Commentary

Reflections from Kenya as the World’s Population Nears Seven Billion

Debra Haffner

As the world's population gets closer to the seven billion mark, Reverend Debra Haffner reflects on her career and what she saw on a recent trip to Kenya.  

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by Rewire to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

My first job after college was at the Population Institute as a secretary and the Resource Center Coordinator. It was the summer of 1975. One of the first pieces I ever published was a fact sheet called “World Population 1976.” At that time, the world’s population had just passed four billion people.  

Twelve years later, in July 1987, the first World Population Day was celebrated—and the world’s population had increased to 5 billion.

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At the end of this month, the world’s population is expected to hit 7 billion. It’s hard to grasp that the world’s population has grown by 3 billion since I began my career in the sexual and reproductive health field. According to Population Action International, the world grows by more than 200,000 people a day. PAI has created an online index to help people see how the world has grown since the day of your birth that I urge you to try.

Our understanding of population growth and the needs of the world’s environment have changed dramatically since early calls to limit population growth in the early 1970’s. But some basic facts are still true: too many of the world’s women don’t have the contraceptive services they need to choose the number of children they want to have. Too many women are denied basic civil rights, including the right to education and equal employment. The developed world still consumes far too many of the world’s resources. The inequality of economic resources and distribution systems is causing intractable poverty and suffering, from inner cities in the United States to villages in Africa and Asia. The mounting Occupy Wall Street movements around the world are dramatic portrayals of the awakening of widespread concern about such inequality.

On Saturday, I returned from a vacation to Kenya. My first visit to Africa was unforgettable, the game parks were lovely and the safari rides thrilling. But, I am haunted by the images of the cities, villages, and reservations we passed through on our way to the game parks.

Like many tourists, we visited a Masai village.  We sat in a mud and cow dung constructed hut, little bigger than the office I am writing in now, that housed 10 people in two beds.  We watched mothers nursing newborn babies, covered with flies. We were told about teenagers, both boys and girls, going through circumcisions and women having babies attended only by their mothers-in-law. When I asked, I was told that “only” about one in ten women in the village die in childbirth. The cities outside of Nairobi we drove through on barely passable roads were filled with children begging when our 4 by 4 vehicles stopped for traffic, with corrugated aluminum tiny homes dotting the roads.

These so-called optional tourist excursions broke my heart and brought home the reality of the need to address poverty, maternal mortality, and access to family planning.  It provided me with a renewed commitment to the Religious Institute’s Rachel Sabbath Initiative to engage religious leaders and faith communities in working for U.S. support to reach the Millennium Goals worldwide.

I know that Kenya is not the poorest country in Africa, and compared with its neighbors, it is relatively peaceful. But, still, one in 38 Kenyan women will die in childbirth, 26 percent of women will marry before adulthood, and female genital mutilation is still widely practiced. The average woman in Kenya has six children, while her desired family size is four, although in the Masai village I visited fertility was much higher. Still, this marks substantial progress from an estimated 8.1 children per woman in the late 1960s. Fewer than half of Kenyan couples use contraceptives (46 percent), though this too marks a significant increase compared to the 39 percent reported in a 2003 study. According to the CIA World Factbook, the urban population in Kenya is “growing at an alarming rate as many Kenyans migrate from their rural homes to urban centers,” which has led to a scarcity of jobs and opportunities.

World population growth stops being an abstract idea when confronted with individuals and whole communities suffering without enough food, shelter, sanitation, health care, and economic opportunities. As a minister, I am reminded that the Bible calls us to be stewards of the earth and caretakers of our neighbors. Regardless of your faith, I hope you’ll join me others in rededicating ourselves to renewed action on behalf of all the people of the world.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

The Prison Overcrowding Problems on ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Reflect a Real-Life Crisis

Victoria Law

In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn't limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.

“I’ve been in Litchfield for a while now,” says Piper Chapman (actress Taylor Schilling) in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, “and I’ve started to feel unsafe lately.”

Season four of OITNB has taken on prison overcrowding. Viewers may recall that, in the last season, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary was taken over by a corporation, transforming it from an already underfunded state prison to a private facility whose sole purpose is the bottom line. That means each woman inside Litchfield has become a commodity—and the more commodities locked inside, the more profit the corporation receives.

In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn’t limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.

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In the latest season of OITNB, viewers see some of the potential consequences of prison overcrowding: It is accompanied by increased threats of violence and abuse, as people, packed like sardines, step on each other, jostle each other, and can’t get away from each other. Supplies, such as soap, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, are never in abundance in a prison setting; they become even more scarce as the number of people clamoring for them soar. Even food, which prisons are required to provide in the form of regular meals, becomes in short supply.

