Southern Prisons in the U.S.

by Abigail Shumate

Prisons, Historically

A quick Google search of “Alabama prison news now” will lead you to hundreds of articles detailing brutal and entirely unnecessary deaths of Alabama inmates. This is not exclusive to Alabama, it’s a trend you can find amongst most other southern states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. The UAB Institute for Human Rights already has several fantastic blog posts focusing on the injustices in Alabama prisons. Where this post differentiates from the others is in its focus on southern prisons as a whole, as well as worker’s rights within those prisons.

If you look at our country’s constitution, the 13th amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duty convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” While this amendment, along with the 14th and 15th, expanded the rights of Black Americans, the italicized portion is a perfect display of how the rights of this population are frequently given with conditions. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this does not just affect Black Americans; however, it’s vital to note that this group is disproportionately incarcerated. For example, in the southern United States, Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than their white counterparts. In states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and North and South Carolina, African Americans make up 38% of the population, but 67% of the incarcerated population.

Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire.
Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire. Source: Flickr

 

Within the Walls

Southern prisons and jails are notorious for being some of the worst in the country, with excessive violence and incredibly poor conditions. Southern prisons are grossly understaffed, and this leads to the intense mistreatment of incarcerated individuals. One example of this is this uncurbed time in solitary confinement. In Alabama, individuals can be placed in solitary confinement for “weeks or months at a time”, and because of understaffing they are denied their basic rights, such as showering. The overuse of solitary confinement is not uncommon in southern jails and prisons, and Black people deal with the brunt of this. Incarcerated Black individuals are eight times as likely to be put in solitary confinement and ten times more likely to be held in solitary confinement for excessive periods of time. Solitary confinement has intense physical and mental implications, and it can cause lasting damage to individuals kept alone for extended periods of time. The suicide rate for individuals kept in solitary confinement is needlessly high; in Georgia, for example, there were nine deaths by suicide from just February to April 2022. Similar to the usage of solitary confinement, in South Carolina there have been multiple extended lockdown periods, both before and during the pandemic. These extended lockdowns are the result of staffing shortages, which is a common theme in many southern prisons. One individual in a North Carolina Prison was forced to spend nine years in solitary confinement, and after their release they stated, “I feel like I am losing touch with reality…I feel helpless and abandoned, which makes me angry.”

Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige.
Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige. Source: Flickr

While the prison system exposes people to uncountable horrors, one that has intense financial consequences is the extensive use of unpaid or underpaid labor. Worker’s rights laws in the United States don’t apply to those who are incarcerated—incarcerated workers have no right to form unions either, so they are unable to fight for improved conditions or pay. For most jobs, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and more pay nothing for the labor, and if they do pay, it’s only cents per hour. Legally, incarcerated individuals can earn five cents a day. Turning the focus back to Black Americans, many are forced into work that can easily trigger generational trauma—required to work in fields, picking fruit and cotton (further reading on this can be found in the works of Dr. Joy DeGruy). The low wages combined with the undesirable jobs could incentive states to keep people imprisoned and working, so that they are better able to profit from of the tangible goods that incarcerated individuals are producing. Portions of payment are fed back into the state, or into the companies that are leasing the incarcerated.

Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background.
Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background. Source: Flickr

Permanent Impacts

The financial detriment that is forced on the imprisoned is not limited to their time in jail. Ex-convicts are treated as second-class citizens, and they often have an incredibly hard time getting jobs after their time in the prison system. At least 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed—which is all the more shocking when you learn this rate is higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. As a reminder, the unemployment rate only includes people who are actively looking for work, so this reinforces how challenging it is for previously incarcerated individuals to support themselves after returning to the general public. This difficulty perpetuates a cycle that can be hard to break—without employment, individuals must deal with less stability and surety, and this can result in them returning to prison or jail.

Impoverished individuals are more likely to commit crimes, and, unfortunately, the jobs that are open for previously incarcerated individuals often leave them below the poverty line. This claim is not unaffected by race, as white men are the most likely to be employed full-time after imprisonment, and Black women are least likely to be employed full-time. This relates back up to previous discussion in the post, and incarceration heavily impacts minority races, and it affects them much more after their time in prison.

