Human rights defender in Iran starts hunger strike, demanding the right to call her children

Narges Mohammadi and her children, Kiana and Ali.
Narges Mohammadi and her children, Kiana and Ali.

Narges Mohammadi, vice chair of Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran and currently imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison, started a hunger strike on June 27, 2016. The date coincides with the 21st day of the month of Ramadan.

Ms Mohammadi has written an emotional letter explaining her decision, the DHRC website reported.

In the letter, she says that she has “no demand other than the possibility of calling [her] children” and that, contrary to her desire and physical capability, she has no way other than a hunger strike to remind the world that she is a mother who misses her children.

Ms. Mohammadi was arrested at her home by intelligence ministry officials on May 5, 2015. Shortly after her arrest, while Ms. Mohammadi was in jail, her children joined their father who had been forced, under the pressure of security and judicial officials, to immigrate to France.

On May 18, 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced human rights defender Ms. Mohammadi to 16 years imprisonment on several counts including for “membership in the [now banned] Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” group, for “taking part in assembly and collusion against national security” and “committing propaganda against the state.”

In the past year, Ms Mohammadi has only once been able to speak to her children on the phone. That was in early April 2016.

Writing open letters to high judicial officials, Ms. Mohammadi has repeatedly protested against the behavior of jail guards and the security officials in prison.

What follows is the full text of the emotional letter of Narges Mohammadi, written on June 27, 2016.

It is now the month of Tir [June-July in Persian Calendar] and it was in the same month, a year ago in a hot summer, that my two little children, aged 8, left Iran for France to live with their father. It had become impossible to live without a mother and a father. I have repeatedly thought about our last meeting. Every time, my family would be left behind the large gates of Evin and only my dearest Kiana and Ali could enter the prison. From the gates to our meeting room in the security office, it was a long walk and the children were accompanied by a guard, holding each other’s hands. On the way, they’d see prisoners, in hand-cuffs and leg cuffs, wearing dark blue, striped prison uniforms and they were scared. When they got to me, while they were still tightly holding on to each other’s hands, they breathed heavily and spoke of what they had see.n Once Ali told Kiana: “Kiana, good that we ran away. The thieves would have gotten us”.

I was always worried about their coming and going until the last meeting came. They said: “Mommy Narges! Don’t you worry. We go to Daddy Taqi and we’ll come back again”. From the door of the security office to the middle of the courtyard, they turned back several times to look at me. They were holding hands. We said goodbye and the door was closed and my dearest Ali and Kiana left. Not only when I was bidding them goodbye with my eyes, but even now, after one year has past, I can’t believe they left. It was 1:30 pm. I don’t know how I gathered myself to go back to my cell. I passed the hallway and got into the courtyard. I stood on the hot asphalts to pray. I wanted to speak to Himself. Only to he, Himself. I don’t know what I said and what I heard and how much I cried. I don’t even know what to call my state: Prayer, Wailing or Losing Life. I don’t know how much I crouched on my painful knees but I stood up straight again. I don’t know how many times my forehead touched the dear soil of the Evin prison and how much of the tears coming from my eyes and the blood being shed from my heart did I gave away. But I stood up. I don’t know how many times did I hold my hands to the sky and asked Him for patience. My feet were burning so bad that I finally had to go back to my cell. I thought that in three months, when schools re-open, my dear ones would come. But September came and my children didn’t. I requested permission to speak on the phone with them; to at least hear their voice. But it wasn’t granted. In the Women’s section in Evin, unlike all the other prisons in the country, there is no phone for families to call. This is forbidden. We have a visitation time once a week and from week to week, we go without news, waiting for the next meeting. Mothers meet with their children once a week and in person. On Wednesdays, Maryam Akbarifard, Sedighe Moradi, Zahra Zahtabchi, Azita Rafiazade and Fateme Mosana are called to meet their children. I sit on the edge of my bed and ask the mothers to kiss the beautiful face of their sons and daughters. Mothers go to the meeting and I meet with my dearest Kiana and Ali in my own daydreams. I smell their small hands and kiss their beautiful faces.

