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.

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.

 

International Day for Disaster Reduction

by Wajiha Mekki 

October 12 is International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR). This international event is hosted through the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). In 2023, the focus has been on fighting inequality and fighting to break the cycle of international disaster.

History of IDDR

IDDR started in 1989 as a call to action by the United Nations General Assembly to help educate and mobilize resources to reduce the burden of ongoing disasters and increase resilience. This annual event focuses on a different theme, interpreted from the “Sendai Seven Campaign ,” established in 2015 at the third-ever UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. The framework proposed during this time helps mobilize resources to local communities to ensure they can act at capacity during times of need; this also allows for communities to be prepared not only for small-scale and large-scale disasters but also man-made, natural, environmental, and biological disasters.

 

People in hazmat suits tending to a chemical disaster during a mock drill.
Source: American Red Cross Flickr
IDDR 2023

IDDR, in 2023, will focus on fighting inequality and issues and publish the results of the first-ever global survey on disability and disasters. This survey, with the purpose of championing disability and inclusion, was commissioned in 2013. 2023 also serves as a monumental year for IDDR as it is right after the midterm review of the aforementioned Sendai Framework; this review is vital, ensuring that progress is made to help accelerate action to rescue disaster disparities and prioritize resilience.

Current Burden of International Disasters

Disasters can happen at any time of the day. It is projected that  by 2030, the world will face 1.5 significant disasters per day; this results in a total of 560 disasters per year. Of these disasters, a large proportion is caused by environmental, technological, and biological hazards. Disasters don’t discriminate and have an impact on all people; however, it is noted that they have a disproportionate impact on those with disabilities. This compounded impact results in the development of a perpetual cycle of disaster without resources being efficiently invested to prevent and manage these disasters.

Specifically for those with disabilities, it is noted that development infrastructure is not developed to be inclusive and is oftentimes overlooked during all stages of emergency management. This isolates those with limited mobility and requires a caregiver or other health services, preventing them from accessing resources that will allow them to recover effectively.

Within emergency responses, it is noted that people with disabilities are unnecessarily institutionalized during and after disasters; this further isolates them from their families, peers, and communities. 

14 firefighters tending to a forest fire.
14 firefighters tending to a forest fire.
Source: American Red Cross Flickr
Spotlight: Japan’s 2011 Earthquake

Though there are many examples of international disasters, the horrendous earthquakes in Japan in 2011 highlight the disparities those with disabilities face in times of national emergency. This earthquake, noted as the “strongest earthquake in its recorded history,” was not the only natural disaster that impacted the community; the earthquake caused a tsunami, which amplified the impact and the resources needed to remedy the issue. The earthquake and tsunami destroyed hundreds of businesses, homes, and nuclear reactors. The destruction of these nuclear reactors resulted in toxic materials being released into the environment and communities. Thousands of lives were lost; however,, approximately 25% were disabled. The infrastructure developed for emergencies did not serve them; oftentimes, evacuation centers were not accessible, did not have the needed infrastructure, etc. All of these factors resulted in many people with disabilities not having adequate assistance. These disparities are not unique to Japan and are seen internationally and domestically. 

How Countries Can Take Action

The nature of disasters is cyclical; to have the most effective solution, it is vital to break the cycle and do so in a holistic manner. Firstly, there is the preventative lens of the disaster itself; it is vital to understand how disasters occur and to take the actions needed to establish early warning of these disasters. This allows countries to be prepared to make effective decisions that will have a positive global impact. Beyond this, countries and member states should take action to invest in their current infrastructure to make it more prepared for disasters. Though disasters can be mitigated through the above actions, they are not entirely preventable. Therefore, states should be prepared for their response to be inclusive for all; they must build capacity to accommodate vulnerable populations in their emergency response, including those with disabilities, older persons, and women. 

How You Can Take Action

Acknowledging IDDR is the first step to helping advocacy for advancements in emergency responses and more equitable infrastructure during times of need. It is a two-pronged fork; communities should work to break the cycle of disaster by improving habits and holding entities responsible, but should continue to invest in making resources more equitable. As a community member, it is your responsibility to use your voice to advocate for both of the above. Another way is to use your time to volunteer alongside community and international partners who are working to make improvements. Together, we can break the disaster cycle and make emergency responses more equitable.



Disabilities and the American Education System: From the Past to the Present

A cartoon image depicting students of various backgrounds and disabilities grouped together around the phrase, "We are all wonderfully made"
Source: Yahoo Images

In the last blog, we covered the contextual history of the American Education System, primarily, who was allowed education, who was not, and even the differences in the quality of education that children in America received. We also explored the historical treatment of people with disabilities, both in the larger society, as well as in children with disabilities within the school system. Understanding the past is crucial to analyzing why certain events occur as they do in the future. That is what we set out to do in this continuation of the conversation about disabilities and the American education system. In this second part, we will focus on the realities children with disabilities witness within the education system, including the challenges they face, the school-to-prison pipeline that exists, and how this impacts their development (both mentally and physically). We will then explore how the recent pandemic exacerbated these conditions, and what sort of rights the children possess in this post-pandemic world.

Children with Disabilities in the Education System Today

An image depicting a child sitting with his head in his hands, next to a pile of books, with various phrases listing different learning disabilities.
Source: Yahoo Images

The many challenges faced by students with disabilities in the classroom

Children with disabilities today face many challenges within the classroom even without taking the pandemic into account. These challenges vary from physical barriers to socio-emotional ones. One thing that needs to be recognized is that not all disabilities are alike, and with various disabilities come various challenges. I don’t want to appear to be generalizing the struggles that children with disabilities face in the school system, because each individual’s experiences vary, even between different places. Some states within the United States may be very inclusive, while others may place the responsibility of accessibility on the people with disabilities themselves. Regardless of which state you live in, my goal here is to spread awareness of the various challenges that children with one or multiple disabilities face as they maneuver through their primary academic journey.

With that being said, one of the most common barriers that children with disabilities face is on the social level. Throughout history, children with disabilities have been separated from the rest of the able-bodied society, and this is also true within the school system. Many schools, when they began to accept children with disabilities into the school system, would educate them separately (in the basement or another room) from the other children. Even today, many children with learning and speech disabilities require additional help from trained professionals, which requires these children to spend extra time on their academics, and less time socializing with their peers. This naturally distances them from able-bodied children their age and can lead children with disabilities to become victims of many instances of bullying and harassment. A crucial element to consider is that while many children their age are dealing with the various emotions that come from development, children with disabilities have to deal with additional fears and insecurities surrounding their disabilities, as they learn to accept and adapt to life with disabilities. This can be challenging in and of itself, without having to deal with the social pressures from peers.

Additionally, while schools receive federal funding to meet the required measures for the children with disabilities within their institutions, this funding is limited, covering less than a quarter of the expenses needed to fulfill the required services for each student. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we covered in the previous blog allows Congress to allocate up to 40% of the average funding per student, but unfortunately, this has never been exercised by Congress, and funding for special education programs continues to be miserly. Schools receive  15% of the funding they are allocated, but they are still required to fulfill all the mandated regulations simply for receiving federal funding. This means that they have to come up with the remaining 85% of the expenditures on their own, in place of the 55% they would be responsible for covering if Congress secured the full 40%. This can place additional strains on these schools that are already struggling for funds.

Furthermore, children with learning disabilities require trained professionals to provide them with additional support throughout their academic journey. Someone who is hearing impaired may require additional resources to combat the auditory issues they face, or someone who is visually impaired may require additional lessons on how to read in Braille. Others with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (which is a disorder in which someone has difficulty reading and processing language), may need additional patience and support to process the information they are learning. Public schools, by law, are required to provide assistance to children with disabilities and those who have been through traumatic experiences. Licensed professionals that focus on educational needs for children with learning disabilities can be hard to find, and this has only worsened due to the pandemic. As many as 44 states experienced this shortage even before the pandemic, and this number continues to grow due to the issues of limited funding discussed earlier. Without the necessary help that students with learning disabilities require, they continue to fall behind their peers academically.

Many of these challenges can be addressed with more funding allotted to the education system as a whole, and professions within the field of special education can be incentivized by the government (by for example, making the training programs free and accessible to those who are interested) to address the shortage of licensed professionals. The education being taught in the schools can be more inclusive of children with disabilities, with opportunities for the children to share their experiences with their peers and help remove the stigma associated with disabilities by normalizing helpful conversations around disabilities. While these challenges can have a great impact on the learning abilities of children with disabilities, there are some challenges that can have drastic impacts on their futures as a whole.

The school-to-prison pipeline

A cartoon image showing the relationship between schools and the legal system, showcasing the school-to-prison pipeline that has become so prominent in the American School System.
Source: Yahoo Images;

Unfortunately, along with an increase in school shootings within the educational system, another phenomenon that has become all too common is the use of law enforcement to discipline children. More and more stories have been reported regarding children with disabilities and children of color being subjected to drastic disciplinary measures by school systems. When a child “acts out” or showcases any behavior not supported by the schools, the educators have resorted to involving the law instead of following disciplinary protocols within the schools (such as contacting parents, placing students in detention, or for more serious issues, using suspensions). Police are called on these students, and educators watch as young children are punished for their misdeeds by being harassed by the police. In many instances, these incidents have turned deadly, as police officers have used full force on young children, to force them into complying, at times jeopardizing the children’s well-being. Children as young as 7 years of age have been placed in handcuffs and threatened jail time, for childish behavior such as spitting or throwing tantrums. This can be especially dangerous when children with disabilities are involved because they are accused of “misbehaving” when they are simply reacting differently to situations than their able-bodied peers. The police, with little to no training on the different ways to approach people with disabilities, only escalate the already tense situations.

According to a CBS News analysis of data from the Education Department in 2017-2018, children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested than their able-bodied counterparts. Another research conducted by Cornell University reports that 55% of Black men with disabilities have been detained before they reach the age of 28. Young African American children with disabilities, therefore, are the most at-risk demographic to face legal repercussions for “behavioral” issues common among most children their age. This phenomenon, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets students of color, (and children with disabilities), involves the use of the criminal and justice systems as a tool to discipline children. Unfortunately, these disciplinary attempts remain on the permanent records of the targeted children and can have lifelong implications that determine their future.

