A Look at Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The Exhibit

Girl in front of Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts  (AEIVA) has welcomed a new exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. The exhibit explores the United States’ criminal justice system, mass incarceration, discrimination and the very concept of justice with works from more than 70 different artists. Many of the pieces on display come from artists who are or were incarcerated, who used art as an essential outlet and form of expression within prison. Nonincarcerated artists are also featured, influenced by the damages of mass incarceration within their families and neighborhoods. The entire exhibit creates a critique of mass incarceration from a human right’s perspective, representing the voices of incarcerated persons that are typically silenced or ignored. “Marking Time” boasts three galleries of moving pieces that speak to the gravity and scale at which the human rights violations within our punitive justice system disenfranchise impoverished and minority communities throughout the United States, and features data and interviews that discuss ways these glaring problems should be addressed and combatted. 

“Marking Time” was organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, who has spent a decade researching the importance and development of visual arts and creative practices for incarcerated persons. Dr. Fleetwood deliberately removed any mention of charges or reasons for conviction for the incarcerated artists featured in the exhibit, forcing viewers to remove a layer of prejudice or thought regarding whether or not the artist is inherently a “good” or “bad” person, or deserving of their incarceration. As I progressed through the galleries of “Marking Time ”, one of the first things I noticed was exactly that; how I continuously perceived the artworks as being the creations of a fellow artist, not a criminal or prisoner. This intentional shift in perception creates an environment of thoughtfulness, analysis and depth that may not have been achieved otherwise, and makes the exhibit an excellent ignition for thought, conversation and activism.

When analyzing the works themselves, I was surprised to see how many were masterfully created from hair gel, sheets, uniforms, newspapers and contraband items when traditional art supplies were not accessible. Incarcerated artists are often limited in the tools they have to create art from, but countless works within “Marking Time” reveal the true resilience of an artist’s spirit, and how artistic expression can prevail above the smothering limitations of prison.

The Pieces 

As this exhibit has been analyzed and discussed through its many travels from MoMA to AEIVA, I wanted to highlight a few of the pieces and discuss their particular significance to the conversation of human rights within the United States punitive justice system and mass incarceration.

Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney

Hundreds of sketched portraits decorating a wall.
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

Loughney’s series, Pyrrhic Defeat, is named for a theory within criminal justice studies that explores how a failing criminal justice system that discriminates in its criminalization of certain groups substantially benefits certain elites. Mark Loughney has created over 750 portraits of his incarcerated peers in order to mark the passage of time within his own sentence, as well as provide fellow inmates with a positive alternative to the dehumanization caused by mugshots and prison IDs. His pieces provide the individuals with a level of personalization, dignity, and respect that is often forgotten and ignored within the prison system. Loughney spends 20 minutes on each sketch, and has to carve a creative, open atmosphere for each session out of the typical chaos and disruptions within a prison environment.

Untitled by Gilberto Rivera

Three mixed media paintings depicting the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gilberto Rivera, Untitled, 2020. Newspaper, caulk, silicone, spray paint, acrylic, and markers on canvas and recycled canvas. L: 48 ½ x 60 in C: 59 ¾ x 51 ⅜ in R: 48 ¼ x 60 in, Overall: 60 x 156 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

This Triptych by Gilberto Rivera places a spotlight on how mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted vulnerable communities throughout the artists’ hometown of New York. Rivera was a graffiti artist prior to his incarceration, and this piece truly reveals the artist’s emotions and style in a brilliant display of keywords, colors and figures. Rivera’s triptych incorporates newspaper clippings that highlight his disgust for how minority and immigrant essential workers were neglected as well as the fear incarcerated people experienced throughout the public health crisis. Prisoners across the globe were put into lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the result of this is an experience extremely similar to that of solitary confinement; a punitive mechanism proven to have extreme mental and physical health consequences. Despite these sweeping lockdowns, extreme overcrowding lead prisons to host the majority of the largest single-site outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Despite these major outbreaks and casualties, prisoners fell to the bottom of priority lists for treatment and aid when medical equipment and essential items faced shortages. Rivera’s piece displays frustration and criticism of these issues that have hardly received the mainstream coverage they deserve.

Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens

Three painted panels with painted blueprints of a slave ship and federal prison overlapping.
Jared Owens, Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016. Mixed media on birch panels. Each: 48 x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. Source: Original Photo

With Ellapsium, Jared Owens addresses the racism of the criminal justice system as well as hierarchies and power struggles within Fairton, the correctional institution where Owens was imprisoned.  This complex work features symbolism as a form of rebellion and disapproval, and bears an immediately recognizable resemblance to the infamous map of the Brookes Slave Ship from 1788 that displays how slaves were forced to live through their passage to America. This intentionally chosen symbol represents the violence, dehumanization, and other atrocities that slaves faced in early American history. The second and less known image present in this work is a blueprint of the Fairton prison; Owens’ combining of the two blatantly compares the horrors of the historical institution of slavery to the atrocities and discrimination committed by the United States’ current carceral state. Owens also utilizes color symbolically throughout his piece, and all of the colors used correlate to the artist’s daily life within a federal institution. The green of the institutional walls represents restriction and being subdued, blue represents the uniforms worn by prison guards, and brown represents the uniforms of those imprisoned. Orange, the most used color within the piece, was used within Fairfield to indicate areas that were off limits and unavailable to incarcerated persons, so Owens deliberately used that color for the boundary between the blueprint of the slave ship, of Fairfield, and the world outside of the two. 

Owens is open about how his pursuit of art posed a legitimate threat to him within the Fairfield facility. Being caught with planks of wood to paint on or stretch canvas could have resulted in solitary confinement, extension of his sentence, or complete confiscation of personal possessions and art supplies. While these overwhelming restrictions greatly limited Owens while he was in prison, he has chosen to use his experience to create, raise awareness, and call for change- like so many artists featured alongside him in “Marking Time”.

Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun

A rack of uniform orange detention hoodies, with patterns on the interior lining.
Susan Lee-Chun, Peace, Love, Harmony, 2007. Cotton fabric and dye. 36 x 60 x 18 in. Courtesy of artist. Source: Original Photo

Women on the Rise! (WOTR) was a feminist art project founded by Dr. Jillian Hernandez to provide girls in juvenile detention facilities with a platform for self-expression and dialogue. Inspired by her participation in this project, Susan Lee-Chun worked with a group of girls in juvenile detention to explore the politics of fashion, and asked her participants to “Think about who you are, what words, images or symbols define you or your beliefs. Use them to create a fabric design”. The resulting hoodies on display conform to detention center uniforms on their exterior, and on the inside feature patterns with rainbows, checkers, and the word “Love”. Upon completion of this project, Lee-Chun attempted to give the girls she worked with the resulting hoodies of their creation; and was denied that request. None of the girls involved were allowed to wear the hoodies. In public defiance, Lee-Chun’s hoodies now hang among the many artworks of “Marking Time”, criticizing a system that would prioritize conformity and uniform over the individuality, creativity and expression of a child. 

How To See “Marking Time”

If you would like to see “Marking Time” and any of the artworks or artists featured above first hand, the exhibit is free and available to the public until December 11. Reserve your free ticket to view the exhibition here. Spaces per time slot are limited to 10 for a one-hour long visit. If you cannot make your time slot for any reason, please cancel the booking or call 205-975-6436. If you have any issues with booking your ticket or would like to reserve a group tour, contact AEIVA at aeiva@uab.edu. 

Visitors must wear a mask at all times inside the AEIVA building and keep socially distanced. Free and metered parking is available along the streets surrounding AEIVA. Safety is UAB’s priority. The pandemic is a fluid situation that UAB is monitoring, in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts; events will be subject to change based on the latest COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

All upcoming “Marking Time” programs are designed as hybrid events, with both in-person and virtual components. AEIVA is prepared to move any of the events entirely virtual at a moment’s notice. Visit AEIVA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the latest updated information.

The Re-Entry Simulation on Mass Incarceration and its Practical Applications in the Real World

This image is from the re-entry simulation event that took place at UAB
The coordinator of the re-entry simulation for mass incarceration explains the procedures. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

The University of Alabama in Birmingham hosted a re-entry simulation for mass incarceration on the 15th of October, 2021, partnered with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama. This simulation, which featured around a hundred participants, was designed to enlighten both students and community members about the difficulties surrounding re-entry into society for those who have been previously incarcerated. The event featured different booths to portray the various obligations, both legal and personal that had to be met by individuals exiting the prison system into the civilian society.

