Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons and Jails

by James DeLano 

“I run the biggest mental hospital in the country.”

That was Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in 2005. He was referring to the fact that, in 2005, over 2,000 people in the county jail had been diagnosed with a mental illness. That has not changed. Nationwide, between 16% and 24% of incarcerated people have a severe mental illness. In the general population, 4% of people have these illnesses. Prisons are serving as replacements for psychiatric hospitals, but they are not changing to accommodate that.

In the 1840s, people with mental illnesses were generally imprisoned. That was due to the criminalization of many symptoms and a lack of societal acceptance. Although mental disability has not been a legitimate excuse for imprisonment, mental health problems are still significant in today’s prisons.

National Problems 

Nationally, estimates for the percentage of inmates with a severe mental illness range from 15% to 20%. As previously mentioned, the Los Angeles County Jail was described by its sheriff in 2005 as the largest mental hospital in the country. At the Cook County Jail in Illinois, about 1/3 of the incarcerated population has a mental illness. According to the mental healthcare supervisor at the Gwinett County Detention Center in Georgia, the closure of a nearby psychiatric hospital caused the number of mentally ill inmates to skyrocket. In Polk County, Florida, the jail has a mental health unit based on psychiatric hospitals and “immediately put[s] them back on medication because the vast majority of them – the overwhelming majority of them — have decompensated.” In the U.S. Virgin Islands, individuals who were found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity – that is, who committed a crime but were determined not to be culpable due to a mental illness – are kept in the general prison population rather than being hospitalized. For that reason, the U.S. Virgin Islands has been involved in a class-action lawsuit, Carty v. Mapp, since 1994, one which shows no signs of being resolved.

These situations are exacerbated by the criminalization of symptoms and coping mechanisms of people with mental illnesses. Some people use illegal substances as a means of self-medication. Others steal food or break into buildings to find a place to sleep. Rather than investigating the reasons behind these crimes, people are incarcerated, sometimes medicated, and only occasionally given true mental health treatment. They are then released with no outside support or ways to continue accessing medications.

That is still entirely ignoring that prisons can cause mental health issues on their own. Solitary confinement, something that is widely used in American prisons, can cause or worsen symptoms of mental illness. Incarcerated people kept in solitary confinement are almost seven times as likely to harm themselves and more than six times as likely to “commit acts of potentially fatal self-harm” when compared to the general prison population.

Failures in the South

In 2017, a federal district court found that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) was providing “significantly inadequate care.” This decision came after years of litigation. The case, Braggs v. Dunn, is still ongoing almost ten years after it was first filed in 2014. Since then, little has changed in ADOC’s prisons.

An opinion given in the case mentioned Jamie Wallace and his testimony 36 times over 300 pages. Wallace was incarcerated in 2014 for the murder of his mother. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He testified in December of 2016. He died of suicide ten days later while in a unit dedicated to severely mentally ill inmates. Five days prior to his suicide, a healthcare worker at the prison wrote that he was “using crisis cell/threats to get what he wants.”

Wallace was mentally ill. For that, he was punished by prison guards. He was disciplined twelve times for harming himself, six of which involved being subjected to solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is regularly criticized for being inhumane, and it is especially so for those with preexisting mental health issues. According to Solitary Watch, a non-profit dedicated to ending the overuse of solitary confinement, citing a 2014 study on the topic, “individuals placed in solitary confinement were 6.9 times more likely to commit acts of self-harm and 6.3 times more likely to commit acts of potentially fatal self-harm than people in the general population.” Adding that people with mental illnesses are more likely to harm themselves than people without paints a grim picture of what happens inside these walls.

After Wallace’s suicide, the court ordered an emergency plan to be made to prevent future suicides. That plan was too late for James David Johnson, who hung himself only a few days after Wallace.

