Breathing Lessons: Disability Rights in the Wake of COVID-19

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has provoked an unprecedented reality for much of the global population by streamlining widespread bureaucratic frustration, health anxiety, and social distancing. Most people know that older adults and people with underlying health conditions are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, although many people fall under both these categories and identify with a disability. Also, due to the limited resources available to treat people with COVID-19, concerns have emerged about who receives what type of care. This would force health providers with the grim task of dictating whose lives are worth saving. This blog addresses concerns about rationing care amid the influx of COVID-19 patients and how this might affect the largest minority group in the United States (26%) and world (15%), people with disabilities.

Word Health Organization suggests COVID-19 is particularly threatening to people with disabilities for a list of reasons: (1) barriers to implementing proper hygienic measures, (2) difficulty in social distancing, (3) the need to touch things for physical support (e.g. assistance devices; railings), (4) barriers to accessing public health information, and (5) the potential exacerbation of existing health issues. These issues add insult to injury because, even without COVID-19, people with disabilities by-and-large receive inadequate access to health care services. This is largely due to the competitive nature of health systems which value profit maximization and, thus, disadvantage people with disabilities as consumers in the health care market.

Recently, select states and hospitals have issued guidelines for health providers that would potentially deny people with disabilities treatment for COVID-19. Two entities, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and Washington State Department of Public Health (WSDPH), have recently come under scrutiny because of their efforts to fulfill such guidelines.

ADPH’s Emergency Operations Plan suggests that ventilator support would be denied to patients with “severe of profound mental retardation”, “moderate to severe dementia”, and “severe traumatic brain injury”. This controversial protocol has recently grabbed the attention of Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and The Arc thus leading to a complaint with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding discrimination toward people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

With Washington notoriously being one of the first COVID-19 hotspots, WSDPH and the University of Washington Medical Center have come under fire for their plans to develop a protocol that would allow health providers to access a patient’s age, health status, and chances of survival to determine treatment and comfort care. These efforts have been confronted by Disabilities Rights Washington with their own complaint to OCR that declares any medical plan that discriminates against people with disabilities effectively violates the their rights and is, therefore, unlawful.

OCR swiftly responded to these concerns, as well as those from Kansas and Tennessee, by stating that, even in the case of pandemics, hospitals and doctors cannot undermine the care of people with disabilities and older adults. OCR Director Roger Severino exclaimed, “We’re concerned that crisis standards of care may start relying on value judgments as to the relative worth of one human being versus another, based on the presence or absence of disability,” and “…that stereotypes about what life is like living with a disability can be improperly used to exclude people from needed care.”

Also, with New York currently having most of the U.S.’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, they may very well be the first state to face the imbalance of available ventilators and patient demand. Disability advocates have recently decried verbiage in New York’s Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act that could provide immunity from civil rights for some patients. Thus, U.S. state and federal powers are playing tug-of-war with the status of disability rights during the COVID-19 crisis.

Not Today #COVID19 Sign Resting on a Wooden Stool.
Not Today COVID-19 Sign on Wooden Stool. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons.

However, these concerns are not limited to the U.S. In the developing world, many people with disabilities are segregated from their communities in overcrowded facilities, while thousands of others are shackled and incarcerated. This weak enforcement of disability rights positions people with disabilities, in countries such as Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Russia, at-risk of further inhumane treatment by receiving limited or no appropriate care related to COVID-19. As a result, Human Rights Watch urges state and local authorities to return these populations to their families and demand they provide needed support and services within their communities.

Nearly every country in the world has ratified the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which aims to fulfill the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people with disabilities. More specifically, Article 25 of CRPD suggests people with disabilities have the right to non-discriminatory health care and population-based public health programs. Thus, nearly every person with a disability around the globe is associated with a governmental power that claims to be dedicated to fulfilling the promise of CRPD. However, in the wake of COVID-19, will these words be put into action?

These unprecedented events are a turning point for how we view our bodies, health, and communities. This is also an opportunity to view the world through the perspective of those in your community such as people with disabilities who represent an array of impairments, challenges, and experiences. Despite boredom and apathy being at the forefront of many people’s isolation, images of life versus death surround others, and for a good reason. In these decisive weeks, and likely months, there has never been a greater time for people in the U.S. and abroad to acknowledge that disability rights are human rights.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

MAUNAKEA & THE FIGHT TO PROTECT SACRED LAND

Image of Mauna Kea protectors blocking the road
TMT blockade on Mauna Kea. Source: Occupy Hilo, Creative Commons/Flickr

A $1.4bn observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is slated to be built on Maunakea, a mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island, this year. This telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and would provide images more than 10x sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing astronomers to explore even deeper into space. Yet, while the construction of a new telescope on a tall mountain might seem like a neutral endeavor, it is rife with issues of justice.