These booths included responsibilities such as securing identification cards, attending treatment appointments or drug screenings on time, or even being able to get employed, all while having to figure out transportation to be able to fulfill these requirements. Each participant was provided with a new identity, a few transportation tickets, some money (depending on the person’s identity), and a list of obligations that needed to be met each week. The “weeks” were timed to be fifteen minutes each, and the participants got four weeks to successfully re-enter society.

Getting your IDs

The identity I assumed had no IDs to their name, and only $30 when exiting the prison system. One of the most difficult components of this exercise was securing the three required IDs. Without the IDs, all the other booths refused to be of any help, and securing the IDs took well over a “week.” In the real world, this also means that people are unable to find employment, housing, or even apply for government aid like food stamps until they are able to secure these IDs. Furthermore, as Jeremy Sherer, the Assistant United States Attorney who helped organize this event discussed, there is a possibility of being re-imprisoned for outstanding warrants that might have been acquired while individuals were serving time in the prison system. Therefore, people who attempt to get their IDs at the DMV might end up being reincarcerated for these outstanding warrants. An easy solution to this problem would be to issue government IDs to people as they are exiting the prison system. This would dramatically decrease the mental and physical stress on individuals, as this one act would open up resources and opportunities they might not have without the proper government-issued IDs.

Transportation

An image depicting various forms of transportation on a highway. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Another enormous obstacle in the way of successfully re-entering civilian society can be transportation. Many people, upon entering the prison system have three options concerning their vehicles: they can sell their car and keep the cash, they can give the car to someone else, or if they are making payments on a car upon the time of their arrest, it can become repossessed by the time they exit the system. Even if your property was held by the police for “safeguarding” or for evidence purposes, if you cannot claim it within a certain time frame (which is impossible for people who are imprisoned), you face the risks of losing that property.

Transportation is a necessity, and if you live in an area where public transportation is unavailable, you will need to either purchase a car or rent one. In order to purchase any vehicle, you have to have an ID. Assuming you have your IDs, the next step is the background and credit checks. This can be a massive hurdle, as people who leave prison might not have the necessary credit history, nor have established employment history to purchase a car. They may not be able to afford the full price of the car, having just come out of jail or prison. For those who depend on public transportation in areas that offer the services, bus schedules can be very confusing and might not travel to the necessary destinations. Additionally, those who live in areas where public transportation is not an option have to figure out a way to find transportation for themselves. There are no agencies in place to provide any assistance to people in cases like these.

The Bail System

According to The Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime. If we were to follow the logic that people are “innocent until proven guilty,” 74% of the people held in jail are innocent. These individuals are only allowed to leave the jails by paying the set bail amounts for their particular case. These bail amounts are set based on the criminal charges and the complexities surrounding the crime in question. Although bail is not supposed to be a form of punishment, the bail system tends to punish the poor by setting a financial amount that has to be paid if the individual does not want to await their trial in jail. Most Americans are seldom prepared for a $400 emergency, and for people struggling with poverty, the set bail amount can be impossible to meet. This pretrial detention can also last months or even years before the trial date, meaning that innocent people might be held in jail for years simply for not being able to afford bail. The person’s identity I assumed at the re-entry simulation had $30 on their person, and their bail amount was the full $30, which ended up bankrupting them, leaving them with no money for food, transportation, or any other expenses.

Legal Responsibilities

This was another picture taken at the event itself
This image portrays the participants and the various booths involved in the simulation. These booths were set up to mimic real-life agencies, such as the courthouse, or the probation office, or even the pawnshop, to provide a realistic experience. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock

People exiting the prison system have to meet certain legal requirements upon their re-entry into civilization. These legal responsibilities include regular check-ins with the probation or parole officer, regular drug screens, and even clinical or treatment appointments that need to be attended. For one, as mentioned earlier, formerly incarcerated people need to be able to secure a stable form of transportation to get to these appointments. They also have to be able to provide their IDs, so not having one could result in a violation of the conditions of parole. The demands of parole or probation are different for each case, but conditions of release can include finding and holding stable employment, as well as showing up to take a urine analysis, blood tests, or a drug screening whenever requested of them. These drug screens can also interfere with the individual’s employment (if they do manage to secure one), as they would be required to leave their workplace to comply with this stipulation. People that are required to meet these conditions of release are also personally billed for these tests, something that they might not be able to afford. These stipulations can become even more complex based on the history of the person’s criminal offense. Those that have served time for sexual offenses are also required to register as a sex offender in their area, further complicating their ability to acquire employment or housing, and as a result, making it near impossible to meet their conditions of release.

