The USDA reports that there are about 23.5 million people in the US that reside in a food desert, including over six and a half million children. A food desert is described as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Many believe that the term ‘desert’ incorrectly implies that a lack of affordable and healthy food is naturally occurring, and a better term to describe the subject is food apartheid, which also includes the discrimination of communities of color regarding economic opportunity and access. For the case of this post, we will use the two interchangeably. In Alabama alone, close to two million residents live in a food desert, and almost 150,000 of them live in Birmingham. This accounts for 69% of the city’s total population. A 2019 update also found that there is at least one area that is identified as a food desert in each of Birmingham’s nine City Council Districts.
Birmingham’s Efforts to Eliminate Food Desertification
According to a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, there are over 6,500 food desert tracts in the United States. People who reside in food desert tracts are more likely to have abandoned or vacant homes, and those who live in these areas tend to have less education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment rates.
This chart goes on to show the differences between food insecurity rates based on race. Although each demographic has seen a decrease in their food insecurity rate over the last several years, there is still a very large gap between the races, with the biggest difference being between Black and white Americans, who have a difference of roughly 10% between the groups. Even worse, there are countless combined consequences that can hurt already marginalized communities from living in a food apartheid, including an increase in obesity and physical conditions like diabetes due to the lack of access to affordable and healthy food options.
Ways to Help
Despite the current efforts to help, there is still a great need to assist those who are experiencing this human rights crisis at hand. Although the complex issue holds no simple solution at the local, state, or national level, there are many ways to contribute to the cause. The first step to begin making a positive change is to educate yourself on the levels of food insecurity in your area and who it primarily affects. Learn if anything is currently being done by your city, county, or state government or private organizations. Familiarize yourself with food banks in your community and consider forming the habit of donating to them periodically if you can do so. Food banks and pantries usually also take donations of unused toiletries for those in need and special products for pregnant mothers and babies, but you should check what each place is willing to accept in advance. In addition, you can also ask what their most needed items are throughout the seasons. Regardless of how you choose to help, we can all make a positive difference by educating ourselves and others on the causes and effects of food insecurity.
While discussing various human rights violations and crises, it is important to also be mindful of the special groups such violations affect. On August 19th, 1982, the United Nations announced that June 4th of each year will be declared the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression. According to this article from OC Human Relations, the day’s purpose is to acknowledge the pain suffered specifically by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. The day also affirms the UN’s commitment to protect the rights of children. According to Children’s Advocacy Centers of Tennessee, nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the US alone. In addition, rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children in families with low socio-economic status compared to children in families with higher socio-economic status. A child’s right to be free from aggression and abuse is violated globally across many spectrums with crises such as domestic abuse and gun violence.
Child Domestic Abuse and Covid-19
Domestic abuse is an international issue that can affect people of every age, race, gender, and background. Also referred to as ‘domestic violence,’ domestic abuse can directly or indirectly affect children due to bullying, harassment, and endangerment from those who reside in their homes with them. Some signs of domestic abuse in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship include the following fromThe Children’s Society:
Kicking, punching, hitting
Threatening to kill someone or hurt them
Controlling someone’s finances by withholding money or stopping someone going to work
making someone feel guilty, criticizing them or making them feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves
Unfortunately, the 2020 outbreak of the Covid-19 virus led to an increase in child victims of domestic abuse due to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. These lockdowns decreased a child’s ability to find a safe place through school counselors or churches and seek guidance from trusted adults. Without being able to find an escape from unsafe home lives, many children suffered an increased risk of domestic violence. Although exact numbers cannot be known of how many additional cases were caused by the pandemic, one study analyzed data on more than 39,000 children treated at nine pediatric trauma centers. When researchers analyzed the group of children aged 5 and older, the number of child abuse victims tripled compared to a similar period before the pandemic. “The most common injury identified was head injury, followed by a mix of chest, abdomen, extremity and burn injuries,” said senior study author Dr. Katherine Flynn-O’Brien, associate trauma medical director at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Dr. Andrea Asnes, a leader of the AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and director of Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing in New Haven, Connecticut, went on to explain that daycares for younger children were deemed essential and remained open, while school-aged children were stuck at home.
Today, and every year on June 4th, it is important to remember this human rights holiday in honoring Innocent Children Victims of Aggression across the world. Progress can be made by further educating yourself on the many acts of aggression that violate a child’s human rights and by spreading the word to others. Click here to learn more: International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.
This is an unprecedented time we live in. We are currently living through climate change, a pandemic on pause, and an international conflict that has the potential to turn global. People around the world are struggling with conflicts and atrocities, at times, due to the American military’s involvement, while hundreds more are dealing with increasingly dangerous heat waves as a result of the climate crisis. Still, others are trying to face the consequences of the pandemic, including the devastation left behind due to the loss of lives and the increasing financial insecurity that continues to widen the inequality gap between the struggling and the affluent. War in Ukraine wages on as we enter the fourth month since its beginnings, with what seems like no end in sight, while the Pentagon discusses options of US involvement in the fight against Russia. Now, the precarious attack on women’s rights seems to be the latest hurdle for Americans. This regression of rights in the democratic nation which has claimed countlessly throughout history to “spread democracy into the world,” seems beyond ironic and hypocritical.
