Freedom

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  This is the opening of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776.  The nation born from the struggle to achieve better treatment for its people by casting off its oppressors commemorates its freedom from July 4th rather than from September 3, 1783 when Great Britain signed the peace treaty ending the revolution and acknowledging the sovereignty of the United States of America.  Freedom was not granted by the oppressors, rather it was taken by force by the oppressed.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the country can celebrate freedom today.  Millions of men and women are incarcerated in jails and prisons all across the country.  When you don’t have the ability to participate in life, liberty, or pursue happiness there really isn’t much to celebrate on a national holiday that you can’t experience.

Christmas is a religious and cultural holiday.  Thanksgiving remembers the difficulties of establishing a home in the “new world.”  Memorial Day acknowledges the sacrifice of our soldiers to defend us.  Labor Day acknowledges the efforts of the people to make the engines of commerce run.  Those in prison can find connection to some or all these holidays, but Independence Day in my experience was different.

Prisoners have had their freedom taken away because they violated societies code of conduct.  Why take away freedom?  Because after life, liberty is the most valuable thing a person can possess.  It is like the punishment we received as children when our parents took away our favorite toy.  We didn’t like that but when that didn’t work, what did they do?  They put us in time out, which escalated to grounding when behavior fails to conform to expectation.

Parents do this because it works, sort of.  When we were little it didn’t take much to pursued us to behave.  But over time the punishment increased in severity as the effectiveness diminished.  The same thing happens with adults.  Harsher punishments for more heinous crimes and 3 strike laws to increase penalties for repeat offenders.  But just like children over time with repeated offense the effectiveness diminishes.

Nonetheless when you are in prison you are not free, but you remember what freedom was like.  You miss it terribly because all around you are reminders of what you have lost and what it takes to deny it from you.  On one hand you watch the officers and staff go home every night, cars driving by on the streets beyond the fences and the TV brings images of what’s passing you by.  On the other hand, you can’t get away from razor wire, monotonous routine, and loneliness day after day.  All of these are enough to drive you crazy and the last thing you want is something like a holiday dedicated to freedom to rub salt in the wound.

Holidays are times when people in the world get together with family and friends, take road trips, and gorge at feasts.  Prison can only offer pale facsimiles that leave little to be desired.  Once upon a time there were picnic holiday meals served on the big yard with burgers and hotdogs cooked on the grill, as the old timers tell it.  But any pretense of holiday celebration is long gone.  Holiday meals are only slightly distinguishable from any other meals.  Like putting fixings on a burger and ice cream on pie.  At my last prison the local community fireworks display was visible over the tree tops for those that had a view from their housing unit windows facing that direction.  While they drew the attention of a few guys, most simply complained about the noise.

Holidays meant that non-custodial staff would have the day off, so things like the library or gym callouts would be cancelled.  This always caused complaints, since these callouts would not be rescheduled for another day.  The visiting room was always crowded on the holidays.  Holidays meant limited hours compared to the normal visiting room hours of operation.  Vending machines run low and there is no one to refill them.  Lots of irregulars working means that chaos rules.  All this takes away from the enjoyment of having contact with family or friends.

The phones are always busy on holidays as guys call home hoping to make contact with family and friends visiting the house that they wouldn’t normally get to speak with.  Providing that you can get through.

After the Independence Day holiday is over there is an almost audible sigh of relief when things go back to “normal” at least until the next holiday in September.  The only independence day that a prisoner wants to celebrate is the day that they are released from incarceration.

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