A scarcity of resources isn’t the only problem in Litchfield. Again and again, we see long lines for the bathrooms and showers. When the prison installs “porta potties” in the yard, there are long lines for those as well. “Too many people in here, everybody getting on each other’s nerves,” remarks Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), another of the show’s long-term characters. Conflicts emerge as women struggle to navigate daily living in a narrow room with multiple other women. Some of these may seem small, like the nightly snoring of a new bunkmate keeping another one awake all night. But these seemingly inconsequential issues lead to larger ones, such as sleep deprivation. In the show, women resort to comic measures; but these conflicts, especially in a closed and cramped environment, can quickly erupt into violence.

This is the case in Litchfield as well. Conflicts quickly turn into threats or actual attacks. While prison socializing has always been racially segregated, some of it now becomes racialized and racist. Some of the new white women, noting that they are in the minority among the large numbers of Latina and Black women being shuttled in, are unwittingly pushed by Piper to form a white power group. They hurl racist epithets at the women of color and, when they spot a lone Dominican woman on the stairs, move together to attack her.

Prison staff perpetuate the violence, using their authority to do so. They begin their own version of “stop and frisk” in the prison’s hallways, targeting the growing Latina population. While the body searches in and of themselves are humiliating, the (male) guards also take advantage of the additional security measure to grope and further abuse the women. They even force women into fighting, which they then bet on—a nod to the actual allegations of guard-instigated gladiator fights in California’s prisons and the San Francisco County Jail.

Although not everything in OITNB is realistic, the problems the show portrays in this respect reflect the frequent results of overcrowding—and some of its causes. As OITNB notes repeatedly throughout the season, private prisons receive money per person, so it’s in the company’s interest to lock up as many people as possible.

In 2014, for example, private prison contractor GEO Group contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to open and operate a women’s prison north of Bakersfield, California. Under the terms of the contract, California pays GEO Group $94.50 per person per day for the first 260 women sent to that prison. The contract also includes an opportunity for the company to expand its prison by another 260 beds—although, if it does that, the state only pays $86.95 per person per day. But even at that lower rate, doubling the occupancy increases the private prison’s overall four-year revenue from roughly $38 million to $66 million. (As of June 8, 2016, that prison held 223 people.)

But prison overcrowding isn’t limited to private prisons. In some states, the “tough on crime” laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s are still leading to crammed public prisons today.

California, for instance, is one of the most egregious examples of such legislation leading to prison overcrowding. Years of extreme overcrowding ultimately led to Brown v. Plata, a class-action lawsuit charging that the state’s severely crowded prisons prevented it from providing adequate medical and mental health care, thus violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered California to decrease its state prison population from 180 to 137.5 percent capacity.

To do so, the CDCR took several actions: It began shipping thousands of men to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In addition, it converted Valley State Prison for Women, one of its three women’s prisons, into a men’s prison, and transferred the approximately 1,000 women there from Valley State Prison for Women to two other prisons—the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW). It also opened the 523-bed Folsom Women’s Facility in January 2013.

Despite these efforts, overcrowding continues to plague California’s prisons. As of June 8, CCWF was at 143.6 percent capacity; while CIW was at 129 percent capacity.

Even before the influx of women from Valley State Prison, though, the numbers of people packed into CIW had led to reports of violence from inside. In 2012, Jane, who has been incarcerated at CIW for several years, wrote in a letter that was later reprinted in Tenacious, “When eight women of widely disparate ages, social backgrounds, ethnicities and interests share a 246-square foot cell, there are bound to be conflicts, and there is little tolerance for any behaviors that are different.” She recounted a woman named Anna who spoke little English and was mentally ill.

“Little Anna has spent the last several weeks being alternately beaten up by her cellmates, who don’t understand her behaviors, or drugged into a drooling stupor in the Specialty Care Unit,” Jane wrote. According to Jane, housing staff ignored the violence. When Anna tried to complain to a higher-ranking staff member, Jane said that correctional officers, “angry at her inability to follow directions, threw her to the floor, cuffed her hands behind her back and twisted her arms until she screamed in pain.”

Two years later, after women from Valley State Prison were moved to CIW, Jane wrote in a second letter published in Tenacious, “What this overcrowding has created in terms of living conditions is continued horrendous health care and failed mental health care.”

The situation seems to have persisted. As noted earlier, women have also reported a pervading sense of hopelessness, exacerbated in part by the inability to access mental health care. CIW has a suicide rate that reportedly is eight times the national rate for women behind bars. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. As of June 16, 2016, there have been two successful suicides and nine attempts. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it,” one woman told Rewire one month before her friend’s suicide this past April.

