Human Rights Watch: Hundreds of Thousands Still Tortured in Name of Drug Treatment

If we want to end human-rights abuses in drug-detention centers in Asia, we should start by addressing the abusive "treatment" practices being used in our own backyard

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Correction Appended: Aug. 6, 2012

More than 350,000 people are held in filthy, overcrowded “drug treatment” centers — actually forced-labor camps — in Asia, where they are beaten and compelled to engage in harsh work for little or no pay, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW). They are detained without due process, some tortured with electric shock, starved and deprived of food and water.

Although 12 U.N. agencies, including the World Health Organization and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, called for the closure of these detention centers in March, little action has been taken, according to the report. The centers are located mainly in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. Even countries that are against human-rights abuses appear to be funding them inadvertently, according to the medical journal the Lancet: in June, the U.S. government pledged $400,000 toward the upkeep of one such abusive program, targeted in a previous HRW report, though the State Department denies that human-rights abuses take place there.

Drug users and other people who are considered nuisances, like the homeless, are often rounded up by police and taken to these programs, where they may be held for years without trial or the right to appeal their confinement. Children as young as 7 are often detained in these programs with adults, and sexual and physical abuse is common. There is little financial incentive to close the centers or release the prisoners, however, because their labor is free or extremely cheap and the goods they toil to produce can bring big profits to local companies.

As TIME reported last year, some centers in Vietnam produce what have come to be known as “blood cashews” that are sold on the international market. Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter of processed cashews and the U.S.’s top supplier of the nut. But most consumers have no idea that the nuts are processed by what is essentially slave labor, in abysmal conditions that are advertised as treatment for addiction:

[Vietnam’s drug detainees] spend six to 10 hours a day husking and skinning nuts. It is drab and unhealthy work: cashew oil is caustic and burns the skin. “I would sometimes inhale the dust from the skins, and that would make me cough,” one man told HRW. “If the fluid from the hard outer husk got on your hands, it made a burn.” For their labor, detainees are paid nothing or a few dollars a month. Even this pittance is whittled away, says HRW, since some centers charge detainees for food, lodging and what they term “managerial fees.”

(MORE: From Vietnam’s Forced-Labor Camps: ‘Blood Cashews’)

The forced labor is believed to treat the detainees’ drug addictions, but it fails miserably. HRW reported on the case of Que Phong, a Vietnamese man who voluntarily sought treatment for heroin addiction in 2004, when he was in his late 20s. Asked why he and others agreed to perform cashew-husking work for little to no pay, even though it did not help their addictions, Que Phong explained, “If you refused to work, they slapped you. If you still refused to work, then they sent you to the punishment room. Everyone worked.” In the punishment room, inmates were held for weeks at a time in a small, crowded space with no beds and were allowed to shower only once a week.

None of this, of course, is effective in treating addiction. When released from their stints in abusive detention centers, most people return to drugs. Research shows, in fact, that such traumatic experiences increase the risk of relapse and the severity of addictions.

Yet the misguided idea that harsh treatment helps solve drug problems is widespread, stretching far beyond Asia. The tactics used in U.S. treatment centers — including boot camps, rehab centers, emotional-growth boarding schools and wilderness programs — tend to be less extreme, but they have included beatings, forced labor, excessive exercise and deprivation of sleep and food to try to break participants.

Just this week, California legislators moved to regulate private boot camps for teens in response to a widely circulated video of youths in one such program, who were made to drink water until they vomited and forced to engage in endurance exercise beyond their capacities while instructors yelled at and taunted them. Earlier this year, an instructor at that boot camp was charged with five counts of sexually assaulting and raping two 14-year-old girls in 2004; it’s not clear whether those charges were connected to the boot camp, but the instructor is also charged with kidnapping and extortion in relation to incidents at the camp in 2011. He has pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges, which are pending.

Over the years, dozens of teens have died in such programs, which are unregulated at the federal level and continue to be permitted to operate despite data showing that they are ineffective. Several states — including Florida, Maryland and South Dakota — have endured scandals involving widespread abuse or deaths of children in state-run or state-funded programs.

As in Asia, the U.S. uses its courts to sentence addicted people and youth to tough boot-camp programs — again, despite evidence showing that they don’t work. If we want to urge Asia to end its abusive practices in addiction treatment, we can’t ignore similar problems in our own backyard.

