Syria and Turkey have been impacted by one of the deadliest earthquakes that have been seen in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The death toll has surpassed 20,000 and continues to rise considerably, not accounting for the thousands injured. Some of the areas this earthquake has hit are some of the most vulnerable areas in the world. The conditions in both countries are indescribable; with homes destroyed, hospitals at capacity, and limited supplies, the need for help has become critical. It was noted that due to the destruction of the hospitals, and the lack of staff and supplies, patients have had to receive medical attention on the hospital floors. At this point, any type of aid is scarce in both countries. It is vital that everyone supports in any possible way. At the end of this post, you will find numerous links on how to help, whether through donation, reading, reposting, etc. Anything you can do to help is urged. Pass these resources along to your friends, family, colleagues, etc. The most minor contribution makes the most significant difference.
What is Happening?
An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck early Monday morning at 4:17 AM in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, 150 miles away from the Syrian border. This earthquake led to more than 300 aftershocks that rumbled, with one following the initial earthquake just 9 hours later at 1:25 PM and carrying a magnitude of 7.5. Earthquakes are measured using a magnitude scale ranging from 2.5 or less to 8.0 or greater. The Turkey-Syria earthquake reached a magnitude of 7.8 following a shock of 7.5. Meaning this was a significant earthquake that yields severe and destructive damage. This has been one of the worst earthquakes to hit the region since the early 1900s. Along with the destruction of this horrific disaster, the regions are currently facing a winter storm. The temperatures in both Turkey and Syria have dropped tremendously to below 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Rescuers have noted that the weather conditions are so bad that those trapped under the rubble have been found frozen to death.
Who is Sending Aid?
Two days have passed since the initial disaster, and the death toll continues to rise. Turkey currently has tens of thousands of rescue teams and aid personnel helping to search for survivors. More than 24 countries have sent aid, help, or rescue teams to Turkey to rescue as many people as possible. With the window closing for the survival of the many lives still stuck under the rubble, the rescue teams are still not losing hope and asking for aid and help. With all the help being given to Turkey, there is an absence found in Syria. Many political and logistical issues hinder aid from being given to Syrians. Since the Syrian Civil War, many countries, such as the EU and USA, have posed sanctions on Syria, and many border points are blocked. At this time, many are urging the sanctions to be removed as it hinders aid to Syria. In times of crisis, we can look to our governments for help, but that is not the case for the Syrian people, which is why it is so critical and necessary to support any in any way you can. Syria is still undergoing and recovering from a Civil War that has been happening for the last 10 years. Many Syrians have been displaced and have become refugees, most residing in Turkey, making the country the world’s biggest refugee host country, with over 3 million Syrian refugees living there. El-Mostafa Benlamlih, UN Resident and Humanitarian coordination for Syria stated: “Sadly, needs are rising rapidly in Syria, and not everyone who requires assistance is visible. Over 75% of all sub-districts in the country are classified as being under severe, extreme, or catastrophic conditions…We must act quickly to ensure more communities do not slide into an inescapable loop of deprivation and negative coping mechanisms.” The areas of Syria affected are some of the worst. Millions of individuals were already displaced in the northwest portion of the country house. With aid in Syria already being scarce, there are many worries and urgencies surrounding the need for humanitarian care.
It is urgent that you can do anything you can to help. Whether that is donating $1, reposting a donation link, or just speaking about it. The current condition these people are living in is unimaginable, so it is vital to help in any possible way. A Syrian journalist has spoken about his experience and current grief. Mohammad Haj Bakri lost multiple family members due to this national disaster. His brother and his three children, his sister and her son, all died under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Although there is international support and awareness for those affected by the earthquakes, I urge you to support them still as much as possible. The aid given to these survivors will be for the current time and post-quake. Below are links to donation sites, articles on how to help, and additional links with information on the conditions.
This article exemplifies the urgency of supporting the people of this horrific disaster. This piece explains the stories of those who went through the earthquake, had family members present or had their loved ones die.
A humanitarian aid organization that operates in the rebel-controlled areas of Syria, also known as Syria’s Civil Defense. They are the leading group for helping victims and displaced persons throughout the Syrian Civil war. You can find the link to donate here.
There are countless humanitarian groups accepting donations for those affected by the earthquake. For more resources, check out the links below:
Everyone has heard of global poverty and its horrendous consequences; however, for some people, that is where their knowledge ends. In this blog, I am going to undertake the task of succinctly compiling facts and statistics about this incredibly broad topic. My hope is that, after reading this blog, you are more inclined to speak out on global poverty and educate others on the topic.
A Rudimentary Understanding
Global poverty is an umbrella term for poverty that exists throughout the entire world. That was the easy part: defining global poverty. However, defining poverty is a tad bit more tricky. We can surely say that poverty is a status: the status given to those whose annual income falls under a bar; however, poverty is more than just low annual income.
The United Nations, in particular, has defined poverty as, “a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means a lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness, and exclusion of individuals, households, and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.”
In addition, when discussing poverty, there is a distinction between relative deprivation and absolute deprivation. Relative deprivation is a function of inequality and can be defined as “the lack of resources (e.g. money, rights, social equality) necessary to maintain the quality of life considered typical within a given socioeconomic group.”
Absolute deprivation, on the other hand, is when one’s income falls below a level where they are unable to maintain food and shelter. Studies have shown that relative deprivation, or the inability to live up to the basic standards of living set forth within a particular community of reference, can be just as harmful to health outcomes as absolute deprivation. For example, research suggests that diabetes – a disease associated with modernization – is not a function of poverty, as the poorest countries show the lowest incidence among the global population. It is in nations that exhibit increasing political-economic and social inequality, including the United States, that diabetes has emerged as a leading cause of death and a serious public health threat.
Therefore, it should go without saying that our goal should be to diminish all forms of deprivation globally.
Statistics and Facts
Personally, what I find most disturbing about global poverty is its breadth. Grounding this point is the fact that, according to the World Bank and WorldVision, “About 9.2% of the world, or 689 million people, live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.”
Practically one in ten people within the world are living in poverty.
To better understand the magnitude of this issue, imagine the following scenario: you live in this fantasy world where, in an effort to promote international toleration and cooperation, 30 children from all around the world get arbitrarily placed together into a classroom. Out of those 30 children, three of them would be living on less than $2 a day. If you are reading this blog, then you naturally have access to some sort of electric device. Those three children, in a year, will not have accumulated enough money to purchase your device.
A logical question that might follow from the preceding scenario is that it is wrong of me to solely include children in made-up scenarios because adults, after all, also live in poverty. While that is undeniably true, they by no means make up the majority. Over two-thirds of those living in poverty are children. Of those children, women represent the majority.
Let us quickly look at local poverty—specifically, poverty within the United States. In the United States, as of 2019, around 10.5% of people live in poverty. The poverty line in the United States is around $13,000, and thus, each person living in poverty makes around $35 a day. Let us make note that these statistics are from 2019, meaning they are pre-pandemic. In 2020, the percentage of people living in poverty went up by one point to 11.4%. Ostensibly, that raise seems miniscule; however, it accounts for 3 million new Americans who entered poverty, also now making less than $35 a day.
All poverty is bad: that is undisputed. However, one who lives in America might confuse American poverty with global poverty as it might be what they encounter daily. This presents a problem because this cannot be done as they are by no means the same. Those in poverty in America statistically make ten times more a day than those living in poverty abroad. That is a big difference; we can not equate the two.
Education is a human right; that is undeniable. Every human who walks this Earth has the right to get an education and develop individually. However, living in poverty makes education incredibly difficult.
One study has found that, of those who live in poverty and are over the age of 15, 70% have only a basic education with no formal schooling. That means that if you are born into poverty and have no way of elevating out of this status, then, statistically, you are unlikely to get an education. This is an immense issue due to the fact that, according to UNESCO, education is the key to climbing out of poverty. In fact, UNESCO stated that, “if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than half.”
The dilemma is that the path out of poverty is through education; however, living in poverty makes education harder to achieve.
However, in the past years, steps have been made in the correct direction, and education rates have indeed increased. A rise in education is beneficial to not just those living in poverty, but the nations they live in as well. In fact, a study published by Stanford University and Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University shows that, between 1975 and 2000, 75% of the increase in a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) can be attributed to the increase of math and science skills amongst the population.
Therefore, education not only improves the lives of those in poverty, but also the well-being and economy of the nation and its people. It is for those reasons, amongst many more, that education is, and should forever remain, a human right.
In addition to the lack of education, those living in poverty face a multitude of other negatives. For one, a study found that adults living in poverty are at a “higher risk of adverse health effects from obesity, smoking, substance use, and chronic stress. [IN ADDITION], older adults with lower incomes experience higher rates of disability and mortality.”
