The Re-Entry Simulation on Mass Incarceration and its Practical Applications in the Real World

This image is from the re-entry simulation event that took place at UAB
The coordinator of the re-entry simulation for mass incarceration explains the procedures. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

The University of Alabama in Birmingham hosted a re-entry simulation for mass incarceration on the 15th of October, 2021, partnered with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama. This simulation, which featured around a hundred participants, was designed to enlighten both students and community members about the difficulties surrounding re-entry into society for those who have been previously incarcerated. The event featured different booths to portray the various obligations, both legal and personal that had to be met by individuals exiting the prison system into the civilian society.

These booths included responsibilities such as securing identification cards, attending treatment appointments or drug screenings on time, or even being able to get employed, all while having to figure out transportation to be able to fulfill these requirements. Each participant was provided with a new identity, a few transportation tickets, some money (depending on the person’s identity), and a list of obligations that needed to be met each week. The “weeks” were timed to be fifteen minutes each, and the participants got four weeks to successfully re-enter society.

Getting your IDs

The identity I assumed had no IDs to their name, and only $30 when exiting the prison system. One of the most difficult components of this exercise was securing the three required IDs. Without the IDs, all the other booths refused to be of any help, and securing the IDs took well over a “week.” In the real world, this also means that people are unable to find employment, housing, or even apply for government aid like food stamps until they are able to secure these IDs. Furthermore, as Jeremy Sherer, the Assistant United States Attorney who helped organize this event discussed, there is a possibility of being re-imprisoned for outstanding warrants that might have been acquired while individuals were serving time in the prison system. Therefore, people who attempt to get their IDs at the DMV might end up being reincarcerated for these outstanding warrants. An easy solution to this problem would be to issue government IDs to people as they are exiting the prison system. This would dramatically decrease the mental and physical stress on individuals, as this one act would open up resources and opportunities they might not have without the proper government-issued IDs.

Transportation

An image depicting various forms of transportation on a highway. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Another enormous obstacle in the way of successfully re-entering civilian society can be transportation. Many people, upon entering the prison system have three options concerning their vehicles: they can sell their car and keep the cash, they can give the car to someone else, or if they are making payments on a car upon the time of their arrest, it can become repossessed by the time they exit the system. Even if your property was held by the police for “safeguarding” or for evidence purposes, if you cannot claim it within a certain time frame (which is impossible for people who are imprisoned), you face the risks of losing that property.

Transportation is a necessity, and if you live in an area where public transportation is unavailable, you will need to either purchase a car or rent one. In order to purchase any vehicle, you have to have an ID. Assuming you have your IDs, the next step is the background and credit checks. This can be a massive hurdle, as people who leave prison might not have the necessary credit history, nor have established employment history to purchase a car. They may not be able to afford the full price of the car, having just come out of jail or prison. For those who depend on public transportation in areas that offer the services, bus schedules can be very confusing and might not travel to the necessary destinations. Additionally, those who live in areas where public transportation is not an option have to figure out a way to find transportation for themselves. There are no agencies in place to provide any assistance to people in cases like these.

The Bail System

According to The Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime. If we were to follow the logic that people are “innocent until proven guilty,” 74% of the people held in jail are innocent. These individuals are only allowed to leave the jails by paying the set bail amounts for their particular case. These bail amounts are set based on the criminal charges and the complexities surrounding the crime in question. Although bail is not supposed to be a form of punishment, the bail system tends to punish the poor by setting a financial amount that has to be paid if the individual does not want to await their trial in jail. Most Americans are seldom prepared for a $400 emergency, and for people struggling with poverty, the set bail amount can be impossible to meet. This pretrial detention can also last months or even years before the trial date, meaning that innocent people might be held in jail for years simply for not being able to afford bail. The person’s identity I assumed at the re-entry simulation had $30 on their person, and their bail amount was the full $30, which ended up bankrupting them, leaving them with no money for food, transportation, or any other expenses.

Legal Responsibilities

This was another picture taken at the event itself
This image portrays the participants and the various booths involved in the simulation. These booths were set up to mimic real-life agencies, such as the courthouse, or the probation office, or even the pawnshop, to provide a realistic experience. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock

People exiting the prison system have to meet certain legal requirements upon their re-entry into civilization. These legal responsibilities include regular check-ins with the probation or parole officer, regular drug screens, and even clinical or treatment appointments that need to be attended. For one, as mentioned earlier, formerly incarcerated people need to be able to secure a stable form of transportation to get to these appointments. They also have to be able to provide their IDs, so not having one could result in a violation of the conditions of parole. The demands of parole or probation are different for each case, but conditions of release can include finding and holding stable employment, as well as showing up to take a urine analysis, blood tests, or a drug screening whenever requested of them. These drug screens can also interfere with the individual’s employment (if they do manage to secure one), as they would be required to leave their workplace to comply with this stipulation. People that are required to meet these conditions of release are also personally billed for these tests, something that they might not be able to afford. These stipulations can become even more complex based on the history of the person’s criminal offense. Those that have served time for sexual offenses are also required to register as a sex offender in their area, further complicating their ability to acquire employment or housing, and as a result, making it near impossible to meet their conditions of release.

Additionally, some people being released from prison might have to attend clinical appointments or treatment sessions. This may be a weekly obligation, and again, transportation and IDs are essential to meeting this condition. These treatment sessions, while helpful and certainly necessary in many cases, might only add stress to those who are financially compromised.

I wanted to include a picture of solitary confinement because it's a widely practiced form of punishment in the United States prisons and jails.
Solitary Confinement can place an individual in a dark, secluded place, depriving them of social interactions and stimulations, which can prove to be damaging to the mental health of the inmates who experience it. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Recent studies show that many people who enter the prison system without any mental illnesses can come out with serious issues related to their mental health. While there may be many factors that influence an individual’s mental stability inside the prison walls, research shows that solitary confinement, a practice that is used in most jails and prisons in the United States, can play a fundamental role in someone’s mental health. At times, placing an inmate in solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of mental illness. Solitary confinement can also lead to a number of mental health-related illnesses, including depression, paranoia, or even trigger hallucinations. As a result, many people who enter the prison system with no history of mental health issues can develop mental illnesses or acquire trauma while serving out their sentences. This inhumane practice can be suspended, which would dramatically affect the mental health of prisoners and lighten the load on some of their legal obligations.

Personal Responsibilities

Along with legal responsibilities that have to be met, people attempting to re-enter society also have personal obligations they may have to fulfill, including responsibilities regarding their children (if it applies), their own personal care (such as food, and shelter), and their attempts at professional success, including employment and education. Many individuals, upon re-entering society, regain custody of their children, meaning that they have to ensure both their needs as well as their children’s needs are met. This can prove to be very stressful and traumatic, both for the individual re-entering society and the children involved. As discussed previously, people exiting the prison system might not have the resources or the mental stability to be able to accept such a huge responsibility, often resulting in the parents neglecting their own needs for the needs of their children, and as a result, increasing the mental and physical strain they might place on themselves.

