Famine Increases School Dropouts

by Grace Ndanu

A child stands next to an empty bowl
Source: Yahoo Images

I am used to children not attending school due to cultural practices and beliefs. Young girls might be sold out to their husbands when they are minutes or hours old. This led to child preference in some Kenyan communities, where only boys are taken to school while the girls are forced to stay at home so that they can undergo training on how to perform wife duties when they reach puberty and get married to their seventy plus years old husband. In this case education is considered meaningless for girls since they will be released to their husbands. They don’t consider the dowry that is paid a contribution from the girls; instead they assume that it is a payment for training a good wife. On the other hand, boys are considered to be of value to the family because they will attain the name of the family. That’s why they are taken to school.

This time it is a different sad story – a very high number of both boys and girls drop out of school. Not because of cultural practices but because of hunger. In most Kenyan counties, children go to school because there is lunch provided. For some families that is the only meal that the children have because their families can not provide them with food. Due to climate change, which has brought forth drought, the schools provide little or no food for their students now. The situation is alarming because there is no learning, the children are hungry, sleeping and collapsing in school. The majority are distracted by their rumbling stomachs.

Lack of food has a negative effect on the lives of learners, especially the primary school children. Traditionally, assembly is conducted while the students are standing. For the first time in history, in some parts of Kenya, assemblies are conducted while pupils are sitting. Not a long time ago, it was a taboo for a child to be addressed by a teacher while sitting down. Now they are forced by hunger to sit while being addressed by their teachers. In addition to hunger, children walk more than twenty kilometres to school, and when they get to school they are tired.

Kenya is comprised of 47 counties. Twenty three of them, which have roughly 4.35 million people, are facing droughts that are getting worse. The twenty three counties are more of pastoralists. They don’t rely on anything else apart from livestock for survival and hence they are more affected because the livestock have nothing to feed on. Kajiado is one of the most affected counties where children drop out of school to support their families by searching for animal feed. This includes going up the acacia shrubs to collect seeds to feed the animals. Others have been forced to move away from home with the cattle in search of pasture. The ones who remain are left with little or no food.

Children playing in the street
Source: Yahoo Images

There are several interviews that have been made around the most affected counties. In Samburu County, parents said that their children never reported back to school since July. The reason being, there is no rain, therefore they have to move around with their children in search of food. Teachers of the same county said that also the performance of their pupils has dropped, because of little or no learning at all. They find it difficult to teach hungry and weak children, which forces them to dismiss afternoon classes. It gets even sadder because sometimes parents visit the schools hoping to have lunch, which the law doesn’t allow.

In the coastal region, drought has pushed wildlife out of different parks to villages, which complicates the situation even more. The leaders called upon teachers and children and their parents not to risk their lives by going to school until elephants are contained in their parks. This is even more dangerous because the elephants arrive unexpectedly at any time of the day. The solution was for the children and their teachers to stay at their homes and wait for the county officials to do what they must do for them to resume, which seems it is until next year…unlike for the candidates who are waiting for their final primary and high school exams.

Most parents have opt to look for food for their children rather than paying school fees for their children. Following the most reason for school dropouts for the second and third term this year the school officials have called upon the ministry of education and the nation officials to ensure schools and communities in arid and semi-arid lands are provided with relief food. If the communities have food, the schools will be food secure. I believe if a child is assured of a meal they will show up for school and will fully concentrate in class.

Steps That Outside Governments Can Take Toward Ending the Human Rights Violations of North Korea

Kim Jong-Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea shakes hands with Xi Jinping, the President of China.
Xi Jinping puts diplomatic relations with North Korea above the safety and well-being of refugees. Source: Yahoo!

Note from the author: This post is the fourth of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the other parts before this one for understanding, but doing so is optional. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.” 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) consistently acts like a toddler in its negotiations and diplomatic relations with other countries. They consistently refuse food and humanitarian aid that their citizens desperately need for petty political reasons. The World Food Program (WFP) was denied access to North Korea in 2005 because its monitoring process was too intrusive for North Korea’s standards. Because of this type of behavior, it is apparent that the DPRK wishes to mishandle food aid and allow their rural citizens to starve and die before accepting the WFP’s guidelines. 

Food and Humanitarian Aid

The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK; the regime) insists on inserting itself into food aid distribution and consistently passes policies that would manipulate citizens into subservience to the regime. One such policy would make the receipt of food aid contingent on reporting to one’s government-sanctioned job. This effectively stifles any chance at economic mobility for poor and rural people. Such a policy is against the conditions of the World Food Program, but instead of complying with the WFP to receive the aid, they let their citizens starve. The WFP has a humanitarian interest in feeding these people, so they are left at a crossroads: supply food aid according to North Korea’s standards or allow North Korea to starve its rural citizens. 

Seven children stand in a field waving at the camera. Behind them, there are rolling hills with crop lines and a cow.
Rural children take the hardest hit when the DPRK rejects food and humanitarian aid. Source: Yahoo!

Because of the WPK’s toddler-like nature, it is imperative that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the government’s cooperation. Historically, the US has made food aid contingent on the dismantling of specified nuclear programs. This leaves the WPK with the choice: give up our nuclear program or let our citizens starve. For them, this is a no-brainer. The WPK cares much more about politics and big blow-up things than the starvation and suffering of its citizens. This is why it is increasingly important that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the cooperation of the government. 

China

Because of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, China is the only country directly bordering North Korea. This means that China has the highest amount of undocumented North Korean refugees. China is compliant with the North Korean regime’s disgusting agenda. Instead of complying with the United Nations (UN) guidelines for refugees, China heavily polices bordering towns and consistently returns refugees to the abusive DPRK. Because of this, refugees must travel all the way through China to another country before being able to fly to a safe place such as South Korea where they can seek asylum. 

A colorful festival takes place with dancers and streamers. On a pedestal, four people stand holding the flags of North Korea and China.
China supports the North Korean regime. Source: Yahoo!

Because of the threat of being deported back to North Korea and subsequently thrown into a prison camp, many refugees, specifically those assigned ‘female’ at birth (AFAB), fall victim to human trafficking. Because of the One-Child policy and selective abortions, China now has a disproportionate level of people in male bodies as opposed to those in female bodies. This incongruence means that many men cannot find or afford brides and many North Korean AFAB people are sold as brides to poor Chinese men. The people in these situations rarely feel safe in their new homes and often fall victim to abuse, blackmail, and rape.

The UN must step into China to enforce its guidelines for refugees. China must become a safe place for North Korean refugees to seek asylum. Until then, these people will continuously fall victim to deportation and human trafficking.

International Participation

The DPRK is a participant of the UN. The UN has treaties and guidelines surrounding the topic of human rights, but they are not enforced. The DPRK has signed seven different human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As you have seen throughout this series, these treaties are not enforced by the United Nations or any other organization interested in human rights. 

As a participant of the UN, the US should apply pressure for the enforcement of the UN’s treaties and policies. North Korea consistently fails in its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) its citizens, calling for international actors to step in and protect these citizens. The WPK has proven that it does not care about these people and will not let go of its power without a fight. North Korea’s citizens will continue to be treated terribly as the collective group of outside countries chooses not to intervene, constituting one of the most significant and worst human rights situations in recent history.

How You Can Help

Four refugees wearing backpacks walk through a field to safety.
Refugees rescued by Liberty in North Korea follow a 3,000-mile secret escape route that includes walking paths, buses, and trains. Source: Yahoo!

North Korea is one of my special interests. I could write about this topic for the rest of my life. I encourage you to look into this issue (resources linked below) and spark your own interest in the North Korean human rights situation. I encourage you to consider, if you can, donating to an organization that I really believe in. They are called Liberty in North Korea. They are working on the ground to help North Koreans escape the regime through a 3,000-mile secret escape route. Their website includes many resources and even a blog written by people personally affected by the North Korean regime. 

Below I have linked some resources for you to explore at your leisure.

Liberty in North Korea

Crossing Borders  

UN General Assembly on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK 

Policy Recommendations – The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Brookings article on the Biden administration and the DPRK  

World Report 2021: North Korea | Human Rights Watch 

World Report 2022: North Korea | Human Rights Watch 

CRS Report – Foreign Assistance to North Korea 

 

Climate Crisis Shifts Gender Roles

by Grace Ndanu

In Kenya, every person is assigned their duties right from birth. When a girl is born her room is painted pink, her toys will be dolls, a house and house essentials. On the other hand, the boy’s room is painted blue and his toys are cars, a spider man and a fire fighter. You will know a girl even when she is a day old because she will be dressed in an oversized dress and a pink or red one for that matter. When she grows up she is taught how to wash clothes, the house and utensils. She is also taught to cook fetch firewood and water, and believe me, no matter how young the girl is she will never complain. The boys sit on the dining area waiting for food. They are taught to stay and wait. For nomadic communities they start going to take care of the cattle as early as age of five. For the other communities they are allowed to play all through the day until they are sent to the shop to get something.

