Southern Prisons in the U.S.

by Abigail Shumate

Prisons, Historically

A quick Google search of “Alabama prison news now” will lead you to hundreds of articles detailing brutal and entirely unnecessary deaths of Alabama inmates. This is not exclusive to Alabama, it’s a trend you can find amongst most other southern states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. The UAB Institute for Human Rights already has several fantastic blog posts focusing on the injustices in Alabama prisons. Where this post differentiates from the others is in its focus on southern prisons as a whole, as well as worker’s rights within those prisons.

If you look at our country’s constitution, the 13th amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duty convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” While this amendment, along with the 14th and 15th, expanded the rights of Black Americans, the italicized portion is a perfect display of how the rights of this population are frequently given with conditions. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this does not just affect Black Americans; however, it’s vital to note that this group is disproportionately incarcerated. For example, in the southern United States, Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than their white counterparts. In states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and North and South Carolina, African Americans make up 38% of the population, but 67% of the incarcerated population.

Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire.
Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire. Source: Flickr

 

Within the Walls

Southern prisons and jails are notorious for being some of the worst in the country, with excessive violence and incredibly poor conditions. Southern prisons are grossly understaffed, and this leads to the intense mistreatment of incarcerated individuals. One example of this is this uncurbed time in solitary confinement. In Alabama, individuals can be placed in solitary confinement for “weeks or months at a time”, and because of understaffing they are denied their basic rights, such as showering. The overuse of solitary confinement is not uncommon in southern jails and prisons, and Black people deal with the brunt of this. Incarcerated Black individuals are eight times as likely to be put in solitary confinement and ten times more likely to be held in solitary confinement for excessive periods of time. Solitary confinement has intense physical and mental implications, and it can cause lasting damage to individuals kept alone for extended periods of time. The suicide rate for individuals kept in solitary confinement is needlessly high; in Georgia, for example, there were nine deaths by suicide from just February to April 2022. Similar to the usage of solitary confinement, in South Carolina there have been multiple extended lockdown periods, both before and during the pandemic. These extended lockdowns are the result of staffing shortages, which is a common theme in many southern prisons. One individual in a North Carolina Prison was forced to spend nine years in solitary confinement, and after their release they stated, “I feel like I am losing touch with reality…I feel helpless and abandoned, which makes me angry.”

Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige.
Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige. Source: Flickr

While the prison system exposes people to uncountable horrors, one that has intense financial consequences is the extensive use of unpaid or underpaid labor. Worker’s rights laws in the United States don’t apply to those who are incarcerated—incarcerated workers have no right to form unions either, so they are unable to fight for improved conditions or pay. For most jobs, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and more pay nothing for the labor, and if they do pay, it’s only cents per hour. Legally, incarcerated individuals can earn five cents a day. Turning the focus back to Black Americans, many are forced into work that can easily trigger generational trauma—required to work in fields, picking fruit and cotton (further reading on this can be found in the works of Dr. Joy DeGruy). The low wages combined with the undesirable jobs could incentive states to keep people imprisoned and working, so that they are better able to profit from of the tangible goods that incarcerated individuals are producing. Portions of payment are fed back into the state, or into the companies that are leasing the incarcerated.

Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background.
Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background. Source: Flickr

Permanent Impacts

The financial detriment that is forced on the imprisoned is not limited to their time in jail. Ex-convicts are treated as second-class citizens, and they often have an incredibly hard time getting jobs after their time in the prison system. At least 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed—which is all the more shocking when you learn this rate is higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. As a reminder, the unemployment rate only includes people who are actively looking for work, so this reinforces how challenging it is for previously incarcerated individuals to support themselves after returning to the general public. This difficulty perpetuates a cycle that can be hard to break—without employment, individuals must deal with less stability and surety, and this can result in them returning to prison or jail.

Impoverished individuals are more likely to commit crimes, and, unfortunately, the jobs that are open for previously incarcerated individuals often leave them below the poverty line. This claim is not unaffected by race, as white men are the most likely to be employed full-time after imprisonment, and Black women are least likely to be employed full-time. This relates back up to previous discussion in the post, and incarceration heavily impacts minority races, and it affects them much more after their time in prison.

Conclusion

The Southern incarceration system presents challenges that can seem insurmountable; however, with appropriate attention and legislative power, positive change can be made for both current inmates and those who were previously incarcerated. One effective measure that can be taken is to Ban the Box. The Ban the Box Campaign advocates for the removal of the question “Have you ever been convicted?” from job applications, housing applications, and more. This limits employers’ and loan distributors’ ability to discriminate against individuals when making hiring or other decisions.

There are also major structural changes that need to be made, including increasing pay for prison labor, improving living conditions within prisons, and limiting the time given in solitary confinement. It is important to recognize that incarcerated individuals are people too, and that they deserve the same rights awarded to everyone in the Constitution.

 

The Politicization of Immigration and the Notion of Invasion: Human Rights Violations on the US-Mexico Border

 

by Lexie Woolums

Trigger Warning: This post discusses immigration, including physical barriers for migrants. The article includes a discussion of some drownings and other instances of death.

 

Broadly speaking, migration is not a new concept. The United States was built by people who were not from here, including people who were forced to come here through enslavement and others who were violently moved against their will through the relocation of indigenous peoples on the Trail of Tears. There have been different waves of immigration, where different crises from around the world prompted people to come to the United States seeking better opportunities.

For example, from 1845 to 1855, around 1.5 million Irish people settled in the United States due to potato blight combined with Britain’s colonial control that forced available crops to be exported out of Ireland. More recently, the US has admitted nearly 300,000 Ukrainians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. There are many more examples of this, from Italian immigrants moving to the US in search of economic opportunities around the turn of the twentieth century to the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants after World War II due to economic depression in Puerto Rico, cheaper air travel, and job opportunities in the US.

A black and white photo of men wearing clothing from the early 1900s. The men are carrying suit cases and standing in a line at Ellis Island after arriving in the US.
Figure 1: Immigrants at Ellis Island c. 1900, Source: Yahoo Images

It’s no secret that not all migrants are treated the same—a concept that Danah Dibb previously wrote about on the blog. Additionally, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote an article that discusses two specific scenarios that effectively demonstrate how politicized immigration has become in the US—one with Governor Greg Abbott of Texas sending busloads of migrants to Vice President Harris’s neighborhood and one with Governor Ron Desantis of Florida sending planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts—scenarios that in any other context would be considered human trafficking.

 

Politicization of Immigration in the US

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, the percentage of people who want immigration to decrease peaked in the mid-nineties with 65 percent of Americans against immigration. In a near all-time low, this number was 31 percent in 2018. Today, that percentage lies around 41 percent—an increase from 2018 but much lower than it was at its peak and still a minority of the polled population.

For much of the 1990s, both major political parties shared similar views on immigration (though they may have disagreed on the way to do things), but that started to change around 2006 and has become much wider today. Today a Democrat is twice as likely to share the view that immigrants strengthen the economy compared to a Republican.

Various presidencies have highlighted different aspects of immigration in the United States, but it has become a topic that is far more divisive in the wake of the Trump Administration. Former President Trump’s stance on immigration was well-known and relatively simple—build a wall to prevent illegal immigration. He favored a policy of “busing and dumping” immigrants to states that had pro-immigration policies; additionally, he also made comments about securing the border from “rapists and criminals” despite the fact that first-generation immigrants are predisposed to lower crime rates than native-born Americans. Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump became known to make off-the-cuff remarks—especially about immigration—that were frequently called out for being racist and xenophobic.

As the President of a free country that is as powerful as the United States, having views like this stirred uneasiness across the United States, especially among minority populations. This rhetoric of invasion is not new, but it does fuel extremism and racism.

 

Operation Lone Star

Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, shortly after President Biden took office. Governor Abbot has sent state troopers and members of the National Guard to the US-Mexico border as a part of the operation. Additionally, the Rio Grande River has been lined with various obstacles, from shipping containers to concertina wire. This is all under what is known as Operation Lone Star, which is a multibillion-dollar operation to mitigate illegal immigration and smuggling at the US-Mexico border. According to the Operation Lone Star website, the agency fills in the Biden Administration’s “dangerous gaps [due to its] refusal to secure the border.” It also regularly buses migrants to sanctuary cities.