The court also accused correctional workers of being ambivalent or actively encouraging suicide. “ADOC officers essentially called a prisoner’s bluff, and then that person attempted suicide.” During his testimony, Wallace said that a correctional officer handed him a razor blade and told him, “You want to kill yourself? Here you go. Use this.” The two parties in the case had previously settled over the issue of razor blades’ presence in crisis cells – the same kind of cell Wallace was able to hang himself in. This lack of awareness on the part of ADOC was only exacerbated by the chronic understaffing of mental health workers. In January of 2023, ADOC stopped reporting the number of deaths – both homicides and suicides – that occurred in its prisons.

In 2021, Disability Rights Mississippi, Mississippi’s federally mandated watchdog agency (protection & advocacy agency), filed suit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections due to severe mistreatment of numerous disabled inmates. One individual, who was described as having ADHD, OCD, and bipolar disorder, was refused access to his medications and, according to DRMS’s investigative report, “during suicide watch, recalls being told by a passing officer to go ahead and kill himself.” Another person with PTSD and bipolar disorder “needs… mood stabilizers. MDOC has yet to treat this offender.” The lawsuit itself, Wallace v. Mississippi Department of Corrections, reads, “DRMS has encountered many offenders who have attempted self-harm, which was ignored by MDOC staff. In some cases, the self-harm was encouraged by MDOC staff.”

Florence Supermax 

A short time after Braggs v. Dunn, another lawsuit was filed for similar reasons – this time against the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, also called the ADX. Rodney Jones, who assisted in the early stages of the lawsuit and who was previously held in the ADX, told the New York Times in 2015 that a staff psychiatrist stopped the medication he took for his bipolar disorder because “We don’t give out feel-good drugs here.”

One of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit is Jack Powers. Powers was sent to the ADX after an escape attempt preempted by threats from members of the Aryan Brotherhood, some of whom he had testified against after witnessing the murder of a friend. All three men he testified against were being held at ADX Florence when Powers was transferred there. While incarcerated there, Powers “lost his mind.” He mutilated himself numerous times, including by removing his earlobes, chewing off one of his fingers, removing one of his testicles, and tattooing himself with a razor and black carbon paper dust.

A slightly elevated shot of Florence Supermax prison, a red brick building surrounded by short grass and hills.
Florence ADX Prison. Source: Yahoo Images

David Shelby was incarcerated for threatening President Bill Clinton after he “became convinced that God wanted him to free Charles Manson from prison.” While incarcerated, Shelby sliced off part of his finger and ate it. Herbert Perkins, another prisoner, attempted to cut his throat with a razor. After being treated, he was ordered to mop up the blood left in his cell – it had not been cleaned since he was taken to the hospital.

Conclusions 

American prisons often have inhumane conditions. Those issues are compounded even further when the inmates in question have a mental illness. Prisons are unprepared to serve as psychiatric institutions, nor have they, overall, attempted to change to do so. Even so, that is what they are doing. Between the lack of adequate treatment, the negative psychological effects being incarcerated can cause, and the lack of assistance from correctional workers, it should be no surprise that rates of self-harm, suicide, and mental illness in prisons are so high.

Courts take time to process cases. This is demonstrated by many of the cases mentioned; Carty v. Mapp has been ongoing for 30 years, Wyatt v. Stickney ended in 2003, 33 years after it was first filed, and Braggs v. Dunn, one of the more recent lawsuits mentioned, is over a decade old. This is by design. A longer trial gives more opportunity for both parties to adequately present cases and, in the cases of these lawsuits, make changes. Despite that necessity, something needs to change. Mentally ill people are suffering and dying in jails and in prisons. The correctional system will not change on its own; it takes outside pressure to change things, and lawsuits, the most effective means of creating this change, take decades to be resolved. Systemic changes need to be made to how these prisons function and the societal role they play.

