Injustice in the Justice System: Disability, Schools, and Incarceration

The image depicts rows of wooden benches in a well-lit classroom.
The image depicts a school classroom. The experience of individuals with disability in schools often contributes to their disproportionate incarceration. Source: Unsplash

Freddie Gray was killed as he was being transported in a police vehicle because the police did not take appropriate safety measures. Gray’s encounter with the police undoubtedly involved racial biases held by the officers due to their perceptions of African American men. However, another aspect of Gray’s identity, which lead to him being disproportionately impacted long before his encounter with the police, played a role in his untimely demise at the hands of an unfair system. Gray had a developmental disability as a result of growing up in a house with lead paint, which meant he was unable to understand multi-step instructions. This, however, was not identified early enough for Gray to receive accommodations in school. Due to this lack of support, Gray had a difficult time in school, ultimately leading to suspensions and dropping out of high school. Since then, Gray came in contact with the criminal justice system multiple times. Gray’s story displays the complex, intersectional impact of various factors that lead to an individual being disadvantaged by our society, including race, socio-economic status, and disability. Moreover, it displays how lack of appropriate identification and accommodation for students with disabilities increases their likelihood of entering the school-to-prison pipeline.

My previous post investigated accessibility of the criminal justice system to people with disabilities. This article will focus on the factors that lead to individuals with disabilities being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, with a special focus on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This disproportionately impacts children and individuals with developmental disabilities, both through the school-to-prison pipeline and through either exploiting or ignoring them in proceedings.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline for Individuals with Disabilities

It has been shown that dropping out of high school increases the likelihood of a child encountering the criminal justice system. This tendency is reflected in the prison and jail population as well. A paper by Respect Ability on disability and criminal justice reform reported that high school completion rates amongst incarcerated individuals is low – two-thirds of people in state prisons and seven out of ten people in jail have not completed high school. The literacy rates of incarcerated individuals also demonstrate the connection between education and incarceration. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy Survey, carried out by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, reported that prison inmates had lower literacy rates than their counterparts that have not been incarcerated. While disparities found in the survey have decreased since the 1990’s, there were significant differences in literacy.

This relation between educational attainment and incarceration means that people with disabilities, who have a lower high school graduation rate than their peers who are not disabled, are at disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. While 84.6% of individuals without disability graduate high school in 2019, only 67.1% of students with disabilities graduate high school. The cause of this may be three-fold. Individuals with disabilities are not always provided accommodations to allow them flourish in the classroom. While 1 in 5 children differ in their learning abilities, with conditions like dyslexia or ADHD, only 1 in 16 children have IEPs, which are plans to provide accommodations and supplemental instruction. They also do not always receive a diagnosis that allows them to get accommodations in classes. This disproportionately impacts girls with developmental disabilities. For example, autism spectrum disorder is less likely to be identified in women than in men due to lack of knowledge about differences in presentation in males and females. This issue intersects with race as well – individuals in minority communities may find it particularly difficult to get a diagnosis. Moreover, people with disability are twice as likely to receive an out of school suspension as people without disabilities, and students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school. Male African American and Latino students with disabilities have the highest suspension rates, once again showing how intersectionality leads to a more severe worsening of outcomes.

The image shows coiled, barbed wire on top of metal fences found in prisons. There is a partly cloudy sky in the background.
“Prison security system” by x1klima is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

People with Intellectual and Developmental Disorders

People with intellectual and developmental disorders (IDD) are further disadvantaged in the criminal justice system due to multiple reasons, often leading to the person with the disability being ignored or coerced in proceedings. One of the foundational issues is that people with intellectual and developmental disorders are not appropriately identified. The determination of whether an individual has an IDD varies by state, with a judge making the decision in some states and a jury in others. One commonality, however, is that the evaluators chosen to assess the status of developmental or intellectual disability are often not qualified to do so. They lack a nuanced understanding of the conditions they are to assess – for example, they are not aware that people with IDD sometimes deny their disability. In the Hall v. Florida case, the supreme court made the important ruling that individuals cannot be diagnosed solely based on the results of an IQ test, but more needs to be done to ensure IDD is accurately identified. False stereotypes about the abilities of individuals with disabilities systematized through unqualified evaluators often means people with disabilities do not receive the full protections offered to them by the law.

However, an accurate determination alone is insufficient to guarantee that the rights of people with IDD are upheld in the criminal justice system. During the judicial proceedings, individuals with IDD may be coerced or left out completely, both of which are problematic. Individuals with IDD may be forced or manipulated into making false admissions of guilt, at times due to their desire to please the questioner. Individuals with IDD may also waive their rights, such as when the Miranda warnings are read out by police officers, without fully understanding their privileges because the information was not presented in a comprehensible manner. The inappropriate assessment discussed in the previous paragraph also applies to deeming individuals with IDD competent to stand trial when they do not have an understanding of the proceedings. This offers further opportunities for individuals with IDD to be exploited. On the other hand, individuals with disabilities are left out of proceedings when they are capable of participating and when their testimonial is crucial. The silencing of competent individuals with disabilities is particularly detrimental when they are the victims of crime, who are seeking justice.