The construction of TMT was initially stopped in 2015 when Native Hawaiians and allies blocked the road to construction crews for months until the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court officially stopped construction that December. Then in 2019, developers were given the go-ahead to once again begin construction. In response, protesters (or as they prefer to be called protectors) turned out to block the road, with the protest coming to a head in July, when 38 kūpuna (revered elders) were arrested and Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more control over the area and allowed them to bring in National Guard troops. However, the protectors did not back down and have been camped at the road ever since.

In December, protectors at the Mauna Kea Access Road removed barricades and shifted their camps to the side of the road for the first time, opening the access road to all traffic except construction equipment as part of a deal with Mayor Kim. In return, the Mayor promised, “that no attempt will be made to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain for a minimum of two months.” Protectors hope this time can be used to influence decisionmaking in other arenas. While this update does look promising, in January the trial for the first group of protectors arrested began and has so far highlighted the opposing viewpoints of this protest. According to Deputy Attorney General Darrell Wong “These defendants may have characterized their actions as kapu aloha and peaceful, but nonetheless it involved a plan, an organized plan, something that was calculated and basically something that was unjustified.” Yet the protectors and their attorney view their actions as a response to the government blocking the activists from practicing their religion and culture, which is protected under the law.

Sacred Land

Picture of Mauna Kea in Hawaii
Mauna Kea Hawaii. Source: Eric Tessmer, Creative Commons/Flickr

The protectors are not anti-science, as some TMT supporters have claimed. They are not opposed to the scientific advancements brought by such a telescope but they are opposed to its chosen location. Maunakea is a sacred mountain that is said to connect native Hawaiians to the cosmos. According to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, the mountain is the dwelling place of the goddess Poli’ahu, it is associated with the Hawaiian deities Lilinoe and Waiau, and the summit is considered the realm of the gods.

The construction of TMT would negatively impact the sacred land and the telescope would increase activities on the mountain, further degrading the environment. The mountain top is already home to 13 other telescopes and since multiple alternative sites were found by the board of directors behind TMT to be “excellent for carrying out the core science” of the observatory, it at first seems off that TMT supporters seem so committed to this location. However, if we take a step back to look at the issue it is easy to see the link between this current protest and the history of ill-treatment to native Hawaiians and the continued desecration of their native lands.

A Brief History of US Interference in Hawaii

The history of Hawaii was absent from all of my education. It had always been just the 50th state and an island vacation spot until I lived in American Samoa and decided to learn more about the history of US intervention in Polynesia. It was then that I learned about the fraught history of Hawaii, a history that I honestly should have known and could have at least guessed at if I had taken a moment to. Just as North America was colonized, so too was Hawaii and many continue to consider the island to be occupied by the US.

In 1887, King David Kalakaua was forced, at gunpoint, to sign a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the monarch of the majority of his authority. The new constitution had been written by a group of white businessmen, many of whom were connected to the sugar and pineapple plantations on the island, who wanted the Kingdom to become part of the US. When the King died, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him and attempted to restore power to the monarchy. This action angered the same white businessmen and they formed a 13-member Committee of Safety which forced Queen Lili’uokalani to abdicate her throne. The Committee then proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Hawaii.

President Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the Provisional Government, but before it could be ratified, President Cleveland was elected and the treaty was withdrawn. President Cleveland also appointed a special investigator to investigate the events in Hawaii, who found that there had been a coup. He then ordered Queen Lili’uokalani to be restored to power, but the Provisional Government refused and declared Hawaii a republic in 1894. Soon after the US government officially recognized it as a republic. In 1895, Native Hawaiians staged mass protests and eventually took up arms to stop the annexation, but the protest was suppressed and the leaders, along with Queen Lili’uokalani, were jailed. In 1898, Congress passed the “Newlands Resolution” officially annexing Hawaii and, in 1959, it became the 50th state.

For decades, the use of the Hawaiian language was punished, Native culture was suppressed and a large military presence was maintained on the islands. Many Native Hawaiians remember these US policies explicitly designed to suppress traditional Native Hawaiian religious and cultural practices, and while no longer explicit, native culture is still being infringed upon.

Religious Protections?

Theoretically, sacred land disputes should not exist because of existing protections of religion in the US. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right for people to practice their own religion, with the first clause providing that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion and the second prohibiting Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion”. Since sacred lands are part of the “religious” practices of many Native Americans they should be protected. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the courts. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a group of Native Americans from the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes objected to proposed road construction within the Six Rivers National Forest because it would destroy land that they held sacred. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts all agreed that the activity would indeed violate their religious needs, yet the Supreme Court ruled against them. The Court ruled that in this case, while the activity would adversely affect their religion and destroy the sacred location, the government was not prohibiting the practice of their religion and therefore construction could continue (Bowman, 1989).