Additionally, some people being released from prison might have to attend clinical appointments or treatment sessions. This may be a weekly obligation, and again, transportation and IDs are essential to meeting this condition. These treatment sessions, while helpful and certainly necessary in many cases, might only add stress to those who are financially compromised.

I wanted to include a picture of solitary confinement because it's a widely practiced form of punishment in the United States prisons and jails.
Solitary Confinement can place an individual in a dark, secluded place, depriving them of social interactions and stimulations, which can prove to be damaging to the mental health of the inmates who experience it. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Recent studies show that many people who enter the prison system without any mental illnesses can come out with serious issues related to their mental health. While there may be many factors that influence an individual’s mental stability inside the prison walls, research shows that solitary confinement, a practice that is used in most jails and prisons in the United States, can play a fundamental role in someone’s mental health. At times, placing an inmate in solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of mental illness. Solitary confinement can also lead to a number of mental health-related illnesses, including depression, paranoia, or even trigger hallucinations. As a result, many people who enter the prison system with no history of mental health issues can develop mental illnesses or acquire trauma while serving out their sentences. This inhumane practice can be suspended, which would dramatically affect the mental health of prisoners and lighten the load on some of their legal obligations.

Personal Responsibilities

Along with legal responsibilities that have to be met, people attempting to re-enter society also have personal obligations they may have to fulfill, including responsibilities regarding their children (if it applies), their own personal care (such as food, and shelter), and their attempts at professional success, including employment and education. Many individuals, upon re-entering society, regain custody of their children, meaning that they have to ensure both their needs as well as their children’s needs are met. This can prove to be very stressful and traumatic, both for the individual re-entering society and the children involved. As discussed previously, people exiting the prison system might not have the resources or the mental stability to be able to accept such a huge responsibility, often resulting in the parents neglecting their own needs for the needs of their children, and as a result, increasing the mental and physical strain they might place on themselves.

Even still, many parents that are not awarded custody of their children might be forced to pay child support upon their release. Unless they ask for a suspension or reduction of child support, the amount can continue to accumulate while the person is serving time, and upon release, the person is mandated to pay the full amount owed. Failing to pay the amount can be considered a violation of their conditions of release and can result in the reimprisonment of the individual.

Another personal responsibility that an individual re-entering society has to meet is self-care. An essential part of personal care includes food and water, yet many people might not be able to afford three square meals a day. As I learned from the re-entry simulation, contrary to popular belief, churches are not as forthcoming with assistance as many like to believe. This may be due to a variety of reasons, ranging from funding problems to religious or ideological reasons. Applying for food stamps is an option, but it can take weeks, requiring both transportation and IDs. Even when an individual is awarded food stamps, it might not cover all their nutrition expenses, leading many to become food insecure.

I wanted to showcase the quality of life that many people exiting the prison system are faced with.
An image depicting an unhoused individual’s dire situations, a risk that formerly incarcerated personnel face due to housing insecurities. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, many people re-entering society may face housing insecurities. Due to the social and sometimes cultural stigma around imprisonment, family members might refuse to provide adequate shelter for the individual. In order to qualify for an apartment, the applicant has to provide proof of employment as well as a security deposit. Many job applications require a background and criminal history check, at many times refusing to hire an individual if they have been convicted of a crime. Without a job and proper shelter, many risks facing the possibility of becoming homeless.

Expanding on the complexities of getting employed, many people re-entering society have to cross so many hurdles to be successful professionally. Depending on the age at which they were incarcerated, many individuals returning to society might not have the necessary education or skills to qualify for employment. Some might even have to train for and take their GEDs, a base requirement to get jobs, even low-wage ones. To add to the complexities, people with traditional High School Diplomas receive a higher pay rate than those who obtain GEDs.