The History of the Abortion Rights Movement and Context Behind Roe V. Wade
Before analyzing the recently leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision attacking women’s right to privacy, we should examine the history and context behind the controversial topic of abortion. How did abortion become such a controversial, political issue? Well, in order to have a holistic view of this topic, we have to examine the Religious Right movement that took place in the 1970s in what is known as the Sunbelt states or the lower half of the United States. This movement involved the grass-roots participation of churches and other Christian organizations in politics to push for a more traditional, “moral” policy platform in response to the growing feminist and gay liberation movements of the time. These Religious Right organizations aimed to reverse bans on prayers in school, shift toward more traditional values, and limit sexual freedoms, including pornography, sex work, and even abortion rights. One specific organization, known as the Moral Majority, declared “war against sin” and was especially involved in electing officials to government offices who were sympathetic to their cause. The Religious Right movement was so successful in its “family values” campaign that it was in part responsible for the Equal Rights Amendment’s failure to be ratified, thaks to one devoted, conservative activist by the name of Phyllis Schlafly. They also vehemently opposed the right to abortion that was secured by the passing of Roe v. Wade, and they constantly attempted to have the decision overturned. To the members of the Christian New Right, abortion was a sin, and many believed it to be the murder of an unborn child. They provided Bible verses from the scripture to support these beliefs, disregarding the countless scientific developments that were being published that stated otherwise. While they were concerned about abortion rights and attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Christian New Right has failed to consider the basis upon which the Supreme Court case was decided, and the precedent it would set if overturned.
Roe v. Wade is a Supreme Court case that was brought before the court in 1970 regarding the legality of an abortion law in Texas which criminalized abortion in most circumstances. The decision, in this case, was based on the right to privacy guaranteed in the “due process clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that a person should not be denied the right to life, liberty, and property without going through a legal process that is fair and meets some fundamental standards of justice. This essentially means that the state or federal government cannot limit fundamental rights such as the right to privacy.
What Overturning Roe v. Wade Would Mean
The Roe v. Wade decision was an expansion of privacy rights that had been referenced as a precedent for this ruling. Privacy rights range from women’s right to birth control to the right to same-sex marriages, was used to overturn sodomy laws, and even applies to issues concerning data privacy. Overturning such a monumental decision can have devastating consequences on not only women but all citizens across the nation. This regression of rights, in an attempt to end all abortions, will not have the intended effect. Women are going to continue to require and desire to have abortions, either due to health complications, personal preferences or after surviving traumatic instances of sexual abuse. Abortions are not going to magically stop happening and making it illegal to get or perform an abortion is not going to stop rape and incest from occurring either. If history is to be the judge, what is more likely to happen instead, is that women are going to attempt dangerous and untested procedures in desperate attempts to get abortions, which can be life-threatening for the women in many instances.
As part of their anti-abortion crusade, many states, (which includes Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, and seven others) are not providing exceptions for instances of rape and incest in the anti-abortion laws they have proposed, and many politicians, (such as Pete Ricketts, a Republican Governor of Nebraska, or Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa), have been asked for clarifications about this very issue on multiple occasions. What they constantly reply is that even a rapist’s child is still a child, meaning that women who are raped or have been victims of incest cannot receive abortions in these states and will be forced to carry to term the children of their abuser. To place such an expectation on victims of abuse and force them to live through the immense trauma that these laws would demand is not only unjust but purely evil.
Another cruel consequence of the anti-abortion laws many “trigger” states are prepared to pass is the impact these laws have on the ability of women to have an abortion after miscarriages and stillbirth. Procedures utilized to address miscarriages and stillbirths involve the same medications and procedures used for abortions. Outlawing these medications and procedures can tremendously impact women experiencing miscarriages or stillbirths and place caregivers in delicate positions legally. Due to the fact that many states have prepared to criminalize abortion and have encouraged neighbors to report anyone getting an abortion or helping someone else get an abortion, hospitals, and abortion clinics are also placed in vulnerable positions. Originally proposed by Texas, four more states have passed similar proposals for the enforcement of abortion laws through the involvement of citizens. While all this sounds like it came from a bad dystopian novel, we are only at the tip of the iceberg of consequences, so to speak.
The denial of abortion rights portrays the backsliding of American democracy, but the criminalization of abortion leans toward fascist tendencies. The right to abortion is not simply a women’s rights issue but also a voting rights issue that can be catastrophic for the survival of our democracy. A brave Congresswoman, Lucy McBath, addressed a hearing on abortion rights conducted by the House Judiciary Committee after sharing her personal experiences with two miscarriages and a stillbirth. She questioned, “If Alabama makes abortion murder, does it make miscarriage manslaughter?” Many states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Utah, have already proposed laws incriminating abortions. In an extreme proposal, Texas “trigger” laws would deem abortions a second-degree felony with sentences up to 20 years, and in cases where the fetus is dead, (meaning miscarriages or stillbirth), the charges can become first degree felonies and the sentence can be anywhere between five years to life in prison. Many states are even proposing fines on top of prison sentences for abortions. These laws not only target the women getting abortions, but also anyone who assists in the process. People charged with felonies in many states in America lose their right to vote, even after having served their sentences. If abortions are criminalized and women and “abortion-sympathizers” are charged with felonies, this would be a form of state repression of an entire voting block. If women are sentenced to jail and prison time for abortions and using contraceptives, they will also be disenfranchised as a result of their “criminal” record. This can set dangerous precedents for privacy rights in general and is fundamentally a threat to democracy.