MORE: Viewpoint: Why Tough-Love Rehab Won’t Die

The original version of this post misstated the criminal charges filed against the boot-camp instructor in California and did not include the defendant’s plea status.

Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

49 comments
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HowieRubenstein
HowieRubenstein

I was 21 years old and strung out on heroin. Homeless and helpless I did a few stints in jail and nobody wanted me, I was so alone. That point the addict reaches when not even his own mother wants to see his sorry face is a very lonely feeling. I had failed at rehab 9 times and I didn't see a future for myself. I was lucky though because I chanced to find a bed in a therapeutic community. Was I forced to work? Not per say nobody held a gun to my head but if I didn't I would face scrutiny from the community and be ostracized. Was I forced to do things I didn't want to do? See earlier answer. Did I grow as a person? Yes.

 I thank my lucky stars that I'm about to make 8 years clean. I never turned back after that day, it took a lot of work and growing (and I'm still growing and will never be above a relapse) but I firmly believed that I needed to be challenged to do all of those things I didn't want to do because it made me stronger and more sure of myself. Now don't get me wrong, blood cashews are a clear case of exploitation and there will unfortunately be cases of abuse in any position of power but sometimes kids do need a firm hand. I'm a firm believer in tough love because I never had any until it was almost too late.

Ronskilow
Ronskilow

need a drug rehab call (617) 337-3726

Palladia
Palladia

Mose addicts return to drugs no matter WHAT methods are used.  I don't know of any treatment program which even approaches a 50% success rate, that is, the treated person stays clean permanently.

chris
chris

 Our level is being brought down to theirs. plus our prison system is a huge private business. We don't treat we just lock you up for profit at the tax payers expense.

slovestra
slovestra

The far right's version of successful enterprise.

computed
computed

Hmm this would explain why I considered Malisia was the most civilized place on Earth. 

magneticink
magneticink

sounds awfully similar to how they treat dads at family court

Gone Galt
Gone Galt

Portugal has the right idea. They decriminalized drug possession 10 years ago  and treat the problem like a medical, not a criminal issue. The result? Dramatic drops in the rate of violent and property crimes, significantly lower government costs to build and administer prisons and a dialing back of the black market for drugs, hampering financing of organized crime, lowering police corruption and making drugs actually harder for kids to get.

Pretty impressive results. Yet, Obama (an admitted drug user) and Romney both call for an expensive escalation of America's failed policy of a "war on drugs". Only one candidate, Former New Mexico Governor and Libertarian Presidential Nominee Gary Johnson has the courage to say "The emporer has no clothes" on the drug issue and calls for us to emulate the successful problem solving of the Portuguese paradigm.

Of course, you're not hearing about any of that in the national media. Johnson "Can't win" and so the fact that he's the only one of the three candidates talking about real solutions to real problems is somehow...unimportant.

And we wonder why this country is in a mess.

Deborah Morgan
Deborah Morgan

Drug addiction is a health issue and should be handled by doctors, not the penal system. This is the problem with our current drug laws. They vilify people who use illegal drugs as criminals. Do we lock up alcoholics who drive intoxicated or become violent while drunk? No. We don't.          Look at our prison system - crowded with non-violent drug users. Most of them were involved with cannabis - a non-lethal substance which is legal in 15 states in the U.S.        When a U.S. citizen is arrested for cannabis, they are often given the option: drug treatment or jail. Those who choose drug treatment are labelled as "addicts", which boosts up the "number of addicts" on the books. It's a vicious VICIOUS cycle.          One wonders when common sense will override a prejudice that's becoming as horrible as racism was in the early 20th century.  We should get medical help for addicts of habit-forming drugs and we should recognize cannabis as a commodity which should be regulated like alcohol.    Enough is enough.

Palladia
Palladia

"Do we lock up alcoholics who drive intoxicated or become violent when drunk?  No.  We don't."

Yes.  We do.  It make take a few infractions, but we do.  And if you'd ever had someone you cared about terribly injured or killed by a drunk, you'd know why.

Drug addiction is a health issue, all right, but we don't have any effective treatment, really.  I've known people who went through "rehab" multiple times, and still used.  It's the rare person who make it to stay clean after only one try.  One of the reasons why people get so exasperated by the whole thing is its recidivism rate. 

JeramieH3
JeramieH3

You know the law, you choose to break the law, you get punished. It's not rocket science. People make their choices in life and reap the result of those choices.