Even still, many parents that are not awarded custody of their children might be forced to pay child support upon their release. Unless they ask for a suspension or reduction of child support, the amount can continue to accumulate while the person is serving time, and upon release, the person is mandated to pay the full amount owed. Failing to pay the amount can be considered a violation of their conditions of release and can result in the reimprisonment of the individual.

Another personal responsibility that an individual re-entering society has to meet is self-care. An essential part of personal care includes food and water, yet many people might not be able to afford three square meals a day. As I learned from the re-entry simulation, contrary to popular belief, churches are not as forthcoming with assistance as many like to believe. This may be due to a variety of reasons, ranging from funding problems to religious or ideological reasons. Applying for food stamps is an option, but it can take weeks, requiring both transportation and IDs. Even when an individual is awarded food stamps, it might not cover all their nutrition expenses, leading many to become food insecure.

I wanted to showcase the quality of life that many people exiting the prison system are faced with.
An image depicting an unhoused individual’s dire situations, a risk that formerly incarcerated personnel face due to housing insecurities. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, many people re-entering society may face housing insecurities. Due to the social and sometimes cultural stigma around imprisonment, family members might refuse to provide adequate shelter for the individual. In order to qualify for an apartment, the applicant has to provide proof of employment as well as a security deposit. Many job applications require a background and criminal history check, at many times refusing to hire an individual if they have been convicted of a crime. Without a job and proper shelter, many risks facing the possibility of becoming homeless.

Expanding on the complexities of getting employed, many people re-entering society have to cross so many hurdles to be successful professionally. Depending on the age at which they were incarcerated, many individuals returning to society might not have the necessary education or skills to qualify for employment. Some might even have to train for and take their GEDs, a base requirement to get jobs, even low-wage ones. To add to the complexities, people with traditional High School Diplomas receive a higher pay rate than those who obtain GEDs.

Once they are able to acquire their GEDs if they choose to pursue higher education, formerly incarcerated people have to do so at a private university or college. This is due to the fact that most public universities and college applications include a section asking about the applicant’s criminal history. This can indirectly discriminate against those who are struggling with poverty, fundamentally impacting their ability to compete with the growing skilled and educated labor forces of society. Moreover, people who have been incarcerated face many challenges when applying for financial aid. Their ability to receive financial aid is very limited, as they can be denied student loans as well as Pell grants due to their criminal history. Consequently, this usually means that people coming out of prison are stuck with working labor-intensive, low-wage jobs without the prospect of advancement in their professional careers.

Conclusion

The coordinators of the re-entry simulation, the Assistant United States Attorney Jeremy Sherer, and Dr. Laurel Hitchcock. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

As part of his concluding remarks, Jeremy Sherer reminded the participants at the simulation that almost 60% of people who are released from prison can end up being incarcerated again. This is a sign that the current system is designed to fail these individuals who are just attempting to survive after their punishments have been served. The lives of these individuals are impacted forever by their criminal history through the taxing obligations they have to meet in order to lead a successful life. They are not provided any form of guidance yet punished constantly for the failures of the system. If the components of racial discrimination in the prison system are taken into consideration, (which will be covered in my next blog post), some might even believe that this injustice intentionally targets certain marginalized members of the community.

Everyone makes mistakes; this is a universally accepted concept. Yet, part of the process of learning and growing involves being provided with the necessary opportunities and resources to learn from the mistakes of our past and strive to become better individuals. Having participated in the re-entry simulation, I attempted to meet all my requirements as best as I could with the resources I was provided with, yet I was sent to “jail” for failing to visit my probation officer, and by week four, I was begging the “police officer” in the exercise to just send me to “jail.” I could not handle the mental, emotional, and physical stress that resulted from the realities this simulation strived to convey, and my participation was voluntary. Many individuals who have to deal with these systems on a regular basis do not have a choice.

The Muslim Uyghur Devastation and Cultural Genocide in the Xinjiang Province of China

I was in 4th grade when I was asked if I was a terrorist. I was asked by a person who I thought was my friend. I was asked this horrible question because of the color of my skin. I was too young to realize I was being targeted along with another classmate of the Islam faith, and that my culture and Hindu background were gravely mistaken because of stereotypes and misinformation. While I have never been a victim of Islamophobia, that day I got a touch of what many Muslims face on an everyday basis. Some stories we hear, and some we don’t. Right now, cultural devastations and genocides are taking place in China due to widespread Islamophobia.

MODERN CONCENTRATION CAMPS

The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China, which was once East Turkestan, but was annexed in 1949. Since 2017, more than 1 million of the 11 million Uyghurs have been places in 85 concentration camps, but China chooses to refer to these as re-education centers. Muslim anecdotes of life inside the camps consists of beatings, interrogations, and detainments for their religious beliefs and practices. Since the beginnings of these camps, the Xinjiang government has prohibited men from growing out the beards and women from wearing face coverings, while also destroying mosques, which are Muslim places of worship. Following United Nations probes, China claims that because the Uyghurs hold extremist views that are threatening to national security the concentration camps are justified.

For most of us, our views of a concentration camp typically include Nazi Germany and the atrocities that took place during World War II. But, our representative heuristic clouds our judgement when we try to compare what is currently going on in China to what was happening in World War II, but the bottom line is, “A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of the crimes they committed but simply because of who they are.”

Image shows a demonstration in Turkey in support of Uyhgur Turks in China. Source: Middleeastmonitor.com
Image shows a demonstration in Turkey in support of Uyhgur Turks in China. Source: Middleeastmonitor.com

ETHNIC CLEANSING OF UYGHURS

Some of the stories that have been gathered from the concentration camps include reports of forced sterilizations on Uyghur women, bans against fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and attending mosques. While China claims to be a democratic nation, the continuation of Uyghur persecution indicates that religions in China must be of Chinese orientation and the people should assimilate into a socialist society regardless of their own personal beliefs.

The Chinese government had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp.” After World War II, the nations of the world have promised to uphold and protect the rights of citizens globally. In light of recent events we are once again in the middle of another gross and egregious instance of human rights abuse.

A statement released from the Human Rights Watch states that, “A body of mounting evidence now exists, alleging mass incarceration, indoctrination, extrajudicial detention, invasive surveillance, forced labor, and the destruction of Uighur cultural statements, including cemeteries, together with other forms of abuse.”