The Myth of the “Pro-Life” Argument and Why “Just Moving” is not a Practical Option for Many Americans
The “pro-life” stance, one of the biggest misnomers in American history, has been responsible for forcing women to have unwanted births and taking away women’s agency over their own bodies. This sentiment mirrors the dystopian society of Gilead from the famous series by Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The “pro-life” argument is only concerned about the birth of the fetus in question. Once the baby is born, families are left to fend for themselves, without any saftey nets in place to help these families raise healthy children. First off, there are very limited legal protections in place to ensure that once a baby is born, the mother and the child will receive all the assistance they require to develop a healthy and nurturing childhood for the newborn. Along these lines, affordable childcare options in America are minimal, and the foster care system has proven to be underfunded and ineffective, oftentimes even acting as a breeding ground for abuse and neglect of the very children they are supposed to care for. Maternal leaves are not mandated by states or the federal government, but rather left for individual companies to decide whether to offer them or not, and paternal leave, (for the father to have a chance to bond with the newborn child), is almost unheard of in this country. Additionally, people who are poor might not be able to afford the high costs of childcare, or even doctor visits during pregnancy and prenatal care to ensure a healthy pregnancy. People living in impoverished situations might not be able to feed another mouth in their family due to financial situations, and these hardships have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Politicians and media platforms stress the unborn “child’s” right to life while they argue why holding immigrant children in cages at the border is justified. The same “pro-life” supporters are also in favor of loose gun regulations and refuse to listen to the many children who are asking their representatives to pass stronger gun laws to prevent school shootings. The fact that the same people in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade are also in favor of banning forms of contraception that prevent pregnancies in the first place, signals that this decision is rooted in a far more sinister legacy of controlling women’s autonomy. This has been the case throughout history, throughout the world. Women have been deemed second-class citizens until very recently when we secured the right to vote through the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment even though it never was fully ratified. Up until 1974, when the Fair Credit Oppurtunity Act was passed, women were not even allowed to own credit cards in their names. These “pro-life” arguments simply serve the purpose of restricting women’s right to privacy and the right to their own bodies. During the pandemic, anti-maskers cried, “my body my choice.” Those same anti-maskers today are adopting the “pro-life” argument to dictate what a woman can do with her body, in a shallow attempt to secure the rights of unborn zygotes.
Furthermore, there are many states, (13 to be exact) that have been set to pass extreme anti-abortion “trigger” laws immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a total of 23 states that are set to restrict abortions. These are predominantly red states, and one of the popular arguments from anti-abortion enthusiasts is that you can simply move to a blue state if you don’t like the policies your state passes. This is not a simple task. For one, it requires tremendous amounts of money to be able to even move anywhere in today’s inflated economy. Jobs have to be lined up, and if you have children, you have to look into school districts and make sure they can be enrolled with no issues. If you own property in your current state, you can’t just move. You have to be able to afford to either spend on a secondary living situation while your current home is being sold, or you have to wait until you can sell your home before you can move. For people who are experiencing poverty, those families that live paycheck to paycheck, will be forced to continue living in these red states, and as a result, be forced to live with these anti-abortion laws. Some states, like Missouri, are even restricting women from seeking out-of-state abortions, criminalizing those seeking the abortion as well as those who help with the process. With all this said, research shows how all these laws will impact poor and marginalized people the most, and this is yet another example of how the state criminalizes poverty.
Other rights that may be threatened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade
Since Roe v. Wade is fundamentally based on the freedom of privacy, overturning this law can set precedent to attack and target other rights. In the leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito argues that Roe v. Wade was an unconstitutional judgment based on weak arguments and alleged that the case has been responsible for deepening the societal divide. In the draft, Alito argues that the basis for Roe v. Wade (mainly the right to privacy) was “invented” and “flawed,” insisting that the judgment was unconstitutional. Many scholars familiar with setting legal precedents claim that overturning this precedent, which carries the legacy of the right to privacy, can in turn have devastating consequences for other privacy rights.
One such group that might be targeted as a result of overturning Roe v. Wade is the LGBTQ+ community. The right to same-sex marriages can come under scrutiny, and based on Alito’s opinions on sodomy laws, the LGBTQ+ community can be specifically targeted. Although sodomy laws, which criminalized sexual behavior deemed inappropriate by the state, are general enough to appear as they apply to everyone, history has shown that these laws were used mostly to target the homosexual community and even the larger LGBTQ+ community as a whole. These scholars also claim that other rights, such as the right to contraception, are also under scrutiny. Their fears are reasonable, since the same arguments which supported the right to privacy applied in the ruling of Roe v. Wade (which is under attack on the basis of its constitutionality), are the same justifications used to legalize contraceptives in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. Following this framework, same-sex marriages, which were legalized in 2015 through the ruling passed on Obergefell v. Hodges, can be deemed unconstitutional, and so too can interracial marriages, which were made legal by the ruling on the case, Loving v. Virginia.
While Alito reassures that this draft is aimed at overturning abortion rights alone, this decision sets a dangerous precedent for other privacy cases to be challenged as well. Should there be an attack on contraceptive methods such as birth control, plan B pills, and condoms, the freedom for people to lead sexually healthy lives is at risk, and as a result, can lead to even greater restriction of personal freedoms, and women who are raped or have been victims of incest will not be able to access these resources to prevent any unwanted pregnancies.
