When The Advocates for Human Rights asked whether we wanted to join them at the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s 60 session (CSW), we jumped at the opportunity. There, we spent three days of the two-week conference participating in seminars and listening to politicians and experts speak on topics relating to The Advocates’ work to eliminate exploitation, violence, and abuse of women and children.
At CSW, activists, politicians, academics, and representatives of NGOs from nearly 200 countries came together. They came to learn best practices, create partnerships with organizations such as The Advocates, and develop methodologies of government action and accountability to eliminate violence against women.
At two filled-to-capacity presentations, The Advocates’ experts detailed the partnerships they have in Moldova and Bulgaria, countries in which The Advocates uses laws, policies, and trainings to tackle domestic violence. “There is no need to recreate the wheel because much of the legislative work, social policy, training, and—most importantly—best practices have been researched, tested, and proven,” Rosalyn Park, director of The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program. “Our partnerships allow us to share best practices, tools, and experiences to advocate for safety and rights of women.”
Discussion topics were often distressing, covering topics such as sex and labor trafficking, prostitution, child pornography, physical violence against women and children, inequality in the workforce, and the need for more women in politics. Nonetheless, forum participants were energized.
We also made discoveries at CSW—much is being done, from African countries, to Canadian provinces, to Eastern European countries to improve the lives with government working in conjunction with NGOs and other nonprofits. We left the conference weary, but optimistic. We are assured that given time, women’s status in the world will improve. It was a time neither of us will ever forget.
By Cheryl Olseth (pictured left) and Rachel Hamlin (pictured right), volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights.
They are not building these prisons to stay empty,” Reverend Ovester Armstrong, Jr. told protesters at the Minnesota State Office Building on March 22. “They are building these prisons to fill them up.” Inside, the House Public Safety Committee held hearings on re-opening a private prison in Appleton. The private prison is owned by the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), the largest prison company in the United States.
“We should help people, not make money off of them,” said Reverend Armstrong. “We should not let someone’s life be held hostage to a dollar bill.”
Bad for prisoners, bad for the rest of us
Private prisons are for-profit operations. They make money by minimizing services.
Joe Broge, a correctional officer at Stillwater, said at the protest rally that he worked at Stillwater when the CCA prison in Appleton was open before, and heard stories from the inmates who were placed there. “There are reasons why per diem in private prisons is lower,” he said, “and none of those reasons are good ones.”
In the hearing, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, testified that “Who we do business with is just as important as the business we do. Doing business with the CCA is like doing business with the devil, because their practices are diabolical.”
Big bucks in for-profit prisons
The private prison industry is huge. CCA is the biggest player, with $1.7 billion in income in 2011. Its CEO was paid $3.7 million in 2011. CCA spent $17.4 million on lobbying from 2003-2012 and $1.9 million in political contributions.
Race is in the equation
Across the country, the justice system disproportionately imprisons black men. BJS reports, “In 2014, 6% of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison, compared to 2% of Hispanic and 1% of white males in the same age group.”
Protesters called prisons “a new wave of slavery.” They pointed to the need for more social programs rather than more prisons. Minnesota’s racial disparities in housing, income, health and education extend to the state’s prison system:
“Black people make up less than 6 percent of Minnesota’s population, according to 2013 census estimates, but made up 35 percent of the prison population as of January 2015.
“Native Americans comprise about 1 percent of Minnesotans, but accounted for about 10 percent of the state’s prisoners.
“White people make up the vast majority of the state population — 86 percent — but only 53 percent of the inmate population.”
” Over the past 25 years, the state’s incarceration rate has soared by 150 percent, and Minnesota’s prisons are bloated beyond capacity and burdened by runaway costs. The majority of that growth can be attributed to harsher penalties and other changes to the state’s criminal code passed by state lawmakers.”
Much of that increase comes from war-on-drugs legislation which greatly increased the penalties for drug offenses. As a result, reports the Star Tribune, “From 1998 to 2005, the state’s drug-crime inmate population more than tripled from 700 to nearly 2,200.”