Governor Abbott has coined the situation at the US-Mexico Border an “invasion,” which he claims allows him to invoke the invasion clauses in the Texas and US Constitutions. Through this rationale, he has the authority to defend the border through his own policies, even though immigration policy has been under the jurisdiction of the federal government since the 2012 landmark case of United States v Arizona. Human rights advocates have warned of the danger of referring to the border as an invasion since most migrants are seeking to claim refugee legal status and are not attacking the United States in any sense. University of Texas law professor Barabara Hines called this notion of invasion “unprecedented and extreme.” Additionally, Operation Lone Star is under investigation by the Department of Justice to determine if it violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More specifically, the department is investigating if the state agency is subjecting individuals to “differential and unlawful conditions of confinement based on their perceived or actual race or national origin.”

Four men in military uniforms stand with another man wearing a maroon button down.
Figure 2: Members of the Texas Military Forces pose for a picture with representatives of the Remote Area Medical Foundation, Source: Yahoo Images

The Rio Grande River serves as a natural boundary between the United States and Mexico. Over the summer, national attention was brought to Texas when Governor Abbott announced that the agency would be implementing a 1,000-foot-long string of buoys with serrated blades in between them, with a mesh net that would connect them to below the surface. More specifically, the Texan government stated that they were installing the “new floating marine barriers along the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass” in an effort to “help deter illegal immigrants attempting to make the dangerous river crossing into Texas.”

 

Human Rights Concerns

According to the Texas Department of Security, there has been at least one body found caught on the Southern side of the buoys, but they claimed that this body was initially upstream of the floating device and floated into it. Later, the body of a 20-year-old Honduran man was recovered, but it was reportedly upstream of the floating device.

Human rights groups have criticized the floatation device with concerns about humanitarian hazards such as migrants becoming caught in the device or drowning due to its placement. Even without the floatation buoy, crossing the border is extremely dangerous. Even before this barrier was implemented, migrant deaths on the US-Mexico border have hit an all-time high. In the 2022 fiscal year alone, over 800 migrants died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, largely from drownings. This stretch of the border is so dangerous that the United Nations migration agency declared the US-Mexico border as the deadliest land border in the world.

Beyond the buoys, numerous reported human rights concerns with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exist. According to a 2023 report by WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, migrants are frequently treated poorly by CBP, which is the largest law enforcement agency in the US. One of the cases in the report is about an 8-year-old Panamanian girl named Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who died in custody of CBP because she was denied a critical heart medication. Specifically, the report notes that this death was preventable.

Engraved sign on a concrete building that reads " U.S. Customs and Border Protection."
Figure 3: US Customs and Border Patrol Building in Washington, DC, Source: Yahoo Images

Another issue is that accountability for CBP officers is extremely rare. The same report states, “Most of the cases … would have gone completely unknown without reporting from victims and those, outside of government, who accompany them. That such abuses are happening so frequently at CBP and Border Patrol indicates that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) accountability system has done little to dissuade or disincentivize them.” A 2023 study found that 95 percent of complaints from 2010-2022 did not have a proper investigation.

In addition to the numerous reported concerns of CBP abuses, CBP followed a Congressional policy change in September 2021, which means that the agency only reports the deaths of people who died while in CBP custody. Though this change may not necessarily be bad, it is concerning when there are reports of CBP officers lying to migrants about where to go since this puts them at a higher risk of sickness or death that would not be counted in the CBP reports under the new policy (if the person is no longer in CBP custody when they die).

The US CBP came out with a policy known as “prevention through deterrence” in 1994. This policy sought to block popular crossing spots and push migrants into the dangerous areas of the sea and river crossings.  In theory, this would show migrants how dangerous the crossing is so that if they are caught and sent back (which often happens when migrants cross illegally), they would not attempt to cross again. However, it is no secret that this strategy is not effective in reducing the number of crossings. According to an article by the London School of Economics, this approach has not been effective in limiting the number of migrants seeking to enter the US but has increased the number of fatalities.

A view of a bluish green river stretching through the desert. Mountains are present in the background. The shore of the river is mostly sand, with some short green shrubbery present.
Figure 4: A Portion of The Rio Grande River in Texas. Source: Yahoo Images

Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned Operation Lone Star’s instructions for Texas officials to push young children and nursing mothers back into the Rio Grande. According to the article, Texas uses harmful techniques like razor wire, even after children have been injured and one woman miscarried while stuck in the wire.

Sarah Mehta, ACLU senior border policy counsel, stated, “Texas must immediately stop intentionally endangering the lives of migrants seeking protection at the border. The federal government must also act by investigating these damning allegations and by the Department of Homeland Security decisively ending its own collusion with Operation Lone Star, which has facilitated and encouraged Texas’s expansion of a proven human and civil rights disaster.”

 

Federal Response

The Biden Administration has criticized this, citing the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, which prevents the “creation of any obstruction not affirmatively authorized by Congress, to the navigable capacity of any of the waters of the United States.” This act gives the Army Corps of Engineers authority to regulate all navigable waters through permitting. The federal lawsuit against Texas also alleges they did not get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before placing the barrier on the river.

The federal government initially asked Texas officials to remove the barriers. Governor Abbott replied in a letter that stated, “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” implying that Texas would not remove the buoys without legal action. Subsequently, the Department of Justice sued Texas and asked a judge to make Texas remove the buoys.

US-Mexico border coordinator Hillary Quam expressed concern in an affidavit that accompanied the request to a federal judge to have the barriers removed: “If the barrier is not removed expeditiously, its presence will have an adverse impact on U.S. foreign policy, including our relationship with the government of Mexico.”

The request of the federal government was granted by Federal District Judge David A. Ezra, who ruled that Texas must remove the floating barriers. Legally speaking, he issued a preliminary injunction, which preserves the status quo until final judgment (the final ruling of the court). In essence, this meant that the buoys would need to be removed until the case reached its final court decision. Ezra stated the following in the discussion: “Governor Abbott announced that he was not ‘asking for permission’ for Operation Lone Star, the anti-immigration program under which Texas constructed the floating barrier. Unfortunately for Texas, permission is exactly what federal law requires before installing obstructions in the nation’s navigable waters.”

Governor Abbott’s office appealed this ruling, stating that Texas “is prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court.” The federal appeals court granted the request to halt the temporary injunction, but a hearing date has not been set, so the floating barrier remains in the Rio Grande until a further decision is made.

 

Mexican Response

The Mexican government has criticized the placement of these buoys, claiming that the placement is a violation of their sovereignty. More specifically, they have referenced that the presence of these buoys violates the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944.

Regarding the bodies, the Mexican government issued the following statement: “We express our concern about the impact on the human rights and personal safety of migrants that these state policies will have, which run counter to the close collaboration between our country and the federal government of the United States.”

A spokesperson for Governor Abbott claimed that the Mexican government was “flat-out wrong,” stating that neither body was attempting to cross the floating barriers.

 

Conclusion

It has been over 40 years since Congress reformed the US immigration system. According to the Center for American Progress, putting undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship would increase the US GDP by $1.7 trillion over the next decade. According to the Pew Research Center, immigrant families are expected to comprise 88 percent of the US population growth through 2065. To say that reform is necessary is an understatement.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, migration is not a new concept. Unfortunately, it has been used as a political pawn in many ways. From the rhetoric of dangerous crime to the mentality that immigrants “take all the jobs,” misunderstanding has been weaponized against groups of people for a long time, and that likely will not change until we learn to be more compassionate and think of better solutions for our broken immigration system.

A group of protesters standing with a large red sign. The sign reads "New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform." Underneath, it says "Citizenship Now! Keep Families Together! Protect Workers! Safeguard Civil Rights!"
Figure 5: Protesters in New York City. Source: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, it is important to be critical of political officials who weaponize differences and prey on misunderstanding to further their own political agenda. To label such a diverse group as one negative thing that threatens the authority and safety of the United States is not only racist and xenophobic, but it undermines the value of the diverse groups of people who built this country (including the people who were forced to migrate to and build this country, whose impact often goes unrecognized even today). This portrayal minimizes the value of people with diverse experiences and limits the discussion of how crucial immigrants have been and continue to be in the US.