The establishment clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting government endorsement of religions, has also proven detrimental to the fight for the protection of sacred lands. According to the Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, government actions must be secular in nature, or at least neutral, and must avoid “excessive entanglement in religion”. In practice, this has resulted in the protection of sacred lands by the government being ruled unconstitutional. Based on this decision, courts found that the National Parks Service’s 1995 Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) for Devil’s Tower National Monument violated the establishment clause because it placed a mandatory ban on climbing during June out of respect for local tribal religious practices (Bonham, 2002). In response, the ban was changed to a voluntary one and the case was dismissed, however, some in the climbing community still oppose the ban in any form arguing that they have a right to climb the Tower. While this might appear at least as a partial win for the tribes, what it illustrates is that protecting native sacred land sites is considered a governmental endorsement of religion by the courts and would, therefore, violate the establishment clause.

In short, the courts have continuously failed to protect sacred lands and to adequately protect the practice of indigenous belief systems and cultural practices. A point to think about in light of this failure is that the US Constitution and legal system are not culturally neutral. It is rooted in European legal traditions and Christain morality and theology. Just as culture shapes how individuals see the world, it also shapes how the legal system sees the world and responds to disputes. The Anglo-American legal tradition is capable of recognizing the “sacred” when it takes the form of a church structure, a sermon or a piece of art; but a mountain, a lake, a river? These places are empty until people make their mark. Therefore these sacred land disputes are not merely conflicts between individual rights and government or corporate power but are conflicts between different cultures and different ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Final Thoughts

In the case of Mauna Kea, the mountain is holy and an integral element of native Hawaiian religion and culture, a culture that the US systematically tried to wipe out. The land in and of itself is sacred and deeply connected to the people and that should be respected. While the building of a telescope may seem neutral, it is not. It is the destruction and desecration of the mountain and cannot be separated from the history of colonization and occupation of the island. In the end, no telescope is worth dehumanizing others. Mauna Kea shows that science does not happen in a vacuum. It must critically examine who is benefitting from the information and at what cost.

As Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders, put it, “For Native Hawaiians, there is a question of our right to self-determination as defined by international law, but I think it’s so much bigger than that,” said Pisciotta. “It’s about us learning to live and be interdependent.”

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

On Thursday, January 23rd, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Sparkman Center for Global Health to present Nelson Ole Reiya (CEO/Founder) and Maggy Reiya (Education and Gender Coordinator) of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. During their lecture and discussion with the audience, they addressed their remarkable mission to protect wildlife, preserve culture, and reverse poverty within their community in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nelson began with the admission that, amid farming and development efforts in the region, a group of Maasai elders convened under a tree and decided to start a conservancy. In response, Nashulai began in 2015 after a meeting with landowners resulted in the leasing of their land for conservation.

Most Maasai face severe poverty by living on less than one dollar a day, while girls and women are particularly vulnerable. More specifically, many girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is to prepare them for marriage. Additionally, young women who menstruate without pads are prevented from attending school. In addition to these social issues, because 68% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of parks and reserves, the country has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife over the past thirty years. These social and ecological issues demonstrate the need for a ground-up approach that advocates for the Maasai’s people, wildlife, and environment, hence Nashulai.

This is a picture from the event with the speakers facing the attentive audience.
Nelson Ole speaking to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Nashulai means, “a place that unites all of use people, wildlife, and livestock in common hope for a better world, today and in the future”. Nashulai offers an array of social projects that benefit the Maasai community. Among those projects are: 1.) Nashulai Academy – subsidized education for adolescent girls and a safe house for girls avoiding FGM and early marriage, 2.) Community Water Project –  clean water retrieval system from the spring which reduces the distance to fetch water and incidences of waterborne diseases, 3.) Tourism for Social Change – two safari camps where many proceeds support community projects, 4.) Sekenani River Restoration Project – rejuvenation of the main river that support the Maasai community, 5.) Nashulai Cultural Training Centre – knowledge center to preserve indigenous practices of the Maasai, and 6.) Cattle Breeding Project – ecologically sustainable project to support the Boran and Zebu herds of the region, and 7.) Stories Café – upcoming facility where Maasai elders can manage and pass on local culture to the youth.

This is a picture from the event with an audience member asking the speakers a question.
Audience member engaging with the Reiyas. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Particularly within these remarkable endeavors are the Women Empowerment Projects which address anti-FGM, creating lady pads, education, an ambulance for expecting mothers, soap making, and a drama theater club. These efforts highlight the human rights fundamentals to support the education and autonomy of girls and women. Additionally, Nashulai’s ecological efforts demonstrate the need to protect vulnerable environments that threatened by habitat destruction and wildlife depopulation. In sum, Nashulai’s community-based conservation model conveys the importance of ground-up human rights approaches that reject external influence and place community first.

