What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

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

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

Definitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The State of Incarceration in Alabama

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Organized Radical Collegiate Activism (ORCA) Conference organized by the UAB Social Justice Advocacy Council on January 24, 2020. Various important and interesting social justice issues were discussed and presented by talented UAB students throughout the day. The presentation that stood out the most to me was “The State of Incarceration in Alabama” by Eli and Bella Tylicki. The brother-and-sister duo did a great job bringing attention to a very important human rights issue right here in Alabama.

Eli Tylicki and Bella Tylicki Source: ORCA 2020

The presentation started out with some questions for the attendees, such as what they thought were their odds of getting incarcerated at some point in their life? After some interesting responses from the audience, the presenters revealed that White men have a 7% chance of getting incarcerated at least once in their life, Hispanic men 17%, and African American men have the highest (32%) chance. However, women account for only 7% of the U.S. prison population. It was also revealed that the cost to imprison one person for a year in the U.S. is $36,299.25, or $99.45 per day.

As compared to other developed countries such as Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people per 100,000 population, almost three times more than these countries. The United States makes up roughly 5% of the world’s population but holds about 25% of the world’s prisoners. Shockingly, 31 U.S. states also have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world, and Alabama is among the worst in the country. Alabama exceeds national averages in virtually every category measured by states and the federal government, making the state’s prison system one of the most violent in the nation.

Source: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html

Now the question arises, why is the state of incarceration in the U.S. uniquely outrageous, and why is Alabama among the worst in this aspect? Many factors are responsible for such staggering statistics, including our economy built on slavery, poverty, tradition-based culture, fear and insecurity, systemic racism, educational inequity, and punitive cultural attitudes just to name a few. Focusing on Alabama, the presenters showed that Alabama’s prisons were revealed to be the most crowded in the country in 2017, with the prison suicide rate being three times more and the homicide rate ten times more than the national average. On April 2, 2019, the U.S Department of Justice Report concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” Note that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment.

The presenters then went on to show the various horrific accounts of prisoner violence, sexual abuse, homicide cases, and extreme physical injuries during a single week in 2017 as reported by the investigation. It was extremely shocking to learn about the various instances of such abuse and violence that took place in just a single week in our prisons. Those examples were used to illustrate the gravity of ongoing issues in state prisons and are not mentioned here due to their disturbing and triggering nature. Additionally, overcrowding and understaffing are some very important issues that contribute to the worsening situation of prisons in Alabama. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the state houses approximately 16,327 prisoners in major correctional facilities which are designed to hold only 9,882. Moreover, prisons like Staton and Kilby hold almost three times the number of prisoners than their capacity. As for understaffing, Alabama’s prisons employ only 1,072 out of the 3,326 needed correctional officers according to ADOC’s staffing report from June 2018. It also reported that three prisons have fewer than 20% of the needed correctional officers. This illustrates the increased threat to the safety of both the staff and the prisoners in those facilities due to the lack of required personnel in case of an emergency.

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Common

The Department of Justice also reported the excessive number of deaths due to violent and deadly assault, high number of life-threatening injuries, unchecked extortions, illegal drugs, and the routinely inability to adequately protect prisoners even when officials have advance warning. The report also threatened a lawsuit within 49 days if the state does not show that it is correcting what is said to be a systemic failure to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

In response, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership to lease three “megaprisons” from a private firm as a solution to the understaffing and cost-ineffective conditions in state prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that “we are convinced now more than ever before that consolidating our infrastructure down to three regional facilities and decommissioning the majority of our major facilities is the way to go.”

Bella and Eli Tylicki gave an overview of the potential pros and cons of the megaprison proposal. Some advantages may be that the upfront costs will be covered, and it may prove as a quick fix with less red tape (a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action). However, privatized prisons may lead to a decreased quality of life, is economically inefficient, and there is no change in cost for taxpayers. The Equal Justice Initiative explains how building new prisons will not solve the state’s prison crisis:

Alabama’s primary problems relate to management, staffing, poor classification, inadequate programming for incarcerated people, inadequate treatment programs, poor training, and officer retention. None of these problems will be solved by building new prisons, nor does a prison construction strategy respond to the imminent risk of harm to staff, incarcerated people, and the public.

Therefore, the presenters proposed an alternative to this solution in the form of decarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners. This aims at fixing overcrowding and understaffing, decreases the inside violence, and costs less for taxpayers. Additionally, there is no change in crime rate outside the prisons and rehabilitation leads toward GDP growth and a more productive society. Studies have shown that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to recidivate and have a higher chance of finding employment when they are released. Plus, these valuable educational and rehabilitative programs cost the state nothing while having significant positive effects on successful re-entry of prisoners and protecting public safety. Of course, there will need to be more done other than just an emphasis on decarceration, such as fixing the infrastructure, improving healthcare, and incentivizing an increase in Correctional Officers. Low-cost reforms such as effective use of video surveillance cameras, implementation of an internal classification system, skilled management, and other basic management systems such as incident tracking systems, quality control, and corrective action review can result in significant improvements in conditions for both the staff and the prisoners. These low-cost reforms helped the nation’s worst women prison, the Tutwiler Prison for Women, become a model for reform.

