The prevalence of Antisemitism in the modern world is frequently discounted. When someone refers to antisemitism, it is common for your first thought to be about the Holocaust. While Holocaust education remains important, we should also remain aware of the more current acts of antisemitism. Antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. This can be manifested in many ways, both rhetorical and physical. Awareness is the first step to action, and if you discount the claims and stories of those being affected by antisemitism, you can’t contribute to the solution, and are, frequently, contributing instead to the problem.
It is worth noting that this post is based on a US context, as it would be difficult to capture the international nuances of antisemitism in one blog post.
History of Antisemitism
Antisemitism stems back to before the Middle Ages. During the 14th century, people commonly accused Jewish people of causing the Bubonic Plague. Claims revolved around the (false) idea that Jewish people were poisoning drinking wells to spread the disease farther and faster. Centuries later, after World War I, it was common for German military leaders to perpetuate the idea that Jewish people had betrayed the country and that they were the reason that Germany lost the war. This, along with people’s need to focus on one group to blame, allowed Hitler and his supporters to rise through the ranks of German politics by claiming that the way to make the country strong again was to exterminate the Jewish people residing within the borders. These brutal opinions and stories all string together, resulting in major antisemitic events, such as the Holocaust.
The COVID-19 pandemic left millions dead in its wake; deaths brought on both by the illness as well as the societal changes that it caused. Jewish people were not blamed for the pandemic like they were in the 14th century, but a rise in antisemitism online made it more accessible to the average person. As opposed to the very beginning of the 21st century, now people can connect with those who share their opinions—no matter how hateful those opinions may be. This makes it much easier for people to validate their beliefs, instead of being contradicted by those who won’t stand for hates towards Jewish people, they nestle away in communities that share their hateful sentiments.
Social media does not just provide opportunities for individuals to group together and relate, it allows social media companies to potentially profit from hate-based searches. YouTube is the greatest culprit of this issue, as it runs ads directly before videos championing white supremacist and antisemitic groups. YouTube also generates channels for musical artists or other forms of media with “significant presence.” These generated channels have included heavy metal artists with a history of antisemitism and white supremacy, as well as video games with similar ideologies.
The rise of antisemitism online correlates with the increase of physical attacks against Jewish people. Data was collected by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry (CSCEJ), and this tells us that in New York alone, there were 261 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2022, 47 more than in 2021. These numerical trends follow in other major cities in the United States, with an increase in hate crimes in Los Angeles and Chicago. Nationwide, harassment towards Jewish people increased by 29% and vandalism by 51%. One striking statistic is that there were 91 bomb threats towards Jewish institutions. This is the largest number since 2017, and the CSCEJ makes it clear that there is no sign of these attacks abating any time soon.
Someone to Blame
All throughout time, people have looked for a person or a group to scapegoat. When troubles arise, it is easy to take the blame from yourself and put it onto a group you can look disdainfully on. Not only that, but people who feel like they are at the bottom of society’s pyramid are eager to look for those who are seen as worse off than them. In the case of antisemitism, there is an interesting contradiction of stereotypes. A more traditional take on hatred views Jewish people through the lens of white supremacy, for example, the Charlottesville riots in 2017. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some antisemitism perceives Jewish people as a privileged group, both in ethnicity and in class. This view of antisemitism views Jewish people are “part of the establishment”, and this stems from economic stereotypes about Jewish people controlling financial markets.
This duality contributes to the persecution of Jewish people from all directions.
To eradicate antisemitism, there are things that must be done on both small and large scales. While you likely don’t have direct access to government policy and law enforcement, there are things that you can do as an everyday citizen to help Jewish communities. The first thing you can do is be aware of the hate that happens online. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a great resource that helps you report antisemitism in the most effective way. Reporting actions you see in person is just as important as reporting online hate. Report antisemitism directly to the ADL as well as your local law enforcement to prevent antisemitic harassment or to help those who have been harassed receive justice. In a more policy-oriented approach, you can sign petitions that will encourage Congress to enact laws that will protect Jewish communities.
To those who do have access to a greater platform, mandates for public reports are imperative. Public reporting on hate, violence, and other antisemitic issues would bring awareness to the issues so often not brought to justice due to either the stigma of reporting or the fear that said reports will not be handled appropriately. Large-scale changes in education would also benefit Jewish communities in the United States. Educational standards need to include a Holocaust education curriculum, as well as Anti-Bias education.
It is vital that we empower ourselves and our communities to directly fight against antisemitism. And education is the first critical step. Listen to Jewish voices in your community so you know best how to create active change. Unlearn the prevalent stereotypes against Jewish people that have been surrounding you since before your grandparents were born, and continue working every day to beat the bias that has been instilled in you.
Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to address these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food and water can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on air, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.
The Right to Clean Air and the Consequences of Air Pollution
Like food and water, the air is another resource that humans and other creatures cannot live without. In fact, the Earth’s atmosphere, along with the water found here, is a special phenomenon that enables the Earth to support life. The atmosphere acts as a barrier between the organisms on Earth and the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, that when consumed in large quantities, can lead to cancer and death. Even the water that exists on Earth depends on the atmospheric pressures, and the layers of the atmosphere allow for warmth to heat up our planet so that life can exist comfortably. While the atmosphere is life-giving, any minute changes to the atmosphere can have drastic impacts on all living creatures on Earth, including humans.
Layers of the Atmosphere
There are many layers of our atmosphere, which are characterized based on their atmospheric temperatures. The four main layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere, in order. Further out is the exosphere, and the outermost layer is the magnetosphere. Understanding the different layers of our atmosphere, and the crucial roles they play to protect life on Earth can help us better appreciate the planet on which we live. The Troposphere is the layer closest to the surface, in which we exist. This is the layer that produces much of our weather patterns and contains 75% of all the atmosphere’s air. The temperatures in this layer grow colder the farther they are from the Earth’s surface, with temperatures varying based on the weather patterns.
The Stratosphere is the next layer, which exists above the troposphere, is 22 miles long and contains the most important element of our atmosphere, the Ozone Layer. The Ozone Layer is the layer within the stratosphere that absorbs the sun’s heat and radiation, filtering the harmful rays to make them safe for consumption by all living beings. In this layer, the air is colder closer to the troposphere, and the air is warmer as it increases in height, a consequence of the sun’s UV rays and their warming effect. In the 1980s, scientists realized that some of the chemicals we were using in refrigerators and in hair sprays (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs), were causing the Ozone Layer to develop a large opening over Antarctica, exposing all the Earth’s organisms to the harmful UV rays of the sun. There was a global effort to end the use of these chemicals, and the Earth’s Ozone Layer is in the process of healing today. This healing process will take years, as a new UN study predicts that it will take another 43 years for the Ozone Hole to fully heal.
Next is the Mesosphere, which is where all the gases exist in a mixture rather than in specific layers. About 22 miles long, this layer is where the meteors and other objects from space burn up, a phenomenon we are familiar with as “shooting stars.” Above the mesosphere is the thermosphere, which captures much of the X-ray radiation from the sun, and the temperatures in this layer rise with height. This layer exists alongside the ionosphere, where the electrons from the layer’s atoms and molecules are transformed into positive charges due to the sun’s solar radiation. This layer is about 319 miles long, with temperatures reaching as high as 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermosphere is the layer in which the International Space Station is positioned, and the ionosphere allows radio waves to be reflected and absorbed, allowing us to make use of those radio waves to broadcast around the world.
Beyond the thermosphere is the exosphere, a layer that is 6,200 miles long, and considered to be the Earth’s outermost layer. Home to many gases such as hydrogen and helium, the exosphere does not have any oxygen to breathe. This is the layer that contains the satellites which enable us to use tools like GPS, weather monitoring systems, and other communication networks. As with all the other planets in our solar system, Earth has an outer shell, called the magnetosphere that is responsible for creating a magnetic field around the planet that interacts with the Earth’s iron core and is responsible for protecting our planet from solar flares, cosmic rays, and the impacts of solar winds. Scientists at NASA who study the magnetosphere’s complexity propose that Earth has the strongest magnetosphere than any of the other planets in our solar system and that this magnetic field is largely responsible for making the Earth habitable.
Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and global warming
There are many gases that are present in our atmosphere. These gases include Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrogen, and others. While these are gases that are naturally present in the atmosphere, an excessive amount of these gases can cause a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. The sun warms up the Earth’s surface during the day, and as the sun goes down and cools the Earth’s surface, this heat is released back into the atmosphere. Yet, the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere trap some of that heat in the atmosphere. This function is actually required for the possibility of life to be sustainable on Earth. Without this effect, the Earth would drop to unbearable temperatures as soon as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, when more and more of these gases are present in the atmosphere, it traps more and more heat on the Earth’s surface. This is exacerbated by the activities of humans, especially following the Industrial Revolution, as the amount of these greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere is increasing by the year.
Sources of Air Pollution and Their Health Impacts
Anthropogenic (caused by humans) Source
There are many human activities that cause air pollution, trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. While I will not be able to list them all here, I have comprised a list that includes a few anthropogenic activities that cause air pollution, as well as a few natural occurrences that add to this issue. Some human activities that cause air pollution include various things like transportation, residential use, waste management, and more. Many industries add to the air pollution through the complex processes they use when converting raw materials into usable items to be sold. These processes not only release chemicals from the materials used but also release various gases from the burning of fossil fuels that is converted into energy and heat to be used during these processes. Various forms of transportation can also cause air pollution, from driving gas cars to flying jets. We regularly use large trucks to transport our goods across states, use large cargo ships to transport goods across oceans, and use airplanes to transport goods and people across the globe. All these vehicles release greenhouse gases, including its biggest polluter, Carbon dioxide (CO2), and Nitrogen oxide (NOx), both of which can be harmful to humans in large quantities. In fact, Nitrogen Oxides can cause respiratory issues, and damage the lungs.
Another source of air pollution comes from our personal use and commercial uses. For one, our personal use of motor vehicles adds to this issue, as well as our burning of coal, wood, or other sources of energy conversion that provide us with heat. We also release chemicals into the air with the cleaning products we use, the hair sprays and perfumes we use, and even in the cigarettes that are smoked by many people. In fact, smoking tobacco releases ten times more emissions than what comes out of a diesel engine. Smoking tobacco releases what is known as Particulate Matter (PM), which is made up of minuscule amounts of dust, smoke, soot, or other particles in the air, and is one of the most harmful pollutants to humans. Their microscopic size allows them easy access to our lungs, and sometimes even into our bloodstreams, flaring up respiratory issues, and eye irritation, and could even lead to lung cancer.