It is also imperative to recognize how slavery, forced assimilation, and genocide have both formed the social hierarchy we have today and continue to perpetuate racism, especially in the context of immigration. If you have not heard of the concept of “passport privilege” (including simply having a passport) or the connotative distinction between the words immigrant and expatriate or expat (not just their dictionary definitions), I highly recommend learning these concepts. It is important to examine where you fit within them, and which preconceived (perhaps racist) notions you might carry about a person based on job, skin color, accent, religion, or anything else.

Society will not change unless individual people change, so even if there is limited direct political action to take as of right now, there is still a lot of room to grow your understanding of these concepts so that racist institutions can be better understood and effectively dismantled.

The Indigenous Justice System: Over-incarceration of Indigenous People and the Need for Cultural Humility

by Eva Pechtl

To better understand the value of culturally centered practices in Indigenous justice, I encourage you to read my previous blog, “History of Limitations and Restorative Justice.” In this blog, I will be highlighting the resulting statistics on the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons. Then, utilizing reports from several justice-oriented organizations, I will summarize how professionals from Indigenous communities conclude problems and solutions that need to be addressed to neutralize these disparities in the Indigenous criminal justice system. 

 

Serious complaints arose around a decade ago about the food quality of the catering hired by the provincial Saskatchewan government.
An image of a man in adult provincial custody in Saskatchewan, Canada, looking out of his cell with his arms between the cell bars. The data on the overrepresentation index for Indigenous people in 2020/2021 was highest in Saskatchewan at 17.7 times higher than the non-Indigenous incarcerated population (Statistics Canada, 2023). Image Source: Don Healy/Regina Leader-Post via Yahoo Images

 

Visualizing the Statistics 

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system across several countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia. Extensive research has been conducted by human rights organizations around the world, but collecting accurate data on Native populations in the United States has proven difficult. The visibility of crime has come a long way since the Not Invisible Act of 2019 was signed into law in 2020 to increase information sharing and track cases of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis. However, data on Indigenous populations is still flawed in some ways. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) and a report by the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), categorizing people by a single race can wrongfully categorize people who identify with more than one race. The data that does exist is inconsistently labeled, meaning it could refer to Native people as Indian, American Indian-Alaska Native, Latino, or other. The number of incarcerated Indigenous people depends on how they are counted, and this generally underreports and, therefore, overlooks Native people in the system.  

According to the PPI, the data shows that Indigenous people are incarcerated in federal and state prisons at over four times the rate of white people. In the state prison systems of Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah, Indigenous people are highly overrepresented relative to the states’ Indigenous populations. The SJC report shows that in Montana, the Indigenous population is 7% but closer to 30% of the prison population. In South Dakota, Indigenous people convicted for aggravated assault received sentences 62% longer on average than any other racial group. 

 

Jurisdiction’s Impact 

Over-incarceration of Native Americans published by the SJC highlights complicated jurisdiction as a player toward overrepresentation. According to Indigenous experiences documented in the report, it is common for single crimes to be charged in more than one jurisdiction because of multiple police agencies patrolling reservation lands. Defendants may then face multiple charges with different requirements, which often results in punishment for failing to understand and/or follow those requirements. This is especially true for youth caught up in technical violations of probation or status offenses. 

A document titled Juvenile Justice, created by the National Congress of American Indians, speaks to the challenges of Indigenous youth in the justice system. Native youth are more likely to be subjected to the federal system and to be tried as adults, especially for drug-related crimes, leaving them with longer and harsher sentences.  

In Baytown, Texas, Olivia B. was arrested for a fight, expelled from her high school, and charged as an adult in court.
An image of a young girl being addressed by a judge in court beside her mother. The court proceedings for her misdemeanors, being charged as an adult, made it difficult for her to find employment and delayed her career goals of becoming a Psychologist (Open Society Foundations). Image Source: Michael Stravado/Redux via Yahoo Images

The federal system is not built for children, and sentencing often limits opportunities for diversion, parole, or services helpful in juvenile cases. Even if certain courts offer other options, youth are too often left with no support. Due to overlapping jurisdiction, professionals tend to assume that Indigenous youth will always be someone else’s responsibility. However, Tribal governments are often not informed when their youth interact with the state juvenile justice systems, and this prevents tribes from supporting reintegration and rehabilitation before, during, and after contact with the system. 

On the other hand, when Native children experience a culturally rooted court system like those of tribal courts and jails, they can have a better chance of receiving constructive intervention and support. For example, the Cherokee Talking Circle integrates Keetoowah-Cherokee cultural values that target substance use among youth. According to the Juvenile Justice document, researchers found that non-cultural education programs were significantly less effective in reducing juvenile delinquency compared to CTC. The Choctaw culture includes the practice of Immannumpuli, where an uncle or tribal court employee will educate youth offenders about the Choctaw justice system and talk to them about their life choices. Increasing collaboration between federal and tribal justice agencies to encourage US Attorneys to deter offenders to tribal court would be extremely beneficial for Native youth. 

 

Causes and Solutions 

The criminal justice system ultimately reflects an overreliance on locking people up, specifically Indigenous people, rather than offering services to rehabilitate offenders. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics displayed that in Indigenous areas specifically, the creation of more jails resulted in a direct increase in incarceration rates instead of being a remedy for overcrowding. As expected, the jail expansion also led to longer stays for both pretrial detention and actual sentencing.  

Especially in Indigenous communities, incarceration has harmful effects on health, as jails are not prepared to navigate chronic illnesses and are commonly dangerous environments. Incarceration is harmful to maintaining or finding employment, and this causes more poverty and debt among Indigenous individuals. Currently, because of high incarceration rates and a lack of restorative methods, many Indigenous people will be returning to their communities with significant challenges. Assisted reintegration is vital to the healing process needed after incarceration. 

The SJC report recognizes the long history of forced confinement of Indigenous people as a contributor to systemic inequities faced today. In the past and still today, disparities in justice are falsely attributed to the characteristics of Indigenous people rather than the more real factors of complex jurisdiction, deficiency of representation in court, racism, or violence. This is why legal professionals must consider the historical context of Indigenous trauma when analyzing current inequities.  

According to the SJC report, Tribal leaders have called for culturally relative alternative sentencing options that look to the roots of the crime problem. 15-16% of people in tribal jails were held for public intoxication or drug-related offenses, leading the Indian Law and Order Commission to state that drug abuse was a contributor to almost all crimes in Indian communities. Considering the serious financial and health effects of drugs, any efforts to prevent crime and recidivism would absolutely need to address substance use problems. 

Cultural Humility 

A reporter hears the story of an Indigenous man for the Intercontinental Cry report.
An image of a reporter listening to an Indigenous man, centering their focus on under-reported stories concerning Indigenous human rights. Image Source: Intercontinental Cry via Yahoo Images

 

Finally, the SJC report recognizes cultural humility as a necessary factor in supporting Indigenous communities. Practicing cultural humility means acknowledging your own inability to be an expert in a different culture. The disparities in representation in the criminal justice system can improve if non-Indigenous criminal justice professionals seek to understand that there is a lot they are not aware of concerning Indigenous experiences.  

Tribal agencies and activists across the United States have called for changes to be made, whether it is about legal jurisdiction, inadequate funding, or over-incarceration rates. Acknowledging the barriers that Indigenous communities and individuals face is a first step in creating cultural safety. Indigenous people are the best suited to handle justice and related problems facing their communities. It is time to listen to them. 

What Can We Do? 

To learn more about practices supporting native people, I encourage you to explore the lessons and solutions listed in the Over Incarceration of Native People. The document includes diverse proposals ranging from supporting Tribal Reentry programs, trauma-informed care, providing cultural mentoring, license restoration, victim assistance, housing, mental health services, and, most importantly, culturally relevant research and services. Juvenile Justice includes many evidence-based policy recommendations to change the status quo for Indigenous youth, helping them and their families to be better informed, tracked, assessed, represented, and treated. To find relevant services or contribute to their success, Tribal Justice also lists many resources and specified programs. 