An example of this school-to-prison pipeline is clear when looking into some of the instances where law enforcement is used to discipline children. Jacksonville, Illinois is home to a particular school that makes use of its law enforcement officers for behavioral issues. Garrison School, a public school where children with disabilities in that region attend, has been in the news recently for the staggering number of arrests made within a single school year. Although the population of this school is an average of 60-70 children, the police, who are located less than 5 miles from the school, have been called over 100 times for “behavioral” issues, such as throwing tantrums and spraying water. An investigation into this school found that in the school year 2017-2018 alone, more than half of the entire student body was arrested. As the only public school for children with disabilities in that region of Illinois, caregivers are limited in choices of schools for their children. In addition to having disabilities, the children at this particular school have also experienced immense trauma and violence in their past. Arresting these children for their “behaviors” continues to place these children in traumatic situations, further impacting their development.

Impacts on children with disabilities’ development

An infographic depicting the prevalence of mental health issues among the youth. In this infographic, it states that 13% of youth face mood disorders or depression, 32% deal with anxiety disorders, 9% with ADHD, and 3% with eating/feeding disorders.
Source: Yahoo Images

Using the criminal and justice systems to punish or “discipline” children with disabilities can have lasting impressions on the children’s futures. For one, especially children such as those from Garrison School, who deal with personal trauma and violence from their past, experiences with law enforcement can deteriorate their mental health even further. Even those without previous trauma can have lasting impressions on their academic success, meaning that children who have been disciplined with the use of law enforcement are even more isolated from their peers and can experience breaks in their educational journeys. Studies have shown that children who have their needs met are more likely to outperform those students who do not have their needs met. Linking back to the school-to-prison pipeline, those students who have been arrested and imprisoned as young adults are more likely to continue down this path of criminality. Additionally, students with disabilities that have been imprisoned have to face the added struggles of maneuvering the prison system with disabilities, and these struggles are increased with multiple disabilities, especially with invisible disabilities, in which case, many people may not even believe the existence of these disabilities. Studies have shown how incarceration can worsen issues of mental illness within the prison population, and when translated to the impact imprisonment has on people with disabilities, these conditions are exponentially worse.

How it impacts children with disabilities’ professional futures

In addition to the harm this causes to the development of children with disabilities, the practice of using law enforcement to discipline school children has far-reaching consequences. For one, the children who are constantly “othered,” bullied, or harassed by both students and teachers can internalize their experiences and react to them, increasing their chances of being disciplined again for behavioral issues. In addition to that, being imprisoned, even for a few days, can be a traumatic experience that can shape your worldview, and as a result, your future. For young, developing children, these experiences can be impressionable, and coupled with the isolation that many children with disabilities experience, this can be a devastating combination, resulting in the deterioration of the children’s physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, many of these zero-tolerance policies that end in the arrests of children happen due to the faculty members pressing charges against the children. These charges, though they can be sealed for juvenile offenses, can lead to more charges in these children’s future into their adulthood. A criminal history into your adulthood can result in slim educational and employment options. Research conducted more broadly on this subject has been reported by the Prison Policy, and it showcases how increasingly difficult it is to find decent employment upon exiting the prison system. The report adds that even when formerly incarcerated people do find employment, they are often paid fewer wages than their co-workers.

Applying this research to children with disabilities who are disciplined through the legal system, can be an even bigger challenge for their futures. People with disabilities experience many barriers to obtaining employment even without imprisonment on their records. Studies have shown how incarcerating children does not deter them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future; it might actually have the opposite impact. Finally, children who are incarcerated experience large gaps in their education, and this can impact their ability to successfully enter the job market. This issue is exponentially worse among children with disabilities because they are more likely to be imprisoned for “behavioral issues”, and expands the academic gap felt by so many children with learning disabilities who are already facing many social and learning barriers.

How did COVID make things worse for children with disabilities?

An image of a child sitting in front of a computer trying to learn virtually during COVID-19.
Source: Yahoo Images

The pandemic was a time of uncertainty, and many of us were scrambling around not knowing what to do. Even as more and more information came out about the virus itself and how to safeguard it, there was a lot of anxiety and misinformation being spread around. Children with disabilities had to navigate not only their personal lives with their unique experiences but also the larger society that was falling apart around them in the face of a virus. Many businesses and schools shut down in the beginning, which meant that children had to adjust to different learning styles, something that may have been easier for some, but widened the academic gap for others. Children with disabilities as a whole had to be mindful of the threat that the virus posed on their lives. This virus was especially deadly to those with pre-existing conditions and for those who were immunocompromised, both of which apply to many children and adults with disabilities. So, constantly having to live with the anxiety of whether or not they might contract the virus would have been stressful enough without the masking and vaccine debates that have politicized this medical crisis. What is worse, COVID-19 vaccines for children were not available for over a year after the pandemic first began, leaving this population vulnerable to infections with no way to protect themselves against them.

Additionally, along with their children, parents, and caregivers of children with disabilities faced new challenges as everyone attempted to adapt to the “new normal”. While the mandated quarantine helped with transportation issues for some, it opened up a whole new set of issues for many. Children with learning disabilities who received additional help from professionals either had to go without it or transition to seeking their help through zoom. For some, accessing help through Zoom and Telehealth was extremely helpful in addressing the medical needs of people, and this had a positive impact on people with disabilities as a whole. However, accessing Zoom and Telehealth was a challenge on its own for many who lived in rural areas or marginalized areas where internet services were very minimal or nonexistent, or simply unaffordable. The pandemic was a time when many people also lost jobs, so children faced additional financial repercussions from the pandemic. These instances further widened the academic gap among children with disabilities.

This blog mainly focused on the struggles that children face within the American school system. Part three of this series will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken historically when addressing disabilities, and some ways in which we can take action, on a personal level, on a local or national level, and even on an international level.

 

 

The American Education System and The Treatment of Disabilities in America: A History

An image with characters with various disabilities holding hands forming a circle around the words, "Diversity, Difference, Disability".
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images;

Even though 1 in 6 people around the world experience disabilities, they are often among the forgotten groups within our society. While people with disabilities today are living under better conditions than their ancestors, there is still a lot of progress needed to be had to ensure that people with disabilities can lead a life of dignity and independence, free from the stigma and failures of society’s ableist mindset. In this two-part blog, we will focus specifically on children with disabilities within the American education system, but before that, it is necessary to frame the historical context surrounding the American education system, and how disability in America has been treated as a whole. As a result, part one of this series will focus on setting the historical context, exploring the American Education System as well as the treatment of people with disabilities throughout American history. The second part of this series will focus on exploring the contemporary issues faced by children with disabilities and their families within the American Education System and learn about a human rights framework for disability rights.

History of America’s Education System

The Unequal Distribution of Knowledge

An image depicting young children posing in front of the heavy machinery they worked with inside the textile mills.
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images

Since the founding of this country is rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, many groups of people have been historically denied access to education. Traditionally, children from poor backgrounds were expected to help their families on the farm or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. As the industrial revolution took hold, child labor transferred from the farms to the factories, and many industries, such as the textile industry preferred to employ children to exploit their minuscule features. The petite features of the children came into use when they were needed to get into tight spots, or when operating machinery that required smaller extremities. Child labor in America was not outlawed until 1938, meaning that many children from poor families were illiterate and disadvantaged in comparison with children from wealthier families, who could afford to educate their children instead.

In addition to the absence of child labor laws, the patriarchal structure of American society deemed it more important for boys and men to be educated than their female counterparts. While poor families were denied access to education on the whole, even among wealthier families, the education of boys was prioritized over educating women. Women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers in the private sphere, and the public sphere was reserved for their male counterparts. Many women were denied access to education, were not permitted to participate in politics and were limited to feminine jobs (such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work) when they did participate economically in the larger society. It was not until the 19th century that women were given more flexibility in their pursuit of higher education. Of course, not all women shared the same experiences, and white women were better able to receive education than women from other races, and as expressed earlier, wealthier women had more opportunities to educate themselves than did women living in poverty.

Furthermore, the foundations of white supremacy upon which America was built denied people of color access to education. Education provides the key to empowerment, and the status quo did not want to empower those they deemed to be inferior. Due to the hierarchical nature of this supremacist mindset, people from different groups were “dealt with” in different manners. For immigrants, access to education depended on their country of origin. Some immigrants, such as those from Asian countries, were barred from receiving education in America until the 1880s and were instead used for hard labor, like constructing railroads. European immigrants, on the other hand, were well-received by many in America, (with the exception of the Irish), and were granted many of the rights shared by American citizens at the time. There was however, a difference in treatment between the Old immigrants, (which were members from wealthier backgrounds with skills and education levels from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe that came to America in the early 1800s), and the New immigrants (who were mostly impoverished, unskilled laborers from Western and Northern Europe who migrated to America in the late 1800s).

In addition to immigrants, the indigenous population of America also received access to education with a different approach. In an attempt to force them to forget their rich cultural histories and erase the cultural differences between the indigenous population and the larger (White) American society, children from different tribes were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where they would learn to be assimilated into the American culture. Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language, engaging in their cultural practices, or even wearing cultural clothing (whether it was casually or for cultural practices). This is one of the reasons that today when people appropriate Native American culture (and attire), it can be very insulting, as they were punished for practicing their culture and wearing their traditional clothing.

An image with two side-by-side photos of the same three indigenous children before and after being forced into boarding school to be assimilated.
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images;

Furthermore, during the enslavement of African Americans, who were deemed to be on the lowest level on this racial hierarchy, access to literacy was denied to them and outlawed, making it punishable by law for African Americans to be literate. This law was another way in which racist leaders of the time maintained control over the enslaved population. Following this period, there were many racist laws and social barriers to education for African Americans over time, and it was not until the famous passage of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that African Americans were given the right to equal education. With all that being said, there is still an ongoing struggle to bring equity, inclusion, and diversity into the American education system.

There can be a whole blog dedicated to the housing market, its impacts on funding for the local schools, and how this influences the level of education the children within those districts experience. As mentioned in previous blogs on similar topics, this funding practice tied to the housing market is, yet another way racism has seeped into American institutions. Transforming the American Education system into a more inclusive one will be a difficult fight ahead, as cries against teachings with an anti-racist approach are molding the current curriculum within the education system today.

The Historical Struggle to Secure the Right to Education for People with Disabilities

A black and white image depicting young children with disabilities outside of their school, with a sign that reads, "School Days at Eastwood, 1949."
Image 4 – Source: Yahoo Images

This exclusive approach to education also historically denied access to disabled individuals as well. American society has been structured with an ableist mindset, and people with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized by the larger society. In the past, many states prevented children with disabilities from attending school, choosing to place them in state institutions instead. Some wealthier families with disabled children could afford to home-school them, but the rest of the children with disabilities within society were not given that opportunity.

Even after education was required for all children, many states refused to provide accommodations for their students with disabilities, and the responsibility of securing access and mobility was placed on the children and their families, rather than the state. Judith Heumann, a well-known disability rights activist, was denied entry to her elementary school during the 1950s because the school district deemed her a “fire hazard” for being mobility impaired and having to use a wheelchair. It was not until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHC; later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA) in 1975 that educational rights were protected for groups in need, including children with disabilities. While education access was protected under this law, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was needed to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all aspects of society.