Not surprisingly, another source of air pollution comes from our waste management practices, whether it be storing waste in landfills, or waste incineration to convert the trash into energy. Many of us simply use trash pick-up services without thinking too deeply about what happens to the trash we throw away. Much of our trash ends up in landfills, which are most likely to be located in impoverished areas, and near communities of color. These landfills are dumping sites for waste products, and although there are regulations and standards of waste disposal, much of the waste that ends up in landfills contain both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. These landfills not only produce stringent odors but also release greenhouse gases from these piles. Some of the waste that does not end up in landfills will be sent to be incinerated and converted into energy.
While this is better than storing waste in landfills, (as it is being recycled to be used as energy), the process of incinerating the trash releases further toxins and pollutants into the air, adding to the problem, even as it provides a solution. The United States parcels much of its trash to China to be incinerated there, and this is an example of environmental racism. This transaction of waste generated by the exceeding consumer culture in America was being transferred to China to deal with the consequences of eliminating the waste for us. We do not think about these instances, because our problems are shipped away across the oceans for others, who are less fortunate, to deal with it. Only recently has China stopped buying our waste, and as a result, this has caused a global issue of waste disposal.
There are also many natural sources of air pollution, such as dust, forest fires, volcanoes, and more. I include agriculture in the natural sources even though it is a mixture of both anthropogenic and natural sources of air pollution. Cows, pigs, and other livestock release greenhouse gases, such as CO2, Methane, and Ammonia, through their bodily wastes. Heavy machinery, such as tractors and other farm equipment emit greenhouse gases from their exhausts. The use of pesticides and herbicides further releases toxic chemicals into the air.
Similarly, other natural sources of air pollution include natural disasters, such as volcanoes, forest fires, and tornadoes. When volcanoes erupt, they endanger the surrounding communities of living organisms with the hot-flowing magma. They also release toxins into the air, including volcanic smog and oxides that can cause acid rain. Forest fires also release pollutants into the air. When
You would not think that flooding impacts air quality, but this natural disaster also pollutes the air. Flooding unearths many creatures buried deep in the soil. Along with this, however, flooding causes molding of furniture, buildings, and homes. Many types of molds are harmful to humans, as they can cause respiratory issues such as asthma. These respiratory illnesses due to this natural disaster, as well as all the other anthropogenic sources of air pollution, have been amplified due to the recent pandemic. Coronavirus, a respiratory illness, has exacerbated the impacts of these conditions.
On the other end, severe droughts also can lead to an increase in air pollution. Droughts can lead to soil erosion, which can kick up dust into the surrounding air, increasing the PM amounts in the air. Droughts also dry up surrounding lakes and waterways on which dams are built to sustain the energy needs of local communities nearby. Without the functioning dams, people will likely burn more wood, coal, and charcoal for energy use, further adding to the air pollution. This air pollution can even impact the formation of clouds, and as a result, limit the precipitation coming from the clouds, leading to more droughts. This is a vicious cycle of drier and hotter weather leading to more of the same.
Apart from their cyclical nature, droughts can also lead to forest fires. When temperatures are hot and the land is very dry, this is the perfect environment for wildfires to thrive in. Trees catch on fire due to the surrounding conditions, and when these wooded areas are burning, it has an amplified effect of burning wood at home. This natural disaster releases toxic gases, and large amounts of PM, and the smoke can be very harmful for inhalation. Many areas like California, which suffer from wildfires almost every year, are evacuated during these disasters, as the smoky air is not safe to breathe in. This disaster is capable of uprooting entire communities, and the more it spreads, the more trees it takes with it. These trees, which absorbed much of the CO2 in the area are destroyed, further releasing larger amounts of the gas into the atmosphere.
Finally, there is a phenomenon known as ocean acidification, that further exacerbates the issue of global warming and air pollution. The ocean absorbs much of the CO2 in the air, and through a complex chemical reaction due to the mixing of this gas with the seawater, the ocean itself becomes more acidic and the levels of carbonate ions found in the ocean decrease. These carbonate ions are an important element for the survival of coral reefs and other structures in the marine ecosystem. This phenomenon also heats up the ocean, further leading to the melting of ice sheets that support arctic wildlife and provide fresh water to the surrounding communities. Instead, these sheets are melting into the ocean, mixing with the saltwater, as a result, becoming unavailable as a source of drinking water. Along with this issue, the changes in the atmosphere, temperature, and environment lead to phenomena such as coral bleaching, which is when coral reefs are naturally bleached white, and become more vulnerable to diseases and death. Many species in the marine ecosystem rely on corals for food and shelter, and even we as humans rely on corals for our medicine and as protection from erosion. As there are increasingly large amounts of CO2 present in the atmosphere.
Human Rights Approach to Air
Humans may not have control over natural disasters, but we do have control over our own actions and the impact they have on our surrounding communities and environment. There are some ways in which we can take a human rights approach to redesign our infrastructure and our society to reflect environmentally conscious lifestyles. Big industries, power plants, and sewage plants need a lot of energy to function, and this energy can be harnessed through renewable sources of energy instead of the current status quo of using fossil fuels. In recent years, solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, and wave energy are just some sources of renewable energy. A renewable source requires that it be both sustainable and self-sufficient, and while some of these sources of energy still have a bit of an environmental impact, it is not nearly as much as fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases do. Using solar energy, for example, requires solar panels that use lithium batteries which have to be mined for, but using solar energy eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, reducing air pollutants in the atmosphere, and as a result, improving the air quality. These renewable sources of energy are already available to us; governments need to step in and implement these infrastructures across the board.
When it comes to air pollution from personal use and commercial use, there are a number of ways to eliminate, or at least limit the number of pollutants being released into the air. As with large industries, solar panels can also be installed for use in homes and commercial buildings. Solar energy is abundant, as there is no limitation to the sun’s energy, and as such, provides a free source of electricity and heating that people in impoverished areas could benefit from, financially, as well as the health benefits they can provide. Instead of using harmful chemicals to clean with, we can make use of natural materials, (such as white vinegar) to clean with. Beauty products and hair products can be made with natural materials like rose water instead of harmful chemicals that are not healthy for us to inhale, and unhealthy to be applied on our skin.
Another anthropogenic source of air pollution, transportation, can also be addressed with new technology. Hybrid cars have been on the market for decades now, which switch back and forth between fuel and electricity to run the vehicle. Newer models are available today that are fully electric vehicles, and as such, run solely on electricity rather than fossil fuels. This prevents the emission of toxic gasses into the atmosphere that is released from traditional car exhausts. The EPA reports that even accounting for the electricity required to charge the electric vehicles, and the manufacturing stages, EVs have lower emissions of greenhouse gases than gasoline and diesel vehicles. We as a society need to transition from these gasoline and diesel vehicles to using electric-powered vehicles for our transportation needs. Also, designing trains and buses that use electric power to run, and constructing the necessary infrastructure to be used broadly can also address the transportation shortages that many people in rural areas and the outskirts of urban areas face.
Finally, we can change some of our habits of waste disposal to be more conscious of our practices. We can be mindful of the waste that we are disposing of, by composting food wastes and recycling cardboard, metals, and plastics properly. We can demand more regulations on single-use plastics, and demand that companies find creative solutions for single-use utensils and tableware. For example, there have been historical practices in many parts of the world that have incorporated single-use tableware with an environmentally conscious framework by making use of leaves to create plates, bowls, and cups, and using coconut shells as scooping spoons. These products are organic, and as such, will be biodegradable, instead of plastics, which are very difficult to break down naturally. We also need to think of innovative ways to transform trash into usable energy without adding more pollutants into the atmosphere.
If we cut down our activities in these areas, it will reflect on the severity of our natural disasters, and as such, have an indirect impact on reducing the air pollution caused by these natural sources.
In the upcoming blogs, we will focus on how infrastructure, the economy, our healthcare system, and even our technologies are impacted by the environment, and as such, impact our human rights as a whole.
In the last blog, we covered the contextual history of the American Education System, primarily, who was allowed education, who was not, and even the differences in the quality of education that children in America received. We also explored the historical treatment of people with disabilities, both in the larger society, as well as in children with disabilities within the school system. Understanding the past is crucial to analyzing why certain events occur as they do in the future. That is what we set out to do in this continuation of the conversation about disabilities and the American education system. In this second part, we will focus on the realities children with disabilities witness within the education system, including the challenges they face, the school-to-prison pipeline that exists, and how this impacts their development (both mentally and physically). We will then explore how the recent pandemic exacerbated these conditions, and what sort of rights the children possess in this post-pandemic world.
Children with Disabilities in the Education System Today
The many challenges faced by students with disabilities in the classroom
Children with disabilities today face many challenges within the classroom even without taking the pandemic into account. These challenges vary from physical barriers to socio-emotional ones. One thing that needs to be recognized is that not all disabilities are alike, and with various disabilities come various challenges. I don’t want to appear to be generalizing the struggles that children with disabilities face in the school system, because each individual’s experiences vary, even between different places. Some states within the United States may be very inclusive, while others may place the responsibility of accessibility on the people with disabilities themselves. Regardless of which state you live in, my goal here is to spread awareness of the various challenges that children with one or multiple disabilities face as they maneuver through their primary academic journey.
With that being said, one of the most common barriers that children with disabilities face is on the social level. Throughout history, children with disabilities have been separated from the rest of the able-bodied society, and this is also true within the school system. Many schools, when they began to accept children with disabilities into the school system, would educate them separately (in the basement or another room) from the other children. Even today, many children with learning and speech disabilities require additional help from trained professionals, which requires these children to spend extra time on their academics, and less time socializing with their peers. This naturally distances them from able-bodied children their age and can lead children with disabilities to become victims of many instances of bullying and harassment. A crucial element to consider is that while many children their age are dealing with the various emotions that come from development, children with disabilities have to deal with additional fears and insecurities surrounding their disabilities, as they learn to accept and adapt to life with disabilities. This can be challenging in and of itself, without having to deal with the social pressures from peers.
