In Human Rights News: Lethal Injection, Water Pollution, Net Neutrality, and More

In Human Rights News: January 11 – 17, 2014

In this week’s Human Rights News we find issues related to the death penalty, environmental rights, net neutrality, the school-to-prison pipeline, marriage equality, workers' rights, prisoners’ rights, police brutality, and rape culture.

LETHAL INJECTION CONTROVERSY. This week, Ohio became the first state to use the two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone in an execution. The state used the previously untested drug cocktail to execute Dennis McGuire, a man who raped and murdered a pregnant woman. The Associated Press reported that McGuire gasped for air for up to fifteen minutes while his adult children sobbed and watched from a few feet away. One AP reporter wrote that McGuire appeared to gasp several times and made several loud snoring or snorting noises during a “prolonged” execution. McGuire’s lawyer, Allen Bohnert, called the execution a “failed experiment.” Ohio adopted the new protocol after the manufacturer of pentobarbital, the drug previously used in executions, stopped selling it for use in lethal injections. Because lethal injection drugs are becoming increasingly harder to get from the manufacturers, states are turning to drugs from compounding pharmacies as an alternative. These drugs lack any accountability measures or oversight from the FDA to make sure they work as intended. The result is that some, if not all, batches of drugs from compounding pharmacies may be ineffective, greatly increasing the risk that executed prisoners will experience torturous pain. Mike Brickner of the ACLU of Ohio writes, “Even if execution itself has not (yet) been found a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel” and unusual punishment, certainly a torturous death using experimental drug combinations is.” Read more here at the ACLU Blog of Rights and here at NBC News.

WATER POLLUTION IN WEST VIRGINIA. This week officials lifted the ban on tap water for West Virginia residents that resulted from the chemical spill in the Elk River last Thursday. However, experts and activists say that the harmful impact of mining on the state’s water supply goes back generations and could make much of that water undrinkable in the near future. “For more than a century, the coal industry has had pretty much free rein to do whatever it wants,” said Vivian Stockman, spokesperson of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. A common coal industry practice involves pumping chemical-laden wastewater directly into the ground where it can seep into the water supply. “All this waste is going underground for years, and then one day people start noticing their well water turning sometimes orange, sometimes black. The water stinks.” Stockman said in an interview with Al Jazeera. The controversial practice of mountaintop-removal mining, in which a mining company gets coal out of a mountain by blasting its top off, has long been a hazard for people living near the mines. Research has determined a statistical relationship between health problems (such as higher rates of birth defects and shorter life expectancies) and areas with mountaintop-removal. Ben Stout, a professor of aquatic biology at Wheeling Jesuit Institute, said that most of southern West Virginia water could become undrinkable in less than 20 years if the water pollution continues. Read more at Al Jazeera.

AN END TO NET NEUTRALITY. Michael Hiltzig of the LA Times covered a ruling this week from a Washington appeals court that struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rules protecting an open Internet. This means that Internet service providers will now be able to play favorites among websites. “AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast will be able to deliver some sites and services more quickly and reliably than others for any reason,” said telecommunications lawyer Marvin Ammorti. “Whim. Envy. Ignorance. Competition. Vengeance. Whatever. Or, no reason at all.” Hiltzig writes that Internet providers are only doing what comes naturally in an unregulated environment. If there was genuine competition in the U.S. among providers, which there is not, this ruling would not be as big a threat to the open Internet. Hiltzig places the blame for this “wretched combination of monopolization and profiteering by ever-larger cable and phone companies” on the FCC itself. In 2002, FCC Chairman Michael Powell reclassified cable modem services as “information services” rather than “telecommunications services,” effectively removing its own authority to regulate providers. Powell later left his post at the FCC to become a lobbyist for the cable TV industry in Washington. The end of the article calls on the readers to get involved: "Do you want your Internet to look like your cable TV service, where you have no control over what comes into your house or what you pay for it? Then stay silent. If not, start writing letters and emails to your elected representatives and the FCC now. It's the only hope to save the free, open Internet.” Read the full article at the LA Times.

GUIDELINES TO COMBAT SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE. The U.S. Department of Education released new federal guidelines last Wednesday aimed at putting a stop to the recent surge of school suspensions, expulsions, and police involvement in schools. The guidelines are a response to increasing concerns that overly harsh punishment is driving too many low-income and minority students out of school and toward the criminal justice system. Longitudinal research, including an influential study on discipline among students in Texas, suggests that suspensions are linked to failure in school and higher risk of serious trouble with the law instead of correcting behavior. The new package, developed in a collaboration between the Education and Justice Departments, includes lists of resources and principles that have helped educators keep their campuses orderly without resorting to expulsion. Federal officials also stress that educators cannot violate a student’s civil rights when disciplining him or her. In a recent case for example some children of Latino farmworkers in California were expelled and sent to alternative schools so far from their homes that they dropped out or were asked to come to school only one day a week. The new federal guidelines have been applauded by civil rights advocates who have been lobbying school districts and state lawmakers to enact limits on school discipline practices and the involvement of school police. Read more here at Truthout and here at the Department of Education.