Once they are able to acquire their GEDs if they choose to pursue higher education, formerly incarcerated people have to do so at a private university or college. This is due to the fact that most public universities and college applications include a section asking about the applicant’s criminal history. This can indirectly discriminate against those who are struggling with poverty, fundamentally impacting their ability to compete with the growing skilled and educated labor forces of society. Moreover, people who have been incarcerated face many challenges when applying for financial aid. Their ability to receive financial aid is very limited, as they can be denied student loans as well as Pell grants due to their criminal history. Consequently, this usually means that people coming out of prison are stuck with working labor-intensive, low-wage jobs without the prospect of advancement in their professional careers.

Conclusion

The coordinators of the re-entry simulation, the Assistant United States Attorney Jeremy Sherer, and Dr. Laurel Hitchcock. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

As part of his concluding remarks, Jeremy Sherer reminded the participants at the simulation that almost 60% of people who are released from prison can end up being incarcerated again. This is a sign that the current system is designed to fail these individuals who are just attempting to survive after their punishments have been served. The lives of these individuals are impacted forever by their criminal history through the taxing obligations they have to meet in order to lead a successful life. They are not provided any form of guidance yet punished constantly for the failures of the system. If the components of racial discrimination in the prison system are taken into consideration, (which will be covered in my next blog post), some might even believe that this injustice intentionally targets certain marginalized members of the community.

Everyone makes mistakes; this is a universally accepted concept. Yet, part of the process of learning and growing involves being provided with the necessary opportunities and resources to learn from the mistakes of our past and strive to become better individuals. Having participated in the re-entry simulation, I attempted to meet all my requirements as best as I could with the resources I was provided with, yet I was sent to “jail” for failing to visit my probation officer, and by week four, I was begging the “police officer” in the exercise to just send me to “jail.” I could not handle the mental, emotional, and physical stress that resulted from the realities this simulation strived to convey, and my participation was voluntary. Many individuals who have to deal with these systems on a regular basis do not have a choice.

The Negative Impact of Mass Incarceration on Human Rights in the United States

Mass incarceration is a uniquely American problem that impacts the human rights of American citizens, particularly those who come from communities of color. Beginning with the introduction of more punitive approaches to dealing with crime in the 1970’s, America’s prison population has grown at an unprecedented rate. Prisoners in the United States are denied basic human dignity on a daily basis, and the rising costs of providing for a massive prison population has highlighted racial disparities, driven money away from valuable social spending, and is completely unsustainable for the 21st century.

Gives a visual of Prisons
SOURCE : Unsplash

The History and Development of Mass Incarceration

While the incarceration rates in the United States remained relatively stable in the United States until about the mid-1970s, they began to increase at an almost exponential rate with the introduction of “tough on crime” language by local and national politicians across the nation. Despite crime rates falling drastically since the early 1990s, this trend has continued into the 21st century and incarceration rates in America remain at historic highs, with continued growth for nearly four decades . According to research done by the Sentencing Project, “the combined prison and jail population of about 330,000 in 1972 has mushroomed to 2.2 million today”. The beginning of the movement to end this unprecedented rate of mass incarceration can be, in many ways, traced back to the financial crisis of 2008, where it was recognized by many politicians that the current fiscal costs of America’s prison system were unsustainable. While the modern push to end mass incarceration is a more recent development, measures to keep low-level offenders out of prison have existed in the United States since the nineteenth century, when the probation system began to focus on reform rather than punishment. Although reform has always been a stated goal of prison systems in the United States, the adoption of many “tough on crime” measures in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws, have forced judges to mandate harsher sentences for crimes.

Racial Disparities in Mass Incarceration

The current rate of mass incarceration in the United States is 5.6 times higher for Black people and 2.6 times higher for Hispanic people when compared to the incarceration rate of whites in the United States. While Congress never officially declared a “War on Crime”, the language of war has been used to terrorize neighborhoods, most frequently neighborhoods of color, leading to many calling the current attitude of criminal justice in the United States a “New Jim Crow”. As communities of color in the United States continue to face systemic racism, one of the most glaring ways inequity comes to mind is the incarceration rates of people of color. According to research done on the history of incarcerations, for Black people in particular, the “tough on crime” initiatives adopted in the 1970s only led to an “exponential increase” in the rate of Black people being given prison time. This is a glaring failure of the American criminal justice system in addressing racial inequality, and has only harmed Black communities as the longer prison sentences given today dramatically reduce the human capital available in Black communities.