Additionally, while schools receive federal funding to meet the required measures for the children with disabilities within their institutions, this funding is limited, covering less than a quarter of the expenses needed to fulfill the required services for each student. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we covered in the previous blog allows Congress to allocate up to 40% of the average funding per student, but unfortunately, this has never been exercised by Congress, and funding for special education programs continues to be miserly. Schools receive 15% of the funding they are allocated, but they are still required to fulfill all the mandated regulations simply for receiving federal funding. This means that they have to come up with the remaining 85% of the expenditures on their own, in place of the 55% they would be responsible for covering if Congress secured the full 40%. This can place additional strains on these schools that are already struggling for funds.
Furthermore, children with learning disabilities require trained professionals to provide them with additional support throughout their academic journey. Someone who is hearing impaired may require additional resources to combat the auditory issues they face, or someone who is visually impaired may require additional lessons on how to read in Braille. Others with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (which is a disorder in which someone has difficulty reading and processing language), may need additional patience and support to process the information they are learning. Public schools, by law, are required to provide assistance to children with disabilities and those who have been through traumatic experiences. Licensed professionals that focus on educational needs for children with learning disabilities can be hard to find, and this has only worsened due to the pandemic. As many as 44 states experienced this shortage even before the pandemic, and this number continues to grow due to the issues of limited funding discussed earlier. Without the necessary help that students with learning disabilities require, they continue to fall behind their peers academically.
Many of these challenges can be addressed with more funding allotted to the education system as a whole, and professions within the field of special education can be incentivized by the government (by for example, making the training programs free and accessible to those who are interested) to address the shortage of licensed professionals. The education being taught in the schools can be more inclusive of children with disabilities, with opportunities for the children to share their experiences with their peers and help remove the stigma associated with disabilities by normalizing helpful conversations around disabilities. While these challenges can have a great impact on the learning abilities of children with disabilities, there are some challenges that can have drastic impacts on their futures as a whole.
The school-to-prison pipeline
Unfortunately, along with an increase in school shootings within the educational system, another phenomenon that has become all too common is the use of law enforcement to discipline children. More and more stories have been reported regarding children with disabilities and children of color being subjected to drastic disciplinary measures by school systems. When a child “acts out” or showcases any behavior not supported by the schools, the educators have resorted to involving the law instead of following disciplinary protocols within the schools (such as contacting parents, placing students in detention, or for more serious issues, using suspensions). Police are called on these students, and educators watch as young children are punished for their misdeeds by being harassed by the police. In many instances, these incidents have turned deadly, as police officers have used full force on young children, to force them into complying, at times jeopardizing the children’s well-being. Children as young as 7 years of age have been placed in handcuffs and threatened jail time, for childish behavior such as spitting or throwing tantrums. This can be especially dangerous when children with disabilities are involved because they are accused of “misbehaving” when they are simply reacting differently to situations than their able-bodied peers. The police, with little to no training on the different ways to approach people with disabilities, only escalate the already tense situations.
According to a CBS News analysis of data from the Education Department in 2017-2018, children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested than their able-bodied counterparts. Another research conducted by Cornell University reports that 55% of Black men with disabilities have been detained before they reach the age of 28. Young African American children with disabilities, therefore, are the most at-risk demographic to face legal repercussions for “behavioral” issues common among most children their age. This phenomenon, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets students of color, (and children with disabilities), involves the use of the criminal and justice systems as a tool to discipline children. Unfortunately, these disciplinary attempts remain on the permanent records of the targeted children and can have lifelong implications that determine their future.
An example of this school-to-prison pipeline is clear when looking into some of the instances where law enforcement is used to discipline children. Jacksonville, Illinois is home to a particular school that makes use of its law enforcement officers for behavioral issues. Garrison School, a public school where children with disabilities in that region attend, has been in the news recently for the staggering number of arrests made within a single school year. Although the population of this school is an average of 60-70 children, the police, who are located less than 5 miles from the school, have been called over 100 times for “behavioral” issues, such as throwing tantrums and spraying water. An investigation into this school found that in the school year 2017-2018 alone, more than half of the entire student body was arrested. As the only public school for children with disabilities in that region of Illinois, caregivers are limited in choices of schools for their children. In addition to having disabilities, the children at this particular school have also experienced immense trauma and violence in their past. Arresting these children for their “behaviors” continues to place these children in traumatic situations, further impacting their development.
Impacts on children with disabilities’ development
Using the criminal and justice systems to punish or “discipline” children with disabilities can have lasting impressions on the children’s futures. For one, especially children such as those from Garrison School, who deal with personal trauma and violence from their past, experiences with law enforcement can deteriorate their mental health even further. Even those without previous trauma can have lasting impressions on their academic success, meaning that children who have been disciplined with the use of law enforcement are even more isolated from their peers and can experience breaks in their educational journeys. Studies have shown that children who have their needs met are more likely to outperform those students who do not have their needs met. Linking back to the school-to-prison pipeline, those students who have been arrested and imprisoned as young adults are more likely to continue down this path of criminality. Additionally, students with disabilities that have been imprisoned have to face the added struggles of maneuvering the prison system with disabilities, and these struggles are increased with multiple disabilities, especially with invisible disabilities, in which case, many people may not even believe the existence of these disabilities. Studies have shown how incarceration can worsen issues of mental illness within the prison population, and when translated to the impact imprisonment has on people with disabilities, these conditions are exponentially worse.
How it impacts children with disabilities’ professional futures
In addition to the harm this causes to the development of children with disabilities, the practice of using law enforcement to discipline school children has far-reaching consequences. For one, the children who are constantly “othered,” bullied, or harassed by both students and teachers can internalize their experiences and react to them, increasing their chances of being disciplined again for behavioral issues. In addition to that, being imprisoned, even for a few days, can be a traumatic experience that can shape your worldview, and as a result, your future. For young, developing children, these experiences can be impressionable, and coupled with the isolation that many children with disabilities experience, this can be a devastating combination, resulting in the deterioration of the children’s physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, many of these zero-tolerance policies that end in the arrests of children happen due to the faculty members pressing charges against the children. These charges, though they can be sealed for juvenile offenses, can lead to more charges in these children’s future into their adulthood. A criminal history into your adulthood can result in slim educational and employment options. Research conducted more broadly on this subject has been reported by the Prison Policy, and it showcases how increasingly difficult it is to find decent employment upon exiting the prison system. The report adds that even when formerly incarcerated people do find employment, they are often paid fewer wages than their co-workers.
Applying this research to children with disabilities who are disciplined through the legal system, can be an even bigger challenge for their futures. People with disabilities experience many barriers to obtaining employment even without imprisonment on their records. Studies have shown how incarcerating children does not deter them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future; it might actually have the opposite impact. Finally, children who are incarcerated experience large gaps in their education, and this can impact their ability to successfully enter the job market. This issue is exponentially worse among children with disabilities because they are more likely to be imprisoned for “behavioral issues”, and expands the academic gap felt by so many children with learning disabilities who are already facing many social and learning barriers.
How did COVID make things worse for children with disabilities?
The pandemic was a time of uncertainty, and many of us were scrambling around not knowing what to do. Even as more and more information came out about the virus itself and how to safeguard it, there was a lot of anxiety and misinformation being spread around. Children with disabilities had to navigate not only their personal lives with their unique experiences but also the larger society that was falling apart around them in the face of a virus. Many businesses and schools shut down in the beginning, which meant that children had to adjust to different learning styles, something that may have been easier for some, but widened the academic gap for others. Children with disabilities as a whole had to be mindful of the threat that the virus posed on their lives. This virus was especially deadly to those with pre-existing conditions and for those who were immunocompromised, both of which apply to many children and adults with disabilities. So, constantly having to live with the anxiety of whether or not they might contract the virus would have been stressful enough without the masking and vaccine debates that have politicized this medical crisis. What is worse, COVID-19 vaccines for children were not available for over a year after the pandemic first began, leaving this population vulnerable to infections with no way to protect themselves against them.
Additionally, along with their children, parents, and caregivers of children with disabilities faced new challenges as everyone attempted to adapt to the “new normal”. While the mandated quarantine helped with transportation issues for some, it opened up a whole new set of issues for many. Children with learning disabilities who received additional help from professionals either had to go without it or transition to seeking their help through zoom. For some, accessing help through Zoom and Telehealth was extremely helpful in addressing the medical needs of people, and this had a positive impact on people with disabilities as a whole. However, accessing Zoom and Telehealth was a challenge on its own for many who lived in rural areas or marginalized areas where internet services were very minimal or nonexistent, or simply unaffordable. The pandemic was a time when many people also lost jobs, so children faced additional financial repercussions from the pandemic. These instances further widened the academic gap among children with disabilities.
This blog mainly focused on the struggles that children face within the American school system. Part three of this series will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken historically when addressing disabilities, and some ways in which we can take action, on a personal level, on a local or national level, and even on an international level.
This is a continuation of the conversation about the Alabama Prison Crisis as exposed by Mary Scott Hodgin in her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.” If you have not read the previous blog post on this topic, “The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: A History”, it is recommended that you do so. Also, if you would like more information and details regarding this topic, please listen to the podcast, “Deliberate Indifference,” by Mary Scott Hodgin. Now, without further ado, let us jump right in from where we left off.
In the previous blog, we focused on the history of prison systems in America, and particularly, some of the legislations and ideologies that laid out the foundation for the correctional institutions we know today. We explored in detail the convict leasing system that helped rebuild the infrastructure of the Antebellum South following their defeat in the Civil War, and the racialized laws and legislations that disproportionately landed Black and Brown people in prison over their White counterparts. The War on Drugs era followed by the Tough on Crime era landed hundreds of nonviolent offenders in prison, serving longer and harsher sentences and life without parole. While our focus in the last blog was more nationwide, it was necessary context to set the stage to better understand the realities that face the Alabama prison systems focused on in this blog.
The objective now is to look deeper into the conditions of the penal system in Alabama, the lawsuits they faced in 2017, and the most recent one in 2020, how the pandemic exacerbated these conditions, the prison strikes that took place within these prisons, and some ways to move forward to bring about actual change – change in the mindset of our fellow Alabama voters, and a shift in the way the prison population is viewed and treated as a whole. We will look at some groups that are trying to do just that, from organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Offender Alumni Association to religious groups and other educational groups that sponsor programs within the prison system to provide opportunities for higher education to the imprisoned population.