The Horrific History of Disability in America

How were People with Disabilities Viewed in the Past, and how has that changed today?

An image depicting a man who is audio-visually impaired, being held down as a priest performs an exorcism on him to "free" him from the demons possessing his body. This was a popularly held belief about people with disabilities.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a man who is audio-visually impaired, being held down as a priest performs an exorcism on him to “free” him from the demons possessing his body. This was a popularly held belief about people with disabilities.

Understanding the historical context behind the American education system is only one part of this conversation. Outlining the lens through which disability is viewed today, and in the past, is necessary to comprehend the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system. Today, people with disabilities are viewed in four ways. For one, following the traditional views of disability, most people with disabilities are simply ignored by society, both as a population, as well as systemically. You can see this is the case by simply looking at some of the ableist framings of our infrastructure. Needless to say, being an invisible group within society comes with its own challenges.

Another common way society approaches people with disabilities is to view them as the “super-crip” (which is extremely insulting) and look at their achievements as “inspirational.” People who believe this highlight people with disabilities in a supernatural sense, similar to how many African Americans were portrayed as supernatural beings with superhuman strength and abilities. This troupe was not helpful to the African American community then, and it is not helpful to people with disabilities today. Some may argue that this troupe seems to be a positive outlook of the group, but upon closer inspection, it is important to recognize the stress and burden of success this places on people with disabilities to feel accepted by society. It also encourages the mindset that these people who achieve extraordinary things are superhuman and that their achievements are highlighted because there is a general conception that this is abnormal for the group. Additionally, for a person with disabilities, it can be insulting and demeaning to hear the phrase, “if a person with a disability can achieve this, so can you!”

Another tactless way in which people with disabilities are regarded, as inferior to the rest of the population. Many able-bodied individuals either view them as a burden to society or simply objects to be pitied. This can have the impact of treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens and making them feel as if they are lacking in some way or another. Those who show pity toward people with disabilities may have good intentions, but their actions treat people with disabilities as victims of fate, rather than with dignity and humanity.

Finally, some people within society treat people with disabilities as if they have undergone a tragic event (whatever led to their disability), and people require “saving” or “treatment” to be “cured” of their ailments. This too is not the case. People with disabilities adapt to living their lives with their disabilities, and they don’t require anyone to “save” them from their disabilities. This is extremely insulting and rude to even think that, and it has the same connotations as would a “white-savior complex” within the context of race. The underlying belief in both of these situations is that the person doing the “saving” believes that the person that needs to be “saved” cannot do this for themselves and that they require the help of the “savior”.

While it is important to understand the contemporary views of people with disabilities, it is equally relevant to familiarize ourselves with the ways in which people with disabilities have been treated in America in the past. Until the 19th century, people with disabilities were separated from participating with the rest of the larger society. During colonial times in America, people with disabilities were treated in a similar light as the Salem witches, either burned or hanged. Others viewed disability as a sign of God’s disapproval of the colonists, and people with disabilities were treated as though they were possessed. Still, others felt that people with disabilities were a disgrace to their family and their community, and many were shunned from their homes. The larger society lumped criminals, poor people, mentally ill people, and people with disabilities under the same roof, labeling them as outsiders. This practice evolved into the many horror stories that we may be familiar with today regarding asylums and their treatment of their patients. An important note: as it is with other American institutions, racism, and sexism disproportionately impact the lives of people of color and women within these institutions, and this translates into how they are perceived and treated by the larger society as well. This remains true for people with disabilities with identities that are not aligned with the patriarchal, white society.

The mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities within asylums

An image depicting an asylum, where people with disabilities were forcibly committed. In this image, there is a bed, and a wheelchair in the room big enough for one person, but many facilities were not as fortunately funded or furnished.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an asylum, where people with disabilities were forcibly committed. In this image, there is a bed, and a wheelchair in the room big enough for one person, but many facilities were not as fortunately funded or furnished.

People with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups that were stigmatized by society, were pushed into asylums. These were large “hospitals” stocked with medical equipment and personnel in which the goal was to provide care and treatment for the patients that resided within these asylums. The reason I placed hospitals in quotations is that many of these asylums were simply places to house all the people society did not want. These patients were experimented on, abused, neglected, and had almost no rights to defend themselves. Some patients that were from wealthy families were able to be treated at home, but others that came from meager backgrounds were not as fortunate. Many of the staff working within these institutions were unsympathetic towards their patients, feeling burdened by their very existence. Many people (within the institution and outside in the larger society) believed that people with mental illness and people with disabilities were “acting out” on purpose, to make life harder for those “upstanding” citizens of society. Many of the patients were misdiagnosed, and the institutions went from trying to care for the patients to “cure” the patients of their disabilities. The stigmatization of these groups within the asylums meant that their needs and wants were ignored. In addition to that, because it did not require a professional recommendation from a medical practitioner to admit patients into the asylums, many people were wrongly admitted to these institutions (because of personal grudges or disapproval of their behavior) for years without the right to defend and protect themselves.

Of course, it is not wise to lump every institution together and generalize about their treatment of their patients. While some were genuinely trying to take care of their wards and research ways to help “cure” them, others were less sympathetic to the plights of people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. For one, similar to the issues that American prisons face today, asylums were overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. This meant that each individual residing within the institutions was not given the personal care they required, and instead, they were all lumped into groups to receive generalized treatments. This was problematic in so many ways, but the most obvious is that disability takes many shapes and forms, and each individual had different needs that had to be met. Approaching a group of people with disabilities with generalized treatments meant that the doctors and nurses never took time to understand the details of each person’s disability, much less how best to approach them. As a matter of fact, because many believed disabilities to be a spiritual problem (a person being possessed by the devil), early “treatments” for mental illnesses and disabilities came in the form of exorcisms. When medical professionals finally were able to understand that this was a bodily illness, not a spiritual one, they then proceeded to conduct various experiments on the patients without having any knowledge of how to treat their patients. This is where the tortures began.

An image of a patient bound with straps, a barrier in his mouth, and hooked up to an instrument that administered electroshock therapy. This "treatment" and others were used upon patients within the sanatariums to "cure" individuals with disabilities.
Image 7 – Source: Yahoo Images

Medical personnel proposed many treatments to “cure” people with disabilities, including inhumane procedures that involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull in an attempt to bleed out the disease in question. While it is easy to judge in retrospect, in the beginning, many of the doctors truly believed that they were “curing” their patients with the various treatments they provided them, even as many recognized the inhumane nature of their treatments.

Other various treatments were administered to the patients, which can be defined as abusive and torturous today. Many women with disabilities were abused sexually, both by other patients and their caregivers. In addition to these incidents, many states (through the support of the law) practiced forced sterilization of disabled individuals in these institutions. The justification for this practice was expressed as cleansing humanity of these various illnesses and disabilities. Inspired by the American practice of eugenics, Nazi Germany expanded upon this practice to include everyone that did not fit their description of the “Aryan” race. To this day, America has not acknowledged this practice, and forced sterilization continues to be legal in the United States because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927. The case in question, Buck v. Bell maintained that the sterilization of Carrie Buck (a woman who was raped and accused of “feeblemindedness”) was not in violation of the Constitution. This ruling permitted the forced sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities and other traits deemed “unwanted” by the general public. While the Supreme Court has outlawed forced sterilization as a form of punishment, it has never overturned its ruling made in Buck v. Bell. As a result, this practice is technically still supported within the legal framework.

With very little funding, the living conditions within the institutions also proved to be dangerous. The asylum itself was built to be uncomfortable because there was a belief that comfortable living would encourage patients to stay there forever. This meant that there was poor insulation, keeping the buildings cold. Due to the shortage of staff, many patients were restrained or locked up, while others were neglected altogether. These conditions, along with the “treatments” they received, exacerbated the patients’ conditions and were detrimental to their mental and physical health. Finally, as a result of society’s exclusion of this vulnerable population, many people outside of the institutions were not aware of what was taking place within. The patients inside these asylums were all but forgotten, invisible to the rest of society.

Deinstitutionalization

An image of a patient in a mental institution being dragged out by two staff members.
Image 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; When the institutions closed without much warning, many of the patients were left stranded to fend for themselves with no help from the government.

In an attempt to expose these terrible conditions to the larger society, journalists and activists spread accounts about the conditions within the asylums. Many were able to do this by investigating these institutions firsthand, and images (and videos) of the ill-treatment of the patients began circulating. As people started learning about the horrific conditions in which their loved ones were being kept in, the asylums faced a lot of backlashes. Amid all the backlash, in 1946, President Truman passed the National Mental Health Act to begin research on neurological issues. It would not be until 1955, however, that things changed drastically for those suffering from mental illnesses. Thorazine, a psychoactive medication that was introduced as a way to treat mental illness, and the population within the institutions peaked around this time. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to take a community-based approach to treat mental health, but it lacked the funding to progress in any substantial way. In 1981, Ronald Reagan takes a drastic step to stop government funding to help with mental health, forcing institutions to close their doors and leaving the patients on the streets.

This dramatic change provided no cushion for the patients to fall on, and much experienced homelessness as a result. With nowhere to go and no help from the government, many people with disabilities lost their lives because of this policy shift. These individuals never received any compensation for their ill-treatment, nor were they given any transitional housing or aid to help restart their lives. Of those that did not end up dead, many people with disabilities were imprisoned for causing “public disturbances.” Unfortunately, this practice continues to exist today, especially impacting people of color, and people living in poverty disproportionately. Of course, the imprisonment of people suffering from physical and mental disabilities exacerbated their conditions, and the lack of care and treatment resulted in many deaths. With nowhere to go, and no rights to protect this vulnerable population, people with disabilities continued to suffer due to systemic failures.

The movement for disability rights

An image depicting the disability movement, with many people with disabilities gathered to fight for their rights. They hold a banner that reads a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Image 9 – Source: Yahoo Images;

Eventually, following the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements such as the Women’s Rights movement, and the sexual revolution that fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities came together to stand against discrimination toward them from the larger society, and fight for their rights to exist and prosper like any other groups. People with disabilities wanted to challenge the practice of institutionalization and employed many of the tactics that were used during the Civil Rights Movement. They staged sit-ins in governmental buildings like the FBI building, challenged the mobility norms of society by blocking busses (that denied accessibility to people with disabilities) from moving, and they protested on the streets, able-bodied allies and people with disabilities alike, fighting for their rights.