ISLAMAPHOBIA

Islamophobia and unfounded fear of Muslims, and people from the Middle East, is something that has plagued the modern world since the 2001 September 11th attacks. The attacks have heightened the tension and awareness against minorities as well has the Uyghur separatist movement. To some extent, it can be argued that around the time the United States began its War on Terror in the Middle East, China spontaneously changed its rhetoric to labeling Uyghurs as “terrorists” in light of these attacks. The Uyghur separatist movement has been fighting for independence and has been protesting since the rise of the Beijing communist rule, and during this movement many lives have been lost. The Chinese government claims that this movement and the protests have led to bombings and politically calculated assassinations that have killed 162 people. Due to the separatist movement and the lives lost, the Chinese government is placing Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in hopes of “re-educating them,” when really their methods have been identified as causes of cultural genocide. Almost two dozen countries are in tandem with concerns raised by an independent United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerning credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs; and other human rights violations and abuses.

An approximate number of suspected “re-education” centers in China located in the Xinjiang province. Source: Brewminate.com

Disney’s Mulan

While many nations and corporations have identified the Uyghur crisis and have taken actions to bring it to light, Disney, one of the biggest corporations who has repeatedly prided itself on diversity, inclusivity, and decency, has somehow overlooked the genocide that is happening in China right now. Nine minutes into the credits of the film Mulan, Disney thanked the publicity department of the CPC Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region committee which is exactly where the Uyghur genocide is currently taking place and where Muslims are being blatantly persecuted. In addition to that, the film’s lead Lui Yifei tweeted in support of the Hong Kong police who has been using police brutality to suppress the pro-democracy protestors. An internationally recognized company recently opened the Shanghai Disneyland Park and did so seamlessly without any government problems or much restriction, so how did this big company overlook the whitewashing of the ongoing Uyghur genocide?

What can I do?

Visit Uyghur Human Rights Project

Protest Beijing Olympics as “a key pressure point”

Educate yourself and the people you surround with on Islamophobia and its repercussions

The Fiasco between Africans and African-Americans

A multi-cultural Image
In unity lies our strength.                          Source: Yahoo Image

For a long period of time, there has been a long-existing history of an unfathomable and a silently raging rift between Africans and African-Americans or “Afro-Americans,” as some now refer. It should be noted that the relationship between these two races can never be erased or forgotten even though there seems to be a discouraging high-level of historical ignorance or lack of in-depth understanding, especially amongst the newer generations of both races. The connection between Africans and African-Americans goes quite a long way prior to the era of slavery, which I believe warrants a brief trip down memory lane to refresh some existing knowledge on this subject.

We begin by looking at the words of Audrey Smedley, who believes race or ideas about the difference in human color was developed during the era of African slavery. He believed up until the 18th century, Africans were generally positive people who engaged mostly in farming and cattle breeding. They had industries, arts and crafts, commerce and an existing form of government. After invading Africa, the Europeans realized Africans were better farmers and laborers, and immune to several diseases, which were perfect attributes in high demand within the colonialist world at the time. The colonists understood they needed the prowess and strength of Africans to meet their demands and as such, they developed the idea of transporting them across Europe and America, which was then referred to as the ‘New-World’, knowing they would have no means of escape or return.

According to the UShistory website, the Portuguese began the first slave trade agreement in 1472, which saw an influx of over 11 million Africans into America and across a few European nations as slaves. African slave trading became a lucrative business avenue amongst the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, and after North America was colonized by Europeans, there were vast lands in dire need of labor which led to the purchase of the first permanent African slaves from Dutch in 1619. Due to their physicality and agricultural abilities, the slaves proved to be highly productive on the farms where they mostly cultivated cash crops ranging from sugar, rice and tobacco. This went on for decades until the anti-slavery movement began which subsequently led to the Civil War in 1861, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, and an adoption of the 13th Amendment of the constitution in 1865 which outlawed all slave trade practices.

After the abolition of slave trade, issues of race got more intensified due to the non-acceptance of black people and has since become the central point of human attention, interaction and relationship.  It constituted the major form of human identity, a discouraging phenomenon that still gallantly exist in our world today. The creation and addition of a new race in form of Africa-America started a new chapter in human existence and history, which has led to a whole new level of feisty societal restructuring, rebalancing and rearrangements till date. Although whenever issues relating to racial differences arise, most people would most likely always refer to the forever existing tensed-filled relationship between African-Americans and the White race, but not so many would consider the possibility of any discord between other races, most especially Africans and African-Americans. To this end, I will be explaining a few reasons for the existing rift between Africans and African-Americans.

An image distinguishing between an African look from an african-american
Two continents fussed in one face           Source: Yahoo Image

The first reason to consider is the comparison debate between Africans and African-Americans, about who have suffered or continuously suffers the most. We begin by considering the latter’s historical slavery struggles which has obviously spilled over and transformed into the present-day inequality and inequity they are continuously forced to endure. History clearly made us realize the dehumanizing and disheartening low-level of inhumane treatments and conditions they had to go through before the abolition of slavery, and it is no longer news that the present American structure and system is continuously finessed to favor Caucasians who are majority over the minority blacks. With this understanding, some African-Americans always see African immigrants as opportunist who are profiting from their struggles despite not having shared in their pains or experienced  the horrible and derogatory racial discriminations like they did, which is a reason for their mutual relationship with White Americans. They believe Africans do not share in their ideology and are unwilling to participate in their political and civil rights movements.

On the other hand, Africans continuously grieve their pathetic level of underdevelopment which evidence suggest came as a result of the European invasion. As earlier stated, the entire African continent was developing at a steady pace but lost the plot when valuable human and material resources were taken by the colonialists. According to Nathan Nunn, slavery is the major factor for Africa’s underdevelopment till date; a phenomenon which has created ethnic fractionalization and undermined the effectiveness of several African nations. Recent studies suggest Africa’s 72% average income gap with the rest of the world would not have existed if not for slave trade. He believes the reason for the continent’s poor economic performance is due to the effect of slave trade and colonialism which has led to the endless poverty and incessant conflict, poor leadership, lack of basic social amenities and infrastructure, over dependency on foreign aid, poor health and educational facilities, amongst other challenges. It also affects the present cultural and social outcomes of the continent responsible for the present ethnic division, trust concerns, HIV prevalence, ethno-religious differences, and the high rate of polygyny (i.e. a practice of men having multiple wives) amongst other factors that continuously push the continent aback.

Another reason to consider is the trust issues that exits between the two races. So many African-Americans have some misconceptions that Africans cannot be trusted due to their willingness in allowing their fellow brothers and sisters be taken or sold into slavery, while some perceive them to be highly promiscuous due to the high rate of polygyny in the region. To point out the fallacy with the former, studies have revealed that majority of African slaves were captured through acts of kidnappings, raids and warfare, and through judicial processes, while only a few were literally sold by their relatives or friends as slaves. To address the latter, several studies have identified the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the major factor for the high prevalence of polygyny because only men were initially captured and sold as slaves across America which consequently resulted in the decrease amongst the male population and further tilted the sex ratio in many African nations most especially within West and East Africa.

