Stance against torture reaffirmed – Role of psychologists at detention centers approved

By Richard E. Gill Assistant Editor
September 1, 2007 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

San Francisco – Despite boisterous protests at the American Psychological Association (APA) convention here last month the Council of Representatives overwhelmingly reaffirmed a 2004 resolution against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners.

Protesters wanted psychologists banned from the centers but the Council maintained a need for their presence at Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities.

Council members also defeated an attempt to limit psychologists to mental health care and prevent them from contributing in any way to the interrogation of prisoners.

The majority of Council members were not swayed by 300 to 400 protesters gathered in Yerba Buena Gardens on the north side of the Moscone Center. The demonstrators demanded APA forbid psychologists from engaging in any prisoner interrogation and to speak out against torture, cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. Many of the protesters, some dressed in orange jump suits and carrying posters condemning the APA, were psychologists.

Neither were Council members influenced by an amendment introduced by Corann Okorodudu, Ph.D., that virtually would have eliminated any connection by psychologists to the questioning of prisoners.

It would have made them responsible only for prisoners’ health care. Of the nearly 200 council members present, only a couple dozen voted in favor of the amendment.

The Council also voted down a moratorium presented by Neil Altman, Ph.D. The moratorium would have eliminated participation in any form by psychologists in detention centers where the rule of law has been called into question by the executive branch of the U.S. government.

Altman praised the APA for laying out what was prohibited, but insisted the statement still allows psychologists to remain in facilities that are inherently cruel, inhumane and degrading.

An ethics committee of 12 to 15 psychologists met numerous times to discuss, rewrite, revise and organize the contentious issue. Their efforts may have eliminated a floor battle between those for and against the issue. APA President Sharon Brehm, Ph.D., maintained order, enforcing a two-minute limit on speakers and abruptly called for the vote when the last person standing in one of three lines had completed his argument.

Beth Wiggins, Ph.D., maintained “because psychologists work in a very challenging situation does not make them unethical. If we eliminate psychologists from participating we also limit the possibility that they could provide help and protect basic human rights.”

Col. Larry C. James, Ph.D., a U.S. Army psychologist, said, “Torture is wrong and under no condition should torture be allowed. But if we remove psychologists from the system people are going to be hurt.”

Others speaking for reaffirmation of the APA position included Douglas C. Haldeman, Ph.D., Michael G. Gelles, Psy.D., Morgan T. Sammons, Ph.D., a Navy captain, and retired Rear Admiral and former Secretary of the Navy James M. McGarrah.

In an earlier meeting, Sammons told a crowded room of psychologists, “The APA has shown a repugnance to torture. There is no proof that psychologists have been involved in establishing or developing torture practices.” In fact, he said, “Psychologist have brought to light incidents of torture.”

At that same meeting, Katherine Sherwood, a civilian interrogator for the Department of Defense, said psychologists are valuable in several areas, including screening those who want to become interrogators. She said they have an insight to human relations and, she added, psychologists have never provided her information that might be construed as assisting in retrieving information during an interrogation.

Henry Taylor, Ph.D., said, “You have to look through the eyes and ears of my colleagues. All the evidence you find proves they have upheld human rights and did not engage in torture. It would be wrong to remove them from a position where they could be helpful.”

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