People with IDD are denied opportunities for redress due to stereotyped views of their disability, leading to higher likelihood of incarceration. They are also denied opportunities to correct the behaviors that lead to incarceration because they are not allowed alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation. Once incarcerated, individuals with IDD cannot make use of the same opportunities to reduce their sentencing, as the process for doing so is not communicated in an understandable way. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities advocates for the full participation of individuals with IDD in proceedings, as well as the provision of accommodations that allows them to do so. They also recommend that an advocate specialized in disability be present at all times, in addition to the person’s lawyer, to bring a better understanding of the condition to the proceedings and ensure that the rights of the individual with IDD are upheld.

Fortunately, advocates are working to secure the rights of people with disabilities and ensure fair treatment in the judicial system. The Alabama Disability Advocates Program is one of 57 federally mandates protection and advocacy (P&A) programs which provide legal services and representation for people with disabilities. However, systemic efforts need to be taken to correct currently existing, crucial shortcomings like inadequate methods of identifying disability in courtrooms and schools. Accurate identification of disability and provision of accommodations is crucial in a society where schools are not doing enough to set all students up for success and the criminal justice system does not enforce the protections that people with IDD are entitled to. As mentioned in my previous article on the criminal justice system, it is possible, and necessary, for all of us to create change in this space by contacting local legislators and making our priorities as constituents clear to those who represent us.

 

 

 

The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.

 

 

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

clipart of women of various backgrounds lifting a megaphone
Source: UN Women

Today, November 25th, marks the 22nd Annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women as declared by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1999; however, women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have honored the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women since 1981. The resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, marks the anniversary of the death of three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Minerva Mirabel, who were murdered on the island on November 25th, 1960, due to their involvement in a growing underground uprising against Dictator Trujillo’s dangerously misogynistic rule, according to this article from History. This day also represents the start of the 16 Days of Activism, where people are encouraged to fight against gender-based violence, concluding on December 10th, which is declared as International Human Rights Day. Activist organizations worldwide have utilized this period to shed a light on domestic affairs including sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse, and to draw attention to the dangers of human trafficking, all of which are issues that disproportionately affect women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals.  

Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Source: UN Women

One of the major examples of threatening violence towards women is domestic abuse, especially regarding violence in romantic partnerships. Domestic abuse includes sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexuality, or marital status. Fighting domestic abuse is especially prevalent in eliminating violence against women because unfortunately, eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault or rape knew their attacker, as was the case in my own story. For child victims and students on college campuses, the rate is even higher. Regarding the pandemic, the United Nations has recently stated that, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Referred to as the “Shadow Pandemic,” women and other marginalized groups have been especially susceptible to abuse and emotional neglect due to many countries’ lockdown and stay-at-home orders, in addition to people around the globe facing an increased level of financial hardships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Sex Trafficking and Outside Threats 

This increased level of vulnerability has also translated outside of the home, where women face dangers in varying capacities, including the prevalent threat of sex trafficking. Over 70% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls, and although there have been a growing number of legislative improvements as more countries criminalize trafficking, conviction rates for traffickers remain low. As Covid-19 news updates have held many people’s attention since the pandemic began, it is essential to remember the other human rights crises that have not paused or slowed down as law enforcement efforts had hoped. Outside threats of violence also disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women. Although many general sex trafficking statistics are difficult to find considering many cases go unreported, this article from Polaris did include numbers from specific jurisdictions stating that “In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.” Polaris went on to add, “Latinos are disproportionately represented among human trafficking victims and survivors in general, and labor trafficking survivors in particular.” 

Eliminating Violence Against Women 

STOP Victim Blaming
Source: UN Women

Women’s organizations around the world have come together in efforts to eliminate misogynistic acts of violence with advocacy that anyone can participate in, such as protesting for legal action to be taken and supporting the #MeToo social media movement, which began in 2006. The #MeToo movement encourages survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories in a safe environment of other survivors. The hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. 

Considering this, there are many ways to help support survivors, even during a pandemic. UN Women lays out ten important steps: 

    1. Listen to and believe survivors 
    2. Teach the next generation and learn from them
    3. Call for responses and services fit for purpose 
    4. Understand consent 
    5. Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help 
    6. Start a conversation 
    7. Stand against rape culture 
    8. Fund women’s organizations 
    9. Hold each other accountable
    10. Know the data and demand more of it

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, click here to speak with trained advocates worldwide. 

Injustice in the Justice System: Issues of Access for People with Disabilities

The image shows the sculpture of a women holding scales, which is supposed to represent justice. In the background are the pillars of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Lady Justice before the Supreme Court of the United States, symbolizing impartiality and fairness. “Lady Justice” by justindc is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As Brady Mistic got out of his car, he was immediately met with the blinding glare of  police lights. Being a person with deafness, Brady relied mostly on his sight to interact with the world around him, so the bright light was confusing to say the least. He moved towards the light to inquire about the disturbance. Within the next seven seconds, Brady would find himself shoved to ground and tased by the police as they barked commands that were completely inaccessible to him, even as he tried to communicate that he was deaf. Within seven seconds, Brady acquired three charges, including resisting arrest, and was sentenced to four months in prison. Within seven seconds, the police officers’ inability to identify the need for, and establish, alternate forms of communication lead to a physical altercation and incarceration. Although these charges were waived after almost two years, Brady’s story is indicative of a widespread, disproportionate impact of the justice system on people with disabilities.