Furthermore on the factors to consider, there is a wide belief or notion amongst Africans about African-Americans misusing their available opportunities despite enduring numerous challenges and difficulties. It is important to note that Africans alongside other races also, share in the belief that America is a land of dreams and opportunities and will always be a dream destination for many. For Africans, one major reason why they migrate to the U.S. is centered around education due to the outstanding level of human and material resources invested in this sector. As widely known, education remains one of the best and golden ticket to living a better life as individuals, which also helps improve the socio-economic growth and development of the community. Another reason why Africans migrate to the U.S. is because of the availability of several decent job opportunities for both legal and undocumented immigrants. By either migrating for job purposes or education, they remain great opportunities that most likely guarantees any individual to live a long, healthy and happy life.

Image of Women dressed in African Attires during an event
Diversity should be celebrated not discriminated Source: Yahoo Image

On the other hand, some African-Americans blame the continuous influx of African immigrants into the U.S. to have negatively impacted the number of jobs that is available to them. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the early immigrant influx into the U.S. between 1980-2000 resulted in 20% to 60% wages decline, 25% employment decline, and 10% rise in incarceration rates among blacks with high school education or less. Based on these statistics, it is understandable to see the plights and frustrations amongst African-American populations, but the increase in the incarceration rates could also be attributed to the heavy trafficking of crack cocaine within black communities which caused the police to enact and enforce tougher sentencing laws and subsequently resulting in the incarceration of one-quarter of low-skilled black men.

On a light note, the United States Census Bureau in June 2019, confirmed that about 13 million workers have more than one job, while a report by CNBC on February 2019, shows U.S. employers posted the most open jobs of about 7.3 million which was a valid evidence that the U.S. job market is actually strong. Also, according to the political typology survey 2020, 61% supports the notion for the country to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with Whites, 65% believe immigrants hard work and talents have strengthened the country tremendously, 61% believe most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard, while over 55% believe blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.

NFL Star dressed in an African attire
Let’s Save our Future                               Source: Yahoo Image

Based on this knowledge, it aches the heart to see Africans and African-Americans alongside other races have such a resentful, unfriendly and defensive relationship against one another till date. It is true we have all gone through various levels of hardship, turmoil, and suffering which serves as reasons we continuously hold deep grudges against others, but its high time we looked beyond and move on. In as much as we feel justified about our present bitterness or anger towards certain people or races due to our past experiences, we should remember the adage which says, “Two wrongs can never make a right”. It is almost certain that whenever we cloud our minds with negative judgements before relating with others, we would most likely find a way to justify our negative thoughts about them irrespective of the outcome, as such, we all should always set aside our presumptions, perceptions and judgements when relating with others and it is only through this means, can we look beyond our racial differences and respect each other as humans. It is a shame we are still regressing in this 21st century but we can begin by remembering our past, but not dwell on them because when we do, we are prone to live our everyday lives on them, and history has made us to understand that decisions we make in anger or frustration are those that will take us aback or hurt us for a long time.

 

Solitary Confinement Amounting to Torture

Image of concrete walls allowing some sunshine with a small window near the top.
jmiller291. Solitary Confinement, Old Geelong Gaol 7. Creative Commons for Flickr.

In the United States, the earliest experiments with solitary confinement began over two centuries ago, during the Enlightenment. Champions of the idea of natural rights, thinkers of the era found that public corporate punishment was incompatible with the development of a free citizen. Instead, silence and solitude would allow prisoners to reflect and that would induce repentance that would drive prisoners to live a more responsible life, making individuals the instrument of their own punishment. However, as the United States’ first silent prisons and penitentiaries were publicized, renowned nineteenth-century thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited these institutions to observe these revolutionary systems. Once intrigued, these icons now condemned these silent prisons as de Tocqueville remarked,

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, itkills.

As other physicians and experts echoed their concerns, reporting the high risk and evidence of insanity and death of inmates existing in solitude, it gained the attention of the United States Supreme Court which influenced a new philosophy in correctional administration and gradually reduced the regularity of the practice.

This period of relief lasted until prisons began using solitary confinement to segregate more “threatening” and “dangerous” prisoners who were considered a risk to the safety of other prisoners and staff. Then, retribution and deterrence replaced rehabilitation as the professional purpose of corrections. As the U.S. responded by institutionalizing longer sentences, building more prisons, and abolishing parole, the use of solitary confinement rapidly increased with prison growth.

Today, the United States not only incarcerates more people than any other nation, but we also expose more of these people to solitary confinement than any other nation. The United States holds around 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement typically as punishment, as a tactic to control overcrowded institutions, and as safety from or for the general population.

As individuals, inmates tell us what it is like in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, your world is a gray concrete box. You may spend around 23 hours a day alone in your cell which are only furnished with a toilet, sink, and bed. When prisoners are escorted out of their cells, they are first placed in restraints through the cuff port and sometimes with additional leg or waist chains and tethered by the hooks on their cuffs to an officer. Prisoners are controlled by bodily restraints, with pervasive and unforgiving round the clock surveillance, and the restricting hallways and cells they exist in. They are lead to solitary exercise each day and a brief shower three times a week then back to their cells. Confined to their own concrete cells, prisoners are both physically and psychologically removed from anyone else. Prisoners depend on officers to bring them anything they may need and are allowed to have such as toilet paper, books, or letters they may receive. Many prisoners relate with dark thoughts that haunt them in isolation. Many become angry and hateful behind compliance.

Where many express anger, they all express a struggle to maintain dignity and a sense of self or humanity. Being alone, prisoners forget how to interact with others. Feeling as though they have nothing to live for in isolation, prisoners may give up on these things. Many interviews describe watching others who were locked in indefinite solitary choosing between giving up by either through suicide or turning into an unfeeling and uncaring creature. Correctional facilities’ workers express their concerns as to why and how they become desensitized through strict policy, regulation, and the specialized emotional stance necessary to interact with these prisoners. Acting as servants for the lives of some bad apples, observing civilized men be reduced to the natural man, and acting in adherence to authority with little voice heard by superiors, this work requires a specialized emotional stance.

Instead of regular and healthy social relationships important to human survival, these prisoners are embedded in a structure that extends itself into them. It enters their mind and sometimes switches off the human inside or sometimes forces it to become violent enough to compete. In this way, it also robs them of self-determination, liberty, and other forms of autonomy.