The Tylickis ended their presentation with a call for action by urging the audience members to call their state representatives and senators to take responsible action, as they will be voting on this issue in the coming weeks. Additionally, they asked us to volunteer with reentry organizations and educate ourselves and others on the issue. Some initiatives that we can support include The Dannon Project, Alabama Appleseed, and the Equal Justice Initiative. We, as responsible and active citizens of this state, need to play our part in making our society safe, just, and productive for all.

Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

History of Net Neutrality

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Case for Net Neutrality

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

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

Net Neutrality, Internet Equality, and Human Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Fire: A Gun Safety Issue

A child holding a gun
Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons

Last week, a 2-year old boy accidentally shot himself in his home in southwest Birmingham. Fortunately, he survived the gunshot wound and is being treated at the Children’s of Alabama hospital. The police are not sure how he obtained the gun yet, but the investigation is ongoing. Last month, a case of a two-year old boy in Indiana was reported who lost his life after finding his mother’s unsecured gun in their home and accidentally shot himself. A few months ago, a 12-year boy in Mississippi accidentally shot and killed his sister of the same age while playing with a gun. There are numerous other cases like these when children get access to unsecured firearms and end up in such horrific circumstances. These accidental shootings are defined by the term “family fire.”

Family fire is a shooting that involves improperly stored or misused gun(s) found in the home, resulting in injury or death, including unintentional shooting, suicide, and other gun-related tragedies. Family fire is a constant threat for all members of the household where firearms are not properly stored. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that the prevalence of guns AND unsafe storage practices are associated with higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths. It was also found that youth killed in these gun accidents are shot by other youth in most cases, usually someone of their own age and typically a family member or friend.

Every day, family fire injures or kills eight children in America. According to a report from the New York Academy of Medicine, children under the age of 18 suffer the most from in-home gun-related incidents. For suicides and unintentional deaths, the gun used almost always comes from the child’s home, resulting directly from improperly stored firearms and the lack of proper precautions. Over 4.6 million children in the United States live with unlocked or loaded guns in their homes.

A large body of evidence has shown that the presence of guns in a child’s home substantially increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death, though recent data suggests that not a lot of gun owners appreciate this risk. Parents and other adults who own guns tend to greatly underestimate the possibility of children being able to access those arms. It has been found that 75 percent of kids know where that gun is stored in their home. A report on “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms” revealed another shocking fact that one in five kids had handled a gun in the absence of their parents. Not only that, children’s exposure to unsafely stored firearms can also have consequences beyond the home. It has been found that 75 percent of school shootings are facilitated by kids having access to unsecured and/or unsupervised guns at home.

Considering the seriousness of these statistics and the deadly consequences of unsafe access to guns, Brady launched a “End Family Fire” campaign. Through this initiative, they strive to promote the use of the term “family fire” in order to raise awareness of this nationwide crisis and drive social change by educating and encouraging gun owners about safe gun storage. Their belief is that family fire can be ended with joint community action and public awareness and that lives can be saved through promoting safe storage practices.

Ad Council, America’s leading producer of public service communications, partnered with EndFamilyFire.org to bring attention to this pressing issue and to encourage people to learn more about proper gun safety and responsible ownership.

Research data from the New York Academy of Medicine shows that:

“The risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injury is lower in homes that store firearms unloaded (compared with loaded) and locked (compared with unlocked). In keeping with this evidence, guidelines intended to reduce firearm injury to children, first issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1992, assert that whereas the safest home for a child is one without firearms, risk can be reduced substantially, although not eliminated, by storing all household firearms locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition.”

There is a lot of conversation around gun violence and gun rights in America. Much of this debate is focused on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet, what we need to understand is that this is more than a conversation about gun rights, gun violence, and whether or not people should have the right to bear arms. I’m sure that we can all agree on the importance of preventing our kids from the risks and deadly consequences of having easy access to firearms. Those on all sides of the Second Amendment debate and gun owners and non-gun owners need to come together to promote safe practices and prevent unfortunate incidents like family fire from occurring.

The first and foremost step is to safely store the firearm(s). It has been found that keeping guns locked and unloaded reduces the risk of family fire by 73%. Additionally, storing ammunition separately from its gun reduces the risk of family fire up to 61%. Keep them out of the reach of others, especially children, who can use them to dangerous outcomes. The State of New Jersey has required sellers to provide trigger locks or locked gun cases with each gun purchase, among other laws this has contributed in a decline of unintentional gun death cases in the state. It is another way to promote safe gun storage and making sure that people have the necessary equipment to do so.