In addition, this same study found that those living in the top 1% generally have a life expectancy 10 years greater than those living in poverty. Moreover, one study found that, for children and adolescents, poverty can also cause differences in structural and functional brain development, which impacts “cognitive processes that are critical for learning, communication, and academic achievement, including social emotional processing, memory, language, and executive functioning.”
Therefore, with the aforementioned facts in mind, it is easily concluded that poverty is an immense issue, and political leaders should be doing more to help relieve the issue.
So, naturally, one might ask: why is nothing being done? One response to this question comes from the World Systems Theory. This theory is complex, so I will try my best to briefly discuss it. The theory states that all nations are divided into three systems: the core, the periphery, and the semi-periphery. Essentially, the theory states that the core nations, which are the most politically and economically powerful, use the periphery and semi-periphery nations, which are filled with developing nations, for cheap labor and resources. The core rewards the periphery for their resources and labor, but not enough that the nations develop at such a pace that they become equal to the core nations. This in turn causes a dilemma in which the periphery depend more on the core than vice versa. Some might argue that this in turn perpetuates global poverty as the core nations are doing the least to help developing nations. In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, thus exacerbating both absolute and relative forms of deprivation and sustaining the cycle of poverty.
As mentioned previously, global poverty has indeed been decreasing. According to WorldVision, “Since 1990, more than 1.2 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty. Now, 9.2% of the world survives on less than $1.90 a day, compared to nearly 36% in 1990.”
We are still heading down this path of poverty reduction, and it is vital that we continue to do so. Perhaps, one day, we will live in a world free of poverty—a world in which every single person is educated, well-nourished, and does not have to fear starvation. It is my hope that after you finish reading this blog, you will share any knowledge and statistics you may have learned with others. The first step in resolving an issue–and continuing to resolve it—is acknowledgement. If more people are aware of how detrimental poverty is, more people will in turn be inclined to help fix it. We need more support and commitment to a world in which poverty is mere history.
People filled the plaza in the place where all three powers of governance meet in Brasília, Brazil. A sea of green and gold as hundreds of citizens displayed their nation’s colors before entering the seats of power, destroying property, and overpowering the police. People climbed to the roof of the Congress building and unfurled a flag that read “intervention.”
Raging riots in the wake of a new presidency
On January 8th, 2023, citizens stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices in objection to the newly incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Their rage and fear came after the loss of former president Jair Bolsonaro and a false belief that the October 2022 election had been rigged.
Bolsonaro had steadily fostered suspicion against the integrity of Brazil’s voting system for years, even making such false claims on his 2022 campaign trail. After being ousted, his refusal to concede, alongside his previous claims of fraud, left his supporters reeling. Many demanded for months that the military step in and deny letting da Silva take office on Jan. 1st.
While the military did not listen to the demands, they did not completely rule out the possibility of vote rigging either. In spite of the fact that the Defense Ministry found no evidence of fraud during the election, one comment stated that “It is not possible to guarantee that the programs that were executed in the electronic voting machines are free from malicious insertions that alter their intended function.” No evidence has been found to support this conjecture either.
In the wake of growing suspicions and conspiracies, Bolsonaro supporters, known as “Bolsonaristas,” stormed the Three Powers Plaza (named after the three branches of governance located there) in a massive demonstration that soon turned violent.
The facts and events of the U.S. and Brazil riots
The similarities between January 6th, 2021 in the United States and January 8th, 2023 in Brazil are stark. Aside from the dates themselves, both these events signal serious declines in trust in democratic institutions.
In both instances, supporters overpowered police before entering capitol buildings, breaking windows, stealing items, and documenting their own crimes in the offices of elected legislators.
When capitol riots in the U.S. occurred, it was during the ceremonial certification of the election results and interrupted this important step before President Biden’s inauguration. On the other hand, in Brazil, President da Silva had already taken office nearly a week before. When demonstrators arrived, congress was not in session, nor was anyone within the buildings that Sunday.
This distinction, while slight, is significant to note because, during the time of the riots in Brazil, the actual transition of power had already occurred. In the case of the U.S., the symbolism surrounding the counting of ballots represented a key component of the democratic transition.
Moreover, in the U.S., citizens only targeted the Congress building, while Bolsonaristas also attacked the presidential palace and Supreme Court. This aligns further with claims that Bolsonaro had made during his term about the Supreme Court conspiring against him.
Of most importance, and concern, is how federal police responded initially in Brazil. In the case of the U.S., many sources reported that security forces had been unprepared for such escalations, but in Brazil, channels to “invade Congress” had formed on the apps WhatsApp and Telegram. These channels had gathered tens of thousands of followers. Bolsonaristas had formed groups across the country with the intention of renting buses to the capitol for “violent anti-government action.”
Just as former president Donald Trump had attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election result, so too had Bolsonaro engaged in making the same false claims over vote-rigging. Incidentally, Bolsonaro had come to be known as the “Trump of the Tropics” during his time in office. But false claims over vote rigging don’t end with these two heads, former aids, current politicians, and social media play a crucial role in fostering anti-democratic extremism.
Two years after the riots in the U.S., concerns over the legitimacy of Brazil’s election have been a contentious topic among far-right groups in the United States. These groups do not know anything about Brazilian politics, however, social media has connected the two continents to reinforce illegitimate beliefs about the accuracy of democratic processes.
During the 2020 U.S. election, conspiracies over the voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic had been extremely popular in supporting false claims of vote rigging. Now, these conspiracies have re-emerged but in the context of Brazil, circulating online and in far-right media, despite the fact that neither company’s products were used in Brazil. These lies have found their way onto Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Truth Social, and Gettr (alternative platforms popular on the right).
During the Brazilian riots, Bolsonaristas held a banner that stated “We want the source code” in both Portuguese, the nation’s most spoken language followed by Spanish, and English. This is a direct reference to the conspiracies spread first in the U.S. further emphasized by the languages of choice.
Moreover, dating back to October, Steven Bannon, former Trump aid, has been drawing parallels between the Brazilian election and the U.S. on his podcast. Sites like The Gateway Pundit have published blogs the morning after the first round of elections in Brazil about “MASSIVE fraud” and Matthew Tyrmand, a conservative activist, has repeatedly pushed the idea that Smartmatic machines were used in Brazil to tens of thousand on Twitter and Gettr.
According to Madeline Peltz the Director of Rapid Response at Media Matters, a left-leaning non-profit and media watchdog, “There’s a sympathetic audience for it in Brazil, and there’s certainly a sympathetic audience for it in the States. The building of a coalition between those two groups is really a win-win for Steve Bannon and the right-wing movement broadly.”
In Germany over a dozen were arrested in 2021 for planning to overthrow the government, while in Australia, the U.S.-centric conspiracies over machine-based voting fraud (even targeting Dominion again) had to be publicly debunked by the Electoral Commission.
In the end, far-right groups are taking inspiration in each other. Not from a shared set of goals or identities, but from their refusal to accept a candidate’s loss stemming from deep-seated anti-democratic stances. With social media to bridge distances and languages, it has become ever harder for governments to stop false election claims and silence the dangerous rhetoric of election deniers.
Democracy does not always equal or improve human rights. However, the values outlined in normative human rights frames overlap significantly with democratic governance. Democracy provides environments that are more likely to support human rights, as is the case with Articles 8 (right to national tribunals), 9 (arbitrary arrest), 10 (right to a fair trial), and 12 (arbitrary interference) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) just to name a handful.
In countries with weak rule of law, government institutions, and corruption, there is a 30 to 45% increase in the risk of civil war and a higher risk of extreme criminal violence. Any country can suffer from one or more of these factors which then threatens the personal security of people and their human rights.
According to Freedom House, a non-profit that conducts research on democracy, human rights, and political freedom, the last 16 years have been marked by a democratic decline globally. For example, President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has undermined democratic institutions designed to check executive power. In Peru, riots for the past five weeks have demanded the government disband the legislature and president in favor of new elections, and in the most extreme case, that the military step in to rule. As the youngest democracy in Latin America (restored in 2001), Peru has long suffered poor living conditions which have made the population steadily view the government as corrupt, ineffective, and unfair. In fact, a 2021 poll from Vanderbilt University found that only 21% of the population was satisfied with democratic rule.
Brazil is a young democracy, previously under a military dictatorship between 1968 and 1985. Considering Bolsonaro’s praise of military rule in office, and the attack on all three democratic institutions, the riots on Jan. 8th signal a larger issue 一 a rejection of the democratic results overall.