Conclusion

The Southern incarceration system presents challenges that can seem insurmountable; however, with appropriate attention and legislative power, positive change can be made for both current inmates and those who were previously incarcerated. One effective measure that can be taken is to Ban the Box. The Ban the Box Campaign advocates for the removal of the question “Have you ever been convicted?” from job applications, housing applications, and more. This limits employers’ and loan distributors’ ability to discriminate against individuals when making hiring or other decisions.

There are also major structural changes that need to be made, including increasing pay for prison labor, improving living conditions within prisons, and limiting the time given in solitary confinement. It is important to recognize that incarcerated individuals are people too, and that they deserve the same rights awarded to everyone in the Constitution.

 

Disproportionate Deaths: Black Mothers

by Abigail Shumate

*The use of gender-affirming language is incredibly important, and it is vital to remember that women are not the only people capable of giving birth or the only people subjected to maternal risks. Unfortunately, research on transgender, intersex, and nonbinary births is incredibly limited, so for the sake of concision, this post will refer to the maternal mortality crisis largely in the context of women. *

Maternal Mortality

Maternal mortality is perceived as a thing of the past. In the 21st century few feel as apprehensive about the idea of them or a loved one giving birth as they would have in centuries prior. One group that does not share this same luxury is black mothers. In America, black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Causing these issues are years’ worth of issues, including differences in the quality of healthcare, implicit bias, and structural racism.

With 80% of pregnancy-related deaths being preventable, it empowers no one to learn that Alabama is one of the greatest perpetrators of maternal mortality with the third highest rate in the country. A piece of anecdotal evidence that I stumbled upon while researching this topic is local to not only Birmingham, but to UAB as well. A former faculty member of UAB, Angelica Lyons, was subjected to pregnancy-related trauma that was, simply put, unnecessary and preventable. Lyons, after emphatically describing her symptoms to her doctors, was brushed off and the severity of her symptoms was not realized. Because of this neglect, she was forced to live with an undiagnosed case of sepsis that resulted in an emergency C-section months before her due date. Fortunately, both she and her baby survived although it was a close call for the Lyons mother. This is not an atypical experience for women of color, and black women specifically. Historical bias against black women results in many doctors dismissing their pain as typical or as something they can handle.

To understand the racism incorporated in the gynecological field, it is important to briefly address the history of gynecology. Gynecological science began in the 1840s, when J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology,” performed experimental C-sections on black slaves without any anesthetics. This inhumane treatment continued after the abolition of slavery, with unnecessary hysterectomies being performed on black women. Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens said it best when she stated, “the advancement of obstetrics and gynecology had such an intimate relationship with slavery, and was literally built on the wounds of Black women,” Following this, black families were kept from white hospitals with substantial funding until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act did not completely eliminate the disparity, and healthcare discrimination still follows us to this day.

Alternate Text: Photo of a University of Alabama at Birmingham building, displaying the words “University Hospital.” Source: Flickr
Photo of a University of Alabama at Birmingham building, displaying the words “University Hospital.” Source: Flickr

 

Maternity Deserts

One cause of inadequate care for all mothers is maternity deserts. Maternity deserts are counties that have no hospitals offering obstetric care, no birthing centers, and no obstetric providers. Over two million women between the ages of 15 and 44 live in these maternity deserts, and between 2020 and 2022, the number of counties determined to be maternity deserts increased. Maternity deserts disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic neighborhoods (although, this post focuses on black mothers, as the difference between black and white mothers tends to be starker). Maternity deserts often have lower access to transportation as well, and these transportation barriers can hinder the utilization of prenatal care.

