This week, Joe Lieberman enlisted a Republican operative with a background in brainwashing and a problem with a penis pump.
Mel Sembler is a former RNC finance chairman and the chair Scooter Libby’s legal defense fund. The Florida real estate tycoon calls Dick Cheney a close friend. No doubt the bond between Sembler and the VP is strengthened by an optimism about the potential for torture to solve problems. If anything Sembler is even more optimistic than Cheney–he believes that torture can cure diseases like addiction.
Any principled Democrat would recoil from Sembler on the basis of his Republican bonafides, but it gets worse. Sembler is also a self-styled drug treatment entrepreneur who founded Straight, Incorporated, a residential drug treatment program for teenagers.
Between 1976 and 1993, thousands of youth were routinely subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as part of Straight’s "confrontational" approach to treatment. Some inmates were held for years against their will. The program has been sued dozens of times for brutalizing inmates and some staff members faced criminal charges for their role in the abuse.
Sembler founded Straight after a congressional investigation determined that the last detox program he oversaw, The Seed, was using mind-control tactics similar to those used by North Koreans during the Cold War.
The Seed was a mind-control cult, but it was positively benign compared to Straight.
Psychology professor Barry Beyerstein visited a Straight detention camp in 1992 and studied the similarities between Straight’s methods and other forms of "thought control" such as those used in Communist China. He concluded that Straight is quite literally cultlike and that it uses many of the same brainwashing techniques that have been used to break the will of political dissidents. (Barry’s my dad, in case you were wondering.)
Maia Szalavitz, an authority on the billion-dollar "tough love" treatment industry describes Strait’s systematic abuse of detainees:
Straight also put kids on peanut-butter-only diets for weeks, kept them awake with no sleep whatsoever for days, forced them to spank each other and made them maintain various stress positions or exercise to the point of exhaustion. It constantly humiliated participants, famously gagging some with Kotex, calling girls “sluts” and boys “fags” and making those who had been sexually abused take responsibility for their “part” in seducing the pedophiles who had molested them.
Straight also extensively used isolation and restraint. And Straight’s restraint “procedure” was nothing like the medical euphemism suggests: what it involved was a teen being thrown violently to the floor by fellow participants and then sat upon bymultiple people, sometimes someone would even restrict the victim’s breathing by holding the mouth and nose closed. This, too, often lead to serious injuries—many of which went untreated so the program could avoid arousing suspicion from medical personnel. If someone did have to go the doctor, a Straight guard would accompany him or her to make sure the program wasn’t blamed for the injury.
Sembler is a busy guy. When he’s not raising big bucks for Joe Lieberman, or playing kingmaker in Florida politics, Sembler is suing to get his penis pump back from former Straight inmate, Richard Bradbury.
Bradbury didn’t even have a drug problem when he was press-ganged into Straight while visiting his sister who was committed. After many years of abusive captivity, Bradbury "graduated" and became a staff member. Eventually he became disgusted with the program and vowed to hold Sembler accountable for his misdeeds.
To that end, Bradbury started combing through Sembler’s trash. Ironically, this is perfectly legal because drug warriors convinced the Supreme Court that the police needed more freedom to pick through garbage to win the war on drugs.
Bradbury hit the jackpot when he discovered a penis pump in Sembler’s trash. His initial plan was to sell it on eBay for $300,000 and give the proceeds to Straight survivors. Now, Sembler and his wife are suing Bradbury to get the pump back.
We’re all judged by the company we keep, and Joe Lieberman has some very disreputable friends.
–Lindsay Beyerstein is a New York writer who blogs at Majikthise