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An earlier version of this paper was presented as the Lynn Stuart Weiss lecture at the American Psychological Association yearly conference, sponsored by the American Psychology-Law Society and the American Psychology Foundation, August 2016, Denver, Colorado.

For years, considerations of the relationship between international human rights standards and the work of forensic psychologists have focused on the role of organized psychology in prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghirab. That issue has been widely discussed and debated, and these discussions show no sign of abating. But there has been virtually no attention given to another issue of international human rights, one that grows in importance each year: how the treatment (especially, the institutional treatment) of persons with mental and intellectual disabilities violates international human rights law, and the silence of organized forensic psychology in the face of this mistreatment. This issue has become even more pointed in recent years, following the ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Organized forensic psychology has remained largely silent about the potential significance of this Convention and about how it demands that we rethink the way we institutionalize persons – often in brutal and barbaric conditions – around the world. In many parts of the world, circumstances are bleak: services are provided in segregated settings that cut people off from society, often for life; persons are arbitrarily detained from society and committed to institutions without any modicum of due process; individuals are denied the ability to make choices about their lives when they are put under plenary guardianship; there is a wide-spread denial of appropriate medical care or basic hygiene in psychiatric facilities, individuals are subject to powerful and often-dangerous psychotropic medications without adequate standards, and there is virtually no human rights oversight and enforcement mechanisms to protect against the broad range of institutional abuse. Although there is a robust literature developing – interestingly, mostly in Australia and New Zealand, but little in the US – about how such institutional conditions violate the international human rights of this population, virtually nothing has been written about how organized forensic psychology has been silent about these abuses.

In this paper, I (1) discuss the relevant international human rights law that applies to these questions, (2) examine the current state of conditions in institutions worldwide, (3) argue why forensic psychology needs to become more aggressively involved in this area, and (4) offer some suggestions as to how this situation can be ameliorated.


Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Vol. 17, Issue 1 (2018), pp. 79-112