 

Rohingya Refugee Crisis Leads to Shifting Tide in Indonesia

by Delisha Valacheril

Figure 1 Displaced Rohingya at a refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images
Figure 1 Displaced Rohingya at a refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Rohingya are survivors of atrocities committed by the government of Myanmar. Described as the most persecuted minority in the world by the United Nations, the Rohingya are the world’s largest stateless population. Under Myanmar’s Citizenship Law, the government has consistently denied citizenship to this group of people for decades. 135 distinct ethnic groups are recognized under the law, with Rohingya being one of the few exceptions. Without citizenship, they are deprived of basic rights such as access to health services, education, and employment. Forced to leave their homes and families, more than 730,000 fled to neighboring countries like Bangladesh or Indonesia. Approximately 600,000 still reside in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. They are restricted to refugee camps and settlements where there is a severe lack of food, adequate healthcare, education, and livelihood opportunities. The long-lasting systemic abuses against the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar government are equivalent to crimes against humanity, deprivation of liberty, and even apartheid.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group who have lived in the predominantly Buddhist region of the Rakhine State of Myanmar for generations. Since the government of Myanmar does not recognize them as an official ethnic group, during the conflict, authorities took over much of the former Rohingya land. Forced to flee their homeland, nearly a million Rohingya live in makeshift camps on the outskirts of civilizations. Despite being disenfranchised, refugees try to have a way of life, but the seasonal flooding and tropical storms endemic to safe haven regions like Bangladesh prevent them from doing so. Due to decades of state-sanctioned discrimination, repression, and violence, the Rohingya refugees cannot return to their homes either.

The remaining 600,000 Rohingya who have been arbitrarily detained in Myanmar endure even worse conditions with no agency or freedom. Of the 72,000 children who are confined to these detention sites, 40,000 were born into imprisonment, and it is all they have ever known. Access to indispensable necessities like clean water, enough food, and adequate housing is limited in this squalid, stateless purgatory. Military officials impose strict curfews, unnecessary checkpoints, and barbed wire fencing, significantly affecting the Rohingya population’s right to movement. This directly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respective of Article 13. By depriving this community of their civil liberties and development rights, such as freedom to movement, food, water, and housing, the government is hardening the barrier of segregation to marginalize them from society permanently.

Figure 2 Young girl holding a child in detention sites in Myanmar. Source: Yahoo Images
Figure 2 Young girl holding a child in detention sites in Myanmar. Source: Yahoo Images

How did the crisis begin?

          Presently, in Sittwe, a town that was once home to approximately 75,000 Rohingya residents before 2012—constituting nearly half of the town’s population—only 4,000 individuals remain. Anti-Muslim sentiments across Myanmar marked the onset of a period of heightened oppression of the Rohingya in both policy and actions. Article 3 of the 1982 Law, on the other hand, positions taing-yin-tha, national race, and identity as an ongoing basis for recognition of citizenship. This meant that national race trumps citizenship, so even though Rohingya were born and raised in Myanmar, they can be kicked out because they are not a part of the national race. This environment set the stage for more severe and organized military atrocities in 2016 and 2017. The largest exodus of refugees is marked by military attacks that occurred in August of 2017 that resulted in the massacre of thousands, villages burned to the ground, and the whole community displaced. The war crimes that occurred offer a clear warning of Myanmar’s military to carry out ethnic cleansing and the government to support the internment of the Rohingya people. The brutality that played out in the Rakhine State is on par with apartheid, persecution, and imprisonment.

Figure 3 Rohingya landing on the shores of Indonesia. Source: Yahoo Images
Figure 3 Rohingya landing on the shores of Indonesia. Source: Yahoo Images

What is happening to Rohingya refugees in Indonesia right now?

Indonesia is turning away 150 Rohingya refugees from its shores because of local resentment about the arrival of boats carrying exhausted refugees. Due to the unending oppression in Myanmar and the growing risks of calamity in Bangladesh, refugees are now risking tumultuous sea voyages to seek refuge in neighboring countries like Indonesia. However, the growing influx of immigrants is a cause for concern for Indonesian residents. The Indonesian navy has intercepted a boat with Rohingya refugees as it neared the coast of Aceh. Aceh is the only state in the archipelago where 90 percent of the population follows Islamic law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that since November 11 Rohingya boats have landed, and the refugees have relocated to informal sites, mainly in Aceh and one in North Sumatra. The attack on refugees is not an isolated incident but rather the consequence of an organized online campaign of misinformation, deception, and hate speech directed towards Rohingya.

