Brazil Decides in Landmark Court Case to Grant Land Rights to Indigenous

by Delisha Valacheril

Image 1. Indigenous Representatives Speaking with Local Leaders in Brazil. Source Flickr.
 Image 1. Indigenous Representatives Speaking with Local Leaders in Brazil. Source Flickr.

A jubilant celebration of color erupted as several indigenous leaders and activists gathered outside the courthouse adorned in tribal wear and brilliant headdresses to rejoice in the top court’s decision to rule in favor of their land rights. Dubbed the “trial of the century,” Brazil’s Supreme Court decided against a so-called cutoff date restricting Indigenous people’s claims to their traditional lands. Demarcation of ancestral lands is essential in preserving Indigenous human rights. By protecting these lands, indigenous communities can aid in conservation and preserve their cultural integrity. It is reported that 29% of the territory around indigenous lands in Brazil has been deforested, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam). Now that the native people can access their roots, they can help preserve what is left. This decision also provides legal ramifications against land poaching or exploitation, which applies to several indigenous areas throughout the Amazon. Addressing historical injustices is a crucial step to ensuring that these communities can enjoy a more equitable and sustainable future.

Image 2. Tribal Chief at Land Protest. Source Flicker.

Context

On September 21st, the Federal Supreme Court had to decide whether or not the native people’s right to their territories predated the Constitution of Brazil formulated in 1988. The Justices followed the precedent set up by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which states that the right continues as long as their “material, cultural, or spiritual connection” with the land persists. This case has been brewing in the nation for quite some time. The dispute stems from Santa Catarina’s legal battle against the Ibirama-La Klãnõ Indigenous Land. The Xokleng tribe sought to regain their ancestral land from the state of Santa Catarina. The state used the “Marco Temporal” legal argument, which prohibited Indigenous Peoples who were not living on the land when Brazil’s current constitution was enacted in 1988 to apply for land demarcation. This is gravely prejudicial, given a significant part of the indigenous population was expelled and displaced during Brazil’s two decades of military dictatorship. Numerous tribal communities were killed and displaced due to that repressive system, which included the invasion of land, forced labor, displacement, and other human rights violations.

With this in mind, hundreds of activists have flocked to the capital, demanding respect for the rights that were stolen from them. These activists advocate for land traditionally occupied by indigenous people to be reserved for their perpetual possession. They are the natural owners of the land, so it should belong to them. They also argue that the natives can conserve the land much better than the local government. Traditional habits and customs of the indigenous are the most significant deterrent to deforestation. However, there are some critical opponents to this viewpoint. Individuals involved in the agribusiness sector and those on the far right are stronger than ever in National Congress, upholding the time limit principle. This decision opposes their farming interests because they want that land to grow their business. Currently, Indigenous reservations cover 11.6% of Brazil’s territory, notably in the Amazon. This area is rich in biodiversity, making it ideal for agricultural commodities. However, ruling against business interests could exacerbate violence against Indigenous peoples and escalate conflicts in the rainforest.

Image 3. Indigenous People Protesting Brazil Government. Source Flickr.
Image 3. Indigenous People Protesting Brazil Government. Source Flickr.

Historical Significance

The Xokleng, the tribe responsible for taking this case to the highest court in the country, was nearly wiped out by Italian settlers who were granted “uninhabited” land in the State of Santa Catarina by the Brazilian government during the 20th century. They were pursued by “bugreiros,” or hired hunters, who were sent into the forest to hunt down and exterminate the Amazon’s native inhabitants. After that mass extermination, how can the government uphold such a discriminatory precedent? The Xokleng are the rightful owners of the land because the Brazilian government forcibly removed them. Marco Temporal is a complete infringement on human rights. The tribe was almost decimated in the 1900s, and the law stated indigenous people living on the land past 1988 had a right to the land. Examining this from a historical viewpoint further illuminates the egregiousness of the situation. The Supreme Court of Brazil found this law inherently unfair because the same government that invaded indigenous lands could not decide on the legality of their land rights.

Conclusion

While this is a historic milestone for indigenous communities, the work is not over. Though land demarcation is critical in the pursuit to secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not, by itself, sufficiently protect ancestral land. We must hold the government accountable to implement an active, systemic policy that enshrines Indigenous rights from violence, especially violence committed by anyone who illegally trespasses into their territory. Additionally, they must have unhindered access to their territories. From a human rights standpoint, defending indigenous rights is critical because it resolves past wrongs, assures access to necessities, fights discrimination, and upholds justice, equality, and respect for the dignity of all people and communities.

Modern American Slavery: Forced Prison Labor

by James DeLano

Historical Slavery in the United States 

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

At least, that is what I was taught in high school: slavery ended in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. What was not taught was the century and a half of forced labor since then, predicated on an intentional loophole in the 13th Amendment. Activists were active in their denouncement of and work towards ending this system over a century ago, and not much has changed since. 

That loophole was not the only way slavery persisted. Chattel slavery, slavery as it existed in the South prior to 1865, existed in the United States until at least 1963. Mae Louise Walls Miller grew up in rural Louisiana, where she and her family were enslaved. They were freed in 1963, when she was only 14 years old. Her family, possibly the last chattel slaves in the United States, were freed after President Biden graduated high school. This was not an isolated instance; this form of slavery existed in scattered patches across the rural South for decades after the end of the Civil War. 

In this post, I will illustrate how forced prison labor continues to maintain slavery in the United States.The convict leasing system, where people convicted of crimes are “leased” to companies to perform hard labor, started in Alabama in 1846, and their prevalence exploded after the 13th Amendment abolished what was previously the most common form of forced labor. This system was incredibly dangerous; in 1874, a typical death rate was one-third of people working on railroads. A contemporary prison official said that “if tombstones were erected over the graves of all the convicts who fell either by the bullet of the overseer or his guards during the construction of one of the railroads, it would be one continuous graveyard from one end to the other.” Elsewhere, between 1888 and 1896, over 400 people died of tuberculosis contracted while working in Sloss Steel and Iron Company mines. 

Many of those arrested and convicted during this system were sentenced under questionable circumstances. One common situation was being arrested for riding a train without a ticket “by a man who is paid $2 for every person he arrests upon that charge.” After accounting for inflation, $2 in 1907 would be worth over $65 today.

Convicts being forced to work under a convict leasing program in Florida. Source: Yahoo Images
Convicts being forced to work under a convict leasing program in Florida. Source: Yahoo Images

 

Between 1880 and 1900, this system profited over $1,134,107 in saved labor costs, which would be worth nearly $40,000,000 today. It profited $1,322,279 between 1900 and 1906. Alabama banned this method of forced labor in 1928.

Modern American Slavery 

The United States has maintained both the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world and the highest prison population for several years. Two-thirds of inmates in American prisons are also workers in both private-sector and public-sector jobs. Alabama convicts on work-release programs are allegedly paid just over $2 per day.

 

Alabama did not stop using forced prison labor in 1928. A lawsuit was filed in December 2023 alleging gross mistreatment, violations of both the United States and Alabama Constitutions, and instances of retaliation against a convict on work-release due to reporting of sexual harassment. It alleges dangerous working conditions; in August, two convicts were killed while working as part of a road crew. It alleges the intentional violation of parole guidelines in order to continue the system of forced labor as it currently exists in prisons. It also repeats accusations of negligence in regard to healthcare. Antonio Arez Smith was released last year in “excruciating pain” due to untreated cancer. He died four days after his release. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) stopped releasing inmate death statistics in October after years of increasing rates. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 64% of incarcerated people being forced to work felt unsafe while doing so, and 70% did not receive job training. None of what I have mentioned above is considered enough of a crime to warrant consequences. 

Workers’ protections do not apply to incarcerated people, including minimum wage laws, unionization, and any assurance of workplace safety. None of this should be surprising knowing the text of the 13th Amendment; incarceration is explicitly listed as an exception to the abolishment of slavery, and slaves are not permitted rights. 

A black incarcerated woman sewing with a Department of Corrections label behind her. Source: Yahoo Images
A black incarcerated woman sewing with a Department of Corrections label behind her. Source: Yahoo Images

This form of forced labor is ubiquitous. The lawsuit previously mentioned lists as defendants companies that have become household names: McDonald’s and the parent companies of Wendy’s, KFC, and Burger King. Elsewhere, well-known companies use prison labor as a cost-cutting measure: Amazon, AT&T, Home Depot, FedEx, Lockheed-Martin, and Coca-Cola, as well as thousands more nationwide. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections reported generating over $48,000,000 in 2021, and received hundreds of millions of dollars more from other sources. Most of that was directly appropriated from the state, but it also included federal funding intended for COVID relief. The total sum diverted into the Department of Corrections was $400,000,000, or about one-fifth of the total relief funds. The Treasury Department describes the funds as “support[ing] families and businesses struggling with [the pandemic’s] public health and economic impacts.” Instead of spending it on struggling Alabamians and small Alabama businesses, the state spent its funds on building new prisons despite us already having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. 

