Support Common Dreams Today
Journalism that is independent, non-profit, ad-free, and 100% reader-supported.
To donate by check, phone, or other method, see our More Ways to Give page.
Today, the Drug Policy Alliance shared a letter, coordinated in partnership with The Sentencing Project, from 200 experts in the medical and public health community sent to President-elect Biden and the Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board recommending substantial reductions in federal, state, and local incarceration levels to limit the spread of the virus.
"Since the pandemic, decarceration has been too modest...Meaningful and effective decarceration amidst the pandemic can limit the number of people exposed to the virus in leading coronavirus clusters while also protecting the broader communities to which these individuals return," said the letter signed by a cadre of researchers and practitioners in leading research universities, medical centers, and prisons and jails.
Research has found that many incarcerated people, including those who have served long sentences, do not pose an unreasonable public safety risk. The letter calls on the Board to recommend policies to the new administration that encourage the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to explicitly call for decarceration in its guidance and to support COVID-19 relief funding for state, local, and tribal carceral systems to incentivize a significant reduction of incarcerated populations.
Signers of the letter offered these comments:
Gregg Gonsalves, PhD, Yale School of Public Health
"In the context of COVID-19 occupancy limits are being enforced for restaurants, bars, and other indoor settings around the country. Detention and correctional facilities are crowded, often unsanitary spaces and should be subject to occupancy limits as well to stem the spread of SARS-CoV2. We need to decarcerate to keep people in these places and in the surrounding communities safe."
Alex H. Kral, PhD, RTI International
"The data is abundantly clear that prisons and jails are the least safe COVID-19 environments in the United States. Since these environments cannot be made safer, we need to move people out of prison and jail settings."
Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, University of Colorado, Denver
"Health equity is a critical component of social justice and wellbeing and therefore addressing the longstanding history of social injustices leading to the unfair distribution of health and disease constitutes a critical priority of the practice of modern medicine. As physicians we must strive to reduce social inequities through advocacy efforts and policy change to remove racial residential segregation, food and housing insecurity, poor educational opportunities, discrimination and other structural vulnerabilities including mass incarceration and the death penalty. Health equity is not only about medical interventions during a clinical encounter; it involves community-activism to improve life opportunities and the redistribution of social capital and resources among marginalized communities to promote healthier lives and social wellness. The COVID-19 pandemic has been responsible for as many deaths among incarcerated individuals in the US over a nine-month period as the total number of individuals executed by the death penalty over a 44-year period (1449 deaths by COVID-19 and 1526 executions since 1976)."
The letter's signatories urge the Biden team to take immediate action to expedite the depopulation of carceral facilities during the pandemic.
"This is great news for the forest, the salmon, the wildlife, and the people who depend on intact ecosystems to support their ways of life and livelihoods," said one advocate.
Indigenous and green groups on Wednesday applauded the Biden administration for reinstating protections for millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska's Tongass National Forest that were lifted during a Trump-era regulatory rollback spree.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Wednesday that it has finalized protections for the Tongass National Forest by restoring "longstanding roadless protections to 9.37 million acres of roadless areas that support the ecological, economic, and cultural values of Southeastern Alaska."
The Roadless Rule was established in 2001 to protect wilderness areas in U.S. national forests from roads and logging. The administration of former President Donald Trump rescinded the rule in 2020 amid a flurry of regulatory rollbacks, prompting a lawsuit from a coalition of Indigenous, conservation, and business organizations. The Biden administration subsequently committed to reviving the Roadless Rule in 2021.
"As our nation's largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Wednesday. "Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of tribal nations and the people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region's economy."
\u201cThe moment we\u2019ve been waiting for! \ud83c\udf32\ud83c\udf89 Roadless Rule protections have OFFICIALLY been reinstated in Tongass National Forest! This will restore federal protection to just over 9 million undeveloped acres in America\u2019s largest national forest.\u201d— The Wilderness Society \ud83c\udf33 (@The Wilderness Society \ud83c\udf33) 1674680022
According to the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife:
The Tongass contains rare expanses of pristine old-growth forest and as many as 17,000 miles of creeks, rivers, and lakes. These waters abound with all five species of Pacific salmon, which anchor the economy of Southeast Alaska. Approximately 1 million visitors come from all over the U.S. and internationally each year to see its glaciers, old-growth forests, and abundant wildlife.
