Solitary Confinement Amounting to Torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and Racism

informational poster on coronavirus and travel
Coronavirus Public Alert Oslo. Source: Annikdance, Creative Commons.

At this point, I’m sure almost everyone knows about COVID-19. With schools shutting down, conferences being cancelled, and travel being restricted, even those in uninfected areas are affected. However, while some of us are most worried about washing our hands and not touching our faces, some people have to worry about discrimination. Those of East Asian descent are being discriminated against all over the world, whether they’re from China or not, whether they’ve been in infected areas or not, whether they’re sick or not. COVID-19 is bringing out racism that has laid dormant, and, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time it has happened.

Historically speaking—especially before the scientific knowledge we have now—large outbreaks were blamed on minority groups. In 14th century Europe when the Black Death occurred, many looked for an answer, and when they couldn’t find an answer, they found a scapegoat: the Jews. They were seen as nonconformists by the Christian majority and were subsequently blamed for the outbreak that would be known as the Black Death. Many were tortured until they made false confessions and killed, and their persecution continued centuries later.

Since then, almost every major outbreak has illuminated underlying racism within the global community: when syphilis appeared in Renaissance Europe every country blamed another; Irish immigrants were blamed for the 1830 cholera outbreak; and Mexicans and others from Latin American countries were discriminated against during the Swine Flu epidemic in 2009.

Most recently, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 brought out racism towards those of African descent. College admission was denied to two Nigerian students to Navarro College, and a Guinean high school soccer player attending school in Nazareth, Pennsylvania was heckled by the opponent’s fans, who chanted “Ebola” at him. Americans hesitated to shake hands with people of African descent, whether they were American or not, and the US imposed a travel ban to and from West Africa.

What we are seeing now with COVID-19, is similar to what we saw during the 2003 SARS outbreak. While the Ebola outbreak illuminated prejudices towards African Americans, in 2003, those of East Asian descent, regardless of their nationality were discriminated against in certain areas. The three Chinatowns in Toronto, Canada were empty for weeks, East Asians were constantly asked if they were sick when no one else was, and they were avoided when they went out in public. In Canada, there is the stereotype of yellow peril that labels Asians as “unsanitary, lower-class, and alien.” This stereotype obviously found root in SARS and only exacerbated these prejudices.

picture of xenophobia in the dictionary
Spiritual Xenophobia. Source: George Ian Bowles, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, it seems like we haven’t learned from these numerous outbreaks, and the racism and xenophobia along with COVID-19 is way more widespread and way more violent. A man attacked an unidentified woman was attacked on the subway in New York, and reports say that the confrontation was a result of the Asian woman wearing a mask. Like in 2003, the discrimination is not restricted to people of Chinese descent: a man singled out a Thai American lady on a bus in LA. He gestured at her while saying that “every disease ever came from China.” Finally, in Indiana, two men of Asian descent were denied a room at a hotel and told that if they were Chinese, they’d be “picked up and quarantined for two weeks.” All of these attacks were before any deaths occurred in the US.

These incidents aren’t unique to the Untied States either. In London, a student from Singapore was attacked in a busy shopping area. While he was being attacked his assailants told him, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” He was left with fractures on his face, and he might need reconstructive surgery.

The racism that is emerging is not new, it has just been hidden. The fear that everyone is feeling is being redirected towards previous biases. The student from Singapore reported that he had been experiencing racist comments for the entire two years he had been studying in London. Because COVID-19 originated in China, the racism already present towards those of Asian descent has been exposed, and thanks to misinformation, it continues to grow. Fear has been shown to bring out the racism that already exists within people, not cause it.

In times like these it’s important to know the facts because that’s how we fight this discriminatory fear culture: Asians are no more likely to have COVID-19 than the rest of us. No one is any more likely to get COVID-19 because of their race or ethnicity. Despite the virus originating in China, there is no evidence Chinese people or Asians are predisposed to infection. Secondly, just because someone of Asian descent is wearing a mask, it does not mean they’re sick. In many East Asian cultures, it is normal to wear a mask year-round, not just when you’re sick.