Signs reading "Justice for Colten," "Indigenous Lives Matter," and "Murder is murder, lock him up!" advocate for justice for Colton Boushie, shot by farmer Gerald Stanley.
An image of a protest for Indigenous Justice In Canada in response to the shooting death of Colton Boushie and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley. Image Source: The Canadian Press/Jason Franson via Yahoo Images

In this series, I have reiterated many of the issues at the tip of the iceberg, but to continue supporting Native people, we must be able to acknowledge our ignorance of the rest of the iceberg that is the Native experience. With cultural humility in mind, we can work to unveil injustice in the Indigenous Justice System. 

 

Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

Poland: Human Rights Implications of the Recent Election

by Jillian Matthews

Poland is a highly polarized nation, with many valuing tradition, culture, and national identity. The combination of these three components, along with repeated rightwing electoral victories, has led to the democratic backsliding of the country, seen in their overreaching policies regarding women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial reform. Although many human rights violations have happened throughout the country in the past few decades, the results from the most recent election, held on October 15, 2023, have the potential to expand rights to more citizens in the country. To properly describe its importance, I will explain the political context surrounding this recent election before moving on to discuss the future administration and its potential impacts on human rights.

Political Context

Even while under communist rule, Poland has been a predominantly Catholic state, with an overwhelming majority continuing to practice Catholicism today. Traditional Catholic values continue to influence Poland’s political policies and the opinions of many citizens. This influence is most notably seen in the rise of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), with its social policies rooted in Catholic norms and having close relations with the Catholic Church. Up until the October election, PiS controlled the government and had, since 2015, used its eight years of authority to undermine democracy and human rights. These influences have shaped the repressive policies on issues such as women’s autonomy, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial practices. Listed below are the current status of these issues, showing the political climate leading into the 2023 election.

Women’s Bodily Autonomy

Under the current administration, abortion has continued to be a huge issue. While abortion was essentially banned in 1993, a 2020 amendment tightened restrictions even further. The recent change eliminated the option for abortion even when the fetus is known to have developmental problems or health conditions incompatible with life outside the womb. Prior to the ban, around 90% of all abortions performed in Poland happened for one of these two reasons: after 2020, women were required to carry even unviable pregnancies to term. While abortions are allowed when the life of the mother is threatened, this doesn’t mean that doctors will provide the necessary care. Countless stories have been recorded of Polish doctors overlooking women’s birth complications, favoring the life of the child, even when the child is unlikely to survive and the mother is likely to die or suffer lifelong complications.

Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images

In cases where an abortion is not deemed essential to save the life of the mother, doctors who carry out abortions are subject to punishment. If caught aiding an abortion, . This puts women and their doctors in a dangerous position, with women unable to access necessary help and doctors unable to provide adequate assistance without fear of imprisonment.

Not only is abortion increasingly difficult to obtain, but so is contraception. Out of all European countries, Poland ranked the lowest in terms of contraception access. For example, unlike in many European countries, Poland prohibits access to emergency birth control and hormonal birth control without a prescription. All of this shows the lack of women’s bodily autonomy, which can be interpreted as violating the human right to health and poses a threat to all women in Poland.

LGBTQ+ Rights

Those in the LGBTQ+ community face frequent discrimination and a lack of legal protections throughout Poland. Even since the adoption of the modern Polish Constitution in 1993, marriage is seen as proper only when between a man and a woman, meaning that gay couples receive no legal protections when married. Under PiS, steps were taken to further ensure traditional family norms, as seen with the party’s campaigning for a “family charter,” which sought to end marriage between gay couples and eliminate their ability to adopt children. This, along with a rising number of Polish cities that have decided to implement so-called “LGBT Ideology Free Zones,” has led to a climate that actively oppresses those within this community.

Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons
Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons

Throughout the European Union, Poland ranks the worst regarding LGBTQ+ rights, with only 15% of family, equality, and recognition rights being obtained. Unfortunately, activists cannot look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for assistance, as the document lacks protections on the basis of gender identity or sexuality. This omission of rights from the UDHR makes it nearly impossible for LGBTQ+ members to advocate for legal protections, having no doctrine to support their claims. Not only does this issue show that changes need to be made within Poland, but also the need to expand protections within the UDHR to provide a solid foundation for other advocacy groups worldwide.

Judicial Protections

Human rights concerns in Poland go beyond social issues; in fact, they bleed into the governmental structure itself. In 2019, a law was passed that undermined judicial independence, allowing the government to punish judges who question the legal changes made by PiS. This raised serious global concern, as this move would have allowed the executive branch to have control over the courts effectively, eliminating one of the greatest checks on executive and legislative power in Poland. This followed similar judicial changes that were ultimately made to serve the party. These changes included lowering the retirement age and appointing party loyalists to the Supreme Court. All of this led to the European Courts deeming these judicial revisions illegal in June 2023, making it an even more pressing issue leading into the latest election.

This infringement on the separation of powers causes a genuine and well-defined human rights violation, going against Article eight of the UDHR Article eight grants all humans the “right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals,” which is not available when the government has major authority over court cases.

The Recent Election

Given these issues and the increase in authoritarian policies, voters were aware that the 2023 election was extremely important, as seen in the voter turnout rate of about 73%, the highest rate since the fall of communism in 1989. Before explaining further, it’s important to note that Poland has a parliamentary government, meaning citizens’ votes are translated up to the legislature as a percentage of party representation. For example, if a party gained 30% of the total vote, they would receive that much representation in the legislature. This is necessary to know when understanding the outcome of the election.

Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Results

The results are as follows: the Law and Justice Party (rightwing) received a plurality of the votes, at 35.4%, Civic Coalition (center-left) received 30.7%, Third Way Coalition (centrist) at 12.4%, and Lewica (far-left) at 8.6%. While PiS holds a plurality, the remaining parties will likely form a center-left coalition, which would oust PiS from power and install a new government with a pro-democracy, pro-human rights agenda.

Likely Impact

Given the percentage of seats held by rightwing versus leftwing and centrist parties, progressive parties will likely assume power and work to steer Poland back to valuing democratic ideals and aligning more closely with the European Union. The three parties that are expected to form the new Polish government all promote democracy and pro-Europeanism, making it likely that action will be taken to support the oppressed groups mentioned above. It is also more probable that European Court rulings regarding the judicial branch will be respected and upheld.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the 2023 election results hold great promise in regard to human rights in Poland. As the Law and Justice Party (PiS) loses its grip on the government, a center-left coalition will likely form and create an overwhelming majority. Although these results won’t be officialized until December, many believe rights will be expanded under the new regime, and Poland can set a precedent for a return to liberal democracy within Central Europe.

 

 

Disproportionate Deaths: Black Mothers

by Abigail Shumate

*The use of gender-affirming language is incredibly important, and it is vital to remember that women are not the only people capable of giving birth or the only people subjected to maternal risks. Unfortunately, research on transgender, intersex, and nonbinary births is incredibly limited, so for the sake of concision, this post will refer to the maternal mortality crisis largely in the context of women. *

Maternal Mortality

Maternal mortality is perceived as a thing of the past. In the 21st century few feel as apprehensive about the idea of them or a loved one giving birth as they would have in centuries prior. One group that does not share this same luxury is black mothers. In America, black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Causing these issues are years’ worth of issues, including differences in the quality of healthcare, implicit bias, and structural racism.

With 80% of pregnancy-related deaths being preventable, it empowers no one to learn that Alabama is one of the greatest perpetrators of maternal mortality with the third highest rate in the country. A piece of anecdotal evidence that I stumbled upon while researching this topic is local to not only Birmingham, but to UAB as well. A former faculty member of UAB, Angelica Lyons, was subjected to pregnancy-related trauma that was, simply put, unnecessary and preventable. Lyons, after emphatically describing her symptoms to her doctors, was brushed off and the severity of her symptoms was not realized. Because of this neglect, she was forced to live with an undiagnosed case of sepsis that resulted in an emergency C-section months before her due date. Fortunately, both she and her baby survived although it was a close call for the Lyons mother. This is not an atypical experience for women of color, and black women specifically. Historical bias against black women results in many doctors dismissing their pain as typical or as something they can handle.