While citizens always have the right to self-determination, this does not give anyone the right to inflict harm on someone’s personal security or engage in violent acts. In a democracy, tides are always able to change, switching between ideologies and agendas based on the popular vote of the nation. In the case of Chile, violent demonstrations did prompt a constitutional rewrite, however, once this democratic process began the violence ceased and turned towards peaceful demonstrations.
As President da Silva begins his new term, he will be faced with many challenges to unite Brazil. However, he has already taken major steps in the wake of the riots, arresting hundreds in a single day, beginning an investigation, and removing individuals from security positions.
For us, we must remain committed to the values of human rights, recognizing the inherent dignity of everyone and continually striving for equity and equality. To do this, we must have faith in the governments that ensure us these rights, and in the cases that do not, we must organize peacefully, research and reach out, and live our lives by our belief in human rights.
To learn more and get involved, visit these sites and blogs below:
After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States.
In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing.
Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.
In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.
When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.
The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.
Alabama and Florida Response
Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination.
On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.”
A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.
Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.
To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.
Peace in Haiti is akin to a momentary breath of fresh air. Gripped by the terror of political and humanitarian crises since its founding as the world’s first Black republic, Haiti is constantly reeling from one cause of instability to the next.
Today’s maelstrom of political inaction, violence, and human rights disasters in Haiti is rooted in a story that reaches back to its colonial past. After liberating itself as a French colony, Haiti was forced to pay reparations for the descendants of their French slave masters and lost “slave” property. Haiti took loans from French and American banks, in turn, providing more economic growth for French Banks. France essentially controlled the main bank of Haiti so much that the country became one of France’s largest financial conglomerates. When Haiti was unable to pay back American loans with interest, then President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion of Haiti that lasted 19 years. On top of economic repression, Haiti continuously experiences natural disasters that it is not equipped to recover from. Located in the Caribbean, Haiti experiences earthquakes and hurricanes at alarming frequencies each reintroduces economic, political, and health crises that compound existing tensions.
Coupled with military invasions from the United States and other developed countries for the sake of democratic civility, Haiti’s fate has been taken away from Haitians and toyed with by other powers. Haitian officials were also notoriously corrupt and either capitalized off their role as figureheads for invading powers or stealing from an already poor populace.
How did Haiti arrive here?
On July 21st, 2021, former Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated following a presidential term riddled with election fraud and economic disasters, including increases in gas prices that left the Haitian public seething. In recent decades, Political corruption and mishandling of national resources have depleted Haiti of economic strength, continuing to repress the middle class and poor. In August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people, from which Haiti is still trying to recover.
After Moise’s death, his successor, President Ariel Henry, took charge of Haiti’s administration. Still, Haiti has fallen farther down a black hole with worsening crime rates, gang violence, inflation, healthcare crises, and fuel shortages. Backed by the Core Group, a conglomerate of countries including the United States, Canada, France, UN Representatives, and the Organization of American States, Henry has done little to alleviate Haiti’s crises.
In September 2022, Henry eliminated federal fuel subsidies to increase government funding, which caused gas prices to spike immediately. The G9 Family and Allies, a coalition of the most powerful gangs in Haiti, blocked public and government access to Varreux, Haiti’s largest fuel terminal, in retaliation to Henry’s new policy. International travel slowed and goods transportation to outer markets halted leading down a spiral of fear, financial misplacement, and dwindling basic necessities such as food, healthcare, hygiene, and safety.
The oil terminal, Varreux, holds almost 70% of Haiti’s fuel reserves; without it, every industry has taken a hit from this disruption. Local businesses, homes, hospitals, and schools shut down with no energy to serve the people. Many hospitals have already closed, and others are temporarily running on generators. Due to rising global inflation, the cost of flour, wheat, oil, shortening, and many other resources that the country imports on a deficit rose. To make matters worse, the G9 has also blocked Haiti’s ports, slowing the shipments of emergency fuel. Because of this, most Haitians cannot pay the difference inflation has burdened them with, and the government is also not in a position to help.
Gangs, either a part of G9 or not, control the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s economic hub and a major transportation route for resources and goods going in and out of the country. Violence blazes through every street of the capital city and beyond, so much so that businesses have shuttered, and people refuse to go out into the streets for fear of dying, being kidnapped, and becoming a victim of a massacre. Ultimately, food can’t be made and people can’t venture out to get food, leaving families starving. The U.N. has stated that Haiti is facing an acute hunger catastrophe, the worst the country has seen in decades, with over 4.7 million adults and children without adequate nutritional resources. Since gangs also control transport on the roadways, water tankers and other necessary resources are not reaching the communities where people have been desperately waiting, leading to water shortages.
Another emerging problem within Haiti is the current deadly cholera outbreak, an infectious disease carried by water-borne parasites that causes uncontrollable diarrhea and dehydration to the point of death, if left untreated. The depth of this crisis is exacerbated as Haiti was declared cholera-free after successfully controlling the disease for three years. But because access to clean water, hygiene, and healthcare is limited in the current civil unrest, the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population has reported 1,193 confirmed cases, 13,672 suspected cases, and 288 confirmed deaths. The most vulnerable are children 1 to 4 years of age. The first case was recorded in Cite Soleil, a coastal town overrun with gangs since Moise’s assassination last year, highlighting the impact of this untimely death on the health of those in Haiti.
In wartime, rape and sexual assault are employed by invading or territorial forces as tools for fear, power, and subjugation. Haitian gangs have perpetrated widespread rape and assault against all ages of women, children, and, less commonly, men. The United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) released a joint report detailing the above by conducting and analyzing over 90 interviews with incident victims and witnesses over the past two years to uncover information on the pervasiveness of collective rapes and public humiliation. Although this report is not exclusive to post-G9 control, the amount of sexual violence is unimaginable now.
Women and girls are afraid to cross the “frontlines,” the name ascribed to territories controlled by gangs, for necessities, because sex is viewed as a form of currency, voluntary or not. Families may encourage this form of “transactional behavior” to gain food, water, and other resources as their power lies in weapons, political power, geographical power, and fear. Another UN report describes women used as handles for high-ranking men in gangs. Victims can be raped and assaulted for hours in front of family or friends, and mutilation and executions are common afterward.
Over the past couple of weeks, United Nations Security Council members deliberated to formalize an action plan to weaken the gangs’ control of Haiti effectively. As a result, the Security Council adopted a targeted arms embargo, freezing assets and putting individuals, or those supporting the gangs in Haiti, on travel bans. These people include the leader of G9, Jean “Barbeque” Chezier, the perpetrator of much of the violence and humanitarian crisis that Haiti is experiencing.
Some Haitians remain uncomfortable with foreign intervention. Past interferences from the international community have shaped Haiti’s present, overcome with lawlessness and despair. Yet, despite the history, the West and some Haitians still believe their interference may be Haiti’s best bet. There is no objection that Haiti must be helped; its recent designation as an aid state, a nation at the mercy of foreign aid, further exacerbates the conditions of Haitian citizens. The question that the world and Haitians are pondering is: how can the world help without causing a chain reaction to an even worse fate than the present?
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
On this day, January 16, 2023, we remember a man known as the champion of human rights, Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been 94 years old had he lived. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King dedicated his life to advocating against racial discrimination and injustice. Through multiple death threats, the bombings of his family home, enduring physical attacks and being stabbed, until his assassination on April 4, 1968; Dr. King remained committed to the principle of non-violence. He was only 39 years old when he was killed.
Dr. King believed in the universality of human rights for all and acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What better way to begin a blog about “Human Rights Day” and the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, than on the day we commemorate the birth of a man who used his voice, and ultimately risked his life in pursuit of equal rights for all of humanity,
Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, at a General Assembly meeting in Paris. The UDHR was created to formalize a global standard for human rights across the world. Annually, on December 10th, a day which commemorates the passing of the UDHR, the UN acknowledges this day as Human Rights Day.
What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
In less than half a century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has come to be regarded as possibly the single most important document created in the twentieth century and as the accepted world standard for human rights. Referred to as a milestone document in the history of human rights, the UDHR is a collaborative effort of experts from the legal and cultural fields from around the world. The goal was to create a document which rights would be acknowledged globally and would serve as protection for all people living within any nation across the world.
Timeline for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On April 25, 1945, on the heels of World War II, representatives from fifty nations met to “organize the United Nations” in San Francisco, California. On June 26, the representatives adopted the United Nations Charter, Article 68. The purpose of this article was for the General Assembly to “set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights.”
In December 1945, Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by then President Harry S. Truman to the United States delegation to the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, appointed Roosevelt to the commission and with the task of creating the formal Human Rights Commission (HRC).