In its 2014 annual report, CCA warned stockholders that “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”
Do private prisons save money?
Profit drives private prisons. The original rationalization for the government to contract with them was saving money. That hasn’t worked out so well.
“There is no universally accepted method when comparing private and state-run prison costs. However, the most recent Corrections Department study that attempts to compare prison types on a level playing field concluded that per inmate costs were cheaper in state-run prisons than in private prisons.”
According to a study from the University of Wisconsin, “inmates in private prisons are likely to serve as many as two to three more months behind bars than those assigned to public prisons and are equally likely to commit more crimes after release, despite industry claims to lower recidivism rates.” Keeping people in prison longer, the study notes, means more income for the for-profit prisons.
While the House Public Safety Committee voted 10-7 along party lines to approve the prison proposal, the proposal is not likely to go anywhere this session. (Sally Jo Sorenson has been reporting extensively on the story at Bluestem Prairie. Subscribe to her blog for continuing updates.)
Though the Republican committee vote sent the bill to the Ways and Means committee, the DFL-majority Senate is unlikely to consider the measure. Governor Mark Dayton has already rejected reopening the Appleton prison. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has proposed reducing sentences for many drug offenders rather than opening new prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy testified that expanding prisons is not on the DOC agenda.
Even if this private prison proposal does not move forward, other creeping prison privatization continues in areas from medical care to phone service to in-prison employment and post-prison release services. But that’s a matter for another day.
By: Guest blogger Mary Turck, a freelance writer and editor who teaches writing and journalism at Metropolitan State University and Macalester College.
She is also the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, a recovering attorney, and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues. Her career in journalism began when she was in high school, writing a weekly column for the Litchfield Independent Review. The column began with a multi-part investigative journalism series on the county school system, which she still considers among her best work.
John Barham wears no shoes in his office; he practices law in his socks. On a recent Wednesday evening, his socks were dark gray wool, soft-looking. Beneath his desk one foot occasionally rubbed the other, two cats playing. He said the areas of law he specializes in — criminal defense and immigration — are designed, it sometimes seems, to be especially confusing and pernicious, instruments that disempower as much as they protect. “It’s more like magic than anything else,” he said. “There’s all these tricks you need to know.” And so, as best he can, and often for no money, Barham helps protect his clients from (misapplications of) the law. When he is not working as an attorney he is volunteering as an attorney — for the Black Lives Matter movement, for The Advocates for Human Rights.
This week, in his volunteer work with The Advocates, Barham won asylum for a 13-year-old who fled to the U.S. alone to escape violence in Central America. And on Friday he and his punk band, Murrieta, will take part in a benefit he organized; proceeds will go to The Advocates’ Refuge and Immigrant Program.
Barham is in his late 30s, bald, bespectacled, friendly, and, at least at the end of the day, a touch tired. He speaks quickly and with the trace of a southern accent (politics becomes pawlitics.) The clutter of his office, at the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue, is a homey clutter. The law in this office is not so intimidating as in other law offices, not quite so infallible-seeming, not quite so buttoned-up. It follows that there are no buttons on Barham’s shirt. In addition to his socks, he does his lawyering in a T-shirt. It is red and bears the Sriracha hot sauce logo — a rooster — and covers his belly, just.
‘A music of resistance’
And then, in the evenings, when he is performing with Murrieta, Barham wears no shirt at all. Videos on YouTube show him plodding on stages in dark rooms, bare-chested, a microphone in hand. The music is guitar-heavy, drum-heavy, and loud — but it is also inviting. The music is loud because, in part, the music is a cry, a cri de coeur — it is political. Punk, says Barham, “is a music of resistance, a subversive music, analogous to hip-hop … the scene does well where there are lots of immigrants. It tends to flourish in places where immigrants are dealing with abuse or hostility. … Even just in the punk scene here [in Minneapolis] there are a lot of Latino immigrants, as well as immigrants from other parts of the world. And to a large extent that’s who we’re playing for.”
