URI Psychologists Protest Torture

Op-Ed Submission

Faculty members of the Psychology Department at the University of Rhode Island, by majority vote, have signed a resolution stating that “direct or indirect participation by psychologists in interrogations of prisoners incarcerated in foreign detention centers that do not afford prisoners internationally recognized due process of law is unethical.”

URI’s resolution is part of a growing grassroots effort to urge the American Psychological Association to move beyond its current position, which allows psychologists working in foreign prisons to assist teams in certain kinds of interrogations.

The association’s failure to rule out all participation has been the subject of protest among some of its members, some of whom are withholding dues while others are resigning. Psychologists at six colleges and universities, URI among them, have passed resolutions in hopes that the APA will reconsider its stance.

APA’s policy regarding the ethics of psychologists working as behavioral science consultants to the military or CIA as it interrogates “enemy combatants” in foreign prisons has evolved from a taskforce report in 2005 that was never adopted or approved by the Council of Representatives to resolutions in 2006 and 2007 that were debated and approved. The 2007 resolution reaffirms APA’s condemnation of torture and other cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment or punishment under any conditions. But the APA Council did not approve an amendment asking psychologists to NOT participate in any way in the interrogation of foreign detainees, but to limit their role “as health personnel to the provision of psychological treatment.” This amendment was not approved despite the fact that the 2007 resolution expresses concern over the conditions of detainment in settings where detainees are deprived of international and human rights. In public statements, APA leaders maintain the wisdom of continuing to be “engaged” in the interrogation process.

I disagree. In detainee camps, psychologists work in secrecy; have not obtained informed consent; are not subject to legal, professional, and community oversight; and the rights of prisoners are not protected by constitutional and other guarantees.

Because of these circumstances, we should remove the focus on individual psychologists’ ethics, which has been at the forefront of our discussions. By centering attention on the behavior of individual psychologists, we have neglected to ask the more important social psychological questions having to do with situation and context. When psychologists work in hospitals, clinics, courts, prisons, etc. in this country, there are rules and a relatively open process; there is potential oversight by lawyers, family, and community.

Can our ethics say it is OK to work in situations where this is not the case, in secrecy, in places where violations of human rights systematically occur as a matter of institutional policy? Where prisoners are detained for indefinite periods and not charged with any crimes? Where they are not protected by international human rights protocols or provisions of the U.S. Constitution? Would we have condoned psychologists working (in any role) in Nazi concentration camps? Should psychologists work in any setting where processes are not subject to open review by courts, community, and oversight groups? I believe the correct and ethical response must be NO.

Bernice Lott, Professor Emerita

Psychology and Women’s Studies

University of Rhode Island