In fact, while only 20% of Americans have disabilities, 32% of federal inmates and 40% of jail inmates report at least one disability. The difference in these numbers is no coincidence. In this and a subsequent article, we will see that people with disability are not only overrepresented in prison and jail systems, but also treated unfairly at every step in the process of incarceration and reintegration into society. This article connects Mistic’s inaccessible encounter with the police with a broader, systemic lack of accommodations in the criminal justice system; the second will focus on the school-to-prison pipeline for kids with disabilities and the experiences of people with intellectual and development disabilities.

Mistic and Accessibility in the Criminal Justice System

Mistic’s encounter with the police was not the only incident of law enforcement getting into a violent altercation due to their inability to communicate with a disabled individual. In 2017, Oklahoma City police fatally shot Magdiel Sanchez, an individual with deafness, after he failed to respond to verbal commands to drop the stick in his hand and get on the ground. He was later found to have not been involved in the hit-and-run case for which the police were called. Witnesses who were present at the time of the event were even yelling to the police officers, saying that Sanchez was deaf and could not understand their spoken words. The lack of appropriate communication and the haste in action which is evident in both of these cases points to an underlying deficit in police training. Despite the fact that individuals with any type of disability are legally entitled to receive the same access to legal enforcement services as people without disabilities, most of the training around disability and crisis intervention training programs are not mandatory and are focused on psychological disabilities. Law enforcement training is not comprehensive with regards to disability and fails to equip officers with the necessary skills to interact with people who have intellectual, developmental, or other types of disabilities, which can potentially lead to fatal consequences.

Sadly, the lack of access in Mistic’s interaction with the criminal justice system did not end at his encounter with the police. Mistic was denied an interpreter when interacting with his lawyer while in jail. Like other aspects of Mistic’s case, this too points to an institutionalized barrier that prevents people with disabilities from being treated justly. Inaccessibility in the court and prison system is rampant. This was evident in the case of Abreham Zemedagegehu, an Ethiopian man with deafness whose first language was Ethiopian Sign Language. He was not allowed an interpreter during his six weeks in jail, making it very difficult for him to hear announcements for meals, contact his friends and family, and receive medication for his back pain.

Through multiple lawsuits over the years, prisoners with deafness reported not being able to understand the prison-wide safety instructions, to take part in classes in prison, and to defend themselves in disciplinary proceedings because a sign language interpreter was not present. In 2010, a prison in Virginia became the first in the country to have a videophone after it settled a lawsuit by a group of deaf inmates. It is difficult to imagine that this basic mode of accessible communication for people with deafness was unavailable at one point in any prison in the US and is still not available in many prisons. The lack of accessible communication methods impacts the success of people with disability as they reintegrate into society as well. One individual with blindness had the opportunity to enroll in community college courses but did not receive appropriate accommodations during classes. Another individual with a disability sought to find out how to apply for social security benefits but was denied information by their counselor, who believed they should apply for a job instead.

The image shows a corridor lines on either side by prison cells. There are two levels of prison cells. The prison cells have metal bars from the floor to the ceiling, and also some metal bars running along the length of the cells. Some of the entrances to the cells are open. There are no people in the image. The image has a very grim and foreboding atmosphere.
Prison cells in Alcatraz, San Francisco. Source: Unsplash

Access to Health Services

Decreased access to medication and health services in prisons, as Zemedagegehu experienced, disproportionally impacts people with disabilities, risking the deterioration of health problems. When 91% of jailers report they have in their facilities individuals with serious psychological disabilities who are at risk of committing suicide, it becomes imperative – a matter of life or death – to ensure adequate health services are delivered in time. The status of accommodations is no better, as many prisons deemed essential accommodations (including wheelchair, prosthetics, exercise equipment, other assistive technology) as no longer “medically necessary” in order to cut costs. Health services are placed further out of the reach of inmates due to exorbitant co-pay rates, which can be as high as a month’s labor, and additional fees incurred by prosthetics and other accommodation.  The results of these factors is best portrayed in a Bureau of Justice System study which looked into health issues of prisoners and jail inmates. Only two-thirds of participants reported receiving necessary medical treatment, whereas 11% reported that their illness was not being treated because they were not being given medication. While the overrepresentation of people with disabilities in jails and prisons may largely be attributed to unjust treatment of people with disabilities, it is possible that the conditions within the jails and prisons, including the lack of access to health resources, are contributing to the development of disabilities in inmates.

Perhaps the most shocking experience of Zemedagegehu during his time in jail is that he was forced to receive an injection, which he later found out was a tuberculosis test, after refusing to sign a medical consent form because it was not presented in a way that he could comprehend. This blatant human rights violation, of forced medical procedures and ignorance of patient autonomy, underscores the necessity of sweeping changes in the jail and prison system’s treatment of individuals with disabilities.

Inaccessibility in the justice system, however, is an issue not only for arrested and incarcerated individuals with disabilities, but also to citizens seeking justice. According to a Bureau of Justice study, people with disabilities are victims of violence at twice the rate as people without disabilities. Clearly, individuals with disabilities stand to benefit from the services offered by the court system, services which they are entitled to but cannot always access due to the failure of the criminal justice system in being inclusive to all members of the community.