To understand the racism incorporated in the gynecological field, it is important to briefly address the history of gynecology. Gynecological science began in the 1840s, when J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology,” performed experimental C-sections on black slaves without any anesthetics. This inhumane treatment continued after the abolition of slavery, with unnecessary hysterectomies being performed on black women. Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens said it best when she stated, “the advancement of obstetrics and gynecology had such an intimate relationship with slavery, and was literally built on the wounds of Black women,” Following this, black families were kept from white hospitals with substantial funding until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act did not completely eliminate the disparity, and healthcare discrimination still follows us to this day.

Alternate Text: Photo of a University of Alabama at Birmingham building, displaying the words “University Hospital.” Source: Flickr
Photo of a University of Alabama at Birmingham building, displaying the words “University Hospital.” Source: Flickr

 

Maternity Deserts

One cause of inadequate care for all mothers is maternity deserts. Maternity deserts are counties that have no hospitals offering obstetric care, no birthing centers, and no obstetric providers. Over two million women between the ages of 15 and 44 live in these maternity deserts, and between 2020 and 2022, the number of counties determined to be maternity deserts increased. Maternity deserts disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic neighborhoods (although, this post focuses on black mothers, as the difference between black and white mothers tends to be starker). Maternity deserts often have lower access to transportation as well, and these transportation barriers can hinder the utilization of prenatal care.

 

Alternate Text: Photo of an industrial city, featuring train tracks, cranes, and various types of buildings. Source: Flickr
Photo of an industrial city, featuring train tracks, cranes, and various types of buildings. Source: Flickr

 

A Broader Scale

Health disparities amongst black people are not isolated to maternal issues.  Black people must struggle with medical practitioners throughout their entire lives. Doctors habitually brush away the concerns of black people of all ages, causing them to be misdiagnosed, and resulting in worse treatment than their white counterparts, or no treatment at all. As written about in this post, this begins when black people are in utero and can lead to lifelong health conditions that are misunderstood and under-addressed.

For example, black children are more likely to have asthma and less likely to have treatment. There are many reasons for this; however, I am choosing to focus on the long-term effects of Jim Crow laws. Unfortunately, many areas with below-average housing (or areas located near toxic sites) are the same areas that were the result of previous redlining. Comparatively, 4 in 10 black children live in areas plagued by poor environmental factors, as opposed to just 1 in 10 white children. People are quick to discount the social factors that play into conditions such as asthma; however, many scientists agree that structural conditions can worsen asthma and cause certain groups to be unable to obtain treatment.

Later in life, black people are more likely not only to have Alzheimer’s, but they are also less likely to be properly diagnosed, which delays or prevents their ability to get treatment (not dissimilar to the conditions referenced above). Statistically, black people who are over 65 are 4% more likely to have Alzheimer’s than white people (14% versus 10%), but it is likely that this disparity is even larger due to said misdiagnosis.

Alternate Text: Photo of a blue inhaler. Source: Flickr
Photo of a blue inhaler. Source: Flickr

Progress

While black maternal mortality is still an incredibly pertinent issue, progress has been made in recent years. In 2019, two members of the House of Representatives, Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams, created the Black Maternal Health Caucus. This caucus is one of the largest bipartisan groups in Congress, and its goal is to “work with…partners in industry, nonprofits, and the Administration to find solutions to ending disparities and achieving optimal birth outcomes for all families”. One creation by the caucus is the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, or more casually, the Momnibus. The Momnibus aims to address the maternal mortality crisis through investments in every aspect that may exacerbate mortality rates. It includes 13 bills that aim to enlarge the perinatal workforce so that it addresses diversity needs, extend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) eligibility so that mothers can have support for longer periods of time after giving birth, increase support for mothers who are incarcerated, invest in federal programs that benefit mothers and infants during public health crises, promote vaccination among mothers, and more.

Another move towards progress is with President Biden’s proposed 2024 budget. This budget incorporates $471 million in funding. One of the tangible things that it will include is Medicaid for twelve months postpartum. These efforts are admirable beginning steps; however, the work is far from complete.

 

Shackling and Psychosocial Disabilities

by Blue Teague

An empty room with three windows, all with long, sheer curtains. The two ceiling lights are off. Nothing but light can be seen outside the windows.
An empty room with three windows, all with long, sheer curtains. The two ceiling lights are off. Nothing but light can be seen outside the windows. Photo by Hans Eiskonen on Unsplash.

Mental Health, Autonomy, and Psychosocial Disability

In 1887, Elizabeth Seaman—better known as Nellie Bly—published Ten Days in a Mad-House, a collection of articles she had previously written for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Along with cementing her status as a World journalist, her raw, unfiltered reporting offered thousands of readers a rare glimpse into a mysterious frontier: American mental asylums.

A Pennsylvania native, Bly’s anonymous newspaper pieces championing women’s rights soon evolved into a career based on investigative journalism. However, complaints from her subjects resulted in newspaper executives assigning her to less controversial topics. After years of rejection and gender discrimination, Bly made a last-ditch attempt to save her career by approaching Pulitzer directly and weaseling her way into a novel undercover assignment. Critics had called her insane her entire life for her risky stories, and now she had to play the part.

Bly’s articles quickly garnered attention for numerous reasons. For one, the story itself was sensational. After successfully feigning insanity with odd mannerisms and facial expressions, Bly found herself in New York City’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum after a medical professional declared her clinically insane. There she remained for ten days despite immediately dropping the act. During this period, staff allegedly attributed her every move, including normal behavior, to her supposed mental illness. This would have perpetually prevented her release had outside contacts not stepped into vouch for her sanity. By this time, Bly had risen to minor celebrity as New York questioned where this “pretty crazy girl” had even come from.

However, it was Bly’s description of the institution’s conditions that quickly spread through the masses. Her multi-page articles detailed the physical abuse, gross negligence, and psychological harm patients endured.

Sanitation was poor. Disease was rampant. Food and potable water were scarce, and the staff frequently resorted to physical and verbal beatings when dealing with those under their care. Upon her exit, Bly stated that she believed many women there were as sane as herself. If anything, the asylum’s treatment of already vulnerable women caused insanity.

Eventually, a grand jury launched its own investigation into Blackwell Island’s institution, the parent of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Despite immense budget increases, the institution shut down a few years later in 1894.

 

A dilapidated wooden shed with some white paint on the door and bottom boards. It has two windows with broken glass and rusty frames. Behind it its dense woods.
A dilapidated wooden shed with some white paint on the door and bottom boards. It has two windows with broken glass and rusty frames. Behind it its dense woods. Photo by Lilartsy on Unsplash.

Life in Mental and Physical Shackles

Despite Bly’s work sparking outrage over a century ago, inhumane treatment of those with mental health disorders—or psychosocial disabilities—continues today. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 8 people live with mental health issues. Without adequate support and resources, these conditions can quickly become disabling. Psychosocial disabilities share strong correlations with higher poverty rates, increased medical discrimination, occupational inequity, and other factors contributing to a generally lower quality of life.

In 2020, Human Rights Watch released 56-page document reporting rights violations of the mentally ill. “Shackling,” a recurring theme, was found in 60 countries across six continents.

Shackling is an involuntary type of hyper-restrictive housing. Although it does not include shackles specifically, restraints such as ropes, chains, and wires are commonplace methods in keeping the victim in extremely close quarters. These areas can be sheds, closets, or even caves. Similar to the asylums in Bly’s era, sanitation is a luxury. The detained person often eats, drinks, and defecates in the same space with little ability to prevent contamination.

The motives and background around shackling is a complex cultural issue. Some offenders tend to be family members who, despite loving the person, lack the resources and/or education to deal with mental health crises. Keeping the person confined can appear to be the safest option when confronted with the possibility of them hurting themselves or others.

Additionally, social stigma can create even more danger for the family as a whole as well as the mentally ill individual. Instead of risking exile or ostracization from the community, families may seek alternative healing methods at home, such as herbal remedies, that lack significant medical backing. This, in turn, can intensify psychosocial disability, leaving the family overwhelmed and confused with few options.