Image of protesters of solitary confinement holding signs connecting solitary confinement to torture and mental illness.
Felton Davis. 16-11-23 02 Union Square Vigil. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Because the practice of solitary confinement is a global one and brings claims of widespread abuse, the UN special rapporteur presented his report, or evaluation, of solitary confinement. This rapporteur defined prolonged solitary confinement as isolation for more than fifteen days because studies show that the effects of solitary confinement may become irreversible after this point as the rapporteur concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

International and domestic laws prohibit all forms of Racial Discrimination, which address variations in solitary confinement’s demographics, and rights of persons with disabilities which protect individuals with mental, or other, illnesses. They also guarantee the rights of women and children or juveniles, which are especially vulnerable under conditions of solitary confinement or isolation. Both sides address the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. More specifically, they address conditions of solitary confinement which always may apply to every individual.

Domestically, the Eighth Amendment reveals how the United States Constitution addresses Solitary Confinement. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel or unusual punishment” on someone convicted of a crime. This allows these prisoners to challenge their conditions while in custody and the actions of prison officials. To do this, prisoners must first show that the challenged condition is “sufficiently serious” and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the condition. Close observation of court decisions reveals that there is no organized methodology to determine what makes a condition “sufficiently serious”. This decision is made in each case by the personal standards of judges. The judge may question why the prisoner was placed there; however, the Supreme Court has not made a ruling whether intent should play a part in this evaluation. Courts disagree whether it should matter why the individual was placed in solitary confinement. Also, the Amendment did not answer when a prison condition is punishment or not. The debate remains whether the effect of the conditions on the prisoner or the intent of officials makes them punishment. In court, Eighth Amendment analysis hinges on the motivations of state actors and prison officials it is supposed to act as a check against. The conditions of the Eighth Amendment fail to protect prisoners from inhumane treatment through the scope of prison officials’ intent and judges’ objective analysis.

The ICCPR is international law that prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It later states that people deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of a person and the treatment approach for prisoners should be aimed at efficiently improving their reformation and social rehabilitation.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Mandela Rules that prohibited restrictions and disciplinary sanctions that could amount to torture or cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, such as Indefinite Solitary Confinement, Prolonged solitary confinement, or to place a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell. It defined solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact and prolonged solitary confinement for any time period over fifteen days. It states that solitary confinement should only be used as a last case resort for the shortest time possible and given due process to each case. Finally, it paid special attention to protect prisoners with disabilities which may be magnified, and especially vulnerable women and children from solitary confinement.

Through these treaties and agreements, States do not only assume obligations internationally but to their own people as well. Just like our own constitution, these international laws were agreed to and are legally binding to regulate the conduct of states with their citizens. However, without international forces to enforce and regulate these agreements, states may ignore or lose sight of their importance.

Despite these resolutions, Domestic laws are vague so that it is doubtful they meet minimum requirements regarding the ones set by human rights instruments. This creates debate and little guarantees in the legal system. They also undermine fundamental guarantees of due process, are applied randomly, and do not protect the prisoners’ rights.

Today tens of thousands of humans remain alone in concrete boxes in the United States. This report concludes that their conditions are emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. They are destructive because it robs us of many things that makes life human and bearable like stimulus through social interaction and interaction with the natural world. Under total control and out of the public eye, people may be subjected to incredible human rights violations. By allowing our government to ignore these people, we are accepting this indifference towards others under its care. By ignoring their human rights, in this way, we diminish our own.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Thoughts on Homelessness in Birmingham

Image of shelter made of cardboard boxes.
David Hilgart. Home. Creative Commons for Flickr.

During the winter break, I spent a lot of time in Birmingham, staying with my sister and with friends, far away from my farm and home in Columbiana. Our farm is more like an animal rescue or sanctuary that does not generate much income but enough to accommodate. Besides hundreds of animals being surrendered or abandoned, we have even had strays walk up our driveway. Our goat, Fred, was the first I remember as we were in disbelief that a goat was just walking the streets and checking out the very sparse neighborhood, curiously coming up to us with some twine wrapped around his neck. For Fred and everyone to follow, my parents and family members have never refused taking in, rehabilitating, or rehoming an animal in need, so maybe that’s why it was so much more obvious of how much worse the picture I have seen in Birmingham is, or what this article is about. In Birmingham, it is people living in the streets witnessed by a city full of people. Walking through five points and down 20th, there is so much evidence and example of homelessness.  Passerby witness but rarely realize that they are seeing many at their most vulnerable or the harsh, daily routine.

Image of street and tunnel wall lined with bags and boxes and evidence of someone's home
Chris Yarzab. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Responsibility of the State

People experiencing homelessness face violations of many human rights, such as inaccessibility to safe and secure housing, an inadequate standard of living, education, liberty and security of the person, privacy, social security, freedom from discrimination, voting, and more which are interconnected.  These human rights are protected by several international human rights treaties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bind the state to legal and moral obligations in realizing and protecting the rights of all people. Also, the right to housing recognized by international human rights law doesn’t just mean a right to shelter. It must be adequate and accessible. Battling and overcoming homelessness is not a task of charity as much as an act of justice. Our Public policy and structures should facilitate or lead to a dignified life in the United States. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we should figure out how to shelter or house those who are homeless.

No one is asking what happened to all the homeless. No one cares, because it’s easier to get on the subway and not be accosted.- Richard Linklater

More recently, I saw many cops parked in the middle of five points as they held up traffic to address some of the people I have seen more statically living there, which brought up the thought of criminalization of homelessness and left me wondering if those cops offer rides to shelters before the ride to a cell.

A look at more vulnerable populations

The most visible type of homelessness is what we see when we walk through Birmingham: people living on the streets or sleeping in the parks or street tunnels. However, more move between shelters and temporary homing maybe with their friends or relatives and more long-term shelter where their experience may not be included in the conversation of homeless persons.

Within 2018 records reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were almost 3,500 people homeless on a given night (280 were family households, 339 were Veterans, 158 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 540 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness). Over 900 of those were concentrated in the Birmingham area. Over the year, there were 14,112 students who faced homelessness in Alabama.

A large portion of the homeless population is affected by mental illness. People with mental illness or other disabilities may face social isolation and may face chronic homelessness. Such individuals may require special types of accommodation or support that may be an obstacle to rehabilitation.  Health issues may cause a person’s homelessness as well as they may be intensified by the experience where poverty and lack of access to care contribute to disparities in health. Another thing to think about is when someone handicapped by a disability loses their parents or caretaker, who will take care of them or will they find tools to live? They could become homeless.

Through the lingering effects of systematic denial of equal rights and opportunities, African American are particularly overrepresented in this system facing a higher risk of poverty, housing discrimination, and incarceration than White Americans

Indigenous people face greater social and economic disadvantage such as lower levels of education or higher levels of unemployment which contribute to higher levels of homelessness in their communities

Women may make up a big portion of those forced to leave their homes fleeing domestic violence or sexual assault. Homeless women may become more isolated for fear of violence, rape, or other abuse. Further, a woman may be separated from her children if she is unable to care for them which challenges her parental rights.