Mother, baby, and small girl dressed in pink
Source: Yahoo Images

In the world of Labor, women have triple roles while men have only one role. The communal and reproductive roles are common among women, and for those who are lucky there are productive roles. I am saying the lucky ones because there are those who are educated and others are blessed with good husbands who allow them to go work and keep their money. In a pastoralist setup the women wake up, go milk the cattle feed them, and also may go herding. When a time comes for the cattle to be sold, it is their husbands who do that and decide what the money will be used for. In a farm setup women are involved in every activity, starting from planting to harvesting but they are never involved in selling the produce or decide what the money will be used for.

I stay in the world of the Masai people who mainly are pastoralists. I have observed that the drought has disordered their traditional system of life, forcing many women into business for the first time. I was walking to a shopping centre where I found a woman doing what a few years ago would have been unthinkable from a woman of her tribe. Shopping for a sheep and a cock. The lady examined her options carefully, pausing at a skinny sheep and a light weight black cock. Feeling the sheep on her arms it was not worth 6000 Kenyan shillings. Also the black cock wasn’t worth 1000 Kenyan shillings. The owner who was also a woman shook his head, I assumed the bargaining power of the customer was enough, I saw the lady left, I assumed that she will be back when the market favours her. I went home with a lot in my mind…

The Masai culture is really rooted, which makes it hard for a woman to be seen doing business, because they spend their time taking care of the children, fetching water and firewood and take care of the homestead. And now we have just witnessed two women doing business, in my thought it was a good thing. Gender roles are so strict that men often prohibit their partners from handling money or even saying their husband’s names in public. Now, for the first time in history, it is slowly becoming okay for Masai women to work for money. I have also heard that in the most interior parts of the Masai communities there is a market day, and people who are mostly there are women, they are both sellers and customers. And this is not because men have changed their perspective on gender roles. Instead climate change has made it so because there is no other means for them to survive. Due to the increasing drought, men leave home for months searching for pasture with their herds leaving their wives not only to manage the households but also to earn enough money to live while they are away.

Dust storm in Kenya; men shield their eyes
Source: Yahoo Images

The already brutal dry season has intensified in recent years, killing more vegetation, animals and people than before. By my estimate, harsh draughts have reduced the Masai’s livestock by up to 80 percent. The little resources have triggered fights with neighbouring communities, and armed raiders usually steal what remains. With the new way of life now the Masai women have started up jobs once reserved for men such as trading for livestock. The trend of women engaging in paid labour is not limited to Masai women, even in parts of west Africa are taking on once forbidden roles because so many men have migrated in search of work and no one knows when they will be back. At some point they leave, get some work and forget their families and instead of going back home they remarry leaving the other family. Balla Sidibe, the country director for CARE in Mali said that several men of the Kayes region in Mali have left and therefore women have taken over farming duties. This is the responsibility they never would assume before. Traditionally, “there was the belief that only men can do the hard work,” Sidibe added. “But in reality, the women are the ones doing that and producing for their families.” In Northern Ghana according to CARE study, women are also doing greater workloads, which leads to discrimination by men. At the same time they reported that the women have greater confidence in decision making matters and men for the first time see women as capable of participating in productive work and contributing to the family.

I believe the shift of women managing their own finances is leading to other changes too. A gender professor at the university of East Angalia said that the Borana women whose gender roles are alike that of the Masai, some women are questioning the value of marriage since they found out they can live perfectly fine without their husbands because they cannot support their families as they once did.

Women sell goods in Kenya market
Source: Yahoo Images

Development organizations and non-profits organizations across Africa see these shifts as a golden opportunity to empower women economically and socially. Because they will have an opportunity to run their families and businesses without any assistance. Empowerment for women is a double edged sword because they will be financially stable and at the same time it will give women get out of abusive relationships because they will understand that they can do well on their own. Through this women will own properties, they will make sound decision regarding the properties, they will live a good lifestyle and they will be able to take their children to good schools. I hope that as women take more responsibilities, they will also take role in leadership, such as mediating the resource related matters troubling pastoralist communities due to drought.

Attack on Gender-Affirming Healthcare in Texas

After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States. 

Cube beads spelling the word “transgender”; Source: Unsplash

Introduction

In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing. 

Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.  

Image of protest with posters listing "Transgender Healthcare"
Image of protest with posters listing “Transgender Healthcare”

Medical Evidence 

In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.  

When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.  

Overhead view of medications and hormone therapy. Source: Unsplash

The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.  

Alabama and Florida Response

Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination. 

Black and white image of a protest with the phrase "No Body Is Illegal" centered.
Black and white image of a protest with the phrase “No Body Is Illegal” centered.

On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.” 

Current Status

A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.

Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.  

To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.  

Haiti: How will this end?

Peace in Haiti is akin to a momentary breath of fresh air. Gripped by the terror of political and humanitarian crises since its founding as the world’s first Black republic, Haiti is constantly reeling from one cause of instability to the next.

Two children in tattered clothes walk through a trash dump
Source: Yahoo Images

Today’s maelstrom of political inaction, violence, and human rights disasters in Haiti is rooted in a story that reaches back to its colonial past. After liberating itself as a French colony, Haiti was forced to pay reparations for the descendants of their French slave masters and lost “slave” property. Haiti took loans from French and American banks, in turn, providing more economic growth for French Banks. France essentially controlled the main bank of Haiti so much that the country became one of France’s largest financial conglomerates. When Haiti was unable to pay back American loans with interest, then President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion of Haiti that lasted 19 years. On top of economic repression, Haiti continuously experiences natural disasters that it is not equipped to recover from. Located in the Caribbean, Haiti experiences earthquakes and hurricanes at alarming frequencies each reintroduces economic, political, and health crises that compound existing tensions.

Coupled with military invasions from the United States and other developed countries for the sake of democratic civility, Haiti’s fate has been taken away from Haitians and toyed with by other powers. Haitian officials were also notoriously corrupt and either capitalized off their role as figureheads for invading powers or stealing from an already poor populace.

How did Haiti arrive here?

On July 21st, 2021, former Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated following a presidential term riddled with election fraud and economic disasters, including increases in gas prices that left the Haitian public seething. In recent decades, Political corruption and mishandling of national resources have depleted Haiti of economic strength, continuing to repress the middle class and poor. In August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people, from which Haiti is still trying to recover.

After Moise’s death, his successor, President Ariel Henry, took charge of Haiti’s administration. Still, Haiti has fallen farther down a black hole with worsening crime rates, gang violence, inflation, healthcare crises, and fuel shortages. Backed by the Core Group, a conglomerate of countries including the United States, Canada, France, UN Representatives, and the Organization of American States, Henry has done little to alleviate Haiti’s crises.

In September 2022, Henry eliminated federal fuel subsidies to increase government funding, which caused gas prices to spike immediately. The G9 Family and Allies, a coalition of the most powerful gangs in Haiti, blocked public and government access to Varreux, Haiti’s largest fuel terminal, in retaliation to Henry’s new policy. International travel slowed and goods transportation to outer markets halted leading down a spiral of fear, financial misplacement, and dwindling basic necessities such as food, healthcare, hygiene, and safety.

Political Instability

People flee a burning building
Source: Yahoo Images

The oil terminal, Varreux, holds almost 70% of Haiti’s fuel reserves; without it, every industry has taken a hit from this disruption. Local businesses, homes, hospitals, and schools shut down with no energy to serve the people. Many hospitals have already closed, and others are temporarily running on generators. Due to rising global inflation, the cost of flour, wheat, oil, shortening, and many other resources that the country imports on a deficit rose. To make matters worse, the G9 has also blocked Haiti’s ports, slowing the shipments of emergency fuel. Because of this, most Haitians cannot pay the difference inflation has burdened them with, and the government is also not in a position to help.

Gangs, either a part of G9 or not, control the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s economic hub and a major transportation route for resources and goods going in and out of the country. Violence blazes through every street of the capital city and beyond, so much so that businesses have shuttered, and people refuse to go out into the streets for fear of dying, being kidnapped, and becoming a victim of a massacre. Ultimately, food can’t be made and people can’t venture out to get food, leaving families starving. The U.N. has stated that Haiti is facing an acute hunger catastrophe, the worst the country has seen in decades, with over 4.7 million adults and children without adequate nutritional resources. Since gangs also control transport on the roadways, water tankers and other necessary resources are not reaching the communities where people have been desperately waiting, leading to water shortages.

