What, to the Incarcerated, is the Fourth of July?
One hundred and seventy years ago, Frederick Douglass asked, “what, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” His answer:
“a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Like Douglass, we would answer our question—what, to the incarcerated, is the Fourth of July—much the same. As the nation sings of being the land of the free, the constitution continues to enshrine slavery as a legitimate punishment for incarcerated people. As the nation celebrates life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, 1.9 million people are incarcerated nationwide—over half of whom are Black and Latinx. As the nation boasts of equality, Blacks are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites and given harsher sentences for similar convictions. As the nation shouts of liberty, 110 million Americans with arrest records struggle to find employment, obtain housing, and satisfy other basic needs due to laws that allow—and often require—discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. As the nation denounces tyrants and imagines itself a beacon of global democracy, 1 out of 5 prisoners in the world is incarcerated in the United States. As the nation basks in sermons, prayers, and hymns regarding the sanctity of life, over half of all women in U.S. prisons and 80% of women in jails are mothers—with an estimated 58,000 pregnant when they are incarcerated.
The recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade is the latest example of the bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy of the United States. Coming just days after Juneteenth, Dobbs v. Jackson is a stark reminder of just how easily our hard fought liberties can be stripped away. This loss in reproductive rights will have a devastating impact on millions of people, especially Black, Brown, low-income, and formerly incarcerated communities. Numerous states have already enacted anti-abortion laws that make it illegal to obtain, perform, or help someone get an abortion. Though more affluent communities may be able to travel to obtain an abortion, there are numerous restrictions that prohibit people on probation and parole from traveling across state lines. This will make access to safe family planning and abortion facilities difficult, if not impossible for systems impacted communities.
Today, on July 4th, as we celebrate our hard-earned freedom, let us recommit ourselves to the freedom work so necessary for obtaining and protecting those liberties—and let us remember: there is no freedom without bodily autonomy, for all of us.
About A New Way of Life
In 1998, Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project (ANWOL) to help women, families, and communities break the cycle and heal from the formidable experiences of incarceration. ANWOL promotes healing, power, and opportunity for formerly incarcerated people by taking a multifaceted approach to mitigating the effects of, and ultimately eliminating, mass incarceration, including: (1) providing housing and support to formerly incarcerated women for successful community reentry, family reunification, and individual healing; (2) working to restore the civil rights of formerly incarcerated people; and (3) empowering, organizing, and mobilizing formerly incarcerated people as advocates for social change and personal transformation.
A New Way of Life is confronting harmful stereotypes and demonstrating that alternatives to incarceration are possible. ANWOL is breaking the cycle of recidivism, repairing families, and developing leaders. The organization’s approach is built upon four key values that are necessary to promote community reentry after incarceration. (1) Every person has inherent value and holds the power of possibility and transformation within them; (2) Public resources are better invested in opportunities for transformation than on prisons and punishment; (3) Formerly incarcerated people must be at the forefront in creating solutions to the incarceration crisis; and (4) Incarceration of a family member affects the entire family and the healing process must involve the entire family. For more information about A New Way of Life Reentry Project, visit www.anewwayoflife.org.