MARRIAGE EQUALITY IN OKLAHOMA. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Terence Kern ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage in Oklahoma is unconstitutional. “Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed,” Kern wrote in his ruling. “It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights.” Same-sex marriage will not be allowed immediately, as the ruling is stayed pending appeal, but LGBTQI advocates are hopeful. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin released a statement the day of the ruling saying, “Judge Kern has come to the conclusion that so many have before him – that the fundamental equality of lesbian and gay couples is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. . . Equality is not just for the coasts anymore, and today’s news from Oklahoma shows that the time has come for fairness and dignity to reach every American in all 50 states.” Read more here at the Human Rights Campaign and here at the Chicago Tribune.

ONLINE LABOR ORGANIZING. In These Times published an article this week about the role of the Internet in the recent wave of low-wage worker organizing. Over the past couple of years, the web has provided an effective and inexpensive tool to reach fast food and retail workers in personal and lasting ways. The article highlights two groups, OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, which have experimented with online tools in their fight for better conditions at the country’s largest retailer. Many of the estimated 1,500 Walmart Black Friday protests last year were planned online, either organized directly by OUR Walmart or organized using its tools and templates. However, the campaign’s online activities go beyond planning protests and other events. Last year leading up to the Black Friday protests, OUR Walmart launched AssociateVoices, a website where Walmart employees could post their stories and request a protest at their store, regardless of whether or not they themselves were ready to go on strike. “AssociateVoices was intentionally designed to show that these complaints are not just made up, these are very real things that happen at Walmart,” says Raymond Suelzer, the web developer for Making Change at Walmart and the creator of AssociateVoices. As the OUR Walmart/Making Change at Walmart campaign has made progress online, Walmart has taken its own steps to fight back. After unsuccessfully trying to legally shut down OUR Walmart websites, the company launched its own site,, to refute the organization’s claims. “It’s a sign that the workers are really being effective and that they have the company’s attention, no matter how much the company tries to deny it,” says Jamie Way, an online organizer for Making Change at Walmart. Read the full article at In These Times.

AN END TO CONJUGAL VISITS IN MISSISSIPPI. The New York Times released an article this week on the end of Mississippi’s conjugal visit program. Prison commissioner Christopher B. Epps plans to terminate the program on February 1, citing budgetary reasons and concerns that babies may be born as a result of the visits. However, officials have not released any information on the cost of the program or the number of babies born. A 2012 review by Yale Law School shows that family visitation programs can function as powerful incentives for good behavior, help decrease sexual activity among prisoners, and strengthen families. The decision to stop conjugal visits was announced in December, which came as a surprise to the small group of prison spouses who rely on them (of the 22,000 plus people incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, only 155 of them participated in the program last year). Women interviewed about the program made it clear that the visits were not about sex but about privacy. In prison, every letter is opened, every call is monitored, and regular visits are crowded with other inmates and their families. Read the full article at the New York Times.

ACCESS TO JUSTICE. On Monday, two former Fullerton, California police officers were acquitted of murder for beating Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless, schizophrenic man to death. In July 2011, the officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, started beating Thomas with a taser and a baton after they found him removing letters from a garbage can. A nearby security camera recorded the entire incident. As the cops continued to beat him, Thomas begged for help and called out for his father. He eventually fell unconscious and died five days later. Ramos and Cicinelli were fired about a year after the attack. After the verdict was released, protesters took to the streets outside of the Fullerton Police Department, chanting “Justice for Kelly Thomas” and “We saw the video.” Read more at Think Progress. Also this week, three teenage boys who admitted to sexually assaulting an unconscious 15-year-old girl were sentenced to between 30 and 45 days in a juvenile detention center. Two of the boys will only have to serve their days on the weekends. The teens, two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old, took pictures of the assault and spread them around the high school they all attended. The victim, Audrie Pott, hanged herself eight days after the assault and after discovering that the pictures were being shown. The three attackers reportedly continued to circulate pictures of other naked girls even after Pott’s suicide. Natasha Hakimi of Truth Dig writes, “What is wrong with our legal system when it can’t even find an adequate punishment for such despicable acts?” Read more here at Truth Dig and here at Al Jazeera.

in human rights news, Dennis McGuire, lethal injection, west virginia, conjugal visits, net neutrality, school-to-prison pipeline, Walmart