Since 1973 there have been 167 death row inmates who were exonerated, mainly through the efforts of the ACLU and the work of the Innocence Project. It begs the question of how many others there have been or exist who are innocent and not aggressively defended. The renewed interest is due to the case of Ledell Lee who was actually executed in Arkansas in 2017. Arkansas was about to run out of one of the drugs used to execute prisoners and executed 8 people in11 days, Ledell Lee being one. Now evidence exists and is mounting that he was innocent. In Texas, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham became famous after his 2004 execution and subsequent evidence that he had been innocent. Executing an innocent man has to be one of the ugliest truth about our criminal justice system and the fact there can no longer be certainty that a convicted man on death row is guilty puts our criminal justice system on trial. Those who were or are innocent were convicted in a court of law where investigators, police, attorneys, juries and judges all agreed they were guilty. And further someone like Ledell Lee was failed by appeals, pleas for clemency, or whatever means someone may have tried to help him. Since these institutions acted out in the name of the public, therefore indirectly in our name, shouldn’t we ask if we are complicit no matter how oblique or opaque that complicity may be? And if that’s so then we each must also ask ourselves, what are we going to do about it?
There’s a small community who are promoting what they call gender creative or gender expansive, that is looking at gender beyond male or female. They are mainly transgender people who have children and want more gender latitude for them than the one they have had. They are raising their children without reference to gender, even referring to them as they instead of him or her. They want to continue doing this until the children are old enough to choose for themselves what gender they are. But the issue does not stop there. One set of parents needed a social security card and on the application form put dashes where the child’s gender would have been. The social security office could not accept that and arbitrarily assigned male as a gender.
I understand the discrimination against transgender people. I understand that we tend to deny their existence and deprive them of the identity that should be rightfully theirs. In this case, I wonder if they are going about it the best way? Statistically the chances of the children being transgender are low. Is their idea as well thought out as they would like it to be or as it ought to be? In that their endeavor can teach something to all of us who might want to create change. Meanwhile what about the children who grow up trying to figure out their sense of self separate from that of their parents when they are being brought up in such a manner? How will they fare in school when they interact with boys and girls? How will they react to movies and games, on play dates, instances where gender is part of what they will encounter? Will there be a psychological price for being brought up like this? We live in a world where new ethical dilemmas arise with increasing frequency. In this case, I keep asking myself wouldn’t the parents’ efforts be more worthwhile if they worked towards greater acceptance and understanding of transgender people? I surmise that in the end, they may not succeed in adding a gender, but may create more acceptance in the process. Still what about the children?
A friend began corresponding with a death row inmate in Alabama and shared the he belonged to an organization called Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. I was intrigued by the organization’s title and was not familiar with it, so I googled them. They are a group began in 1989 founded and run by death row inmates. They even publish Wings of Hope, which circulates among death row, the prison and links them also with the outside world. Given the restrictions in any penal institution and particularly on death row, running an organization and publishing a bulletin is nothing short of impressive.
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty is linked to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group led by activist Bryan Stevenson, and to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty which inspires the creation of similar organizations in other states such as Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina.
These men, and women, on death row whom we think of as the worst of the worst, whether or not one believes in the death penalty and I am strongly opposed, are fallible like all of us, but they are also capable of not only hope despite their seemingly hopeless circumstances but also of fighting to do something worthwhile. Their spirit soars beyond prison bars reminding us that they—as all of us—are certainly more that their worst deed.
The UN describes modern slavery as the condition of people whose work “is performed involuntarily and under the menace of penalty.” Modern slaves can be forced to work through threats of violence, through withholding of identification, through threats to family members, and also through subtler means like financial pressure or limiting movements. All told according to a recent report by the Walk Free Initiative, in 2018 there were 40.3 million people living in these conditions, mainly women. When Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, as the last stronghold it made slavery illegal throughout the world. One problem is how difficult it is to track down the offenses. It is part of countries with shady human rights certainly, but it is everywhere, including the US. Of these 40 plus million there are at least 16 who are part of the supply chain, meaning the people who work on the things we buy. Even if slave conditions are outlawed within manufacturing, it is difficult to enforce, to make sure products are entirely made by slave free labor. The fashion and the tech industries are two of the worst culprits. With fashion for example, we want cheap clothes, and cheap clothes can only come with cheap labor. Some businesses are onboard, yet because products can have many parts which come from many different countries it is often difficult to know if slave working conditions were involved. Another aspect of the tragedy is that so many of those who are forced to work and/or live under these conditions are not aware they are being exploited. There are no easy answers, but one hope lies in education: Educating people about their rights, and promoting human rights education among vulnerable populations such as those of migrant workers or those likely to be in underage marriages.
If and when we can, let’s contribute to that education.