What is Being Done 

The Alabama Department of Corrections is involved in several lawsuits related to alleged misconduct. The aforementioned lawsuit, Council v. Ivey, has a hearing scheduled for February 8th. ADOC is involved in several other lawsuits and has been for decades; Braggs v. Dunn was filed in late 2014 over neglect and remains unresolved, as does a Department of Justice lawsuit filed in late 2020 over critical understaffing. The new Alabama constitution, voted on in 2022, changed the text’s phrasing of its prohibition of slavery. Prior to that vote, it read, “no form of slavery shall exist in this State; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” The equivalent section now readsThat no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude.” In addition, Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Senators Jeff Merkley and Cory Booker have proposed the federal “Abolition Amendment,” intended to close the prison labor loophole. 

Nationally, prison reform is a coordinated movement. Numerous organizations focusing on prison reform generally also have efforts in place to reform or abolish forced prison labor. I have used sources from the Equal Justice Initiative and the American Civil Liberties Union in this piece. The lawsuits mentioned were filed by current and former Alabama inmates, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, and the U.S. Department of Justice. Of those, only Council v. Ivey directly addresses forced labor; the others work towards improving prison conditions more broadly but still contribute to the common goal of reforming prisons.

Inequalities in America’s Foster Care System

by Caitlin Cerillo

This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system.
This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system. Source: Yahoo Images

Common Misconceptions

Foster care is typically seen as a temporary living arrangement for children who are vulnerable due to circumstances like conflict in the family or home or until they are permanently adopted into a family. However, this is not the case for the hundreds of thousands currently living in the system in the United States. The average amount of time a child stays in the foster care system is just over a year and a half, with about 30% remaining in the system past two years. Many are awaiting being reunited safely with their biological parents or a relative, as their reasoning for being put in the system could have been due to anything from a parent being hospitalized to a death in the family.

On the other hand, many do not have parents or family members that they can be reunited with. Many children in foster care are subject to harsh living conditions, being moved and relocated multiple times during their time in the system, aging out, and the heightened risks of experiencing abuse and malnutrition, just to name a few. Each of these conditions can be extremely harmful to one’s mental and physical well-being. An estimated 50% of young people in the system possess a higher likelihood, 2.5%, of developing mental health disorders compared to their non-involved counterparts. Intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and more play a significant role in the experiences someone in the system may face, which will be discussed in this article.

Overrepresentation in Foster Care

One glaring issue regarding the United States foster care system includes the overrepresentation of children of color. Specifically, Black children are among one of the most overrepresented racial groups in the American foster care system. This poses a problem because Black children represent 23% of the foster care population yet only makeup 14% of the general population in regard to children, according to KIDS Count.

This can be attributed to the social and economic disparities that Black families face. Intersections between race and socioeconomic status contribute to the hardships many Black Americans face, such as barriers created by systemic racism and economic inequality that put them on unequal footing. Systemic racism—also referred to as institutionalized racism—means that practices and behaviors that uphold white supremacy are instilled in all aspects of society. Just to name a few, systemic racism can appear in healthcare, educational, criminal justice, and economic systems. Systemic racism has caused Black Americans to face inequalities when it comes to accessing quality education, equal job opportunities, and housing, which all play a role in overrepresentation in the foster care system. Due to these circumstances, Black children may be more likely to be placed into foster care.

Social workers are professionals whose role is to promote social welfare, advocate for disadvantaged populations, and aid people in overcoming the challenges they are going through. Foster care social workers deal with ensuring the well-being of individuals in foster care by conducting home visits, monitoring the health, security, and academic performance of the child, and consulting with other professionals the child may interact with, such as counselors, teachers, and medical professionals.

Implicit biases are preconceived notions that one can have towards a specific group, which affects the ways in which they interact and view that group. Unfortunately, implicit biases that can be held by social workers have also been attributed to the overrepresentation of Black children. These biases can have an influence on how the social worker may handle cases and lead to disproportionate numbers of Black families being investigated and, as a result, becoming involved in the foster care system.

So, what can be done to correct the implicit biases that may exist among foster care social workers? Implementing diversity within the hiring process can ensure an inclusive environment, which can challenge potential implicit biases. Similarly, policies that ensure inclusivity can foster a proactive decision-making process when dealing with biases. Implicit bias training could also be helpful and open the conversation to important topics like the importance of cultural competence, the impact of stereotypes and microaggressions, intersectionality, and ways to recognize and address implicit biases.

Overcrowding in the System

This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words "I've been in foster care for 1015 days..."
This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words “I’ve been in foster care for 1015 days…” Many children will stay in the system for over two years while awaiting permanent adoption. Source: Yahoo Images

While the number of children in the system has decreased within the last two decades, there are still hundreds of thousands of children who will likely age out. As a foster care child gets older, their likelihood of being adopted into a family decreases. Younger children are more desired among prospective families, with children who are nine or older being much less likely to be adopted, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

An effect of overcrowding is aging out, which occurs when a foster care child turns 18 when they are “emancipated” or no longer granted the protections and resources given to them by the system. Over 23,000 young people age out annually in the United States, which can cause them to be homeless, less likely to have access to educational resources, and often have problems with the transition to adulthood. Additionally, they may become more predisposed to a higher risk of substance abuse and teen pregnancy

This infographic shows various statistics pertaining the circumstances of young people who age out of the foster care system.
Statistics on young people who age out in the foster care system, provided by National Foster Youth Institute. Source: Yahoo Images

Addressing the problem of overcrowding requires several actions: policy changes and reform, improvements in the system as a whole, and public awareness and advocacy. Allocating appropriate funds to the child welfare and foster care system can ensure equal access to mental health services, supply improved technological systems to keep accurate and efficient data, and offer support services for foster parents. Each of these can benefit all entities involved. Public awareness of the system’s overcrowding issue can help recruit more prospective foster families and individuals seeking to permanently adopt a child.

The Connection Between Abortion Bans and the Foster Care System

In June 2022, Americans saw an overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision passed in 1973, which essentially granted the right to abortion across the country. The 2022 decision to strike down Roe v. Wade has had damaging effects on the already overcrowded foster care system. People who are pro-life and against the right to abortion will commonly use foster care as a proposed alternative to the abortion procedure. However, abortion restrictions have been found to cause a significant increase in the number of children who are put into the system, according to an analysis conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers. This results in more children having less of a chance of being adopted into permanent families and increases the number of people who will most likely age out in the system.

 

Poland: Human Rights Implications of the Recent Election

by Jillian Matthews

Poland is a highly polarized nation, with many valuing tradition, culture, and national identity. The combination of these three components, along with repeated rightwing electoral victories, has led to the democratic backsliding of the country, seen in their overreaching policies regarding women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial reform. Although many human rights violations have happened throughout the country in the past few decades, the results from the most recent election, held on October 15, 2023, have the potential to expand rights to more citizens in the country. To properly describe its importance, I will explain the political context surrounding this recent election before moving on to discuss the future administration and its potential impacts on human rights.

Political Context

Even while under communist rule, Poland has been a predominantly Catholic state, with an overwhelming majority continuing to practice Catholicism today. Traditional Catholic values continue to influence Poland’s political policies and the opinions of many citizens. This influence is most notably seen in the rise of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), with its social policies rooted in Catholic norms and having close relations with the Catholic Church. Up until the October election, PiS controlled the government and had, since 2015, used its eight years of authority to undermine democracy and human rights. These influences have shaped the repressive policies on issues such as women’s autonomy, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial practices. Listed below are the current status of these issues, showing the political climate leading into the 2023 election.

Women’s Bodily Autonomy

Under the current administration, abortion has continued to be a huge issue. While abortion was essentially banned in 1993, a 2020 amendment tightened restrictions even further. The recent change eliminated the option for abortion even when the fetus is known to have developmental problems or health conditions incompatible with life outside the womb. Prior to the ban, around 90% of all abortions performed in Poland happened for one of these two reasons: after 2020, women were required to carry even unviable pregnancies to term. While abortions are allowed when the life of the mother is threatened, this doesn’t mean that doctors will provide the necessary care. Countless stories have been recorded of Polish doctors overlooking women’s birth complications, favoring the life of the child, even when the child is unlikely to survive and the mother is likely to die or suffer lifelong complications.

Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images

In cases where an abortion is not deemed essential to save the life of the mother, doctors who carry out abortions are subject to punishment. If caught aiding an abortion, . This puts women and their doctors in a dangerous position, with women unable to access necessary help and doctors unable to provide adequate assistance without fear of imprisonment.

Not only is abortion increasingly difficult to obtain, but so is contraception. Out of all European countries, Poland ranked the lowest in terms of contraception access. For example, unlike in many European countries, Poland prohibits access to emergency birth control and hormonal birth control without a prescription. All of this shows the lack of women’s bodily autonomy, which can be interpreted as violating the human right to health and poses a threat to all women in Poland.

LGBTQ+ Rights

Those in the LGBTQ+ community face frequent discrimination and a lack of legal protections throughout Poland. Even since the adoption of the modern Polish Constitution in 1993, marriage is seen as proper only when between a man and a woman, meaning that gay couples receive no legal protections when married. Under PiS, steps were taken to further ensure traditional family norms, as seen with the party’s campaigning for a “family charter,” which sought to end marriage between gay couples and eliminate their ability to adopt children. This, along with a rising number of Polish cities that have decided to implement so-called “LGBT Ideology Free Zones,” has led to a climate that actively oppresses those within this community.

Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons
Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons

Throughout the European Union, Poland ranks the worst regarding LGBTQ+ rights, with only 15% of family, equality, and recognition rights being obtained. Unfortunately, activists cannot look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for assistance, as the document lacks protections on the basis of gender identity or sexuality. This omission of rights from the UDHR makes it nearly impossible for LGBTQ+ members to advocate for legal protections, having no doctrine to support their claims. Not only does this issue show that changes need to be made within Poland, but also the need to expand protections within the UDHR to provide a solid foundation for other advocacy groups worldwide.

Judicial Protections

Human rights concerns in Poland go beyond social issues; in fact, they bleed into the governmental structure itself. In 2019, a law was passed that undermined judicial independence, allowing the government to punish judges who question the legal changes made by PiS. This raised serious global concern, as this move would have allowed the executive branch to have control over the courts effectively, eliminating one of the greatest checks on executive and legislative power in Poland. This followed similar judicial changes that were ultimately made to serve the party. These changes included lowering the retirement age and appointing party loyalists to the Supreme Court. All of this led to the European Courts deeming these judicial revisions illegal in June 2023, making it an even more pressing issue leading into the latest election.

This infringement on the separation of powers causes a genuine and well-defined human rights violation, going against Article eight of the UDHR Article eight grants all humans the “right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals,” which is not available when the government has major authority over court cases.

The Recent Election

Given these issues and the increase in authoritarian policies, voters were aware that the 2023 election was extremely important, as seen in the voter turnout rate of about 73%, the highest rate since the fall of communism in 1989. Before explaining further, it’s important to note that Poland has a parliamentary government, meaning citizens’ votes are translated up to the legislature as a percentage of party representation. For example, if a party gained 30% of the total vote, they would receive that much representation in the legislature. This is necessary to know when understanding the outcome of the election.

Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Results

The results are as follows: the Law and Justice Party (rightwing) received a plurality of the votes, at 35.4%, Civic Coalition (center-left) received 30.7%, Third Way Coalition (centrist) at 12.4%, and Lewica (far-left) at 8.6%. While PiS holds a plurality, the remaining parties will likely form a center-left coalition, which would oust PiS from power and install a new government with a pro-democracy, pro-human rights agenda.

Likely Impact

Given the percentage of seats held by rightwing versus leftwing and centrist parties, progressive parties will likely assume power and work to steer Poland back to valuing democratic ideals and aligning more closely with the European Union. The three parties that are expected to form the new Polish government all promote democracy and pro-Europeanism, making it likely that action will be taken to support the oppressed groups mentioned above. It is also more probable that European Court rulings regarding the judicial branch will be respected and upheld.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the 2023 election results hold great promise in regard to human rights in Poland. As the Law and Justice Party (PiS) loses its grip on the government, a center-left coalition will likely form and create an overwhelming majority. Although these results won’t be officialized until December, many believe rights will be expanded under the new regime, and Poland can set a precedent for a return to liberal democracy within Central Europe.

 

 

Humanitarian Concerns About Methods of Execution

Two hands are using a syringe and needle to pull medication from a small glass vial.
The lethal injection may not be as ethical as it is made out to be. In this image, two hands are using a syringe and needle to pull medication from a small glass vial. Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Content Warning: semi-graphic descriptions of death.

In my most recent article, I approached the issue of capital punishment by taking a broader, more philosophical stance on the ethics of taking the life of a person who has committed a crime. In this article, I will dive into the human rights issues we face when we take a closer look at the methods used to execute convicted criminals. 

While researching for my last article, I fell into a rabbit hole of the methods that States use to execute people. Many states still have firing squads, gas chambers, and hangings as alternatives to lethal injection. Many states have single-drug injections where the person being killed feels their lungs fill with liquid and experiences the paralysis of their respiratory muscles, effectively choking and drowning them in their own bodies. Even during multi-drug lethal injection, it is probable that inmates are still able to feel their death even after anesthesia is given. Many inmates have twitched or moved after the injection, a clear sign that they are not fully anesthetized, including one case where a person fully sat up after being given the lethal injection, proving that his body was not anesthetized and he was experiencing the effects of the lethal drug. Click here to read a description of each of the five most common methods of execution.  

Despite many different execution methods being an option for some prisoners, lethal injection is the standard practice today, as it is seemingly the most ethical. Unfortunately, there is a growing mound of research suggesting that that may not be true. One article in particular, titled Gasping For Air: Autopsies Reveal Troubling Effects Of Lethal Injection has been haunting me since I read it a few months ago and led me to choose this topic to write about this month. It is very informative and I recommend reading it if you would like to continue your research into this topic. 

 

A barbed wire fence in front of a dusky sky
Click here to read an article by my coworker Kala Bhattar recounting the prison crisis in Alabama. It brings to light just how unforgiving and punitive Alabama tends to be in dealing with people who break the law. In this image, a barbed wire fence in front of a dusky sky. Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Alabama’s recent track record with lethal injections does not help the argument for the ethicality of the method. While researching, I came across too many horror stories of Alabama completely mishandling executions to recount them all. There will be a list of links at the end of this article to the stories that I could find. In November 2022, Governor Kay Ivey called to halt executions across the state because of a series of three botched executions in a row. All three, including Alan Miller, Kenneth Smith, and Joe Nathan James involved the inability of Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) workers to set an IV line for the drugs to be administered intravenously.

Unfortunately, this is a common theme in executions by lethal injection. As outlined in the Hippocratic Oath, doctors are not allowed to assist in setting the IV line for execution and most nurses refuse because of similar pledges to “do no harm.” This leaves the entire medical procedure of lethal injection in the hands of Department of Corrections (DOC) workers who are not trained in administering intravenous drugs. They often have a hard time obtaining medical training for this procedure because of the ethical restraints of the medical field and the lack of resources put towards obtaining training. DOC workers often puncture or “blow out” the veins of the arms and hands, rendering them unusable for intravenous injections. They then move on to veins in other areas, including the feet, inner thighs, stomach, collarbones, and forehead, blowing those out as well until they get lucky enough to place one without destroying it.

 

A hand with an IV line and a heart rate monitor on the thumb. The person’s arm is covered in a blue medical gown.
Setting an IV line is a standard procedure, but it requires extensive training and medical practice to perfect. The lack of training of DOC workers subjects inmates to excessively being poked by needles all over their bodies for hours on end. In this image, a hand with an IV line and a heart rate monitor on the thumb. The person’s arm is covered in a blue medical gown.Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Alan Miller had his execution called off after the workers attempting to set an IV line took so long that his execution warrant expired. Kenneth Smith’s execution warrant expired while waiting for his case to be heard by the Supreme Court, leaving him strapped to the execution gurney for almost four hours, at least two of which were devoted to placing an IV.