If you would like to support Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, please follow this link.

PRISONERS NEED ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE TOO!

Image of US flag behind barbed wire
Incarcerated America. Source: Pixabay

With the release of the film Just Mercy, which recounts Bryan Stevenson’s experience challenging death row convictions in Alabama and creating the Equal Justice Initiative, the criminal justice system is once again in the news and the topic of the death penalty is being debated. First off, everyone should see the film. Until we do away with the death penalty it is necessary that we confront the realities of it in as many ways as possible. The work that Stevenson is doing is beyond admirable, and unfortunately is still needed, yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about this debate. Partly because it seems so obvious to me that the death penalty should not exist, partly because I have little faith in the current federal administration or the state government to address this, and partly because we have been having this debate about the death penalty my entire life. So I fought that initial feeling and began to think about how I could incorporate criminal justice into my own work on environmental justice and human rights.

Prisoners = Environmental Justice Communities

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies”. In other words, no community should disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental ills, such as pollution, yet in reality, minority and low-income neighborhoods are the ones to bear the brunt. Just as race-based and class-based disparities exist in the experience of environmental ills, they also exist in the criminal justice system and are both the result of broader injustices, such as colonization and white supremacy. African Americans make up 40% of the prison population while representing only 13% of the American population, and Latinos make up 20% of prisons, but only 15% of the population. Low-income populations also have higher rates of incarceration then more others.

Although they are not often included in conversations about environmental justice, the US prison population mirrors other environmental justice communities in many ways especially in regards to discrimination, lack of political representation, lack of access to social services and economic marginalization. Minority and low-income individuals are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore are disproportionately affected by inadequate prison conditions. Inmates in the US are further at risk due to their reliance on the state for protection and provision of basic needs, all while dealing with the chronic stress of prison life and lack of adequate health resources. Yet, despite this, the US continues to fail to recognize prison populations as environmental justice communities.

Unjust Prison Conditions

There are currently about 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the US, including those who are awaiting trial, and all of those lives are affected by the inadequate prison conditions plaguing the US.

Pie Chart of US Incarceration
How Many People Are Locked Up in the United States?.
Source: Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer (2018) Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org

Prison conditions throughout the country have been so inadequate that courts have ruled that they violate the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Many of these conditions are the result of environmental ills such as excessive heat or cold, exposure to asbestos, lack of drinkable water and exposure to toxic elements. Yet, while some cases have been won no national changes have been made and environmental injustice continues.

  • Graph of Medical Conditions in Texas State Prisons
    Some Medical Conditions Make People Especially Vulnerable to High Temperatures.
    Source: Alexi Jones (2019) Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison, www.prisonpolicy.org
    • In February, inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY were stuck in freezing cells for a week as the temperature dropped to below freezing and heating became almost nonexistent.
    • Prisons also fail to adequately prepare for extreme weather events. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 over 8,000 inmates were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison. Despite the mandatory evacuation, prisoners were forced to remain for several days in flooded cells, with a limited supply of food and drinking water and lack of basic sanitation. Similarly, prisoners were not evacuated from flood zones in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.
    • Both prisons and toxic sites are considered undesirable land use and therefore they are often placed in the same area with little to no regard for the health of inmates. 589 of 1,821 federal and state prisons exist within three miles of a Superfund site, with 134 being within one mile. These sites commonly contain toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and can cause extensive damage to human health.

Unjust Working Conditions

Prisoners are also vulnerable to numerous environmental ills in their work environments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime” and under this ruling prisoners can be forced to work for no pay. Courts have also ruled that inmates do not have the right to refuse work and can be placed in disciplinary confinement for refusal. While only some states have refused any payment, most inmates make less than a dollar an hour. In addition, inmates are not protected by workplace health and safety regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because they are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In other words, there is no outside agency to hold prisons accountable for occupational safety, unless it is so extreme that is constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Many work assignments deal with extremely toxic materials, such as e-waste and asbestos abatement, or inherently hazardous practices, such as firefighting, with little regard being given to inmate health.

Prison firefighters have received some attention of late due to the recent wildfires in California, with much of it focusing on the fact that they are poorly paid for such work and often cannot become firefighters after they are released. Another important aspect to examine is the physical toll firefighting takes. Inmates are eight times more likely to be injured while fighting fires than civilian firefighters, and the American Lung Association has warned of the negative health effects from continued exposure to particle pollution and carbon monoxide within forest fire smoke, among other hazardous air pollutants.

Responsibility of the State

Prisoners represent an incredibly vulnerable population, as they are completely reliant on the state, and therefore the state has a responsibility to protect prisoners from serious harm. The American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Declaration of Principles even recognizes the principle of ‘‘humanity’’ as being essential and states that ‘‘the dignity of individuals, the rights of all people and the potential for human growth and development must be respected’’. This is because people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The punishment for the crime is the length of incarceration.