In the escalation of hatred against the Rohingya, hundreds of students stormed a temporary Rohingya shelter in Indonesia’s western Aceh province, demanding their deportation. The students shouted and physically abused the migrants before forcing them onto trucks and transporting them to the government office responsible for immigration. Demands for relocation stem from local anger over the already limited resources that are overstretched to accommodate new arrivals. Residents do not want the refugees in their communities and have gathered to protest boat landings. The greater international pressure to provide fair asylum to Rohingya refugees is causing tensions to rise in Southeast Asian governments. It is unfair to expect these countries to deprive resources of their citizens instead of addressing the real issue.

What Can We Do?

The responsibility to end the worst forms of violence and persecution falls on the government of Myanmar. For instance, by cutting off the Myanmar military’s government funding, the revenue from the abusive operations can be allocated to the Rohingya people so they can finally experience justice.

The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh should pressure the government of Myanmar to be responsible for the genocide and displacement of the Rohingya people. By exerting the existing international obligations that require governments to take a number of actions to prevent and punish genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, Myanmar will have to respond. It is a long road to repatriation, but placing pressure on governments and non-profit organizations ensures the onus falls on Myanmar to correct its wrongs.

The long-term root causes of the crisis must be addressed to quell the tide of hopelessness. However, until safe and dignified returns are guaranteed for Rohingya refugees, they will require emergency assistance in order to survive. Myanmar is strengthened as a state by its multi-ethnic, multi-religious makeup. With help from foreign governments and humanitarian aid, the Rohingya can work towards restoring their rights.

Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

Disproportionate Deaths: Black Mothers

by Abigail Shumate

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

Maternal Mortality

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

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

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

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

 

Maternity Deserts

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

 

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

 

A Broader Scale

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

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

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

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

Progress

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

History of Antisemitism

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

 

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

 

Antisemitism Today

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

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

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

 

Someone to Blame

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Creating Change

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

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

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

 

Humanitarian Concerns About Methods of Execution

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

 

Content Warning: semi-graphic descriptions of death.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama mishandled executions: 

April 22, 1983 – John Evans

July 14, 1989 – Horace Dunkins, Jr.

December 8, 2016 – Ronald “Bert” Smith

October 17, 2017 – Torrey McNabb

February 22, 2018 – Doyle Hamm

July 28, 2022 – Joe James

September 22, 2022 – Alan Miller

November 17, 2022 – Kenneth Smith

July 21, 2023 – James Barber 

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

The Indigenous Justice System: History of Limitations And Restorative Justice

by Eva Pechtl

This is the beginning of a series I will be writing about Indigenous justice systems. Though Indigenous people span across the world, I will be providing information specifically on policies and relations of the United States in this blog. Indigenous justice methods are compellingly distinct processes. In this opening post, I will first summarize the history of limitations placed on Indigenous justice and then explore traditions and values behind the restorative processes of Indigenous communities. 

 

Tribal police officers have alternative uniforms and badges sometimes with details representing the Indigenous culture of their community.
An image of a tribal police officer’s uniform and badge from the Salt River Pima Maricopa community in Arizona. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr

 

History of Foreign Limitations on Justice Processes 

First, it is important to acknowledge the history of legislation put in place by the federal government that has greatly affected Indigenous justice systems. Constant structural changes imposed by colonizers resulted in wide variations between Indigenous tribal justice systems, meaning some are more similar to the US legal system than others. However, overarching this entire topic is the question of whether Indigenous, federal, or both governments presume jurisdiction over criminal offenses in Indigenous countries.  

This question was decided when the federal government essentially ended the exclusive Indigenous jurisdiction over crimes in Indigenous countries. Before exploring Indigenous justice practices, I would like to briefly contextualize the complex and confusing history of Indigenous jurisdiction. 