Another emerging problem within Haiti is the current deadly cholera outbreak, an infectious disease carried by water-borne parasites that causes uncontrollable diarrhea and dehydration to the point of death, if left untreated. The depth of this crisis is exacerbated as Haiti was declared cholera-free after successfully controlling the disease for three years. But because access to clean water, hygiene, and healthcare is limited in the current civil unrest, the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population has reported 1,193 confirmed cases, 13,672 suspected cases, and 288 confirmed deaths. The most vulnerable are children 1 to 4 years of age. The first case was recorded in Cite Soleil, a coastal town overrun with gangs since Moise’s assassination last year, highlighting the impact of this untimely death on the health of those in Haiti.

Sexual Violence

In wartime, rape and sexual assault are employed by invading or territorial forces as tools for fear, power, and subjugation. Haitian gangs have perpetrated widespread rape and assault against all ages of women, children, and, less commonly, men. The United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) released a joint report detailing the above by conducting and analyzing over 90 interviews with incident victims and witnesses over the past two years to uncover information on the pervasiveness of collective rapes and public humiliation. Although this report is not exclusive to post-G9 control, the amount of sexual violence is unimaginable now.

Women and girls are afraid to cross the “frontlines,” the name ascribed to territories controlled by gangs, for necessities, because sex is viewed as a form of currency, voluntary or not. Families may encourage this form of “transactional behavior” to gain food, water, and other resources as their power lies in weapons, political power, geographical power, and fear. Another UN report describes women used as handles for high-ranking men in gangs. Victims can be raped and assaulted for hours in front of family or friends, and mutilation and executions are common afterward.

International Response

Over the past couple of weeks, United Nations Security Council members deliberated to formalize an action plan to weaken the gangs’ control of Haiti effectively. As a result, the Security Council adopted a targeted arms embargo, freezing assets and putting individuals, or those supporting the gangs in Haiti, on travel bans. These people include the leader of G9, Jean “Barbeque” Chezier, the perpetrator of much of the violence and humanitarian crisis that Haiti is experiencing.

Security Council member states cannot permit travel or weapons sales to these individuals within Haiti’s borders. As another aspect of the adopted plan, military equipment shipments have already been dispatched to Haiti’s police force to help quell unrest. Canada is confirmed to send in armored vehicles to the Haitian authorities in addition to officials to conduct a “needs assessment” of Haiti. The United States has imposed sanctions on Haiti for drug trafficking and gang violence; though tactically sound, the move further cripples Haiti by hacking off an economic power source.

Some Haitians remain uncomfortable with foreign intervention. Past interferences from the international community have shaped Haiti’s present, overcome with lawlessness and despair. Yet, despite the history, the West and some Haitians still believe their interference may be Haiti’s best bet. There is no objection that Haiti must be helped; its recent designation as an aid state, a nation at the mercy of foreign aid, further exacerbates the conditions of Haitian citizens. The question that the world and Haitians are pondering is: how can the world help without causing a chain reaction to an even worse fate than the present?

If you would like to learn more about Haiti’s history, here are some resources that provide great insight into aid services and current events: https://www.mic.com/impact/how-to-best-help-haiti-according-to-haitians-82850703. They include Hope for Haiti, Team Rubicon, the World Health Organization, and Haiti’s Emergency Relief Fund.

 

Reclaimed Lives: The Power of Storytelling

BY: Alesa R. Liles, PhD, MSW

A line of prisoners in orange jumpsuits with hands behind backs
Source: Yahoo Images

Autonomy within our lives is often something many take for granted. We can make choices for ourselves whether it is a need or want or even a subconscious choice we don’t even think about. This right to choose is a fundamental aspect of humanity.

For almost 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, the ability to even make the simplest choices, like when to eat, to shower, to sleep, etc. are extremely limited. Given the penological goals of incarceration, some restriction of freedom is assumed. However, the system of mass incarceration in the United States, not only dictates a person’s everyday life, it systematically dehumanizes and deprives individuals of their inherent dignity. The primary way it does so is through the degradation of one’s identity and human rights. Individuals with little sense of self and little power, who are in the midst of experiencing the trauma of prison life, are easier to control.

As a result of mass incarceration beginning in the 1980s, prisons in the United States have become over-crowded, less safe, poorly managed, and provide few programming opportunities. With the lack of meaningful activities and limited connections to the outside world, individuals are returned to society, inevitably, carrying the trauma of prison home. There are few resources available, such as counselors or therapists, to meet the specific needs of this population in the free-world as well. Because the need for healing remains, the power of storytelling is invaluable in regaining personal dignity and autonomy. The act of storytelling provides an individual an outlet to express their experiences in a safe environment. The individual has autonomy over their personal narrative, ultimately allowing for understanding and healing. Research supports storytelling as one of the most powerful ways for trauma recovery.

To assist citizens returning home from incarceration, creating a platform to tell their story is one way that allows them to regain the dignity and autonomy that was taken. So, in the spring of 2022, my students and I set out to address this issue. We focused on developing a podcast for returning citizens to tell their stories. We wanted to speak with justice impacted individuals about their experiences, particularly their experiences returning to society after significant periods of incarceration. Through the creation of the podcast, we hoped our guests would be empowered to disclose their challenges and successes, and even significant traumas.

Photo of man standing at an open gate facing the city
Source: Voices of the Returned, Life After Incarceration; Georgia College Department of Government and Sociology

As we started the process, we gathered a large amount of research materials to learn more about what incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals endure. The statistics were grave. According to a study by the Urban Institute, returning citizens have difficulty finding stable employment, obtaining food, maintaining sobriety, and are often returned to the same neighborhoods with significant socioeconomic disadvantage. Poverty has been identified as the strongest predictor of recidivism. These are the things the data told us, but context is lost in the numbers. People are lost in the numbers.

Identified by a six-digit number for more than 40 years of his life, the first person we spoke to was incarcerated at the age of 18 and released at the age of 62. Charlie spoke about his experiences in prison over 4 decades, what it was like to have children and to lose family while incarcerated, and then being released into a completely different world that have moved on without him. After speaking with us, he stated “prison is a terrible experience that robs a person of self-respect, dignity, and any ray of hope. [This] helped me feel society would accept me.” In providing a platform to speak about their experiences and to tell their stories, returning citizens can reclaim their fundamental rights to dignity and autonomy. By the end of spring, we were able to produce 5 episodes featuring 4 justice impacted individuals.

To the common person, this may sound insignificant, but to individuals who have been stripped of everything down to their name, having an opportunity regain their voice and to see others will listen, is a step forward in the healing process. As stated by Craig Haney with the Urban Institute, “At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others.” With more than 95% of incarcerated individuals eventually facing release, healing is surely needed.

Alesa R. Liles is an Associated Professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia College and the Managing Editor of Undergraduate Research. Email: alesa.liles@gcsu.edu

 

Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we Celebrate Human Rights Day

by Chadra Pittman

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr                                            
photo of MLK making a speech
Source: Yahoo Images

On this day, January 16, 2023, we remember a man known as the champion of human rights, Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been 94 years old had he lived. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King dedicated his life to advocating against racial discrimination and injustice. Through multiple death threats, the bombings of his family home, enduring physical attacks and being stabbed, until his assassination on April 4, 1968; Dr. King remained committed to the principle of non-violence. He was only 39 years old when he was killed.

Dr. King believed in the universality of human rights for all and acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  What better way to begin a blog about “Human Rights Day” and the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, than on the day we commemorate the birth of a man who used his voice, and ultimately risked his life in pursuit of equal rights for all of humanity,

The UDHR document
Source: United Nations

Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, at a General Assembly meeting in Paris. The UDHR was created to formalize a global standard for human rights across the world. Annually, on December 10th, a day which commemorates the passing of the UDHR, the UN acknowledges this day as Human Rights Day.

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

In less than half a century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has come to be regarded as possibly the single most important document created in the twentieth century and as the accepted world standard for human rights. Referred to as a milestone document in the history of human rights, the UDHR is a collaborative effort of experts from the legal and cultural fields from around the world. The goal was to create a document which rights would be acknowledged globally and would serve as protection for all people living within any nation across the world. 

As the most translated document in the world, the UDHR is available in 500 languages, which speaks to the efforts made to ensure that all humans across the world are aware of their human rights, can access them in their native language and know that those rights are acknowledged by the United Nations and the world. It was Former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Rooselvelt, who served as Chair of the Human Rights Commission (HRC),  who advocated for the declaration to be “…written in clear accessible language so that it might be readily embraced by peoples of the world. She exerted similar pressure on the U.S. State Department, arguing that for the declaration to have any impact it must not be seen as an American or western dominated document.” She also recognized that the U.S. would receive criticism for advocating for human rights across the globe, when the racist policies of Jim Crow were plaguing the lives of African Americans within the United States.  Even so, the Commission forged onward and the UDHR was born.

UN Poster that reads "Stand Up for Human Rights"
Source: United Nations

Timeline for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On April 25, 1945, on the heels of World War II, representatives from fifty nations met to “organize the United Nations” in San Francisco, California. On June 26, the representatives adopted the United Nations Charter, Article 68. The purpose of this article was for the General Assembly  to “set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights.” 