It’s important to spread the facts. One of the biggest factors in discrimination is ignorance, so education is the best way to fight it. People are scared, and that is bringing out the prejudices they’ve kept hidden and might not even know they had. Additionally, catch and correct yourself when you think or do something with prejudice. Start improving our global community by improving your own thoughts.

COVID-19 is a pandemic, and it’s a serious infection, especially for the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions. However, the racism and xenophobia are spreading just as fast. As a global community, we shouldn’t add to the burden of this disease by using it as an excuse to be discriminatory.

Human Rights and the Coronavirus

Scene at Atlanta airport
Source: Chad Davis, Creative Commons

As countries around the world continue to fight the outbreak of the coronavirus and deal with the disease is causes (COVID-19), the question arises how this public health crisis affects human rights. It is essential that we not ignore human rights during this crisis, even if our primary focus is fighting the outbreak and finding a cure for the disease. The epidemic and the response to it have a major effect on people’s lives, and thus are guided and impacted by human rights. Human rights cannot be an afterthought, but need to be worked into both public and private responses.

To follow up on my colleague Dr. Peter Verbeek’s earlier blog post, I will focus my considerations on two issues: 1) how public policies and legislation in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19 affect human rights; and 2) the broader human rights consequences of the proposed and implemented public health measures.

May public health policy limit human rights?

Most countries have statutes that allow for limitations to human rights in times of national emergencies or major public health threats. According to international law (and in most democratic states constitutional law), these limitations have to be necessary, proportionate, and related to clear and lawful public aims. They also have to be implemented in accordance with existing laws and the greatest measure of transparency.

In response to the coronavirus, emergency legislation in many countries (see for example in the U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia) allows health departments and public health officials to impose a number of measures that affect people’s lives and their human rights. These measures include detaining people to be screened, collecting their health information, and putting them in isolation. People who do not comply with orders by public health officials or obstruct their work, refuse detention, leave a place of isolation, or supply misleading information can face criminal charges. For example, when a woman was evacuated from Wuhan and quarantined at Travis Air Force Base in California asked to leave the facility, California authorities issued an order forcing her to stay against her will.

While these types of measures might be necessary during such emergencies, it is worth noting that they do interfere with basic human rights, especially the right to liberty (UDHR Article 3), protection from arbitrary detention (UDHR Article 9), right to privacy (UDHR Article 12), and freedom of movement (UDHR Article 13). Considering the significance of these rights and freedoms and the grave consequences that can come from violating them, it is vital that government policies impede individual freedoms and human rights as little as possible. Further, any interference on human rights has to be based on strongest scientific evidence available (as opposed to, for example, racist or xenophobic justifications).

The ceiling of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Source: United States Mission Geneva, Creative Commons

There are a number of important ways to achieve this.

      1. To ensure the protection of privacy and other rights, only data directly relevant to combatting the coronavirus outbreak should be gathered from individuals. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has wide-ranging powers in case of emergencies, including obtaining clinical specimens and data from persons affected by an outbreak, obtaining data from healthcare facilities, enforcing control measures including quarantine, and seizure or destruction of private property. While some of these measures might be needed to stop the spread of a virus, it is important that the principles of necessity and proportionality are at the front and center of response policies to guarantee the respect for human rights.
      2. Crisis-related messaging should be led by scientists with the assistance of government officials, not the other way around. The consequences of abusing public health threats like the coronavirus for political purposes was demonstrated in China where censorship and denial led to a worsening of the public health situation. The misuse of the coronavirus outbreak for political purposes has also and continues to happen here in the U.S., which is especially dangerous at this time when trust in the government and political institutions is at an all-time low and independence, objectivity, and usefulness of science and its ability to act in the public interest is divided along partisan lines.
      3. Public health organizations, as well as the government, need to establish official communication channels that remain open for detained and quarantined people. Moreover, those subjected to restrictions such as detention and quarantine should have the ability to appeal their situation and voice their concerns regarding their treatment.
      4. Officials, as well as the public, have to recognize that those in quarantine or detention are in an extremely difficult situation. In addition to their medical state, they are often socially and economically vulnerable. The stigma that often accompanies quarantine and/or detention can lead to exclusion, emotional difficulties, and mental health issues. Similarly, loss of income or jobs can lead to short-term and long-term problems for affected people. For their part, governments should act to mitigate the negative consequences of public health policies and be aware of underlying socioeconomic conditions, potential human rights violations, and structural violence.
      5. The duration and severity of necessary limitations on human rights should be clearly communicated. It is not just the extent of human rights limitations that matter, but also how long they are set in place. The so-called “war on terror”, for example, was originally launched as a response to the terror attacks of 9/11, but it has persisted for decades, with legal authorities extending well beyond their original goals.