In many men’s prisons, overcrowding is even more severe. Valley State Prison, now a men’s prison, is currently at 172 percent capacity. The vast majority of the state’s other male prisons operate at over 100 percent capacity.

But it’s not just California that suffers from prison overcrowding. Oklahoma, which has especially harsh sentencing laws—particularly for drug offenses—has the country’s highest rate of incarceration for women. And the number of those behind bars continues to rise: In 2014, the state imprisoned 2,979 women, a 9.3 percent increase from the 2,702 women imprisoned the year before.

Mary Fish has been incarcerated at Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC) for the past 15 years. She told Rewire that prison administrators recently added 40 more beds to each unit, increasing its capacity from 1,055 to 1,291. (As of June 13, 1,250 women were incarcerated at MBCC.) This has led to competition, even for state-guaranteed items like cafeteria food (especially fresh fruit, which is infrequent in many prisons). “This overcrowding is all about who can get up there and bull dog [sic] their way to the front of the line,” she wrote in a letter to Rewire. She said that two days earlier, the prison’s cafeteria was serving bananas with lunch. But, even though each woman only received one banana, by the time she reached the window, all of the bananas were gone.

“It really gives new meaning to overcrowded,” Fish reflected. “Bodies rubbing in passing, kind of space-less, boundary-less environment. I’ve never had so much human contact in the 15 years I’ve been incarcerated.”

The state’s medium-security women’s prison, the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center (capacity 988) currently holds 1,010 women. “There are huge overcrowded dorms crammed with bunk beds and steel lockers,” wrote “Gillian” in a letter to Rewire, later printed in Tenacious, shortly after being transferred from MBCC to Eddie Warrior. “The population is young, transient and the majority are disrespectful. They have no clue how to live successfully in a crowded communal environment. The dorms are filthy, loud and chaotic for the most part. There is no peace.”

The situations in Oklahoma and California are only two examples of how state prison overcrowding affects those locked up inside. Institutions in other states, including Alabama, North Dakota, and Nebraska, have also long been overcrowded.

On OITNB, the private corporation in charge plans to bring even more women to Litchfield to increase revenue. But in real life, as state budgets grow leaner and prison justice advocates continue to press for change, local legislators are beginning to rethink their incarceration policies. In California, a recently proposed ballot measure would change parole requirements and allow for early release for those with nonviolent convictions if they enroll in prison education programs or earn good behavior credits. If the ballot garners at least 585,407 voter signatures, it will be added to the state’s November ballot.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, where the state now spends $500 million a year on incarceration, former Republican house speaker and leader of the coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Kris Steele is pushing for two ballot measures—one that allows reclassifying offenses like drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, and another that sets up a new fund that would redirect the money spent on incarceration for low-level offenses back to community programs focused on rehabilitation and treating the root causes of crime.

Still, these changes have been slow in coming. In the meantime, individuals continue to be sent to prison, even if it means more bunk beds and less space to move (not to mention the devastation caused by breaking up families). “Last week, Oklahoma County brought a whole big RV-looking bus to deliver a bunch of women here to [Assessment and Reception],” Fish, at MBCC, noted in a May 2016 letter to Rewire.

The following week, she told Rewire, “They keep crowding us. There’s no room to even walk on the sidewalks.” Fish regularly reads the local newspapers in the hopes of learning about pending legislation to ease overcrowding and allow for early release. Though the senate recently passed four bills that may reduce the number of people being sent to prison, she feels that the new laws won’t help those currently trapped inside. “It’s getting pretty awful, and it looks like no bills passed to help us so there’s NO END IN SIGHT.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Clinton Hits Back Against GOP’s Voter Suppression Efforts

Ally Boguhn

“When [Scott] Walker's Republican allies sat down to write this voter ID law, they knew full well it would unfairly target communities of color and prevent 300,000 mostly poor, elderly and student Wisconsinites from voting,” Clinton wrote. “In fact, that was the whole idea.”

Donald Trump secured enough delegates to win the Republican presidential nomination this week, and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton sounded off on GOP-imposed voting restrictions.

Associated Press Declares Trump the Republican Nominee

Trump has won enough delegates to become the nominee for the Republican Party, according to a Thursday count by the Associated Press (AP).

Trump’s victory comes as little surprise given that he was only ten delegates away from the nomination after winning Tuesday’s primary contest in Washington state. According to AP, a count including unbound delegates was enough to put the presumptive nominee over the edge:

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The New York businessman sealed the majority by claiming a small number of the party’s unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the national convention in July. Among them was Oklahoma GOP chairwoman Pam Pollard.