Deborah Morgan
Deborah Morgan

My question "

Do we lock up alcoholics who drive intoxicated or become violent while drunk?" means to imply that we do not lock up USERS of alcohol because they could POTENTIALLY drive intoxicated or become violent while drunk.  Just FYI

kal98
kal98

treatment around the globe of life has changed little from the beginning why because the system is run by inbred power hungry cruel entities that love fear, torture, pain, suffering and all the negative attributes until we embrace love, Godliness, and cherish life and are grateful there can be no real long term change. Drug addiction is a social problem often chemical imbalance, abuse, trauma or what- needs to be decriminalize and treated with compassion.

shepdogsd
shepdogsd

China's "hybrid" government of a free market economy mixed with restricted and abused personal freedoms will be model the world over as democracies collapse due to a spoiled populace wanting more and more free money from government until the government collapses.     So everyone out there collecting fat pensions and benefits, look at the future you are bringing.

The dictators have learned to allow business to be free...but only business.

JMorcan
JMorcan

We should not be trading with any nation that fails to respect the rights of its citizens, or which refuses to bring its labor force up to an equitable standard for working conditions.

Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo
Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo

then your country will cruble without the cheap labour they provide for your contry. will your people be willing to work for dollars a day willingly? i dont think so.

chris
chris

Our level is being brought down to theirs. plus our prison system is a huge private business. We don't treat we just lock you up for profit at the tax payers expense.

Murphmagictone
Murphmagictone

The liberal view:  nothing works except giving them public housing, food stamps, free abortions, and a disability check that will allow them to buy more drugs...that way the gov'ment can hire 10 more service union members to administer these programs for each addict.

Julie Cochrane
Julie Cochrane

"Troubled Teen" residential facilities in the US are private prisons where middle class or rich parents can pay through the nose to get rid of their pain in the ass teenager. The facility feeds the parents a line of baloney about how they can help the kid and the parents usually believe it, because it's what they want to hear. The parents want to hear that they can pay money, get the kid out of their house, and have the kid come home "helped" and all better. 

Never trust a facility for youth that doesn't have a sister facility for adults, side by side, on the same campus, run according to the same overall treatment philosophy and with very, very similar programs. 

Your "green flag" is that the adult facility has a bunch of adults there that aren't screaming and running for the exits. Even mentally incompetent adults have more power to leave and are more likely to be listened to when they complain of ill treatment than teenagers are. So adults buying the snake oil means this snake oil may or may not help your kid, but it's much less likely to *harm* them than most teen-only facilities are.

getitreal85
getitreal85

Nice job of comparing a few illegal activities at American rehab with systemic abuses in Vietnam, China, and other Asian countries. 

Gone Galt
Gone Galt

A few illegal activities? Seriously? American prison are built on a systemic abuse of human rights. We may not be as bad as Vietnam, China and other countries, but we're nowhere as well run as you've deluded yourself into thinking that we are.

Using the standards for prisons set forth by the State Department and the UN for defining human rights abuse, the prison systems in thirty of our states, if they were independent nations, would qualify thme for sanctions bythe US Government for human rights abuses.

NewGawker
NewGawker

doesn't matter what treatment you use, most addicts will use drugs again, so why not make a few bucks off them.

Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo
Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo

you have no basis on that and many are put into rebah without their true consent. its like qutting smoking due to family pressure, but mentally you do not want to quit. Quitting is a choice, and cannot be forced upon one. The ideal way in my opinion is to treat it as a medical condition instead of a criminal offense.

The US has suddenly made marijuana legal after labeling it "medical". there is no difference between the stuff they sell at dispensaries and what you get from a dealer. its all just a consipracy to go with their own political agenda

liz mcqueen
liz mcqueen

like you know what you're talking about? i feel sorry for you... well, not really

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

Could you articulate exactly what was wrong with @NewGawker:disqus's argument without resorting to badly-executed ad hominem attacks?

general_tarfun
general_tarfun

americans have no right to criticize any other punitive system while they lock up more of there population than any country on earth in history.

Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo
Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo

americans are the ones who always point the fingers at other without realizing their own faults. as they are often blinded by the thought that they are the greatest country on earth.

JohnOBX
JohnOBX

So what does work?  Oh right, no good answer for that either.  

Addiction is insidious and the people (on the left and right) who favor legalization don't seem to realize that the problem is going to be made worse by putting these drugs on the shelf next to Flintstones chewables and  vitamin E caps.  