Another way is to encourage discussions around responsible gun ownership and safe storage practices within our social circle, family, friends, and colleagues. The most important thing to do is to have a conversation with your kids. Make sure that they understand their limits on accessing firearms, do not consider it a toy, and understand the severity of consequences that may arise as a result. Discussing gun safety and making it a part of the family’s safety conversation is important, especially for gun owners because they play a powerful role in educating others about safe storage practices. Additionally, we need to begin asking others about the presence of unsecured guns in the home for their own safety, before moving in with someone, and before sending your kids to anybody’s home.

Family fire is a pressing issue affecting many families everyday in the country. We as a society need to take up the responsibility of addressing this problem, encouraging the lawmakers and security agencies to take notice and action, and play our part by both promoting and practicing safe gun storage practices.

Cupcake and the State of Missing Children in the U.S.

Kamille Cupcake McKinney. Source: AMBER ALERT, Creative Commons.

It breaks my heart to write about the tragedy of the three-year-old little girl Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, fondly known as Cupcake, who was abducted from a birthday party about two weeks ago here in Birmingham, Alabama. AMBER alerts were issued across Alabama and extended into neighboring states in an effort to locate her. The Birmingham police department had been updating the public on the efforts, but unfortunately a day after Mayor Randall Woodfin pleaded with the public to help find her, the remains of the little angel were found in a dumpster at a landfill in Birmingham. This is indeed a sad moment for not only the family of Cupcake and the city of Birmingham, but also for humanity as a whole. We as a society have failed the little angel, and she is indeed in a better place than this cruel world. My heart goes out to her family as this is an irreparable loss for them that cannot be made up with any amount of sympathy. We hope they are able to find solace and healing with time.

Mayor Woodfin held a vigil for “Cupcake” outside of Birmingham City Hall, where hundreds of people gathered to honor her. They expressed sorrow and solidarity for the innocent soul “whose disappearance gripped the Birmingham area for 10 days and whose death shook the city to its core.” Birmingham police department, City Council, community activists, faith-based leaders and the general public stood with heavy hearts and teary eyes to pay tribute to baby Kamille. This was one of the many vigils held in the city after the devastating news of her death, including the spot where she was last seen in Tom Brown village. Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith expressed his grief over the incident and how his department endlessly worked in hopes of bringing the child safely back home. He had some powerful words to say:

“I believe Kamille changed this city. A 3-year-old little girl has changed the landscape of the city of Birmingham. She made us stop and check ourselves. Check ourselves to see if we’re doing everything we can to keep our children safe from harm. Check ourselves to see if we’re truly the village that we promise to be. Check ourselves to see if we’re living up to the expectations of tomorrow and watching over our children today.”

This incident has called for a reflection of ourselves and of our community. It has made us question the safety of our own children because little Cupcake was one of us. We need to evaluate if we really are the village that we strive to be or are we too segmented and disconnected as a community and a society? It makes us question how safe our neighborhoods and cities are? Do we assume that someone will always be there to step in and stop it? Are there any truly safe spaces? The answers are to be found.

To this date, two persons of interest have been charged with kidnapping and murder in relation to Kamille’s disappearance. A similar case surfaced in South Carolina when the body of a 5-year-old girl Nevaeh Adams, who was missing since August, was also found dumped in a landfill within 24 hours of this tragedy.

Missing children is a bigger crisis in the U.S. than most people think, and unfortunately Cupcake was one of many. A child goes missing every 40 seconds here in the United States. Last year alone, more than 400,000 reports of missing children were made to law enforcement in the US, out of which almost 15,000 were kidnapped. The most commonly abducted group was of female children aged 12-17.

It is notable to consider the amount of coverage Cupcake was able to get and the reward amounts offered for her retrieval. Unfortunately, this kind of effort is not always the case for missing children, especially for those of color. A study by Ohio State University found that missing African American children are in fact underrepresented in news media making it difficult to spread the word about them and to retrieve them. This itself is a violation of the Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. The Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit striving to bring awareness to the missing persons of color, issued a report suggesting that one reason for the under-representation of missing minority people is the widespread belief that such people live in impoverished conditions with crime being a regular part of their lives. This mindset contributes to the factor of racial consideration in the coverage and efforts of finding missing persons.

Cases of people who go missing generally involve multiple abuses of human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures the rights to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5). In a lot of cases, the right to life is also violated as in that of Cupcake and Nevaeh Adams. Additionally, the families of victims may face violation of human rights as well, such as the right to a family life. In case of the absence of official investigations, the families and survivors of the victims face the violation of their right to due process, to recognition of a person before the law, and even to the prohibition of torture. It is important to consider it as a human rights issue and the various ways in which the fundamental rights of the missing persons and their families are abused.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure a safe environment for all its citizens and the community members to play their part in keeping it safe. In case of such unfortunate circumstances, the community seems to be limited to the aftermath and post-incident action. The states are under a legal obligation to conduct effective investigations for all missing persons and to guarantee that all abuses be officially investigated irrespective of the fact that whether or not those abuses are considered attributable to actions by the victim. International Humanitarian Law also obligates the search of the missing and complements the universal guarantees provided by human rights.