In July 2022, Mr. Joe Nathan James became the victim of the longest-recorded execution in United States history. Faith Hall was murdered in 1994 by her ex-boyfriend Mr. James, who was sentenced to death row in 1996, where he sat until 2022. During this time, the family of Faith Hall petitioned the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections multiple times to express their disapproval of Mr. James’ death sentence and to ask Governor Ivey to pardon him. ADOC took over three hours, allegedly attempting to set the IV line, although it is unsure what was actually going on in that room during this time. His execution was scheduled for 6:00 PM, but observers were not let into the room until 8:57. After repeatedly puncturing, blowing out, and destroying Mr. James’ veins, they finally set the IV correctly and preemptively delivered the anesthetic before the curtain was even opened, violating his right to hear his death warrant read aloud and taking away his chance to speak his last words. To add insult to injury, the family of Faith Hall wished to attend Mr. James’ execution long enough to show him that they forgave him and to hear his last words, then leave before the execution began. They did not get to fulfill these wishes after ADOC told them that leaving before the execution wasn’t an option, saying, “Once you’re in, you’re in.” 

On the day of the execution, in an embarrassing set of events, award-winning reporter for AL.com, Ivana Hrynkiw, was told by ADOC workers that she could not attend the execution because her skirt was too short and her open-toed shoes were “too revealing.” She had worn that same skirt to at least three executions before this one. A cameraman from a different media outlet offered her a pair of fishing waders with suspenders that he had in his car, and she attended the execution wearing those. Kim Chandler, another female reporter from the Associated Press, was subject to a clothing inspection before being allowed to enter the facility. It is thought that this was ADOC’s excuse to stall the entrance of media and guests into the observation room and to justify the three and a half hours that are unaccounted for. This entire execution was a nightmare for everyone involved. Following this was the failed executions of Alan Miller and Kenneth Smith, which led to Governor Ivey halting all executions. 

 

A row of open prison cells alongside a wall. They are made of gray bars and have sliding doors.
From the moment these people are put on death row, all of their human rights are violated. They are stripped of all of their liberty, all of their property, all of their dignity, and all of their humanity while patiently awaiting being stripped of their life. In this image, a row of open prison cells alongside a wall. They are made of gray bars and have sliding doors. Source: Yahoo! Image

 

Many people, including many church leaders, have petitioned Governor Ivey to do away with capital punishment altogether. Many people in all areas of the political spectrum have called out Governor Ivey’s hypocrisy in her intense opposition to abortion rights, citing the sacredness of life while also denying clemency to every death penalty case that has ever crossed her desk. In 2019, she denied clemency to Micheal Samra, a man with borderline intellectual functioning who was only 19 at the time of his crime, the day after passing a state-wide abortion ban. 

“Every life is precious and every life is a sacred gift from God…”

– Governor Kay Ivey, the day before the execution of a teenage offender.

Instead of listening to the cries of its citizens, Alabama has authorized an execution protocol for the use of an untested execution process, nitrogen hypoxia. This entails replacing all of the oxygen in a person’s lungs with nitrogen until they suffocate and essentially drown in gas. Veterinarians consider nitrogen hypoxia an ethically unacceptable practice for the euthanasia of animals. To make matters worse, Alabama wants to test this new method on Kenneth Smith just a few months after subjecting him to his first failed execution horror story. This new method, on top of being a terrible and excruciating death for the person subjected to it, may entail dangers for the executioners and spiritual advisors in the room. In Ramirez v. Collier (2022), the Supreme Court ruled that inmates being executed have a right to be touched by a spiritual advisor during and throughout their executions, but nitrogen hypoxia may infringe on this right, making it unsafe for a person to be within close proximity to them. 

A man asleep on a hospital bed with an oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth.
Caryl Chessman was executed in 1960 by hypoxia and told reporters that he would nod if it hurt. Witnesses watched him nod for multiple minutes straight before falling unconscious. Source: Yahoo! Images

I can understand arguments for capital punishment in theory. I can understand the societal benefit of executing extremely violent repeat offenders who pose an ongoing threat to others. Death may even be more humane than life-long solitary confinement in cases where those are the only two options to prevent someone from causing more harm to others. If we lived in a world where we could guarantee that an execution would be painless, quick, and respectful and that the dignity of the person being executed could be maintained, we might have grounds for capital punishment in extreme cases. But right now, the research is unsure about the experience of people receiving a lethal injection, DOC workers are not qualified to perform the medical procedure of euthanasia, and the vast majority of people receiving the death penalty are one-time offenders who are remorseful for their crimes. I cannot fathom justifying capital punishment under these conditions, especially as it is practiced in the state I call home, Alabama. 

We cannot sit back and watch our Department of Corrections ask an unconscious man for his last words before executing him in silence as if his final thoughts were not worth hearing. We cannot stay silent in a state whose government will soon begin putting people in gas chambers to suffocate and drown in their own lungs, calling it justice. We cannot call ourselves humane if we support forcing other humans to experience the sensation of fire in their lungs from pulmonary edema after not being anesthetized properly, the pressure in their skulls growing until their eyes bulge from their sockets, or the terror of being strapped to your death bed for four hours straight while untrained executioners continuously prick your entire body. We must stand up for the human rights of the humans on death row.

Alabama mishandled executions: 

April 22, 1983 – John Evans

July 14, 1989 – Horace Dunkins, Jr.

December 8, 2016 – Ronald “Bert” Smith

October 17, 2017 – Torrey McNabb

February 22, 2018 – Doyle Hamm

July 28, 2022 – Joe James

September 22, 2022 – Alan Miller

November 17, 2022 – Kenneth Smith

July 21, 2023 – James Barber 

Most of my research for this case was from the Death Penalty Information Center. This is an incredibly holistic and in-depth database regarding the death penalty in the United States.

Rethinking Museum Exhibitions in America

by Caitlin Cerillo

As an avid lover of visiting museums, it is important to hold them accountable when their exhibitions can have damaging implications. History and science museums can be among the most fascinating places to visit, as the world has such a rich scientific history. However, there is a fine line between preserving a specific piece of history and exploiting groups of people in the name of science. In recent years, several museums have come under fire for capitalizing on the exploitation of ethnic groups and glorifying the world’s hurtful history of colonialism, imperialism, and the oppression of marginalized peoples.

In recent years, attention has been paid to the sources of acquisition that many popular museums in the United States use. One of the most recent is the American Museum of Natural History, located in Manhattan, New York, and its exhibitions contain the remains of indigenous people.

What is Colonialism?

Colonialism is a practice in which domination over a specific area is carried out by another foreign state. Colonialism has been and is used as a way to consolidate political or economic gain and always leads to the complete subjugation, or conquest, of the people in the colonized area. The foundation of America was built on colonialism, dating back to before the nation was even established. While there are records of British colonies existing prior to the 1600s, the 17th century marked the beginning of the first permanent colonies. 

 

An illustration of what colonialism in the New World may have looked like. Depicts a docked ship on land with settlers.
An illustration of colonialism in the New World. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Jamestown Colony was created in Virginia in 1607. Long before the establishment of any colonies in the New World, or present-day America, Native Americans were the first to live on American soil. The region in which the Jamestown colony arrived was the same region as the Powhatan people, an Indian tribe. On many occasions, there would be violent encounters between the tribe and colonists. When establishing colonies in the New World, colonists would bring diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox. While they had immunity to these microbes, they would be fatal for the local Native American population.

As the 17th century progressed, the relationship between colonists and Native Americans would significantly weaken. For instance, King Philip’s War occurred in 1675 after the execution of three members of the Wampanoag people by the government of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. This war is known as one of the deadliest conflicts in American history, with the amount of casualties reaching extreme heights throughout the 14-month period of the war.

Even after America was established as a country, harmful practices against Indigenous Americans continued to be considered legal. Hundreds of thousands of Indians—particularly Indian youth—were forced to assimilate. Cultural assimilation is extremely damaging for multiple reasons. It normalizes public stigmatization of the affected groups and erases their cultural identity.

The American Museum of Natural History

 

Photo of the front of the American Museum of Natural History building.
The American Museum of Natural History, which has been criticized for its use of the remains of indigenous and enslaved people in exhibitions. Source: Yahoo Images

 

Upon facing public scrutiny, New York’s American Museum of Natural History has created a policy calling for the removal of all exhibits containing human bones. The museum has promised the use of anthropologists to carry out comprehensive analytical processes to determine these remains’ origins and source of acquisition.

Not only has the American Museum of Natural History come under fire for exhibiting the remains of thousands of Native Americans, but also for acquiring the bones of five Black adults who were buried in a cemetery for enslaved people. This brings an important conversation of eugenics, where bodies were exploited and used as “scientific property” against their will. The presence of eugenics and other scientific thoughts entrenched in racism and white supremacy have allowed for other forms of oppression against marginalized groups—specifically Black Americans—like medical racism and healthcare bias. These connections make the museum’s acquisition of these remains even more problematic.