People with disabilities were also exhausted with the ableist society they lived in and began to challenge the many barriers within society that kept them from living as independent individuals. They did not need someone to hold the doors for them; they wanted the doors to remain open automatically long enough for them to pass through. They wanted accessible sidewalks on which they could move their wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking devices (if applied) safely, and independently, without having to depend on others to take care of them. People with disabilities and their caregivers began to challenge the largely held view by society that people with disabilities were a burden to society. They argued that societal barriers made them dependent on others and implementing disability-friendly solutions can provide the community with the independence to live their lives freely.

In 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, specifically, Section 504, people with disabilities, for the first time, were protected by law from being discriminated against. This act recognized that the many issues faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment, transportation, and accessibility issues, were not the fault of the person with the disability, but rather, a result of society’s shortcomings in failing to provide accessible services to the group. While this was a major win for this community, this law only applied to those who accepted federal funding, meaning that the private sector, and even many of the public sector, could still discriminate against people with disabilities. Following the passage of this act, many people with disabilities were instrumental in ensuring its enforcement. Many of the sit-ins referred to above happened at this time, as an attempt to keep governmental offices accountable. Protestors would block the entrances into the government buildings, or stay in the buildings past close time, refusing to leave until the necessary changes were agreed to be made to the buildings (such as including ramps to the building or elevators inside the buildings) to meet the Section 504 requirements. This continued until Ronald Reagan issued a task force to stop the regulatory attempts made by supporters of Section 504, and the protections secured by the IDEA, an act that protected the educational rights of children with disabilities. Over the following years, his decision resulted in hundreds of frustrated parents and people with disabilities alike questioning the justification for stopping the regulatory actions of Section 504. This backlash, accompanied by the tireless leaders of the community meeting with White House officials, ended in Reagan reversing his crackdown on Section 504, allowing regulations to continue on businesses that refused to incorporate practices outlined in Section 504.

Additionally, following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, people with disabilities, along with other protected groups such as race, gender (and sex), and religion, were protected from discrimination in housing. The first passage of the act initially only included race, religion, national origin, and color, as the protected groups. It was not until 1974 when sex (and gender) were added to this list, and not until 1988 when the disability community was added.  Still, this act was especially important for people with disabilities because it required home builders to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the inhabitants to live comfortably and move around the housing unit.

Following these many small victories came the biggest one of them all, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA). This law was the first general law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of society, including in housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and many other social services that impacted the lives of this protected group. The passage of the ADA focused on four main themes: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Full participation focuses on the ability of people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives, including having access to transportation, entering and exit buildings without issues, being able to vote on inaccessible sites, and enjoying life without social barriers that prevent them from being able to do so.  Equal opportunity centers on being able to be employed without facing discrimination due to their disability and being able to take advantage of other such opportunities free of discrimination. Independent living brings attention to the ableist framework that society is structured in and recognizes the need for a more disability-friendly society, with access to handrails, ramps, curb cuts, and other options such as disability-friendly online sites (that for example, speak the menu out for you if you are a person with visual imparities) to raise the living standards for people with disabilities. The basis of this pillar is to empower people with disabilities with tools they can use for themselves in order to live independent life. Finally, the economic self-sufficiency piece mainly concentrates on the economic security of people with disabilities. This includes access and accommodations to receive higher education, better employment opportunities (including training, transportation access, and mobility within the workspace), and other such necessities to promote economic self-sufficiency within the disability community.

A cartoon image of people standing together calling for equal rights with the words, "all human beings are born free and equal," quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948.
Image 10 – Source: Yahoo Images

Many communities across the United States are brainstorming innovative ways to be more inclusive, but we are far from being a fully inclusive society. People with disabilities remain among the invisible groups within society, not because their advocates are not loud enough, but because their cries are being ignored by lawmakers and their local representatives. Globally, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) in 2006, working to shift the mindset of people’s views on disability as a whole, as well as protect and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities by empowering them to fully participate in society with the dignity and humanity they deserve.

While this blog mainly focused on the historical context of the American Education System and the perception of people with disabilities in the past and today, the next blog will focus more on the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system today, the many challenges they continue to face, how the pandemic has impacted their learning and development, and the human rights framework necessary for disability rights to do what we can to be more inclusive and less ableist as a society.

 

Attack on Gender-Affirming Healthcare in Texas

After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States. 

Cube beads spelling the word “transgender”; Source: Unsplash

Introduction

In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing. 

Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.  

Image of protest with posters listing "Transgender Healthcare"
Image of protest with posters listing “Transgender Healthcare”

Medical Evidence 

In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.  

When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.  

Overhead view of medications and hormone therapy. Source: Unsplash

The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.  

Alabama and Florida Response

Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination. 

Black and white image of a protest with the phrase "No Body Is Illegal" centered.
Black and white image of a protest with the phrase “No Body Is Illegal” centered.

On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.” 

Current Status

A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.

Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.  

To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.  

The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: From the Past to the Present

An image of a tightly packed women's prison.
An image of a tightly packed women’s prison. Source: Soumya Misra (Nursing CLIO) via Yahoo Images Public Domain

This is a continuation of the conversation about the Alabama Prison Crisis as exposed by Mary Scott Hodgin in her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.” If you have not read the previous blog post on this topic, “The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: A History”, it is recommended that you do so. Also, if you would like more information and details regarding this topic, please listen to the podcast, “Deliberate Indifference,” by Mary Scott Hodgin. Now, without further ado, let us jump right in from where we left off.

In the previous blog, we focused on the history of prison systems in America, and particularly, some of the legislations and ideologies that laid out the foundation for the correctional institutions we know today. We explored in detail the convict leasing system that helped rebuild the infrastructure of the Antebellum South following their defeat in the Civil War, and the racialized laws and legislations that disproportionately landed Black and Brown people in prison over their White counterparts. The War on Drugs era followed by the Tough on Crime era landed hundreds of nonviolent offenders in prison, serving longer and harsher sentences and life without parole. While our focus in the last blog was more nationwide, it was necessary context to set the stage to better understand the realities that face the Alabama prison systems focused on in this blog.

The objective now is to look deeper into the conditions of the penal system in Alabama, the lawsuits they faced in 2017, and the most recent one in 2020, how the pandemic exacerbated these conditions, the prison strikes that took place within these prisons, and some ways to move forward to bring about actual change – change in the mindset of our fellow Alabama voters, and a shift in the way the prison population is viewed and treated as a whole. We will look at some groups that are trying to do just that, from organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Offender Alumni Association to religious groups and other educational groups that sponsor programs within the prison system to provide opportunities for higher education to the imprisoned population.

Prison Conditions

An image depicting a dormitory style housing unit. Many of Alabama's prisons are structured this way.
An image depicting a dormitory-style housing unit. Many of Alabama’s prisons are structured this way. Source: Yahoo Images via ACLU

While exploring the most recent reports that resulted from the federal investigations of Alabama’s prisons, there were many similarities in the reports. While the problems of understaffing and overcrowding were expressed in detail, (which will be discussed below), there was also extensive observation of the living conditions inside the prisons. What the investigations revealed was shocking, and despite having been advised to address these issues even in the 1970s investigation of Alabama’s prisons, the conditions had not improved. Rather, it had deteriorated even more due to the consequences of staffing and crowding issues.

Both reports extensively provide detailed examples of violent outbreaks within the prisons, between prisoners, and even at the hands of prison staff targeting the prisoners. Many such incidents go unreported, and others have even ended in the death of the imprisoned person. One of the things that contribute to this violence is the structure of the prison itself. Many of Alabama’s prisons are fashioned in a dormitory-style of housing units instead of the individual cell units depicted in popular culture. These housing units are essentially enormous halls that are secured on the perimeters, with bunk beds piled into the room as close as they can fit. With little to no privacy, and jampacked in tight spaces, people can get easily agitated, and this can lead to violence. Due to the overcrowding issue, many people are even expected to sleep on the floors, which can be unsanitary and uncomfortable. Due to the continuous staffing issues these prisons face, these large units may go unguarded for long periods of time, sometimes even entire shifts.

This puts both the inmates within the units at risk for violence, and the prison staff who, to the incarcerated individuals, represent the authority from which these conditions are sanctioned. Even still, many officers, due to the understaffing issue, have overlooked contraband possession (such as drugs or cell phones), deciding to pick and choose their battles in an already tense environment. As a result of all these issues, corruption is rampant within the prison walls, and many prison staff, according to narratives from both reports, take advantage of this tense environment to assert dominance over prisoners with increased brutality. People who are incarcerated are not viewed by society as individuals with their own pasts and presents. They are only viewed as “criminals,” remain invisible to society and are dehumanized. Regardless of the crimes that a person commits, they are at the end of the day, still, people, who deserve dignity and basic human decency. As an institution of the state, prisons are legally responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for people who are incarcerated to serve out their sentences as punishment. The American Constitution does not support “cruel and unusual punishments”, and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the rights of imprisoned individuals are fully supported.

An infographic which lists the universal rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
An infographic that lists the universal rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Source: Irish Times via Yahoo Images Public Domain

2017 Federal Investigation

In the previous blog, we focused on how the prison system of Alabama has been under federal investigation nearly 50 years ago in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the conditions outlined in those reports were never fully addressed, and the issues that were highlighted have only been exacerbated over the years. In September 2017, the Department of Justice from the federal government toured one of Alabama’s prisons, Bibb County Correctional Facility, for their official investigation of prison conditions in the Alabama penal system. What they uncovered was outlined later in a report published in 2019, stating over 50 pages worth of evidence against Alabama, and the minimal expectations the federal government laid out for Alabama to achieve, both short-term and long-term.

The report is prefaced by the fact that these concerns were underlined within a week of their investigation. According to the report from the observations made in 2017, the Alabama correctional facilities faced a myriad of issues, including an overcrowded prison population, with dangerously low staffing, issues of contraband entering the prisons, and a host of observations pertaining to violence within the prisons, including physical, mental, and sexual violence. As discussed in the previous blog, these overcrowding issues come from the various legislations that were passed, increasing the lengths of sentences, criminalizing drug abuse and mental health issues (instead of treating them as medical issues requiring rehabilitation and treatment), and incorporating mandatory sentencing minimums and three-strikes laws. Along with identifying the concerns stated above, the report also deemed the penal system’s inadequate protection of its inmate population from harm, violence, and death, a failure. The report discussed at length how, along with unsanitary living conditions, there are dangerous weapons and drugs that are circulating within the prisons, making them unsafe for both the incarcerated people, as well as the officers who work there. This in turn is both caused by and exacerbated by the issues of overcrowding and understaffing within the prison walls. With fewer officers to supervise the dormitory-style prisons in Alabama, incarcerated people are packed together to fend for themselves.