First, the General Crimes Act of 1817 extended federal jurisdiction over crimes committed on Indigenous land in cases where the defendant is non-Indigenous. At this time, the government only cared to interfere with crimes that involved non-Indigenous people. The Major Crimes Act in 1885 granted the federal government jurisdiction over serious crimes where the defendant is Indigenous, regardless of the victim’s identity. It originally listed seven offenses but has been increased to sixteen. After negotiation, tribal courts retained concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute Indigenous people for any conduct listed as a Section 1152 or Section 1153 felony. This means that an Indigenous defendant can be prosecuted by both the tribal justice system and the federal justice system for the same offense. This is because protection against double jeopardy in the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to Indigenous nations.

Indigenous people gained more power to govern themselves in 1934 with the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act. While it recognized tribal governments, the act offered money to those mirroring the U.S. Constitution, attempting to Americanize Indigenous societies. Many customs had disappeared, and Indigenous people were intentionally challenged to create self-government among distinct nations. 

Next, Congress enacted Public Law 280 in 1953, requiring six states to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction on reservations, meaning the federal government gave up jurisdiction over Indigenous people to those states. This law was opposed by Indigenous nations because it was an unconsensual process that further complicated and failed to recognize tribal self-determination. 

The Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968 offered states civil and criminal jurisdiction with the “consent of the tribe” over crimes in any Indigenous country in the state. It limited the sentencing powers of tribal courts but did not require the separation of church and state because of the importance of spirituality in all processes. The Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010 intended to improve tribal safety, slightly increasing tribal sentencing authority to a maximum of 3 years and a $15,000 fine. However, these new privileges were dependent on the imposition of further regulations regarding due process protections in tribal courts.  

Finally, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 authorized tribal courts special jurisdiction over non-Indigenous offenders in domestic violence cases. This was a landmark shift from the Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe in 1978, which held that tribal courts have no authority to prosecute non-Indigenous people, even if the victim was Indigenous. The VAWA was amended again in 2022 to expand special tribal jurisdiction to a list of covered crimes, including child and sexual violence, sex trafficking, and assault of Tribal justice workers. Indigenous courts can now prosecute and sentence regardless of the offender’s race for crimes against Indigenous victims that had commonly been ignored.

 

Indigenous people march and hold signs in the street to demonstrate their rights against colonization.
An image of Navajo people marching for the decolonization of Indigenous justice systems.    Source: Yahoo Images via Occupy Boston

 

Because of colonization, Indigenous peoples’ principles have gone unrecognized by America’s Anglo-centric justice system. Consequently, Indigenous nations retain limited power to create a befitting legal structure that administers justice. However, they continue to persevere and have cultivated distinct methods, such as restorative and healing practices. 

 

Harmony and Balance in Restorative Justice 

In Indigenous communities, restorative court systems are similar to traditional systems where a council of tribal elders or community leaders will facilitate conversations to resolve interpersonal problems. In this type of resolution, the compliance of the offender is necessary for the families involved. Most importantly, this process attempts to heal the underlying means for a crime, preventing repetitive behavior and aiding the offender’s reintegration into the community. These types of meetings are also known as forums and can be conducted within families and communities. 

In various areas of North America, circle sentencing reflects traditional Indigenous peacemaking aspects and has proven to be an effective approach to healing the offender, the victim, and the community. Specific practices vary by tribe, but the idea is to address participants’ feelings about how offenders can begin making up for their actions. Circle sentencing produces better satisfaction and healing, breaking the cycle of crime and allowing people to reconnect with spiritual traditions with the help of their community. In common Indigenous views, justice and spirituality are deeply connected. 

 

Restorative justice intends to improve ties between the offender, the victim, and the community to create a healing-centered process.
An image of a Venn diagram showing restorative justice goals of the overlapping healing between the victim, offender, and community. Source: Yahoo Images via eCampus Ontario Pressbooks

 

Tribal courts differ from other methods since they use written codes rather than being passed on through tradition. These judicial forums handle a range of legal problems and are led by judges from Indigenous communities. Most defendants or plaintiffs must represent themselves since the Indian Civil Rights Act does not ensure the right to legal counsel if individuals cannot afford an attorney. Tribal courts, interestingly, still tend to use family and community forums to handle interpersonal matters. This allows for alternative resolutions, sentencing, and victim-offender mediation. 