Unsurprisingly, the stated principles of the ACA do not always manifest in reality. One such example took place in Louisiana. In 2016 the state made headlines when it was revealed that it spent more than $1 million of public funds on legal fees in an effort to defend its refusal to install air conditioning on death row at Angola prison. The cost to install the air conditioning and operate it would have been $225,000. The state has a responsibility to protect those in its care and it is failing to do so.

Why Bother?

Many may question why we should care about prisoners when many other communities are dealing with similar environmental injustices. Others may say that they should have thought about these things before they did the crimes and that prison is not supposed to be “easy”.

My response would be to watch Just Mercy and critically examine the “justness” of the criminal justice system. To borrow a quote from Professor Nick Hardwick, “If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too”.

Disclaimer: This article is not an endorsement of the concept that incarceration is a necessary evil nor is it a dismissal of the fact that an end to mass incarceration is the most effective way to address the injustices examined in this article.

An Argument for Decriminalizing Sex Work

Abstract of a red light
Abstract at a Red Light. James Loesch. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Different human rights groups support or have called for the decriminalization of sex work. Some of which include Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and Anti-Slavery International.

Picking on one, the Human Rights Watch supports the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in support and defense of human rights relating to personal autonomy and privacy as, “A government should not be telling consenting adults whom they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.” Joining 61 other organizations, they recently advocated for a bill that would decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC. This Community Safety and Health Amendment Act intends to repeal statutes that criminalize adults who voluntarily and consensually engage in sexual exchange, while it upholds and defends the legislature which prohibits sex trafficking. The HRW affirms that adult consensual sexual activity may be covered by the concept of privacy, rejecting the idea that criminalization was a protective measure against HIV and STIs, and conveying that it was more likely to drive a vulnerable population underground.

However, the demands of these organizations and supporters of sex workers have surfaced controversy around sexuality, health, economics, and morality. Often the idea of sex work may be tied to or conflated with sex trafficking, child sex abuse, and rape. Open Society Foundation simply defines sex workers as “adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.” Sex work encompasses a wide range of professions and activities which include the trade of some form of sexual activity, performance, or service for a client to a number of fans for some kind of payment (including prostitution, pornography, stripping, and other forms of commercial sex). It is clearly separated from those services that utilize “the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation”. Decriminalizing sex work would call for the “removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers’ health and safety.” Amnesty International expands on these definitions in this report.

Many members of society view sex work as immoral or degrading to women, arguing that sex work is inherently exploitative of women, even if these workers find it profitable or empowering- even simply as the power to creatively express one’s sexuality. When we think of sex workers, we tend to assume they were forced into it or assume a desperate narrative with no other options. Then, maybe, we judge their appearance while tying it to their worth or a fantasized idea of sex workers opposed to the ordinariness we associate with other professions and community members. A simple argument says that, like any profession, there are extremely different motivations to pursue these professions and, in the end, it’s a job or choice of work with its own pros and cons for each lifestyle (affording many lifestyles). Also, anyone and any personality can be a sex worker.

People enter and remain in this work for a multitude of reasons creating each individual experience of sex work; however, many face the same response and abuse in the workplace or trade. Owning to the stigma associated with the profession, not many can come out and say they are a sex worker. They must fight to be recognized beyond the stigma or continue to repress or hide their daily lives from their community or society. Sex workers report extreme violence and harassment from clients, managers, police and society and even more cannot report these violences, facing incrimination or even incarceration. Ironically, laws on sex work undermine governments’ own efforts to reduce high rates of violence against women and reduce rates of HIV infection in sex worker populations.

Repressive policing not only further marginalizes sex workers as a whole, but it also reinforces what it promises to remove as it exposes sex workers to different abuses and exploitation by police or law enforcement officials who may arrest, harass, physically or verbally abuse, extort bribes and sexual services, or deny protection to sex workers avoiding the eyes of the law. Some sex work may be illegal because it is viewed as immoral and degrading, but people governed by these laws do not share the same moral beliefs. As police fail to act on sex workers’ reports of crimes, or blame and arrest sex workers themselves, offenders may operate with impunity while sex workers are discouraged from reporting to the police in the future. Then there is the financial toll of criminalization as repeating fines or arrests push some further into poverty. People may be forced to keep selling sex as potential employers will not hire those with a criminal record. Also, if the need for money found some sex workers in the streets, how will fines deter the work?