While not all people locked up in prison are violent offenders, studies have shown that desperation, (which is rampant in these prisons), can lead to violence, distrust, and increased criminal behavior within the population. While the study referenced focused on populations outside of prisons, it is safe to assume that these results are only amplified within the prison system. The people within are both desperate and already undergoing punishment, which means that even the threat of punishment is not a deterrence from committing these violent acts. This also means that with fewer officers to supervise the dorms and halls of the prison, the overall violence within the prisons is increased, making it dangerous for the entire prison population.

As explained in both the report by the federal investigation, as well as the podcast by Mary Scott Hodgin, there were at least 11 men that died in 2019 alone due to the increase in violence within the Alabama prisons. To make matters worse, the federal investigation also found that the Alabama prison system’s record-keeping on these incidents and others was inaccurate, finding that there were many incidents that went unreported, and even many deaths misclassified as due to natural causes or medical reasons rather than due to the violence found within the prisons. If you count the total number of deaths within the inmate population in 2019 classified as natural causes or otherwise, the number is as high as 119 deaths.

An infographic providing statistics around mental health in the prison system.
An infographic providing statistics on mental health in the prison system. Source: Cabrini University via Yahoo Images Public Domain

In addition to the misclassifications and incidents not being reported, Hodgin also details in her podcast the inadequate mental health care offered to incarcerated individuals within Alabama’s prisons. This can lead to an escalation of violence, and abuse of drugs, and place incarcerated individuals dealing with mental health issues in dangerous situations. Without the proper medical attention required to treat these individuals with mental health illnesses, prisons can become a charged environment that can exacerbate their conditions, making them more vulnerable to both becoming victims of violence, as well as the perpetrators of the violent acts. Unfortunately, because people with mental health issues are four times more likely to be imprisoned instead of receiving treatment and care, many individuals in prison already enter the system without knowing how to follow social norms. This can put them in danger of being abused by officers and other imprisoned individuals alike, and without proper care, their conditions can become worse, and at times, can end in death, either at their own hands or at the hands of another.

Another major topic of concern addressed in the report is that sexual abuse and sexual violence. Sexual violence is rampant in Alabama’s prisons, and this issue is exacerbated by the understaffing issue present within these facilities. With fewer officers staffed to care for increasing numbers of imprisoned people, there is less monitoring and supervision taking place, creating a breeding ground for violence, both sexual and physical. Much of the sexual abuse either go unnoticed, or unreported by staff members, and while the victims can report these incidents too, many choose not to for fear of retaliation or feelings of shame. Their fear is not unsubstantiated, as many accounts have been provided in which sexual assaults took place in retaliation to the victim’s reporting of a previous sexual assault. In addition to the low staffing numbers, many of the facilities in Alabama are constructed in a dormitory style, meaning that imprisoned individuals are grouped into a big hall rather than individual cells. This can be challenging for clear visibility of each individual inside the prison and their whereabouts. At times, only one or two officers may be in charge of the entire unit, and sometimes, the incarcerated people go unsupervised.

Many incidents of sexual assault occur as a result of “drug debt”, where an incarcerated person owes another incarcerated person money for drugs or other contraband and does not pay.  There have even been incidents where family members of people who are incarcerated have been extorted for money, with the threat of sexual violence against their imprisoned family member. Many victims of sexual abuse within the prisons also alleged that these instances occurred after the victims themselves were drugged or held at knifepoint. While much of this goes unnoticed by the prison staff, some reports that do manage to document these incidents have even labeled sexual assault as “homosexual acts” rather than nonconsensual sexual abuse. People who are incarcerated that belong to the LGBTQI+ community are even more vulnerable to sexual violence simply for their identity. Unfortunately, many of the officers in charge of ensuring that the prisons comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), are not even aware of who among their incarcerated population belongs to the LGBTQI+ community. The PREA flags the LGBTQI+ population as being most at risk for sexual crimes, and the PREA managers in the Alabama Department of Corrections are not fully complying with the standards set by the legislation.

After identifying and explaining the various issues the Department of Justice found within Alabama’s prison system, the report argued that these conditions violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated people, and as such, provided some bare-minimum measures that Alabama should take immediately to avoid a federal takeover of the prisons. These remedies included addressing the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, the rampant violence (both physical and sexual), the access to contraband, and the living conditions within the facilities. In addition to these short-term measures, the report also suggested some long-term measures to implement, including – among a list of other things – better incentives to improve staffing issues, improved systems to track, record, and address issues of violence, and more regulation over prison conditions and treatment of the imprisoned population. Alabama closed down one prison after this report (Draper Correctional Center) and closed a particularly harmful “behavioral modification unit” or “hot bays”, (where incarcerated individuals are held as punishment for violence and drugs within the prison) at Bibb Correctional facility. While these closures were a good place to start, they should be in no way, the only solutions to the long list of problems outlined by the report following the federal investigation. Unfortunately, Alabama, as expressed in the report itself, has been “deliberately indifferent” to these situations, and as a result, experienced yet another investigation in 2020.

2020 Federal Investigation

An image of an overcrowded cell colored in red to symbolize prison violence
An image of an overcrowded cell colored in red symbolizes prison violence. Source: ProPublica via Yahoo Images Public Domain

The 2020 report from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Alabama’s prisons found similar problems echoed in the 2017 investigation they conducted. As mentioned in the 2017 report, the 2020 report also addressed issues of overcrowding of prisoners, stating that all of Alabama’s 13 prisons held thousands of people over the capacity they were designed for, making Alabama’s prisons among the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. This report also referred to the dangers of not having adequate staff members to care for and run these overcrowded facilities, this time focusing on how these staffing and overcrowding issues have led to an increase in officers using excessive force against the incarcerated individuals, further aggravating the violence that exists within the prison walls. This issue of excessive force is further examined in the report, claiming it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which outlaws cruel and unusual punishments against imprisoned people.

The 2020 report details the many reasons why officers use excessive force against people who are imprisoned. Unfortunately, many officers have been known to use violence and excessive force to “handle” a situation, even in times when there is no physical threat to the officer, and even when the incarcerated people are complying with the given orders. This has the tendency to escalate the situation, placing both the incarcerated individual and the officers in danger’s way. The report provides various examples of such incidents where the imprisoned people are reported to be complacent with the officers’ instructions, even handcuffed without ways to fight back, but have still been beaten, tortured, and abused inhumanely. These officers filed false incident reports claiming that they did not engage in such actions, and even after investigations of the incidents, the officers did not face any legal consequences or disciplinary actions for their behavior.

At times, excessive force is used by officers as a form of punishment or retribution for disrespecting the officers or reporting them. The 2020 report describes multiple incidents where excessive force was used against incarcerated people simply for not following the specific directions laid out by the officers. One incident includes an imprisoned person being physically abused and forced to eat all the leftover chicken for simply wanting some extra food. Other incidents outline the use of chemical sprays to punish incarcerated people or as a form of retribution for not following verbal orders. Chemicals sprays are used even in times when the imprisoned people do not pose any physical threats to the officers. Finally, many officers also use force to simply assert dominance and inflict pain on their charges, something that not only endangers the people involved (both officer and incarcerated individuals) but also causes the incarcerated individuals to distrust the officers in charge, escalating the tensions between the two groups.

All these incidents are violations of the eighth amendment, and while many of the investigations that these incidents resulted in agreed that there was no justification for the use of excessive force in any of these outlined incidents, the officers faced little to no disciplinary actions for their conduct. The Department of Justice also included this issue in their report, arguing that unsurprisingly, officers either fail to report or inaccurately report incidents where excessive force is used. Many times, excessive use of force is investigated internally and recommended for an I & I investigation (Investigations and Intelligence unit of the Alabama Department of Corrections in charge of investigating misconduct by prison staff). Unfortunately, the report declares that of all the incidents recommended to the I&I unit, only 40% of them are actually reviewed. To make matters worse, many of the cases that are investigated by the I&I unit, where excessive force has been confirmed, are seldom referred to be criminally prosecuted. This means that many of the officers abusing their authority and misbehaving with incarcerated individuals go unpunished for their conduct. Many more of the incidents where excessive force is used go unreported, with only the victim’s bruises to bear witness to the incident. For fear of retaliation, many imprisoned persons go without reporting the abuse they face at the hands of officers. If the victim does not cooperate in the investigation, the incident is deemed “unsubstantiated”, and the investigation is closed.

Following their investigation, the federal government proposed a list of measures that Alabama’s Department of Corrections needs to take in order to fully comply with federal regulations for correctional institutions. These immediate measures included the need for more I&I investigators, a better system for victims of abuse from officers using excessive force to report their incidents anonymously and independent of the prison’s authorities, clear procedures for accountability for officers, and better documentation and investigations of incidents where excessive force is used.

COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Prison Population

A cartoon depicting a prisoner digging with a shovel, with a caption underneath reading: "I'm not escaping. I'm just trying to get tested for Covid-19." While this image was referencing the protocols followed by Mississippi prisons, this was essentially the same in Alabama's prisons as well.
A cartoon depicting a prisoner digging with a shovel, with a caption underneath reading: “I’m not escaping. I’m just trying to get tested for Covid-19.” While this image was referencing the protocols followed by Mississippi prisons, this was essentially the same in Alabama’s prisons as well. Source: Mississippi Today via Yahoo Images Public Domain

In addition to these inhumane conditions the imprisoned population experience that violate the basic human rights of incarcerated people, the outbreak of Covid-19 greatly amplified this issue, and soon, the prisons became a contagious and deadly environment for both the prison staff and their charges. With little to no access to adequate healthcare and deteriorating mental health caused by the conditions of their environment, people who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks. On the national level, according to a study conducted in 2020 by the American Medical Association, people incarcerated were five times more likely than people living outside the prison system to be infected by the virus, and the death rates among prison populations were higher than the national average at the time. Making matters worse, due to conditions of overcrowding inside the prisons, the outbreak was especially dangerous, as incarcerated people were unable to adequately quarantine and unable to maintain safe social distance between each other. There was also the probability of prison staff bringing the virus into the prisons from the outside world, and also recirculating the contagion within the prisons back into the larger society. A UAB publication by the School of Public Health declared the prisons a “petri dish for COVID-19”.