“I think he has touched a part of our electorate that doesn’t like where our country is,” Pollard said. “I have no problem supporting Mr. Trump.”

It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination. Trump has reached 1,239 and will easily pad his total in primary elections on June 7.

The billionaire’s win marks the end of a heated primary season. However, the departure of Trump’s rivals from the race doesn’t mean the end of their influence on the election. Former challengers Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) both control their delegates, “potentially giving them influence over the direction of the party’s platform at the Republican convention July 18-21 in Cleveland,” according to the New York Times.

Abortion rights have been a key issue among GOP candidates battling to showcase their extremism on the subject throughout the race, and may play a large role at the convention. Trump told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in April that he would “absolutely” look to change the party’s platform on abortion to include exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment—much to the dismay of conservatives and anti-choice activists.

Cruz backers and other influential Republicans have reportedly moved to block “language that could be added to the platform or watered down in the existing party roadmap on abortion, transgender rights and same-sex marriage,” according to CNN.

Clinton Pitches Expansion of Voting Rights in Wisconsin Op-Ed

Clinton pushed her plans to expand voting rights in an op-ed published Wednesday in Wisconsin’s Journal Sentinel.

Clinton used Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which may have disenfranchised as many as 300,000 voters in April’s presidential primary, to discuss barriers to voting and the communities they impact. “When Walker’s Republican allies sat down to write this voter ID law, they knew full well it would unfairly target communities of color and prevent 300,000 mostly poor, elderly and student Wisconsinites from voting,” Clinton wrote. “In fact, that was the whole idea.”

The former secretary of state noted that laws suppressing voter turnout are popping up in states with GOP-majority legislatures. “From Alabama to South Carolina, to Texas, state legislatures are working hard to limit access to the voting booth,” Clinton wrote. “And since it’s clear we now have to be vigilant everywhere, as president, I would push for taking several additional actions at the national level.”

Over the course of the 2016 election season, 17 states will experience new voting restrictions—including voter ID laws and registration restrictionsfor the first time, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Clinton detailed the specifics of her platform to expand voting access. Her four-pronged approach included urging Congress to act on restoring the protections in the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013; implementing reforms to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration pertaining to early and absentee voting; creating a “a new national standard of 20 days of early in-person voting everywhere”; and instituting universal voter registration for all Americans when they turn 18.

Clinton on the campaign trail has repeatedly addressed voting rights and Republican efforts to suppress votes. The Democratic presidential candidate outlined a similar plan to improve access to the polls in a June 2015 speech in Houston, Texas.

“We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country,” Clinton said at the time, according to MSNBC. “What is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.”

What Else We’re Reading

Of Trump’s 70 paid campaign staff members, 52 of themor roughly 75 percentare men, reports Laura Basset for the Huffington Post. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign also has some troubling gender demographics: none of the ten highest paid employees on staff are women.

Meanwhile, those over at New York Magazine’s The Cut wonder “who are the women who make up 25 percent of Trump’s campaign staff and are they okay?”

The Atlantic details Hillary Clinton’s “Medicare for More” health-care platform.

Would you be surprised if we told you that Trump’s new Christian policy adviser is a televangelist who believes he single-handedly stopped a tsunami and that AIDS is caused by “unnatural sex”?

The [Trump] campaign probably won’t choose “a woman or a member of a minority group” for Trump’s running mate, adviser Paul Manafort told the Huffington Post in an interview published Wednesday. “In fact, that would be viewed as pandering, I think,” Manafort said.

Vox’s Dara Lind explains the problem with Manafort’s admission: “The assumption: The only reason someone might pick a woman or person of color for a job would be because they’re a woman or person of color.”

Trump’s proposals for colleges and universities have at least one thing in common with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), but “could lock poor students out of college,” Donald Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco, writes for the New Republic.

More bad news for the Republican presidential candidate: Many white women living in the suburbs of swing states whose votes are needed for Trump to win the general election just aren’t feeling him. Sad!

“There are more examples of shark attacks in the United States and exploding toilets than there was of voter fraud,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) said this week, referring to a conservative myth that leads to legislation perpetuating voter suppression. Larsen is a part of the newly-formed Voting Rights Caucus, which was created to “educate the public about their rights as voters, advance legislation that blocks current and future suppression tactics, and brainstorm creative ways to bring our election process into the 21st Century.”

An Ohio court ruled that former Republican presidential candidate Kasich’s efforts to cut early voting days are “unconstitutional and … accordingly unenforceable.” The state of Ohio has filed an appeal to the decision.

Janell Ross examines “the race-infused history” behind the disenfranchisement of those who have been convicted of felonies.