A photograph of a medical IV stand holding and empty IV bag on a dark background.
A photograph of a medical IV stand holding and empty IV bag on a dark background. Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash.

Abuse at the Systemic Level

However, abuse does not just occur at the familial level. Mistreatment and abuse flourish in large institutions. The institutions go by many names: asylums, mental hospitals, psychiatric healing centers, etc. These are establishments, often state-funded, purposefully keeping those with psychosocial disabilities away from the general population. Although the institutions usually operate under the pretext of healing and protecting the mentally ill, many criticize the asylum system for blatant human rights offenses.

The abuse is systemic when many perpetrators organize and hide the mistreatment of victims. One such man, “Paul,” shared his experience with reporter Kriti Sharma from HRW’s Disability Rights Division. Paul had lived for five years in a religious healing center in Kenya. He said, “It makes me sad…It’s not how a human being is supposed to be. A human being should be free.”

Paul and his companions walked in chains—literal shackles—and were not allowed clothing. His restroom was a bucket.

In the USA, a wave of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s shuttered many mental asylums, and psychiatric facilities still operating do so with varying levels of success. New York City’s mayor Eric Adams recently announced an expansion of a law allowing months-long involuntary commitment to hospitals for those who, due to mental illness, failed to acquire “basic needs” such as shelter and food. Hospitalization would, in theory, provide the psychosocially disabled with the time and education to recover and start anew.

Opponents quickly pointed out flaws in this process.

As with shackling, involuntary hospitalization represents a loss of autonomy. In a 2022 article in The Guardian, Ruth Sangree reflects on the USA’s changing legislation by connecting it to her own experiences. She describes the monotonous isolation, undercurrent of fear, confusion resulting by the sudden loss of control over her own life. As a nineteen-year-old with no idea of when she would be “set free,” Sangree focused on appearing normal in fear of indefinite hospitalization, regardless of the effectiveness of treatments.

There stands the argument of many critics of institutions: the system is ineffective at best and traumatic at worst. Still, rebuttals exist. In one Times piece, retired employees from a California asylum vouch for the happiness of their patients, stating they “blossomed” when provided with regimen and shelter. This view forms the defense for New York’s law revision, which frames involuntary hospitalization as a compassionate action for the patient’s own well-being.

Objectively, both sides claim to want the same thing: a better quality of life for those with psychosocial disabilities. It has always been the how that stirs debate.

Eight people of varying skin and sleeve colors standing in a circle with one hand each stacked on top of each other's.
Eight people of varying skin and sleeve colors standing in a circle with one hand each stacked on top of each other’s. Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.

The Future of Mental Health Care

One factor in the corruption of institutional systems lies in language. Terms like “healing center” and “asylum” have historically protected potential perpetrators from legal action. Nellie Bly’s work helped lift the veil around mental health and disability, peeling away the euphemisms to reveal the abuse of a vulnerable population.

Today, watch groups exist for this reason. Organizations such as the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP) examine the care of people with disabilities in facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, where caregivers can easily take advantage of those under their care. If rights violations are found, they can work with the facility to improve conditions or take legal action. These organizations exist on a state and national level in the USA.

Individuals can make a difference by simply learning about mental health and advocating for equal treatment of those with mental health conditions. #BreakTheChains is a movement led by Human Rights Watch with goals of educating communities to prevent the chaining of men, women, and children with psychosocial disabilities.

Additionally, awareness is key—October is recognized as mental health awareness month, and invisible disabilities week is in late October. Psychosocial disability month specifically takes place in July.

A Brief History of Disability Advocacy in America & How the Colby Act is a Step Forward

by Lexie Woolums

“It will help me live a full life — to vote, to marry, and to go to church. It will help people with disabilities to live their own lives and speak for themselves.” – Colby Spangler.

How the Colby Act Began

The Colby Act is named after Colby Spangler, a Shelby County resident who was born with cerebral palsy.

Kim Spangler, Colby’s mom, remembers when she and Colby attended the Spring concert for Colby’s high school band. Colby had been in the school’s band for a year as a freshman. At this concert, the seniors stood up and declared where they would be attending college.

This prompted Colby to ask his mom where he would be going to college, which is something she had yet to consider.

Throughout Colby’s high school career, they began researching colleges that he could attend. Through this research, they learned that Colby’s individualized education plan (IEP) had to reach a certain degree for him to qualify to attend college. They also learned that most college programs preferred or even required that the student was their own guardian rather than being under guardianship by someone else, which was important to note since guardianship is a common occurrence as young people with disabilities become legal adults in Alabama at the age of nineteen. Some critics have called this the “school to guardianship pipeline.”

According to Kim, many people do not realize how many rights people sign away with guardianship, such as the right to vote, marry, and even where you can live.

Through this knowledge, combined with Kim’s advocacy as Colby went through high school, the Colby Act was born. Kim introduced the act in 2022, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Cynthia Almond (R-Tuscaloosa). After being unanimously passed on April 20, 2023, the bill was signed into law by Governor Ivey and later went into effect on August 1, 2023. I will discuss this in further detail later, but the Colby Act proposes a legal alternative to guardianship known as supported decision-making. This is an important improvement for disabled people and elderly people since it will preserve their autonomy.

 

Colby wearing a shirt that says "The Colby Act, vote yes!" next to Representative Cynthia Almond of Tuscaloosa.
Figure 2:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby & Representative Cynthia Almond,
who co-sponsored The Colby Act with Senator Arthur Orr. 

 

History of Disability Advocacy in America

In the United States, people with disabilities have historically had their rights ignored or entirely removed. While I will not go into explicit detail here, my colleague, James DeLano, recently wrote an article about the atrocities of institutions for disabled people. Though institutions in the context of James’s discussion are far from the only instances where disabled people face being stripped of their rights, I found the brief history to be exceedingly informative as I wrote this article.

Legally and socially, disability rights have not always been viewed as civil rights but through a lens of charity, especially in the case of developmental and intellectual disabilities. Beyond that, legal action to protect disabled Americans came exceptionally slowly.

In 1977, President Carter’s new HEW (Housing, Education, and Welfare) Secretary, Joseph Califano, formed a review board to consider an act that would protect disabled people under federal law. Unfortunately, the board did not include anyone from the disabled community, so many people were concerned that the law would have critical aspects of it removed before being passed. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) pushed for the signing of the regulations as they were, with nothing removed by the review board. They stated that if the piece was not signed by April 5, they would respond.

As the date passed with no action, protests began. In April of 1977, around 150 disability advocates staged a sit in a federal building in San Francisco. They remained there for 25 days, refusing to leave until the Carter Administration signed the law that promised to protect people with disabilities. Similar protests broke out across the United States, but most only lasted a few days, making San Francisco one the most impactful.

 

a black and white photo featuring disability rights advocates. In the center, a person in a wheelchair has a sign that reads "I can't even get to the back of the bus."
Figure 3:Source- Yahoo Images; Disability protesters

 

These are known today as the Section 504 protests. They were a significant turning point because disabled people publicly rejected the pity and charity sentiments and held the Carter Administration accountable for giving them the same protections as every other American.

“Through the sit-in, we turned ourselves from being oppressed individuals into being empowered people. We demonstrated to the entire nation that disabled people could take control over our own lives and take leadership in the struggle for equality,” said activist Judith Heumann.

Through the protests and meetings with the Carter Administration, Section 504 was passed. Beyond that, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which prevented any institution receiving federal funds from discriminating based on ability.

Black and white image of a person holding a protest sign that reads "504 is law now make it reality."
Figure 4:Source-Yahoo Images; Protest sign mentioning Section 504

Considering the history of disability advocacy in the US, we have come a long way. Despite that, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially for people with intellectual disabilities.

 

Distinction of Conservatorship and Guardianship in Alabama

Before diving into what the Colby Act does for Alabamians today, I want to address the elephant in the room and make an important distinction.