For a year now, my only contact with my two small children has been limited to me asking about them from my sister and brother. I always hear the same sentence back: “Don’t you worry. They are doing fine.” I have forgotten their voices. I don’t keep their photos by my bed anymore. I can’t look at them. My sister said: “Every time I want to come see you, Ali tells me to ask ‘Mommy Narges’ if she dreams of me?” My only way to connect with my children is in our dreams. How strange it is that they also see their mothers in their nightly, childish, sweet dreams and this is how they connect with me.

It is a year since my children are gone and despite all the open and confidential letters that I and my family have written, my request for phone connection with my children has not been granted. Only once, on the occasion of the New Year, on 3 April 2016, on the written order of the Tehran prosecutor I spoke to my dear Kiana and Ali “for ten minutes, under security conditions and only with the children”. The last words of my children was: “Mommy Narges! I hope they let you call us again”.

In 2012, when I was arrested to go through my six years in prison, my interrogator in the cell 209 said: “Oh, remember you boasting about defending human rights? I’ll send you to the general section so you know who humans are.” And now I know because they had repeatedly asked me stop my activities so that they’d let me stay by my children. They thought by imposing separation and cutting all contact, even phone contact, they’d teach me what being a mother is.

In the last year, I’ve had a strange experience in prison. Being in prison and even getting a 16 sentence for my last case has not only not made me regret but has strengthened my will and belief in supporting human rights, more than ever. But nothing has reduced the suffering and pain caused by my dear ones and my beloved children being away. If during all this time, I have had a smile of happiness, being happy with my activities and work, my heart has always been filled with a bitter chaos caused by the desire to see them. Part of my existence is filled with satisfaction, happiness, seriousness and effort; and another part, full of pain, sadness and desire. As if my heart goes on its own way and my brain its own separate way. Once more, I am with Moses’s mother. It was the mother who received the revelation and put his child in a basket, on the Nile — it was the belief and faith of mother that did it. But just the day after, the separation of the child was heavy on the mother’s heart. So much so that she feared she’d speak of secrets of heart that she shouldn’t. She sang her song of wailing and went on her own way and God intervened… In this land, the power of my faith and my belief in the cause is challenged by human desire, love and kindness. My whole existence comes under pressure. And what pain is this. How hard to be in love with the dear ones, going toward your cause and thinking of humanity. I have always said that in a land where it is hard enough to be a woman, a mother or a human rights activist, to be all three is an unforgivable, human-breaking crime. And now, “I” in my land and homeland, am accused of being a human rights activist, feminist and an opponent of capital punishment (as the charges read in the court said). I am condemned and in prison. Oh, the beauty of the fate: I have to also be a woman and a mother.

They regarded my defense of human rights as a crime but, worse, they denied me being a woman and a mother. Until I die, I will protest. I will not forget. My children were three years old when they stormed my house and took my dear Kiana, who had recently gone under surgery, away from my bosom. As she was crying, her feverous body was thrown in jail. They were five years old and their father was away, when they came for me. The kids wouldn’t let me go. They had lied to them, promising that I’d join them that very night. They took me from them and imprisoned me and on 5 May when my children were in school and went home in the afternoon, hoping their mother would open the door, they were met with a closed door. They had to then follow their father and leave this land. I ask these men of religion and government, didn’t they do enough to me and my children? Should they also now harass my small, innocent children like this? I spoke clearly, as clear as the tears on my cheeks. I wrote simply, as simple as the love of a mother. I swore that “my heart is beating for my children”. I said: “The small heart of my children misses me”. Alas! No one heard me and no one responded. I was patient and waited for a year — hoping that a conscience in this Land of the Asleep will feel some pain. It was for nothing. My motherly love was once more denied. Going against my desire and physical capability, I have no way left other than a hunger strike — to cry that I am a mother and that I miss my children. Maybe someone would feel compassion. Maybe someone would feel shame in their conscience. Maybe there is an end to this hostility and tyranny. I have no demand other than being able to call my children. Is this demand too large, unreasonable, immoral, illegal and a threat to security? Tell me and convince me. If a mother that a government has found guilty should be deprived from hearing the sound of her children, say so! If not, let this mother hear the voice of her children. The punishment of us, women and mothers, is imprisonment not not being able to hear the voice of our loved ones. Believe that we are humans.