In December 1945, Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by then President Harry S. Truman to the United States delegation to the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, appointed Roosevelt to the commission and with the task of creating the formal Human Rights Commission (HRC).

In February 1946, a “nuclear” commission on human rights was created by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its job was to recommend a “structure and mission for the permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC)”.  

In April 1946, Roosevelt was nominated to be the chair of the HRC. The ECOSOC gave the HRC three tasks to complete: “a draft International Declaration, a draft covenant, and provisions for the implementation.” 

On December 10, 1948, after convening with “representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris (General Assembly resolution 217 A). 

photosearch/Getty Images
photosearch/Getty Imagesj

Roosevelt led the way to ensure that the declaration was inclusive and advocated that when considering human rights that the State Department make sure that, it must not be seen as an American or western dominated document… advocating that they “…expand its concept of human rights from a concept of merely political and civil rights to include economic, social, and cultural rights.” 

What are the Human Rights Concerns of 2022?

One might think, we have come far in our efforts to afford equitable attainment of human rights to all people across the world. While we, collectively have made strides, we still have a long way to go to free the world of human rights violations. According to the Institute for Human Rights and Business, listed below are the top 10 human rights issues in 2022.

  • Redesigning supply chain
  • Personal Data Tracking & Tracing
  • Stranded at Sea
  • Wage Abuse
  • Office and Work Place
  • Forced Labor
  • Climate Change
  • Racial Matters
  • Standards Fragmentation
  • Transition Finance

These issues are reflective of the ongoing and unprecedented impact of COVID-19.

On December 10, 2023, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated. However, on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2022, the United Nations will launch a year-long campaign to showcase the UDHR by focusing on its legacy, relevance and activism.” The 2022 slogan is “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All.”

How to Participate in Human Rights Day on December 10th and beyond

Your college experience is full of opportunities to grow and learn, academically, socially and even politically. You will meet people from varying backgrounds and having lived experiences which may be foreign, pun intended, to you. So on Human Rights Day, what can you do to support the initiative? Well, the college interns at the United Nations Association, came up with 10 Ways to support Human Rights Day. Hopefully, you will be inspired to do one.  

1. Pass a student government resolution: Work with a member of your student government or student council to pass a resolution in honor of Human Rights Day.

2. Write an op-ed or article in your school’s newspaper: School newspapers can be a great place to talk about the importance of human rights around the world.

3. Stage a public reading: Set up a microphone in your student center or, if the weather’s right, outside and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in full.

4. Set up a free expression wall: Set up a blank wall or giant piece of paper and encourage your friends to write about what human rights mean to them.

5. Make a viral video about human rights day: Film your UNA chapter kicking it Gangnam style to celebrate human rights and put the video online: it’ll go viral in a matter of minutes.

6. Start a Facebook campaign: Encourage your friends to change their profile pictures to an individualized Human Rights Day banner.

7. Hand out t-shirts and other gear: If you have the funds, buy t-shirts, sunglasses, or even 90’s-style sweatbands featuring a slogan about human rights to give to your classmates.

8. Coordinate an extra-credit lecture: Work with professors in the history department, the law school, or the international relations program to host a lecture about human rights, and work with other professors in the department to get attendees extra credit—trust us, your friends will thank you.

9. Hold a candlelight vigil or other commemorative event: While it’s important to have fun, human rights are serious business. Consider holding a vigil or other event to commemorate those who have suffered human rights abuses and those whose human rights are still violated.

10. Hold a talent show, dance, or party: Big social events are a great way to bring awareness to an issue, so why not have a human rights-themed party? Free admission if you dress up like Eleanor Roosevelt or Ban Ki-Moon. Also, here are two organizations you can support: Free and Equal and He for She.

Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela once said that, “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity.” For the past 75 years, the UDHR has existed to ensure that our human rights are not violated, and if they are that there is accountability on a global stage.  We all deserve the right to live freely and uninhibited, the freedom to love who we want and practice the religion of our choice. We must work together as a humanity to ensure that protecting our human rights continues to be a priority. 

For Dr. King, protecting, and advocating for human rights and speaking out against injustice was his priority. On August 28, 1963, officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom… some 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and more than 3,000 members of the press covered the event. On that historic day, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” 

Let us work together to transform his dream into reality. Beyond this nation of the United States, let us work collectively to ensure equal and equitable rights for ALL women, men, and gender nonbinary humans.  Protecting human rights was a priority for Dr. King. On November 3, 1967, just a few miles away from this campus of UAB, Dr, King wrote his infamous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the Clergymen.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_in_Jefferson_County_Jail_Birmingham_Alabama_November_3_1967

Martin Luther King Jr. in Jefferson County Jail, Birmingham, Alabama, November 3, 1967 Fair use image“While confined here in the Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…  Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King reminds us that “The time is always right to do what is right” and that we as a humanity must ensure that the single garment of destiny is threaded with equal rights for all humans for this is the only true way forward. In the spirit of Dr. King, we must work to ensure that the rights of ALL humans are acknowledged, respected and protected by law, and not just on Human Rights Day, but every day, and everywhere across the globe.

 

Book Bans in the United States: History Says it All

My mother is the youngest of 5 Indian daughters, all of whom are PhDs, professors, researchers, and educators. My grandfather, a lawyer, raised her, and like clockwork, he repeated that knowledge is akin to clay, a necessary foundation for anyone’s house of decisions, thoughts, ideologies, and actions. Because of this, nothing was more important than my education and, later, my brother’s education.

The right to knowledge that my upbringing revolved around is synonymous with the right to choose, the freedom of expression, and the right to read – all rights outlined directly or indirectly in the United States Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decisions justified by the First Amendment.

Despite the First Amendment’s protection, book bans in schools are threatening this right to knowledge for students. Within the last 2 years, books of all literary and historical acclaim, including modern literature, have been banned at an unprecedented rate in an alarmingly organized manner in public school districts.

When people lose their right to this knowledge and succumb to political pressure, it will be a day in history representing humanity losing its most powerful tool to stand up for justice.

Woman looking through book spines in a bookstore.
Woman looking through book spines in a bookstore. Source: Unsplash

History of Book Bans

Book bans are a form of censorship that allows institutions to remove texts from classrooms, libraries, or bookstores because they disagree with the texts’ content. American history, let alone world history, has demonstrated that literary censorship aims to suppress equity movements as a powerful method of ostracizing minorities.

Like all examples of institutional limitations, the most influential books, which have the potential to cause revolutions, are also the most restricted. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was banned in the Southern United States in 1852 and is traced back as the first example of a book ban. Stowe, a ferocious abolitionist in the North, wrote this book prior to the Civil War to rally abolitionists and swing individuals against the South’s slavery. Since the Constitution was written, Northerners decried the South’s defense of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a powerful tool that amplified the voices of abolitionists across the country; they believed that slavery was a legal injustice in the Constitution that needed to be removed. Plantation owners, however, were able to pull strings and remove the book from circulation in the South, fearing the loss of economic and racial security that slavery gave them.

A hand fisted upward with a rope wrapped around the wrist. This is a symbol of Juneteenth, the national celebration of the emancipation of slavery.
A hand fisted upward with a rope wrapped around the wrist. This is a symbol of Juneteenth, the national celebration of the emancipation of slavery. Source: Unsplash

One of the first instances of controlling students’ access to books was after the Civil War. The Southern United States restricted access to textbooks that painted the South’s intentions and actions poorly amid the Civil War. An advocacy group in the South referred to as The United Daughters of the Confederacy felt that the control of what information their children were learning during school was beholden to the rights of parents. In 1954, they removed The Rabbits’ Wedding, a novel centered around a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. They feared it would normalize interracial marriages, a taboo act at the time. 

In direct opposition to school censorship, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards “cannot remove books from school libraries just because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” in the landmark 1982 Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico case. The Island Trees Union Free School district removed titles it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” In conjunction, the Supreme Court also ruled that students retained their First Amendment rights to the freedom of speech and expression in school in the Tinker v. Des Moines case. If we follow the court, censorship is illegal in the U.S.

Young students listening to a teacher or speaker in their school classroom.
Young students listening to a teacher or speaker in their school classroom. Source: Unsplash

Current Statistics on Book Bans

PEN America, a non-profit dedicated to protecting freedom of expression, keeps a running record of books removed from school libraries, reading lists, or public libraries in each school district. Every year, to honor the lessons and values of the diverse perspectives in these books, the United States celebrates Banned Books Week. This year, held during the week of September 12th, PEN America released startling statistics detailing the exponential increase of banned books in a record-setting number of school districts.