In February 1946, a “nuclear” commission on human rights was created by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its job was to recommend a “structure and mission for the permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC)”.
In April 1946, Roosevelt was nominated to be the chair of the HRC. The ECOSOC gave the HRC three tasks to complete: “a draft International Declaration, a draft covenant, and provisions for the implementation.”
On December 10, 1948, after convening with “representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris (General Assembly resolution 217 A).
One might think, we have come far in our efforts to afford equitable attainment of human rights to all people across the world. While we, collectively have made strides, we still have a long way to go to free the world of human rights violations. According to the Institute for Human Rights and Business, listed below are the top 10 human rights issues in 2022.
Redesigning supply chain
Personal Data Tracking & Tracing
Stranded at Sea
Office and Work Place
These issues are reflective of the ongoing and unprecedented impact of COVID-19.
How to Participate in Human Rights Day on December 10th and beyond
Your college experience is full of opportunities to grow and learn, academically, socially and even politically. You will meet people from varying backgrounds and having lived experiences which may be foreign, pun intended, to you. So on Human Rights Day, what can you do to support the initiative? Well, the college interns at the United Nations Association, came up with 10 Ways to support Human Rights Day. Hopefully, you will be inspired to do one.
1. Pass a student government resolution: Work with a member of your student government or student council to pass a resolution in honor of Human Rights Day.
2. Write an op-ed or article in your school’s newspaper: School newspapers can be a great place to talk about the importance of human rights around the world.
3. Stage a public reading: Set up a microphone in your student center or, if the weather’s right, outside and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in full.
4. Set up a free expression wall: Set up a blank wall or giant piece of paper and encourage your friends to write about what human rights mean to them.
5. Make a viral video about human rights day: Film your UNA chapter kicking it Gangnam style to celebrate human rights and put the video online: it’ll go viral in a matter of minutes.
6. Start a Facebook campaign: Encourage your friends to change their profile pictures to an individualized Human Rights Day banner.
7. Hand out t-shirts and other gear: If you have the funds, buy t-shirts, sunglasses, or even 90’s-style sweatbands featuring a slogan about human rights to give to your classmates.
8. Coordinate an extra-credit lecture: Work with professors in the history department, the law school, or the international relations program to host a lecture about human rights, and work with other professors in the department to get attendees extra credit—trust us, your friends will thank you.
9. Hold a candlelight vigil or other commemorative event: While it’s important to have fun, human rights are serious business. Consider holding a vigil or other event to commemorate those who have suffered human rights abuses and those whose human rights are still violated.
10. Hold a talent show, dance, or party: Big social events are a great way to bring awareness to an issue, so why not have a human rights-themed party? Free admission if you dress up like Eleanor Roosevelt or Ban Ki-Moon. Also, here are two organizations you can support: Free and Equal and He for She.
Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela once said that, “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity.” For the past 75 years, the UDHR has existed to ensure that our human rights are not violated, and if they are that there is accountability on a global stage. We all deserve the right to live freely and uninhibited, the freedom to love who we want and practice the religion of our choice. We must work together as a humanity to ensure that protecting our human rights continues to be a priority.
Let us work together to transform his dream into reality. Beyond this nation of the United States, let us work collectively to ensure equal and equitable rights for ALL women, men, and gender nonbinary humans. Protecting human rights was a priority for Dr. King. On November 3, 1967, just a few miles away from this campus of UAB, Dr, King wrote his infamous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the Clergymen.
Martin Luther King Jr. in Jefferson County Jail, Birmingham, Alabama, November 3, 1967 Fair use image“While confined here in the Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here… Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Dr. King reminds us that “The time is always right to do what is right” and that we as a humanity must ensure that the single garment of destiny is threaded with equal rights for all humans for this is the only true way forward. In the spirit of Dr. King, we must work to ensure that the rights of ALL humans are acknowledged, respected and protected by law, and not just on Human Rights Day, but every day, and everywhere across the globe.
My mother is the youngest of 5 Indian daughters, all of whom are PhDs, professors, researchers, and educators. My grandfather, a lawyer, raised her, and like clockwork, he repeated that knowledge is akin to clay, a necessary foundation for anyone’s house of decisions, thoughts, ideologies, and actions. Because of this, nothing was more important than my education and, later, my brother’s education.
The right to knowledge that my upbringing revolved around is synonymous with the right to choose, the freedom of expression, and the right to read – all rights outlined directly or indirectly in the United States Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decisions justified by the First Amendment.
Despite the First Amendment’s protection, book bans in schools are threatening this right to knowledge for students. Within the last 2 years, books of all literary and historical acclaim, including modern literature, have been banned at an unprecedented rate in an alarmingly organized manner in public school districts.
When people lose their right to this knowledge and succumb to political pressure, it will be a day in history representing humanity losing its most powerful tool to stand up for justice.
Like all examples of institutional limitations, the most influential books, which have the potential to cause revolutions, are also the most restricted. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was banned in the Southern United States in 1852 and is traced back as the first example of a book ban. Stowe, a ferocious abolitionist in the North, wrote this book prior to the Civil War to rally abolitionists and swing individuals against the South’s slavery. Since the Constitution was written, Northerners decried the South’s defense of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a powerful tool that amplified the voices of abolitionists across the country; they believed that slavery was a legal injustice in the Constitution that needed to be removed. Plantation owners, however, were able to pull strings and remove the book from circulation in the South, fearing the loss of economic and racial security that slavery gave them.
One of the first instances of controlling students’ access to books was after the Civil War. The Southern United States restricted access to textbooks that painted the South’s intentions and actions poorly amid the Civil War. An advocacy group in the South referred to as The United Daughters of the Confederacy felt that the control of what information their children were learning during school was beholden to the rights of parents. In 1954, they removed The Rabbits’ Wedding, a novel centered around a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. They feared it would normalize interracial marriages, a taboo act at the time.
In direct opposition to school censorship, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards “cannot remove books from school libraries just because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” in the landmark 1982 Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico case. The Island Trees Union Free School district removed titles it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” In conjunction, the Supreme Court also ruled that students retained their First Amendment rights to the freedom of speech and expression in school in the Tinker v. Des Moines case. If we follow the court, censorship is illegal in the U.S.
Over 1600 books have been banned nationwide. Most of them are fiction and illustrate the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. In the past, book bans originated from a small scattering of parents making personal requests to remove a few books from circulation or restrict their children from reading them. Today, the opposition is still a minority, but they are organized with structured advocacy groups taking center stage at school board meetings demanding specific books to be removed from circulation. Some of the most banned books, like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is a novel centered around a black teen who witnesses her black friend get shot by a white police officer. Another is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which discusses the life of a Native-American teenager aspiring to be a cartoonist in an all-white school. Essentially, the most targeted books discuss life outside the white picket fence of middle-class white suburbia.
What do supporters of book bans hope to achieve?
Ellen Hopkins, the author of the Young Adult poetry verse book Crank, is one of the most banned authors in the United States. She feels that parental rights and concern for children’s safety are a smokescreen behind anti-book advocacy groups’ motivation. Hopkins implores that books provide kids with the opportunity to solace in information about their identity and find consolation that they are not alone. They also prepare children for life in the real world by exposing them to situations they might otherwise encounter. Thus, books are a tool for the development of holistic decision-making skills. Removing these opportunities leaves kids with little chance to make better decisions when confronted with situations they are not familiar with. If the child is BIPOC or queer, removing books that have become championed narratives from the respective community isolates them and invalidates their experiences.
Parents often find these books on lists circulating online and present them to their children’s school districts claiming there is offensive or inappropriate content that compromises their children’s innocence. PEN America has found that parents who appear at the board of education meetings en masse and are armed with arbitrary lists of books have rarely even read the books to understand their significance. Descriptions of “obscenity” are affixed to titles as a fearmongering tactic to cultivate reprobatory characterizations of these books as they quickly make their way through advocacy groups’ websites and Facebook to radicalize those that come in contact with these types of posts. Such inflammatory language, which is not considered legally acceptable, elevates a small minority of individuals into a vocal majority to force school boards to comply.
Solutions to Book Bans
Banned Books Week stands as a beacon of hope against the dark wave of censorship. This week celebrates suppressed voices in literature and amplifies authors’ messages through community outreach, and fosters national collaborations. However, progress is made in consistent steps, not leaps.