Over the past couple of years, there have been a few cases where conservatorships have come under fire, most notably with US pop star Britney Spears. Her father, Jamie Spears, became the conservator of her financial estate and personal life in 2008. One of the more significant outcries from this was when Britney Spears commented that she could not get married and have kids due to her conservatorship. More specifically, she claimed that they would not allow her to have her birth control removed. Many aspects of this conservatorship were considered abusive by much of the general public, sparking the Free Britney movement in 2021. I bring this up to clarify an essential distinction in discussing conservatorships.

Other stories like this have been brought to the public’s attention recently, bringing awareness to conservatorship abuse. With that being said, not all of them represent how conservatorships function in Alabama. In California, where the Spears conservatorship was established, conservators have jurisdiction over the ward’s financial estate and personal life decisions, which would not be the case in Alabama. In Alabama, a conservator has jurisdiction over the person’s estate. In contrast, a guardian would have jurisdiction over a person’s decisions, including the ability to get married or have children.

To put it simply, a guardian makes decisions for a person’s everyday life, and a conservator makes decisions for their financial estate. So, in the state of Alabama, for a person to have the control that Jamie Spears had, they would have to obtain two distinct approvals from a Probate Court: one for a conservatorship of the person’s estate and the other for a guardianship of the person’s decisions in their personal life. With that distinction in mind, we will look at how guardianships impact people with disabilities.

 

Colby standing and smiling for the photo in between James Tucker and Nancy Anderson of ADAP at an event.
Figure 5:Source-Kim Spangler; James Tucker & Nancy Anderson of ADAP
with Colby at a Partners in Policy for Alabama Event

Guardianships for Disabled People in Alabama

In Alabama, the primary way for parents of people with disabilities to help protect their children and young adults as they transition into adulthood at the age of nineteen is by getting guardianship over them.

Guardianship is used when a court proceeding finds a person to be incapacitated. According to the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP), Alabama law defines an incapacitated person as “any person who has one or more of the following impairments: mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, physical or mental infirmities accompanying advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, or other cause (except minority), and lacks the ability to make or communicate responsible decisions.”

In essence, guardianship allows another person to make decisions if a court determines someone is incapacitated. Similarly, conservatorship enables another person to make decisions about a person’s estate if a court determines that someone is incapacitated.

The important thing I want to note here is that to be legally declared incapacitated, the person must have one of the listed impairments and lack the ability to make responsible decisions. The person petitioning for guardianship or conservatorship must prove to a judge that the person is incapacitated based on these criteria.

Many people have guardians for a variety of reasons. For example, many older adults struggle to make responsible decisions and keep themselves and others safe as they grow older, so guardianship is sometimes needed so that family members can help with medical appointments and make decisions about other fundamental aspects of the person’s life.

While guardianships are necessary for some people who are disabled, they have been used as a one-size-fits-all solution, which fails to account for the varying abilities and needs of different people with disabilities.

Guardianship also proves problematic if a guardian decides they no longer want to have the responsibilities of being a guardian. More commonly, the guardian dies, which can result in a delay in decision-making for the ward (the person for whom the guardianship is for).

Often, it takes time for a new guardian to be set up. In many cases, the ward will become a ward of the state, which means that a judge, or, in some cases, even a sheriff, can become the ward’s guardian. State wards are often overworked and underfunded. Beyond that, they have little personal connection to the ward, which increases the risk of the person’s quality of life declining significantly.

 

Section one of the 14th Amendment, which states "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Figure 6:Source-Yahoo Images; 14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection clause that formed the basis of the argument for disability inclusion and signing of Section 504

 

Autonomy vs. Protection

One concern for people who have disabilities, especially intellectually disabled people, is the fear of people taking advantage of them. Commonly, guardianships have been established to protect the person from harm, even though they don’t always give parents the protection they seek for the adult.

For example, suppose a young adult has a past of being a victim of domestic abuse. In that case, guardianship may not necessarily protect them from that. Still, it is often viewed as a sort of legal footstep for the guardian to step in if things go wrong. Unfortunately, this is not always effective and is still extremely limited in its ability to prevent harm.

While some disabled people may require guardians, the one-size-fits-all approach of guardianship has been seen as the only option for far too long.

 

What The Colby Act Does for Alabamians Today

The Colby Act introduces the concept of supported decision-making for adults with disabilities in Alabama, making it the 19th state with supported decision-making (SDM) laws.

The Colby Act defines supported decision-making as “The process of supporting and accommodating an adult in the decision-making process without impeding the self-determination of the adult. This term includes assistance in making, communicating, and effectuating life decisions.” More specifically, the act states the following: “In lieu of a guardianship, an adult may enter into a supported decision-making agreement with supporters who may assist and advise the adult with making certain decisions without impeding the adult’s self-determination.”

This is a critical option for a disabled person who may need assistance making decisions but is not incapacitated as defined by the state, in which case a guardianship would unnecessarily strip them of their autonomy. This can also be a helpful option for aging adults since setting up an SDM agreement can prevent the need for guardians or conservators as they become elders.

The Colby Act defines a supporter as “An individual at least 18 years of age who has voluntarily entered into a supported decision-making agreement with an adult and is designated as such in a supported decision-making agreement.” It also establishes criteria for supporters and limitations on them, such as not obtaining information about the person for purposes beyond their role as a supporter.

Another significant piece of the act is the subject can revoke the SDM agreement at any time by notifying each supporter in writing. This is important because it preserves the adult’s agency and autonomy, allowing them to change the agreement or revoke it if it does not facilitate their ability to live a full life as anyone else would.

 

Colby stands in a black graduation cap and gown. He stands in front of a wall of red and white balloons, with a sign above that reads "where legends are made."
Figure 7:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby celebrating graduation from the College of Education’s
CCOS program at the University of Alabama.

 

The Colby Act is a big deal because it provides a law for something that has been happening informally for a long time. Due to the passing of the Colby Act, people who create supported decision-making agreements will now have additional protections behind the law. Though supported decision-making may not be an effective alternative for every instance where a family is considering guardianship, it is a substantial step in providing an alternative for disabled people who could benefit from a less invasive approach.

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

November 10 is the International Day of Science and Peace (IDSP), also known as the World Science Day for Peace and Development. The United Nations host this international event.

History of IDSP

Established in 1986, this historical day was initially developed to commemorate the birth of Marie Curie, a notable physicist and humanitarian. Curie was known for her innovative work within radioactivity, contributing to the discovery of radium and polonium. By 1999, its purpose changed to reflect the global needs of the scientific and humanitarian community, utilizing the day to affirm the global commitment to attaining the goals of the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The day and annual summit unite governmental, intervention mental, and non-governmental organizations meaningfully to promote international solidarity for shared sciences between countries and renew the global commitment to use science to benefit communities that need it most. 

The overall goal of IDSP is to help achieve the UN 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, creating a plan for prosperity for people and the planet. 

 

ISDP 2023

The 2023 theme for IDSP will be “Bridging the Gap: Science, Peace, and Human Rights.” This emphasizes the interconnectedness between science and peace, having a role in advancing human rights. Science is a valuable tool for making technological advancements, but it is also helpful in helping address social issues, reducing conflicts, and sustainably promoting human rights.

 

Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Source: Flickr

Science and Human Rights

Science is frequently associated with helping improve medical interventions, solving coding bugs, and completing mathematical equations. However, contrary to popular belief, science is essential to human rights. Firstly, science has a valuable role in promoting sustainable development. Utilizing scientific methods, data can be collected to quantify the progress toward fulfilling the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ranging from climate change to poverty to infant mortality, scientific data collection and analysis methods are needed to efficiently and effectively respond to global issues. Research and innovation also contribute to the mobilization of resources to historically underserved communities, allowing them to gain access to necessities. 

Within innovation, shared desires and interests help unite countries with singular goals. Scientific diplomacy is valuable in bringing countries to the table of collaboration. This deepens connections between countries as it relates to trade and commercial interests and helps foster peaceful relationships, prioritizing human rights.

With the appropriate distribution of resources, scientific advancements help improve the quality of life for communities internationally. Applying what is traditionally “scientific” to communities gives them a chance to live a better quality of life in a cleaner environment.

It is available to educate the public about the vital role of science and encourage innovation to solve global challenges.