 

Alternate Text: Photo of an industrial city, featuring train tracks, cranes, and various types of buildings. Source: Flickr
Photo of an industrial city, featuring train tracks, cranes, and various types of buildings. Source: Flickr

 

A Broader Scale

Health disparities amongst black people are not isolated to maternal issues.  Black people must struggle with medical practitioners throughout their entire lives. Doctors habitually brush away the concerns of black people of all ages, causing them to be misdiagnosed, and resulting in worse treatment than their white counterparts, or no treatment at all. As written about in this post, this begins when black people are in utero and can lead to lifelong health conditions that are misunderstood and under-addressed.

For example, black children are more likely to have asthma and less likely to have treatment. There are many reasons for this; however, I am choosing to focus on the long-term effects of Jim Crow laws. Unfortunately, many areas with below-average housing (or areas located near toxic sites) are the same areas that were the result of previous redlining. Comparatively, 4 in 10 black children live in areas plagued by poor environmental factors, as opposed to just 1 in 10 white children. People are quick to discount the social factors that play into conditions such as asthma; however, many scientists agree that structural conditions can worsen asthma and cause certain groups to be unable to obtain treatment.

Later in life, black people are more likely not only to have Alzheimer’s, but they are also less likely to be properly diagnosed, which delays or prevents their ability to get treatment (not dissimilar to the conditions referenced above). Statistically, black people who are over 65 are 4% more likely to have Alzheimer’s than white people (14% versus 10%), but it is likely that this disparity is even larger due to said misdiagnosis.

Alternate Text: Photo of a blue inhaler. Source: Flickr
Photo of a blue inhaler. Source: Flickr

Progress

While black maternal mortality is still an incredibly pertinent issue, progress has been made in recent years. In 2019, two members of the House of Representatives, Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams, created the Black Maternal Health Caucus. This caucus is one of the largest bipartisan groups in Congress, and its goal is to “work with…partners in industry, nonprofits, and the Administration to find solutions to ending disparities and achieving optimal birth outcomes for all families”. One creation by the caucus is the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, or more casually, the Momnibus. The Momnibus aims to address the maternal mortality crisis through investments in every aspect that may exacerbate mortality rates. It includes 13 bills that aim to enlarge the perinatal workforce so that it addresses diversity needs, extend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) eligibility so that mothers can have support for longer periods of time after giving birth, increase support for mothers who are incarcerated, invest in federal programs that benefit mothers and infants during public health crises, promote vaccination among mothers, and more.

Another move towards progress is with President Biden’s proposed 2024 budget. This budget incorporates $471 million in funding. One of the tangible things that it will include is Medicaid for twelve months postpartum. These efforts are admirable beginning steps; however, the work is far from complete.

 

Antisemitism: From the Bubonic Plague to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The prevalence of Antisemitism in the modern world is frequently discounted. When someone refers to antisemitism, it is common for your first thought to be about the Holocaust. While Holocaust education remains important, we should also remain aware of the more current acts of antisemitism. Antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. This can be manifested in many ways, both rhetorical and physical. Awareness is the first step to action, and if you discount the claims and stories of those being affected by antisemitism, you can’t contribute to the solution, and are, frequently, contributing instead to the problem.

 

It is worth noting that this post is based on a US context, as it would be difficult to capture the international nuances of antisemitism in one blog post.

 

Many people carrying signs stating “Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism.” Source: Yahoo Images
Many people carrying signs stating “Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism.” Source: Yahoo Images

 

 

 

History of Antisemitism

            Antisemitism stems back to before the Middle Ages. During the 14th century, people commonly accused Jewish people of causing the Bubonic Plague. Claims revolved around the (false) idea that Jewish people were poisoning drinking wells to spread the disease farther and faster. Centuries later, after World War I, it was common for German military leaders to perpetuate the idea that Jewish people had betrayed the country and that they were the reason that Germany lost the war. This, along with people’s need to focus on one group to blame, allowed Hitler and his supporters to rise through the ranks of German politics by claiming that the way to make the country strong again was to exterminate the Jewish people residing within the borders. These brutal opinions and stories all string together, resulting in major antisemitic events, such as the Holocaust.