On a smaller scale, there are many tools you can use in your community to combat literary censorship. Community members, feed off each other’s ideologies, and to mellow the extreme views of this vocal minority, the first step is to provide outlets for conversation. The vocal minority advocating for book bans can be confronted and overcome when faced with the majority opposed to them or their thinking. You can make your presence felt at school board meetings. Show up and voice your opinion and advocate for others to do so over social media. Vote for your local boards of education, library boards, and city council elections. If you want to, run for these board positions yourself or directly appeal or lobby your legislative representatives and defend the importance of all content in books. Unite Against Book Bans also provides communities with toolkits that include essential questions and moderate answers that consider the argument of parental rights while protecting the First Amendment.
In all, I am grateful for the circumspection that my mother and my family’s push for education provided me with. Not only hard skills, but also the ability to think for myself, to derive my own opinions, and to be mindful of how I act and react to new information. My freedom to read and speak gave me a powerful voice that must be available and fostered in everyone.
This is a continuation of the conversation about the Alabama Prison Crisis as exposed by Mary Scott Hodgin in her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.” If you have not read the previous blog post on this topic, “The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: A History”, it is recommended that you do so. Also, if you would like more information and details regarding this topic, please listen to the podcast, “Deliberate Indifference,” by Mary Scott Hodgin. Now, without further ado, let us jump right in from where we left off.
In the previous blog, we focused on the history of prison systems in America, and particularly, some of the legislations and ideologies that laid out the foundation for the correctional institutions we know today. We explored in detail the convict leasing system that helped rebuild the infrastructure of the Antebellum South following their defeat in the Civil War, and the racialized laws and legislations that disproportionately landed Black and Brown people in prison over their White counterparts. The War on Drugs era followed by the Tough on Crime era landed hundreds of nonviolent offenders in prison, serving longer and harsher sentences and life without parole. While our focus in the last blog was more nationwide, it was necessary context to set the stage to better understand the realities that face the Alabama prison systems focused on in this blog.
The objective now is to look deeper into the conditions of the penal system in Alabama, the lawsuits they faced in 2017, and the most recent one in 2020, how the pandemic exacerbated these conditions, the prison strikes that took place within these prisons, and some ways to move forward to bring about actual change – change in the mindset of our fellow Alabama voters, and a shift in the way the prison population is viewed and treated as a whole. We will look at some groups that are trying to do just that, from organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Offender Alumni Association to religious groups and other educational groups that sponsor programs within the prison system to provide opportunities for higher education to the imprisoned population.
While exploring the most recent reports that resulted from the federal investigations of Alabama’s prisons, there were many similarities in the reports. While the problems of understaffing and overcrowding were expressed in detail, (which will be discussed below), there was also extensive observation of the living conditions inside the prisons. What the investigations revealed was shocking, and despite having been advised to address these issues even in the 1970s investigation of Alabama’s prisons, the conditions had not improved. Rather, it had deteriorated even more due to the consequences of staffing and crowding issues.
Both reports extensively provide detailed examples of violent outbreaks within the prisons, between prisoners, and even at the hands of prison staff targeting the prisoners. Many such incidents go unreported, and others have even ended in the death of the imprisoned person. One of the things that contribute to this violence is the structure of the prison itself. Many of Alabama’s prisons are fashioned in a dormitory-style of housing units instead of the individual cell units depicted in popular culture. These housing units are essentially enormous halls that are secured on the perimeters, with bunk beds piled into the room as close as they can fit. With little to no privacy, and jampacked in tight spaces, people can get easily agitated, and this can lead to violence. Due to the overcrowding issue, many people are even expected to sleep on the floors, which can be unsanitary and uncomfortable. Due to the continuous staffing issues these prisons face, these large units may go unguarded for long periods of time, sometimes even entire shifts.
This puts both the inmates within the units at risk for violence, and the prison staff who, to the incarcerated individuals, represent the authority from which these conditions are sanctioned. Even still, many officers, due to the understaffing issue, have overlooked contraband possession (such as drugs or cell phones), deciding to pick and choose their battles in an already tense environment. As a result of all these issues, corruption is rampant within the prison walls, and many prison staff, according to narratives from both reports, take advantage of this tense environment to assert dominance over prisoners with increased brutality. People who are incarcerated are not viewed by society as individuals with their own pasts and presents. They are only viewed as “criminals,” remain invisible to society and are dehumanized. Regardless of the crimes that a person commits, they are at the end of the day, still, people, who deserve dignity and basic human decency. As an institution of the state, prisons are legally responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for people who are incarcerated to serve out their sentences as punishment. The American Constitution does not support “cruel and unusual punishments”, and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the rights of imprisoned individuals are fully supported.
2017 Federal Investigation
In the previous blog, we focused on how the prison system of Alabama has been under federal investigation nearly 50 years ago in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the conditions outlined in those reports were never fully addressed, and the issues that were highlighted have only been exacerbated over the years. In September 2017, the Department of Justice from the federal government toured one of Alabama’s prisons, Bibb County Correctional Facility, for their official investigation of prison conditions in the Alabama penal system. What they uncovered was outlined later in a report published in 2019, stating over 50 pages worth of evidence against Alabama, and the minimal expectations the federal government laid out for Alabama to achieve, both short-term and long-term.
The report is prefaced by the fact that these concerns were underlined within a week of their investigation. According to the report from the observations made in 2017, the Alabama correctional facilities faced a myriad of issues, including an overcrowded prison population, with dangerously low staffing, issues of contraband entering the prisons, and a host of observations pertaining to violence within the prisons, including physical, mental, and sexual violence. As discussed in the previous blog, these overcrowding issues come from the various legislations that were passed, increasing the lengths of sentences, criminalizing drug abuse and mental health issues (instead of treating them as medical issues requiring rehabilitation and treatment), and incorporating mandatory sentencing minimums and three-strikes laws. Along with identifying the concerns stated above, the report also deemed the penal system’s inadequate protection of its inmate population from harm, violence, and death, a failure. The report discussed at length how, along with unsanitary living conditions, there are dangerous weapons and drugs that are circulating within the prisons, making them unsafe for both the incarcerated people, as well as the officers who work there. This in turn is both caused by and exacerbated by the issues of overcrowding and understaffing within the prison walls. With fewer officers to supervise the dormitory-style prisons in Alabama, incarcerated people are packed together to fend for themselves.
While not all people locked up in prison are violent offenders, studies have shown that desperation, (which is rampant in these prisons), can lead to violence, distrust, and increased criminal behavior within the population. While the study referenced focused on populations outside of prisons, it is safe to assume that these results are only amplified within the prison system. The people within are both desperate and already undergoing punishment, which means that even the threat of punishment is not a deterrence from committing these violent acts. This also means that with fewer officers to supervise the dorms and halls of the prison, the overall violence within the prisons is increased, making it dangerous for the entire prison population.
As explained in both the report by the federal investigation, as well as the podcast by Mary Scott Hodgin, there were at least 11 men that died in 2019 alone due to the increase in violence within the Alabama prisons. To make matters worse, the federal investigation also found that the Alabama prison system’s record-keeping on these incidents and others was inaccurate, finding that there were many incidents that went unreported, and even many deaths misclassified as due to natural causes or medical reasons rather than due to the violence found within the prisons. If you count the total number of deaths within the inmate population in 2019 classified as natural causes or otherwise, the number is as high as 119 deaths.
In addition to the misclassifications and incidents not being reported, Hodgin also details in her podcast the inadequate mental health care offered to incarcerated individuals within Alabama’s prisons. This can lead to an escalation of violence, and abuse of drugs, and place incarcerated individuals dealing with mental health issues in dangerous situations. Without the proper medical attention required to treat these individuals with mental health illnesses, prisons can become a charged environment that can exacerbate their conditions, making them more vulnerable to both becoming victims of violence, as well as the perpetrators of the violent acts. Unfortunately, because people with mental health issues are four times more likely to be imprisoned instead of receiving treatment and care, many individuals in prison already enter the system without knowing how to follow social norms. This can put them in danger of being abused by officers and other imprisoned individuals alike, and without proper care, their conditions can become worse, and at times, can end in death, either at their own hands or at the hands of another.
Another major topic of concern addressed in the report is that sexual abuse and sexual violence. Sexual violence is rampant in Alabama’s prisons, and this issue is exacerbated by the understaffing issue present within these facilities. With fewer officers staffed to care for increasing numbers of imprisoned people, there is less monitoring and supervision taking place, creating a breeding ground for violence, both sexual and physical. Much of the sexual abuse either go unnoticed, or unreported by staff members, and while the victims can report these incidents too, many choose not to for fear of retaliation or feelings of shame. Their fear is not unsubstantiated, as many accounts have been provided in which sexual assaults took place in retaliation to the victim’s reporting of a previous sexual assault. In addition to the low staffing numbers, many of the facilities in Alabama are constructed in a dormitory style, meaning that imprisoned individuals are grouped into a big hall rather than individual cells. This can be challenging for clear visibility of each individual inside the prison and their whereabouts. At times, only one or two officers may be in charge of the entire unit, and sometimes, the incarcerated people go unsupervised.