His involvement in the punk scene stems, Barham says, from the same roots that led him to practice socially productive law; in some respects when he is practicing law he is practicing punk, and vice versa; when playing punk, he is performing social outreach. (The group takes its name from Joaquin Murrieta, a sort of Latino-American Robin Hood, who during the gold rush looted rich and unscrupulous prospectors and then distributed the purloined funds among the poor.)
Barham grew up in South Carolina in the late ‘70s. Half his family was Vietnamese. This entailed violence. “Racism as an issue was very clear to me before I was in kindergarten,” he says. “My childhood was fist-fighting most of my neighborhood over them wanting to kill my cousins and brothers and sisters because of where they were from. That remained a troubling thing for really the rest of my life.” After graduating from college he spent more than a decade living in South America. In Argentina he spent two years as a social worker for a human rights group, providing aid to children who lived in train stations. In Chile, in addition to working as an English teacher and translator, he and his crew provided de-facto security to the country’s gay rights movement.
While in South America, he met the woman who would become his wife (and, later, his ex-wife). She had a son, and they decided to raise him in the States. Barham enrolled in law school in eastern Tennessee. “Law school was the worst part of my life, by far,” he says. “The racism and xenophobia faced by my ex-wife and son there were just tremendous. And it was the first environment I’d been in where greed was explicitly OK. We left the first day we could, and drove right here.”
Minnesota: a kind of oasis
Minnesota, he says, “and the Twin Cities in particular, is kind of an oasis in the United States in terms of tolerance and acceptance and diversity.” He notes the imperfections — “I feel like every time I pick up the newspaper or see the news there’s something new about a Somalian person being insulted or injured,” he said; he began volunteering for Black Lives Matter after several of their supporters were shot. But he maintains that, in his experience, it ranks among the most inclusive of American cities that he has lived in.
On Friday (Jan. 29) at The Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis, Murrieta will play a concert to raise funds for those in need of legal representation but who cannot afford it; proceeds from the show, which Barham organized and which features a multitude local punk, hip-hop, and reggae acts, will be donated to The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee & Immigrant Program — a program that offers free counsel to low-income immigrants and refugees who face persecution in their home countries. It can with justification be said that Murrieta will be carrying on the legacy of its namesake.
By: Max Ross, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.
“Where punk and the law meet: helping asylum seekers and immigrants” was published on MinnPost, January 28, 2016.
The Supreme Court issued a decision today in a 6-3 opinion that states must retroactively apply the ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The ruling comes from the case of 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, imprisoned since he was 17 for a crime he committed in 1963.
When Montgomery was sentenced at age 17, life without parole was automatic. Neither the court nor the jury was allowed to consider his age, maturity, potential for rehabilitation, or other characteristics in determining his sentence. As a result, he has spent his entire adult life in prison and has been ineligible for parole.
In his petition to the Court, Montgomery discussed “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” According to the Court, he offers advice and serves as a role model to other inmates. He helped establish an inmate boxing team, serving as a trainer and coach.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense must not be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless the court considers the juvenile’s special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether this ruling would apply to juvenile offenders like Montgomery, whose sentences were already final at the time of the 2012 decision.
Today, the Court ruled that this 2012 ruling applies not only to juvenile offenders whose cases were still pending in 2012, but to all juvenile offenders who had been automatically sentenced to life without parole. This includes Montgomery.
Similar to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, international human rights standards prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. As such, those standards require that punishments be individualized and proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the offender and the offense. Today’s ruling brings juvenile sentencing practices in the United States into closer compliance with those international standards, requiring courts to conduct an individualized assessment of each juvenile offender in determining the appropriate sentence for the offender. As the Court recognized today, “Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”
Now, with Montgomery, states must ensure that juvenile homicide offenders are considered for parole. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority:
“Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy. In light of what this Court has said . . . about how children are constitutionally different form adults in their level of culpability, however, prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their home for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
The UN Human Rights Committee has pressed the United States even further, urging it to fully comply with its international human rights obligations by entirely abolishing the sentence of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles. Today’s ruling is an important step in that direction.