The work entails forming relationships with a wide range of clients at different levels of intimacy. Unfortunately, sex work offers comfort to predators, or those who mean harm, who also understand and exploit the workers paralleling relationship with police. Working in isolation, workers’ lives are threatened as they avoid the police and are denied these protections in their workplace and, off the hook, predators continue to harm more even those outside of the sex trade. Facing arrest or prosecution themselves, any client may protect themselves from blocked numbers leaving workers in the dark with no evidence of whom they are dealing with, surrendering that safety. Some laws advocate helping sex workers by removing the option of work as it criminalizes only those who buy sex. Now, to incentivize clients and income, workers may be forced to drop prices, offer more risky services, or reach out to potentially abusive third-party management.

Woman holding poster reaing "Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces"
Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces. Fibonacci Blue. Creative Commons for Flckr.

Decriminalizing and regulating the work of sex workers would allow them the right to choose their clients and negotiating power or power to cease the service when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Criminalization, or the threat of it, complicates and weakens workers’ power to negotiate terms with their clients or collaborate with others for safety. So, for example, it may increase the chance for workers to engage in sex with clients without a condom (which may be used as evidence of the crime). Although variable in different contexts, in low and middle-income countries on average, sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV, compared to women of reproductive age (age 15 to 49), so their ability to negotiate condom use is important.

According to a study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing had a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence by anyone, including clients and partners. They were also twice as likely to have Sexual Transmitted Infections than those who avoided repressive policing.

In order to be protected from exploitation by third party managers and dangerous clients, to be informed on sexual transmitted infection and other health concerns or vulnerabilities, to be able to unionize and self-manage, and to be able to reach out to law enforcement, sex work should be regulated by the same occupational safety and health regulations that benefit workers in other labor industries. Dedicated efforts must consider the elevated or unique risks, vulnerabilities, and intersectional stigmas surrounding different sex workers, including men, transgender, and other gender identities and portions to improve health outcomes and human rights. Wider political actions are needed to address inequalities, stigma, and exclusion or marginalization that sex workers face even past the criminal justice system to health, housing, employment, education, domestic abuses, etc.

We are faced with opposing or contradictory narratives of the sex work experience, but we have chosen some to represent the entire concept especially those tailored to our own feelings of sex and commerce without concern or consideration of those even more immediately affected. The conversation of sex work needs to open up to understand and share the message to all that the labor itself is the commodity, not the laborer and it requires workers more considerate rights and regulations. If sex work is legally accepted with due rights and respect, it can become something that benefits- even especially vulnerable or marginalized- women and humanity.

What sex workers need is not condescension and invasion into their private lives, but support in achieving decent working conditions.”

Additional Sources:

Open Society Foundations

Vox

 

 

 

Juvenile Justice Reform Helps Kids Be Kids

by Pamela Zuber

A pair of young hands gripping a prison fence
Source: Pixabay

While people in many places in the United States and around the world are experiencing human rights violations, the news is not entirely bleak. There are also positive developments. One is in juvenile justice.

How has juvenile justice progressed?

On October 1, 2019, four U.S. states allowed people seventeen years old and under to be tried automatically as adults: Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Members of Michigan’s state House of Representatives and state Senate took steps to change that statistic. They passed legislation in October 2019 that would:

  • Define adults as people eighteen years old and older.
  • Place seventeen-year-olds in family court, not adult criminal court.
  • Assign alternatives such as counseling and monitoring instead of incarceration or help accused youth avoid traditional court procedures entirely.
  • Give prosecutors the option to try people under the age of seventeen as adults if they are accused of violent crimes such as murder or rape if they have court approval.
  • Prevent seventeen-year-olds from being incarcerated in the same facilities as adults.
  • Not apply to seventeen-year-olds who have been previously sentenced as adults.

Legislators previously had trouble reaching agreement on the Michigan bill because of a dispute over funding for juveniles in the state’s justice system. The state of Michigan and the state’s counties currently share such funding responsibilities, but under the 2019 bill, the state would fund the first few years of the new program. The funding arrangement could help ease financial burdens for counties struggling to fund programs relating to health and wellness, law enforcement, and other services.

Known as a raise the age bill, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer signed this bill, Senate Bill 84, into law on October 31, 2019. The provisions in the bill will take effect in 2021.

What are the advantages of charging people as juveniles?

A young man skating along a road on a skateboard
Source: Pixabay

Charging people who are seventeen years old or younger as juveniles instead of adults may produce many benefits. On a short-term basis, it may be safer if accused young people are housed with other young people instead of adults. Young people treated as adults may be incarcerated with people accused of or convicted of violent crimes. The safety of juveniles could be at stake.

Designating people as juveniles also may produce more long-term benefits. For one, it could save money. A 2011 report published by the Vera Institute of Justice stated that raising the age of adult prosecution from sixteen to eighteen could provide millions of dollars in benefits for youth, victims, and taxpayers in the state of North Carolina. Such changes could initially cost money because they would require changes to the youth justice system, but in the long run, they could save money by not engaging the adult justice system.