Sex workers are yet another community that will be harmed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and other proposals that restrict sexual freedoms. Too many people in the media focus on the “picture perfect” cases, and many sex workers and their lived experiences are ignored as a result of this media bias. Sex workers use contraceptives and condoms to protect themselves from both unwanted pregnancies and unwanted sexually transmitted diseases. Their livelihoods are greatly impacted by these laws, and the wellness of these sex workers is put at high levels of risk. What’s worse, these sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations are among the most marginalized people in society, and as a result, will feel the implications of these rulings disproportionately. Although there is an immense stigma that surrounds this topic, sex work is also a form of work, and it is important to remember that many sex workers are simply trying to earn a living. Sex workers are already dealing with issues of having their contraceptive needs met, including spreading awareness of safe sex practices in their community, and fact-checking misinformation being disseminated about contraceptive methods and how they should be used. Restricting access to contraception can have life-changing implications for sex workers, and fundamentally cause more financial challenges as their stream of income is jeopardized.
So, Where Do We Go From Here?
Regardless of your opinions about sex work, abortion, or any of these topics, these are incredibly personal issues and should be left for each individual to decide on what they believe is in their best interests. For too long, women have been restricted and controlled, mind, body, and soul, to meet the needs and pleasures of the patriarchy, and religion and morality have been misused as justifications to continue treating women like second-class citizens. The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2018 claimed that the right to life begins at the time of birth, when the child can exist separated from the mother’s body. While this establishes an international legal standard on this controversial topic, the right to an abortion, (and right to privacy), is fundamentally being framed as an issue of constitutionality rather than a human rights issue, and as such, there is not much room for the UN to be involved legally in American affairs. On the national level, we can pressure our Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into law, so that it can be protected until a majority-Republican Congress reverses it in the future. For this to happen, Congress needs to be serious, and even though the majority of Americans support the right to an abortion, congressional representatives seem to be divided firmly along partisan lines. Still other abortion rights activists have taken to the streets, protesting outside of the homes of the Supreme Court Justices who are in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, in an attempt to convince them to change their decisions in the final vote.
On the state level, overturning Roe v. Wade will allow states to make decisions on abortion rights, so each state will vary in its laws. First, being aware of your own state’s abortion laws can be helpful in determining what your options are and how you can help. In Alabama, while access to contraception is still legal, almost all forms of abortions will be deemed illegal immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Additionally, medical professionals who assist in providing abortions will also be considered Class A felons. While Alabama abortion laws do not allow for an exception in the event of rape or incest, they do allow abortions in severe cases where the health of the mother or fetus is at risk, but only after two separate opinions from doctors advising to do so. With that being said, there are non-profit organizations and abortion providers striving to form an underground network to provide safe abortions for women that wish to have them. Some method these organizations are using is to invest in mobile abortion clinics to meet women at the border of the closest state where abortion would be legal to help make abortion more accessible for women living in red states.
Finally, you can help in two more simple, yet profound ways: participate and educate. It’s time to start paying attention. Participation is not just voting, but also organizing, and educating others about the injustices that are happening around us, and helping people understand the real consequences behind issues you care about, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Share your stories with others to help destigmatize abortions and normalize safe sex debates and practices in society. Educate yourself about your state’s policies, but also familiarize yourself with organizations that provide help to those who are impacted, whether medically or otherwise. Democracy is very fragile, and as hard as rights are to secure, it is just as easy to lose them if we don’t hold accountable the people in power. One of the most telling insights gained from looking back at the days of Nazi Germany was that in retrospect, one could see the accumulation of attacks on rights, but because the public chose to stay silent, the fascists kept pushing until it was too late for the people to stand up and defend their rights. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to us today, not on abortion rights, not on environmental rights, and not on our human right to life, liberty and human dignity.
Housing is a human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “Everyone has 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.” Amid America’s current housing market and increase in homelessness, many questions have been raised regarding the effect of this economic crisis. Ending the housing crisis in America is especially crucial considering a home for most people and families is not simply a house, but also a place for working and learning remotely.Having a home influences factors that play key roles in the quality of one’s life. Although the future state of the housing crisis is uncertain, the fact that housing is a human right and an objective need remains the same.
America’s Housing Crisis
Much of America’s current public housing was built succeeding the Great Depression with the 1937 Housing Act; this act declared that everyone deserves “decent, safe and sanitary” housing. However, ever-changing political tides and negative stigmas toward public housing led to large disinvestment by the government. Between the years 1995 and 2018, annual federal funding for public housing, accounting for inflation, fell by nearly 50 percent. The 1998 Faircloth Amendment placed limits on construction of new public housing units which corroded older public housing units and forced tenants to live in unsafe conditions with mold and lead. One study shows that people living in poor quality housing were at a 50% higher risk of an asthma-related emergency room visit. In addition, theNational Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that over 10,000 public housing apartments are lost annually “because they are no longer habitable.” The growing need for updating and building new low-income housing, and a consistent decrease in government assistance, has created a market that detrimentally affects millions of renters and home buyers.
Housing shortages and wealthy individuals buying and renting out homes at a mark-up rate has created an increase in the cost of homes in America. This phenomenon is called the financialization of housing, which occurs when housing is treated as a commodity—a vehicle for wealth and investment—rather than a social good. Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha stated in the documentary PUSH, “I believe there’s a huge difference between housing as a commodity and gold as a commodity. Gold is not a human right, housing is.” In many developing economies, long existing neighborhoods located in ‘prime land’ can often be subject to evictions and displacement to make room for new investment properties. This practice can often leave residents homeless with little warning or time for any preparation.
