In correctional facilities, one of the three special meals served each year comes on our nation’s birthday, when wardens trade the usual slop for a more traditional, celebratory barbeque lunch. The lesson every July was unmistakable: This institution is doing something special for you today because it prizes freedom and independence as much as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Now shut up, sit down, eat that ice cream in 30 seconds or we will rip it from your hands so the next person can celebrate her liberty.
The irony of this holiday prison meal is that independence isn’t necessarily something that correctional administrators want to foster. The Declaration of Independence was a group grievance, a revolution and a threat that allegiance and obedience were over.
Those are dangerous ideas in any prison. I once asked a supervisor on July 4th: “You know what this cheeseburger really means, right?” She might have cited me for starting a riot if she had understood what I was saying.
Misapprehension of the Declaration of Independence isn’t reserved for prisons and jails. Many people don’t understand that the Declaration of Independence has no controlling authority over our daily lives. It’s symbolic; it didn’t enumerate any rights we didn’t technically already have.
The real birth of this nation and our real freedoms happened when the Constitution was signed more than a decade after we asserted our independence. The Constitution declared we valued freedom so much that we devised rules to prevent it from being arbitrarily snatched from us. Our Founding Fathers designed a country with freedom as a default that would be difficult to dislodge.
In essence, the Declaration of Independence is the equivalent of packing your belongings to move out of your abusive ex’s place. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the keys and alarm system to your new home. To me, it’s the latter and not the former that’s more important to remember.
But we don’t celebrate Constitution Day anywhere. It’s an official day - Sept. 17 - but it slides by all of us without notice or napkins that look like the flag. Why wouldn’t it? We don’t value checks on government power.
In this country stand at least 7,443 monuments to our ability to strip a person of his liberty. That’s how many separate systems of confinement we have according to the Prison Policy Initiative and that doesn’t include military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment/psychiatric hospitals, or prisons in the U.S. territories, buildings where people are practically force-fed char-grilled meat every summer in the name of our nation’s history.
As surely as hot dogs graced my plastic tray every July in prison, at least one Constitutional right has been violated for every one of those 2.3 million people in custody. Having witnessed the due process violations in these institutions myself, I don’t see how we could ever commemorate Constitution Day.
That’s why we concentrate on the Fourth. Fete your freedom all you want today. Just don’t forget: It’s kind of a fantasy.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries and is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.