There are various reasons that a child can go missing. When children are kidnapped by strangers, it is often due to pedophilic motives and for sexual exploitation. Some kidnappings are also motivated by monetary reasons such as human trafficking, sex-trafficking, forced child labor, illegal adoption, or for ransom. These are generally well-organized illegal networks run nationally and internationally and are always on the lookout for potential target-children. A few rare cases also involve serious mental conditions or revengeful motives used for kidnapping, abducting, and hurting children. Parental abductions and runaways also constitute a large number of missing children, but the focus of this article are the abductions by strangers.

Now the question arises: What can we do on our part to prevent such unfortunate circumstances and to keep our children safe from predators in addition to actions taken by the authorities?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most of these incidents happen when children tend to wander off without realizing the danger. Parents and guardians need to take necessary precautions to help keep their children safe by being more vigilant of their surroundings and ensuring a check on children. Some kids can be more curious, mischievous, and vulnerable than others. Parents need to ensure trustable adult supervision at all times, especially in crowded public places. While choosing daycares, schools, or camps for children, make sure that there are ample security measures and policies in place for kids’ safety. Adults also need to be very careful while hiring babysitters and should get necessary background checks and recommendations before letting someone be alone with their child. Additionally, children need to be educated and trained for potential crisis situations and ways to seek help. Train them to be mindful of strangers, encourage them to share any unusual happenings, and teach them about the resources and necessary actions when encountering an unusual situation. For children with special needs, parents and guardians should take extra precautions and make necessary arrangements for the safety of their children, as they might be more vulnerable than others.

Lastly, all of us need to stay alert of our surroundings and take active responsibility for helping authorities in our communities when AMBER alerts are issued for such cases. We can look out for people, vehicles, victims, or criminals as specified in the issued alert. We can help spread the word by sharing the information with others and volunteer to distribute posters of missing children. For specific cases, community members can conduct organized searches to help the police forces look for missing children. We should stay aware of our surroundings, report suspicious activities and people, safely intervene and help in situations to the best of our abilities, and know the community resources for taking appropriate action.

A number of resources are available for parents facing such an unfortunate situation of a missing child. In such an emergency, contact your local FBI field office or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on 1-800-THE-LOST. The AMBER Alert program has also been credited with the safe recovery of 957 children to date and is a great way to get the word out in order to mobilize communities for the lookout. Parents are also encouraged to keep child safety kits which include all the necessary information like IDs, recent photos, physical characteristics, fingerprints, and other information about the child. These should always be kept intact to be used in potential emergency situations to assist the authorities in taking appropriate and immediate action.

We as a society need to re-evaluate ourselves, our values, commitments, priorities, actions, and safety in the light of these staggering realities and horrific instances. Little baby Cupcake will not come back to her family, but a lot of other children can find their ways back home through the joint efforts of authorities and community members. We all have to work together to make our communities safer for our precious children, who are the future of this world.

Healthcare Disparities for Rural Communities

Hospital closed sign directing patients to the next nearest hospital
Hospital Closed. Source: Nigel Goodman, Creative Commons

Access to healthcare is one of the biggest predictors of health. When someone has access to healthcare, they are more likely to seek treatment for and catch chronic diseases in early stages. This can greatly improve health outcomes and quality of life. However, when access to healthcare is restricted in any way, health outcomes and quality of life decrease, those who need consistent treatment may go without, and preventable deaths increase. Rural areas disproportionately face decreased access to healthcare, which greatly affects the health and productivity of these already disadvantaged areas.

Lack of Insurance

There are many barriers to healthcare that rural Americans face. First of all, there is a lack of insurance. This is mainly because insurance premiums are more expensive in rural areas than they are in urban areas. Urban areas have larger populations, which encourages more insurance companies to compete with each other, driving the costs of premiums down. Additionally, their larger population means the cost of medical expenses can be spread among more people. This also lowers premium prices. Because these two factors are not present in rural areas, they are left without affordable healthcare.

Additionally, many people in rural areas have incomes that fall in the gap between qualifying for Medicare and being able to afford private insurance. Medicare is available to specific low-income groups. In states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, the most common income limit for Medicaid eligibility is 43 percent of the Federal Poverty Line and childless adults are excluded regardless of income. These qualifications leave over 2 million adults in the United States uninsured.  Insurance is important because it can help cover costs of healthcare which can otherwise become insurmountable. Those without insurance are less likely to seek healthcare, and when they do, it is typically worse quality than those with insurance receive.  Additionally, when an uninsured individual does seek healthcare, the costs are sometimes too high and turn into medical debt. Since much of the rural population is uninsured, these problems plague many of them.