Although this complex issue has no simple or easy solution, there are many ways to contribute to positive change and organizations actively making progress. For example, Housing is a Human Right organizes to work toward the “3 P’s:” protect tenants, preserve communities, and produce housing. Last year, they laid out their advocacy highlights of 2021 including the following plan of action:
Rolled out a comprehensive platform to address the housing affordability and homelessness crises
Pushed for more inclusionary housing and the adaptive reuse of existing buildings to produce more affordable and homeless housing
Fought the criminalization of homelessness
Continued to expose the real estate industry through our award-winning advocacy journalism
A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students, under the condition that the “Don’t Say Gay” house and senate bills currently in Florida’s state legislature are moved into law. The legislation was moved forward by the Florida State Education Committee last month. Controversy arose over how exactly “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” will be interpreted and the potential for LGBTQ+ history to be erased from public education. The bill, named “Parental Rights in Education”, also encourages parents to sue schools or teachers if such topics are covered in the classroom without the parents’ prior notification and approval. If approved by other state Senate committees and the State House, it will go into effect on July 1 of this year.
Legislation Creates National Controversy
Formally known as House Bill 1557 and Senate Bill 1834, opposers have begun referring to the legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill due to its attempt to deem sexual orientation and gender identities as subjects too taboo for public schools in America. LGBTQ+ activists have been both shocked and disheartened by the creation of such bill, which directly attacks both school children’s rights and securities. Heather Wilkie of the Zebra Coalition, a Central Florida LGBTQ+ advocacy group, told ABC News, “We have to create a learning environment where they feel safe and healthy, or it’s not an effective learning environment.” She went on to say, “When you have laws like this, that directly attack our kids for who they are, it prevents them from learning. It prevents them from being able to be healthy.” Advocates nationwide, including myself, believe that this legislation teaches children that speaking about gender identity or sexual orientation is shameful and should be hidden, which directly creates discrimination based on such identities. On top of this, LGBTQ+ history is especially important to preserve and expand upon in public education because of the extreme discrimination the community has faced and constant struggles the community deals with today.
Despite the human rights violations at play, many are still in support of the approval of the “Parental Rights in Education” Bill. Among supporters is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has publicly vocalized his favor for prohibiting any dialogue regarding LGBTQ+ topics in the state’s primary schools. According to this NBC article, Gov. DeSantis stated that it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to be having conversations with students about gender identity, citing instances of them telling children, “Don’t worry, don’t pick your gender yet.” He added, “The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.”
White House denounced the Bill
As a counter to Gov. DeSantis, both the Biden-Harris White House Administration and President Joe Biden have communicated their disapproval of the Florida legislation via their twitter accounts. The White House shared a post stating, “Today, conservative politicians in Florida advanced legislation designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids. Instead of making growing up harder for young people, @POTUS [President of the United States] is focused on keeping schools open and supporting students’ mental health.” President Biden “retweeted” the post to add, “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.”
Other Attempts to erase LGBTQ+ History
Unfortunately, anti-LGBTQ+ efforts such as these are not uncommon by American lawmakers. One instance took place in March of 2021, when Tennessee Rep. Bruce Griffey proposed House Bill 800, which would completely erase all topics and people involved in the LGBTQ+ community from the state’s public school curricula. In addition, House Bill 529 was introduced by Rep. Debra Moody, seeking to require parental notification and approval 30 days before any child is taught curriculum regarding sexual orientation or gender identity. Although these bills are stated to have the intention of protecting parents’ rights, erasing any part of history is detrimental to a child’s education. A successful learning environment includes exposure to wide ranges of ideas and beliefs, in addition to learning how to respect beliefs that are initially unfamiliar.
Ways to Help
While attempts to delete discussions regarding the LGBTQ+ community in public school systems remain constant, counter efforts also persist, including the American education organization GLSEN, which works to ensure that “every student has the right to a safe, supportive, and LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 education.” Additionally, you can usethis template to send a letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose “Don’t Say Gay Bills” HB 1557 and SB 1837.
Yesterday, February 20th, 2022, marked the 14th annual global observance of the World Day of Social Justice, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly on June 8th, 2008. Since 2009, the day has marked a celebration that reflects on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all through employment, social protection, and social dialogue, in addition to fundamental principles and rights at work, according to this article from Baker College.Social justice is defined as the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights, and opportunities.Social justice is also referred to as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.The UN General Assembly has also conveyed their recognition of social development and social justice asa crucial aspect of peace among nations worldwide.
What are Human Rights?
Human rights are commonly referred to as rights everyone has just because they are human. These rights are specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an international document laying out 30 fundamental rights and freedoms of all human beings. Examples of these include the right to life without discrimination, slavery, or torture, in addition to explaining that all humans are equal before the law and that the law protects all human rights. The UDHR was drafted by representatives of various demographics and backgrounds and is considered a milestone in human rights history. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948, as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”
Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice
To better understand the concept of social justice, the definition has been broken into four core principles: access, equity, participation, and human rights. These four principles apply to issues such as:
Access to good education
And many others
Since human rights is one pillar of social justice, a “just” society is impossible within the absence of security for all human rights.
Although their meanings are different, the concepts of human rights and social justice are often correlated closely, especially in academia and political debates. Here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences’s Political Science Department, a concentration of study in human rights and social justice is offered within the political science major, like many other institutions worldwide. Outside of academia, the general public often groups human rights and social justice together in regard to their stance on politics. Unfortunately, many social injustices and human rights issues have become controversial topics in America, further polarizing the U.S. political climate, especially within group rights (minorities rights, rights of people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.). Understanding the relationship between human rights and social justice can bring about a more unified approach to how these issues are perceived and addressed.