The Tongass supports an incredible array of biodiversity and is home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, brown bears, bald eagles, northern goshawks, and Pacific marten, among others. The Tongass is also one of the world's largest carbon reservoirs, storing the equivalent of about 8% of the carbon stored in all the U.S. forests combined. In addition, a broad coalition of tribal leaders, outdoor recreation businesses, and conservationists in Southeast Alaska have fought to preserve the region's remaining cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce trees.
"The restoration of National Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass National Forest is a great first step in honoring the voices of the many tribal governments and tribal citizens who spoke out in favor of Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass," said Naawéiyaa Tagaban, the environmental justice strategy lead at Native Movement. "We are grateful to the Biden administration for taking this first step toward long-term protections for the Tongass. We hope that going forward true long-term protections will be established that do not rely on a rule which can be changed at the whim of a presidential administration."
"The administration must look to tribal sovereignty and Indigenous stewardship as the true long-term solution for protections in the Tongass," Tagaban added. "Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people have lived in and managed the Tongass national forest for generations; true protections will look like the restoration of lands into Indigenous ownership."
\u201cBREAKING: The Biden administration has finalized the Roadless Rule on the Tongass! This is thanks to years of hard work by Tribes, small businesses, conservation groups, and Tongass supporters like yourself! \n\nFor more information, see https://t.co/pORem4DCcM \n\n#ProtectTheTongass\u201d— SEACC (@SEACC) 1674679664
Kate Glover, senior attorney at EarthJustice, said her group applauds the Forest Service "for making good on its commitment to tribes and to the climate by restoring the Roadless Rule across the Tongass. This is great news for the forest, the salmon, the wildlife, and the people who depend on intact ecosystems to support their ways of life and livelihoods."
Teague Whalen, who owns Tongass Teague, asserted that "there are two uncompromising realities for the survival of life on this planet: clean air and clean water."
"My hiking tours into the Tongass begin at the literal end of our road, where the Roadless Rule reinstatement will ensure that the Tongass can continue to be a lasting carbon sink," Whalen added.
"DeSantis decided to deny the potentially life-changing class and effectively censor the freedom of our education and shield us from the truths of our ancestors," said prospective plaintiff Elijah Edwards.
Three high school students represented by attorney Benjamin Crump are planning to sue Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for rejecting a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course, the prominent civil rights lawyer said Wednesday.
As Common Dreamsreported last week, DeSantis rejected the pilot course in AP African-American studies being tested by the College Board—the organization behind the SAT exam—as he believes it "lacks educational value" and violates the state's Stop WOKE Act by promoting critical race theory (CRT). There is little to no evidence that CRT—a graduate-level academic discipline examining systemic racism—is being taught in any K-12 school in Florida, or anywhere in the United States.
"Are we really okay with Ron DeSantis deciding what's acceptable for America's students across the country about Black history?"
"We are here to give notice to Gov. DeSantis that if he does not negotiate with the College Board to allow AP African-American studies to be taught in the classrooms across the state of Florida, that these three young people will be the lead plaintiffs in a historic lawsuit," Crump said during a Wednesday press conference at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, referring to students Elijah Edwards, Victoria McQueen, and Juliette Heckman.
Victoria McQueen, a junior at Leon High School in Tallahassee, said that "there are many gaps in American history regarding the African-American population. The implementation of an AP African-American history class will fill in those gaps."
"Stealing the right for students to gather knowledge on a history that many want to know about because it's a political agenda goes to show that some don't want... the horrors this country has done to African-Americans to finally come to light," she added.
\u201cLIVE NOW: A \u2018Stop the Black Attack\u2019 rally is being held in response to FL Gov. Ron DeSantis' decision to block an Advanced Placement course on African American studies https://t.co/wDRhWv433m\u201d— NowThis (@NowThis) 1674668042
In Florida, those "horrors" include the centuries-long experiences of slavery and Jim Crow, including 20th-century atrocities like the Ocoee and Rosewood massacres and lynchings like the Newberry Six —events that shaped the state's modern history.
Another one of the students, high school sophomore Elijah Edwards, said that "Gov. DeSantis decided to deny the potentially life-changing class and effectively censor the freedom of our education and shield us from the truths of our ancestors."
"I thought here in this country, we believe in the free exchange of ideas, not the suppression of it," he added.
Also present at the press conference were Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D-63), Florida Legislative Black Caucus Chairwoman Dianne Hart (D-61), state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-35), American Federation of Teachers secretary-treasurer Fedrick Ingram, and National Black Justice Coalition executive director David Johns.
"By rejecting the African-American history pilot program, Ron DeSantis clearly demonstrated he wants to dictate whose story does and doesn't belong," said Driskell.