Many incidents of sexual assault occur as a result of “drug debt”, where an incarcerated person owes another incarcerated person money for drugs or other contraband and does not pay. There have even been incidents where family members of people who are incarcerated have been extorted for money, with the threat of sexual violence against their imprisoned family member. Many victims of sexual abuse within the prisons also alleged that these instances occurred after the victims themselves were drugged or held at knifepoint. While much of this goes unnoticed by the prison staff, some reports that do manage to document these incidents have even labeled sexual assault as “homosexual acts” rather than nonconsensual sexual abuse. People who are incarcerated that belong to the LGBTQI+ community are even more vulnerable to sexual violence simply for their identity. Unfortunately, many of the officers in charge of ensuring that the prisons comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), are not even aware of who among their incarcerated population belongs to the LGBTQI+ community. The PREA flags the LGBTQI+ population as being most at risk for sexual crimes, and the PREA managers in the Alabama Department of Corrections are not fully complying with the standards set by the legislation.
After identifying and explaining the various issues the Department of Justice found within Alabama’s prison system, the report argued that these conditions violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated people, and as such, provided some bare-minimum measures that Alabama should take immediately to avoid a federal takeover of the prisons. These remedies included addressing the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, the rampant violence (both physical and sexual), the access to contraband, and the living conditions within the facilities. In addition to these short-term measures, the report also suggested some long-term measures to implement, including – among a list of other things – better incentives to improve staffing issues, improved systems to track, record, and address issues of violence, and more regulation over prison conditions and treatment of the imprisoned population. Alabama closed down one prison after this report (Draper Correctional Center) and closed a particularly harmful “behavioral modification unit” or “hot bays”, (where incarcerated individuals are held as punishment for violence and drugs within the prison) at Bibb Correctional facility. While these closures were a good place to start, they should be in no way, the only solutions to the long list of problems outlined by the report following the federal investigation. Unfortunately, Alabama, as expressed in the report itself, has been “deliberately indifferent” to these situations, and as a result, experienced yet another investigation in 2020.
2020 Federal Investigation
The 2020 report from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Alabama’s prisons found similar problems echoed in the 2017 investigation they conducted. As mentioned in the 2017 report, the 2020 report also addressed issues of overcrowding of prisoners, stating that all of Alabama’s 13 prisons held thousands of people over the capacity they were designed for, making Alabama’s prisons among the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. This report also referred to the dangers of not having adequate staff members to care for and run these overcrowded facilities, this time focusing on how these staffing and overcrowding issues have led to an increase in officers using excessive force against the incarcerated individuals, further aggravating the violence that exists within the prison walls. This issue of excessive force is further examined in the report, claiming it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which outlaws cruel and unusual punishments against imprisoned people.
The 2020 report details the many reasons why officers use excessive force against people who are imprisoned. Unfortunately, many officers have been known to use violence and excessive force to “handle” a situation, even in times when there is no physical threat to the officer, and even when the incarcerated people are complying with the given orders. This has the tendency to escalate the situation, placing both the incarcerated individual and the officers in danger’s way. The report provides various examples of such incidents where the imprisoned people are reported to be complacent with the officers’ instructions, even handcuffed without ways to fight back, but have still been beaten, tortured, and abused inhumanely. These officers filed false incident reports claiming that they did not engage in such actions, and even after investigations of the incidents, the officers did not face any legal consequences or disciplinary actions for their behavior.
At times, excessive force is used by officers as a form of punishment or retribution for disrespecting the officers or reporting them. The 2020 report describes multiple incidents where excessive force was used against incarcerated people simply for not following the specific directions laid out by the officers. One incident includes an imprisoned person being physically abused and forced to eat all the leftover chicken for simply wanting some extra food. Other incidents outline the use of chemical sprays to punish incarcerated people or as a form of retribution for not following verbal orders. Chemicals sprays are used even in times when the imprisoned people do not pose any physical threats to the officers. Finally, many officers also use force to simply assert dominance and inflict pain on their charges, something that not only endangers the people involved (both officer and incarcerated individuals) but also causes the incarcerated individuals to distrust the officers in charge, escalating the tensions between the two groups.
All these incidents are violations of the eighth amendment, and while many of the investigations that these incidents resulted in agreed that there was no justification for the use of excessive force in any of these outlined incidents, the officers faced little to no disciplinary actions for their conduct. The Department of Justice also included this issue in their report, arguing that unsurprisingly, officers either fail to report or inaccurately report incidents where excessive force is used. Many times, excessive use of force is investigated internally and recommended for an I & I investigation (Investigations and Intelligence unit of the Alabama Department of Corrections in charge of investigating misconduct by prison staff). Unfortunately, the report declares that of all the incidents recommended to the I&I unit, only 40% of them are actually reviewed. To make matters worse, many of the cases that are investigated by the I&I unit, where excessive force has been confirmed, are seldom referred to be criminally prosecuted. This means that many of the officers abusing their authority and misbehaving with incarcerated individuals go unpunished for their conduct. Many more of the incidents where excessive force is used go unreported, with only the victim’s bruises to bear witness to the incident. For fear of retaliation, many imprisoned persons go without reporting the abuse they face at the hands of officers. If the victim does not cooperate in the investigation, the incident is deemed “unsubstantiated”, and the investigation is closed.
Following their investigation, the federal government proposed a list of measures that Alabama’s Department of Corrections needs to take in order to fully comply with federal regulations for correctional institutions. These immediate measures included the need for more I&I investigators, a better system for victims of abuse from officers using excessive force to report their incidents anonymously and independent of the prison’s authorities, clear procedures for accountability for officers, and better documentation and investigations of incidents where excessive force is used.
COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Prison Population
In addition to these inhumane conditions the imprisoned population experience that violate the basic human rights of incarcerated people, the outbreak of Covid-19 greatly amplified this issue, and soon, the prisons became a contagious and deadly environment for both the prison staff and their charges. With little to no access to adequate healthcare and deteriorating mental health caused by the conditions of their environment, people who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks. On the national level, according to a study conducted in 2020 by the American Medical Association, people incarcerated were five times more likely than people living outside the prison system to be infected by the virus, and the death rates among prison populations were higher than the national average at the time. Making matters worse, due to conditions of overcrowding inside the prisons, the outbreak was especially dangerous, as incarcerated people were unable to adequately quarantine and unable to maintain safe social distance between each other. There was also the probability of prison staff bringing the virus into the prisons from the outside world, and also recirculating the contagion within the prisons back into the larger society. A UAB publication by the School of Public Health declared the prisons a “petri dish for COVID-19”.
To add to this problem, the prisons were notoriously unsanitary, meaning that preventative measures such as maintaining clean spaces and washing hands with anti-bacterial soaps, were impossible to maintain. Furthermore, understaffing issues complicated this situation, as those who were infected were either neglected until conditions were too bad to ignore, or they were provided with inadequate healthcare measures. In Alabama, a unique situation further complicated the negative consequences of the pandemic. A large portion of Alabama’s prison population belongs to the older age groups due to the strict and long sentencing laws of the state, and the fact that the pandemic was considered to be even more dangerous for elderly people further put people incarcerated within Alabama’s prisons in jeopardy. Access to healthcare within the prison system makes this issue life-threatening, and despite the urgency from the American Medical Association to include the prison population in the vulnerable communities list for vaccinations, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that Alabama’s prisons denied its incarcerated people vaccinations. While some prison staff received vaccines, they were not required by the state to be vaccinated to work in the prisons, continuing to place the lives of incarcerated individuals in peril. As a result of inadequate protective gear (such as masks), and negligent behavior on part of the state and the prison staff, the prisons in Alabama encountered a large number of Covid-19 deaths.
Alabama Prison Strikes
After living through the grave conditions of the pandemic, and witnessing the unchanging environment within the prisons, the incarcerated individuals decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. In September of 2022, incarcerated people from all of the 13 prisons in Alabama began striking against the prison conditions they endured. They argued that the prison system was violating their basic human rights, provided inadequate healthcare, and did not in any way prove to be a place of rehabilitation for the imprisoned population. Instead, they initiated a strike, refusing to work their prison jobs (such as in the laundry department and the maintenance department) that they did not receive compensation for, called for improvements in prison conditions, and demanded reforms to the harsh sentencing laws currently in effect in the state of Alabama.