Mass Incarceration’s Drain on Social Spending

Mass incarceration continues to have a large impact on criminal reform and reentry programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism rates at a far greater effect than prison alone. With the increase of longer prison sentences being handed out, often due to mandatory sentencing laws, the American prison population is much older than it has ever been. Not only does an older prison population cost much more in healthcare spending as healthcare problems are heightened by both age and time spent in prison, but many of these prisoners have “aged out” of their high-crime years and are statistically unlikely to reoffend. Between 1993 and 2013 alone, the fifty-five and older prison population in state prisons increased by “four hundred percent”. This enormous increase in costs over the last half century has directly impacted public safety in a negative way by taking funding away from effective reform programs and prison alternatives such as drug treatment programs, public schooling, and community policing.

place for overview
Promising reforms, such as the Biden administration’s decision to end private prison contracts, have brought hope to activists interested in prison reform. SOURCE : Pexels

Promising Reforms

While the problem of mass incarceration has painted an extremely bleak picture of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in America, there have been a few promising reforms by responsible parties that have begun to given those serving time in the United States the human dignity they deserve. For example, an initiative by the Obama administration to reduce time spent for drug charges “lowered the average prison term from twelve years to ten years”. The United States Sentencing Commission’s tight grip on personal choice by judges in individual cases can also be lightened by ending mandatory sentencing standards and three-strikes laws, and reforms made in several states showed almost no increase in recidivism rates despite more prisoners being released. Reform is very slow due to the interest of many politicians to have a continued “tough on crime” stance, despite empirical data showing the failures of these policies to improve public safety and their extremely high burden on the American taxpayers. Despite increasing calls to end mass incarceration in America, the popular talking point of going slow in reform measures has led to millions in prison, with many being denied basic rights every single day, despite posing a low risk to society. Every year, countless thousands of hours of time are stolen from vulnerable communities due to long and inhumane sentencing for even low-level drug charges, decreasing the economic and social productivity in the United States. Though many are privileged enough to never face the American prison system, we all suffer the consequences of mass incarceration in the United States, with no proven results for its effectiveness.

In 2021, the Biden Administration is starting to tackle mass incarceration. One of President Biden’s first executive orders was a welcome reform to the Department of Justice, phasing out the use of private prisons. While activists know much more is needed to be done, it is a refreshing step in the right direction.

 

The Caged Voices of Azerbaijan

“Every gay and lesbian person who has been lucky enough to survive the turmoil of growing up is a survivor. Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.”

-Writer/actor Bob Paris

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), beginning in September, the Azerbaijani police force began a violent campaign against civilians presumed to be gay, bisexual, and transgender women.

The campaign began in mid-September when police in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, arrested members of the LGBTQ+ community when other citizens of Azerbaijan filed a complaint that “non-heterosexual people were engaging in prostitution.” However, according to human rights activists, detainees were not prostitutes, and the “accusations were used as a pretext for persecution.” In an interview with Samed Rahimli, a lawyer assisting detainees, “the police targeted homosexuals in general, not the prostitutes as they have claimed.”

Interviews conducted by HRW reveal those arrested were subject to beatings and electric shocks in an attempt to arrest other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Lawyers representing the detainees report 83 men and transgender women were confirmed to be arrested. However, the lawyers also said, “the overwhelming volume of arrests means there are many other cases they are unable to address or document,” and the media has reported up to 100 accounts of unconfirmed arrests.

protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBT love is stronger than anti-gay hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Most of the victims were publicly arrested at work, on the streets, or even at home, thereby exposing their sexuality to their co-workers, family members, and other community members. A majority were falsely charged with prostitution resulting in 30 days of detainment.

Azerbaijan decriminalized same-sex relations in 2000, but discrimination and violence against the community continue to be dire. Azerbaijan was also labeled as the worst European country to be gay in, according to a survey conducted by the Guardian. There are currently no active LGBTQ+-friendly organizations in all of Azerbaijan, and the government is known to manifest false charges to detain openly gay men. The Minority, an anonymous magazine in Azerbaijan that reports on gay and transgender issues, cited those who were arrested were forced to ‘out’ other gay men. Another method utilized by the police to track down members of the community is the tracking of gay-dating apps. The police would create profiles and lure gay men to meet with them, at which point the app-user would be arrested.