Proponents of prosecuting children as adults have said that this prosecution could scare youths straight. They claim it could prevent young people from committing serious crimes because they are frightened of the consequences. But studies have shown that such harsh penalties do not deter young people from committing serious crimes.

Judicial system changes may help reconcile what we’re learning about the biology of young people. “Researchers focused on brain development have found that 18- to 24-year-olds—also referred to as young adults — stand out as a distinct developmental group with heightened impulsive behavior, risk taking, and poor decision making,” wrote scholars at the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in 2015.

Teens’ impulsiveness, judgment problems, and desire to experiment may thus make them liable to try alcohol and drugs and engage in other dangerous practices. They could be using such substances to rebel against their parents and other caretakers. After they use drugs or alcohol, the substances may alter their still-developing brains, creating life-altering consequences. Similarly, teens who engage in illegal behavior may face legal consequences. If they’re tried as adults, they may spend years behind bars or face other repercussions that could haunt them for their entire lives.

Who else advocates for juvenile justice reform?

Michigan legislators aren’t the only people and organizations advocating for changes to the justice system for juveniles. Organizations such as the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) are working to stop the prosecution of children under the age of eighteen as adults and end youths’ incarceration in adult facilities. The CFYJ says that this advocacy is necessary. It claims that 95,000 U.S. children are housed in adult prisons and jails every year and that several states and the District of Columbia allow children as young as seven years old to be prosecuted as adults.

Efforts from the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) are also trying to change the juvenile justice system. Like the Campaign for Youth Justice, it wants to end the prosecution of children as adults. The JLC is also working to end harsh conditions and solitary confinement at juvenile correctional facilities. It seeks to stop sentencing youth to serve their entire lives in prison without parole and end economic practices such as fines and fees that keep poor children confined more than more affluent ones. In addition, it also wants prisons and jails to provide educational opportunities for youth that can help them build better lives that prevent them from committing additional crimes and re-entering the correctional system.

On the websites for both organizations, there are sections that allow people to donate to their causes. Both sites also offer updates to keep people informed. The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) site also allows people to share their stories and give testimonials. It provides instructions on how people can contribute to the organization’s initiatives.

Prosecuting teenagers as youths allows people to face the consequences of their actions, but it doesn’t condemn them to serving lifetimes in prison for minor crimes that they committed when they were still growing physically and mentally. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re young. Sensible justice sentencing for juveniles acknowledges mistakes and gives people the time and opportunity to learn from them.

 

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor interested in many topics, such as human rights, addiction and recovery, history, business, and science.

 

Cleaved and Clamored: The Crisis in Cameroon

On Tuesday, November 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative to present Herman Cohen (former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) and Dr. Fontem Neba  (Secretary General of Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium). During their panel discussion, Cohen and Neba discussed the history of Cameroon, ongoing Anglophone discrimination, and potential resolutions to end the conflict.

As one of the most prominent voices advocating for Anglophone rights, Dr. Neba spoke directly about the atrocities taking place in Cameroon because he was recently detained for nine months after being charged with terrorism. Followed by its establishment as a federation in 1961 and an illegal referendum in 1972 that unified the Francophone majority (~80%) in the north and Anglophone minority (~20%) in the south, Cameroon has endured significant conflict. With political power most harbored in the north, Anglophone Cameroonians have experienced pressure to assimilate and prevention to secede, which led to a civil war in 2016 that has been riddled with human rights violations. More specifically, the Cameroonian military has permeated the south with their influence by committing heinous acts such as destroying Anglophone schools, burning crops, and murdering separatists. As a result, these acts have led to famine, homelessness, and institutional instability throughout the south. Additionally, thousands have been jailed for speaking out against the Franchophone government, while approximately a half-million are internally displaced and another 40,000 have sought refuge in Nigeria.

Neba describing Cameroon’s geographic division. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen then spoke about the crisis in Cameroon by drawing parallels with Eritrea which Ethiopia turned  a province before it eventually became an independent country. Although, the international community has been passive about the events unfolding in Cameroon. One exception is none other than the Trump Administration, which signed an executive order last month that effectively removed Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a result, this action prevents Cameroon from profiting off duty free sales to the U.S. Additionally, south Cameroonians have found an Anglophone ally in Nigeria, making the prior impervious to defeat, while north Cameroonians have been increasingly critical of their government because they are not benefiting from the country’s strong economy. Thus, Cohen argues the U.S. is in the unique position to mediate a resolution. However, the Trump Administration has adopted an isolationist position, which currently places the U.S. distant from potential negotiations. Following, he suggested that the Cameroonian diaspora in U.S. should write letters to their local representatives and urge a cease-fire agreement.