The Smithsonian

 

Photo of some of the Benin sculptures acquired by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Some of the Benin sculptures that originated from the Kingdom of Benin in current-day Nigeria and have been acquired by the Smithsonian. Source: Yahoo Images

 

Another museum that has come under fire for its exhibitions is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C. While this exhibition does not involve human remains, the exploitation of a group of marginalized people under colonialism remains present. The museum held 29 bronze sculptures that originally belonged to the Kingdom of Benin. The Kingdom of Benin was established during the pre-colonial period of what is now southern Nigeria. The sculptures were seized by British military and colonial forces during a raid in 1897. This raid also resulted in the burning of the city and the deaths of the people who inhabited it

Real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman collected the Benin sculptures and sold them to the Walt Disney Company in 1984. In 2007, they were donated to the Smithsonian. Without thinking about the implications the sources of acquisition of their exhibition pieces have, the Smithsonian turned a blind eye to their hurtful histories. Fortunately, the Smithsonian recognized this problem and removed the sculptures from public display in late 2021. Museum director Ngaire Blankenberg also enlisted the help of curators to find the places of origin for all pieces that had potential ties to the Kingdom of Benin raid.

Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Warren Anatomical Museum

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Warren Anatomical Museum, both owned by Harvard University, recently repatriated the remains of over 300 Indigenous people back to the Wampanoag communities. The university completed the repatriation process in January of this year. Harvard has since aimed to create efforts to better understand and rethink the implications of sources of acquisition. For instance, the Peabody Museum created a virtual exhibit titled “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.” The exhibit includes oral histories given by various members of the Wampanoag community.

 

Photo of the seven people in the Wampanoag exhibit created by Harvard's Peabody Museum.
These are some of the faces of the Peabody Museum’s “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.” The exhibit includes oral histories from Jonathan James-Perry, Elizabeth James-Perry, Phillip Wynne, Zoë Harris, Linda Jeffers, and Alyssa Harris. Source: Yahoo Images

Why are Sources of Acquisition Important?

The term ‘acquisition‘ refers to an object purchased or given to an institution, such as a museum or library. ‘Sources of acquisition’ deals with the background of these objects, like their historical context and location of origin. If not taken into careful consideration, ignoring sources of acquisition can be harmful to the affected communities. It normalizes the idea that the oppression of people is something that can be glossed over in the name of science or a glorified museum exhibit. In the case of many museums collecting the remains of marginalized communities, it pushes the notion that the subjugation and exploitation of people are acceptable. As reflected earlier in this post, America was built on the institution of white supremacy and colonialism, which makes the sources of acquisition of exhibition pieces even more important to note

So, what can be done to right the wrongs of these museums? Taking the initiative to go through the repatriation process should always be considered. While this process entails a number of legal procedures that may not be completed within a specific timeframe, it is always worth the exhibition pieces being returned to the rightful institutions and people. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) was instated in 1990 and is a US federal law that facilitates the repatriation process. As of 2022, there have been many changes made to the NAGPRA. These changes include defining how objects are defined to better accommodate the cultural traditions and customs of the rightful descendants.

Similarly, hiring curators and anthropologists to analyze the origins of exhibitions can be helpful. Next, understanding shortcomings within the pieces a museum inherits through efforts like opening conversations about America’s history of colonialism, racism, and oppression of marginalized people. Giving a voice to those who have been affected by these harmful practices, like the Peabody Museum’s Wampanoag exhibit, is another way of allowing them to reclaim the hurt that has been done.

A Brief History of Disability Advocacy in America & How the Colby Act is a Step Forward

by Lexie Woolums

“It will help me live a full life — to vote, to marry, and to go to church. It will help people with disabilities to live their own lives and speak for themselves.” – Colby Spangler.

How the Colby Act Began

The Colby Act is named after Colby Spangler, a Shelby County resident who was born with cerebral palsy.

Kim Spangler, Colby’s mom, remembers when she and Colby attended the Spring concert for Colby’s high school band. Colby had been in the school’s band for a year as a freshman. At this concert, the seniors stood up and declared where they would be attending college.

This prompted Colby to ask his mom where he would be going to college, which is something she had yet to consider.

Throughout Colby’s high school career, they began researching colleges that he could attend. Through this research, they learned that Colby’s individualized education plan (IEP) had to reach a certain degree for him to qualify to attend college. They also learned that most college programs preferred or even required that the student was their own guardian rather than being under guardianship by someone else, which was important to note since guardianship is a common occurrence as young people with disabilities become legal adults in Alabama at the age of nineteen. Some critics have called this the “school to guardianship pipeline.”

According to Kim, many people do not realize how many rights people sign away with guardianship, such as the right to vote, marry, and even where you can live.

Through this knowledge, combined with Kim’s advocacy as Colby went through high school, the Colby Act was born. Kim introduced the act in 2022, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Cynthia Almond (R-Tuscaloosa). After being unanimously passed on April 20, 2023, the bill was signed into law by Governor Ivey and later went into effect on August 1, 2023. I will discuss this in further detail later, but the Colby Act proposes a legal alternative to guardianship known as supported decision-making. This is an important improvement for disabled people and elderly people since it will preserve their autonomy.

 

Colby wearing a shirt that says "The Colby Act, vote yes!" next to Representative Cynthia Almond of Tuscaloosa.
Figure 2:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby & Representative Cynthia Almond,
who co-sponsored The Colby Act with Senator Arthur Orr. 

 

History of Disability Advocacy in America

In the United States, people with disabilities have historically had their rights ignored or entirely removed. While I will not go into explicit detail here, my colleague, James DeLano, recently wrote an article about the atrocities of institutions for disabled people. Though institutions in the context of James’s discussion are far from the only instances where disabled people face being stripped of their rights, I found the brief history to be exceedingly informative as I wrote this article.

Legally and socially, disability rights have not always been viewed as civil rights but through a lens of charity, especially in the case of developmental and intellectual disabilities. Beyond that, legal action to protect disabled Americans came exceptionally slowly.

In 1977, President Carter’s new HEW (Housing, Education, and Welfare) Secretary, Joseph Califano, formed a review board to consider an act that would protect disabled people under federal law. Unfortunately, the board did not include anyone from the disabled community, so many people were concerned that the law would have critical aspects of it removed before being passed. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) pushed for the signing of the regulations as they were, with nothing removed by the review board. They stated that if the piece was not signed by April 5, they would respond.

As the date passed with no action, protests began. In April of 1977, around 150 disability advocates staged a sit in a federal building in San Francisco. They remained there for 25 days, refusing to leave until the Carter Administration signed the law that promised to protect people with disabilities. Similar protests broke out across the United States, but most only lasted a few days, making San Francisco one the most impactful.

 

a black and white photo featuring disability rights advocates. In the center, a person in a wheelchair has a sign that reads "I can't even get to the back of the bus."
Figure 3:Source- Yahoo Images; Disability protesters

 

These are known today as the Section 504 protests. They were a significant turning point because disabled people publicly rejected the pity and charity sentiments and held the Carter Administration accountable for giving them the same protections as every other American.

“Through the sit-in, we turned ourselves from being oppressed individuals into being empowered people. We demonstrated to the entire nation that disabled people could take control over our own lives and take leadership in the struggle for equality,” said activist Judith Heumann.

Through the protests and meetings with the Carter Administration, Section 504 was passed. Beyond that, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which prevented any institution receiving federal funds from discriminating based on ability.

Black and white image of a person holding a protest sign that reads "504 is law now make it reality."
Figure 4:Source-Yahoo Images; Protest sign mentioning Section 504

Considering the history of disability advocacy in the US, we have come a long way. Despite that, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially for people with intellectual disabilities.

 

Distinction of Conservatorship and Guardianship in Alabama

Before diving into what the Colby Act does for Alabamians today, I want to address the elephant in the room and make an important distinction.

Over the past couple of years, there have been a few cases where conservatorships have come under fire, most notably with US pop star Britney Spears. Her father, Jamie Spears, became the conservator of her financial estate and personal life in 2008. One of the more significant outcries from this was when Britney Spears commented that she could not get married and have kids due to her conservatorship. More specifically, she claimed that they would not allow her to have her birth control removed. Many aspects of this conservatorship were considered abusive by much of the general public, sparking the Free Britney movement in 2021. I bring this up to clarify an essential distinction in discussing conservatorships.