The issues of inaccessibility discussed in this article violate the rights afforded to all individuals, including article seven of the Human Rights Declaration which promises that everyone is “entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”. Reforms to the criminal justice system need to take into account the needs of people with disabilities at every level, from law enforcement to court systems to jails and prisons. Individual citizens can contribute to pushing for such reforms as well. Find your local legislators and advocate for issues of access in the criminal justice system by writing to or phoning their office. Recent prison reforms in Alabama, including a bill allocating approximately $800 billion to the construction of two new facilities that will reduce overcrowding in prisons, offer hope for progress. Whether or not accessibility becomes a priority in the future depends on you and I to organize, stand as allies, and demand change.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Getting your IDs

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

Transportation

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

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

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

The Bail System

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

Legal Responsibilities

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Responsibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

The Missing Case of Gabby Petito and the Cases of Missing Indigenous Women

Missing flyer of Gabby Petito depicting a picture of Gabby with the hashtag of America's daughter
Yahoo Images

On September 11, Gabby Petito, a young white woman who was travelling in a van and recording videos about her life with her boyfriend, was reported missing by her family. Petito’s popularity on YouTube and Tik Tok helped the story circulate like wildfire with true crime podcasts , national news channels , and intense investigation from officials and the general public. The fervent public engagement and dedication of investigative officials lead to Petito’s remains being discovered in less than a month in Wyoming. Within the last nine years 710 indigenous people, mainly women, have disappeared in the same area where Petito was found, and most cases have remained unresolved. Where was their national media coverage? Currently, 64,000 Black women are declared missing within America, but where is their media attention and public outcry? The case of Gabby Petito is an unfortunate situation and deserves to have the proper investigative force behind it. However, we must ask ourselves why cases like Petito’s, usually young white women gain the most awareness, while women of color, like indigenous women are often ignored on a local and national level. The power of the media and public opinion is significant. The interest of the public has been able to reopen cases and even apprehend criminals. Public outcry has secured justice for victims and their families,  which is recognition and treatment that indigenous women often lack.

Indigenous women with red hand painted over the mouth, presenting the voiceless and missing indigenous women
Yahoo images

The Mary Johnson Case 

On November 25, 2020 Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman of the Tulalip Tribe, went missing while walking to a friend’s house in Washington state. Over the span of 10 months, the search for Johnson involved a billboard on the interstate and local media coverage, which resulted in little development towards finding or arresting the perpetrator behind her disappearance. Local tribal police efforts have not recovered Mary Johnson’s body and have not made any arrests, despite having identified multiple people of interest.  

Why has such little investigative action occurred over such a long period of time? Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, states that investigation by law enforcement is often delayed due to the “maze of jurisdiction” in the local county. The boundaries among the authorities overseeing the case must be distinguished between the federal government, state government, and the tribal police, this process is often complicated by the complex procedures of bureaucracy. Additionally, tribal authorities often lack jurisdiction or are limited in their ability to prosecute non-Native people for crimes committed on tribal land. The federal government, which carries the authority of persecution, often does not offer its services. The competence and empathy that Mary Johnson and her family deserve was undercut by governmental and legislative administrations who focused on avoiding responsibility rather than seeking justice, for Mary Johnson. Cases such as Mary Johnson continue to emulate the numerous, and neglected cases of missing indigenous women.  

Banner with the words "No more Stolen Sisters" at a protest for missing indigenous women
Yahoo Images

The Disparities in Media Attention and Investigation 

The discrepancy in the media treatment and public awareness of missing white women compared to missing women of color, including indigenous women, is referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.” The Lucchesi Sovereign Bodies Institute reports that from 2000 to 2009 local and state media covered 18% of homicide cases related to indigenous women and 50% of homicide cases related to white victims. The reporting of cases between white and indigenous victims is even dependent on the status of the victim, whether they are dead or alive. The Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center reports that white people are more likely to have an article written about them while they are still alive. Approximately 76% of articles written about white victims are published while the victim is still alive, but 42% of articles written about indigenous victims are written after the indigenous victim is found dead. Indigenous people are more likely to have an article written on them if they were found dead with 57% of articles being on indigenous missing people, but no articles about white missing persons which displays that white missing persons receive media recognition in a timely manner, before the victim has been found dead. The underrepresentation of indigenous women within media is alarming considering how there have been 5,712 missing cases since 2016, .  

The lack of awareness and ignorance surrounding the numerous cases of missing  indigenous women is ironic considering how indigenous women are at higher risk for acts of violence and should receive more awareness and protections. In fact, American Indian and Alaskan Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Publicity around these cases is crucial because these cases are not simply cases of missing people, but also cases of domestic violence, homicide, sexual assault, and sex trafficking which are rampant issues within indigenous communities. Compared to their white counterparts, indigenous women are 1.7 times more likely to experience violence, and 2 times more likely to be raped. More than half of indigenous women have experienced sexual violence (56.1%) and have been physically abused by their partners (55.5%). These acts of violence intrinsically violate and disregard the human right for indigenous women to exist in peace and security. Systematically, the safety and protection of indigenous women is neglected and allowed to continuously occur without intervention from the United States government.  

Why is there a Gap?  

Indigenous women’s rights advocates argue that indigenous women are often blamed for their own disappearances, thus resulting in a lack of empathy and effort from officials, media, and the public. 

Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board chief research officer states that, “They’re [indigenous women] assumed to have run away, have substance abuse issues, or done something that justified them going missing or being murdered.”

Due to such prejudice and bias from authorities, the crucial initial period of search for a missing person is often lost because of the dismissal of families’ concern and refusal of investigative officers to report an indigenous woman is missing. Echo-Hawks details the common scenario as victim blaming where authorities ask questions like, “Did she run away? Was she out drinking?” and then dismiss family member concerns by saying their loved one will likely just come home in a couple of days. 

Beyond the biases of local authorities, such victim blaming can manifest into negative character framing within media coverage further leading to poor incentive for authorities and the public to display concern and initiative in resolving cases and serving justice for missing indigenous women. The Governor’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons reports that 16% of articles about indigenous people involves negative character framing, emphasizing negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself.   

founders and members of the Na’ah Illahee fund
Yahoo Images
How can you help? 

The negligence of authorities and lack of media attention isolates Indigenous families in their search for their missing family member. 

A Seattle Native-led nonprofit Na’ah Illahee (NIF) launched the “Red Blanket Fund,” to provide support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. You can donate to Na’ah Illahee and other organizations like it. Additional organizations include, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA and  National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 

Farm to Table: The World’s Largest Protest in India

Farmers Protests

In November 2020, India saw the largest protest in world history with tens of thousands of farmers and more than 250 million people standing in solidarity. For the past six months, India’s farmers have been protesting and striking against three agricultural bills that were passed last September. Until recently, the government has refused to listen to the demands of farmers and agricultural unions, and instead met them with force and police brutality. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, tensions between the government and the protestors heightened. This led to peaceful protests turning violent when the farmers that were hosting a rally in India’s capital, Delhi, stormed the city’s Red Fort. Here they were met with police that were armed with tear gas, batons, and assault rifles; as a result of this violence approximately 300 police officers were injured, one protestor died, more than 200 protestors and eight journalists were detained. Violence on this day, subsequent suppression of the press by the government, and internet cuts and shutdowns in areas surrounding protests led to activists like Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris using their platforms to call global attention and aid to the situation.

Source: Rihanna (Twitter)

What led us here?

In September, India’s Parliament passed three agricultural bills that loosened the rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce with the support of Prime Minister Modi. Modi and the government claim that these pieces of legislation will benefit the farmers as they will have more control and freedom of trade over their produce; these laws allow online and interstate trading, enable farmers and buyers to enter exclusive contracts, and finally limit the government’s ability to regulate these products. The farmers, however, disagree. They argue that this deregulation will allow corporate buyers and private companies to drive down the prices and exploit the sellers due to increased competition in supply. This, compounded with the bill that involves the removal of government imposed minimum prices, is detrimental to the health and livelihood of the farmers and their families. India already suffers from record numbers of farmers suicides, and there is increased fear that these new bills further drive this suicide epidemic. The number of these deaths are thought to increase even more after these bills are passes and reach an all-time high.

Indian farmers protest in December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What do the farmers want?

The farmers are demanding a complete repeal of the three bills that were passed in fear of corporate exploitation. They say they were already struggling to make ends meets under the protection of the government, but now with an open market with minimal regulatory support, the farmers are afraid that they won’t be able to survive and will be in poverty (if they weren’t already). In turn, the government has failed to address these demands until recently, but now allude to possible compromises, albeit unsatisfactory attempts in the eyes of the farmers.

More recently, however, India’s Supreme Court has suspended these bills in early January, and has ordered a committee to look into the grievances of the farmers and the lack of negotiations on behalf of both the protestors and the government. Chief Justice Bobde released a statement saying, “These are matters of life and death. We are concerned with laws. We are concerned with lives and property of people affected by the agitation. We are trying to solve the problem in the best way. One of the powers we have is to suspend the legislation.”

Farmer unions addressed that they would not participate in any committee processes, as the committee members have previously shown bias to how the agricultural bills were pro-farmer (when they were not). The farmers said they continue with their protests and planned to hold a rally in Delhi on India’s Republic Day on January 26 unless the laws were repealed in the meantime. The Supreme Court’s decision is both a gift and a curse. One on hand, the Court has been widely favorable to Modi’s agenda and policies in the past so this decision is a setback to the Prime Minister, but on the other hand, this decision to suspend the law allows the government to wrestle its way out of negotiations with the farmers without appearing to do so.

Farmers joined in sit-in protests near the capital. 5 December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke. CC0 Public Domain.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What’s going on now

As of January 20, the government has said that they are willing to suspend the new legislation for up to 18 months to two years, but the farmers have rejected this as it does not meet their demands. The government requested the protesting farmers design a proposal regarding their objections and suggestions to the laws to bring to their next table of negotiations. What’s interesting is that the supporters of the agri-legislations claim that the farmers do not understand the laws which the farmers refute and claim that these laws do not support their labor suggesting the real issue is “over the rights and treatment of agricultural workers.”

Following the violence and brutality on Republic Day, internet shutdowns and cuts by the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as suppression of the press, individuals and protestors as they clash with the police has been rampant in areas surrounding Delhi. These blackouts should’ve been lifted by now, but protest organizers have said that in some areas the internet was still not working leading to concerns over democracy. While the Indian government argues that this shutdown is necessary to “for public safety” and to curb “the spread of misinformation,” people’s right to expression and communication is being actively and purposefully hindered. As a human rights crisis, the economy suffers, the press struggles to get the news out, children are not receiving the best resources at education their schools have to offer, and those who need emergency services are not getting it or the aid is greatly delayed.