Indigenous courts intend to restore harmony and balance to one’s spirit, following the belief that people who are whole do not act harmfully. Judge Joseph Flies-Away from the Hualapai Nation says, “People do the worst things when they have no ties to people” and that “Tribal court systems are a tool to make people connected again.” 

 

Incorporation of Values In Peacekeeping Systems 

Indigenous peacekeeping systems promote the resolution of underlying problems and make an effort to keep relationships strong. Indigenous justice represents a holistic approach where communication is fluid rather than rehearsed. They recognize that argument is not an effective approach and that discussion is vital to review a problem in its entirety. Indigenous justice is inclusive of all affected individuals, different from the American justice system, which often excludes participants. 

The talking circle is common in Indigenous justice methods with no beginning and no individual in a dominant position. The colors red, black, white, and yellow can symbolize diversity in the human race, among other interpretations varying by tribe and tradition. A token, commonly a feather, is passed around the circle, encouraging all participants to have equal chances to speak freely and honestly.
An image of the Mi’kmaw culture symbolizes the talking circle with no beginning and no individual in a dominant position. The colors red, black, white, and yellow can symbolize diversity in the human race, among other interpretations varying by tribe and tradition. A token, commonly a feather, is passed around the circle, encouraging all participants to have equal chances to speak freely and honestly.
Source: Yahoo Images via Mi’kmaw Spirit

 

The Navajo Nation’s peacemaking process centers on the individual and helps an offender realize that what they have done is incorrect. Instead of labeling and punishing individuals as criminals to prevent them from repeating the behavior, the Navajo way separates the action from the individual. Retired Chief Justice Robert Yazzie of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court states that the process is related to k’e, meaning to restore one’s dignity and worthiness.  

What I find particularly remarkable about these concepts of justice is that, instead of adopting an immediate punitive approach aimed at simply removing the offender, the system focuses on correction and rehabilitation. Offenders are obligated to verbalize their accountability and take responsibility for changing their behavior. Instead of releasing the offender after their time is served, the system supports reparations to the victim(s) and community involving apology and forgiveness. These Indigenous restorative justice approaches are distinct from America’s legal process, which focuses on labeling and punishing the offender. Furthermore, traditional types of justice are able to promote communal healing and support in reintegration rather than hiring professionals to dispute a case with little interest in the community. 

 

An image of rocks stacked progressively higher symbolizes restorative justice practices of rebuilding an offender’s ties with society as they take accountability for the harm they have done.
Source: Yahoo Images via Policy Options

 

Indigenous leaders continue struggling to ensure that their justice systems are meaningful to their people. We rarely consider Indigenous justice systems, but maybe we ought to start. Please stay tuned for my next blog in this series, expanding on current struggles imposed on the Indigenous justice system and its people. 

France’s New Ban on The Abaya in Public Schools

by Caileigh Moose

Since the 1960s, the demographics of immigrants entering France have shifted. In 1968, the largest immigrant groups included Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese, and were primarily Christian in faith. Today, the majority of these groups come from North African nations like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where Islam is the predominant religion. Thus, with these immigration shifts, in recent years, Islam has become the second largest faith in France, accounting for 10 percent of the French population, second to Christianity, which rests at almost 30% percent.

This diversification of society has unleashed reactive backlash, with many on the French right driving up what many have called anti-Islam and Islamophobic policies. Recent examples include the 2004 French law forbidding “conspicuous” religious symbols in France and the 2021 French separatism law, which extended the “neutrality principle” (under which civil servants are, among other things, prevented from wearing religious symbols like hijabs) to all private contractors of public services. One political science researcher with the National Centre of Scientific Research has deemed current French president Emmanuel Macron’s first term “gloomy” for French Muslim citizens, referring to the ever-darkening outlook for religious protections that has colored the tone of French policy during Macron’s time in office.

All these fears have culminated in the newest piece of legislation targeting France’s growing Muslim population, so that this year, as French schools started back earlier this September, their female students faced a new, highly controversial restriction: a ban on the abaya.

