Land of the Free? Land of the Incarcerated.

Editor's Note:

Watching the annual Rose, White and Blue 4th of July Parade in San Jose, Public Defender Sajid Khan finds himself thinking of all those folks who are not free in this country and asks us to remember them, too.

The annual Rose, White and Blue 4th of July Parade rolled through my San Jose neighborhood. Hundreds lined the streets waving American flags as the floats, cars and parade participants shrouded in red, white and blue passed. Standing there amidst the celebration, I struggled to cheer. I couldn’t applaud. Flashes of oft forgotten souls incarcerated in our Santa Clara County jails, California prisons and lockups across the country filled my consciousness.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), United States adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,741,400 people at year end 2015. About 1 in 37 adults (or 2.7 percent of all adults) in the country was under some form of correctional supervision. An estimated 2,173,800 persons were either under the jurisdiction of state or federal prisons or in the custody of local jails in the United States.   

The BJS reported that 35% of state prisoners are white, 38% are black, and 21% are Hispanic, revealing a degree of disproportion for people of color when compared to the overall general population (where 62% are white, 13% are black, and 17% are Hispanic). In twelve states more than half of the prison population was African American. The Hispanic population in state prisons was as high as 61% in New Mexico and 42% in both Arizona and California.  

As of 2015, Black people were incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times higher than white people (1,408 black persons per 100,000 versus 275 white people per 100,000). Hispanics were held in state prisons at an average rate of 378 per 100,000. 

All told, as of October 2013, the United States of America locked up more people, per capita, than any country in the world (716 people locked up per 100,000 of the national population). While the United States represented about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it housed around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 11 million people cycle through our jails each year. 

These numbers aren’t gas prices or stock market values or interest rates. 

The numbers are people caged, 
families broken, communities mangled, generations crippled.  

Land of the free?  The land of the incarcerated. 

So on this 4th of July, celebrate, but not blindly or naively. Perhaps wave a flag, but don’t forget the forgotten. On this day, in this moment, let’s remember our brothers, sisters, and neighbors locked away in our jails because of untreated addictions, unhealed trauma and poverty. Let’s be mindful of the men and women warehoused in our prisons on disproportionate sentences. Let’s recognize the millions saddled with the scarlet letter of felony convictions and consumed by our mass incarceration monster.  

On this 4th of July, let’s resolve to end our hypocrisy. Let’s truncate our bloated penal codes.  Let’s push back against mandatory minimums, the pervasive ideology of “you do the crime, you do the time,” and the psyche of jail equaling justice. Let’s re-think and revamp our means and methods of responding to crime. Let’s counter and dismantle the machine of mass incarceration. Let’s breathe life and meaning into the lofty words of our Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

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