How Countries Can Get Involved

Beyond participating in IDSP, countries can have a role in unifying science and human rights through many different avenues. One route is to protect and invest in scientific diplomacy. By allocating funding to scientific innovation and multilateral collaborations, governments can ensure that they can focus on shared goals with their international counterparts, working collaboratively to promote peace and cooperation. Another route is developing policies that protect innovation while developing guardrails for its usage, ensuring it is mobilized to those who need it most. States have a responsibility to be an advocate and protectors of their citizens, and by working to ensure that scientific diplomacy is used for the betterment of people abroad, they can elicit change in a meaningful way.

 

INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog
INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog

How Citizens Can Get Involved

Citizens have a responsibility to promote peace with science, as well. The role of a community member is to primarily use one’s voice to advocate for innovation and peace; by doing so and mobilizing one’s own story, organizations are held accountable for their actions. From governmental entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements, stakeholders are supported by the citizenry. It is also important to have open conversations  to explore further the nuanced introspection of science, peace, and human rights, continuing to promote awareness and understanding.

 

A History of Institutions for People with Disabilities: Neglect, Abuse, and Death

by James DeLano

What Are Institutions for People with Disabilities?

In this post, I focus on the institutions that were, and remain, facilities operating for the purpose of housing people with disabilities. The National Council for Disability (NCD) defines these institutions as “a facility of four or more people who did not choose to live together.” They summarize a report made by a consortium of self-advocacy organizations based on their experiences with institutionalization. The NCD list of criteria to define an institution, as synthesized from various self-advocacy groups, is that they:

  • Include only people with disabilities,
  • Include more than three people who have not chosen to live together,
  • Do not permit residents to lock the door to their bedroom or bathroom,
  • Enforce regimented meal and sleep times,
  • Limit visitors, including who may visit and when they may do so,
  • Restrict when a resident may enter or exit the home,
  • Restrict an individual’s religious practices or beliefs,
  • Limit the ability of a resident to select or remove support staff,
  • Restrict residents’ sexual preferences or activities,
  • Require residents to change housing if they wish to make changes in the personnel who provide their support or the nature of the support,
  • Restrict access to the telephone or Internet,
  • Restrict access to broader community life and activities.

Historically, these kinds of institutions have primarily included people struggling with mental health and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

What Were America’s First Institutions for People with Disabilities?

Mental institutions in America predate the reality of an American nation. The earliest hospital for the mentally ill, the Publick Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, was founded in Virginia in 1773. It was closer to a prison than what we would now call a hospital; patients were kept chained and shackled, physically abused, intentionally fed rotten food, and bathed in ice water. Inmates were rarely released. Many were placed or kept in prisons prior to or after their evaluation as being “insane.” This began to change in the 1840s; a new medical director attempted to use more humane approaches to treatment. Those included treatment that was consented to and largely removing chains and shackles.

The first modern institution for disabled people was founded by Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 in Boston, Massachusetts. It was considered experimental, despite others’ previous endeavors taken elsewhere, but Howe had experience in a similar environment, having founded the Perkins Institution for the Blind twenty years earlier. A contemporary article sings praises of the institution. Despite that, the electronic catalog of annual reports by the institution, renamed the Walter E. Fernald State School, ends abruptly in 1973 with a report on identifying child abuse and neglect.

 

Small Victorian-era prison cell. Source: Yahoo Images
Small Victorian-era prison cell. Source: Yahoo Images

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy (JFK) played an important role in the early reform of institutions for people with disabilities. Many people know that Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized, leaving her permanently disabled and confined to a psychiatric institution. Lesser known is that Kennedy established the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961, the first government committee on the topic. The committee’s recommendations led to numerous regulations being changed and legislation being passed. One Panel member, Eunice Shriver, who was also Kennedy’s sister, went on to found the Special Olympics.

Institutions for People with Disabilities in Alabama

The first mental hospital in Alabama was the Alabama Insane Hospital, founded in 1859 and renamed to Bryce Hospital in 1900. Ricky Wyatt, at the time 15 years old, was committed by a court to Bryce in 1969. He was not mentally ill.

Wyatt’s institutionalization led to a widespread deinstitutionalization movement. His guardian, a former employee of the hospital, sued Bryce Hospital on his behalf. During the discovery process, Wyatt’s lawyers discovered numerous preventable deaths in the facility, as well as a complete lack of plans in case of a fire; there was no way to contact the Tuscaloosa fire department after 5:00 PM, and the fire hydrants on the property were decades old and incompatible with modern firefighting equipment.

That lawsuit, Wyatt v. Stickney (1972), was part of the beginning of a legal deinstitutionalization movement. It created a minimum standard for care at Alabama institutions for the mentally ill.

Willowbrook State School

Willowbrook was a state-funded institution in Staten Island from the 1940s until the late 1980s. The school was over its capacity in only a few years; in 1965, Robert Kennedy described Willowbrook as a “snake pit” with “rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages we put animals in a zoo.” The few changes that resulted from Kennedy’s visit were insubstantial and short-lived.

Another infamous incident in Willowbrook’s history was the hepatitis experiment conducted on the children in residence. The exact rate of hepatitis infection in children at Willowbrook is unknown; I have seen estimates ranging from 30% to 90% of children becoming infected during their time at Willowbrook. At the time, many specific details of hepatitis were unknown. Willowbrook had a local strain of hepatitis that was reputed to be less lethal than strains common elsewhere. Saul Krugman, funded in part by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, began conducting a study on hepatitis in Willowbrook – initially starting with an epidemiological focus, then shifting to a more involved study. Krugman intentionally infected 60 children at Willowbrook with the hepatitis virus by feeding them live samples of the hepatitis virus. Krugman “watched as their skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers grew bigger.”

Willowbrook left the public consciousness almost entirely until 1972, when Geraldo Rivera created a bombshell documentary that exposed the conditions at Willowbrook State School and institutions like it. In March 1972, residents’ parents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging violations of the constitutional rights of Willowbrook residents. Just three years later, as a result of the lawsuit, the Willowbrook Consent Decree created standards the institution would be Willowbrook open, however; Willowbrook State School formally closed “officially and forever” on September 17th, 1987.

 

Postcard of Willowbrook with a yellow label stating "Willowbrook State School". Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection
Postcard of Willowbrook with a yellow label stating “Willowbrook State School”. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection

 

Despite the promise made in the wake of the Willowbrook scandal, alumni are still mistreated today. In 2020, The New York Times published the results of an investigation conducted into recent abuses in a group home in New York where some Willowbrook alumni resided. They describe physical abuse and neglect, including injuries caused by scalding water, deaths caused by neglect, and ant infestations. The investigation made allegations against 13 employees, nine of whom still worked for the agency, and seven of those still worked in group homes at the time of the article’s publishing.

Institutions for People with Disabilities Today

In 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), along with other federal agencies, published a report on group homes, which have largely succeeded large institutions like Willowbrook or Bryce. They found that, in 49 states, health and safety procedures were not being followed.

“OIG found serious lapses in basic health and safety practices in group homes. OIG made multiple referrals to local law enforcement to address specific incidents of harm.”

Between 2004 and 2010, 1,361 people with disabilities died in Connecticut. 82 of those deaths were caused by neglect or abuse. The causes were found to be due to “abuse, neglect, and medical errors.” The OIG found that “State agencies did not comply with Federal waiver and State requirements for reporting and monitoring critical incidents.” These “critical incidents” include deaths, assaults, suicide attempts, and missing persons.

 

Older man in wheelchair being escorted by caregiver. Source: Yahoo Images
An older man in a wheelchair being escorted by a caregiver. Source: Yahoo Images

 

While we, as Americans, often like to think our country has advanced for people with disabilities, the reality is disappointing. Willowbrook alumni are still being abused forty years later. Group homes have been found to have widespread abusive and neglectful practices.

State Protection & Advocacy agencies exist as a legal protection for people with disabilities. In Alabama, the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program provides legal assistance to people with disabilities in cases involving civil rights violations and has the ability to investigate said cases in hospitals, group homes, schools, and any other facilities where abuse or neglect of people with disabilities occurs.