While exploring the most recent reports that resulted from the federal investigations of Alabama’s prisons, there were many similarities in the reports. While the problems of understaffing and overcrowding were expressed in detail, (which will be discussed below), there was also extensive observation of the living conditions inside the prisons. What the investigations revealed was shocking, and despite having been advised to address these issues even in the 1970s investigation of Alabama’s prisons, the conditions had not improved. Rather, it had deteriorated even more due to the consequences of staffing and crowding issues.
Both reports extensively provide detailed examples of violent outbreaks within the prisons, between prisoners, and even at the hands of prison staff targeting the prisoners. Many such incidents go unreported, and others have even ended in the death of the imprisoned person. One of the things that contribute to this violence is the structure of the prison itself. Many of Alabama’s prisons are fashioned in a dormitory-style of housing units instead of the individual cell units depicted in popular culture. These housing units are essentially enormous halls that are secured on the perimeters, with bunk beds piled into the room as close as they can fit. With little to no privacy, and jampacked in tight spaces, people can get easily agitated, and this can lead to violence. Due to the overcrowding issue, many people are even expected to sleep on the floors, which can be unsanitary and uncomfortable. Due to the continuous staffing issues these prisons face, these large units may go unguarded for long periods of time, sometimes even entire shifts.
This puts both the inmates within the units at risk for violence, and the prison staff who, to the incarcerated individuals, represent the authority from which these conditions are sanctioned. Even still, many officers, due to the understaffing issue, have overlooked contraband possession (such as drugs or cell phones), deciding to pick and choose their battles in an already tense environment. As a result of all these issues, corruption is rampant within the prison walls, and many prison staff, according to narratives from both reports, take advantage of this tense environment to assert dominance over prisoners with increased brutality. People who are incarcerated are not viewed by society as individuals with their own pasts and presents. They are only viewed as “criminals,” remain invisible to society and are dehumanized. Regardless of the crimes that a person commits, they are at the end of the day, still, people, who deserve dignity and basic human decency. As an institution of the state, prisons are legally responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for people who are incarcerated to serve out their sentences as punishment. The American Constitution does not support “cruel and unusual punishments”, and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the rights of imprisoned individuals are fully supported.
2017 Federal Investigation
In the previous blog, we focused on how the prison system of Alabama has been under federal investigation nearly 50 years ago in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the conditions outlined in those reports were never fully addressed, and the issues that were highlighted have only been exacerbated over the years. In September 2017, the Department of Justice from the federal government toured one of Alabama’s prisons, Bibb County Correctional Facility, for their official investigation of prison conditions in the Alabama penal system. What they uncovered was outlined later in a report published in 2019, stating over 50 pages worth of evidence against Alabama, and the minimal expectations the federal government laid out for Alabama to achieve, both short-term and long-term.
The report is prefaced by the fact that these concerns were underlined within a week of their investigation. According to the report from the observations made in 2017, the Alabama correctional facilities faced a myriad of issues, including an overcrowded prison population, with dangerously low staffing, issues of contraband entering the prisons, and a host of observations pertaining to violence within the prisons, including physical, mental, and sexual violence. As discussed in the previous blog, these overcrowding issues come from the various legislations that were passed, increasing the lengths of sentences, criminalizing drug abuse and mental health issues (instead of treating them as medical issues requiring rehabilitation and treatment), and incorporating mandatory sentencing minimums and three-strikes laws. Along with identifying the concerns stated above, the report also deemed the penal system’s inadequate protection of its inmate population from harm, violence, and death, a failure. The report discussed at length how, along with unsanitary living conditions, there are dangerous weapons and drugs that are circulating within the prisons, making them unsafe for both the incarcerated people, as well as the officers who work there. This in turn is both caused by and exacerbated by the issues of overcrowding and understaffing within the prison walls. With fewer officers to supervise the dormitory-style prisons in Alabama, incarcerated people are packed together to fend for themselves.
While not all people locked up in prison are violent offenders, studies have shown that desperation, (which is rampant in these prisons), can lead to violence, distrust, and increased criminal behavior within the population. While the study referenced focused on populations outside of prisons, it is safe to assume that these results are only amplified within the prison system. The people within are both desperate and already undergoing punishment, which means that even the threat of punishment is not a deterrence from committing these violent acts. This also means that with fewer officers to supervise the dorms and halls of the prison, the overall violence within the prisons is increased, making it dangerous for the entire prison population.
As explained in both the report by the federal investigation, as well as the podcast by Mary Scott Hodgin, there were at least 11 men that died in 2019 alone due to the increase in violence within the Alabama prisons. To make matters worse, the federal investigation also found that the Alabama prison system’s record-keeping on these incidents and others was inaccurate, finding that there were many incidents that went unreported, and even many deaths misclassified as due to natural causes or medical reasons rather than due to the violence found within the prisons. If you count the total number of deaths within the inmate population in 2019 classified as natural causes or otherwise, the number is as high as 119 deaths.
In addition to the misclassifications and incidents not being reported, Hodgin also details in her podcast the inadequate mental health care offered to incarcerated individuals within Alabama’s prisons. This can lead to an escalation of violence, and abuse of drugs, and place incarcerated individuals dealing with mental health issues in dangerous situations. Without the proper medical attention required to treat these individuals with mental health illnesses, prisons can become a charged environment that can exacerbate their conditions, making them more vulnerable to both becoming victims of violence, as well as the perpetrators of the violent acts. Unfortunately, because people with mental health issues are four times more likely to be imprisoned instead of receiving treatment and care, many individuals in prison already enter the system without knowing how to follow social norms. This can put them in danger of being abused by officers and other imprisoned individuals alike, and without proper care, their conditions can become worse, and at times, can end in death, either at their own hands or at the hands of another.
Another major topic of concern addressed in the report is that sexual abuse and sexual violence. Sexual violence is rampant in Alabama’s prisons, and this issue is exacerbated by the understaffing issue present within these facilities. With fewer officers staffed to care for increasing numbers of imprisoned people, there is less monitoring and supervision taking place, creating a breeding ground for violence, both sexual and physical. Much of the sexual abuse either go unnoticed, or unreported by staff members, and while the victims can report these incidents too, many choose not to for fear of retaliation or feelings of shame. Their fear is not unsubstantiated, as many accounts have been provided in which sexual assaults took place in retaliation to the victim’s reporting of a previous sexual assault. In addition to the low staffing numbers, many of the facilities in Alabama are constructed in a dormitory style, meaning that imprisoned individuals are grouped into a big hall rather than individual cells. This can be challenging for clear visibility of each individual inside the prison and their whereabouts. At times, only one or two officers may be in charge of the entire unit, and sometimes, the incarcerated people go unsupervised.
Many incidents of sexual assault occur as a result of “drug debt”, where an incarcerated person owes another incarcerated person money for drugs or other contraband and does not pay. There have even been incidents where family members of people who are incarcerated have been extorted for money, with the threat of sexual violence against their imprisoned family member. Many victims of sexual abuse within the prisons also alleged that these instances occurred after the victims themselves were drugged or held at knifepoint. While much of this goes unnoticed by the prison staff, some reports that do manage to document these incidents have even labeled sexual assault as “homosexual acts” rather than nonconsensual sexual abuse. People who are incarcerated that belong to the LGBTQI+ community are even more vulnerable to sexual violence simply for their identity. Unfortunately, many of the officers in charge of ensuring that the prisons comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), are not even aware of who among their incarcerated population belongs to the LGBTQI+ community. The PREA flags the LGBTQI+ population as being most at risk for sexual crimes, and the PREA managers in the Alabama Department of Corrections are not fully complying with the standards set by the legislation.
After identifying and explaining the various issues the Department of Justice found within Alabama’s prison system, the report argued that these conditions violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated people, and as such, provided some bare-minimum measures that Alabama should take immediately to avoid a federal takeover of the prisons. These remedies included addressing the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, the rampant violence (both physical and sexual), the access to contraband, and the living conditions within the facilities. In addition to these short-term measures, the report also suggested some long-term measures to implement, including – among a list of other things – better incentives to improve staffing issues, improved systems to track, record, and address issues of violence, and more regulation over prison conditions and treatment of the imprisoned population. Alabama closed down one prison after this report (Draper Correctional Center) and closed a particularly harmful “behavioral modification unit” or “hot bays”, (where incarcerated individuals are held as punishment for violence and drugs within the prison) at Bibb Correctional facility. While these closures were a good place to start, they should be in no way, the only solutions to the long list of problems outlined by the report following the federal investigation. Unfortunately, Alabama, as expressed in the report itself, has been “deliberately indifferent” to these situations, and as a result, experienced yet another investigation in 2020.
2020 Federal Investigation
The 2020 report from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Alabama’s prisons found similar problems echoed in the 2017 investigation they conducted. As mentioned in the 2017 report, the 2020 report also addressed issues of overcrowding of prisoners, stating that all of Alabama’s 13 prisons held thousands of people over the capacity they were designed for, making Alabama’s prisons among the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. This report also referred to the dangers of not having adequate staff members to care for and run these overcrowded facilities, this time focusing on how these staffing and overcrowding issues have led to an increase in officers using excessive force against the incarcerated individuals, further aggravating the violence that exists within the prison walls. This issue of excessive force is further examined in the report, claiming it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which outlaws cruel and unusual punishments against imprisoned people.
The 2020 report details the many reasons why officers use excessive force against people who are imprisoned. Unfortunately, many officers have been known to use violence and excessive force to “handle” a situation, even in times when there is no physical threat to the officer, and even when the incarcerated people are complying with the given orders. This has the tendency to escalate the situation, placing both the incarcerated individual and the officers in danger’s way. The report provides various examples of such incidents where the imprisoned people are reported to be complacent with the officers’ instructions, even handcuffed without ways to fight back, but have still been beaten, tortured, and abused inhumanely. These officers filed false incident reports claiming that they did not engage in such actions, and even after investigations of the incidents, the officers did not face any legal consequences or disciplinary actions for their behavior.