 

Image of an open area in the United States Holocaust Museum. The walls are made of red brick and the ceiling is an open window. Source: Yahoo Images.
Image of an open area in the United States Holocaust Museum. The walls are made of red brick and the ceiling is an open window. Source: Yahoo Images.

 

Antisemitism Today

The COVID-19 pandemic left millions dead in its wake; deaths brought on both by the illness as well as the societal changes that it caused. Jewish people were not blamed for the pandemic like they were in the 14th century, but a rise in antisemitism online made it more accessible to the average person. As opposed to the very beginning of the 21st century, now people can connect with those who share their opinions—no matter how hateful those opinions may be. This makes it much easier for people to validate their beliefs, instead of being contradicted by those who won’t stand for hates towards Jewish people, they nestle away in communities that share their hateful sentiments.

Social media does not just provide opportunities for individuals to group together and relate, it allows social media companies to potentially profit from hate-based searches. YouTube is the greatest culprit of this issue, as it runs ads directly before videos championing white supremacist and antisemitic groups. YouTube also generates channels for musical artists or other forms of media with “significant presence.” These generated channels have included heavy metal artists with a history of antisemitism and white supremacy, as well as video games with similar ideologies.

The rise of antisemitism online correlates with the increase of physical attacks against Jewish people. Data was collected by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry (CSCEJ), and this tells us that in New York alone, there were 261 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2022, 47 more than in 2021. These numerical trends follow in other major cities in the United States, with an increase in hate crimes in Los Angeles and Chicago. Nationwide, harassment towards Jewish people increased by 29% and vandalism by 51%. One striking statistic is that there were 91 bomb threats towards Jewish institutions. This is the largest number since 2017, and the CSCEJ makes it clear that there is no sign of these attacks abating any time soon.

 

Someone to Blame

All throughout time, people have looked for a person or a group to scapegoat. When troubles arise, it is easy to take the blame from yourself and put it onto a group you can look disdainfully on. Not only that, but people who feel like they are at the bottom of society’s pyramid are eager to look for those who are seen as worse off than them. In the case of antisemitism, there is an interesting contradiction of stereotypes. A more traditional take on hatred views Jewish people through the lens of white supremacy, for example, the Charlottesville riots in 2017. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some antisemitism perceives Jewish people as a privileged group, both in ethnicity and in class. This view of antisemitism views Jewish people are “part of the establishment”, and this stems from economic stereotypes about Jewish people controlling financial markets.

This duality contributes to the persecution of Jewish people from all directions.

 

 

Image of a crowd of Caucasian men protesting. They are carrying flaming torches, and it appears that they are shouting something. Source: Yahoo Images.
Image of a crowd of Caucasian men protesting. They are carrying flaming torches, and it appears that they are shouting something. Source: Yahoo Images.

 

 

Creating Change

To eradicate antisemitism, there are things that must be done on both small and large scales. While you likely don’t have direct access to government policy and law enforcement, there are things that you can do as an everyday citizen to help Jewish communities. The first thing you can do is be aware of the hate that happens online. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a great resource that helps you report antisemitism in the most effective way. Reporting actions you see in person is just as important as reporting online hate. Report antisemitism directly to the ADL as well as your local law enforcement to prevent antisemitic harassment or to help those who have been harassed receive justice. In a more policy-oriented approach, you can sign petitions that will encourage Congress to enact laws that will protect Jewish communities.

To those who do have access to a greater platform, mandates for public reports are imperative. Public reporting on hate, violence, and other antisemitic issues would bring awareness to the issues so often not brought to justice due to either the stigma of reporting or the fear that said reports will not be handled appropriately. Large-scale changes in education would also benefit Jewish communities in the United States. Educational standards need to include a Holocaust education curriculum, as well as Anti-Bias education.

It is vital that we empower ourselves and our communities to directly fight against antisemitism. And education is the first critical step. Listen to Jewish voices in your community so you know best how to create active change. Unlearn the prevalent stereotypes against Jewish people that have been surrounding you since before your grandparents were born, and continue working every day to beat the bias that has been instilled in you.