Closing Hospitals and Pharmacies

Those that do have insurance still face a bigger problem: many rural areas don’t have hospitals within a twenty-minute drive. 25 percent of those living in rural areas report that they have to drive at least 30 minutes to get to the nearest hospital. In fact, almost one in four rural Americans say access to adequate healthcare is a major issue for them. Additionally, many hospitals in rural areas are shutting down, leaving communities without the healthcare they are used to. Since 2010, there have been over eighty rural hospital closures, mainly in the southeast. These hospital closings have a devastating effect on the communities they were a part of. Mortality rates for accidents, heart attacks, strokes, and anaphylactic shock risedue to longer ambulance rides. Additionally, residents may be unable to attend routine appointments because of transportation limitations; much of the rural population is elderly, which restricts their ability to drive, and public transportation is less common in rural areas than urban areas. This also means that with the onset of troubling symptoms, residents of rural areas may wait longer to see a doctor because of the inconvenience.

Many rural areas also lack pharmacies, which can hurt those who rely on prescription drugs for good health. Even the rural communities that have hospitals may lack a pharmacist, and many of the pharmacies in rural areas are in danger of closing; many have already. This is due to higher costs of medications at rural pharmacies and lack of pharmacists in rural areas. This can have a devastating effect on residents, as many go periods of time without their prescriptions—like Insulin or medication for depression— until they can get to the nearest pharmacy. Additionally, pharmacists in rural areas are helpful in educating the community on when they can use over-the-counter meds and when patients should see a doctor.

But why are hospitals and pharmacies closing? They have few patients, many uninsured, and they are greatly affected by states’ refusal to expand Medicaid. Medicaid expansion, which 14 states have not ratified, would close the gap between those that qualify for Medicaid and those that can pay for private insurance. As discussed previously, those with insurance are more likely to seek medical care, which would bring more business—and therefore, funding—to hospitals and pharmacies, making them less likely to close. Additionally, they lack the staff required to stay open. 99 percent of students in their last year of medical school report they plan to live in communities with over 10,000 residents. Without a staff, a hospital cannot stay open.

Lack of Specialists

In many rural areas, including those with hospitals, there’s a lack of specialists, like oncologists and OB/GYNs among others. Specialists typically work in large hospitals that have adequate resources, so they tend to reside in cities. This means that those with specialized needs often have to drive to the nearest city to receive care. Traveling can pose a problem to many rural Americans as many of them are older, but this also affects many younger rural inhabitants as they may not have the time off from their jobs to drive hours to receive specialized care. This leaves many without treatment that they need and worsens health outcomes. This is especially concerning considering many rural communities have higher rates of diseases than urban communities do. Specifically, “rural African Americans have higher rates of cancer morbidity and mortality than other rural residents and have higher rates of comorbid conditions” according to Robin Warshaw from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Rural African Americans also have higher rates of disease than urban African Americans. This makes the fact that specialists are not easy to access even more concerning, especially considering they are the largest rural minority. Minorities in general have less access to healthcare, and living in an area that doesn’t have easy access to healthcare in general can exacerbate this issue.

Low Health Literacy

The healthcare system is complex, which means that patients have to work to understand what care they need and when they need it. The ability to do so is called health literacy. Studies have shown that health literacy is important to health outcomes. The higher level of health literacy a person has, the more likely they are to seek out preventative care, such as screening tests and immunizations, that can catch diseases in early stages or prevent them altogether. If a patient doesn’t understand what the doctor tells them, they are less likely to be comfortable enough to seek care. Additionally, higher health literacy rates make it easier to understand how to manage existing conditions. In addition to less access to healthcare, rural Americans have lower health literacy, which compounds their health problems. However, because rural citizens are less likely to have access to health care, it is especially important for them to have high health literacy, which can be attained by using programs that work to educate patients and clinicians on the importance of patients having an active role in their healthcare.

Solutions

Rural healthcare in America is a big problem, but it can improve. In addition to the health literacy programs, there are many solutions to close the gap in healthcare between rural and urban areas. While the common medical school experience trains students for work in populated areas, a consortium of 32 medical schools has created a rural healthcare track with their medical schools. This not only puts more doctors in rural areas, but also trains them for rural areas’ specific health needs. While the program is too new to see a significant increase in rural healthcare professionals, the majority of students who have gone to residency have stayed in rural areas and are studying specialties that are in much needed in rural areas. Additionally, there are many scholarships for those planning on practicing medicine in rural areas, further encouraging medical students to practice in areas in need of doctors.

Incarceration and Menstrual Hygiene

Menstrual Hygiene products displayed on a flat surface.
Zubehör für weibliche Hygiene wie Slipenlagen und Tampons auf rosarotem Hintergrund. Source: Marco Verch, Creative Commons

Menstruation is one of many topics that can be difficult and uncomfortable to talk about but is absolutely necessary, as many people do not have the resources they need to manage menstruation within reach.  The WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System defines menstrual hygiene management as being when people who experience periods “are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.”  The struggle for accessible menstrual hygiene management can be found in all parts of the world and is even true of some places you would not necessarily expect.  One such place is in prisons, where women often have severely insufficient access to products like sanitary pads and tampons.  This problem needs to be addressed, as menstrual hygiene products are a necessity.  They are not merely items of luxury and should never be treated as a privilege. 