The human rights consequences of fighting the coronavirus

This brings me to the second part of my post, which focuses on the broader human rights and societal consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak. As Mary Bassett and Natalia Linos of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights write in the Washington Post, “[e]pidemics emerge along the fissures of our society, reflecting not only the biology of the infectious agent, but patterns of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination.” Beyond the more immediately obvious issues of how quickly the virus spreads, how many people will die, and how our healthcare system is affected, we need to ask ourselves about the societal effects of public health threats.

The most significant question is: who is the public? Who are public health responses designed for? Race, gender, caste, class, migration status, disability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, living conditions (urban v. rural), and other attributes determine the level of inclusion or exclusion of a person or group in society and their vulnerability in case of crisis. Even when measures seem neutral on the surface, public health responses to infectious diseases tend to follow a “utilitarian logic”, which can lead to unintended consequences and discrimination. For example, results are often gendered: Women tend to be caretakers of children and older people, making them the first to have to skip work when children are out of school or elderly parents fall ill. They are also often front-line healthcare providers, and any family-related responsibilities for these women can lead to shortages of available health personnel. Other advice, such as “social distancing”, cannot be upheld in prisons, public transportation, or migrant camps, and are therefore only useful for the privileged who live in their own flats or houses and can use their cars for transportation. In some cases, public health responses emphasize xenophobic or racist tendencies and reinforce societal divisions. There are already a number of stories and occurrences people of Asian descent shared about sneezing or coughing in public and experiencing responses ranging from angry looks to outright racist comments. Also, not all people have access to information if it is not prepared in minority languages, accessible formats, and spread through different means (e.g., illiterate people will need audio or visual announcements).

A bag with the word "health" on it overflowing of money
Source: 401kcalculator.org, Flickr Creative Commons

Arguably, the people affected worst by this crisis are those of low socioeconomic status, and often they face double or triple discrimination. Many low income and hourly workers do not get sick days or sick pay, which means to become infected and quarantined could result in  job loss, and potentially the loss of savings (if they have any), and potentially housing, cars, and other important possessions.  For poor children, school closings might mean that they miss their only meal of the day. Moreover, not all households in the U.S. have running water, making advice like “wash your hands” difficult to implement. At worst, by transferring public preparedness responsibilities to individuals without taking human rights into account, we reinforce “entrenched patterns of privilege and deprivation across social determinants of health.”

This situation is particularly problematic in the U.S. healthcare system, as it excludes people based on employment and/or immigration status and on the availability of financial resources. The large number of people without access to health insurance will not have the same level of information, testing, or treatment available to them as those with health insurance, and they face additional worries about financial burdens associated with seeking care. Further, private companies can decide how much to charge for treatments of the virus or vaccines without concern about affordability.

In my mind, a purely market-based allocation of healthcare resources in times of COVID-19 is not only unethical, but a human rights violation. Article 25 UDHR calls for everyone to have “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” How far we are from this ideal! Viruses and pandemics don’t care about a person’s legal, economic, or social status, but because of lack of human rights-based public health responses, crises will have differing impact on rich, privileged people as opposed to poor, disenfranchised populations. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated, “people who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus.” The search for an inclusive public health response and a more equitable and accessible healthcare system is even more urgent and important in times of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

people in a mirror
Distorted world? Source: Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons

Where does this leave us?