Over 1600 books have been banned nationwide. Most of them are fiction and illustrate the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. In the past, book bans originated from a small scattering of parents making personal requests to remove a few books from circulation or restrict their children from reading them. Today, the opposition is still a minority, but they are organized with structured advocacy groups taking center stage at school board meetings demanding specific books to be removed from circulation. Some of the most banned books, like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is a novel centered around a black teen who witnesses her black friend get shot by a white police officer. Another is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which discusses the life of a Native-American teenager aspiring to be a cartoonist in an all-white school. Essentially, the most targeted books discuss life outside the white picket fence of middle-class white suburbia.

A collection of books that have been banned or proposed to be banned on a wooden shelf.
A collection of books that have been banned or proposed to be banned on a wooden shelf. Source: Flickr

What do supporters of book bans hope to achieve?

Ellen Hopkins, the author of the Young Adult poetry verse book Crank, is one of the most banned authors in the United States. She feels that parental rights and concern for children’s safety are a smokescreen behind anti-book advocacy groups’ motivation. Hopkins implores that books provide kids with the opportunity to solace in information about their identity and find consolation that they are not alone. They also prepare children for life in the real world by exposing them to situations they might otherwise encounter. Thus, books are a tool for the development of holistic decision-making skills. Removing these opportunities leaves kids with little chance to make better decisions when confronted with situations they are not familiar with. If the child is BIPOC or queer, removing books that have become championed narratives from the respective community isolates them and invalidates their experiences.

Parents often find these books on lists circulating online and present them to their children’s school districts claiming there is offensive or inappropriate content that compromises their children’s innocence. PEN America has found that parents who appear at the board of education meetings en masse and are armed with arbitrary lists of books have rarely even read the books to understand their significance. Descriptions of “obscenity” are affixed to titles as a fearmongering tactic to cultivate reprobatory characterizations of these books as they quickly make their way through advocacy groups’ websites and Facebook to radicalize those that come in contact with these types of posts. Such inflammatory language, which is not considered legally acceptable, elevates a small minority of individuals into a vocal majority to force school boards to comply.

A group of adults in a meeting with notebooks listening and taking notes on the speaker.
A group of adults in a meeting with notebooks listening and taking notes on the speaker. Source: Unsplash

Solutions to Book Bans

Banned Books Week stands as a beacon of hope against the dark wave of censorship. This week celebrates suppressed voices in literature and amplifies authors’ messages through community outreach, and fosters national collaborations. However, progress is made in consistent steps, not leaps.

On a smaller scale, there are many tools you can use in your community to combat literary censorship. Community members, feed off each other’s ideologies, and to mellow the extreme views of this vocal minority, the first step is to provide outlets for conversation. The vocal minority advocating for book bans can be confronted and overcome when faced with the majority opposed to them or their thinking. You can make your presence felt at school board meetings. Show up and voice your opinion and advocate for others to do so over social media. Vote for your local boards of education, library boards, and city council elections. If you want to, run for these board positions yourself or directly appeal or lobby your legislative representatives and defend the importance of all content in books. Unite Against Book Bans also provides communities with toolkits that include essential questions and moderate answers that consider the argument of parental rights while protecting the First Amendment.

In all, I am grateful for the circumspection that my mother and my family’s push for education provided me with. Not only hard skills, but also the ability to think for myself, to derive my own opinions, and to be mindful of how I act and react to new information. My freedom to read and speak gave me a powerful voice that must be available and fostered in everyone.

The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: From the Past to the Present

An image of a tightly packed women's prison.
An image of a tightly packed women’s prison. Source: Soumya Misra (Nursing CLIO) via Yahoo Images Public Domain

This is a continuation of the conversation about the Alabama Prison Crisis as exposed by Mary Scott Hodgin in her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.” If you have not read the previous blog post on this topic, “The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: A History”, it is recommended that you do so. Also, if you would like more information and details regarding this topic, please listen to the podcast, “Deliberate Indifference,” by Mary Scott Hodgin. Now, without further ado, let us jump right in from where we left off.

In the previous blog, we focused on the history of prison systems in America, and particularly, some of the legislations and ideologies that laid out the foundation for the correctional institutions we know today. We explored in detail the convict leasing system that helped rebuild the infrastructure of the Antebellum South following their defeat in the Civil War, and the racialized laws and legislations that disproportionately landed Black and Brown people in prison over their White counterparts. The War on Drugs era followed by the Tough on Crime era landed hundreds of nonviolent offenders in prison, serving longer and harsher sentences and life without parole. While our focus in the last blog was more nationwide, it was necessary context to set the stage to better understand the realities that face the Alabama prison systems focused on in this blog.

The objective now is to look deeper into the conditions of the penal system in Alabama, the lawsuits they faced in 2017, and the most recent one in 2020, how the pandemic exacerbated these conditions, the prison strikes that took place within these prisons, and some ways to move forward to bring about actual change – change in the mindset of our fellow Alabama voters, and a shift in the way the prison population is viewed and treated as a whole. We will look at some groups that are trying to do just that, from organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Offender Alumni Association to religious groups and other educational groups that sponsor programs within the prison system to provide opportunities for higher education to the imprisoned population.

Prison Conditions

An image depicting a dormitory style housing unit. Many of Alabama's prisons are structured this way.
An image depicting a dormitory-style housing unit. Many of Alabama’s prisons are structured this way. Source: Yahoo Images via ACLU

While exploring the most recent reports that resulted from the federal investigations of Alabama’s prisons, there were many similarities in the reports. While the problems of understaffing and overcrowding were expressed in detail, (which will be discussed below), there was also extensive observation of the living conditions inside the prisons. What the investigations revealed was shocking, and despite having been advised to address these issues even in the 1970s investigation of Alabama’s prisons, the conditions had not improved. Rather, it had deteriorated even more due to the consequences of staffing and crowding issues.

Both reports extensively provide detailed examples of violent outbreaks within the prisons, between prisoners, and even at the hands of prison staff targeting the prisoners. Many such incidents go unreported, and others have even ended in the death of the imprisoned person. One of the things that contribute to this violence is the structure of the prison itself. Many of Alabama’s prisons are fashioned in a dormitory-style of housing units instead of the individual cell units depicted in popular culture. These housing units are essentially enormous halls that are secured on the perimeters, with bunk beds piled into the room as close as they can fit. With little to no privacy, and jampacked in tight spaces, people can get easily agitated, and this can lead to violence. Due to the overcrowding issue, many people are even expected to sleep on the floors, which can be unsanitary and uncomfortable. Due to the continuous staffing issues these prisons face, these large units may go unguarded for long periods of time, sometimes even entire shifts.

This puts both the inmates within the units at risk for violence, and the prison staff who, to the incarcerated individuals, represent the authority from which these conditions are sanctioned. Even still, many officers, due to the understaffing issue, have overlooked contraband possession (such as drugs or cell phones), deciding to pick and choose their battles in an already tense environment. As a result of all these issues, corruption is rampant within the prison walls, and many prison staff, according to narratives from both reports, take advantage of this tense environment to assert dominance over prisoners with increased brutality. People who are incarcerated are not viewed by society as individuals with their own pasts and presents. They are only viewed as “criminals,” remain invisible to society and are dehumanized. Regardless of the crimes that a person commits, they are at the end of the day, still, people, who deserve dignity and basic human decency. As an institution of the state, prisons are legally responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for people who are incarcerated to serve out their sentences as punishment. The American Constitution does not support “cruel and unusual punishments”, and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the rights of imprisoned individuals are fully supported.

An infographic which lists the universal rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
An infographic that lists the universal rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Source: Irish Times via Yahoo Images Public Domain

2017 Federal Investigation

In the previous blog, we focused on how the prison system of Alabama has been under federal investigation nearly 50 years ago in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the conditions outlined in those reports were never fully addressed, and the issues that were highlighted have only been exacerbated over the years. In September 2017, the Department of Justice from the federal government toured one of Alabama’s prisons, Bibb County Correctional Facility, for their official investigation of prison conditions in the Alabama penal system. What they uncovered was outlined later in a report published in 2019, stating over 50 pages worth of evidence against Alabama, and the minimal expectations the federal government laid out for Alabama to achieve, both short-term and long-term.

The report is prefaced by the fact that these concerns were underlined within a week of their investigation. According to the report from the observations made in 2017, the Alabama correctional facilities faced a myriad of issues, including an overcrowded prison population, with dangerously low staffing, issues of contraband entering the prisons, and a host of observations pertaining to violence within the prisons, including physical, mental, and sexual violence. As discussed in the previous blog, these overcrowding issues come from the various legislations that were passed, increasing the lengths of sentences, criminalizing drug abuse and mental health issues (instead of treating them as medical issues requiring rehabilitation and treatment), and incorporating mandatory sentencing minimums and three-strikes laws. Along with identifying the concerns stated above, the report also deemed the penal system’s inadequate protection of its inmate population from harm, violence, and death, a failure. The report discussed at length how, along with unsanitary living conditions, there are dangerous weapons and drugs that are circulating within the prisons, making them unsafe for both the incarcerated people, as well as the officers who work there. This in turn is both caused by and exacerbated by the issues of overcrowding and understaffing within the prison walls. With fewer officers to supervise the dormitory-style prisons in Alabama, incarcerated people are packed together to fend for themselves.