At times, excessive force is used by officers as a form of punishment or retribution for disrespecting the officers or reporting them. The 2020 report describes multiple incidents where excessive force was used against incarcerated people simply for not following the specific directions laid out by the officers. One incident includes an imprisoned person being physically abused and forced to eat all the leftover chicken for simply wanting some extra food. Other incidents outline the use of chemical sprays to punish incarcerated people or as a form of retribution for not following verbal orders. Chemicals sprays are used even in times when the imprisoned people do not pose any physical threats to the officers. Finally, many officers also use force to simply assert dominance and inflict pain on their charges, something that not only endangers the people involved (both officer and incarcerated individuals) but also causes the incarcerated individuals to distrust the officers in charge, escalating the tensions between the two groups.
All these incidents are violations of the eighth amendment, and while many of the investigations that these incidents resulted in agreed that there was no justification for the use of excessive force in any of these outlined incidents, the officers faced little to no disciplinary actions for their conduct. The Department of Justice also included this issue in their report, arguing that unsurprisingly, officers either fail to report or inaccurately report incidents where excessive force is used. Many times, excessive use of force is investigated internally and recommended for an I & I investigation (Investigations and Intelligence unit of the Alabama Department of Corrections in charge of investigating misconduct by prison staff). Unfortunately, the report declares that of all the incidents recommended to the I&I unit, only 40% of them are actually reviewed. To make matters worse, many of the cases that are investigated by the I&I unit, where excessive force has been confirmed, are seldom referred to be criminally prosecuted. This means that many of the officers abusing their authority and misbehaving with incarcerated individuals go unpunished for their conduct. Many more of the incidents where excessive force is used go unreported, with only the victim’s bruises to bear witness to the incident. For fear of retaliation, many imprisoned persons go without reporting the abuse they face at the hands of officers. If the victim does not cooperate in the investigation, the incident is deemed “unsubstantiated”, and the investigation is closed.
Following their investigation, the federal government proposed a list of measures that Alabama’s Department of Corrections needs to take in order to fully comply with federal regulations for correctional institutions. These immediate measures included the need for more I&I investigators, a better system for victims of abuse from officers using excessive force to report their incidents anonymously and independent of the prison’s authorities, clear procedures for accountability for officers, and better documentation and investigations of incidents where excessive force is used.
COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Prison Population
In addition to these inhumane conditions the imprisoned population experience that violate the basic human rights of incarcerated people, the outbreak of Covid-19 greatly amplified this issue, and soon, the prisons became a contagious and deadly environment for both the prison staff and their charges. With little to no access to adequate healthcare and deteriorating mental health caused by the conditions of their environment, people who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks. On the national level, according to a study conducted in 2020 by the American Medical Association, people incarcerated were five times more likely than people living outside the prison system to be infected by the virus, and the death rates among prison populations were higher than the national average at the time. Making matters worse, due to conditions of overcrowding inside the prisons, the outbreak was especially dangerous, as incarcerated people were unable to adequately quarantine and unable to maintain safe social distance between each other. There was also the probability of prison staff bringing the virus into the prisons from the outside world, and also recirculating the contagion within the prisons back into the larger society. A UAB publication by the School of Public Health declared the prisons a “petri dish for COVID-19”.
To add to this problem, the prisons were notoriously unsanitary, meaning that preventative measures such as maintaining clean spaces and washing hands with anti-bacterial soaps, were impossible to maintain. Furthermore, understaffing issues complicated this situation, as those who were infected were either neglected until conditions were too bad to ignore, or they were provided with inadequate healthcare measures. In Alabama, a unique situation further complicated the negative consequences of the pandemic. A large portion of Alabama’s prison population belongs to the older age groups due to the strict and long sentencing laws of the state, and the fact that the pandemic was considered to be even more dangerous for elderly people further put people incarcerated within Alabama’s prisons in jeopardy. Access to healthcare within the prison system makes this issue life-threatening, and despite the urgency from the American Medical Association to include the prison population in the vulnerable communities list for vaccinations, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that Alabama’s prisons denied its incarcerated people vaccinations. While some prison staff received vaccines, they were not required by the state to be vaccinated to work in the prisons, continuing to place the lives of incarcerated individuals in peril. As a result of inadequate protective gear (such as masks), and negligent behavior on part of the state and the prison staff, the prisons in Alabama encountered a large number of Covid-19 deaths.
Alabama Prison Strikes
After living through the grave conditions of the pandemic, and witnessing the unchanging environment within the prisons, the incarcerated individuals decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. In September of 2022, incarcerated people from all of the 13 prisons in Alabama began striking against the prison conditions they endured. They argued that the prison system was violating their basic human rights, provided inadequate healthcare, and did not in any way prove to be a place of rehabilitation for the imprisoned population. Instead, they initiated a strike, refusing to work their prison jobs (such as in the laundry department and the maintenance department) that they did not receive compensation for, called for improvements in prison conditions, and demanded reforms to the harsh sentencing laws currently in effect in the state of Alabama.
While imprisoned persons are demanding to be treated fairly in prison, the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, insisted that the demands of the prison population were “just unreasonable,” maintaining that the new construction of the two mega prisons in Alabama would solve all these issues of understaffing and overcrowding. These mega prisons, built with the use of funds designated to the state for pandemic relief, (causing public debate on this controversial subject), are supposed to provide more space for the overcrowded prisons in Alabama, and reports have surfaced about the possibility of hiring more officers for the newer mega prisons. This project will receive a total of over $1.2 billion in funding, of which $400 million comes from the pandemic relief funds.
What is vital to include here is that while these two new prisons will provide more space to house incarcerated individuals, (up to 4,000 in each), these prisons are replacing existing prisons with newer technologies and facilities. While this may seem like an improvement in some prison conditions, (such as more security and cleaner, sanitary units), it does not solve issues of overcrowding or staffing issues. The massive budget awarded to this project, instead of going toward building two mega prisons, could have been used more wisely to address the core issues of society that increase crime and criminality within its community. In addition, certain legislation and reforms could have been passed to overturn the harsh sentencing laws that exist in Alabama today. This would have solved both the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, as with fewer people being incarcerated and more people qualifying for parole, the total amount of people within the system would decrease, which would also lead to a decrease in the number of incarcerated people the prison staff is responsible for. A decrease in the prison population would also lead to a decrease in violence and more space for each individual within the prison walls.
There are many organizations that have attempted to address both the various issues that incarcerated people face within the prison system and those face as they re-enter society after completing their sentences. These organizations include Alabama Appleseed, Offender Alumni Association, Shepherds Fold, One Roof, and Aid to Inmate Mothers. Alabama Appleseed, which belongs to the national Appleseed Network, is a Center for Law and Justice that focuses on equity and justice, and research around prison reforms in Alabama’s penal system. The Offender Alumni Association, recognizing the importance of human connection, focuses on providing support and engagement within the prison walls, and community and stronger familial relationships outside, all while aiming to end the stigma around imprisonment. This organization is a support system for incarcerated people run by people who have been formerly incarcerated and engage in community efforts such as their Heroes in the Hood program to help inspire meaningful goals within the younger generations of high-risk communities to channel their energy toward community restoration. Shepherds Fold, as a transition home, provides similar services from a faith-based approach, instilling Christian values within their participating members. One Roof, an organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Alabama, is yet another resource for people re-entering society after being incarcerated. Through their practice of Coordinated Entry, or an in-depth needs assessment, One Roof is able to secure housing for those in need and point them to additional resources they may require based on their assessment. This can be very helpful for many, especially those who have been incarcerated for decades long, and who may not be aware of what resources exist in the community, or how to go about securing them. Finally, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM) is an organization that provides assistance to mothers who are incarcerated, both during their incarceration, as well as their transition period into society after their sentences have been served. AIM provides transportation to children for visitations with their mothers in prison and provides incarcerated mothers opportunities to record bedtime stories for their children. Their reentry programs aim to reconnect mothers with their children, provide a few essentials for those leaving prison, provide classes on life skills, job preparedness, parenting, and other topics for those who are interested, and even provide transition housing for a year, though it comes with a few eligibility requirements, including rental fees charged weekly.
There are also educational opportunities that are provided for incarcerated people in Alabama’s prisons. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project led by Auburn University, and the Donaldson Lecture Series led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are only two such programs. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project provides incarcerated individuals a chance to earn college credits while serving time. These courses are offered in the field of arts and sciences, and for those who can keep up with the standards of Auburn’s academic programs, this is a great opportunity for incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education, and as a result, be better equipped to handle the professional world upon their release. Similarly, UAB also offers lecture series at Donaldson Prison. While not as extensive or academically progressive as Auburn’s program, the Donaldson Lecture Series focuses on educational talks given to incarcerated individuals within the prison every other Tuesday for academic enrichment purposes.
Shifting the Mindset Around Crime and Punishment
These resources are well-intentioned and have helped save so many lives to date. Yet, this is not enough; there is a much-needed shift in the societal mindset around crime and punishment. The issue of the prison system is rooted in the racist founding of this nation, and as such, has systemic implications on various areas of a person’s life. Reforms can only go so far, as they are still pieces of legislation that try to make changes to the existing laws, but they still operate under those same laws. There needs to be a shift in the way incarcerated people are viewed within the larger society, and there needs to be a reexamination of the laws on the books since most of the institutions in America are rooted in beliefs of supremacy. Some things that can help us rethink the way we approach topics that involve imprisoned people are suggested below.
As explained earlier, changing the language around how people in prison are talked about can humanize the population and foster compassion towards the group. Refer to them as imprisoned persons or people in prison rather than branding them the title of “prisoner” or “inmate”. This helps shift the narrative. “Prisoner” or “Inmate” seems to imply that these individuals are criminals at the core, and brands them as “others” in the eyes of society. Instead, referring to them as “imprisoned people” implies they are human, with natural rights, and only living in a condition of imprisonment rather than being defined by their conditions.
Finally, I leave you with a challenge: rethink how crime and punishment are framed in our society. Who is held accountable? Who isn’t? What acts are considered criminal and what aren’t? Who decides which acts to define as criminal and which ones do not? Who benefits from the current criminal “justice” system? Does committing a crime make you a bad person, a “criminal” for the rest of your life, or should you be given another chance to reform? Should people be branded innately “criminal” or are their actions influenced by the conditions of the society they live in and dependent on the context and motivations behind the crime committed? Is it fair to punish someone based on actions (mistakes yes, but still actions) committed as young people for the rest of their lives? Why is it that our society places the label “criminals” on people who commit crimes, but refuses to see them as anything else? People can be “criminals” and still be artists, musicians, poets, writers, activists, metal workers, etc. Why does our society insist on placing a singular label on this population? Could it be to easily forget their existence, to remove humanity from their essence? All these are necessary questions to ask ourselves to understand our own biases towards imprisoned people and began to rethink our own actions that can have long-lasting consequences on the lives of so many. After all, this prison crisis is happening in our own backyard, and if we do not speak out against these atrocities, we are just as guilty as those committing them.