Ways to Celebrate the World Day of Social Justice
Becoming an advocate for social justice in society can happen at any time, but with the current celebration of the World Day of Social Justice, it is a great time to start. Celebrating this day can be done by taking the time to examine your own beliefs and values to increase your self-awareness regarding the way you view injustices in society and your level of sympathy for those who are currently facing a human rights crisis. From there, examine what you are doing to help and what you can be doing. Furthermore, researching a few injustices in society that interest you or sharing your experiences of enduring discrimination in your own life can shed light on the importance of this day and the constant work to be done to create a “just” society across the globe. If you choose to celebrate this day by donating monetarily, here is a list of organizations accepting donations:
As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.
Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.
So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.
Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.
Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.
The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.
Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts
If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.
Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor
If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.
Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.
Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.
Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid
Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.
Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.
Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.
There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.
How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse
The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.
What Can We Do About It?
There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.
While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.
Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.
Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.
Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.
The History of Policing in America
The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.
These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War, was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.
During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.
Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.
These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.
Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.
Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.
Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement
The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.
The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.
Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.
One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.
Reform or abolish?
Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.
As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.
The University of Alabama in Birmingham hosted a re-entry simulation for mass incarceration on the 15th of October, 2021, partnered with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama. This simulation, which featured around a hundred participants, was designed to enlighten both students and community members about the difficulties surrounding re-entry into society for those who have been previously incarcerated. The event featured different booths to portray the various obligations, both legal and personal that had to be met by individuals exiting the prison system into the civilian society.
These booths included responsibilities such as securing identification cards, attending treatment appointments or drug screenings on time, or even being able to get employed, all while having to figure out transportation to be able to fulfill these requirements. Each participant was provided with a new identity, a few transportation tickets, some money (depending on the person’s identity), and a list of obligations that needed to be met each week. The “weeks” were timed to be fifteen minutes each, and the participants got four weeks to successfully re-enter society.
Getting your IDs
The identity I assumed had no IDs to their name, and only $30 when exiting the prison system. One of the most difficult components of this exercise was securing the three required IDs. Without the IDs, all the other booths refused to be of any help, and securing the IDs took well over a “week.” In the real world, this also means that people are unable to find employment, housing, or even apply for government aid like food stamps until they are able to secure these IDs. Furthermore, as Jeremy Sherer, the Assistant United States Attorney who helped organize this event discussed, there is a possibility of being re-imprisoned for outstanding warrants that might have been acquired while individuals were serving time in the prison system. Therefore, people who attempt to get their IDs at the DMV might end up being reincarcerated for these outstanding warrants. An easy solution to this problem would be to issue government IDs to people as they are exiting the prison system. This would dramatically decrease the mental and physical stress on individuals, as this one act would open up resources and opportunities they might not have without the proper government-issued IDs.
Another enormous obstacle in the way of successfully re-entering civilian society can be transportation. Many people, upon entering the prison system have three options concerning their vehicles: they can sell their car and keep the cash, they can give the car to someone else, or if they are making payments on a car upon the time of their arrest, it can become repossessed by the time they exit the system. Even if your property was held by the police for “safeguarding” or for evidence purposes, if you cannot claim it within a certain time frame (which is impossible for people who are imprisoned), you face the risks of losing that property.
Transportation is a necessity, and if you live in an area where public transportation is unavailable, you will need to either purchase a car or rent one. In order to purchase any vehicle, you have to have an ID. Assuming you have your IDs, the next step is the background and credit checks. This can be a massive hurdle, as people who leave prison might not have the necessary credit history, nor have established employment history to purchase a car. They may not be able to afford the full price of the car, having just come out of jail or prison. For those who depend on public transportation in areas that offer the services, bus schedules can be very confusing and might not travel to the necessary destinations. Additionally, those who live in areas where public transportation is not an option have to figure out a way to find transportation for themselves. There are no agencies in place to provide any assistance to people in cases like these.
The Bail System
According to The Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime. If we were to follow the logic that people are “innocent until proven guilty,” 74% of the people held in jail are innocent. These individuals are only allowed to leave the jails by paying the set bail amounts for their particular case. These bail amounts are set based on the criminal charges and the complexities surrounding the crime in question. Although bail is not supposed to be a form of punishment, the bail system tends to punish the poor by setting a financial amount that has to be paid if the individual does not want to await their trial in jail. Most Americans are seldom prepared for a $400 emergency, and for people struggling with poverty, the set bail amount can be impossible to meet. This pretrial detention can also last months or even years before the trial date, meaning that innocent people might be held in jail for years simply for not being able to afford bail. The person’s identity I assumed at the re-entry simulation had $30 on their person, and their bail amount was the full $30, which ended up bankrupting them, leaving them with no money for food, transportation, or any other expenses.
People exiting the prison system have to meet certain legal requirements upon their re-entry into civilization. These legal responsibilities include regular check-ins with the probation or parole officer, regular drug screens, and even clinical or treatment appointments that need to be attended. For one, as mentioned earlier, formerly incarcerated people need to be able to secure a stable form of transportation to get to these appointments. They also have to be able to provide their IDs, so not having one could result in a violation of the conditions of parole. The demands of parole or probation are different for each case, but conditions of release can include finding and holding stable employment, as well as showing up to take a urine analysis, blood tests, or a drug screening whenever requested of them. These drug screens can also interfere with the individual’s employment (if they do manage to secure one), as they would be required to leave their workplace to comply with this stipulation. People that are required to meet these conditions of release are also personally billed for these tests, something that they might not be able to afford. These stipulations can become even more complex based on the history of the person’s criminal offense. Those that have served time for sexual offenses are also required to register as a sex offender in their area, further complicating their ability to acquire employment or housing, and as a result, making it near impossible to meet their conditions of release.