While not all people locked up in prison are violent offenders, studies have shown that desperation, (which is rampant in these prisons), can lead to violence, distrust, and increased criminal behavior within the population. While the study referenced focused on populations outside of prisons, it is safe to assume that these results are only amplified within the prison system. The people within are both desperate and already undergoing punishment, which means that even the threat of punishment is not a deterrence from committing these violent acts. This also means that with fewer officers to supervise the dorms and halls of the prison, the overall violence within the prisons is increased, making it dangerous for the entire prison population.

As explained in both the report by the federal investigation, as well as the podcast by Mary Scott Hodgin, there were at least 11 men that died in 2019 alone due to the increase in violence within the Alabama prisons. To make matters worse, the federal investigation also found that the Alabama prison system’s record-keeping on these incidents and others was inaccurate, finding that there were many incidents that went unreported, and even many deaths misclassified as due to natural causes or medical reasons rather than due to the violence found within the prisons. If you count the total number of deaths within the inmate population in 2019 classified as natural causes or otherwise, the number is as high as 119 deaths.

An infographic providing statistics around mental health in the prison system.
An infographic providing statistics on mental health in the prison system. Source: Cabrini University via Yahoo Images Public Domain

In addition to the misclassifications and incidents not being reported, Hodgin also details in her podcast the inadequate mental health care offered to incarcerated individuals within Alabama’s prisons. This can lead to an escalation of violence, and abuse of drugs, and place incarcerated individuals dealing with mental health issues in dangerous situations. Without the proper medical attention required to treat these individuals with mental health illnesses, prisons can become a charged environment that can exacerbate their conditions, making them more vulnerable to both becoming victims of violence, as well as the perpetrators of the violent acts. Unfortunately, because people with mental health issues are four times more likely to be imprisoned instead of receiving treatment and care, many individuals in prison already enter the system without knowing how to follow social norms. This can put them in danger of being abused by officers and other imprisoned individuals alike, and without proper care, their conditions can become worse, and at times, can end in death, either at their own hands or at the hands of another.

Another major topic of concern addressed in the report is that sexual abuse and sexual violence. Sexual violence is rampant in Alabama’s prisons, and this issue is exacerbated by the understaffing issue present within these facilities. With fewer officers staffed to care for increasing numbers of imprisoned people, there is less monitoring and supervision taking place, creating a breeding ground for violence, both sexual and physical. Much of the sexual abuse either go unnoticed, or unreported by staff members, and while the victims can report these incidents too, many choose not to for fear of retaliation or feelings of shame. Their fear is not unsubstantiated, as many accounts have been provided in which sexual assaults took place in retaliation to the victim’s reporting of a previous sexual assault. In addition to the low staffing numbers, many of the facilities in Alabama are constructed in a dormitory style, meaning that imprisoned individuals are grouped into a big hall rather than individual cells. This can be challenging for clear visibility of each individual inside the prison and their whereabouts. At times, only one or two officers may be in charge of the entire unit, and sometimes, the incarcerated people go unsupervised.

Many incidents of sexual assault occur as a result of “drug debt”, where an incarcerated person owes another incarcerated person money for drugs or other contraband and does not pay.  There have even been incidents where family members of people who are incarcerated have been extorted for money, with the threat of sexual violence against their imprisoned family member. Many victims of sexual abuse within the prisons also alleged that these instances occurred after the victims themselves were drugged or held at knifepoint. While much of this goes unnoticed by the prison staff, some reports that do manage to document these incidents have even labeled sexual assault as “homosexual acts” rather than nonconsensual sexual abuse. People who are incarcerated that belong to the LGBTQI+ community are even more vulnerable to sexual violence simply for their identity. Unfortunately, many of the officers in charge of ensuring that the prisons comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), are not even aware of who among their incarcerated population belongs to the LGBTQI+ community. The PREA flags the LGBTQI+ population as being most at risk for sexual crimes, and the PREA managers in the Alabama Department of Corrections are not fully complying with the standards set by the legislation.

After identifying and explaining the various issues the Department of Justice found within Alabama’s prison system, the report argued that these conditions violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated people, and as such, provided some bare-minimum measures that Alabama should take immediately to avoid a federal takeover of the prisons. These remedies included addressing the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, the rampant violence (both physical and sexual), the access to contraband, and the living conditions within the facilities. In addition to these short-term measures, the report also suggested some long-term measures to implement, including – among a list of other things – better incentives to improve staffing issues, improved systems to track, record, and address issues of violence, and more regulation over prison conditions and treatment of the imprisoned population. Alabama closed down one prison after this report (Draper Correctional Center) and closed a particularly harmful “behavioral modification unit” or “hot bays”, (where incarcerated individuals are held as punishment for violence and drugs within the prison) at Bibb Correctional facility. While these closures were a good place to start, they should be in no way, the only solutions to the long list of problems outlined by the report following the federal investigation. Unfortunately, Alabama, as expressed in the report itself, has been “deliberately indifferent” to these situations, and as a result, experienced yet another investigation in 2020.

2020 Federal Investigation

An image of an overcrowded cell colored in red to symbolize prison violence
An image of an overcrowded cell colored in red symbolizes prison violence. Source: ProPublica via Yahoo Images Public Domain

The 2020 report from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Alabama’s prisons found similar problems echoed in the 2017 investigation they conducted. As mentioned in the 2017 report, the 2020 report also addressed issues of overcrowding of prisoners, stating that all of Alabama’s 13 prisons held thousands of people over the capacity they were designed for, making Alabama’s prisons among the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. This report also referred to the dangers of not having adequate staff members to care for and run these overcrowded facilities, this time focusing on how these staffing and overcrowding issues have led to an increase in officers using excessive force against the incarcerated individuals, further aggravating the violence that exists within the prison walls. This issue of excessive force is further examined in the report, claiming it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which outlaws cruel and unusual punishments against imprisoned people.

The 2020 report details the many reasons why officers use excessive force against people who are imprisoned. Unfortunately, many officers have been known to use violence and excessive force to “handle” a situation, even in times when there is no physical threat to the officer, and even when the incarcerated people are complying with the given orders. This has the tendency to escalate the situation, placing both the incarcerated individual and the officers in danger’s way. The report provides various examples of such incidents where the imprisoned people are reported to be complacent with the officers’ instructions, even handcuffed without ways to fight back, but have still been beaten, tortured, and abused inhumanely. These officers filed false incident reports claiming that they did not engage in such actions, and even after investigations of the incidents, the officers did not face any legal consequences or disciplinary actions for their behavior.

At times, excessive force is used by officers as a form of punishment or retribution for disrespecting the officers or reporting them. The 2020 report describes multiple incidents where excessive force was used against incarcerated people simply for not following the specific directions laid out by the officers. One incident includes an imprisoned person being physically abused and forced to eat all the leftover chicken for simply wanting some extra food. Other incidents outline the use of chemical sprays to punish incarcerated people or as a form of retribution for not following verbal orders. Chemicals sprays are used even in times when the imprisoned people do not pose any physical threats to the officers. Finally, many officers also use force to simply assert dominance and inflict pain on their charges, something that not only endangers the people involved (both officer and incarcerated individuals) but also causes the incarcerated individuals to distrust the officers in charge, escalating the tensions between the two groups.

All these incidents are violations of the eighth amendment, and while many of the investigations that these incidents resulted in agreed that there was no justification for the use of excessive force in any of these outlined incidents, the officers faced little to no disciplinary actions for their conduct. The Department of Justice also included this issue in their report, arguing that unsurprisingly, officers either fail to report or inaccurately report incidents where excessive force is used. Many times, excessive use of force is investigated internally and recommended for an I & I investigation (Investigations and Intelligence unit of the Alabama Department of Corrections in charge of investigating misconduct by prison staff). Unfortunately, the report declares that of all the incidents recommended to the I&I unit, only 40% of them are actually reviewed. To make matters worse, many of the cases that are investigated by the I&I unit, where excessive force has been confirmed, are seldom referred to be criminally prosecuted. This means that many of the officers abusing their authority and misbehaving with incarcerated individuals go unpunished for their conduct. Many more of the incidents where excessive force is used go unreported, with only the victim’s bruises to bear witness to the incident. For fear of retaliation, many imprisoned persons go without reporting the abuse they face at the hands of officers. If the victim does not cooperate in the investigation, the incident is deemed “unsubstantiated”, and the investigation is closed.