By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, leads The Advocates’ work against the death penalty. She sits on the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty Steering Committee, an alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities, and unions from around the globe.
This week marks one year of mourning by the Kachin minority in Myanmar for two Kachin volunteer teachers with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). On January 19, 2015, the bodies of Maran Lu Ra (20) and Tangbau Nan Tsin (21) were found dead at their house in the church compound located in Kongkha Village in Myanmar’s Northern Shan State. The young women had been brutally beaten, tortured, and raped. Since their deaths, no legal process, investigation, justice, remedies, protection, or rehabilitation processes have taken place for the victims, family members, and community.
The murders of Maran Lu Ra and Tangbu Nan Tsin are two among thousands of known and unknown cases―most, if not all, a result of the serious fighting that has waged in Northern Shan State since 2010 between the Kachin Independent Army and Myanmar Army.[i]
Located in Southeast Asia, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is populated by eight major ethnic groups: Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Mon, Burma, Rakhine (Arakan), and Shan. Myanmar owns the “distinction” of being the only country in the world that has had an ongoing civil war for more than 60 years. The war is between the country’s army and ethnic freedom fighter groups.[i] The civil war has strengthened the military’s power, and it has allowed military dictators to rule the country. Thus, the brutal policies and lack of rule of law in Myanmar have jeopardized the peace and security of its citizens.
The army is known for using rape as a weapon of war against its ethnic people. Women suffer egregious human rights abuses. They are murdered, raped, sexually assaulted, forced into marriage, forced into labor, detained arbitrarily, and are victims of forced disappearances.[ii] Therefore, Myanmar has some of the most significant human rights violations in the world.
In 2010, there was a historic transition from a military dictator regime to a democratic government, also known as quasi-civilian government. The newly formed government is making some progress toward democratic reform in the central level and with international platforms. But, grave human rights violations have intensified in the northern part of Myanmar, particularly in Kachin and Northern Shan State, as well as in Rakhine State. The civil war has not stopped in ethnic areas. Apparently, the fighting resumed between the Kachin Independent Army and the Myanmar army in mid-2011 as a result of the failure of the last ceasefire agreement between them reached 17 years ago.
Myanmar became a member of the United Nations in 1948 and a signatory member state of six United Nations treaties and human rights instruments, namely Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1997, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 2012; and endorsed Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2014.[i] Furthermore, there are national mechanisms, including Myanmar National Committee for Women Affair in 1996, Myanmar Women’s Affair Federation in 2003, Myanmar National Human Rights Commission in 2010, and National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women – Action Plan for 2013-2021 in 2013.
However, there is no systematic reform initiative from the government to hold accountable the perpetrators who have had impunity for half a century regardless of Myanmar being a signatory member state of the United Nations and establishing human rights bodies.[ii]
Regarding the murders of Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Nan Tsin, hundreds of local and international human rights organizations have called for investigations and justice, including the U.S. embassy in Yangon, Myanmar.[iii] Hundreds of media agencies cover this news, and interfaith groups and local communities demonstrated solidarity to condemn the misconduct of Myanmar Army.[iv] The leader of the Kachin Baptist Convention submitted three letters requesting cooperation in the investigation, but there was barely a reply. The Kachin Baptist Convention established a 15-member investigation commission on February 7, 2015.[v] Despite this, there is still no cooperation from the government, including the country’s president, army, local law enforcement agencies, and government-backed women’s organizations and human rights bodies. As a result, sexual violence is widespread and the perpetrators “enjoy” absolute impunity from prosecution.[vi]
Therefore, 100 women and human rights organizations and civil society organizations and nine individuals, on January 19, 2016, issued the following demands:
Sanction an official mandate and power of investigation to Kachin Baptist Convention for the purpose of revealing the truth of the fate of the two teachers;
Request and invite the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to conduct an investigation in order to find out the truth;
Have the incoming NLD government promptly execute the two aforementioned points.