India is the world’s most populous democracy, but it is also a world leader in internet shutdowns. This is not the first time this has happened. The Indian government imposed a blackout in Indian controlled Kashmir after the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019 as well as another shutdown in areas of New Delhi after protests regarding a controversial and discriminatory citizenship law against Muslims. As the world’s most populous democracy, it’s incredibly concerning to see the suppression of press freedom under the guise of public safety. With no further days set to talk about negotiations in light of recent events, there seems to be no end in sight for these protests. As the new farming season begins in March, farmers may choose to hold on to their demands as a show of strength and unity instead of going back home, and it might be the final domino needed to trigger systemic change in agricultural labor.

How can you help?     

  • Donate to Khalsa Aid and Sahaita.org
  • Until recently, media in the U.S. has been quiet regarding the protests. Educate and share information about the largest protest we’ve seen, as well as on agri-workers rights and treatment.

Poland’s Rise in Populism

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) became the majority in the Polish Parliament alongside the presidency for the first time since 2007. The Law and Justice Party is a right-winged populist party that has faced ongoing controversy and scandals since its formation in 2001. The Law and Justice Party began as a center-right party with an emphasis on Christianity.  The party began forming coalitions with far-right parties in 2007, which positioned its ideology closer towards nationalism and populism. During the last few years support dwindled for the PiS; however, their messages calling for family unity and Christian values have appealed to deeply religious sectors of the country. A country that is trending towards nationalism and populism risks violating the rights of those that the nation deems as “other”. By establishing a national identity, particularly around religion, they are also establishing those that do not belong to the national identity. This carries the risk of isolating and ostracizing individuals.

Protestors march for LGBTQ rights in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

The Polish identity is tied very closely to Catholic beliefs and practices. Around 87% of Polish people  identify as Roman Catholic. In Poland Catholic values are taught in public schools, over ⅓ of Polish citizens attend church regularly, and the Polish government has an intense working relationship with the Catholic Church. Public ceremonies are often held with the blessings of priests, and church officials often act as a lobby group having access to large amounts of public funding. Priests in the countryside of Poland often campaign for members of the more conservative party who support legislation that aligns with the ideals of the Catholic Church. This close relationship is criticized because of the archaic and often divisive legislation that the Church tends to support. The Catholic Church’s alignment with the government will inevitably ostracize those who are not Catholic as well as those who live their life in a way that the Catholic Church condemns. The issue is at a governmental level, this allows for discriminatory policy to be passed.

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

The support of the Catholic Church was paramount in the Law and Justice Party candidate winning the 2020 Presidential election. President Duda, the PiS candidate, narrowly won re-election after a very divisive campaign against the progressive Mayor of Warsaw.  President Duda exploited negative rhetoric citing LGBT ideology as being more destructive than Communism. Poland’s history of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation accompanied with this rhetoric led to the success of President Duda in the 2020 Presidential election. PiS members and Catholic Clergymen asserted LGBT values as being in opposition to family values and sought to associate the LGBT community with pedophilia. President Duda’s narrow win ignited mass unrest spreading throughout Polish cities as progressives viewed his win as a step back for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.

President Duda of Poland meets with President Trump of the United States (Source: Creative Commons)

LGBTQ Free Zones

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric did not begin in the 2020 Polish elections. Over 100 towns and regions around Poland have declared themselves LGBTQ Free Zones since 2018. These declarations are largely symbolic; however, they have further divided the country and suppressed the LGBT community. LGBTQ free resolutions have been pushed by the Catholic Church and politicians across Poland. Protests against these zones have resulted in mass countermarches of right-wing Poles that have ended in violence. The LGBTQ community has continued to face oppression from their government and these zones just serve as a way to further disenfranchise them.

“Stop Financing LGBT+” Sign hanging outside a building in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

Access to Abortion

Along with the anti-LGBT legislation, Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of strict regulation of abortion. Poland previously had regulations only allowing abortion access to victims of rape, incest, preservation of the mother’s life, and if the baby has fetal defects. Legal battles erupted in 2019 by the Law and Justice Party to ban abortions in the event of fetal defect. Judges nominated by PiS members ruled in favor of a ban of all abortions due to fetal defects, which account for approximately 98% of all Polish abortions. The decision led to outcry across Poland inspiring protests in almost every major city.

 What is the future of Poland?

The future of Poland is unknown, and it is clear the Polish government has become increasingly populist and nationalistic. Public figures are using rhetoric that divides the general population from “western elites” and activists within their country that seek to strive towards more encompassing human rights. Polish activists are fearful of future legislation that will further violate human rights. International human rights activists, the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have all attempted to pressure Parliament to pass legislation showing outward support of the LGBTQ community. Polish officials responded claiming LGBTQ people have equal rights in the country and organizations should instead focus energy on Christian discrimination taking place internationally. As part of the international community, we can demonstrate our support for the people of Poland by staying up to date on what is happening there. It is also important to create dialogue around the issues in Poland which can include everything from social media posts to organizing events that bring awareness to the situation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Introduction

My sister is in middle school.