However, things are slowly but surely improving.  The First Step Act that was enacted in December of 2018 requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide pads and tampons at no cost to the prisoners.  While this is a good step forward, it only applies to federal facilities and does not help in state or local ones.  Further change continues to be imperative. 

Examples of the Problem 

Betty Ann Whaley, who was released from the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island in June of 2016, told the New York Times that pads were available “seven out of ten times,” and tampons were even less accessible.  It is important to remember that even a nine out of ten times availability would be a serious problem, given the impact it can have on one’s health when menstruating without the means to deal with it.  

Even when pads are available, they are often very thin, requiring them to be changed frequently.  This leads menstruation to still be difficult to manage, as women in prison often only have access to a small number of pads each month.  Chandra Bozelkowho spent some time at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Connecticut, wrote about her experience with menstrual hygiene management for the Guardian in 2015.  Each two-person cell was given five pads each week, giving each woman about ten pads per month.  If a woman’s period lasts for five days, she would only have two pads for each of those days.  This would not be enough, even if the pads were of high quality. 

Topeka K. Sam developed blood clots while she was in prison, meaning she needed sanitary pads that were more absorbent than those available in the commissary.  In order to get the menstrual hygiene materials that she needed, she was forced to prove that they were a necessity. She put one of her used pads into a bag and a male staff member determined that she truly needed different pads.  Five months had passed by the time she had access to resource she needed. 

In some cases, there are even monetary barriers that prevent women from being able to properly manage their menstrual hygiene.  Prior to the establishment of the First Step Act, federal prison commissaries charged $5.55 for two tampons and $1.35 for two panty-liners.  This is a far greater amount of money than either of these products are worth.  For example, you can buy an 18-count box of tampons for $9.19 at Walmart.   

Menstrual Hygiene Management in Prisons Is an International Concern 

Menstrual hygiene materials are also often difficult to access outside of the United States.  In the Bom Pastor women’s prison in Recife, Brazil, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found a few different factors that make proper menstrual hygiene and healthcare difficult.  As of March of 2017, tampons had not been distributed to the women since 2015.  Water was only available three times each day, which is a barrier to strong menstrual health.  There is a risk of infection if there is a lack in adequate soap and water for keeping clean.  The prison system of Brazil also only employed 37 gynecologists in 2017, which means there is less than one for every 900 women in the system.  HRW also found that 630 women had been placed in a cell that was only built to hold 270.  This absence in any privacy and presence of practically no space makes even the act of replacing sanitary products difficult. 

According to one study, prisons in Zambia leave inmates responsible for many of their basic- necessities such as menstrual hygiene products and soap.  One woman living in a Zambian prison stated, “If others don’t bring them for us, we have nothing.  There are lots of people with no relatives here.  They have nothing.”  The water that is available is often unclean, so they have inadequate ability to keep clean as well.  These prisons also have the same overcrowding problem as the Bom Pastor prison, being more than 300% over capacity. 

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

Impacting Health 

Ignoring menstruation is not an option.  Not only would that be extremely uncomfortable, but it is also a health and safety issue.  Lacking access to necessary menstrual hygiene management materials can have an impact on both the mental and physical health of women living in prisons.  In terms of physical health, women who are trying to deal with menstruation while incarcerated might develop health problems such as bacterial infections from trying to use other materials in place of regular menstrual hygiene products.   

In terms of mental health, being denied the things one needs to deal with menstruation is a dehumanizing experience.  At this point in time, talking about menstrual hygiene feels awkward and uncomfortable for many people.  This fact does not change among incarcerated populations.  When you add experiences like that of Topeka K. Sam, having to prove that she needed the resources she was asking for, the situation becomes even more difficult. 

Why Does It Matter? 

Truly accessible menstrual hygiene management resources are undoubtedly a human rights issue.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), all people have the right to a standard of living that sufficiently supports their well-being and health.  The harm that can be done to one’s physical and mental health when they lack the menstrual hygiene products they need gets in the way of this right. 

Potential Solutions 

How do we improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons?   

The people who are most aware and likely care the most about this issue are people who have been disenfranchised, as only two states allow people convicted of felonies to keep their voting rights, and only 15 states automatically restore their voting rights after they have served their sentence.  Additionally, many people would not have the resources they would need to advocate for change, no matter how strong their drive or greatness of their ideas.  It would be helpful in trying to solve the problem if we could figure out a way to empower people who have direct experiences with it. 

Prisons could potentially switch from providing disposable menstrual hygiene products to reusable ones, like Thinx or Lunapads.  While the initial change would be relatively expensive, it would save them more money in the long run, as they would not have to constantly buy more sanitary pads and tampons.  This option could significantly improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons, and, as bonus, it would also be much better for the environment. 