Following their investigation, the federal government proposed a list of measures that Alabama’s Department of Corrections needs to take in order to fully comply with federal regulations for correctional institutions. These immediate measures included the need for more I&I investigators, a better system for victims of abuse from officers using excessive force to report their incidents anonymously and independent of the prison’s authorities, clear procedures for accountability for officers, and better documentation and investigations of incidents where excessive force is used.

COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Prison Population

A cartoon depicting a prisoner digging with a shovel, with a caption underneath reading: "I'm not escaping. I'm just trying to get tested for Covid-19." While this image was referencing the protocols followed by Mississippi prisons, this was essentially the same in Alabama's prisons as well.
A cartoon depicting a prisoner digging with a shovel, with a caption underneath reading: “I’m not escaping. I’m just trying to get tested for Covid-19.” While this image was referencing the protocols followed by Mississippi prisons, this was essentially the same in Alabama’s prisons as well. Source: Mississippi Today via Yahoo Images Public Domain

In addition to these inhumane conditions the imprisoned population experience that violate the basic human rights of incarcerated people, the outbreak of Covid-19 greatly amplified this issue, and soon, the prisons became a contagious and deadly environment for both the prison staff and their charges. With little to no access to adequate healthcare and deteriorating mental health caused by the conditions of their environment, people who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks. On the national level, according to a study conducted in 2020 by the American Medical Association, people incarcerated were five times more likely than people living outside the prison system to be infected by the virus, and the death rates among prison populations were higher than the national average at the time. Making matters worse, due to conditions of overcrowding inside the prisons, the outbreak was especially dangerous, as incarcerated people were unable to adequately quarantine and unable to maintain safe social distance between each other. There was also the probability of prison staff bringing the virus into the prisons from the outside world, and also recirculating the contagion within the prisons back into the larger society. A UAB publication by the School of Public Health declared the prisons a “petri dish for COVID-19”.

To add to this problem, the prisons were notoriously unsanitary, meaning that preventative measures such as maintaining clean spaces and washing hands with anti-bacterial soaps, were impossible to maintain. Furthermore, understaffing issues complicated this situation, as those who were infected were either neglected until conditions were too bad to ignore, or they were provided with inadequate healthcare measures. In Alabama, a unique situation further complicated the negative consequences of the pandemic. A large portion of Alabama’s prison population belongs to the older age groups due to the strict and long sentencing laws of the state, and the fact that the pandemic was considered to be even more dangerous for elderly people further put people incarcerated within Alabama’s prisons in jeopardy. Access to healthcare within the prison system makes this issue life-threatening, and despite the urgency from the American Medical Association to include the prison population in the vulnerable communities list for vaccinations, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that Alabama’s prisons denied its incarcerated people vaccinations. While some prison staff received vaccines, they were not required by the state to be vaccinated to work in the prisons, continuing to place the lives of incarcerated individuals in peril. As a result of inadequate protective gear (such as masks), and negligent behavior on part of the state and the prison staff, the prisons in Alabama encountered a large number of Covid-19 deaths.

Alabama Prison Strikes

A group of people protesting prison conditions and calling for the protection of the rights of incarcerated people.
A group of people protesting prison conditions and calling for the protection of the rights of incarcerated people. Source: Occupy Oakland via Yahoo Images Public Domain

After living through the grave conditions of the pandemic, and witnessing the unchanging environment within the prisons, the incarcerated individuals decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. In September of 2022, incarcerated people from all of the 13 prisons in Alabama began striking against the prison conditions they endured. They argued that the prison system was violating their basic human rights, provided inadequate healthcare, and did not in any way prove to be a place of rehabilitation for the imprisoned population. Instead, they initiated a strike, refusing to work their prison jobs (such as in the laundry department and the maintenance department) that they did not receive compensation for, called for improvements in prison conditions, and demanded reforms to the harsh sentencing laws currently in effect in the state of Alabama.

While imprisoned persons are demanding to be treated fairly in prison, the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, insisted that the demands of the prison population were “just unreasonable,” maintaining that the new construction of the two mega prisons in Alabama would solve all these issues of understaffing and overcrowding. These mega prisons, built with the use of funds designated to the state for pandemic relief, (causing public debate on this controversial subject), are supposed to provide more space for the overcrowded prisons in Alabama, and reports have surfaced about the possibility of hiring more officers for the newer mega prisons. This project will receive a total of over $1.2 billion in funding, of which $400 million comes from the pandemic relief funds.

What is vital to include here is that while these two new prisons will provide more space to house incarcerated individuals, (up to 4,000 in each), these prisons are replacing existing prisons with newer technologies and facilities. While this may seem like an improvement in some prison conditions, (such as more security and cleaner, sanitary units), it does not solve issues of overcrowding or staffing issues. The massive budget awarded to this project, instead of going toward building two mega prisons, could have been used more wisely to address the core issues of society that increase crime and criminality within its community. In addition, certain legislation and reforms could have been passed to overturn the harsh sentencing laws that exist in Alabama today. This would have solved both the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, as with fewer people being incarcerated and more people qualifying for parole, the total amount of people within the system would decrease, which would also lead to a decrease in the number of incarcerated people the prison staff is responsible for. A decrease in the prison population would also lead to a decrease in violence and more space for each individual within the prison walls.

Existing Resources

An infographic depicting the difference between education versus incarceration.
An infographic depicting the difference between education and incarceration. Source: Yahoo Images via QEDfoundation.org

There are many organizations that have attempted to address both the various issues that incarcerated people face within the prison system and those face as they re-enter society after completing their sentences. These organizations include Alabama Appleseed, Offender Alumni Association, Shepherds Fold, One Roof, and Aid to Inmate Mothers. Alabama Appleseed, which belongs to the national Appleseed Network, is a Center for Law and Justice that focuses on equity and justice, and research around prison reforms in Alabama’s penal system. The Offender Alumni Association, recognizing the importance of human connection, focuses on providing support and engagement within the prison walls, and community and stronger familial relationships outside, all while aiming to end the stigma around imprisonment. This organization is a support system for incarcerated people run by people who have been formerly incarcerated and engage in community efforts such as their Heroes in the Hood program to help inspire meaningful goals within the younger generations of high-risk communities to channel their energy toward community restoration. Shepherds Fold, as a transition home, provides similar services from a faith-based approach, instilling Christian values within their participating members. One Roof, an organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Alabama, is yet another resource for people re-entering society after being incarcerated. Through their practice of Coordinated Entry, or an in-depth needs assessment, One Roof is able to secure housing for those in need and point them to additional resources they may require based on their assessment. This can be very helpful for many, especially those who have been incarcerated for decades long, and who may not be aware of what resources exist in the community, or how to go about securing them. Finally, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM) is an organization that provides assistance to mothers who are incarcerated, both during their incarceration, as well as their transition period into society after their sentences have been served. AIM provides transportation to children for visitations with their mothers in prison and provides incarcerated mothers opportunities to record bedtime stories for their children. Their reentry programs aim to reconnect mothers with their children, provide a few essentials for those leaving prison, provide classes on life skills, job preparedness, parenting, and other topics for those who are interested, and even provide transition housing for a year, though it comes with a few eligibility requirements, including rental fees charged weekly.

There are also educational opportunities that are provided for incarcerated people in Alabama’s prisons. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project led by Auburn University, and the Donaldson Lecture Series led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are only two such programs. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project provides incarcerated individuals a chance to earn college credits while serving time. These courses are offered in the field of arts and sciences, and for those who can keep up with the standards of Auburn’s academic programs, this is a great opportunity for incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education, and as a result, be better equipped to handle the professional world upon their release. Similarly, UAB also offers lecture series at Donaldson Prison. While not as extensive or academically progressive as Auburn’s program, the Donaldson Lecture Series focuses on educational talks given to incarcerated individuals within the prison every other Tuesday for academic enrichment purposes.

Shifting the Mindset Around Crime and Punishment

An image of solidarity in favor of Prisoner Rights
An image of solidarity in favor of Prisoner Rights; Source: Yahoo Images Public Domain via Racism.org

These resources are well-intentioned and have helped save so many lives to date. Yet, this is not enough; there is a much-needed shift in the societal mindset around crime and punishment. The issue of the prison system is rooted in the racist founding of this nation, and as such, has systemic implications on various areas of a person’s life. Reforms can only go so far, as they are still pieces of legislation that try to make changes to the existing laws, but they still operate under those same laws. There needs to be a shift in the way incarcerated people are viewed within the larger society, and there needs to be a reexamination of the laws on the books since most of the institutions in America are rooted in beliefs of supremacy. Some things that can help us rethink the way we approach topics that involve imprisoned people are suggested below.