WBHM, the publicly sponsored NPR affiliate located in Birmingham, Alabama, published a podcast this year, focusing on the atrocious realities of prisons in Alabama. Titled, “Deliberate Indifference,” the host, Mary Scott Hodgin, takes the listeners through an in-depth journey of the correctional facilities in Alabama, trying to better understand the root causes of the realities the people behind bars face on a daily basis. A health and science writer for the WBHM since 2018, Mary Scott Hodgin has been researching this crisis that Alabama prisons have been facing since 2019. The resulting masterpiece is her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.”
This blog will highlight some of the themes the limited series focused on, and because this topic is very nuanced, I would not be able to do justice to this discussion in one blog. Hence, this will be a two-part series, where the first part focuses on the background of the prison system as a whole, and the historical context of Alabama’s prison system. The second part will focus on the human rights violations happening in Alabama’s prisons today, including the human rights violations existing in Alabama’s prisons today and the past, and how one can ensure that prisoners are treated with dignity and respect.
I strongly recommend that you please check out the podcast if you have not already because there are many details that I may not be able to get to in this blog or the next one that is worth knowing about. After all, this story is one close to home, and the first step towards finding a solution is having knowledge of the problem at hand. With that being said, let us dive in.
The Origins of the Prison Systems in the Southern States of America
Alabama prisons are recently under federal investigation for the increased violence and sexual assaults that have been rampant for years. This is not the first time the state’s penal system has been under investigation by the federal government. In 2017, Alabama prisons were under federal investigation for the inadequate mental health care offered to the inmates. Before focusing on the details of the prison system, some background information is necessary to fully comprehend how the system got to the place they are in right now. In the podcast, after interviewing various experts on the subject, Hodgin speaks at length about the history of prisons in Alabama. In the 1970s, following a class action lawsuit on the conditions of the prisons in Alabama, Frank Johnson, a federal judge ruled a federal takeover of the Alabama prison system until conditions improved.
As reported in “Deliberate Indifference”, Wayne Flint, a retired Auburn history professor insists that the history of Alabama’s prison system goes further back, starting with the Antebellum era. Flint observes that there were two cultures during that era in the South–a frontier culture and a plantation culture. The frontier culture was only available for people considered “white,” and settlements were disputed with violence. The plantation culture, which was mostly meant for African Americans (who were set free after centuries of slavery following the Union’s victory in the Civil War), focused on the question, “How do you control freedmen?” This was made possible by the loophole included in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery with the exception of imprisoned populations. This meant that new laws …
New laws were created, targeting African Americans, making it possible to arrest and imprison them. These new laws, known as the Black Codes, were obnoxious, to put it kindly, and very racially inspired. The Black Codes included broad vagrancy laws, meaning that any person caught unemployed, begging, or unhoused (to name a few) would be put into prison.
Of course, though there were many white people dealing with poverty at the time, the only ones imprisoned for this were African Americans. Additionally, during the Reconstruction Era, following the defeat of the Confederacy, the Southern states were struggling to rebuild their society and economy. They required cheap labor, and people willing to work long, grueling hours. All this was true at a time when Southerners were not ready to integrate with the then newly freed African Americans and did not want them to have any political power to fight the oppressive conditions they dealt with. Before the Civil War, Flint points out that the majority of people imprisoned, (99%), were White; after the war, Alabama’s prison population was made up mostly of African Americans, (90%).
The Private Sector Benefits from the Prison System
One proposed “solution” to this supposed issue was the convict leasing system. African Americans were arrested for petty crimes, placed in prison, and forced to work with little to no compensation. Due to their incarceration, the inmates’ official records denied them the right to vote. This meant that not only did these states plunge the freed people back into a form of slavery, but they also managed to take away their political power, even after they had served time. Alabama was a state that indulged in this practice. The state did not want to raise taxes, but housing incarcerated people cost the state money. Their solution was to lend prisoners to private companies which paid the state to use the prisoners’ labor; the companies did not pay the prisoners, though, in any form of compensation.
This system became extremely profitable, especially during the Industrial Revolution, which required physical labor. This is how the mining town of Brookside, Alabama grew, and this is the system employed at the famous steel company, Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham. The conditions in which they worked were atrocious during the day, and prisoners were chained to the beds they slept in at night. This system required them to work many days underground with no protection and very little sustenance. Although there were both Black and White prisoners leased under this system, the Black prisoners were treated far worse than their White counterparts. Both Black and White prisoners, if they refused to work, would be beaten, abused, refused access to basic needs, and even could be denied parole. Prisoners were violently abused for any wrongdoings and because much of the public had no knowledge of these activities, the prisoners became an invisible population and were forgotten about.
That was until 1924 when a white prisoner by the name of James Knox was murdered by being dropped into a vat of boiling water for working too slowly. This incident took place in Birmingham, Alabama. Initially, it was reported that Knox’s death was a suicide or an accident. An investigation later revealed not only was James Knox’s death a deliberate act of punishment but also that, following his death, Knox was injected with poison to artificially indicate a suicidal or accidental death.
While this incident is certainly not the only incident that has ever occurred, nor is it the most heinous, this incident, along with other similar incidents where the victim was white, brought attention to the issue of prisoner abuse, and helped put an end to much of the convict leasing, at least leasing to private companies. Unfortunately, the use of convict leasing continued to take place in Alabama and other places even after this case was ruled, but inmates were to be used only for government projects like working on highways and working on farms and cattle ranches. One piece of good news is that in 2022, Alabama voters, along with four other states, voted to close the loophole in the 13th amendment, calling for the state to stop forcing prisoners to work for free. Many other states have shown interest in following this momentum.
The First Time Alabama’s Prisons Experienced a Federal Takeover
In the 1970s, lawsuits were filed against the state of Alabama, the State Department of Corrections, and the governor at the time, George Wallace. Upon further examination of the prisons’ conditions in Alabama, the courts ruled that Alabama prisons were functioning under inhumane conditions and authorized the federal government to step in to address the issues they found in the prisons. There was extreme violence and human rights abuses, and Judge Johnson declared that if Alabama prisons did not comply with his rulings, he would have several of the prisons closed.
Judge Johnson argued that “A state is not at liberty to afford its citizens only those constitutional rights which fit comfortably within its budget.” Judge Johnson provided details on what was expected to change, including improvements in educational opportunities, employment opportunities (with pay), better medical care, sufficient meals, and more space for each imprisoned individual. Governor Wallace, however, denied that there was any problem with Alabama’s prison systems, argued that the involvement of the federal government was an overreach that jeopardized states’ rights, and insisted that this approach by the federal government was disrespectful to the victims of crimes. Unfortunately, Judge Johnson did not see the case to the end; he accepted a higher position, passing on his work to his successor, and in 1988, the federal government ended its oversight of the Alabama prisons.
An unsettling reality becomes clear when comparing the most recent findings and the findings outlined by Judge Johnson – both reports are unnervingly similar, meaning that not much has changed since then. In fact, the issues outlined by Judge Johnson in the 1970s have only exacerbated as the prison population continues to grow, both in Alabama and in America as a whole.
The Racialized Prison System and Its Impacts
The main issue that Hodgin consistently points out in reference to Alabama’s prisons is the overcrowding of prisoners. This issue leads to an entire range of other issues within the prison system, which will be discussed at length in the next blog. For now, the focus is primarily on how this overcrowding issue emerged in the first place.
Richard Nixon introduced his idea to wage a “War on Drugs” during the 1970s, with the intention of imprisonment for addicts rather than medical attention and/or treatment. His war had intended targets from the beginning. In an interview conducted years later, Nixon’s own aide stated that their real targets were the leftists who were against the Vietnam War and African Americans in general, but blatantly targeting them would have been constitutionally impossible. Therefore, the War on Drugs was a way for Nixon’s administration to associate marijuana with the leftist “hippies” and heroine with African Americans to disrupt their communities and arrest their leaders. Even though both the white population and black and brown populations used similar amounts of drugs, black and brown communities were disproportionately targeted and imprisoned. Hence, the unequal War on Drugs was implemented, driving up the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes like possessing marijuana and heroin. This contributed massively to the increase in prison populations nationwide, including in Alabama, and this practice has continued to exist to this day, over fifty years since its implementation.
Additionally, while waging his War on Drugs, Nixon also insisted that we must be “Tough on Crimes” in order to justify his war. This approach called for longer sentencing, (even for nonviolent crimes), harsher punishments, mandatory minimums set for certain crimes, and three-strikes rules, all in an attempt to lower crime rates in the nation. The mandatory minimums set mandatory sentencing years for certain crimes, such as drug possession, giving the judges less flexibility to sentence on a case-by-case basis. The three-strikes law, or the habitual felony offender act, (the one in Alabama was passed in 1977 but other states have similar laws in place), sentenced a person to life in prison without parole after their third offense, whether their offenses are violent or nonviolent. The War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime initiative, and the various sentencing laws that followed this era exacerbated the overcrowding of prison populations, including in Alabama.
Nixon’s successor, Ronald Reagan continued Nixon’s War on Drugs, and his wife, Nancy Reagan, started the DARE campaign to teach students across the nation to “Say No to Drugs.” In an attempt to fearmonger the public to support the war on drugs and the tougher sentencing laws, the media played a big role in framing the issue of crime to be a result of increased drug use, a misleading fact that has yet to be proven. In fact, many studies today show that wherever there are high levels of poverty, there will also be an increase in crime rates.
With all this being said, there has been a growing movement in Alabama from both the Republicans and Democrats, to repeal the Habitual Felony Offender Act, citing the overcrowding issues and sentencing that doesn’t fit the crime. The House Judiciary Committee of Alabama approved this repeal in 2021, and the legislation was set to be voted on by the full House. After much research and various combinations of google searches, I found out that the repeal was halted on April 7th of 2022, labeled “dead/failed/vetoed” on the bill tracker website. While this is not the best news, by spreading more awareness of the impact this single piece of legislation has had on many lives in the state, there is hope that with increased support, it may pass in the future. However, this alone will not be enough to address the issues facing Alabama prisons.