Narges Mohammadi

Evin Prison

Narges Mohammadi is Deputy Director of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran. She was elected as President of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, a broad coalition against war and for the promotion of human rights. She has campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, and was awarded the Per Anger Prize by the Swedish government for her human rights work in 2011.

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It’s a human right: Each of us has the right to fundamental safety & security.

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The Advocates for Human Rights mourns the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of United States v. Texas, which has blocked President Obama’s executive actions on immigration for nearly two years and put the lives of an estimated 5 million people and their families on hold.

International human rights standards recognize that the United States, like all nations, has the right to control its borders.

But that right is not without limits. The United States also has the obligation to ensure that every person within our borders enjoys the fundamental rights that lead to a life with dignity.

For the millions of undocumented Americans, those most basic rights are denied every day because they lack immigration status. Families are separated. Support for basic needs is denied. Fear of arrest and deportation is exploited.

The fight for administrative relief has been a painful one. Millions of families have deferred their hopes of living a stable and predictable existence, if only for a brief time, while the case wound its way through the courts. Families have been irreparably torn apart by deportations, leaving hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children behind.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Central American refugees have been put at risk by an administration determined to deter them from seeking safety by detaining them upon arrival and prioritizing them for deportation. These wounds can heal, but they will never be erased.

At the same time, this struggle has been a turning point for the movement, which has floundered since 1996 to read the political tea leaves and calibrate the compromises needed to pass “reform” bills that would reinforce, rather than reverse, the fundamental injustices embedded in the current system. Increasingly advocates, activists, and those affected by decades of injustice have united behind a powerful new vision.

One America’s Rich Stolz recently wrote in the Huffington Post that the President Obama’s program would allow undocumented Americans to “gain the dignity of knowing that they have place in America.

National Immigration Law Center’s Marielena Hincapié, whose team has been leading the fight in U.S. v. Texas, tweeted recently, “We believe in a world in which all people can live with dignity.”

That vision is one of human rights. It takes as its starting point a recognition that each of us has the right to fundamental safety and security of the person – including a roof over our heads, food to eat, and health care when we need it. It also means freedom from arbitrary detention, a fair day in court, and the protection of the unity of the family. It recognizes these rights for every person without discrimination and it demands that failure to protect these rights be addressed.

Today, while we mourn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, we do so knowing that our vision is clear – that everyone, regardless of where they were born, has the right to enjoy the fundamental building blocks needed to live with dignity.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy and an experienced immigration attorney.

A small group of people is changing the world for good

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“The world, if left to its own devices, is balanced evenly between good and bad. Each of us has the ability to tip it.” Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Especially today, with the horrific news of the Orlando mass shooting capturing people’s attention, a ray of optimism is needed. That beam of light was mighty and bright at our Human Rights Awards Dinner this month when we celebrated and honored people who are tipping the world in the right direction.

Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award

Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.
Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.

Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, received the esteemed Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award for his work investigating and exposing some of the world’s most egregious human rights violations. The Advocates’ connection to Mr. Heyns’ work as a special rapporteur began in the 1980s when The Advocates developed the groundbreaking Minnesota Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for investigating suspicious unlawful deaths. Effective investigation is key to establishing responsibility and holding perpetrators accountable, but no international standards existed at the time that required governments to initiate or carry out investigations of suspected unlawful deaths. Read some of Mr. Heyns’ remarks and about the Human Rights Awards Dinner.

The UN adopted the Minnesota Protocol in 1991 with the official title, UN Manual on the Effective Prevention of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. The manual, widely known as the Minnesota Protocol, has been used in myriad investigative contexts in almost every region of the world. Last year, Mr. Heyns asked The Advocates to help update the Minnesota Protocol with forensic, medical, and other advancements since the original publication. “The need for clear international standards that encompass the realities of human rights abuses in the twenty-first century has resulted in the current revision,” said Mr. Heyns.