To add to this problem, the prisons were notoriously unsanitary, meaning that preventative measures such as maintaining clean spaces and washing hands with anti-bacterial soaps, were impossible to maintain. Furthermore, understaffing issues complicated this situation, as those who were infected were either neglected until conditions were too bad to ignore, or they were provided with inadequate healthcare measures. In Alabama, a unique situation further complicated the negative consequences of the pandemic. A large portion of Alabama’s prison population belongs to the older age groups due to the strict and long sentencing laws of the state, and the fact that the pandemic was considered to be even more dangerous for elderly people further put people incarcerated within Alabama’s prisons in jeopardy. Access to healthcare within the prison system makes this issue life-threatening, and despite the urgency from the American Medical Association to include the prison population in the vulnerable communities list for vaccinations, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that Alabama’s prisons denied its incarcerated people vaccinations. While some prison staff received vaccines, they were not required by the state to be vaccinated to work in the prisons, continuing to place the lives of incarcerated individuals in peril. As a result of inadequate protective gear (such as masks), and negligent behavior on part of the state and the prison staff, the prisons in Alabama encountered a large number of Covid-19 deaths.

Alabama Prison Strikes

A group of people protesting prison conditions and calling for the protection of the rights of incarcerated people.
A group of people protesting prison conditions and calling for the protection of the rights of incarcerated people. Source: Occupy Oakland via Yahoo Images Public Domain

After living through the grave conditions of the pandemic, and witnessing the unchanging environment within the prisons, the incarcerated individuals decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. In September of 2022, incarcerated people from all of the 13 prisons in Alabama began striking against the prison conditions they endured. They argued that the prison system was violating their basic human rights, provided inadequate healthcare, and did not in any way prove to be a place of rehabilitation for the imprisoned population. Instead, they initiated a strike, refusing to work their prison jobs (such as in the laundry department and the maintenance department) that they did not receive compensation for, called for improvements in prison conditions, and demanded reforms to the harsh sentencing laws currently in effect in the state of Alabama.

While imprisoned persons are demanding to be treated fairly in prison, the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, insisted that the demands of the prison population were “just unreasonable,” maintaining that the new construction of the two mega prisons in Alabama would solve all these issues of understaffing and overcrowding. These mega prisons, built with the use of funds designated to the state for pandemic relief, (causing public debate on this controversial subject), are supposed to provide more space for the overcrowded prisons in Alabama, and reports have surfaced about the possibility of hiring more officers for the newer mega prisons. This project will receive a total of over $1.2 billion in funding, of which $400 million comes from the pandemic relief funds.

What is vital to include here is that while these two new prisons will provide more space to house incarcerated individuals, (up to 4,000 in each), these prisons are replacing existing prisons with newer technologies and facilities. While this may seem like an improvement in some prison conditions, (such as more security and cleaner, sanitary units), it does not solve issues of overcrowding or staffing issues. The massive budget awarded to this project, instead of going toward building two mega prisons, could have been used more wisely to address the core issues of society that increase crime and criminality within its community. In addition, certain legislation and reforms could have been passed to overturn the harsh sentencing laws that exist in Alabama today. This would have solved both the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, as with fewer people being incarcerated and more people qualifying for parole, the total amount of people within the system would decrease, which would also lead to a decrease in the number of incarcerated people the prison staff is responsible for. A decrease in the prison population would also lead to a decrease in violence and more space for each individual within the prison walls.

Existing Resources

An infographic depicting the difference between education versus incarceration.
An infographic depicting the difference between education and incarceration. Source: Yahoo Images via QEDfoundation.org

There are many organizations that have attempted to address both the various issues that incarcerated people face within the prison system and those face as they re-enter society after completing their sentences. These organizations include Alabama Appleseed, Offender Alumni Association, Shepherds Fold, One Roof, and Aid to Inmate Mothers. Alabama Appleseed, which belongs to the national Appleseed Network, is a Center for Law and Justice that focuses on equity and justice, and research around prison reforms in Alabama’s penal system. The Offender Alumni Association, recognizing the importance of human connection, focuses on providing support and engagement within the prison walls, and community and stronger familial relationships outside, all while aiming to end the stigma around imprisonment. This organization is a support system for incarcerated people run by people who have been formerly incarcerated and engage in community efforts such as their Heroes in the Hood program to help inspire meaningful goals within the younger generations of high-risk communities to channel their energy toward community restoration. Shepherds Fold, as a transition home, provides similar services from a faith-based approach, instilling Christian values within their participating members. One Roof, an organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Alabama, is yet another resource for people re-entering society after being incarcerated. Through their practice of Coordinated Entry, or an in-depth needs assessment, One Roof is able to secure housing for those in need and point them to additional resources they may require based on their assessment. This can be very helpful for many, especially those who have been incarcerated for decades long, and who may not be aware of what resources exist in the community, or how to go about securing them. Finally, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM) is an organization that provides assistance to mothers who are incarcerated, both during their incarceration, as well as their transition period into society after their sentences have been served. AIM provides transportation to children for visitations with their mothers in prison and provides incarcerated mothers opportunities to record bedtime stories for their children. Their reentry programs aim to reconnect mothers with their children, provide a few essentials for those leaving prison, provide classes on life skills, job preparedness, parenting, and other topics for those who are interested, and even provide transition housing for a year, though it comes with a few eligibility requirements, including rental fees charged weekly.

There are also educational opportunities that are provided for incarcerated people in Alabama’s prisons. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project led by Auburn University, and the Donaldson Lecture Series led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are only two such programs. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project provides incarcerated individuals a chance to earn college credits while serving time. These courses are offered in the field of arts and sciences, and for those who can keep up with the standards of Auburn’s academic programs, this is a great opportunity for incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education, and as a result, be better equipped to handle the professional world upon their release. Similarly, UAB also offers lecture series at Donaldson Prison. While not as extensive or academically progressive as Auburn’s program, the Donaldson Lecture Series focuses on educational talks given to incarcerated individuals within the prison every other Tuesday for academic enrichment purposes.

Shifting the Mindset Around Crime and Punishment

An image of solidarity in favor of Prisoner Rights
An image of solidarity in favor of Prisoner Rights; Source: Yahoo Images Public Domain via Racism.org

These resources are well-intentioned and have helped save so many lives to date. Yet, this is not enough; there is a much-needed shift in the societal mindset around crime and punishment. The issue of the prison system is rooted in the racist founding of this nation, and as such, has systemic implications on various areas of a person’s life. Reforms can only go so far, as they are still pieces of legislation that try to make changes to the existing laws, but they still operate under those same laws. There needs to be a shift in the way incarcerated people are viewed within the larger society, and there needs to be a reexamination of the laws on the books since most of the institutions in America are rooted in beliefs of supremacy. Some things that can help us rethink the way we approach topics that involve imprisoned people are suggested below.

As explained earlier, changing the language around how people in prison are talked about can humanize the population and foster compassion towards the group. Refer to them as imprisoned persons or people in prison rather than branding them the title of “prisoner” or “inmate”. This helps shift the narrative. “Prisoner” or “Inmate” seems to imply that these individuals are criminals at the core, and brands them as “others” in the eyes of society. Instead, referring to them as “imprisoned people” implies they are human, with natural rights, and only living in a condition of imprisonment rather than being defined by their conditions.

Finally, I leave you with a challenge: rethink how crime and punishment are framed in our society. Who is held accountable? Who isn’t? What acts are considered criminal and what aren’t? Who decides which acts to define as criminal and which ones do not? Who benefits from the current criminal “justice” system? Does committing a crime make you a bad person, a “criminal” for the rest of your life, or should you be given another chance to reform? Should people be branded innately “criminal” or are their actions influenced by the conditions of the society they live in and dependent on the context and motivations behind the crime committed? Is it fair to punish someone based on actions (mistakes yes, but still actions) committed as young people for the rest of their lives? Why is it that our society places the label “criminals” on people who commit crimes, but refuses to see them as anything else? People can be “criminals” and still be artists, musicians, poets, writers, activists, metal workers, etc. Why does our society insist on placing a singular label on this population? Could it be to easily forget their existence, to remove humanity from their essence? All these are necessary questions to ask ourselves to understand our own biases towards imprisoned people and began to rethink our own actions that can have long-lasting consequences on the lives of so many. After all, this prison crisis is happening in our own backyard, and if we do not speak out against these atrocities, we are just as guilty as those committing them.

 

China’s Zero-COVID Policy

A man wearing a mask
(source: yahoo images)

Since the pandemic began, you might have seen multiple different snippets of Chinese citizens in their homes under complete lockdown. You might have even seen drones patrolling the streets and citizens shouting lamentations out of their window.

What you may not have known is that all of these scenarios mentioned above are a direct result of China’s COVID protocols. Currently, China is imposing a “zero-COVID” policy on all of its citizens. However, as President Xi Jinping was just re-elected for a third five-year term, we can assume that the policy will not be going anywhere anytime soon. 

The “zero-COVID” Policy: Prevention

landmark in china
(source: yahoo images)

Let us now evaluate what this so-called “zero-COVID” policy is and what it entails. Supposedly, China “recognizes domestic outbreaks are inevitable, and its policies are not geared towards having zero cases at all times but instead, are about “dynamically” taking actions when cases surface.” 

China’s policy can be split into two distinct features: prevention and containment. In the case of prevention, China ensures PCR tests (which are fast and highly accurate ways to diagnose COVID) are readily available for anyone at any given time. The normality and presence of tests has in turn caused certain businesses and buildings to require individuals to show proof of being COVID negative to enter these public spaces. However inconvenient this might be to those who are not tested, this notion has definitely kept cases low—after all, if functioning in life requires having a negative test, why would one risk getting sick? One surely would not want to risk getting sick since it would mean they would be practically unable to enter any public places. Hence, prevention of COVID prevails in China. 

The “zero-COVID” Policy: Containment

Chinese mountain
(source: yahoo images)

Prevention of COVID seems to be rather successful in China. However, the other part of China’s zero-COVID policy seems to be the one that sparks controversy and frequently makes its way into mainstream media: containment. 

Allegedly, China’s “[control tactics] aimed at swiftly cutting off transmission chains to forestall outbreaks, involve quarantining cases at government-supervised facilities and locking down buildings, communities or even entire cities.” 

Picture this: you wake up, get dressed, and are having your typical morning routine. Perhaps you might be feasting on some waffles or eggs as you prepare for your day. In any case, you eat your breakfast, and then head out to work. You get to your office around 10 minutes early, anticipating it will be a good day. 

About halfway through your work day, you receive word that you will not be heading home to your family that night. Someone in that building (a coworker of yours), tested positive for COVID, and the city decided to place your entire office building on lockdown.

Swiftly, within hours, government officials are shoving mattress and bed materials through the window. Additionally, food supplies are en route to the office. The basic necessities of human survival are all now being prepared to be delivered to your office, which, for the next couple of days, will be your home. 

