point the report asks:

What then is the ethical position of the psychologists and the psychiatrists who participate directly in such a repressive system by supervising the application of interrogation-torture techniques, by acting as a practitioner attached to the interrogation teams, or by using the scientific preparation for this professional practice in the employ of such a system by becoming himself the interrogator-torturer?

South Africa passed the Mental Health Amendment Act of 1976, which makes it a crime to publish anything about mental institutions “knowing the same to be false, or without taking reasonable steps to verify such information,” in response to revelations about the privately run mental institutions holding more than 12,000 blacks. There are no full time psychiatrists and often just one nurse per 300 patients. The “patients,” however, maintain the asylums with their own labor and also work in local factories. Their earnings go to the asylum and the inmates are seldom released. Since the government also pays the corporation $1.15 per patient per day, it is a multimillion dollar business that looks very much like slave labor under psychiatric cover.

As an Illinois resident, I am especially sensitive to the behavior modification programs in the prisons. In the early 1970s, the state was forced to close out a program here at the Joliet Correctional Center as a result of a lawsuit charging cruel and unusual punishment. I will not describe what those prisoners were subjected to but “cruel” is too mild a word. We are also blessed with the Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois. In April of 1974, a class action suit, Bono v. Saxbe (still pending) was initiated which seeks to close down the behavior modification unit. During the trial, warden Ralph Aron testified: “It [the unit] is necessary because of the revolutionary attitudes acting throughout our country. It has become necessary just in the last few years.” Later he was asked by one of the prisoners’s lawyers: “Is the control unit used to control prisoners with revolutionary attitudes and tactics?” Aron replied: “That is correct.”

When any member of the medical profession injures instead of heals, then that practice must be condemned. When any government misuses the medical profession to harm its people, must be condemned. Unfortunately, most Americans (including the news media) prefer condemning such practices in countries with a different economic system from ours while ignoring such abuses elsewhere.

Phyllis Roa

Joliet, Illinois

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