BobGd
BobGd

Making drugs legal will not make the problem of drug addiction worse.  The problem with your argument is that one is not recognizing that there are so many outlets to buy illegal drugs, that even an old man such as I can get them.  With legalization we can tax the product, and use some of the proceeds to fund various types of programs.  This will end up like alcohol, where over time, it abuse will diminish.  Not vanish, but diminish.

Palladia
Palladia

I don't think it will make it better, either.  Until we have something, or some way, to eliminate the pleasurable effects of (a variety of) substances, we're going to be spinning our wheels on this one.

And then, each addict would run the gamut of each and every possible source of a "buzz" until he was convinced nothing would work.  I mean, people have tried really crazy things in pursuit of that "buzz."

JeramieH3
JeramieH3

Making drugs legal will not make the problem of drug addiction worse.

Source?

Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo
Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo

buying illegal drugs are even easier than legal substances such as alcohol and cigarrettes

BobGd
BobGd

One can’t back this up with data, since no one is going to admit to a statistician that they are selling drugs.  However, buying drugs in today's market is as easy as going to Wal-Mart and buying a pair of jeans.  In short the drug war is not working.  It has been lost for decades now, and we need to find a better solution.  All this war has done was make drug barons like Pablo Escobar aka  a modern day Al Capone.  With drugs this easy to buy, anyone who wants to buy can and those that don’t want to buy won’t.  Legalizing drugs won’t make anyone who doesn’t want to buy; desire them now. My hypothesis stated above, and it was tested once before, remember prohibition, can’t be worse.  The amount of alcoholics after this disastrous policy initially increased, however it has gone down with time.  It enabled the people with this problem to seek help, and companies that sold this product were able to have a drink responsable campaign.

Mikeuome
Mikeuome

Yes, legalize the stuff , tax the hell out of it. At least I don't have to pay for the treatments that don't work , the taxes will pay for their treatment and life of jail and sucking the life blood out of the rest of US.

Generic Viagra
Generic Viagra

I was so very taken by the flow of your write-up. The events just took me to the place which you described and I could feel that happening to me.

Little_2Note
Little_2Note

Thanks for that tidbit on cashews...now conservatives have another product they can rush out and support.

Chiefpr
Chiefpr

Yeh, right along with your diamonds.

mamaotis
mamaotis

Just to point out to 'T. Tucker' and 'M. Menke' that the article says nothing about political/social orientation of anyone at all, liberals, conservatives, etc. Are you folks by any chance trolls? Your vapid assumptions would indicate that you are.

Alan Tracey Wootton
Alan Tracey Wootton

Let's take a moment and think about how much easier it is to complain, point fingers, and condemn than it is to offer workable solutions to a difficult problem. 

Palladia
Palladia

Do you HAVE any "workable solutions?"  Be all means, do tell.  They should be at least as "workable" and effective as, say, contraception or vaccines.  That is, effective at the rate or 99% or higher. 

Thomas S. Tucker
Thomas S. Tucker

Oh so now our libs who are so much smarter than anyone else, are going to stick their noses into Asian treatment centers?  Really?  Asian?  Do they actually think they will be welcomed with open arms over there?  They will probably be imprisoned for sedition and rightfully so.

Colt Sellens
Colt Sellens

Liberals don't expect to be welcomed anywhere because we know most countries consider Americans to have our heads up our ass. Please explain to me why we shouldn't care about the suffering of others? Maybe if you used your intellect to help people instead of trolling  there would be a few less suffering.

Most problems originate when one person holds another in lower esteem than him or her self.

Jerkxes
Jerkxes

Thank you for taking Tomas Tucker behind the woodshed, Matt. But take note, a lot of conservatives really don't "get" sarcasm. It can be a bit above their pay grade. Remember that a lot of them thought Colbert was a kindred spirit! When in fact he made fun of them, every night.

Chris Underwood
Chris Underwood

Suggesting that Liberals are smarter than Conservatives...now that really is funny...or sarcastic...either way it works.

rapidron
rapidron

Swing and a miss Chris... thanks for showing us how smart you are and who you represent all in one terribly unclever, poorly written sentence.

Matt Menke
Matt Menke

Yes, yes...  Being concerned about human rights abuses committed against people who are not Americans is the greatest failing of many liberals.  They should be concerned only with their person and their own pocketbook.  Otherwise, they're just socialist scum.