This scenario is one that many people living in China have experienced. Starting your day normally to simply head to work and be told that you would not be allowed to go back home for a couple of days is a harsh reality in China. 

This ability for the government to impose this upon its citizens is all, as one would expect, due to China’s commitment to its zero-COVID policy. 

However, in addition to putting entire office buildings under lockdown for days, China is also able to put entire cities on lockdown. The population of the cities which fall victim to China’s harsh quarantine policies matters not—Shanghai, China’s largest city, was even placed on lockdown. Other cities that have been placed on lockdown include Xian, Chengdu, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Jilin.

When a city is placed on lockdown, its citizens typically get little notice. The lockdowns, unsurprisingly, are complete lockdowns—there are no exceptions. Everything closes. Everyone is required to stay inside, no matter what. China ensures complete and total lockdown.

The government guards and watches over the streets 24/7 and ensures that no one roams the streets without permission. On top of that, drones often fly about, blaring messages out loud to remind everyone of the lockdown procedures.

When China decides to place a city under lockdown, eeriness overflows the streets. The scene is reminiscent of ghost towns and movies of towns left abandoned due to some unforeseeable incident. 

The Impacts and Implications

Chinese flag
(source: yahoo images)

These efforts on China’s end, despite how draconian they might appear, have definitely accomplished China’s goals. Globally, China is practically one of the least impacted nations by COVID—despite the fact the virus allegedly originated from China in the first place. 

According to OurWorldInData, China’s all-time COVID case count is about 1 million. The United States’s total is about 97 million. Additionally, in China, only about 5,000 have died from complications with COVID, while over a million people have died in the United States. 

Naturally, this presents an ethical dilemma—how should a government go about protecting the lives of its citizens from an illness? Should the government take China’s route of practically removing one’s agency over their own life in order to keep cases and deaths down, or should a government take the route of the USA where COVID mandates are less harsh or non-existent?

The low incidence of COVID outbreaks might make it seem as if China is doing the correct thing—governments should step in and enforce lockdowns onto people. However, while this surely will indeed keep cases at a low count, it will also imply other things—most importantly, the implication that the government ultimately knows what is best for its people and has the final say in how people live their lives. If a government can step in randomly and deny its citizens the free will to leave an office building, what else can it do in other situations? This notion of a government exuding agency over its people in times when it deems best surely is not a notion that is only demonstrated in situations of COVID—it is a notion that is bound to resurface in other parts of one’s life.

What the correct and best thing for a government to do, as it relates to infection control, is not as clear cut as one might think. It is certainly problematic for a government to have total authority over its people (which thereby would give it the power to strictly enforce COVID policies). At the same time, this has been an effective strategy in keeping cases low. On the other hand, the United States has been uncertain as to how to implement COVID policies. The USA is not used to enforcing policies in situations that have never occurred before, such as the COVID pandemic. Hopefully, if there is one positive thing we could gain from the entire pandemic, it is that if a pandemic were to ever break out again, due to COVID, we are better equipped to deal with it. 

A Firsthand Perspective of the Humanitarian Needs of IDPs in Cameroon

Cameroon, once a bastion of peace and tranquility, is now a nation beset with a series of violent and armed conflicts. Since late 2016, an armed conflict between the state defense forces of Cameroon and the non-state armed groups (NSAGs) of Southern Cameroons’ has ravaged the country. In the last six years, there have been more than 6,000 deaths, 765,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), and 70,000 registered refugees in neighboring Nigeria, with approximately 2.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The Norwegian Refugee Council has referred to the conflict as one of the most neglected in the world. The long-term human capital consequences of this conflict are enormous. 

A more comprehensive background of the armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons can be found in a previous IHR blog post, “Cameroon, a Nation Divided”. 

Map of Cameroon.
Source: via Yahoo Images

It is against this backdrop that the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI) in partnership with the Institute of Human Rights (IHR) co-hosted an international webinar, “Updates on the Humanitarian Crisis from the Ongoing Armed Conflict in the Southern Cameroons” on the 18th of October, 2022. The aim of this event was to discuss the current humanitarian crisis from a multi-perspective panel. The speaker biographies can be found at the bottom of this blog post. 

Excerpts from this webinar were edited and woven together for this blog post. The full recording of the webinar is available on request by contacting ihr@uab.edu. 

Image of Cameroonian IDPs.
Source: via Yahoo Images

Overview                                                                                                                     

What are the current humanitarian needs for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Southern Cameroons? 

Atim Evenye: The current context and the magnitude of the ongoing crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions remain tense. There is continuous violence in targeted areas. We have the destruction of properties. We have abductions and kidnappings of both community people and administrators. We have killings and local arrests. We have continuous attacks on schools and students. Humanitarians face threats and direct [armed] attacks.  [These are carried out] by both parties, the non-state actors and the state defense forces.

The population [has] really [been] under duress and stress for over six years.

Food Security:                                                                                                                      Atim Evenye: When it comes to the current needs for IDPs, at the moment, I would say food security remains one of those outstanding needs. Especially in the rural areas, because these IDPs have fled their place of abort. They don’t have access to their farms. [As such,] they don’t have the economic capital [for even] daily subsistence. So, there is a lot of dependencies now on family members, [or] world food programs, and other humanitarian organizations bringing food assistance in the area. 

Education Accessibility:                                                                                                        Atim Evenye: There is a strict restriction around education. In [the rural areas] of the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have children who have not been able to go to school until date. In urban areas, there is a possibility of schools for those who can afford it. Currently, in our zone in the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have lost one month [of school this term], because we are only starting now. So, it becomes challenging on how to catch up. There’s a need for accelerated learning. [Additionally,] teachers have been abducted [and] schools have been burned. [To add to that,] there is a lot of psychological trauma, [as] many children have witnessed or experienced violence firsthand. Both the state and non-state actors [are] not conscious of the impact their actions are having on children. The government doesn’t want to hear about community schools as prescribed by the separatist. So, it’s really very challenging to access education. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Education is one of the issues at the origin and at the core of the crisis, and formal education has been used by NSAGs, [the non-state armed groups], as a political instrument. NSAGs have advocated and enforced a “no school policy”, leading to public school closures for the past four years in many areas. More than fifty percent of threats against buildings in communities have been directed against schools, and many school buildings have been taken over by organized armed groups. Accessing education in emergency services, or going to school in such a volatile environment, is proven to be risky for children, as well as for teachers. Pupils who were in school in most rural areas have dropped out, some joining armed groups, others displaced, and some have outgrown their ages for the classes in which they were and cannot continue. Many parents have lost their means of livelihood and are unable to sponsor their children in school. Despite repeated calls from humanitarian and human rights organizations for education to be depoliticized, schools have been burnt, teachers and students intimidated, kidnapped, and even killed, and some have seen their hands chopped off by members of armed groups. 

Gender-based violence (trigger warning):                                                                          Atim Evenye: We see [a great deal] of gender-based violence. In certain assessments we have conducted, for example, [many of these] young girls in rural areas are not able to go to school. What are they left to do? There is a lot of harassment, rape, and [sexual assaults]. They’re looking for five hundred francs CFA, that’s like one dollar, to [be able to just buy] food to eat. So then, they depend on young men to give them that money. And at the end of the day, they [get pregnant and become] teenage mothers. The whole cycle is really detrimental, it’s a really difficult one. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Sexual violence is rampant, as a direct consequence of the crisis but also due to decreasing livelihoods, negative coping mechanisms, and lack of protection structures. The boy child is an endangered species, at risk of accusation and arbitrary killing from GFs [state defense forces], and forced recruitment by the NSAGs. There are no specific programs by both UN agencies and Internal bodies that address the needs of the boys. 

Housing:                                                                                                                                      Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we look at where the IDPs in particular are, we have IDPs that are living in the rural areas, in the bushes. We have those living within host communities. We have some that have been able to rent. [But if] they are able to pay for accommodation, [there are] a lot of difficulties because they want them to pay upfront, and they cannot do it. In all three groups, they lack basic WaSH and health services, NFIs [non-food items], and protection from natural hazards. Those who fled to other regions face stigma and severe protection risks related to exploitation, and socio-economic vulnerabilities including extortion, sexual exploitation, and child labor. 

Healthcare:                                                                                                                            Atim Evenye: The next principal need I would say is around healthcare. In recent times we have [had] heath centers burned, and the staff attacked. So, it’s really challenging. Statement needs to be completed, even before the crisis, access to health care has been a serious challenge, especially in rural areas. And then, currently, with the crisis, it’s even more exacerbated. It becomes difficult now [for] humanitarians on the ground who are trying to meet the needs of these people. Take, for example, Doctors Without Borders. They have [had] to put their activities on the hold because they had issues around access [and safety] of their staff.

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: [There is a lot of] healthcare [needs] for the vulnerable. [Safe practices in regard to] water, sanitation, and hygiene are not being followed. People who live in rural areas don’t have a good source of water. But they could be educated on the fact that even though your source of water is doubtful, you could take it, you boil it, you purify it, or you do something to make it [potable]. That education, they don’t have, or the chemicals for water treatment. Additionally, there is a lack of emergency medical and psychological units, to provide emergency care to the wounded and psychosocial support to those traumatized by the violence. We can educate people on how to prevent simple infections. How can you prevent diarrhea infection? How can you prevent malaria? If this education is done, it could be [one] way to [improve basic healthcare].

Healthcare, which is supposed to be a protected area, unfortunately, has not been the case in this conflict.  We have had health centers closed; more than fifty percent of the health centers in rural communities have been closed. Not only the health centers, [but] the health workers do not feel comfortable staying there. So, a lot of them have abandoned [the centers]. The [people] left in these communities cannot access healthcare. Women cannot access antenatal clinics. Vaccinations [are] not being done, and thousands of children are at risk of contracting common vaccine-preventable infections. 

The population has been abandoned to themselves.

Health centers that are open in semi-urban and urban areas are overwhelmed by people who have [been forced by the conflict to flee]. And what’s worse is that most of those who have [fled] do not have the means to pay for the treatment. We have some health centers that have accumulated huge unpaid bills because those who access healthcare cannot afford to pay those bills. For the facilities that are open, IDPs cannot afford to pay for the treatment that is given to them. 

We have [also] had cases of drugs and other medical equipment [being] seized along the way by organized armed groups. So, it’s difficult to render care because the drugs and medical supplies do not reach the vulnerable in the hard-to-reach areas. Free supply of drugs and medical equipment is disturbed by locked downs, roadblocks, and/ or are seized at gunpoint. 