In the upcoming blog, we will focus on the prison conditions, details of the 2017 reports and 2020 reports, how the pandemic has exacerbated these issues, and some ways to move forward. In the meantime, listen to “Deliberate Indifference” by Mary Scott Hodgin, and stay tuned for the next part of this series.
Since the pandemic began, you might have seen multiple different snippets of Chinese citizens in their homes under complete lockdown. You might have even seen drones patrolling the streets and citizens shouting lamentations out of their window.
What you may not have known is that all of these scenarios mentioned above are a direct result of China’s COVID protocols. Currently, China is imposing a “zero-COVID” policy on all of its citizens. However, as President Xi Jinping was just re-elected for a third five-year term, we can assume that the policy will not be going anywhere anytime soon.
The “zero-COVID” Policy: Prevention
Let us now evaluate what this so-called “zero-COVID” policy is and what it entails. Supposedly, China “recognizes domestic outbreaks are inevitable, and its policies are not geared towards having zero cases at all times but instead, are about “dynamically” taking actions when cases surface.”
China’s policy can be split into two distinct features: prevention and containment. In the case of prevention, China ensures PCR tests (which are fast and highly accurate ways to diagnose COVID) are readily available for anyone at any given time. The normality and presence of tests has in turn caused certain businesses and buildings to require individuals to show proof of being COVID negative to enter these public spaces. However inconvenient this might be to those who are not tested, this notion has definitely kept cases low—after all, if functioning in life requires having a negative test, why would one risk getting sick? One surely would not want to risk getting sick since it would mean they would be practically unable to enter any public places. Hence, prevention of COVID prevails in China.
The “zero-COVID” Policy: Containment
Prevention of COVID seems to be rather successful in China. However, the other part of China’s zero-COVID policy seems to be the one that sparks controversy and frequently makes its way into mainstream media: containment.
Allegedly, China’s “[control tactics] aimed at swiftly cutting off transmission chains to forestall outbreaks, involve quarantining cases at government-supervised facilities and locking down buildings, communities or even entire cities.”
Picture this: you wake up, get dressed, and are having your typical morning routine. Perhaps you might be feasting on some waffles or eggs as you prepare for your day. In any case, you eat your breakfast, and then head out to work. You get to your office around 10 minutes early, anticipating it will be a good day.
About halfway through your work day, you receive word that you will not be heading home to your family that night. Someone in that building (a coworker of yours), tested positive for COVID, and the city decided to place your entire office building on lockdown.
Swiftly, within hours, government officials are shoving mattress and bed materials through the window. Additionally, food supplies are en route to the office. The basic necessities of human survival are all now being prepared to be delivered to your office, which, for the next couple of days, will be your home.
This scenario is one that many people living in China have experienced. Starting your day normally to simply head to work and be told that you would not be allowed to go back home for a couple of days is a harsh reality in China.
This ability for the government to impose this upon its citizens is all, as one would expect, due to China’s commitment to its zero-COVID policy.
However, in addition to putting entire office buildings under lockdown for days, China is also able to put entire cities on lockdown. The population of the cities which fall victim to China’s harsh quarantine policies matters not—Shanghai, China’s largest city, was even placed on lockdown. Other cities that have been placed on lockdown include Xian, Chengdu, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Jilin.
When a city is placed on lockdown, its citizens typically get little notice. The lockdowns, unsurprisingly, are complete lockdowns—there are no exceptions. Everything closes. Everyone is required to stay inside, no matter what. China ensures complete and total lockdown.
The government guards and watches over the streets 24/7 and ensures that no one roams the streets without permission. On top of that, drones often fly about, blaring messages out loud to remind everyone of the lockdown procedures.
When China decides to place a city under lockdown, eeriness overflows the streets. The scene is reminiscent of ghost towns and movies of towns left abandoned due to some unforeseeable incident.
The Impacts and Implications
These efforts on China’s end, despite how draconian they might appear, have definitely accomplished China’s goals. Globally, China is practically one of the least impacted nations by COVID—despite the fact the virus allegedly originated from China in the first place.
According to OurWorldInData, China’s all-time COVID case count is about 1 million. The United States’s total is about 97 million. Additionally, in China, only about 5,000 have died from complications with COVID, while over a million people have died in the United States.
Naturally, this presents an ethical dilemma—how should a government go about protecting the lives of its citizens from an illness? Should the government take China’s route of practically removing one’s agency over their own life in order to keep cases and deaths down, or should a government take the route of the USA where COVID mandates are less harsh or non-existent?
The low incidence of COVID outbreaks might make it seem as if China is doing the correct thing—governments should step in and enforce lockdowns onto people. However, while this surely will indeed keep cases at a low count, it will also imply other things—most importantly, the implication that the government ultimately knows what is best for its people and has the final say in how people live their lives. If a government can step in randomly and deny its citizens the free will to leave an office building, what else can it do in other situations? This notion of a government exuding agency over its people in times when it deems best surely is not a notion that is only demonstrated in situations of COVID—it is a notion that is bound to resurface in other parts of one’s life.
What the correct and best thing for a government to do, as it relates to infection control, is not as clear cut as one might think. It is certainly problematic for a government to have total authority over its people (which thereby would give it the power to strictly enforce COVID policies). At the same time, this has been an effective strategy in keeping cases low. On the other hand, the United States has been uncertain as to how to implement COVID policies. The USA is not used to enforcing policies in situations that have never occurred before, such as the COVID pandemic. Hopefully, if there is one positive thing we could gain from the entire pandemic, it is that if a pandemic were to ever break out again, due to COVID, we are better equipped to deal with it.
Monday, October 17th is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; in 2022 we have a lot to acknowledge and a lot of work to be done. The theme for this day of commemoration is dignity, focused on how every human has the right to live with pride for themselves and respect from others. The first line of the Preamble for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes the importance of how the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and that is precisely the ideology behind the founding of this human rights holiday. But why, exactly, is poverty an international human rights issue?
Global poverty is defined as “lacking enough resources to provide the necessities of life—food, clean water, shelter and clothing. But in today’s world, that can be extended to include access to health care, education and even transportation.”
This international day of recognition was adopted by the United Nations in December of 1992 to recognize the structures that cause poverty, to listen to and amplify the needs and desires of impoverished persons, and to place a specific focus on how the international community and global leaders can work to solve this persistent social problem. October 17th was chosen to observe this topic because on this day in 1987 a crowd of over a hundred thousand protesters gathered in the Trocadero Plaza of Paris, France to honor the victims of extreme hunger and poverty. In commemoration, a stone was placed in the Plaza, now renamed the Plaza for Human Rights and Liberties, engraved with the following message from Father Joseph Wresinski, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty”.
The right to live free of poverty is not listed in the UDHR, but our current understanding of poverty constituting a violation of human rights has been developing since before the UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This is because living in extreme poverty is almost always accompanied with a loss of essential human rights that were explicitly enumerated in the UDHR, like the right to health, safe food and water and the right to adequate housing as illustrated in Articles 25 of the UDHR and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Even in developed and wealthy nations, citizens living in poverty experience obstacles in their ability to access the right to education, work, and political participation named in Articles 21, 23, and 16 of the UDHR.
While persons living in poverty are often denied many, if not all of those fundamental human rights listed above, this holiday gets its theme from Article One of the UDHR, from which this holiday gets its theme: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Those in poverty often lose this right as limited access to the essential requirements of a quality life places them in a position where they rely on the aid of others, who often treat the impoverished as less than equals. They are patronized and degraded in their daily lives, and the social response to an impoverished person exercising their agency to decline charity is typically one of rebuke.
The Current State of Poverty
Global poverty rates have increased since the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, and World Bank estimates that we have been set back 3-4 years on our path to ending extreme poverty as of October 2021. In addition to climbing unemployment and poverty rates is the leap in inflation, which has climbed globally as supply chains stretch thin. The Pew Research Center has found that the global middle class shrank while the global poor increased as the pandemic progressed, disrupting the progress of developed nations around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.
These economic impacts affect more than immediate financial conditions of those involved. One side-effect has been a loss in education; as the United States and other wealthy countries moved online in response to the pandemic, other nations (particularly in the Global South) had to close schools entirely. Human Rights Watch has noted that, for millions of school-aged children, the pandemic effectively ended their formal education as alternative school options were few and the need for work and additional income rose. The International economic recovery will be challenging, and may take years to accomplish, but it is paramount that we keep the most vulnerable, both their dignity and agency, in mind as we navigate our collective path forward.
International Human Rights holidays are often overlooked due to their focus on what are often perceived to be niche categories outside of major religious or cultural practices. However, observing human rights holidays is a practice that allows for shared positivity and encouragement as we mark progress and victories in the field. They also provide days of unity to focus on pervasive issues that still need attention and work. On this holiday, join me in taking the time to think about how poverty affects your community, how your community has responded, and how it can alter that response to alter the quality of life for its impoverished population.
Over the summer, I had the chance to be part of an amazing program, a program that at first, I believed would be a way for me to serve my community, but instead, I found community within. This program, known as Breakthrough Birmingham, is one of many Breakthroughs located in various cities across the country, serving communities with a mission and vision to bridge the academic gap produced by the pandemic and the larger systemic inequalities that exist in educational systems nationwide. Breakthrough is a nonprofit organization that commits to ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have a chance to pursue higher education and find a passion for learning along the way. They aim to do this while also mentoring future leaders and teachers to be better prepared for their teaching careers and leadership roles. With 24 different locations around the nation, Breakthrough is slowly trying to bridge the opportunity gap in America while retraining future educators to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Before diving into Breakthrough and its many accomplishments, it is important to understand the purpose that nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough serve in their communities and why they are necessary in the first place.