 

Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones.Source: Yahoo Images
Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The abaya, which is sometimes simply referred to as the aba, is most commonly known as a loose, typically black, floor-length dress worn primarily by Muslim women. The word itself, translated from Arabic, means simply “dress.” The abaya is mainly popular in the Middle Eastern region of the world, in nations like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, where the garment’s prevalence can be attributed to its alignment with cultural and religious preferences towards modesty within the area.

Its ban was justified by French Education Minister Gabriel Attal through the French concept of “laïcité.” This term essentially defines the ardent secularism that France has in relation to its public institutions, arguably much stricter than an average American’s idea of what the separation of church and state looks like. For example, this idea of laïcité has previously led to the ban of all overtly religious symbols within French public schools, including large Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and Islamic hijabs. Now, it is being used to target the abaya. French Education Minister Gabriel Attal attempted to explain the decision through the reasoning that “when put in the framework of a school, it is very clear: you enter a classroom, and you must not be able to identify the religious identity of students just by looking at them.”

Those who celebrate the law are quick to draw this religious connection between the abaya and Islam. However, it is important here to recognize that the abaya is not itself directly connected to the religion of Islam but to select Muslim cultures. Despite what the French Ministry of Education claims about how wearers of the abaya are “immediately recognizable as belonging to the Muslim religion” and, as such, violate the standards for secularism within the French educational system, opponents of the ban have protested that the abaya has no direct religious affiliation. Its wearing is not mandated by any Islamic text, nor is it compulsory dress for the religion; it merely fulfills the religion’s requirements regarding modesty.

 

A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab.Source: Yahoo Images
A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab. Source: Yahoo Images

 

In 2018, a Saudi senior religious scholar of Islam drew mixed reactions when he stated that the abaya shouldn’t be expected or necessary dress for Muslim women, citing the statistic that over ninety percent of practicing Muslim women do not, in fact, wear the abaya. Instead, most women will simply choose to wear loose-fitting dresses, ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and anything else that meets the modest standards of their religion, all of which are typical in Western culture and all of which are completely acceptable to wear inside a French school. This may lead some to ask the question: Is this ban truly in keeping with France’s educational goals of secularism, or does it simply originate from a xenophobic attitude surrounding Muslim culture and the modest standards they practice?

Many members of France’s Left would argue the latter. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a 2022 French presidential candidate, accused the ban of initiating an “absurd, entirely artificial religious war about a woman’s dress,” and Clémentine Autain, one of La France Insoumise’s MPs, called it “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims.” The ADM (Action Droits des Musulmans), a group that advocates for the rights of Muslims within France, expressed concerns about the risks of ethnic profiling in schools and how the ban might create a target on the backs of Muslim children, especially since the ban includes no clear legal definition of what an abaya is. It will now be up to the school officials and administration to determine what constitutes an abaya and what does not, further fueling speculation that the ban is discriminatory in nature and will only encourage one-sided racial and ethnic stereotyping based on “the supposed origin, last name or skin color” rather than what they wore.

However, despite bringing legal challenges and these concerns over its implementation, France’s highest administrative court, The Council of State, upheld the law in early September, finding that the abaya “was part of a process of religious affirmation” based on the comments from student discussions. France’s new school year has already seen some resistance to the new legislation, with almost 70 Muslim girls sent home on the first day of school for refusing to change their attire in accordance with the new dress code. Whether it serves to reinforce or deteriorate the rights of all French students, time will tell.

If you would like to learn more about the potential social justice impact of this new legislation and what resistance the ban will see in the future, you can visit ADM’s website.

 

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

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

History of IDSP

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

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

 

ISDP 2023

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

 

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

Science and Human Rights

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

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

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

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

How Countries Can Get Involved

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

 

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

How Citizens Can Get Involved

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

 

International Day for Disaster Reduction

by Wajiha Mekki 

October 12 is International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR). This international event is hosted through the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). In 2023, the focus has been on fighting inequality and fighting to break the cycle of international disaster.