By: Ja Aung Lu, a Humphrey Law Fellow from Myanmar and has a professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights throughout 2016. Ms. Lu is the Program Manager of Equality Myanmar. Her responsibilities in this role include program development, team and financial management, staff recruitment, facilitation of trainings and events, data collection, and policymaking. For her work on the successful Stop Myitsone Dam Campaign, Ms. Lu received the Kachin Hero of the Year award in 2007. She obtained her Bachelor of Laws from Myitkyina University. As a Humphrey Fellow, Ms. Lu hopes to update her knowledge of human rights and laws, develop network-building skills, and enhance her understanding of NGO best practices, to help contribute toward the development of a democratic society in Myanmar.
Her clients’ courage and perseverance serve as a touchstone for Sarah Brenes(right) in her work to secure safety for people escaping violence and persecution. Brenes was recently appointed director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program, filling the big shoes left by Deepinder Mayell when he left The Advocates to accept a position with the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for New Americans.
What do you look forward to the most about being the director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program?
I look forward to continuing to work with our amazing team of staff, interns, and volunteers that support The Advocates’ work. We continue to explore opportunities to support asylum seekers nationwide, and I look forward to fusing more connections with partners across the country and within our midwest region.
What do you want to see accomplished?
With the help of dedicated volunteer attorneys and interpreters, we will continue our work of providing free legal services to low-income asylum seekers.
The Advocates has more than 30 years of experience serving asylum seekers. There are hundreds of former clients who have gone on to contribute to our communities and woven themselves into the rich fabric of our nation. I hope to call on them to provide insights and perspectives of their experiences to help inform our work and to share their thoughts with current clients just beginning the process.
I want to continue to expand our training and support opportunities, particularly for attorneys working as part of our service area in greater Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. I would also like to deepen our connection with national partners as we continue to explore our ability to support asylum seekers nationwide.
What is the most rewarding part about working with refugees on their asylum cases?
I am humbled by the courage and perseverance of our clients. In order to make their way to the United States, most have to part with family, risk their lives, and travel with the hope that remains despite suffering abuse and torture. Seeing a client after a case is granted is akin to meeting a totally new person — a weight has been lifted and a new chapter is beginning for them.
What is your background with immigration law?
I am honored to have worked with non-profits, educational institutions, and private attorneys during my career in immigration law. I started, right out of college, as a summer paralegal with the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, staffing a small office servicing migrant farm workers. I then went to work as a paralegal for Richard Breitman, a private immigration attorney who taught me what it means to be a zealous advocate.
I completed a masters program in human rights and peace education at the National University in Costa Rica. Frustrated by the barriers 9/11 brought to immigration law, I studied global migration and human rights issues. Then, I went to law school and clerked with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and Centro Legal, serving low-income clients. I also had the opportunity to participate in a number of projects at The Advocates for Human Rights.
I joined the University of St. Thomas Immigration Practice Group of the Legal Services Clinic, working alongside Professor Virgil Wiebe, who has the unique ability to help students see the importance of even the smallest detail in a case while, at the same time, appreciate how one client’s case fits in the broader fabric of our nation’s immigrant history.
When my fellowship ended, I joined The Advocates as a staff attorney. Together, we provide momentum to the human rights movement. I am constantly inspired by the volunteers who keep the movement propelling forward—one case, one issue at a time.
Tell us about your family.
My husband, Elvis, and I live in Minneapolis with our three children, Diego (9), Cecilia (6), and Santiago (18 months). Our children’s innocence, curiosity, and early exploration of rights and justice constantly keep me aware of the importance of our work and provide me with new perspectives. My family keeps me balanced and supports me in efforts to secure protection for our clients and their own families.