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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:

The use of psychiatry as an instrument of political punishment is, according to Robert Coles, “a quite special wrong” which exists in the Soviet Union but not in the United States. The American psychiatric system, he argues, has “many defects” but it is not under orders from the FBI or CIA to incarcerate political dissenters in mental institutions.

The American psychiatric system may not be under direct orders from the FBI or CIA but it does not have to be. At federal and state penitentiaries throughout the country Black militants, Black Muslims, Puerto Rican, Chicano and Native American activists, and other protesters and dissenters have been the involuntary subjects of behavior modification programs run by psychiatrists who use mind-altering drugs, electric shock, sensory deprivation, prolonged isolation, “aversion therapy,” and psychosurgery.

As in the Soviet Union, the victims are diagnosed as suffering from “anti-social” or “disturbed” behavior rather than from political deviancy. Sometimes, however, the political dimension is made surprisingly explicit. Thus the socialist Stephen Kessler was formally charged by prison authorities with disrupting a federal penitentiary in Oregon by “promoting racial unity, collectivizing the inmate population, attempting to secure legislative inquiries…into prison conditions and being involved with outside radical groups” (Guardian, January 21, 1976).

In the words of Chuck Stotts, inmate at Oklahoma State Prison: “As long as prisoners confine themselves to gambling, shooting dope, running loan rackets and killing each other, everything is fine. Let them pick up a book on Marx…and they are branded a communist agitator and locked in solitary confinement” (letter to Liberation, February 1975).

The radical community organizer, Frank Shuford, who agitated against the heroin trade in Santa Ana, California (and was subsequently convicted of robbery and sentenced to a twenty-year prison term on the testimony of witnesses who have since recanted their testimony), has been subjected to various forms of psychiatric torture and was within a hair’s breath of being lobotomized, a fate he escaped only because of protests from his outside supporters. The same was true several years ago of Martin Sostre, the Black revolutionary Marxist, who was slated both for behavior modification and psychosurgery before being pardoned by Governor Carey.

Other less notable dissenters have not been as fortunate. Eddie Sanchez, who became an outspoken socialist while in prison and was then sent to the behavior modification unit at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, wrote: “Since I’ve been confined here on and off since 1971, I’ve personally seen over two dozen men driven insane…. Others have been driven to suicide or attempts at suicide” (letter to Workers World, November 15, 1974).

Not only are political and social deviants defined as insane, but sanity itself has a political definition. Prison is dedicated to the task of political and class repression, and the psychiatrists who do its dirty work are as guilty of “psychiatric terror” as their opposite numbers in the Soviet Union.

Michael Parenti

Amherst, Massachusetts

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