In addition to his UN role, Heyns is professor of human rights law and director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Special Recognition Award

David Wippman, Dean, University of Minnesota Law School
David Wippman, Dean, University of Minnesota Law School

David Wippman, Dean of University of Minnesota Law School, was honored with The Advocates’ 2016 Special Recognition Award in recognition of his career-long human rights work and his stewardship in the creation of the University of Minnesota Law School’s pioneering Center for New Americans.

The only program of its kind in the United States, the Center was designed to expand urgently needed legal services for non-citizens, pursue litigation to improve our nation’s immigration laws, and educate non-citizens about their rights. The Center has already seen notable successes, including a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Center is made possible through a partnership between The Law School, The Advocates, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels, Robins Kaplan, and Dorsey & Whitney.

“We honor Dean Wippman for changing the world and Minnesota for good and leaving our community a better place,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director.

Volunteer Recognition Awards

Mary Ellen Alden
Mary Ellen Alden

Mary Ellen Alden
Since Mary Ellen Alden began volunteering with The Advocates in 2012, she has represented 15 asylum seekers, including women fleeing domestic violence in Honduras and Ethiopia; political activists from Togo, Syria, and Ethiopia; and Oromo activists from Ethiopia. Her passion for justice for her clients is unparalleled.

“We are proud to count Mary Ellen among our award recipients this year,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. “She is priceless.”

 

Thomas Dickstein
Thomas Dickstein

Thomas Dickstein
For his bar mitzvah, Thomas Dickstein asked for donations to support The Advocates’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal. When he traveled to Nepal and connected with the school’s students, he returned home fired up. Over time, Thomas led a book and backpack drive for the school, developed a PowerPoint presentation and a video to convince others about the school’s need and success. “Thomas sets a great example for all of us,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director. “Imagine what a world we would have if everyone followed his lead.”

 

Front row, left to right: Max Schott, Gayle Shaub, Dean Eyler, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke Back row, left to right: Craig Miller, Meg Martin, Ashley Bailey, Brian Dillon, Monica Kelley, Joy Anderson, Nicole Strydom, Leah Leyendecker, Tammy Mayer, Sandy Bodeau, Karlie Hussey, Brianna Mooty, Matthew Webster, Elizabeth Dillon. Not pictured: Hallie Goodman, Amanda Sicoli, Scott Wick, Jodee Marble.
Front row, left to right: Max Schott, Gayle Shaub, Dean Eyler, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke Back row, left to right: Craig Miller, Meg Martin, Ashley Bailey, Brian Dillon, Monica Kelley, Joy Anderson, Nicole Strydom, Leah Leyendecker, Tammy Mayer, Sandy Bodeau, Karlie Hussey, Brianna Mooty, Matthew Webster, Elizabeth Dillon. Not pictured: Hallie Goodman, Amanda Sicoli, Scott Wick, Jodee Marble.

Gray Plant Mooty
Led by attorneys Max Schott and Dean Eyler, the pro bono team at Gray Plant Mooty has taken on complex cases involving female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and levirate marriage (a widow forced to marry her deceased husband’s brother). Many of the cases required additional fact-finding and expert documentation to understand the nuanced nature of the harm their clients suffered and the cultural context of the country in which it occurred.

Their litigation expertise allowed them to draw out critical facts from the clients and piece together the claims in ways the court could understand. “We’re thankful for the team’s commitment, and we’re proud to count them among our volunteer award recipients,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. The team includes Joy Anderson, Ashley Bailey, Sandra Bodeau, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke, Brian Dillon, Elizabeth Dillon, Dean Eyler, Hallie Goodman, Karli Hussey, Monica Kelley, Leah Leyendecker, Megan Martin, Craig Miller, Brianna Mooty, Max Schott, Amanda Sicoli, Nicole Strydom, Matthew Webster, and Scott Wick; and paralegals Jodee Marble, Tammy Mayer, and Gayle Schaub.