Children and young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness. I have known many classmates and friends who have been homeless as they pursue their education at UAB. Also, Covenant House proclaims that every year, more than 2 million kids in America will face a period of homelessness (The link provides more enlightening and harder-to-swallow statistics). Youth like those emancipated from the foster care system may not have another option. In addition to general human rights laws, children are protected under special rights, like those afforded in the Covenant on the Rights of a Child which describes a higher standard of living and right to protection against neglect, cruelty, exploitation, etc.

Untreated depression and mental illness, self-medication and addiction, childhood trauma and chronic PTSD, abuse and any circumstance that may lead one to homelessness may also create a loop to imprison them. For example, where abstinence is a prerequisite or requirement for homelessness assistance programs, one may not receive help unless they quit, but one cannot quit without relief.

Image of person sitting on roadside
Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Creative Commons for Flickr.

A veteran should not have to stand on the asphalt with a cardboard sign begging for a living in a nation they helped secure and people should not be in the position to be turned down asking for food that was about to be thrown out. In fact, everyone has made contributions and continues to contribute to their society. Homelessness includes people who have paid or pay taxes and those who are paid less than a living wage. It includes people of all labels fleeing abusive conditions or facing escalating housing and living costs. It includes parents and it includes their children who have not had a chance. It also includes all students who are trying to pursue an education to hopefully get a job that will afford them housing. Besides all these achievements, many, including those facing chronic homelessness have endured full lives and have witnessed different forms of trauma. Still, they have survived the circumstances of homelessness, maintaining their humanity and resilience and- intentionally or unintentionally- being that example for others.

Also, keep in mind that going from place to place and not knowing what to do or where you will end up could understandably create a lot of pain and anger. Desperation or frustration may be harder to deal with. Being homeless could even make you apprehensive of ownership or pursuing certain routes that could be encouraged. However, everyone should be afforded options and certain securities.

10 Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness posted by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:

https://www.usich.gov/tools-for-action/10-strategies-to-end-chronic-homelessness

More immediate examples for anyone to help everyday

If it’s raining or about to, offer the warmth and privacy of an umbrella.

Offer to pay for an uber ride to a nearby shelter as some cannot walk to or have no means of transportation to one.

If you are not comfortable lending cash, you may offer supplies. You could keep these care bags of everyday products, essentials (maybe small shower things you could find in the travel section, gloves, hats, etc), or resources to offer or pass out at crowded shelters.

Invite others to the restaurant you are on your way to and share a meal if they are up for it. The conversation may also allow you to understand, accept, or appreciate their life and vice-versa. Once, a man I invited to eat with me on campus (in an environment where I felt safe enough to) proclaimed his version of Islamophobia (as that was the summation of a popular sentiment in America, especially during those Trump Campaign days) as he explicitly said he didn’t like Muslims when I revealed that of my identity. But it turns out, I was the first Muslim he had personally interacted with and realized he liked before the word “Muslim” exited my mouth. That could happen with anyone of course and homeless (or only hungry in this case) people are not to be “enlightened” and should not be expected to praise our deed, but the conversation and gesture can open this opportunity

Additional Resources:

Federal Links Relevant to homelessness:

https://www.hhs.gov/programs/social-services/homelessness/resources/federal-links/index.html

 

This Decade in Human Rights

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons

As we approach 2020 and the end of this decade, we come across several lists of important happenings, milestones, and statistics in various disciplines across the world. As for human rights, it is important to reflect where we stand on the provision and fight for human rights and highlight the important issues that emerged during this decade.

Continue reading “This Decade in Human Rights”

Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?

I had decided to spend this past Thanksgiving by myself at home with my computer. While waiting for my episode to load, I wondered to myself, “Why is the Internet so slow? Doesn’t my Internet plan guarantee high speed and unlimited data?” These few questions directed me to some episodes from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that addressed Net Neutrality (Net Neutrality I YouTube and Net Neutrality II YouTube) and “Why Your Internet Sucks,” respectively. Although I still had to wait about five minutes or so for the video to constantly stop buffering, that dissatisfaction paled in comparison to everything I was about to learn, particularly how companies will slow connection speeds so people would have to pay more for faster access.

An image of a map with the internet also embedded into it, representing the worldwide access to the internet.
History of the Internet – joannazajakala. Source: joannazajakala.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

So, before you continue reading, let’s define some of the basic terms used in this article:

  • Net Neutrality – The principle that ISPs should provide internet access to all people regardless of source or the type of website being accessed.
  • ISPs – Internet Service Providers. These are the people you pay to give you access to the internet.
  • VPNs – Virtual Private Networks. These are private networks that will give you privacy and anonymity when using a public network. They “mask your IP address so that your online actions are virtually untraceable.”
  • FCC – The Federal Communications Commission. They “regulate interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states.”

 

An image of a sphere representing the internet, but with a cross over it.
Clipart – No Global Internet. Source: openclipart.org, Creative Commons

 

History of Net Neutrality

Coined by Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, Net Neutrality called for all ISPs to treat all content equally. Wu had the concern that “broadband providers’ tendency to restrict new technologies would hurt innovation in the long term, and called for anti-discrimination rules.” He reasoned this because if providers were able to choose which content will be available for users, then newer companies would never have the chance to break out and grow. Had this happened in the mid-2000s with video streaming, then sites like Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. would have never gotten the light of day and be prevalent sources of information throughout our daily lives.

In the early 2000s, ISPs started to ban people from using VPNs and letting them set up their own Wi-Fi routers. Subsequently, the “FCC fined Madison River, a service provider, for blocking phone calls over the internet, ordered Comcast to stop slowing down connections, and caught Apple for blocking Skype calls at the request of AT&T.”

In 2015, after much deliberation, the FCC approved Net Neutrality by a 3-2 vote, replacing a ruling in 2014 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit finding that found the FCC did not have enough regulatory power over broadband. After the resulting vote, Gabe Rottman, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, praised how “this [was] a victory for free speech, plain and simple. The Internet, the primary place where Americans exercise their right to free expression, remains open to all voices and points of view.”

However, when power changes hands, so does previous rulings. With a Republican-controlled FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai effectively repealed Net Neutrality. They removed the Title II designation, which classified the Internet as a Public Utility, preventing the FCC from putting rules in its place if desired. Now, without these rules in place, ISPs can effectively prioritize specific content and block others, with the only caveat being that ISPs must publicly state that they will do so.