Other stories like this have been brought to the public’s attention recently, bringing awareness to conservatorship abuse. With that being said, not all of them represent how conservatorships function in Alabama. In California, where the Spears conservatorship was established, conservators have jurisdiction over the ward’s financial estate and personal life decisions, which would not be the case in Alabama. In Alabama, a conservator has jurisdiction over the person’s estate. In contrast, a guardian would have jurisdiction over a person’s decisions, including the ability to get married or have children.

To put it simply, a guardian makes decisions for a person’s everyday life, and a conservator makes decisions for their financial estate. So, in the state of Alabama, for a person to have the control that Jamie Spears had, they would have to obtain two distinct approvals from a Probate Court: one for a conservatorship of the person’s estate and the other for a guardianship of the person’s decisions in their personal life. With that distinction in mind, we will look at how guardianships impact people with disabilities.

 

Colby standing and smiling for the photo in between James Tucker and Nancy Anderson of ADAP at an event.
Figure 5:Source-Kim Spangler; James Tucker & Nancy Anderson of ADAP
with Colby at a Partners in Policy for Alabama Event

Guardianships for Disabled People in Alabama

In Alabama, the primary way for parents of people with disabilities to help protect their children and young adults as they transition into adulthood at the age of nineteen is by getting guardianship over them.

Guardianship is used when a court proceeding finds a person to be incapacitated. According to the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP), Alabama law defines an incapacitated person as “any person who has one or more of the following impairments: mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, physical or mental infirmities accompanying advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, or other cause (except minority), and lacks the ability to make or communicate responsible decisions.”

In essence, guardianship allows another person to make decisions if a court determines someone is incapacitated. Similarly, conservatorship enables another person to make decisions about a person’s estate if a court determines that someone is incapacitated.

The important thing I want to note here is that to be legally declared incapacitated, the person must have one of the listed impairments and lack the ability to make responsible decisions. The person petitioning for guardianship or conservatorship must prove to a judge that the person is incapacitated based on these criteria.

Many people have guardians for a variety of reasons. For example, many older adults struggle to make responsible decisions and keep themselves and others safe as they grow older, so guardianship is sometimes needed so that family members can help with medical appointments and make decisions about other fundamental aspects of the person’s life.

While guardianships are necessary for some people who are disabled, they have been used as a one-size-fits-all solution, which fails to account for the varying abilities and needs of different people with disabilities.

Guardianship also proves problematic if a guardian decides they no longer want to have the responsibilities of being a guardian. More commonly, the guardian dies, which can result in a delay in decision-making for the ward (the person for whom the guardianship is for).

Often, it takes time for a new guardian to be set up. In many cases, the ward will become a ward of the state, which means that a judge, or, in some cases, even a sheriff, can become the ward’s guardian. State wards are often overworked and underfunded. Beyond that, they have little personal connection to the ward, which increases the risk of the person’s quality of life declining significantly.

 

Section one of the 14th Amendment, which states "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Figure 6:Source-Yahoo Images; 14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection clause that formed the basis of the argument for disability inclusion and signing of Section 504

 

Autonomy vs. Protection

One concern for people who have disabilities, especially intellectually disabled people, is the fear of people taking advantage of them. Commonly, guardianships have been established to protect the person from harm, even though they don’t always give parents the protection they seek for the adult.

For example, suppose a young adult has a past of being a victim of domestic abuse. In that case, guardianship may not necessarily protect them from that. Still, it is often viewed as a sort of legal footstep for the guardian to step in if things go wrong. Unfortunately, this is not always effective and is still extremely limited in its ability to prevent harm.

While some disabled people may require guardians, the one-size-fits-all approach of guardianship has been seen as the only option for far too long.

 

What The Colby Act Does for Alabamians Today

The Colby Act introduces the concept of supported decision-making for adults with disabilities in Alabama, making it the 19th state with supported decision-making (SDM) laws.

The Colby Act defines supported decision-making as “The process of supporting and accommodating an adult in the decision-making process without impeding the self-determination of the adult. This term includes assistance in making, communicating, and effectuating life decisions.” More specifically, the act states the following: “In lieu of a guardianship, an adult may enter into a supported decision-making agreement with supporters who may assist and advise the adult with making certain decisions without impeding the adult’s self-determination.”

This is a critical option for a disabled person who may need assistance making decisions but is not incapacitated as defined by the state, in which case a guardianship would unnecessarily strip them of their autonomy. This can also be a helpful option for aging adults since setting up an SDM agreement can prevent the need for guardians or conservators as they become elders.

The Colby Act defines a supporter as “An individual at least 18 years of age who has voluntarily entered into a supported decision-making agreement with an adult and is designated as such in a supported decision-making agreement.” It also establishes criteria for supporters and limitations on them, such as not obtaining information about the person for purposes beyond their role as a supporter.

Another significant piece of the act is the subject can revoke the SDM agreement at any time by notifying each supporter in writing. This is important because it preserves the adult’s agency and autonomy, allowing them to change the agreement or revoke it if it does not facilitate their ability to live a full life as anyone else would.

 

Colby stands in a black graduation cap and gown. He stands in front of a wall of red and white balloons, with a sign above that reads "where legends are made."
Figure 7:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby celebrating graduation from the College of Education’s
CCOS program at the University of Alabama.

 

The Colby Act is a big deal because it provides a law for something that has been happening informally for a long time. Due to the passing of the Colby Act, people who create supported decision-making agreements will now have additional protections behind the law. Though supported decision-making may not be an effective alternative for every instance where a family is considering guardianship, it is a substantial step in providing an alternative for disabled people who could benefit from a less invasive approach.

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

November 10 is the International Day of Science and Peace (IDSP), also known as the World Science Day for Peace and Development. The United Nations host this international event.

History of IDSP

Established in 1986, this historical day was initially developed to commemorate the birth of Marie Curie, a notable physicist and humanitarian. Curie was known for her innovative work within radioactivity, contributing to the discovery of radium and polonium. By 1999, its purpose changed to reflect the global needs of the scientific and humanitarian community, utilizing the day to affirm the global commitment to attaining the goals of the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The day and annual summit unite governmental, intervention mental, and non-governmental organizations meaningfully to promote international solidarity for shared sciences between countries and renew the global commitment to use science to benefit communities that need it most. 

The overall goal of IDSP is to help achieve the UN 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, creating a plan for prosperity for people and the planet. 

 

ISDP 2023

The 2023 theme for IDSP will be “Bridging the Gap: Science, Peace, and Human Rights.” This emphasizes the interconnectedness between science and peace, having a role in advancing human rights. Science is a valuable tool for making technological advancements, but it is also helpful in helping address social issues, reducing conflicts, and sustainably promoting human rights.

 

Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Source: Flickr

Science and Human Rights

Science is frequently associated with helping improve medical interventions, solving coding bugs, and completing mathematical equations. However, contrary to popular belief, science is essential to human rights. Firstly, science has a valuable role in promoting sustainable development. Utilizing scientific methods, data can be collected to quantify the progress toward fulfilling the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ranging from climate change to poverty to infant mortality, scientific data collection and analysis methods are needed to efficiently and effectively respond to global issues. Research and innovation also contribute to the mobilization of resources to historically underserved communities, allowing them to gain access to necessities. 

Within innovation, shared desires and interests help unite countries with singular goals. Scientific diplomacy is valuable in bringing countries to the table of collaboration. This deepens connections between countries as it relates to trade and commercial interests and helps foster peaceful relationships, prioritizing human rights.

With the appropriate distribution of resources, scientific advancements help improve the quality of life for communities internationally. Applying what is traditionally “scientific” to communities gives them a chance to live a better quality of life in a cleaner environment.

It is available to educate the public about the vital role of science and encourage innovation to solve global challenges.

How Countries Can Get Involved

Beyond participating in IDSP, countries can have a role in unifying science and human rights through many different avenues. One route is to protect and invest in scientific diplomacy. By allocating funding to scientific innovation and multilateral collaborations, governments can ensure that they can focus on shared goals with their international counterparts, working collaboratively to promote peace and cooperation. Another route is developing policies that protect innovation while developing guardrails for its usage, ensuring it is mobilized to those who need it most. States have a responsibility to be an advocate and protectors of their citizens, and by working to ensure that scientific diplomacy is used for the betterment of people abroad, they can elicit change in a meaningful way.