Then the last very worrying thing is that healthcare workers are being attacked or kidnapped for ransom. A lot of them have been attacked both by the non-state actors and by the state forces; [health workers are] kidnapped by the non-state actors and/or arrested by the [state forces]. So, it is not safe [from] either side. They see you as collaborating with the other, and [so the question is] whether you should treat wounded combatants or not. According to the healthcare regulation, we take any wounded persons as patients. But unfortunately, when these [combatants are] treated, we [the healthcare workers] are blamed. The non-state actors blame you for treating the state forces. The state forces blame you for treating the non-state actors. It’s really a dilemma in which we are in. 

Future Directions:                                                                                                     

Looking towards the future, are there any resolutions to the humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons that you can think of that can be implemented at this point?

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: I think the first thing we need to consider for the humanitarian crisis is that we need to speak the truth.

We need to make a truthful appraisal of what is happening on the field. Address the needs. For example, we are told that the crisis in Cameroon is one of the least funded in the world. Why? Because the data and the reposting are for some reason concealed. 

So, if we must be able to go forward with the humanitarian situation, we need to know how many people are living in the bushes, how many are living in host communities, in what conditions are they living, and be able to address it. [These] figures are often contested, they say the number is lower, or they want to sway the number for their gain. So, we must start with you right data. If we have the right data on needs, it will be possible to see where the solutions should come from. 

Possible resolution options, specifically for the humanitarian crisis, could consider the following:

-A community-based approach to raise awareness of protection risks in the community and identify and support community-based solutions. 

-Advocate for access to civil documentation, especially birth certificates, to avoid a stateless generation and mitigate protection risks associated with a lack of civil documentation. 

-Support community mediation of localized conflicts to reinforce the dialogue between host communities and IDPs and avoid tensions within the communities. 

-Advocate with parties to the conflict to respect the protection rights of communities, and respect International Humanitarian Laws. 

-Finding durable solutions for IDPs intending to stay in their host communities, like those who have established businesses in the new areas.

-Shelter support in rural areas as a high percentage of households live in tents or informal collective shelters 

Atim Evenye: When it comes to setting strategies that we can use to resolve this conflict, I would say it’s imperative, for the powers that be to consider the roles of different parties in the conflict. There is a need for parties in this conflict to come to the table and talk. There is a need for dialogue. There is a need for unity. We need to have a unity of purpose, to push our agenda in one voice. 

True is the fact that they have been the major national dialogue, [there] have been consultation meetings and other forms of dialogue in smaller circles. But the question is, during this dialogue are the needs of the different parties considered?

For example, we have women who have suffered a lot as a result of this conflict. But at the same time, we have that arm of women who are also seeking solutions on how to resolve the conflict. Women are now spearheading and speaking for themselves. And I think, there is a need to give a listening ear to what the women are saying because I think time in memorial, women have always demonstrated that ability to resolve conflict. So, one way to consider the proposals that women are giving here in Cameroon.

Secondly, there is a need to give academia and research a place. There are a lot of people in the academic who are gathering data, but the fear around it is the dissemination of this information. The administrative system is such that once you do a publication that is not supportive of what is happening, you get targeted. And by both sides. Thus, we try to be balanced in all information dissemination. There is a need for that deliberation and freedom of speech, especially in the area of academia. People should not be afraid to publicize or to make public the research and the results of what they have found in the field. So that’s another way that can be an added value to the approaches to conflict resolution. 

Also, there is a need to consider the root causes. The conflict did not just start like that, it degenerated along the line. So, there is a need to go back to the drawing board and understand what pushed the Southern Cameroonians to arrive at this point. What are the different trends that have been changing through the crisis?

When it comes to how to resolve the humanitarian crisis, I think the humanitarian needs are more than what the humanitarian organizations can do, funding is very limited. It’s obvious that humanitarians cannot meet all the needs. So where should we turn to? We should turn to other actors who can bring assistance. We have development actors who can bring resilient, [long-term, skills-building] projects so that the communities will not be too dependent. The people of the Northwest and Southwest have never been those who are dependent on handouts. 

They are people who are hard-working. We hear the aches of people wanting to be self-sustaining. They want to just be, to go back and be what they had been doing [before the conflict]. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we don’t put away falsehood, if we don’t speak the truth and have the right data and have the right information about what is going on, on the ground, we will continue for many more years doing much but with very little impact. 

The people of Northwest and Southwest can lead by themselves. These are hard-working people. They just need to be empowered, to go back to where they have lived before. There are many people who are longing to go back home, but the problem is that they go to homes that have been burnt. They go to farms that have been abandoned. They go to be reminded of the horror. So, we need psychological treatment and support. We need some form of equipping them to be able to cope with what they have lost. We should be able to end the hostilities and give people the opportunity to go back home.

So, we should rather empower them, than continue to give them aid. Let peace reign, [so that] we can empower them to reveal what they have lost and then see how they can bring up that life again. [Then] we can go forward. But hostilities should cease, and we should speak the truth; to face each other face-to-face and speak the truth. 

Speaker Biographies

Atim Evenye Niger-Thomas, received a Ph.D. in Student Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the International University of Applied sciences for Development (IUASD) Sao Tome in partnership with IPD Yaoundé.  Since 2016, Atim Evenye has worked and grown in different roles at the Authentique Memorial Empowerment Foundation (AMEF). Currently, she holds the position of Assistant Director and trainer for Humanitarian Negotiation. Under this supervision, AMEF has grown to be one of the leading humanitarian organizations in the Southwest Region. AMEF runs four core programs namely, Education and Child Protection (ECP), Economic Development and Livelihood (EDL), Gender, Protection and Peace (GPP), Health/Nutrition/ WASH (HNW).

Dr. Nfor Emmanuel Nfor, holds a PhD in Medical Parasitology from the University of Yaounde I, Cameroon. In February 2017, he joined the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS), as the Malaria Focal Point. While working with the CBCHS, he attended a Peer Review Workshop on Humanitarian Negotiation organized by the Centre for Competence in Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) Geneva. After many other online courses, and several National and International Conferences, he was appointed Trainer and Advisor of Humanitarian Projects within the CBCHS. In this capacity, he coordinated projects executed by the CBCHS with funding from WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA. He has been at the forefront of Humanitarian activities within the CBCHS during the ongoing sociopolitical crises in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, working closely with the Cameroon Humanitarian Response Plan. 

 

This is the second in a series of blog posts that will look further into the conflict in Cameroon. Each month a humanitarian need and/or organization working in response to the humanitarian crisis will be featured on the UAB Institute for Human Rights’ blog. 

Mental Health in Graduate and Professional Schools

Recently, I sat and had conversations with fellow peers in graduate programs and professional schools ranging from subjects such as Master of Art Education to Medical School and Graduate studies in Nonprofit Management. We talked about mental health resources and access within their schools and professors. Our conversations ranged tremendously, with some saying they are provided with resources and time off if stressed, to some feeling like they are not seen or cared for within their programs but are cared for by their professors. With the immense pressure of graduate and professional schools, students tend to go through many life changes that have had effects on their mental health. Graduate programs and professional schools contain an intense climate and harbor a strong need to succeed. With the stress, long hours studying, and a lost balance of life, many students do not feel that they are provided with the proper mental health resources. Mental health is typically overlooked or not given as much importance when considering human rights. The right to mental health is just as important as any other human right and has increased importance at the Human Rights Council. The balance between studies, life, work, and outside obligations, takes a toll on any individual. Ensuring that every person has access to free or affordable mental health services has been a goal for human rights advocates and organizations. The UNHCR notes that the right to health includes mental health.

Yahoo Images, Looking after Mental Health
Yahoo Images, Looking after Mental Health

Mental Health in Graduate School

A study done by Harvard found that students within graduate schools are three times more likely to experience mental health struggles than an average individual. The study conducted a survey of over 500 students in graduate programs and found that in every 10 students, one had suicidal thoughts over a two-week period. With the constant stress and studying, graduate students begin to develop depression and anxiety. The environment of graduate schools differs immensely when compared to the undergraduate level. Rather than having to attend class and prepare for exams, they spend their entire time—often 2-6 years—dedicated to a research project. Typically, 60 hours per week is spent preparing and studying research.

Many factors and challenges aid in stress for graduate students: poor mentorship, lack of access to counseling services, lack of training, and leave-of-absence policies. The list can go on and on about the challenges faced by graduate students. In addition, the biggest factor I found is the academic mindset. There is an embedded mindset within professional studies that a failure is never an option. Every student tries to be the best, the smartest, and the most achieved. This leads to many bad outcomes; a 2019 survey of Ph.D. students found that 76% of students work more than 40 hours a week on their research and projects and cannot attain a work-life balance. They have no room to take a breath or a break. As noted by a student, they said, “if you slack, you are out.”

 

Yahoo Images, Students studying
Yahoo Images, Students studying

 Mental Health in Professional Schools

Studying to become a doctor, lawyer, dentist, etc., carries immense stress. Students within professional schools dedicate their entire lives to a program in the hope of getting their dream careers. But the process of getting into professional school and finally being accepted to study all have factors that can deter one’s mental health. Within law school, it has been found that depression rates have increased from 10% to 40% among students. 96% of law students and 70% of medical students face significant stress. Factors that have been found ranging from loneliness, rejection, alcohol and substance abuse, academic performance, anxiety, depression, peer pressure, and the list can go on and on. There is constant stress and worry about entering the professional field. If one gets a good score on their exam, that determines the path of their career. While in professional school, the worry of not being the smartest, being able to handle the stress, or burn out. Although the studies and information are stressful, and the process of becoming a doctor or lawyer does contain high stakes, there still needs to be a fixation on acknowledging mental health. Many students are extremely gifted but get slowed down and begin facing challenges due to mental health neglect.

Yahoo Images, Mental health; students and schools
Yahoo Images, Mental health; students and schools

Where to Go from Here

It is very important for every institution and university to have the proper mental health resources; it is just as important to make sure these resources are constantly being worked on and evolved over time. The stigma and thought that students must be overworked and can’t take breaks must be removed. Within higher studies, a work-life balance must be implemented to ensure every student is learning and working at their highest potential. Over time, there have been drastic improvements in mental health awareness worldwide, but that is just a starting point. Mental health resources and accessibility must be a requirement within all universities and institutions. Below are resources for students and professionals to maintain and implement positive mental health practices.

Yahoo Images, Mental Health
Yahoo Images, Mental Health

For students at UAB:

UAB has a Student Counseling Service that provides mental health services, prevention, and outreach. The services include counseling and emergency support. Resources can be found here.

Guide to mental health practices in graduate/professional schools: https://www.apadivisions.org/division-6/publications/newsletters/neuroscientist/2019/07/grad-school-healthy

Managing Mental Health: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01751-z

Books on mental health practices: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/mental-health-books