 

An image of a highway, but with a crowded lane for the public, but with a fast lane for corporations.
The Economic case that net neutrality was always fundamentally good for the internet. Source: medium.com, Creative Commons

The Case for Net Neutrality

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver opens his segment briefing his audience on the foundation of Net Neutrality while also talking about the impact his first Net Neutrality episode had on the FCC’s ability to regulate the open Internet. He then pans to the then-new and now current chairman of the FCC, Trump appointee Ajit Pai. While he presented himself as fun with his oversized coffee mug, Oliver notes how Pai was a “former lawyer for Verizon” and how he believes that due to Title II, companies can no longer invest further into broadband networks. Oliver then responds to that claim by stating that “Title II is the most solid legal foundation we have right now for a strong enforceable net neutrality protections.” While also roasting Pai with his own larger coffee mug, Oliver calls upon the people watching his episode to go to the FCC website and write comments under the heading “Restoring Internet Freedom.” Created in April of 2017, this docket had a current filing of 23,952,756 comments, with people still commenting more than 2 years after the fact. He then concludes with his call to action below:

John Oliver: “I’m calling upon all of you, the internet’s time-wasters and trouble-makers, to join me once more in just five to ten minutes of none effort, I need you to do this once more under the breach my friends, simply go to this URL and tell the FCC to preserve net neutrality and Title II. Once again commenters, America needs you to rise, or more accurately, remain seated in front of your computer screen to this occasion. So please, fly my pretties, fly once more! Fly away!”

Net Neutrality, Internet Equality, and Human Rights

So how exactly does Net Neutrality and internet equality relate to human rights? Are they even remotely related?

With the repealing of net neutrality, you risk losing your first amendment rights guaranteed by the Constitution, being the right to freedom of expression, while also losing your right to access information. The United Nations Human Rights Council also had passed a resolution for the “promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” while also condemning a country that disrupts internet access for its civilians. ISPs, such as Comcast, AT&T, Spectrum, and more, would limit websites that cannot pay to prioritize their content, allowing big companies to have more content allowed. This eventually would lead to a restriction in the amount of information accessed and have the internet, as Human Rights Watch phrases it, “reduced to social media giants and shopping websites, and we could lose equal access to all the little random, odd corner that make the internet the magical (and weird) place it is today.”

Imagine that. There might be a time soon where all you could access are big-named websites like Apple or Microsoft for technology, Facebook and Twitter and Tik Tok for social media, and Amazon and Walmart for shopping. If you think about it, Tim Wu was right. Limiting other companies’ chance to make a splash to a larger audience just because they did not have enough money to be put in the fast lane, to have their content prioritized.

While watching Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, I noticed how Minhaj begins by admitting to the fact that the internet is addictive, rolling through a series of clips of news commentators claiming that it is the digital heroin of our age. He then calls out how the internet is something that we take for granted, despite there being millions of Americans with no access to it.

Hasan Minhaj: “The Internet is an essential utility. It’s like electricity of water”

Minhaj then pans over to a news story about Coachella Valley in California, where routers were placed on buses and parked in spots with no connectivity. Due to that, the graduation rate went up by 8%, helping more students get “on the road to success.” This comes with the fact that about 3,000,000 (three million) students, about 17 percent of all U.S. students, don’t have access to the internet at home.

The United Nations also declared internet access as a human right back in 2011, by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. With 2/3 of Syria’s internet being cut at the time, the United Nations also declared that disconnecting people from the internet is also a violation of international law, which just goes to show how important internet access is in the world in this day and age. And as of October of 2019, there were about 4.48 billion active internet users in the world, about 58 percent of the global population.

Overall, with the restriction of internet access in the world, and more specifically in the United States, we must understand the implications restricted internet access has on the amount and type of information available. Although we might take our internet access for granted, we must be aware that allowing these companies to have limited regulations on what content to prioritize, restricting access to other sites would prevent equal access to information, a violation of our human rights. Therefore, while it may be that the future seems bleak, we have a responsibility to petition and encourage our elected officials to expand broadband access and to regulate the companies that provide users with that internet.

A futuristic view of a cityline.
How The Death of Net Neutrality Could Be the Death of Blockchain. Source: medium.com, Creative Commons

The Power of Animations through Pixar

a picture of a praxinoscope
Praxinoscope. Source: joegoaukiffi3, Creative Commons

The beginning

Many of you have grown up watching animated films. They have a special place in our hearts and often cause us to reminisce on our childhood. Animated films have been around for hundreds of years, dating back to 1877 when the praxinoscope was invented. This device would allow you to see an animation by having pictures in a moving wheel. Thus, it would seem as if the pictures are moving due to a slightly different frame. Animations are not necessarily a genre, but instead a film technique. It becomes complicated when trying to determine when the first color animation came out since many films have been lost, although people presume it was around the 1920s. Shortly after, in 1928, Disney developed Mortimer Mouse, which turned into the iconic Mickey Mouse we all know.

Pixar

Pixar is a well-known company that produces numerous animations and is a branch of the Walt Disney Company. Pixar creates an environment where individuals can work together creatively. In fact, they have a meeting every couple of months called Braintrust, which is where employees can discuss ideas, progress, and struggles with their movies, stressing the importance of honesty. This ensures an environment where people can be flexible in their creativity.

“Creative culture can be created when you find people that are willing to level with you and make you grow. Once you see them, hold them close. – Eugene Eşanu

The first short film that Pixar Animation Studios produced was in 1986 and was called Luxo Jr. Due to the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), it was ahead of its time. What took people by surprise was how the objects could shed light and shadows on themselves, depicting three-dimensional imagery as more alive and realistic. Furthermore, this short film was able to connect to the audience through “emotional realism”, which is where animated characters portray feelings and emotions that resemble human experiences, so we the audience can relate. It was innovative, not just for Pixar but the entire industry. Luxo Jr. went on to win Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and inspired the creation of many other films such as Toy Story and Cars. As a result, Luxo Jr. was chosen to be preserved at the National Film Registry due to its “cultural, historical and aesthetical significance”. Without this film, who knows where the animation industry would be today.

a picture of Woody from Toy Story in the driver's seat
Pixar Motorama 2009. Source: Ben Ramirez, Creative Commons

Pixar Addresses Diversity

Becoming a director, in general, can be difficult. It becomes more complicated when you are a woman or person of color, especially in animation. During the span of seven years, only one major animation, across several companies such as Disney and Dreamworks, was directed by a woman (Jennifer Yuh Nelson directed Kung Fu Panda in 2011). In fact, Women in Animation found that “60% of all animation and art-school students are women, yet only 20% of creative jobs in the industry are currently held by women”. In order to address the inequality towards women and people of color, Pixar decided to launch a new program called SparkShorts.

This new program encompasses a series of short animated films that are meant to create more leadership opportunities for women and people of color.