What happens next and the way our political leaders handle this crisis is therefore crucial. If authorities take a heavy hand, twist the truth, and/or compromise hard fought for fundamental freedoms and human rights, the public might be less willing to cooperate in a future crisis situation. Successful interventions in public health crises do not only depend on the level of control issued and the sophistication of medical responses, but also, and most importantly, on whether or not the people trust the government to handle the crisis, to communicate transparently, and to be accountable to its citizens. It also depends on solidarity and community building – whether people cover their coughs and sneezes, self-isolate when they think they got infected, and not hoard scarce supplies to the detriment of others. Public participation and agency of all people is therefore a key component of managing the disease successfully.

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and my colleague Peter Verbeek pointed out, it is vital to structure any response to the coronavirus outbreak holistically, and that includes respect for and protection of human rights. It means to develop a transparent public response based on principles of equity and accountability for all actors involved, including the private sector. It also requires taking care of those most vulnerable in a crisis and protecting the most marginalized in a society, both medically and economically. Human rights cannot be an afterthought in epidemics. How governments handle the coronavirus and their response to COVID-19 might as well set a precedent for human rights in the future. Let’s hope that this crisis will be an opportunity to see the value of human rights, public participation/democracy, and multilateralism.

For more information about the coronavirus and COVID-19, medical advice, and how to protect yourself, please see UAB’s COVID-19 Resources and the updates provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

 

I would like to thank Dr. Robert Blanton and Dr. Courtney Andrews for their comments on this piece.

Under the Surface: Navigating Through the Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié

On February 4th, 2020, the Institute for Human Rights, alongside the African American Studies Program, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the Department of History hosted a discussion with artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The event was moderated by Dr. Charly Verstraet of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UAB. Duval-Carrié and Dr. Verstraet discussed Duval-Carrié’s different works, a large overview of his work, as well as the width of the scope and the diversity of his works. Dr. Verstraet and Duval-Carrié specifically discussed Duval-Carrié’s Indigo Room and his collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes before addressing questions from the audience.

The theme of the night was “Under the Surface,” which was described to have two meanings. The first is to delve into what is hidden and unseen in the world and the second is a representation of silence. These meanings carry over into Duval-Carrié’s work and in his life. Duval-Carrié is based in Miami but was born and raised in Haiti. Much of his work represents his Haitian culture and the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.

Duval-Carrié speaking about his project.
Duval-Carrié speaking about his project. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

The first piece of art presented was Indigo Room. This art installation is a room of blocks, created by local high school students, with a large feminine figure on the ceiling. Duval-Carrié described the piece to be a celebration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as well as to signify the movement of Haitians from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, New York. He worked directly with high school students and asked each one to create a “memory window,” about Haiti. These “memory windows” were encased in resin and placed in the museum alcove. The installation is blue, to represent being underwater. Duval-Carrié stated that he wanted to make sure that as Haitian people arrive to different cities in the United States, the Haitian culture arrives with them as well The figure on the ceiling is the ultimate mother in Haitian culture, representing both the cosmos and water. He described the installation as a mix of the past, religion, and politics. Duval-Carrié also said that in 2014, he and the students who he worked with to create the installation reunited. He described being so impressed at how many of them continued with the arts into their adult lives.

The second discussion point was the collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes. These pieces are re-imagined from the artworks of the Hudson River School, depicting an idealized Caribbean. Duval-Carrié described the Hudson River School paintings as alluring and romantic. While the paintings were beautiful, they forgot to incorporate the humans living on the islands and the suffering they endured. Duval-Carrié’s re-imagining took select Hudson River School paintings and upended them, making the scenery large and mysterious. Most importantly, he adds the culture of the Caribbean and the heartbreak of United States imperialism back into the landscapes.