Henok Gabisa & Stinson Leonard Street

When Henok Gabisa asked The Advocates to submit a complaint to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, The Advocates turned for help to  Theresa Hughes, of Stinson Leonard Street, who assembled a fantastic team, including Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Marcia Sanford, and Andrew Scavotto.

Presented The Advocates' Volunteer Service Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.
Presented The Advocates’ Volunteer Service Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.

Mr. Gabisa had approached The Advocates because of Ethiopia’s persecution of Oromos, the largest ethnic group in that country. While for decades the Ethiopian government has persecuted them, the government in 2014 used lethal force to
respond to peaceful Oromo student protests. Protesters, some young teens, were arrested, detained without charge, and labeled terrorists.

Mr. Gabsia and Stinson team members in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. interviewed witnesses in the United States and abroad, prepared affidavits, tracked down first-hand information, prepared briefs, and ensured witnesses do not face retaliation. Their work to hold the Ethopian government accountable is changing the world for good.

Stinson Team
The Stinson Leonard Street team includes (L-R) Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Andrew Scavotto, & Marcia Stanford

Thomson Reuters
A team of Thomson Reuters’ employees is being recognized for its research on Human Rights Council recommendations to assist with Universal Periodic Review lobbying. Members of the Thomson Reuters team include Mark Petty, Matthew Buell, Marianne Krljic, Ethan Wood, Blake Hatling, Bryan Bearss, Chelsea Reynolds, and Benjamin Petersburg.

Thomson Reuters Award Recipients
The Thomson Reuters’ team includes (L-R) Bryan Bearss, Matthew Buell, Ethan Wood, Marianne Krljic, Mark Petty, Chelsea Reynolds, Benjamin Petersburg, & Blake Hatling.

Lobbying the UN Human Rights council is tricky. Human rights defenders need to know which countries will be receptive to certain issues, but countries’ priorities can be opaque, ever-changing. The Advocates needed a special research team, so it turned to Thomson Reuters. With a worldwide reputation for making complex legal information understandable and accessible, it is no surprise that Thomson Reuters created an amazing volunteer team to streamline The Advocates’ UN lobbying. Three times a year, team members pore through thousands of UN statements to identify countries that may be receptive to lobbying on women’s rights, the death penalty, and LGBTI rights.

“With a few clicks of the Thomson Reuters’ spreadsheet, we identify the countries to target for lobbying,” said Jennifer Prestholdt, director of The Advocates’ International Justice Program. “Their lists are spot-on, and they are changing the world for good.”

Suzanne Turner
Turner Suzanne without backgroundAs coordinator of Dechert’s pro bono work, Suzanne Turner is central to finding eager volunteers to help The Advocates. She even recruited her school-aged daughter to blog about women’s human rights. She also traveled with The Advocates twice to the other side of the world to conduct fact-finding and to document how to strengthen Mongolia’s response to domestic violence.

“Suzie lives our mission,” said Rose Park, Director, The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.

Conference on the Status of Women proved weary, but source of optimism

 

CSW event
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.

Stopping private prison profiteering in Minnesota

Child or woman's hand in jail

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.”

Private prisons skim the “easiest” prisoners from the public institutions, then skimp on rehabilitation and medical services. They pay employees less than those working in state prisons, and provide far less training and supervision, resulting in unsafe conditions, and putting prisoners, staff and the public at risk.

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.

About 131,000 prisoners were held by private prisons in 2014, according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

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.”

Putting more people in prison
Overall, Minnesota keeps too many people in prison for too long. According to the Star Tribune,

” 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.”

Private prisons contribute to filling the prisons: contracts frequently require governments to keep the for-profit prison full or at 90 percent of capacity.

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.

The Arizona Republic fact-checked claims, and found that

“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.

What’s next?
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.

For more information:

mary-turck-photoBy: 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.

Where punk and the law meet: helping asylum seekers and immigrants

John Barham's involvement in the punk scene stems from the same roots that let him to practice socially productive law.
John Barham’s involvement in the punk scene stems from the same roots that led him to practice socially productive law.

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.

Ban on mandatory life-without-parole applies to all who were sentenced when juveniles, Supreme Court rules

Handcuffed hands

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.

Read the complete opinion.