She is in VIRTUAL middle school, spending almost all her time in her room physically and mentally connected to her computer for more than five hours a day, Monday to Friday.

Two weeks ago, our family received a voucher in the mail giving us the chance to receive internet service for free until December 30th, 2020. The vouchers come from a program known as the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students. The goal for this program is to provide “Broadband for Every K-12 Student.” ABC uses money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act directed to Alabama ($100 million) in order to cover the costs of “installation, equipment, and monthly service” to all students “who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.” Families who earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level ($48,470) are those considered eligible for the vouchers, including 450,000 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog post: Internet Access, and why it is so important given this day and age.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “Yes, the coronavirus is still a major issue among governments today, and since people cannot really gather outside in large groups, the internet is the next best option. That’s why it is so important to have access to it.” Great, at least you understood that part, but what if I told you that there are governments around the world shutting down the internet, from India to Russia and even countries like Indonesia, in the attempt to resolve their problems?

Shocking right? I would personally think so.

But before we talk about Internet Access as a potential human right, let us talk about some of the things that we take for granted when we have internet access.

An image of a world map in blue showing lines representing connectivity across countries.
2015 Global Connectivity Index. Source: geobrava.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

How do we benefit from being online?

Instant Communication

    • We often tend to talk to others by text, rather than face-to-face. Texting allows people to communicate in speeds never thought possible in the past, which leads to an eventual disconnect in establishing a fully personal connection that people would have if they interacted in person.

Homework

    • Especially during these times, we need the internet in order to complete our homework, and not having that access most definitely leads to an inability to do work as efficiently as if we had access to the World Wide Web.

Yes, even the Weather

    • How many people check the weather before leaving their homes? Checking the weather resides among the most popular search terms, which makes sense, as people need it to avoid downpours and be prepared to any eventual changes in plans.

Opinions against Internet Access being a Human Rights

Reflecting on the above benefits really does help broaden one’s vision in understanding how connecting to google.com or other web sites is essential to the daily happenings of our lives. It makes sense to simply call access to the internet a human right because of the way most of us use the internet to live our lives more efficiently.

Well, before we explore the arguments why Internet Access should be a human right, let us look at two perspectives to the contrary, an NYT op-ed by Vinton Cerf, an “Internet pioneer and [who] is recognized as one of ‘the fathers of the Internet,'” and a statement by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Cerf, for something to be considered a human right, it “must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives,” In that end, he argues that access to the Internet should be an enabler of rights, but not a right itself.

“It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category (of human rights), since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.” — Vinton Cerf

He then attempts to clarify the lines at which human rights and civil rights should be drawn, concluding his op-ed with an understanding that access is simply a means “to improve the human condition.” Granting and ensuring human rights should utilize the internet, not make access the human right itself.

While Cerf seems to believe that the internet is a necessity for people but not a human right, O’Rielly believes otherwise, making it neither a necessity nor a human right.

In a speech before the Internet Innovation Alliance in 2015, Michael O’Rielly introduces his guiding principles with a personal anecdote about his life, emphasizing the impact that technology has given him, even going so far as to claim it as “one of the greatest loves of [his] life, besides [his] wife.” Despite this personal love for technology, one of his governing principles is to clarify what he believes the term ‘necessity’ truly means. He claims that it is unreasonable to even consider access to the internet as a human right or a necessity, as people can live and function without the presence of technology.

“Instead, the term ‘necessity’ should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water.” — Michael O’Rielly

O’Rielly attempts to make the distinction between the true sense of the word ‘necessity’ and ‘human rights,’ trying to defend against “rhetorical traps” created by movements towards making Internet Access a human right. These definitions are the basis of his governing principles and how he attempts to create Internet policies with the government and ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Opinions for Internet Access being a Human Right

One of the interesting things to note above is the distinction made between one’s need for Internet Access and its categorization into a human right. Today, many if not all businesses require the usage of the Internet, going so far as to purely rely on its presence for regular business transactions and practices to occur. This understanding of the importance of the internet is prevalent now more than ever. The onset of COVID-19 has forced businesses to shut their physical door, allowed for increased traffic of online e-commerce sites like Amazon, and pushed kids towards utilizing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet as substitutes for attending school. As such, these next few paragraphs will discuss why Internet Access is, in fact, a human right.

Violations to internet access are prevalent around the world, ranging from countries like India and Sri Lanka to others like Iran and Russia, aiming to either curb resistance or reduce potential sparks of violence. In India, for example, the government had shut down access to the Internet for Indian-administered Kashmir, an action that brought the condemnation of UN special rapporteurs, where the regions of Jammu and Kashmir experienced a “near total communications blackout, with internet access, mobile phone networks, and cable cut off.” In Sri Lanka, only specific applications are blocked by the authorities, while Iran works to slow “internet speeds to a crawl.” The internet system in Russia allows for it to seem like it functions while no data is sent to servers. These systems aim to restrict journalists from spreading news about violations of human rights while also limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves.

The Wi-Fi symbol, with a cross through it.
Offline Logo. Source: Wikmedia Commons. Creative Commons.

This attempt to curb the spread of information also violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which India and Iran voted in favor, the Soviet Union abstained, and Sri Lanka was nonexistent during its passage (accepted by the General Assembly in 1948).