 

INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog
INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog

How Citizens Can Get Involved

Citizens have a responsibility to promote peace with science, as well. The role of a community member is to primarily use one’s voice to advocate for innovation and peace; by doing so and mobilizing one’s own story, organizations are held accountable for their actions. From governmental entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements, stakeholders are supported by the citizenry. It is also important to have open conversations  to explore further the nuanced introspection of science, peace, and human rights, continuing to promote awareness and understanding.

 

Capital Punishment and the Right to Life

A black and white picture of a prison cot with five belts used to strap down inmates in order to give them a lethal injection.
While it may seem like a common practice throughout the world, only about 28% of countries still maintain the death penalty in both law and practice. Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Stay tuned for my next article, where I will explore how the process of the death penalty, as well as the methods used to end the lives of inmates, may bring up additional human rights concerns. That article will be posted in the upcoming weeks. 

October 10th is the World Day Against the Death Penalty. 

It was my eighth birthday. I had gotten home from school and after eating my snack, I sat down on the couch. My birthday is in January and my mom hadn’t gotten around to packing up the expensive nativity scene from my grandmother that was set out on the sofa table behind my head. I got bored with my show, as eight-year-olds do, so I turned around and started playing with the porcelain figurines. To me, they were no more than stiff, less fun Barbies. Little did I know all it took was one little high-five between Joseph and the wise man with the frankincense before *CRACK* Joseph lost a hand. 

I still remember my mother’s face when I told her what happened. This nativity scene from her mother-in-law meant so much to her and she was feeling so many emotions. I knew that I deserved to be punished in some way for my mistake. I sat in time out for a while, I got a “stern talking-to” when my dad got home, and I didn’t see my favorite (real) Barbie for weeks.

My eight-year-old, future-philosophy-student self couldn’t help but question why all of this was happening to me. It was my birthday; my parents were supposed to be nice to me that day, but I still got in trouble. I knew that I should’ve been more careful with the figurine, but I also knew that what I did was an accident. I knew as soon as it broke that I had caused a problem, but I almost immediately learned from it: this material is weaker than Barbie material so I would need to use gentler hands when holding it. But I still couldn’t figure out why my parents were doing this. As I grow up, this concern still follows me. What motivates society to punish people who break the law? How could our system of punishment improve to allow people to learn from their mistakes and to still participate in society?

A drawing of a man in an orange jumpsuit with his head down standing behind metal bars. One of the bars makes the shape of a noose around his head.
Minorities, especially racial minorities, make up a disproportionate percentage of prisoners on death row. Source: Yahoo! Images

Theories of Punishment

Retribution 

The Retribution Theory of punishment holds that people who harm others deserve to be harmed and that the justice system should give them what they deserve. I like to call this the revenge theory or the “eye for an eye” theory. The arguments for this theory are, in my opinion, not very strong. Sure, it seems intuitive that when somebody wrongs us we want to wrong them back, but what good does that do? And should we really set up an entire justice system based on retribution when that only causes more harm to people, despite if they “deserve it?”

Deterrence

The Deterrence Theory of punishment holds that societies should punish moral failings in a way that when people hear about the punishment for a certain crime, it deters them from committing it. For example, people may not use drugs because they are afraid of what would happen if they got caught. If we want people to stop doing drugs, according to deterrence theory, we should inflict harsher punishments for those caught with drugs. The main critique of this theory is that it does not deter people from doing the thing, it only deters people from getting caught doing the thing, thus driving the whole crime farther and farther underground. 

Restoration

The Restoration, Humanitarian, or Utilitarian theory of punishment is based on the idea that after a harm occurs, we should avoid any further harm coming to anybody involved. This may entail rehabilitating people with addictions to live addiction free or mandating driving school and road safety courses for negligent drivers. This doesn’t just apply to low-level crimes though. This may mean a prison system similar to Norway’s, where even the most violent criminals are kept in a remote community where their rights and privileges are upheld. The average sentence is around 8 months, and after they’ve had time to reflect on their actions, they are allowed to return to society as usual. Click here to learn about what went into the design of one of Norway’s most famously humane prisons.  This theory is often criticized as being “soft on crime,” saying that if we don’t make going to prison incredibly unpleasant, criminals will not have any reason not to re-offend. 

A wooden electric chair against a dirty wall in the background.
The youngest person to be executed by electric chair in the 20th century was 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. His conviction was later vacated as an unfair trial. Source: Yahoo! Images

Pragmatically, when we are deciding which theory of punishment to ascribe to, we are balancing the weight of the government’s function that motivates law enforcement with the human rights of everybody involved in the crime. 

So what is the government function of capital punishment and does it outweigh the most fundamental human right, one’s right to one’s own life?

Government Function

It is widely agreed upon that the government’s most fundamental function is to protect the rights of people in its jurisdiction. This includes mediating conflicts in which a person impedes on another’s rights. In these terms, the crime of theft is when a perpetrator impedes on the victim’s right to own property. In this case, the government then has an obligation to interfere in some way to bring justice to the victim. Most of the time, this interference will constitute the government temporarily impeding on the rights of the perpetrator themselves. This may mean keeping them in jail until their trial, imposing a fine on them, or even sentencing them to prison time. 

Human Rights

The right to life is inarguably the most fundamental natural human right that exists. All humans have a fundamental right to live their bodies’ natural lifespan through to its end. It can even be argued that humans have the right to the best healthcare available to extend their lifespan as long as possible. Without the right to life, no other human rights of any kind can be realized. This is why the most widely recognized phrase about human rights lists life as the first. 

As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and from that, they derive inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

To take someone’s life is to take away that person’s most fundamental, widely-recognized human right.

Balancing Both

Does the governmental function of societal safety ever justify taking away the perpetrator’s number one human right? Especially when, given that life in prison is an alternative option, societal safety is not even at risk by keeping these people alive. Many people will argue that keeping them in prison requires too many resources whereas the death penalty is a quick and easy way to save resources for the rest of society. Not only does this completely dehumanize people who have committed crimes, but it also switches the governmental interest from public safety to the much less compelling governmental interest of distributing resources. The interest in these resources is not compelling enough to justify the deprivation of someone’s life. Even if you think it is okay to impede on a perpetrator’s rights to prevent them from causing more harm to society, it is unclear that the deprivation of life would achieve this goal when life in prison is an alternative. 

The sun shines behind a wooden gallows with two nooses hanging down.
Three states still allow hanging as a possible execution method. Source: Yahoo! Images

According to the Retribution theory, people who took another life deserve to be killed solely on the “eye-for-an-eye” principle. But something doesn’t sit right when we try to defend this principle without dehumanizing people convicted of crimes. As a society, is it a good thing that we think a certain group of people deserves to die, even if their qualification into that group was voluntary?

According to the Deterrence theory, the death penalty may actually be an effective deterrence for prospective criminals. If they knew that committing this crime may literally mean the end of their lives, they may not commit the crime. However, it is unclear that the deterrence factor of life in prison, essentially ending people’s lives as they know it, is so much less effective than the deterrence factor of the death penalty that it justifies taking lives. 

According to the Restoration theory, capital punishment stands no chance. This theory is based on the hope of rehabilitation for criminals, even if that means they are only ever restored insofar as to live a meaningful life in prison. This theory is considered to be the most humane approach to punishment, and as far as research can tell, the one compatible with the lowest recidivism (re-offending) rates. 

A Short Book List of Contemporary Black Authors

*Cover Image Photo credits to Sharon Drummond*

Reading has always been one of my passions. It’s a unique entryway to view the world through another person’s eyes. Scientific research has shown that the more someone reads, the more empathetic and understanding that person is. It is these skills and values that reside at the core of human rights. To recognize the inherent dignity of every person, we must first be able to critically reflect on our own lives, positions, and privileges and grasp that our realities are not everyone’s. 

To bring about a more caring, empathetic world, we need to learn to look beyond ourselves. Below are some authors whose pioneering work does just that. 

N.K. Jemisin

Cover of the book The Fifth Season. Author N.K. Jemisin.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of N.K. Jemisin’s books, The Fifth Season. Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images, Photo credit to Laura Hanifin; An image of the author, N.K. Jemisin.

N.K. Jemisin is an author at the forefront of science fiction writing 一 in fact, she’s changing it at this moment. 

Having been compared to greats in the genre like Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Jemisin is one of the rare authors whose work has won not only the Hugo Science Fiction Writing Award but also the Nebula Award. 

Only 25 books have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and Jemisin’s third novel in her Broken Earth trilogies is one. 