Duval-Carrié has taken his talent and passion for art to inspire important conversations around the world. He encourages Haitians to be proud of their heritage and their country. He encourages Americans to recognize the way imperialism reshaped entire countries and how those countries are still reeling from its effects. It is important to acknowledge the powerful effects of art in reclaiming culture and sparking conversations and it is vital that we keep those conversations flowing.

Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience.
Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Edouard Duval-Carrié, you can look at his  webpage where a listing of his current exhibitions can also be found.

 

PRISONERS NEED ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE TOO!

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

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

Prisoners = Environmental Justice Communities

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

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

Unjust Prison Conditions

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

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

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

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

Unjust Working Conditions

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

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

Responsibility of the State

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

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

Why Bother?

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

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

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

Thoughts on Homelessness in Birmingham

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

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

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

Responsibility of the State

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

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

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

A look at more vulnerable populations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More immediate examples for anyone to help everyday

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

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

Federal Links Relevant to homelessness:

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

 

The Importance of Art in Human Rights

How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.

“The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin. June 30, 1917

The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.

“All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, March 9, 1969

The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.

“The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerrilla Girls, 26 Feb 2016

The Guerilla Girls are feminist activist group comprised of more than 55 artists. They describe themselves by saying: “We wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. We undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.” This group of activist artists started in 1985 and, by the early-21st century, have expanded their awareness into the media world, namely the film industry. “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” brings awareness to the racism and sexism in the film industry by portraying a white male holding his genitals with text boxes demonstrating the percentage of people of color that have won Oscars in the past 86 years. The Guerilla Girls displayed this billboard in Hollywood a few months leading up to 2016 Oscars, noting, “the people we want to reach will see it…There is so much positive press around the Oscars – the gowns, the stars – that we decided it was time for another point of view.

“Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman

Molly Gochman’s “Red Sand Project” is a worldwide instillation that takes a hands-on approach of bringing awareness to human trafficking. This project encourages all communities to pour red sand into cracks on sidewalks to recognize the overlooked populations (refugees, immigrants, girls, and others) that are at risk of slavery and exploitation. “These interventions remind us that we can’t merely walk over the most marginalized people in our communities — those who fall through the metaphoric cracks”, explains Molly Gochman. This informative, and largely interactive, work of art takes simple, yet powerful, gestures and to bring worldwide awareness through photography and social media. It is an ongoing project, raising action for those who are overlooked and vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, 2011

In 2011, various outbursts of popular protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, causing a revolutionary wave called the Arab Spring. Staring from Tunisia and later spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, people were rising against their oppressive leaders. As the protests grew larger they were met with violent responses from authorities. One of the striking things that came out of this short period was the growth in street art, graffiti, and calligraphy. “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, located in Cairo, Egypt, is a great example of protest of oppression. This graffiti is part of an instillation called “Thousand Times No” which Shehab explains, “represents a rejection of both the conformity and the repression that often stifle the Arabic speaking region and Islamic cultures.” The text above the Blue Bra is saying “no stripping the people” and the sole of the military boot reads “long live a peaceful revolution”, calling the incident of a veiled girl who was stripped and beaten by police on December 18, 2011, and happened to be wearing a blue bra. In another location, Sheab installed a calligraphic graffiti which is an Arabic translation of Pablo Neruda’s quote, “you may crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring”.

“America” by Touba Alipour, 2017

Touba Alipour’s “America” is a mixed media artwork, curated by gallery director and artist Indria Cesarine, placed in The Untitled Space gallery’s “ONE YEAR OF RESISTANCE” exhibition in January 2017, shortly after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. This exhibition, which included over 80 artists, addressed and protested policies that challenged human rights in our society such as immigration rights, health care, reproductive rights, climate change, transgender rights, white supremacy, gender equality, gun control, sexual harassment and many others. Among these artists, Touba Alipour addressed the travel bans placed by Trump which prevented people from six Muslim countries to enter the United States. “Being from Iran, it definitely affected me in different ways”, mentions Alipour, “I’ve seen families being torn apart, and they had green cards, they were living here, they just went to travel, and when they came back they were told they can no longer enter the country”.

Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.

Establishing the UAB Institute for Human Rights

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Twelve months ago I interviewed for the position of Director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights (IHR).

Nine months ago I was offered the position.

Six months ago I arrived in Birmingham with an idea of what I wanted to do, not knowing anyone or having a concrete plan of how to implement my ideas.

Three months ago we started to determine in which direction we want to take the IHR. Now, the Institute has a physical space, a virtual space, and staff.

And this is the UAB IHR’s first blog post. It’s been a whirlwind!

The IHR was initiated by Robert Palazzo, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and key faculty members in 2013 to provide a framework for Birmingham’s human and civil rights activities and to connect the city’s historical significance in the struggle for civil rights to national and international collaborative initiatives. In June 2014, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees approved the Institute, which is housed in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences.  A search for its Director started.  And here I am.

UAB Heritage Hall, the physical location of the UAB IHR (room 551)
UAB Heritage Hall, the physical location of the UAB IHR (room 551)

I thought long and hard about how to position the IHR not only within Birmingham and UAB, but also within the wider academic community. It seems there are three types of institutes for human rights:

  • the one at the law school, focusing on the law making process, adjudication, and domestic or international implementation of human rights law;
  • the policy-oriented institute, advocating and lobbying for human rights in government institutions; and
  • the interdisciplinary center that either examines specific rights (e.g., social and economic rights) or a specific areas of human rights (e.g., human trafficking, transitional justice, or women’s rights).

The first two options didn’t seem to be a good fit for UAB, which left the last option. I concluded I needed to learn more about UAB and Birmingham to make an informed decision on how to position the IHR.

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve met with close to 100 organizations and units at UAB, in the Birmingham area, and beyond that engage in human rights work. I reached out to institutions focusing on alleviating poverty, addressing women’s issues, educating on human rights or human rights related issues, dealing with victims of violence and human trafficking, and focusing on social justice issues and civil rights. It was an interesting experience that taught me a lot about the community that I’ve come to live in. I realized that by connecting with the work that’s already being done in this city and around this state, the IHR could serve as a solid link between the university and its surroundings, providing a framework for human and civil rights.

Sculpture dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama; The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain
Sculpture dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama Source: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain

 

I’m a social scientist by trade – I have a joint appointment in the Department of Government and Department of Anthropology at UAB. I’ve always been interested in studying the way vulnerable or underrepresented populations – minorities, refugees, women, children, or persons with disabilities – advocate for and claim their human rights and how they deal with and monitor human rights violations in their own communities. The pattern of their struggles often remains the same – marginalization, poverty, violence, and a whole myriad of human rights violations.

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The IHR will specifically focus on these struggles worldwide. It serves as a platform for interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration to study the bottom up approach to human rights and highlight the way in which marginalized and vulnerable groups assert their human rights. The focus on the social movement associated with human rights is embodied in the Institute’s icon, which represents the movement taking over the world.

 

The IHR’s goal is

to bring Birmingham to the world and the world to Birmingham

focusing specifically on human rights in an international perspective. It engages in three specific areas:

  • education, mainly focused on UAB students, but also beyond;
  • research, at the IHR but also in collaborating with other research institutions, government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs; and
  • practical action and outreach, namely engagement with the local community, practitioners, and by integrating applied approaches.

This blog is thus a crucial part of fulfilling the IHR’s mission. It will serve as a way to educate a wider audience on international human rights issues, as a forum for reflection and discussion, and as a way to promote our events. The IHR research and events team will post weekly updates.

Source: new 1lluminati, Creative Commons
Source: new 1lluminati, Creative Commons

I hope you will check back often and engage with us on the blog, social media, and in person. We can’t wait to open up a whole new world of human rights and show you how you can get involved, learn from your ideas, and collaborate and interact.

For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and stop by our office on the 5th floor of Heritage Hall (room 551, to be exact).