Members of the Azerbaijan government shifted their stance from attempting to control prostitution to cracking down on public health issues; this indicates the government knowingly switched tactics to target an already marginalized group. Ekhsan Zakhidov, of the Azer Interior Ministry, announced the arrests were justified. He claims 16 of the 80+ arrested were infected with AIDS, but only six have been found to be infected. He also claims the mass detainment was to protect children, as “anyone infected with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases were a threat to children or people who come into contact with them.”

By making these claims, the government perpetuated two derogatory narratives surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. The first is: “all gay men have AIDS”. While proven to be statistically untrue, this is a stigma that has stood the test of time and facts. Gay men are still not allowed to give blood in America on the grounds of being “more susceptible” to HIV and AIDS. The second stigma is: homosexuality is rooted in pedophilia. Because AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, by saying “it is for the safety of our children,” the Azerbaijan government is spreading the false rumor that gay men are child-rapists.

Protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBTs and Muslims unite – oppose all hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijan government is not alone in the tracking of LGBTQ+ folk. Reports of the Egyptian police force also creating fake profiles on gay-dating apps and websites surfaced in 2016. At a concert earlier this month, a rainbow flag, which represents pride for the LGBTQ+ community, was flown. When photos of the flag spread across social media, the Egyptian government began tracking down those who were responsible to arrest them on charges of “promoting prostitution” and “immorality.” The Egyptian government designated waving the flag as an “incident,” and used gay-dating apps to track down those involved in said “incident.” Once arrested, anal examinations were reported to have followed, which is protocol in Egypt for such claims. Those arrested for waving the flag at the concert face trial on October 29th.

Like Azerbaijan, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but acts of marginalization and repression continue to happen. Both of these instances bear similarity to the mass incarceration of LGBTQ+ folk in Chechnya that took place earlier this year, which was compared to the concentration camps in the Holocaust. Violence against the LGBTQ+ community is a trend that is repeated throughout history, even to the present day. While it is not easy to pinpoint when it officially surfaced, homophobia is seen even in B.C. times. The West still has its share of homophobia, but we see the most concentrated and severe acts of homophobia in the Middle East. This is likely due to the fact religion has a more prominent role in Middle Eastern society and government.

Azerbaijan was once a part of the Soviet Union, just as Chechnya was. That colonial legacy of oppressing the LGBTQ+ community, the religion, and the government all play into the modern-day culture and how their respective societies view the LGBTQ+ folk. The topic of homosexuality is taboo in Azerbaijan’s society, and the unacceptance of the gay community is shown by the aggravated reports made by citizens that prompted the arrests by the police.

What makes oppression in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Egypt different from LGBTQ+ oppression in the world? Dignity. While oppressed in other regions, the LGBTQ+ community in Western cultures has freedom of expression. In the aforementioned countries, freedom of expression is a myth for LGBTQ+ folk. Based on available data, these three countries are the most dangerous places in the world to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Based on anecdotal accounts, other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, also present obstacles for LGBTQ+ persons. The voices we hear are not the only voices who matter.

“Life would be much easier if we were all just less horrible to each other.”

– Ellen Page, actor and activist

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

Article 3 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declares that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. When people are arrested for being the person that they are, this article is violated. Without the security of being able to express the person one is, flourishing is nearly impossible. How can one expect another to live their life to the fullest without being able to live comfortably? We all have a right to live our life as loud as we want; how we need and want to express is not up for dictation.

Article 5 of the UDHR sets forth that “no one shall be subjected to torture…” This has obviously been violated by the Azerbaijan government. When trying to get the names of other gay men, the police resulted to using electric shocks to coerce the victims to give them information. This is inhumane and is an unfounded violation of human rights.

Article 7 reads: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” When the government allows discrimination against an individual or a community, this article is violated, as it has been in all cases mentioned in this post. The police have been allowed to arrest citizens based on their sexual orientation. No laws were violated, but human rights definitely were.

Without these laws being enforced by a governing legal entity, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Chechnya show no sign of following the UDHR for the safety and security of their LGBTQ+ citizens. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch have given a megaphone to the tortured voices of Azerbaijan. Now the job falls upon us as informed citizens to continue to spread awareness. It is also our job to make our companions feel comfortable in the world that we live in. We all want to be accepted, to prosper, and to love. Each of us is human; each of us deserves the same rights.