Improving this issue is an important step in ensuring that people who have been incarcerated are still treated with dignity and respect as human beings.  People are people, no matter what they have done in the past.  There is no reason to treat anyone as less than human or prevent them from having access to their fundamental human rights. 

If you have an interest in learning more about the need for improved access to hygiene management, check out this post on MHM! 

 

 

 

Mary Frances Whitfield: Why?

Mary Frances Whitfield: Why? is a collaborative exhibition between the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The exhibition is co-curated by AEIVA Curator John Fields and Dr. Brandon Wolfe, Assistant VP of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UAB. It is on display at AEIVA until November 23, 2019. The images included below are in the exhibition.

Depictions of lynchings are usually loud – they bring into focus the agony of the victims, their bodies beaten and burned, hanging from a tree, or the intense anger, absolute hatred, and pure evil of the perpetrators and spectators as they relish in their acts of terror, dehumanization and brutality. Mary Frances Whitfield invites us to consider another experience, one that often goes unacknowledged or unconsidered artistically and historically. What happens when the spectacle is over, when the crowd disperses, when the terrorists have gone home, having achieved their fill of racial violence for the day? Who comes to claim the victims, to hold their lifeless bodies one last time, to cut them down and lay them to rest?

Mary, 1994
watercolor and acrylic on canvas board
16 x 20 inches
photo: Adam Grimshaw
Collection of the artist, Courtesy Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects
©Mary F. Whitfield

Whitfield’s paintings are not loud. They depict a silent despair. She transforms the space of public spectacle, of loud chaos, into a private and still experience that focuses on the quiet mourning of the bereaved. For Whitfield, this mourning conditions the lives of black people in her ancestral history and now. Her depictions are dark and heavy, they are full of grief and despair, and this emotional weight is largely held in the bodies of the mourners who literally hold this anguish – and their faces – in their hands. The victims and the mourners are often dressed in bright pastel colors, an image that foregrounds their vibrancy against the backdrop of a thick and consuming darkness. It reminds us of the life they could have lived, a life that was cut short by hate. Wives wrap their arms around the lifeless bodies of their husbands, young boys reach for the dangling feet of their fathers, women touch their protruding bellies, desperately hoping, we might assume, that their unborn children will not meet the same fate as the victim. Bodies of men, women, children, and babies hang from trees, sometimes engulfed in flames, sometimes appearing to sway slowly in the breeze. The stillness of the victims and the stoicism of the mourners in Whitfield’s paintings reflect the normalcy and the familiarly of an ordinary experience, part of daily existence for African Americans in the 18th and early 19th century, a reality wrought with unbearable pain, constant mourning, and overwhelming fear. 

Sari-Mae’s Sorrow, 1996
watercolor on canvas board
16 x 20 inches
Collection of the artist, Courtesy Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects
©Mary F. Whitfield

The title of the exhibit invites us to ask “Why?”, and the question looms on several levels. Why lynching? Why Albert? Why Sari-Mae? Why Mama and Papa? Why me? Why us? Why then? And maybe most importantly: Why now?

When the slavebody became the blackbody, white people could not let go of the compulsion to maintain dominance over black bodies and black lives. The vilification and demonization of black people took hold in the discourse, and a consensus grew around the need to protect white people and white dominance, a need so desperate it justified brutal violence and severe oppression against the newly “freed” citizens. Whitfield’s paintings are borne out of stories her grandmother told her about life during this time, a time when more than 4,000 black human beings were lynched publicly and without consequence. The work is timeless, though, and as we leave the exhibit and go out into the world, we are forced to wonder why this is still happening. Lynchings today take a different form, but they continue to terrorize and demoralize black communities all over the United States and emphasize the devaluation of black bodies and black lives in our society.

Toni Morrison says that the purpose and the power of art is in its ability to create conversation, one that is “critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely.” If we can ask ourselves “Why?”, if we can have this conversation, if we can engage in this discourse honestly and authentically, if we can accept the truth about the continuing legacy of the slave trade and mass enslavement and lynchings in all of its forms – past and present – and then reconcile ourselves to that truth, then maybe through that conversation, we will see a path forward, one that leads us toward healing, one that will someday allow us to live in the peace and freedom and beauty of Dr. King’s dream. It’s a hard question to answer, not in its complexity but in its power to change our understanding of ourselves, but it’s one that we must ask.

Mindful Learning: Adding Meditation to Education

A girl sitting outside and meditating.
Girl Meditation. Source: Best Picko, Creative Commons

If you have ever struggled to fall asleep or dealt with significant anxiety or stress, you may have tried to calm down and relax yourself by listening to a guided meditation or yoga practice.  Data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 14.2 percent of American adult and 54. Child participants had practiced meditation in the previous 12 months.  The survey also found that 14.3 percent of adults and 8.4% of children had practiced yoga in the past year. Some schools have now seen the positive impact that meditation and yoga can have on children’s behavior and mental health and have decided to integrate these practices into their procedural structures.  Instead of sending children to detention or the principal’s office for traditional disciplinary methods, these schools have rooms designated for mindfulness and meditation.  This results in a complete shift in how both educators and students cope with behavioral issues and emotional struggles in the classroom. 