Background About the American Education System and Breakthrough as a Whole
So, what is a nonprofit organization, and why are they important to have? Nonprofit organizations are created with a specific goal, or mission in mind, which aims to address a specific need in the community. The public sector (the government and its agencies) aims to address the needs of the majority voters, leaving behind many issues that impact minority voters. The private (business) sector, on the other hand, focuses primarily on its bottom line, which is making a profit. As a result, the private sector caters to those who are deemed customers, leaving behind those who cannot afford their goods and services. This is where nonprofit organizations come into play. Nonprofits stick to a vision, form a mission statement, and have a double-bottom line of staying true to their mission while also making a profit to put back into the organization. While they may be focused on a single issue, each nonprofit organization aims to address a particular issue being neglected by the public sector and left behind by the private sector. Nonprofits are – by law – non partisan and non-political. This means they are inclusive in their services and do not deny service based on the ability to pay. Breakthrough is one such organization addressing the shortcomings of our country’s education system, which provides endless opportunities to those who can afford them, and leaves behind the rest with the equivalent of the bare minimum in education.
This of course has to be looked at through a historical framework, and as we know all too well, Birmingham’s educational system has historically been one of the most segregated and underfunded school systems in the nation. Even when the rest of the nation began desegregating their school systems after Brown v. Board of Education was passed, Birmingham was one of those cities that resisted and refused to comply. As Birmingham finally began desegregating, the school systems had to deal with funding issues, and in response, local officials began to redraw district lines to ensure that certain well-to-do (white) families were positioned inside well-funded school districts. A topic that can be a blog in and of itself, because of racially inspired redlining efforts that were supported by the federal government during the 1930s, to this day, the funding that school systems receive is directly impacted by the housing values in America. As a result, students from lower-income households are zoned to attend schools with low funding, while students from higher-income households attend schools with higher funding. Due to the inequalities brought about by this phenomenon, there exists an educational gap between the students from low-income families and those from high-income families, and this opportunity gap further impacts the students’ decision to pursue higher education or not. To get a better understanding of the legacies of racial segregation on our education system, read this article by Nekole Hannah Jones.
While Breakthrough’s mission was a necessity, to begin with, its need has amplified due to the chaotic school years brought about as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the education gap between low-income students and those who come from high-income families. Many students who didn’t have the resources to access the online modules were neglected as a result of switching to online classrooms. Research showed that by the end of the school year in 2021, many students across the nation were behind on math and reading skills by several months. Additionally, trauma and instability can be discouraging academically and can severely impact the students’ development process.
As such, Breakthrough is an organization that aims to bridge the opportunity gap in vulnerable cities across the nation. After conducting tremendous research and tailoring programs to fit the community’s needs, Breakthrough Birmingham became one of their local branches, serving the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) District and partnering with local universities to empower the future educators of tomorrow with a holistic approach to teaching the next generations. Breakthrough offers year-long academic services to underprivileged scholars in their community, and their summer programs specifically aim to slow the “summer slide,” (which is the tendency of scholars to lose some of their academic skills from the lack of academic practice over the summer). Interestingly, Breakthrough serves a specific age group, mainly middle schoolers, and even employs a specific academic group during the summer, undergraduate students.
Breakthrough as an organization focuses on its middle school age group for many reasons. Middle school can be a very stressful time for a young student, and researchers wanted to understand why. Upon further inspection, scholars at Portland State University found that young adolescents between the ages of 10-15, experience many waves of development during this period of their lives. They develop physically, both externally in terms of height and weight, and internally, in terms of muscular and skeletal structures, but also chemically, in the form of changes in hormone levels. This can lead to a lot of discomfort in body image/self-esteem issues, as well as uncertainty around their sexuality. Additionally, students develop emotionally, meaning that they may need more guidance on processing certain emotions and feelings. Furthermore, students in this age group are developing morally, and as such, are beginning to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. This can have lasting impacts on their ability to ethically judge situations. Students are also developing socially, meaning that they can sometimes be socially awkward until they find a peer group they fit into. While all these developments are taking place, students at this age also undergo developments in their intellect and depending on the guidance they receive, this characteristic can determine their interest in higher learning. This can mean that without proper mentorship, many students will fail to see the importance of higher education, or, students who come from families where they are first-generation scholars, may not even be aware of the opportunities at hand if they are never introduced to them. Recognizing these factors, Breakthrough created a summer program particularly aimed at ensuring middle schoolers in the community can have a safe, fun-filled learning environment that can guide their scholars through the various developments they experience in this age range.
Additionally, Breakthrough employs undergraduate teaching fellows during their summer program to provide their middle school scholars with mentors who are closer in the age group to the middle schoolers than their traditional teachers at school. This helps scholars build meaningful relationships with teaching fellows, and as such, scholars are more receptive to information and direction. Furthermore, representation is key, and employing undergraduate teaching fellows provides middle schoolers with adults who look like them, and who share commonalities with them. Studies show that there is an overwhelming number of teachers who are predominantly from one particular race, and gender, (white, women) teaching primary education. Seeing someone that looks like them in a teaching position is powerful in encouraging younger scholars to pursue their academic dreams. This includes the fact that throughout history, the teaching occupation has been held by mostly women. Being able to see male teachers can additionally empower young boys to perhaps pursue teaching careers in their future. Finally, Breakthrough ensures that teaching fellows approach the scholars from anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoints, making sure to provide weeks-long training sessions to familiarize teaching fellows with the local history and major concepts of anti-racist teachings, as well as introduce teaching fellows to multiple professional speakers for further guidance on such topics. Teaching fellows are also expected to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental context from which their scholars come, so as to be aware of some of the outside forces at play that influences the scholars’ behaviors. Operating under a “high expectations, high support” system, Breakthrough expects nothing but the best from its teaching fellows, while providing resources and a strong support system to teaching fellows to ensure that no scholar is left behind.
The Three Pillars: Exposure, Relationships, and Growth Exposure
One of the three pillars that Breakthrough Birmingham is founded upon is the pillar of Exposure. This exposure piece applies to scholars and teaching fellows alike, and at times, because of the dynamic of the working environment found at Breakthrough Birmingham, it also applies to the staff and administration as well. During the summer program, scholars are exposed to students that come from various parts of the BCS district and meet as one cohort, sharing similar experiences. Having friends from different backgrounds can expose students to different cultures and lifestyles, and as such, can be a healthy addition to their development. This also fosters a sense of belonging among the Breakthrough community, and as such, encourages a safe environment for the scholars to learn and grow.
Additionally, scholars are exposed to information regarding their future, including preparing for high school, visiting college campuses, and even learning about various career fields and interview etiquette at a career day fair. Scholars are also exposed to the community around them, and learn about topics through an inclusive lens, focusing on equity, diversity, and anti-racism. With daily advisory classes that focus on culture building, elective lessons three days a week that give scholars a chance to explore new areas of interest, and all school and/or all-grade meetings held daily in an attempt to strengthen the newly formed friendships and relationships, every activity at Breakthrough is intentionally crafted to expose scholars and teaching fellows alike to new experiences.
Furthermore, teaching fellows also benefit from this exposure pillar in many ways. Teaching fellows (TFs) are hired from all over America, so TFs are provided with the opportunity to work closely with students that come from various backgrounds, and who share a common work environment. TFs go through various training sessions together, where they are exposed to inspiring community leaders, and get the chance to explore the local community’s history together. The TFs are therefore exposed to different ideas, people, and cultures, and are given the opportunity to form friendships that can last a lifetime. TFs are also exposed to roles of leadership and are expected to work in committees that teach teamwork and communication skills.
The working environment at Breakthrough fosters a sense of community, as staff and administration work alongside the TFs on a daily basis to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the day. This model emboldens the relationship between TFs, scholars, and staff, and strengthens the sense of trust within the organization. This, in essence, embodies the second pillar of Breakthrough: Relationships. TFs get to build lifelong connections and relationships with each other and the management team. With a healthy work environment that encourages TFs to “exhale from school” and prioritize self-care, Breakthrough is a workplace with high expectations and high support. Scholars are also able to make meaningful relationships with each other as well as with other TFs. Many scholars find lifelong mentors in teaching fellows, and as a result, can have a positive role model to look up to.
Breakthrough’s third pillar, Growth, provides the results of the hard work exerted by scholars, TFs, and management alike. Breakthrough has some serious results. Not only can scholars improve their academic skills tremendously, but they are also able to weave through various social, emotional, and cultural experiences by learning how to approach situations holistically. These socio-emotional improvements are just as important as the academic ones and can actually have a positive impact on their academic abilities.
From my own experience at Breakthrough Birmingham, my scholars in my writing class were able to improve their writing skills from novice to proficient, and some were even distinguished. This was determined by providing pre-assessments before the start of the summer program and post-assessments towards the end and comparing the results from the two assessments. While many of my eighth-grade scholars came into my class with a bare-minimum understanding of what an essay was, by the time they took their post-assessments almost a month later, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the different parts of an essay, were able to write decent thesis statements, and many were even able to craft a standard five paragraph essay, even though they were only required to write three. As for the socio-emotional improvements, I witnessed the scholars growing more confident in their self-image and in their ability to present the knowledge they had gained. I witnessed their improvements in maturity and helped them exercise their patience. Even though the program lasted a month, I could see measurable improvements from my scholars.
I also witnessed some growth within myself. Breakthrough’s structure emphasizes the importance of reflection, and this is practiced starting from the pre-work that TFs are required to complete as part of the orientation process and continues to the very last day of closing. From daily reflections to interpretations of norms, to admin check-ins periodically, to the end-of-summer presentations of learning, reflection and review are a big part of Breakthrough’s culture. This practice ensures that ideas and actions remain mindful and intentional, and places importance on the growth mindset. TFs can truly see for themselves just how much they have grown over the summer. Also, Breakthrough introduces a network of resources and opportunities for TFs to pursue, including opportunities to be employed by Teach For America for those pursuing a future in education.
How to get involved
For those of you who may be interested in the scholar programs at Breakthrough Birmingham, they offer various year-round programs for 7th-10th grade scholars, and during the summer, they offer a six-week summer program for rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Additionally, those who want to support the organization can do so through donations, volunteer work, or simply spreading awareness of the program to others who may benefit from a program like Breakthrough, both scholars and teaching fellows alike. The right to an education is one of the fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that should apply to all children everywhere. Furthermore, education can be a powerful tool for ending oppression. Students’ ability to think critically and ask questions empowers them with the necessary tools to question unlawful or immoral behavior, recognize corruption, lies, and deceit, and provide holistic solutions to complex problems. Without these tools, students will continue to live in poverty and under oppressive conditions, not knowing how to change the world around them for the better.
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.
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.
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