While imprisoned persons are demanding to be treated fairly in prison, the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, insisted that the demands of the prison population were “just unreasonable,” maintaining that the new construction of the two mega prisons in Alabama would solve all these issues of understaffing and overcrowding. These mega prisons, built with the use of funds designated to the state for pandemic relief, (causing public debate on this controversial subject), are supposed to provide more space for the overcrowded prisons in Alabama, and reports have surfaced about the possibility of hiring more officers for the newer mega prisons. This project will receive a total of over $1.2 billion in funding, of which $400 million comes from the pandemic relief funds.
What is vital to include here is that while these two new prisons will provide more space to house incarcerated individuals, (up to 4,000 in each), these prisons are replacing existing prisons with newer technologies and facilities. While this may seem like an improvement in some prison conditions, (such as more security and cleaner, sanitary units), it does not solve issues of overcrowding or staffing issues. The massive budget awarded to this project, instead of going toward building two mega prisons, could have been used more wisely to address the core issues of society that increase crime and criminality within its community. In addition, certain legislation and reforms could have been passed to overturn the harsh sentencing laws that exist in Alabama today. This would have solved both the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, as with fewer people being incarcerated and more people qualifying for parole, the total amount of people within the system would decrease, which would also lead to a decrease in the number of incarcerated people the prison staff is responsible for. A decrease in the prison population would also lead to a decrease in violence and more space for each individual within the prison walls.
There are many organizations that have attempted to address both the various issues that incarcerated people face within the prison system and those face as they re-enter society after completing their sentences. These organizations include Alabama Appleseed, Offender Alumni Association, Shepherds Fold, One Roof, and Aid to Inmate Mothers. Alabama Appleseed, which belongs to the national Appleseed Network, is a Center for Law and Justice that focuses on equity and justice, and research around prison reforms in Alabama’s penal system. The Offender Alumni Association, recognizing the importance of human connection, focuses on providing support and engagement within the prison walls, and community and stronger familial relationships outside, all while aiming to end the stigma around imprisonment. This organization is a support system for incarcerated people run by people who have been formerly incarcerated and engage in community efforts such as their Heroes in the Hood program to help inspire meaningful goals within the younger generations of high-risk communities to channel their energy toward community restoration. Shepherds Fold, as a transition home, provides similar services from a faith-based approach, instilling Christian values within their participating members. One Roof, an organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Alabama, is yet another resource for people re-entering society after being incarcerated. Through their practice of Coordinated Entry, or an in-depth needs assessment, One Roof is able to secure housing for those in need and point them to additional resources they may require based on their assessment. This can be very helpful for many, especially those who have been incarcerated for decades long, and who may not be aware of what resources exist in the community, or how to go about securing them. Finally, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM) is an organization that provides assistance to mothers who are incarcerated, both during their incarceration, as well as their transition period into society after their sentences have been served. AIM provides transportation to children for visitations with their mothers in prison and provides incarcerated mothers opportunities to record bedtime stories for their children. Their reentry programs aim to reconnect mothers with their children, provide a few essentials for those leaving prison, provide classes on life skills, job preparedness, parenting, and other topics for those who are interested, and even provide transition housing for a year, though it comes with a few eligibility requirements, including rental fees charged weekly.
There are also educational opportunities that are provided for incarcerated people in Alabama’s prisons. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project led by Auburn University, and the Donaldson Lecture Series led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are only two such programs. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project provides incarcerated individuals a chance to earn college credits while serving time. These courses are offered in the field of arts and sciences, and for those who can keep up with the standards of Auburn’s academic programs, this is a great opportunity for incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education, and as a result, be better equipped to handle the professional world upon their release. Similarly, UAB also offers lecture series at Donaldson Prison. While not as extensive or academically progressive as Auburn’s program, the Donaldson Lecture Series focuses on educational talks given to incarcerated individuals within the prison every other Tuesday for academic enrichment purposes.
Shifting the Mindset Around Crime and Punishment
These resources are well-intentioned and have helped save so many lives to date. Yet, this is not enough; there is a much-needed shift in the societal mindset around crime and punishment. The issue of the prison system is rooted in the racist founding of this nation, and as such, has systemic implications on various areas of a person’s life. Reforms can only go so far, as they are still pieces of legislation that try to make changes to the existing laws, but they still operate under those same laws. There needs to be a shift in the way incarcerated people are viewed within the larger society, and there needs to be a reexamination of the laws on the books since most of the institutions in America are rooted in beliefs of supremacy. Some things that can help us rethink the way we approach topics that involve imprisoned people are suggested below.
As explained earlier, changing the language around how people in prison are talked about can humanize the population and foster compassion towards the group. Refer to them as imprisoned persons or people in prison rather than branding them the title of “prisoner” or “inmate”. This helps shift the narrative. “Prisoner” or “Inmate” seems to imply that these individuals are criminals at the core, and brands them as “others” in the eyes of society. Instead, referring to them as “imprisoned people” implies they are human, with natural rights, and only living in a condition of imprisonment rather than being defined by their conditions.
Finally, I leave you with a challenge: rethink how crime and punishment are framed in our society. Who is held accountable? Who isn’t? What acts are considered criminal and what aren’t? Who decides which acts to define as criminal and which ones do not? Who benefits from the current criminal “justice” system? Does committing a crime make you a bad person, a “criminal” for the rest of your life, or should you be given another chance to reform? Should people be branded innately “criminal” or are their actions influenced by the conditions of the society they live in and dependent on the context and motivations behind the crime committed? Is it fair to punish someone based on actions (mistakes yes, but still actions) committed as young people for the rest of their lives? Why is it that our society places the label “criminals” on people who commit crimes, but refuses to see them as anything else? People can be “criminals” and still be artists, musicians, poets, writers, activists, metal workers, etc. Why does our society insist on placing a singular label on this population? Could it be to easily forget their existence, to remove humanity from their essence? All these are necessary questions to ask ourselves to understand our own biases towards imprisoned people and began to rethink our own actions that can have long-lasting consequences on the lives of so many. After all, this prison crisis is happening in our own backyard, and if we do not speak out against these atrocities, we are just as guilty as those committing them.
On October 16th, 1998, darkness set as police approached the London Bridge Hospital. They were there to arrest the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. That Friday night, Pinochet was detained after receiving minor back surgery, the first former head of state to be arrested on a diplomatic passport in the UK. Suddenly, the immunity generally granted to persons of government had been contested, and the exiles and victims of Pinochet took a step toward justice.
Pinochet’s human rights violations
On September 11th, 1973, bombs were dropped on the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile. This was the first day in what was to be a bloody reign by the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Overnight, the democratically elected socialist government was replaced with a repressive regime predicated on fear, oppression, and violence.
Previously, Chile had held the position as the longest-living democracy and most politically stable nation in Latin America. However, in the wake of the 1973 coup, Pinochet’s junta began a crusade to solidify power: constitutional guarantees were suspended, Congress was disbanded, and a country-wide state of siege was declared.
According to decades-long documentation by Amnesty International, “torture was systematic; ‘disappearance’ became a state policy.” These gross human rights violations were perpetrated by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the secret military police created to target the real and imagined opponents of the authoritarian regime.
On June 1974, a year after the bloody seizure of power, Article 1 of Decree-Law 521 established DINA as a “military organization of a professional technical nature, directly dependent upon the Government junta, and whose mission will be that of gathering all information at the national level coming from the different fields of activity, with the purpose of producing the intelligence which is required for the formulation of policies, planning and for the adoption of measures that seek to protect the national security and the development of the country.”
In the immediate days following the coup, hundreds of people were detained and taken to two sports stadiums in Santiago. Thousands of social activists, teachers, lawyers, trade unionists, students, and political activists became targets and prisoners of secret detention centers across the country.
These detention centers, and also labor camps, existed under the entirety of Pinochet’s reign. Villa Grimaldi was one of many of these camps used for interrogation and torture. It is estimated that 4,500 prisoners were abused at this site alone, the most common forms of torture including electroshock, waterboarding, forcing heads into excrement, rape, and death.
According to Amnesty International, the number of officially recognized disappeared or killed is 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and the survivors of political imprisonment and torture is around 40,000 people. To this day, 1,100 people remain missing and only 104 have been found.
International approaches to convict human rights violations
International law is a relatively new field. Born out of the horrors of World War Two, the United Nations is the multinational body that mediates the rules and creates the international dialogue on human rights. On December 10th, 1948, the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comprised of 30 articles that outline the fundamental principles of human rights. Since then, the UN has written more specific conventions and treaties to expound further on the rights of:
People with disabilities
And even civil and political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
When it comes to the implementation of these conventions, there are very divergent paths in the realization of human rights. Opinio juris expresses that a norm about behavior exists but is not consistently followed. In opposition, jus cogens refer to laws and norms in which no derogation is permitted, this includes crimes against humanity (torture, war crimes, apartheid, systematic and widespread violence) and genocide.