History of IDDR

IDDR started in 1989 as a call to action by the United Nations General Assembly to help educate and mobilize resources to reduce the burden of ongoing disasters and increase resilience. This annual event focuses on a different theme, interpreted from the “Sendai Seven Campaign ,” established in 2015 at the third-ever UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. The framework proposed during this time helps mobilize resources to local communities to ensure they can act at capacity during times of need; this also allows for communities to be prepared not only for small-scale and large-scale disasters but also man-made, natural, environmental, and biological disasters.

 

People in hazmat suits tending to a chemical disaster during a mock drill.
Source: American Red Cross Flickr
IDDR 2023

IDDR, in 2023, will focus on fighting inequality and issues and publish the results of the first-ever global survey on disability and disasters. This survey, with the purpose of championing disability and inclusion, was commissioned in 2013. 2023 also serves as a monumental year for IDDR as it is right after the midterm review of the aforementioned Sendai Framework; this review is vital, ensuring that progress is made to help accelerate action to rescue disaster disparities and prioritize resilience.

Current Burden of International Disasters

Disasters can happen at any time of the day. It is projected that  by 2030, the world will face 1.5 significant disasters per day; this results in a total of 560 disasters per year. Of these disasters, a large proportion is caused by environmental, technological, and biological hazards. Disasters don’t discriminate and have an impact on all people; however, it is noted that they have a disproportionate impact on those with disabilities. This compounded impact results in the development of a perpetual cycle of disaster without resources being efficiently invested to prevent and manage these disasters.

Specifically for those with disabilities, it is noted that development infrastructure is not developed to be inclusive and is oftentimes overlooked during all stages of emergency management. This isolates those with limited mobility and requires a caregiver or other health services, preventing them from accessing resources that will allow them to recover effectively.

Within emergency responses, it is noted that people with disabilities are unnecessarily institutionalized during and after disasters; this further isolates them from their families, peers, and communities. 

14 firefighters tending to a forest fire.
14 firefighters tending to a forest fire.
Source: American Red Cross Flickr
Spotlight: Japan’s 2011 Earthquake

Though there are many examples of international disasters, the horrendous earthquakes in Japan in 2011 highlight the disparities those with disabilities face in times of national emergency. This earthquake, noted as the “strongest earthquake in its recorded history,” was not the only natural disaster that impacted the community; the earthquake caused a tsunami, which amplified the impact and the resources needed to remedy the issue. The earthquake and tsunami destroyed hundreds of businesses, homes, and nuclear reactors. The destruction of these nuclear reactors resulted in toxic materials being released into the environment and communities. Thousands of lives were lost; however,, approximately 25% were disabled. The infrastructure developed for emergencies did not serve them; oftentimes, evacuation centers were not accessible, did not have the needed infrastructure, etc. All of these factors resulted in many people with disabilities not having adequate assistance. These disparities are not unique to Japan and are seen internationally and domestically. 

How Countries Can Take Action

The nature of disasters is cyclical; to have the most effective solution, it is vital to break the cycle and do so in a holistic manner. Firstly, there is the preventative lens of the disaster itself; it is vital to understand how disasters occur and to take the actions needed to establish early warning of these disasters. This allows countries to be prepared to make effective decisions that will have a positive global impact. Beyond this, countries and member states should take action to invest in their current infrastructure to make it more prepared for disasters. Though disasters can be mitigated through the above actions, they are not entirely preventable. Therefore, states should be prepared for their response to be inclusive for all; they must build capacity to accommodate vulnerable populations in their emergency response, including those with disabilities, older persons, and women. 

How You Can Take Action

Acknowledging IDDR is the first step to helping advocacy for advancements in emergency responses and more equitable infrastructure during times of need. It is a two-pronged fork; communities should work to break the cycle of disaster by improving habits and holding entities responsible, but should continue to invest in making resources more equitable. As a community member, it is your responsibility to use your voice to advocate for both of the above. Another way is to use your time to volunteer alongside community and international partners who are working to make improvements. Together, we can break the disaster cycle and make emergency responses more equitable.