What Is Meditation? What Are the Benefits? 

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation is, “Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.”  While there is no single method or rigid guideline for how to meditate, there are four main elements that most meditation methods include: an environment with minimal distractions, a comfortable posture (such as sitting or lying down), a focus of attention, and an “open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).”  In this context, yoga combines meditation with specific physical postures and breathing techniques. 

While there is still much research to be done on meditation and its impact on people, studies thus far suggest that it can help reduce blood pressure, aid in coping with anxiety and depression, improve sleep, reduce pain, improve ability to focus, and much more.  There is also research that suggests practicing meditation could lead to physical changes in the brain which support numerous aspects of mental and physical health.  For example, one study that was performed in 2012 compared brain images of 50 adults that did not regularly meditate and 50 adults who had been doing so for years.  The results suggest that the brains of those who had been practicing meditation had undergone gyrification, which means the outer layer of their brains had more folds, potentially increasing their ability to process information.  Another study from 2013 suggests that regularly practicing meditation may slow, stall, or reverse certain changes in the brain that typically result from aging.   

It should be noted that every individual’s relationship with and response to meditation can differ.  One person may work well with a certain meditation strategy, while another person might find that strategy extremely difficult or uncomfortable.  Some people who suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety, may find that certain forms of meditation make them more anxious.  Some people may have physical limitations that prevent from sitting on the floor, which is a common posture for many meditative practices.  It is a very personal experience and should not be treated as one-size-fits-all. 

Children learning yoga outside.
Learning Yoga. Source: Amanda Hirsch, Creative Commons

How is Meditation Being Implemented in Schools? 

In 2013, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School of West Baltimore created the “Mindful Moment Room,” a space used for meditation and yoga.  This is where students are sent when they are being disruptive in class or aggressive with their classmates.  The space is warm and inviting, smelling of essential oils and decorated with pillows and yoga mats.  Here, students who are feeling angry or frustrated can have an opportunity to breathe and do activities like yoga and meditation to calm down.  The Holistic Life Foundation is the nonprofit that helped the school to establish and run the Mindful Moment Room.  The staff helps students talk about why they had to leave class and guides them through mindfulness exercises.  Mindfulness in not limited to being encouraged when students are misbehaving.  Students listen to a 15-minute guided meditation over the intercom at the beginning and end of every school day and can practice yoga both during and after school. 

Not only is this beneficial in helping kids work through problems at school, but it also helps them build skills that can help them to cope with strong negative emotions in the future.  The students themselves have been able to recognize the benefits they have experienced from practicing mindfulness.  Dacari Crawford, a third-grader at Robert W. Coleman, said, “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work and tune everyone out.  It gives you good confidence when you need to do something important.”  Inspired by the impact mindfulness practices have made on the elementary school, Patterson High School has started its own Mindful Moments Room. 

A Mother’s Testimony 

Dana Santas, a yoga trainer to many professional sports teams, was invited write an article for CNN discussing her experience of guiding her three children (the youngest of which being on the autism spectrum) through yoga.  In her experience she has found three main reasons why mindfulness-practices like yoga and meditation should be taught in school:   

The first is “teaching breathing as fundamental to well-being.”  She points out that the impact that breathing has on us is not as simple as the fact the we cannot live without breathing.  Our breathing patterns, our postures while breathing, and the way we breathe in general impacts both our mental and physical health in ways that are hard to notice if we do not know to look for them.  This be related to things like the basic mechanisms of breathing or using breathing to calm down when one is overwhelmed.  Santas developed a breathing exercise called “peace palm exhaling” to help her son with Asperger’s syndrome when he becomes overwhelmed.   

The second reason is that yoga can help children “move with control and confidence” because it can help them gain self-control and respect for their own bodies and improve their balance and movement abilities. 

The final reason she discusses is that yoga can promote the power of mindfulness, helping children to learn skills that they can use to cope with anxiety and stress. 

How Does Mindfulness Impact Human Rights? 

One significant impact that the use of meditation and mindfulness in schools has on human rights is that it helps to improves students’ ability to access and fully utilize their right to an education.  The right to an education is recognized in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Article 26 of the UDHR also recognizes the right of every person to an education that works towards the full development of their personality, and that right is also supported by meditative practices.  With fewer class disruptions, an improved ability to focus, and a calmer school-environment, students can spend more quality time learning and gaining knowledge that they can use in the future.  Practicing mindfulness also helps to create an environment that supports one’s health and well-being, which is recognized as a right in Article 25 of the UDHR and Article 24 of the CRC.  The impact that meditation and mindfulness can have on education and personal development can help a person better prepare for future experiences, helping them have better access not only to these rights, but also to their other rights as well.