As explained earlier, changing the language around how people in prison are talked about can humanize the population and foster compassion towards the group. Refer to them as imprisoned persons or people in prison rather than branding them the title of “prisoner” or “inmate”. This helps shift the narrative. “Prisoner” or “Inmate” seems to imply that these individuals are criminals at the core, and brands them as “others” in the eyes of society. Instead, referring to them as “imprisoned people” implies they are human, with natural rights, and only living in a condition of imprisonment rather than being defined by their conditions.

Finally, I leave you with a challenge: rethink how crime and punishment are framed in our society. Who is held accountable? Who isn’t? What acts are considered criminal and what aren’t? Who decides which acts to define as criminal and which ones do not? Who benefits from the current criminal “justice” system? Does committing a crime make you a bad person, a “criminal” for the rest of your life, or should you be given another chance to reform? Should people be branded innately “criminal” or are their actions influenced by the conditions of the society they live in and dependent on the context and motivations behind the crime committed? Is it fair to punish someone based on actions (mistakes yes, but still actions) committed as young people for the rest of their lives? Why is it that our society places the label “criminals” on people who commit crimes, but refuses to see them as anything else? People can be “criminals” and still be artists, musicians, poets, writers, activists, metal workers, etc. Why does our society insist on placing a singular label on this population? Could it be to easily forget their existence, to remove humanity from their essence? All these are necessary questions to ask ourselves to understand our own biases towards imprisoned people and began to rethink our own actions that can have long-lasting consequences on the lives of so many. After all, this prison crisis is happening in our own backyard, and if we do not speak out against these atrocities, we are just as guilty as those committing them.

 

The Pinochet Precedent: Convicting Human Rights Violators

On October 16th, 1998, darkness set as police approached the London Bridge Hospital. They were there to arrest the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. That Friday night, Pinochet was detained after receiving minor back surgery, the first former head of state to be arrested on a diplomatic passport in the UK. Suddenly, the immunity generally granted to persons of government had been contested, and the exiles and victims of Pinochet took a step toward justice. 

Pinochet’s human rights violations

On September 11th, 1973, bombs were dropped on the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile. This was the first day in what was to be a bloody reign by the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Overnight, the democratically elected socialist government was replaced with a repressive regime predicated on fear, oppression, and violence. 

Previously, Chile had held the position as the longest-living democracy and most politically stable nation in Latin America. However, in the wake of the 1973 coup, Pinochet’s junta began a crusade to solidify power: constitutional guarantees were suspended, Congress was disbanded, and a country-wide state of siege was declared. 

According to decades-long documentation by Amnesty International, “torture was systematic; ‘disappearance’ became a state policy.” These gross human rights violations were perpetrated by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the secret military police created to target the real and imagined opponents of the authoritarian regime. 

On June 1974, a year after the bloody seizure of power, Article 1 of Decree-Law 521 established DINA as a “military organization of a professional technical nature, directly dependent upon the Government junta, and whose mission will be that of gathering all information at the national level coming from the different fields of activity, with the purpose of producing the intelligence which is required for the formulation of policies, planning and for the adoption of measures that seek to protect the national security and the development of the country.”

In the immediate days following the coup, hundreds of people were detained and taken to two sports stadiums in Santiago. Thousands of social activists, teachers, lawyers, trade unionists, students, and political activists became targets and prisoners of secret detention centers across the country. 

Flowers resting atop white marble covered with names and dates.
Figure 1: Source: Reuters found on Yahoo Images; Roses laying on top of a memorial for disappeared persons in a general cemetery, Santiago, Chile.

These detention centers, and also labor camps, existed under the entirety of Pinochet’s reign. Villa Grimaldi was one of many of these camps used for interrogation and torture. It is estimated that 4,500 prisoners were abused at this site alone, the most common forms of torture including electroshock, waterboarding, forcing heads into excrement, rape, and death. 

According to Amnesty International, the number of officially recognized disappeared or killed is 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and the survivors of political imprisonment and torture is around 40,000 people. To this day, 1,100 people remain missing and only 104 have been found. 

International approaches to convict human rights violations

International law is a relatively new field. Born out of the horrors of World War Two, the United Nations is the multinational body that mediates the rules and creates the international dialogue on human rights. On December 10th, 1948, the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comprised of 30 articles that outline the fundamental principles of human rights. Since then, the UN has written more specific conventions and treaties to expound further on the rights of: 

  • Women
  • Refugees
  • People with disabilities 
  • Children 
  • Indigenous peoples 

And even civil and political, economic, social, and cultural rights. 

When it comes to the implementation of these conventions, there are very divergent paths in the realization of human rights. Opinio juris expresses that a norm about behavior exists but is not consistently followed. In opposition, jus cogens refer to laws and norms in which no derogation is permitted, this includes crimes against humanity (torture, war crimes, apartheid, systematic and widespread violence) and genocide

A drawn image of a person with bound wrists, a gun, and wrists in chains.
Figure 2: Source: Open Society Justice Initiative from Yahoo Images; Depictions of crimes against humanity.

It is the principle of jus cogens that gives rise to universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction refers to the duty that all states have to prosecute individuals who commit crimes against humanity, whether domestically or by other states when the nation where the crime occurred is unwilling or unable to indict violators. It was universal jurisdiction that was key in establishing accountability during the Nuremberg Trials following the holocaust. 

Fifty years later, this principle was used to arrest Pinochet for his systematic use of torture and crimes against humanity in Chile. 

An end to amnesty 

After democracy was restored in Chile, Pinochet lost the presidential election, but not before creating a legal structure to protect himself and his accomplices. In 1978, Pinochet passed an Amnesty Law to protect military personnel who committed human rights violations. Additionally, Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces after losing his presidential position and was appointed a senator for life. It appeared, to Pinochet and his victims, that he would remain outside of a courtroom. 

A black and white image of a group of women holding pictures of people with “Donde estan?”
Figure 3: Source: Wikimedia Commons found on Yahoo Images, Kena Lorenzini; Chilean mothers of disappeared holding signs of their loved ones.

Instead, victims were not deterred from bringing awareness to the crimes of Pinochet. Lawyers representing victims of Pinochet’s repressive regime decided to file complaints in Spain where the principle of universal jurisdiction was enshrined in their legislation. Joan Garcés, a Spanish lawyer, had begun filing for Pinochet’s arrest in 1996, and when it was known that the former dictator would be traveling to the UK, the moment to act became apparent. On October 15th, 1998, Garcés’ team filed a motion for Pinochet’s arrest which was granted. An Interpol red notice was issued, which is a formal international request to locate and arrest persons pending extradition, and a day later Pinochet was detained. 

Pinochet twice petitioned the House of the Lords to dismiss his arrest claiming immunity on the basis of being a former head of state. Both of these requests were denied as the House of Lords affirmed that former heads of state did enjoy immunity for acts committed as functions of a head of state, international crimes such as torture and crimes against humanity were not such functions. Ultimately, in March 2000 Pinochet was released and returned to Chile on medical grounds after tests found him mentally unfit to stand trial. 

However, in the wake of Pinochet’s arrest, Chile’s political and legal landscape had transformed allowing more space for the voices of victims and a sweep of new legal interpretations. The Supreme Court had found the Amnesty Laws only applied prior to 1978 when the state of siege was declared over, additionally, they stated that amnesty could only be granted after an investigation. Moreover, in the cases of disappeared persons, this act constituted an ongoing aggravated kidnapping meaning these cases went beyond the 1978 cut-off. 

Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán asked the courts to strip Pinochet of his immunity and the courts agreed, indicting Pinochet and placing him under house arrest. 

Unfortunately, Pinochet never stood for trial, but his military officers did. 

The indictment of Pinochet and new interpretations of the 1978 Amnesty Laws paved the way for other human rights violators to be prosecuted in Chile. By July 2003, 300 military officers had been indicted and dozens convicted, mostly surrounding cases of enforced disappearances. In 2017, 106 ex-agents of DINA were charged with kidnapping and killing 16 people in “Operation Colombo” during the early years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Many were already serving times for other cases and were sentenced to between 541 days to 20 years in jail, while the state was ordered to pay around $7.5 million (5 billion Chilean pesos) to the families of the deceased. 

Photo from behind a person in front of a wall of pictures of people.
Figure 4: Source: Wikimedia Common found on Yahoo Images, Carlos Texidor Cadenas; An exhibit of images of victims of the Pinochet dictatorship at the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile.

Justice is not only a conviction of a crime. While it is vital to convict human rights violators, it can be extremely challenging, but the arrest of Pinochet has laid the foundation for other dictators to stand trial. Of equal note, this case transformed how victims were seen and heard in Chile, offering justice through legal means when possible and honoring the injustices publicly when before there was silence. Chile continues to reconcile with its past, voting to do away with the constitution written by Pinochet in place of a new one and through the tireless efforts of human rights defenders domestically and internationally. 

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