He wants to control what our kids can learn based on politics, not on sound policy. He repeatedly attacks the First Amendment rights of Floridians with books being banned from libraries and classrooms and now throwing his weight against this AP African-American history course. He is undermining the rights of parents and students to make the best decisions for themselves. He wants to say that I don't belong. He wants to say you don't belong... But we are here to tell him, we are America. Governor, Black history is American history and you are on the wrong side of history.
Acknowledging that the course "will be altered and resubmitted and most likely they'll be able to make enough changes for the governor to approve it," Driskell asked, "but at what cost? Are we really okay with Ron DeSantis deciding what's acceptable for America's students across the country about Black history?"
\u201cWhen DeSantis taught school, according to some of his students, he told them that the Confederacy had a point because they "lost property" and that abortion "was wrong". Hypocrite. Was that HIS WOKE agenda? \nVisit https://t.co/LNnmmhjyvZ.\u201d— Dr. Marvin Dunn (@Dr. Marvin Dunn) 1674575816
"Accurately teaching our history is not political until others make it so," Driskell asserted. "How is political to talk about the struggles we've endured? How is political to talk about and to remember our history?"
"The truth is the truth; you can't change it, it simply is," she added. "But if you try to sugarcoat it, if you refuse to teach it accurately, then the truth can be suppressed, it can be diminished, and if we're not vigilant, it can even be erased."
The governor also signed a law requiring "media experts" to ensure that all books in Florida classrooms are "free of pornography," are "appropriate for the age level and group," and contain no "unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination." Violators face felony charges, leading some teachers to cover or remove books from their classroom libraries for fear of running afoul of the law.
\u201cMy latest. \n\nBlack journalists knew from the jump that the end game of the CRT panic was to justify legalizing anti-Black efforts.\n\nFlorida and DeSantis are showing us what was under their *ahem* hoods this entire time. \n\nhttps://t.co/3dtnSB0lXu\u201d— Karen Attiah IS ON INSTAGRAM @karenattiah (@Karen Attiah IS ON INSTAGRAM @karenattiah) 1674666471
DeSantis stridently touts himself as a champion of "freedom."
"Together we have made Florida the freest state in these United States," he said during his 2022 State of the State address. "While so many around the country have consigned the people's rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom's vanguard."
"The decision to halt fracking was exceedingly well-reasoned, and I hope the court rejects the oil industry's reckless attempt to overturn the 9th Circuit's ruling," said one campaigner.
The American Petroleum Institute and a pair of oil companies filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday in a bid to overturn a lower federal court ruling that blocked fracking in public waters off California's coast.
"The decision to halt fracking was exceedingly well-reasoned, and I hope the court rejects the oil industry's reckless attempt to overturn the 9th Circuit's ruling," Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in a statement. "Fracking is dangerous to whales, sea otters, and other marine wildlife, and this dirty, harmful technique has no place in our ocean."
CBD and the Wishtoyo Foundation sued the Trump administration to stop offshore fracking in 2016. Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a similar case.
In 2018, U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez ordered a prohibition on permits for offshore fracking in federal waters off California, ruling that the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) had failed to adhere to multiple federal laws.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Gutierrez's decision last June, arguing that the DOI violated the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act when it allowed fracking in offshore oil and gas wells in all leased public waters off California.
In late August, the Biden administration, of which Harris is the vice president, asked the 9th Circuit for an en banc review to overturn the panel's ruling.
The Biden administration's request, which drew the ire of environmentalists because it would have enabled offshore fracking to resume, was denied in September.
"Fracking is dangerous to whales, sea otters, and other marine wildlife, and this dirty, harmful technique has no place in our ocean."
In its June ruling, the 9th Circuit stated that the DOI "should have prepared a full [environmental impact statement] in light of the unknown risks posed by the well stimulation treatments and the significant data gaps that the agencies acknowledged."
Instead, the agency "disregarded necessary caution when dealing with the unknown effects of well stimulation treatments and the data gaps associated with a program of regular fracking offshore California in order to increase production and extend well life," the 9th Circuit wrote.
The panel's decision prevents the DOI from issuing fracking permits until it completes Endangered Species Act consultations and published an environmental impact statement that "fully and fairly evaluate[s] all reasonable alternatives."
In addition to the fact that offshore fracking increases planet-wrecking greenhouse gas emissions, tens of millions of gallons of toxic fracking wastewater have been dumped into the ocean since 2010.
According to CBD scientists, "At least 10 chemicals routinely used in offshore fracking could kill or harm a broad variety of marine species, including sea otters, fish, leatherback turtles, and whales."