Additionally, some people being released from prison might have to attend clinical appointments or treatment sessions. This may be a weekly obligation, and again, transportation and IDs are essential to meeting this condition. These treatment sessions, while helpful and certainly necessary in many cases, might only add stress to those who are financially compromised.
Recent studies show that many people who enter the prison system without any mental illnesses can come out with serious issues related to their mental health. While there may be many factors that influence an individual’s mental stability inside the prison walls, research shows that solitary confinement, a practice that is used in most jails and prisons in the United States, can play a fundamental role in someone’s mental health. At times, placing an inmate in solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of mental illness. Solitary confinement can also lead to a number of mental health-related illnesses, including depression, paranoia, or even trigger hallucinations. As a result, many people who enter the prison system with no history of mental health issues can develop mental illnesses or acquire trauma while serving out their sentences. This inhumane practice can be suspended, which would dramatically affect the mental health of prisoners and lighten the load on some of their legal obligations.
Along with legal responsibilities that have to be met, people attempting to re-enter society also have personal obligations they may have to fulfill, including responsibilities regarding their children (if it applies), their own personal care (such as food, and shelter), and their attempts at professional success, including employment and education. Many individuals, upon re-entering society, regain custody of their children, meaning that they have to ensure both their needs as well as their children’s needs are met. This can prove to be very stressful and traumatic, both for the individual re-entering society and the children involved. As discussed previously, people exiting the prison system might not have the resources or the mental stability to be able to accept such a huge responsibility, often resulting in the parents neglecting their own needs for the needs of their children, and as a result, increasing the mental and physical strain they might place on themselves.
Even still, many parents that are not awarded custody of their children might be forced to pay child support upon their release. Unless they ask for a suspension or reduction of child support, the amount can continue to accumulate while the person is serving time, and upon release, the person is mandated to pay the full amount owed. Failing to pay the amount can be considered a violation of their conditions of release and can result in the reimprisonment of the individual.
Another personal responsibility that an individual re-entering society has to meet is self-care. An essential part of personal care includes food and water, yet many people might not be able to afford three square meals a day. As I learned from the re-entry simulation, contrary to popular belief, churches are not as forthcoming with assistance as many like to believe. This may be due to a variety of reasons, ranging from funding problems to religious or ideological reasons. Applying for food stamps is an option, but it can take weeks, requiring both transportation and IDs. Even when an individual is awarded food stamps, it might not cover all their nutrition expenses, leading many to become food insecure.
Additionally, many people re-entering society may face housing insecurities. Due to the social and sometimes cultural stigma around imprisonment, family members might refuse to provide adequate shelter for the individual. In order to qualify for an apartment, the applicant has to provide proof of employment as well as a security deposit. Many job applications require a background and criminal history check, at many times refusing to hire an individual if they have been convicted of a crime. Without a job and proper shelter, many risks facing the possibility of becoming homeless.
Expanding on the complexities of getting employed, many people re-entering society have to cross so many hurdles to be successful professionally. Depending on the age at which they were incarcerated, many individuals returning to society might not have the necessary education or skills to qualify for employment. Some might even have to train for and take their GEDs, a base requirement to get jobs, even low-wage ones. To add to the complexities, people with traditional High School Diplomas receive a higher pay rate than those who obtain GEDs.
Once they are able to acquire their GEDs if they choose to pursue higher education, formerly incarcerated people have to do so at a private university or college. This is due to the fact that most public universities and college applications include a section asking about the applicant’s criminal history. This can indirectly discriminate against those who are struggling with poverty, fundamentally impacting their ability to compete with the growing skilled and educated labor forces of society. Moreover, people who have been incarcerated face many challenges when applying for financial aid. Their ability to receive financial aid is very limited, as they can be denied student loans as well as Pell grants due to their criminal history. Consequently, this usually means that people coming out of prison are stuck with working labor-intensive, low-wage jobs without the prospect of advancement in their professional careers.
As part of his concluding remarks, Jeremy Sherer reminded the participants at the simulation that almost 60% of people who are released from prison can end up being incarcerated again. This is a sign that the current system is designed to fail these individuals who are just attempting to survive after their punishments have been served. The lives of these individuals are impacted forever by their criminal history through the taxing obligations they have to meet in order to lead a successful life. They are not provided any form of guidance yet punished constantly for the failures of the system. If the components of racial discrimination in the prison system are taken into consideration, (which will be covered in my next blog post), some might even believe that this injustice intentionally targets certain marginalized members of the community.
Everyone makes mistakes; this is a universally accepted concept. Yet, part of the process of learning and growing involves being provided with the necessary opportunities and resources to learn from the mistakes of our past and strive to become better individuals. Having participated in the re-entry simulation, I attempted to meet all my requirements as best as I could with the resources I was provided with, yet I was sent to “jail” for failing to visit my probation officer, and by week four, I was begging the “police officer” in the exercise to just send me to “jail.” I could not handle the mental, emotional, and physical stress that resulted from the realities this simulation strived to convey, and my participation was voluntary. Many individuals who have to deal with these systems on a regular basis do not have a choice.