Moreover, she is the first author in history to receive three consecutive Hugo Awards for every book within her critically acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy. The series is set in a broken world, literally, with a plot full of betrayals, murder, and a mother’s unbroken determination to save her daughter.

If you’re someone who loves science fiction, you need to read Jemisin’s works 一 one series in particular.

Ibram X. Kendi

Author Ibram X. Kendi. Cover of the book Stamped from the Beginning.
Figure 3: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to American Association of University Professors; An image of the author, Ibram X. Kendi. Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of Ibram X. Kendi’s books, Stamped from the Beginning.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a name you should become familiar with if you’re interested in antiracist scholarship. As the author of 13 books for adults and children, he is one of the world’s leading historians and antiracist researchers. 

Dr. Kendi is an Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, teaching at prestigious institutions like Boston University and American University. He is also the Founding Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research in the United States, while also being a contributor to The Atlantic and CBS News. 

He authored the book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, making him the youngest person in history to receive the award. 

Alongside this book, he also published the internationally renowned How to Be an Antiracist. He has worked alongside other authors to make both critical works accessible to teenage and children audiences. As of 2021, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the Genius Award. 

Learn more about Dr. Kendi’s transformative research and start your own education into antiracism by checking out his site.

Saeed Jones

Cover of the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives.
Figure 5: Source: Saeed Jones site; An image of the memoir by Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives.

Saeed Jones is an award-winning poet and non-fiction writer. His poetry has won the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award, as well as, a Lambda Literary Award. 

His memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, won the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Non-fiction. It is a poignant true story of Jones’ coming-of-age in a rural Texas community as a gay, black man. 

Jones’s work is a sincere and heartbreaking presentation of the realities that Queer individuals reconcile with as they grow into their gender and sexual identities. Not to mention the added stigmas racial and ethnic minorities face. 

If you’ve been wanting to break into the poetry scene or buff up on your memoir and/or Queer writing, you can find more of Saeed Jones’ work here

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Author Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Figure 6: Source: Wikimedia Commons; An image of the author, Nicole Dennis-Benn.

The work of Nicole Dennis-Benn has been compared to the pioneering and lyrical works of Toni Morrison. Her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was named the New York Time Book of the Year in 2016. Moreover, it earned the Lambda Literary Award for its portrayal Queer individuals. 

Similarly, her second novel, Patsy, also received the Lambda Literary Award in 2020 and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. 

Nicole-Benn has taught at several writing programs at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, NYU, and more. She is a recipient of the National Foundation for the Arts Grant and has published essays and shorter works in numerous esteemed publications 一 many of which have been nominated for or won awards as well. 

She is the founder of the Stuyvesant Writing Workshop and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her two sons and wife. 

Being born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, her two novels are set in her home country. If you are someone looking to expand their reading beyond the borders of the U.S., check out the writings of Nicole Dennis-Ben. 

Robert Jones, Jr.

Author Robert Jones Jr. sitting on some steps with his novel The Prophets.
Figure 7: Source: New York Times, Photo credit to Naima Green; An image of the author, Robert Jones Jr. alongside his debut novel, The Prophets.

Formerly known as “Son of Baldwin,” Jones’ debut novel, The Prophets, came into immediate acclaim. The novel focuses on the love story of two enslaved men during the 19th century and their struggle to retain this small facet of themselves as another enslaved man begins preaching to garner favor with their enslaver. 

His work, while fiction, contains lines of text that read like poetry and demand to be reread over and over as one processes both the cruelty and beauty of his prose. 

The novel won the 2022 Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. The Prophets has been translated into at least 12 different languages. 

Jones has published in the celebrated anthologies Four Hundred Souls and The 1619 Project. He is currently working on his next book. 

Angie Thomas

Author Angie Thomas. Cover of the book The Hate U Give.
Figure 8: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the author, Angie Thomas. Figure 9: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of Angie Thomas’ books, The Hate U Give.

For those who are fans of young adult literature, Angie Thomas has become an established name in the genre. Her work has hit the big screen, and though The Hate U Give does not explicitly mention organizations like Black Lives Matter, due to the timing of the movie’s release, it does feature BLM-esque organizations. It is important though that this work not be conflated with the actual people of BLM. 

Thomas was born and raised in Jacksonville, Mississippi, and attended Belhaven University where she received her BFA in creative writing. In fact, her New York Times bestselling novel, The Hate U Give, began as her senior project in college. 

She has since published five works with two being made into major motion films. If you enjoy young adult literature, check out some of Angie Thomas’ works here

Michelle Alexander

Author Michelle Alexander. Cover of the book The New Jim Crow.
Figure 10: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the author, Michelle Alexander. Figure 11: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

Michelle Alexander is more than just a renowned author, she is also a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. 

Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, helped transform the national dialogue surrounding the imprisonment of Black Americans. It was published in 2010 and has spent over 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Her haunting and true words from her book pierced through veils of dismissal on the ever-worsening problem of racial policing in the United States: 

“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

She has worked both in academia and the public and private sectors, engaging in civil rights litigation and even serving as the Director for the Racial Justice Project in Northern California. 

Her work and her writing have had profound impacts on our legal systems and continue to urge for reform. Check out her work alongside that of Isabel Wilkerson to learn about racial caste systems in the United States. 

Derrick Barnes

Image of the award-winning book I Am Every Good Thing.
Figure 12: Source: Derrick Barnes site; An image of one of Derrick Barnes’ awarding winning novels, I Am Every Good Thing.

Derrick Barnes is an award-winning children and young adult author. Several of his books have become critically acclaimed

His book Stand!-Raising My Fist For Justice won the 2023 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award and a Coretta Scott King Award Author Honor. His other work, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, received a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, and the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers. In 2022, he became a National Book Award finalist for his graphic novel Victory

After he published I Am Every Good Thing, he was nominated once again for a Kirkus Review, making him the first author to ever win the prize for his 12th release. 

Before becoming a successful author, Barnes was the first Black creative copywriter hired by the greeting cards giant, Hallmark. 

If you’re looking for more novels to diversify your library or classroom, check out Derrick Barnes’ work here

Jonathan Rosa

Author and anthropologist Jonathan Rosa. Cover of the book Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race.
Figure 13: Source: Yahoo Images, image credits to Standford University; An image of the author, Jonathan Rosa. Figure 14: Source: Standford University; The cover of Jonathan Rosa’s book, Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race.

I want to mention Jonathan Rosa’s work, Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad, because of its profound impact on our understanding of how language influences our perception of other racial groups. 

Dr. Rosa is a Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at Standford University whose work focuses on how colonial structures have influenced the construction of racial minorities, resulting not only in institutional inequities but also in linguistic stigmatization. 

It is an undeniable fact that we judge a person’s intellect and ability on their written and spoken skills. However, this is never an accurate portrayal of a person’s capability. Jonathan Rosa thoroughly researches this by conducting over 24 months of ethnographic work in a highly segregated Chicago high school. Dr. Rosa unveils how the experiences of young Latinxes are inextricably complicated by racial identity and an imposed view of “proper” speech. 

If you are someone who is interested in languages and how we come to understand the world and people through our abilities of speech, you should read this work and challenge ingrained assumptions of racialized speech you may not have even realized you had. 

Isabel Wilkerson

Author Isabel Wilkerson. Cover of the book The Warmth of Other Suns.
Figure 15: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the author, Isabel Wilkerson. Figure 16: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of Isabel Wilkerson’s books, The Warmth of Other Suns.

Isabel Wilkerson is an acclaimed author of non-fiction that weds poetic narrative with the harsh realities of marginalized communities. Her first work, The Warmth of Other Suns, focuses on the real stories of three people during the Great Migration. 

In order to complete her investigative work, she interviewed over 1,200 people and dedicated 15 years to detail the journey of the 6 million people who emigrated from the Jim Crow-oppressed South. 

She is the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for her piece on a fourth-grader from Chicago’s southside and two stories reporting on floods in 1993. 

She continues to work in journalism for the New York Times and has taught at several prestigious institutions. Her most recent work, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, once more displays her incredible talent for incisive research and profound scrutiny of the systems of oppression that plague the United States, Nazi Germany, India, and many more societies. 

If you are someone who enjoys historical narratives, Wilkerson’s works are masterful pieces of extensive research alongside bittersweet anecdotes of people living through systemic discrimination. 

Conclusion

If you liked this book list, check out this list of foundational Black authors here

To learn more about book bans and their threat to human rights, read the article by Nikhita Mudium: “Book Bans in the United States: History Says it All.”