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Conclusion

There seems to be a fundamental agreement from many experts ranging from the United Nations to organizations like Internet.org that aim to connect people with others around the world, that Internet Access should become, or already is, a basic human right. Although arguments are made that the internet allows for freedom of speech and enable other rights to exist, accessibility to that medium of communication and connection should be guaranteed as food or water. Although the internet is not needed for physical survival, the internet is a requirement for advancement and productivity in life.

Which brings me back to the first point made. I am thankful to have a family and live in a home where I can access information and write blog posts about human rights all around the world. What about those living within my city, my state, the United States, or even Planet Earth who do not have that access to the Internet? What about people that cannot connect with people miles away from them, or people who cannot receive an education due to the environmental factors that affect us now.

Access to the internet is a critically important task that governments, local, state, and federal, all need to act upon in order for a successful and growing economy, not just for current businesses and enterprises, but for the future leaders of our country. It is during these trying times that disparities and inequities are revealed, and those in power must be held accountable for a connected and thriving population to exist.

An image of a man in a blue suit holding a tablet with a hologram of the world map shining above.
Source: PickPik. Creative Commons.

If you would like to learn more about Internet Equality and the case for Net Neutrality, I encourage you to read my previous blog post “Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?”

The Right to Mental Health and the Importance of Self-Care

An image of a brain embroidered on a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop.
Brain Anatomy Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered in Pink and Blue. Source: Hey Paul Studios, Creative Commons

While it seems that most people today would agree that taking care of one’s mental health is important, it may come as a surprise that mental health is actually a human right.  According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family…”  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that “that the right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and or our understanding of a life in dignity.”  

Mental Health as a Human Right 

The United Nations Human Rights Council recognizes three principles regarding the right to health: 

The first is that it is an inclusive right.  This means that it extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health.”  This includes things like access to clean water, safe working conditions, and important information about health.  These factors, while clearly relevant to physical health, are also important in maintaining one’s mental health. 

The second principle is that the right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements.  Freedoms would include things like “the right to control one’s health,” while entitlements would include things like “the right to a system of health protection that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.”  This is significant because one needs to be able to access important information and resources related to mental health in order to have meaningful support for their mental health.   

The third principle is that the right to health is a broad concept that can be divided up into more specific rights.  For example, there are some aspects of health that are specific to people who are assigned female at birth, and those aspects are associated with specific rights.  The right to mental health (and the rights associated with it) is one of the many rights that make of the right to health.   

Mental Health Impacts Your Overall Future Health 

According to the World Health Organization’s Constitution, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Based on this, taking care of your mental health is not simply making sure that you are not actively going through a crisis.  Being healthy is more than just surviving.  Taking care of your mental health involves taking daily steps to care for yourself that not only improve your health in the present, but also protect your health in the future. 

Having poor mental health puts you at a greater risk for physical health problems.  According to the American Psychological Association, having a mental health condition reduces men’s life expectancy by an estimated 20 years and reduces women’s life expectancy by about 15 years.  This is in part due to the fact that nearly two-thirds of people with mental health conditions do not seek any form of treatment. 

Mental Health is a Key Part of Accessing Many Other Rights 

In addition to being a right on its own, maintaining good mental health is also a key part of being able to meaningfully access many other human rights.  For example, even when given all the necessary tools that are directly related to education, struggling with mental health issues can impede a person’s ability to receive a truly meaningful education.  This is reflected by the long-term effects of depression.  In one study, scientists found that individuals who faced depression during mid-adolescence and continue to deal with it as young adults are at an increased risk of educational underachievement and unemployment.  One’s mental health can also impact their access to other rights such as the right to participate in the cultural life of their community, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to work. 

Scrabble pieces spell out the words "mental health."
Mental Health. Source: Kevin Simmons, Creative Commons

You Have to Help Yourself Before You Can Help Others  

You’re probably familiar with the concept of putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others on a plane.  If you are struggling to breathe yourself, not only is your ability to help others inhibited, but you’re putting your own health and well-being at risk of harm.  This can be applied to mental health as well.  If you are facing serious struggles with your own mental health, it is important to focus on helping and support yourself before taking on responsibilities related to other people’s mental health. 

For this reason, the maintenance of good mental health is especially important for people who work in fields such as human rights advocacy.  The world of human rights is full of issues and topics that can be emotionally draining, so one can easily become overwhelmed by it all.  It is vital that advocates make their mental (and physical) health a priority, even if their main concern is helping others.  Self-care needs to be a part of any human rights advocate’s tool kit. 

The Basics of Self-Care 

Self-care can be defined as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”  

Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist, suggests that there are three golden rules to starting self-care: 

  1. “Stick to the basics.”  This makes it easier to include self-care into your schedule, make it a part of your regular routine, and figure out what works best for you.
  2. “Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens.”
  3. “Keeping a conscious mind is what counts…if you don’t see something as self-care or don’t do something in order to take care of yourself, it won’t work as such.”  

Michael also gives a basic checklist of self-care tasks that can apply to pretty much anyone.  This list includes things such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, following up with medical care, and looking for opportunities to laugh every day. 

It is so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to take care of oneself.  We all do it sometimes.  It is important that we set aside time to properly take care of ourselves and pay attention to our own needs.  Mental health matters just as much as everything else that is going on, and that’s something we need to remember.