Indigenous women face overwhelming rates of violent crime, more than twice the amount of their non-Indigenous counterparts in the United States and 3.5 times in Canada. A 2016 study published by the National Institute of Justice revealed that approximately 84.3% of American Indigenous women have experienced violence against them in their lifetime and 56% of these women would become victims of sexual violence as well. In Canada, only 53% of Indigenous women’s homicides have been solved; drastically less than Canada’s national solve rate of 84%. That statistic becomes even more damning when we take into account that Indigenous females only make up 4% of Canada’s population, yet account for nearly one quarter of all homicide victims in Canada. For decades, Indigenous leaders, tribal governments and human rights organizations alike have called for national reviews in both Canada and the United States into the treatment of cases regarding Indigenous women. A publication from the US Department of Justice states that Indigenous female victims in the United States are far more likely to need services that aid survivors of such violence, but are the least likely group to have access to these services. The majority of Native American women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and more than a third will be unable to access necessary services after the event due to drastic disparities in access to healthcare and treatment by law enforcement. With each new set of data we have re-confirmed the existence of a plight sweeping through native communities, robbing women within them of their security, safety, and visibility.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW)
In recent years, social media pushes have been made to raise attention for what is now known as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”, a simple catchphrase encompassing decades of neglect from all channels that is now spearheading a movement for justice. This hashtag and social media campaign generates hundreds of thousands of interactions and impressions on social media every day, and brings attention to the individual stories of missing indigenous women or families of women lost to homicides that are still unsolved. However, indigenous women rarely get the national media attention that white women experience when they go missing; and when every minute and resource makes an empirical difference in the likelihood of that woman being found alive. A prior article from the Institute of Human Rights speaks specifically about the recent Gabby Petito case, and the disproportionate response of the American public for missing white women in comparison to women of color and indigenous women here. These drastically different responses only amplify the vulnerability of indigenous women.
It is horrific to think about a situation in which no one will come looking for you if you go missing. That nightmare has become an internalized reality in so many indigenous communities, where young women are being raised with impressive levels of advocacy for their missing sisters, but are witnessing first hand how much of a struggle that advocacy is. Social media is beginning to catch up to decades of research that has been waiting for a time like now, where the general public may be ready to listen and push for change. The Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has tirelessly collected data on unsolved homicides in the United States to apply pressure on law enforcement in communities with disproportionately high unsolved homicide rates, and put a spotlight on communities that fail to report important information to federal databases. The Indigenous community is heavily reflected in both of those categories.
A broken chain of command and lack of communication is often cited for why so few of these reported cases are ever investigated, as local, state and federal law enforcement agencies struggle to find a balance of working with native land and sovereign tribes through the reporting process. Many violent crimes against indigenous women occur on sovereign native land, however, 96% of the perpetrators are non-indigenous. This causes major confusion as tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-indigenous persons, and most standard law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on native land. This complicated mess of jurisdiction and authority confuses law enforcement, tribal governments, and victims alike.
Unfortunately, law enforcement has repeatedly made glaring errors that are impossible to ignore; tribal organizations have found that the United States National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016, but the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database shows that only 116 of those 5,712 cases were never logged. Essentially, this information means that only 2% of all cases of missing indigenous women were properly reported. This cannot be ignored; many families, friends and loved ones are left wondering why our government has forgotten and neglected their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters. While the answer may not always be clear, movements like #MMIW are bringing this conversation to the forefront of politics and media. In order to provide justice for these women, we must demand increased preventative and investigative efforts to protect these women when they need it the most.
Truths of Targeting
The vast majority of homicides of indigenous females go unsolved for years, and even the solved cases display how this systemic neglect has been repeatedly exploited. As determined by the FBI, “vulnerability” is a key factor in a killer’s process of victim selection; a category most indigenous women have been forced into by countless factors beyond their control. Prolific serial killers like Robert Pickton (Canada) and Robert Hansen (United States) specifically targeted indigenous women and sex workers during their killing sprees, and doing so allowed them to murder dozens of women completely undetected by law enforcement for decades. More than half of Pickton’s victims were thought to be aboriginal women, though many were never identified, and Hansen’s victims were often young indigenous women who had turned to survival sex work out of financial desperation. While describing research confirming how killers have manipulated vulnerabilities to their benefit, Co-director of MAP and criminologist Michael Arntfield determined that “Serial killers prey on marginalized populations, and indigenous women make up a disproportionate number in the victim pool”.
How to Help
There are many exceptional campaigns, research organizations and nonprofits to get involved that are currently on the forefront of the fight to end violence against indigenous women. If you wish to learn more about the topic, you can explore other Institute of Human Rights articles promoting Indigenous rights here, or click here to find an excellent resource sheet with educational sources and ways to get involved with MMIW. There are countless petitions for reform in both the US and Canada as well; this petition calls for the passing of Savanna’s Act, which will require the Department of Justice to update their missing persons database to better help identify missing and murdered Indigenous women and prevent further discrepancies in reported cases. This petition is a plea to the US Senate, calling for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to be re-authorized and receive greater funding as VAWA increases abilities for tribal nations to prosecute non-native offenders as well as providing resources for responses from law enforcement on all levels when cases of violent crimes or missing women are reported. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women offers ways to donate, volunteer, attend community training, and other incredible opportunities to get involved in the movement. The Sovereign Bodies Institute utilizes donations to collect culturally-informed research on gender and sexual violence against indigenous peoples.
The only way to protect these women is to take drastic steps towards change. We can no longer ignore, deny or neglect the truths of everything both systemic and societal that has consistently failed the indigenous community, and the women within it. Please research, donate, volunteer, and find a way to become an advocate for the missing and murdered. We can have no more stolen sisters.
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.