Three of SparkShort’s films were released in February through YouTube with two of the directors being women:

  • The first SparkShort was called Purl and focuses on a pink ball of yarn who feels out of place amidst the humans. The film shows what it feels like for a woman, Purl, to be working in a predominantly male office. The reviews were stellar. Instead of focusing on the quality of the animation (which was excellent in its own right), compared to previous films, people are focusing on the narrative of the story.
  • The second film, Kitbull, sets the scene for an abused Pitbull becoming friends with a stray kitten, hence the name of the film. It sends a powerful message of love, corruption, and friendship. It brings about the controversial topic, the No Kill Movement that advocates for stopping the killing of healthy and treatable animals due to convenience.
  • The third released film, Smash and Grab, tells the story of two robots by the same names who are best friends. Smash’s job is to break rocks and to pass them to Grab who throws it into a furnace. Their routine is the same every day, with an occasional break for playing catch with the rocks. However, the robots cannot leave because they are restrained by a long cable but Smash notices that there is a world where robots could be free and together they decide to escape. This film is unique in that it does not contain any dialogue. However, the theme of friendship is clear.

What Lies Ahead

The films do not end there. In the upcoming year, three more are expected to be released. The first film, Wind, will be directed by a Korean American director, Edwin Chang. The genre is magical realism film about a grandmother and her grandson. The second film will be the first of its kind to have Pinoy characters. Bobby Rubio is the director of Float, a story about a father protecting his son. The third film, Loop, will be directed by Erica Milsom, which will portray a non-verbal autistic girl. These films pave the way for future films by creating narratives that touch on the representation of all people and is not afraid to shed light on stigmatized topics. Furthermore, it creates discussions on the characters and their representation, fatherhood and masculinity, and people with disabilities. The films are not afraid to portray the difficult issues that affect people worldwide. This is just the beginning; these short films can change the industry and people’s perspectives on important topics.

Why it matters

In reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all humans have equal rights. It is not dependent on one’s gender, race, or religion. People have the right to work without experiencing discrimination and the film industry has a past at doing this. When underrepresented people see themselves in film it creates a chain reaction. Films have the power to shape how audiences perceive the world and it has the potential to instill empathy by breaking through barriers such as race, geography, and gender. Pixar is breaking the typical standards of the animation industry. In fact, their ideas are breaking the mold for people; it has the ability to normalize commonly stigmatized topics. It can lead us to the idea of inclusivity. I leave you with one final message, “To infinity … and beyond.”

 

The Power of Technology

Movies such as Blade Runner, IRobot, or the Matrix portray a futuristic ambiance in regard to artificial intelligence overpowering humanity. At first glance, these movies can seem unrealistic and a bit absurd. However, in recent years, it appears to be less ridiculous as it hints at a bit of truth. There is no doubt that technology has advanced at a rapid speed in the last ten years. As each year passes, it seems there is a new device or software that can somehow make your life easier. Technology is used in every aspect of our life – from our homes to our work to the stores we visit. Often times, it can seem inescapable. If you turn your attention to your surroundings, you are likely to see people on their phones or computers – whether they are searching the Internet, looking through Instagram, or sending a text.

It is alarming to consider how technology affects every aspect of our lives. It even influences human rights such as the right to privacy or freedom of expression. There are numerous concerns that people have about the role and impact of artificial intelligence. People are concerned about the rise of “machine autonomy” and how gradually it can diminish “the status of humans”. Furthermore, there are concerns on the use of artificial intelligence in terms of “unjust and unequal political, military, economic and social contexts.”

For example, the U.S. seems to be moving towards an artificial arms race by using, killer robots, or lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). People concerned about giving these killer robots the power to decide whether someone lives or dies with little to no human control. Google created a military program called Project Maven, where a machine is used to analyze the drone surveillance footage which can be used for extrajudicial killings, meaning people could be killed without any legal processing. There have been aimed at Google urging them to reconsider what the data is used for. Google has since then declined to renew their contract.

Google is not the only company that has dealt with controversy in terms of technology and how it affects people’s human rights. A data firm by the name of Cambridge Analytica was caught using data from Facebook in order to build voter profiles. Employees acquired private Facebook data of millions of users, then they sold the information to political campaigns.

Freedom of Expression. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Another rising controversy with technology is how artificial intelligence (AI) systems have fostered “discriminatory practices”. The University of Cambridge published a study on the Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence which details how “terrorists, criminals, and rogue states could potentially use AI’s with an intent to harm people. It foreshadows an increase in cybercrime, misuse of drones and manipulation of elections. While the report is seen as a warning, it provides a series of recommendations: policy-makers and technical researchers working together, being mindful and proactive about the possibility of AI misuse, and expanding the stakeholders in regards to preventing and reducing the risk of malicious use of AI. The goal of their report was to grab the attention of governments, organizations, and individuals. However, we need more than a call-to-action such as effective and enforceable legislative control. We cannot deny the entanglement between our everyday lives and technology and must confront the difficulty in deciding where to draw the line between beneficial and malicious use of technology.

A  Rwanda’s Minister for Justice and Attorney General, Johnston Busingye about the country-wide DNA database. In order to make this proposal work, scientists will collect DNA samples from all 12 million citizens in Rwanda, giving them access to personal medical and genetic information. Their reasoning for implementing this program is to decrease the number of crimes. There has been backlash from human rights campaigners because they believe the data could be misused by the government and violate international human rights laws. However, Busingye made a statement assuring the people that their end goal, using the data to determine who is responsible for the crimes, is genuine. The proposal has still not officially been approved but are waiting for the budget and the proper legislation to be passed in order to make it legal.

Rwanda is not alone in attempting to create a mandated DNA program whereas countries, such as China and Kuwait, have already set this program in motion.. People are concerned about how  Muslim Uighur minority. Researchers believe the Uighur minority is “systematical detained in re-education camps”. In response, China denies all these claims. Similarly, four years ago, Kuwait passed a law that required their citizens and visitors to give their DNA samples; however, the law was revoked because it violated articles 30 and 31 of Kuwait’s Constitution in regards to personal liberty and privacy.

Human Rights China. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

As the debate for technology and AI continues, the Human Rights Watch aims to ban developing and using these killer robots. However this technology is nothing new – the focus is on how, when, and why individuals should or should not use them. Furthermore, the question of human intervention arises. While using DNA collection in certain circumstances, such as finding criminals, can be beneficial, there poses a question of how people use the date and if it infringes on our human rights. The numerous databases worldwide have no common structure among themselves. Thus, there are concerns on how countries obtain the data and whom they share the information with. The DNA database can trace anyone through “biological tagging”, even those who innocent or have no relation in regards to the crime in question. Other possible challenges could include how the information is kept and used. For example, when determining whether or not an individual is a good fit for a job the hiring company could access the data and that affects the individual’s rights. Furthermore, the data could be used by criminal organizations. Both killer robots and DNA collection have benefits such as solving more crimes and military advances; however, it ultimately challenges the principle of privacy.