After their presentations, Cohen and Neba took questions from an appalled audience. Addressing a question about the realistic options in our current political environment, Cohen insisted the United Nations Security Council must initiate negotiations and that it must be settled between warring factions; his personal suggestion is that they return to a federation relationship. Additionally, Cohen responded to a question that mentioned the role of former colonial powers, where he mentioned that Great Britain is currently distracted by Brexit, while France, despite reluctance from southern Cameroonians, is taking initiative to mediate the conflict. When asked how geopolitics, namely natural resources, influence this conflict, Neba claimed south Cameroon is rich in cocoa and timber as well as a fevered, educated populace. Although, he argued the region cannot become economically independent because their oil supply, which is on the border, is property of the government. In response, a passionate audience member, and Cameroon native, insisted south Cameroon, much like other small countries, can be independent without an oil industry.

Cohen answering an audience question. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen argued this crisis has potential to become a “Rwanda situation”, but, thankfully, a potential resolution doesn’t require money or soldiers. However, the current trajectory of this crisis primarily lays in the hands of Cameroon (who is persistent on military intimidation), Nigeria (who has enabled separatists in the south), and the U.S. (who has implemented economic sanctions). Thus, these conflicting narratives put human rights advocates in the position to highlight this pressing issue whether it be mentioning it on social media, writing to your local representative, or donating to humanitarian relief.

Under Pressure: How Court Debts Inform Racial and Wealth Inequality

On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.

Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.

They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth.  As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.

In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties  (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:

  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
  • 80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
  • Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
Alabama Appleseed presenting Under Pressure. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.

Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
  • Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
  • Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
  • Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
  • Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
  • Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
  • Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay

As demonstrated, Alabama’s criminal justice system is a harvest ground for racial and wealth inequality. However, addressing such concerns at the community-level is one way that you can participate in real change. You can do so by communicating with your local representative about overturning the “Three Strikes Law”, pressuring Regions Bank to divest from the private prison industry, and joining Alabama Appleseed to be informed about pending legislation.

Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.

From the Ashes to the Stage: Indigenous Culture in the Performing Arts

On Tuesday, October 29th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s College of Arts & Sciences and Department of Theatre to present indigenous actor, choreographer, director, and educator Michael Greyeyes. During his lecture and discussion with audience members, Greyeyes addressed issues such as the realities of being a stage performer, becoming a director, and indigenous representation in the media.

Greyeyes prefaced his lecture by acknowledging the original caretakers of the Birmingham area, namely the Chickasaw and Muscogee tribes. Following, Greyeyes began to mention a meeting he attended about “conflict”. He emphasized that conflict could elicit an array of emotions such as anger, frustration, and fear. However, he claimed that conflict is necessary, much like fire, because it burns away what is unnecessary.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, a province of West Canada, Greyeyes moved to Toronto as a young man to work for The National Ballet of Canada. During this time, the company was resurging from its own series of ashes by elevating new leadership and young dancers. After his 4-year apprenticeship that took him around the world and back, Greyeyes had residencies as a performer in New York City, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. “Ever the migrant”, he exclaimed.

In Los Angeles, consumed by a restless artistic interest, Greyeyes took up acting. However, as a person of indigenous heritage, he often found himself disillusioned by being typecasted into roles such as “Native doctor” or “Indian lawyer”. Greyeyes then chose to continue his “re-education” by pursuing a Master’s in Fine Arts at Kent State University. Following, he was asked to take on a new role in the performing arts as a director. As a result, Greyeyes has found himself in the position to refine what it means to be a director at his non-profit, Signal Theatre, where he spends considerable time on development and training performers. Thus, the end-product becomes an intimate performance that is suited to resonate better with its audience.

Greyeyes closed his lecture by alluding to our political landscape with the Talking Head’s lyric “Same as it ever was” and suggested that, in times such as this, artistic creativity has the opportunity to challenge new conflicts by rising old memories from the ashes and expressing what we hold dear.

Greyeyes engaging with an audience member. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

After his lecture, Greyeyes took questions and comments from the inspired audience. One person mentioned that conflict in their parent’s native land of Egypt raised parallels with what indigenous communities have endured through colonialism. Greyeyes responded by mentioning there are high numbers of indigenous soldiers in the armed forces and that he has even played this role on the big screen. Although, the families of these soldiers are the ones who must pick up the pieces. In response, Greyeyes created A Soldier’s Tale which is a passionate dance performance about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He stressed that when non-indigenous people “write us” into the script, their perceptions come out and it generally doesn’t sound right. Thus, he expressed his most acclaimed role by the indigenous community was his True Detective performance as a solider shattered by the Vietnam War. Although, this character was not written in the storyline as a “Native solider” rather an everyday veteran that was given an indigenous perspective by Greyeyes himself. From the ashes to the stage.