It is the principle of jus cogens that gives rise to universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction refers to the duty that all states have to prosecute individuals who commit crimes against humanity, whether domestically or by other states when the nation where the crime occurred is unwilling or unable to indict violators. It was universal jurisdiction that was key in establishing accountability during the Nuremberg Trials following the holocaust.
Fifty years later, this principle was used to arrest Pinochet for his systematic use of torture and crimes against humanity in Chile.
An end to amnesty
After democracy was restored in Chile, Pinochet lost the presidential election, but not before creating a legal structure to protect himself and his accomplices. In 1978, Pinochet passed an Amnesty Law to protect military personnel who committed human rights violations. Additionally, Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces after losing his presidential position and was appointed a senator for life. It appeared, to Pinochet and his victims, that he would remain outside of a courtroom.
Instead, victims were not deterred from bringing awareness to the crimes of Pinochet. Lawyers representing victims of Pinochet’s repressive regime decided to file complaints in Spain where the principle of universal jurisdiction was enshrined in their legislation. Joan Garcés, a Spanish lawyer, had begun filing for Pinochet’s arrest in 1996, and when it was known that the former dictator would be traveling to the UK, the moment to act became apparent. On October 15th, 1998, Garcés’ team filed a motion for Pinochet’s arrest which was granted. An Interpol red notice was issued, which is a formal international request to locate and arrest persons pending extradition, and a day later Pinochet was detained.
Pinochet twice petitioned the House of the Lords to dismiss his arrest claiming immunity on the basis of being a former head of state. Both of these requests were denied as the House of Lords affirmed that former heads of state did enjoy immunity for acts committed as functions of a head of state, international crimes such as torture and crimes against humanity were not such functions. Ultimately, in March 2000 Pinochet was released and returned to Chile on medical grounds after tests found him mentally unfit to stand trial.
However, in the wake of Pinochet’s arrest, Chile’s political and legal landscape had transformed allowing more space for the voices of victims and a sweep of new legal interpretations. The Supreme Court had found the Amnesty Laws only applied prior to 1978 when the state of siege was declared over, additionally, they stated that amnesty could only be granted after an investigation. Moreover, in the cases of disappeared persons, this act constituted an ongoing aggravated kidnapping meaning these cases went beyond the 1978 cut-off.
Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán asked the courts to strip Pinochet of his immunity and the courts agreed, indicting Pinochet and placing him under house arrest.
Unfortunately, Pinochet never stood for trial, but his military officers did.
The indictment of Pinochet and new interpretations of the 1978 Amnesty Laws paved the way for other human rights violators to be prosecuted in Chile. By July 2003, 300 military officers had been indicted and dozens convicted, mostly surrounding cases of enforced disappearances. In 2017, 106 ex-agents of DINA were charged with kidnapping and killing 16 people in “Operation Colombo” during the early years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Many were already serving times for other cases and were sentenced to between 541 days to 20 years in jail, while the state was ordered to pay around $7.5 million (5 billion Chilean pesos) to the families of the deceased.
Justice is not only a conviction of a crime. While it is vital to convict human rights violators, it can be extremely challenging, but the arrest of Pinochet has laid the foundation for other dictators to stand trial. Of equal note, this case transformed how victims were seen and heard in Chile, offering justice through legal means when possible and honoring the injustices publicly when before there was silence. Chile continues to reconcile with its past, voting to do away with the constitution written by Pinochet in place of a new one and through the tireless efforts of human rights defenders domestically and internationally.
Note from the author: This post is the third of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the first two parts before this one, but it is not required to understand this part. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.” If the last part is not available yet, be sure to check back in during the upcoming weeks when it will be posted.
As you are reading this, there are children in labor camps who have no idea that a world exists beyond their barbed wire. They believe that the entire world is confined within the fences that hold them. They have never heard of countries, the regime that holds them there, or the existence of people who look different from them. They were born to enslaved, imprisoned parents and taken from them before they could even wean off breast milk. They have never felt as though they’ve had enough to eat. They have lived in a constant state of overwork and malnutrition for their entire lives. They don’t know about the Kim Dynasty or the regime. All they know is that the guards who hold them there are above them. They hold all the power in the world in their batons and rifles. The lingering threat of death holds their minds captive, reducing them to survivalists, doing anything they can to stay alive. They catch mice, rats, and moles to eat. They avoid confrontation with the guards and hide their pain so as to not disappoint the powerful guards with their lives in their hands.
There has only ever been one known escapee from these horrifying “Special Total-Control Zones” where children born to prisoners are held for their entire lives. Shin Dong-Hyuk had no idea that a world existed where food was sufficient until one of his friends told him about Kim Jong-Il and the world beyond the prison camp. When the guards left them alone outside for a split second, he and his friend decided to make their break. His friend fell unconscious due to the high voltage barbed wire fence, and Shin used his friend’s body to climb out and run away. He never saw his friend again, and his deepest regret is not going back to rescue him. Hear him tell his story here.
Status of Legal Code
The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) intentionally writes laws in abstract, vague language. The laws are never communicated to the general public who are supposed to be following them. This gives the regime complete and total power over the criminality of these citizens. If a person of a high Songbun (class) wants a person of a lower Songbun to be arrested for any reason, they will simply interpret the law to mean whatever they want it to mean and have that person arrested. Common offenses include “conspiracy to subvert the State”, “treason against the Fatherland”, and “illegal trade.”
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
When a person is accused of having broken a law, they are immediately detained by police. Rarely are they told the reason for their arrest or the rights that they have. They are brought to a jail where they are not told the amount of time until their trial. The only form of bail is the informal bribery of the guards. Only a lucky few with resources and connections are able to leave the station at this point in the process.
When their trial date comes along, they have no say in the outcome. If they do not prove themselves to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, then they are assumed to be guilty and sentenced at the judges’ discretion. For most of them, their only hope is that a family member has bribed the judge in their favor. In most cases, this bribe costs their family everything that they have, ruining their lives and pushing them deeper into poverty.
Forced Labor as Punishment
The main form of punishment used by North Korea is imprisonment in forced labor camps. They believe forced labor to be a form of repatriation in that when a person works for their country, they will grow an appreciation for it and be less likely to commit a crime against it. That, of course, is just what they tell people. The WPK knows that the purpose of these prison camps is to exploit the slave labor of people deemed “undesirable” and to feed the ego of the state. They know that the people in these prison camps are being tortured. I truly believe that if the WPK could do anything to possibly make the lives of these people worse, they would do it without question. The WPK is the embodiment of evil, and being in a labor camp controlled by them is completely and unfeasibly miserable.
Human Rights in Prison Camps
This section, in particular, will detail some of the torture endured by prisoners. If learning of this torture will be of particular detriment to your mental health, I recommend ending here and reading any of the other articles on this site that may be easier for you to stomach.
When in a North Korean labor camp, guards have full and complete discretion over the lives of the prisoners. Guards in this situation grow increasingly sadistic as they continue their jobs and commit heinous acts in the name of their regime, justifying it by dehumanizing the people under their control. Most people, especially those with female anatomy, do not leave these camps without being the victim of rape, most of the time on multiple accounts. All people lose copious amounts of weight during their stay due to malnutrition. If a guard wants you to eat dirt, you eat dirt. If they want you to grab the high-voltage fence, you grab the high-voltage fence. There is no limit to the power that the guards have over you.
Prisoners are randomly and sporadically accused of withholding information from the guards. They are then subject to intense interrogation techniques. When Shin Dong-Hyuk was young, his mother and brother were accused of trying to escape. He was suspected to have information about this plan. As a result, he was subject to torturous interrogation. He lost the tip of his right middle finger, his face was sliced open with a weapon, and he was hung over a fire by his hands and feet. He still bears the scars from this torture. When he inevitably had no information to give the guards, he was forced to watch his mother and brother be hanged and shot in a public execution.
Trigger Warning: the next image is a depiction of torture.
There is no happy note on which to end this article. The lives of incarcerated people in North Korea are miserable. They are subject to the worst human rights violations worldwide. I encourage you to take a moment for your mental health after reading this article so that together we can put an end to this inhumane treatment. Be sure to read my next article, the fourth part of this series, titled, “Steps That Outside Governments Can Take Toward Ending the Human Rights Violations of North Korea.”
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