This article was first published by The Pioneer, a newspaper at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.
We are living through an era of change in American government. These days, it is politically fashionable to take a side — it seems we are expected to choose between the extreme left or extreme right.
Just in my lifetime, there have been a number of extremely divisive moments where it appeared our society would tear itself apart. Rodney King and the subsequent turmoil is my earliest memory of such a moment. Before that, there were countless examples of social unrest, much of which can be attributed to the struggle for civil rights.
The great social awakening that seems to be transpiring in more recent times should remind everyone, on both sides of the ideological aisle, that our country was created to protect the individual freedoms and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.
Our nation has made countless mistakes, and yet we are a country that grows and matures. We fix our mistakes, albeit slowly.
It is ironic that our founding documents were crafted by Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant man who spoke eloquently about all men being equal and endowed with inalienable rights. He spoke of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and he was an enslaver.
Jefferson was flawed. Our Constitution was and is flawed.
But it is arguable that the divisions in our government at that time were far worse than they are today. We have come a long way and have a long way yet to go, but I am optimistic for our future.
Let me tell you why.
Our Constitution, despite the moral failings of the people who wrote it, has established an ideal on which to base claims for freedom and equality. The preamble reads in part, “… in order to form a more perfect union.” Get it? A more perfect union. We can improve upon this democracy — and we must.
Our great experiment in democracy is a process. We must play the long game. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the stars by which we should navigate.
Our country depends on an informed populace to make smart decisions about who we vote for or what we are voting for or against. I am excited that many in the incarcerated community will regain the right to vote when they get out. If you care about the way our country is governed, then it is your civic duty to participate in government.
Many of us have become jaded or cynical because of perceived injustices, or we have in fact experienced the discrimination and bias that so many of our countrymen still hold onto.
Let me submit to you that our country rights wrongs, we solve problems. The 14th Amendment. Brown v. Board of Education — these are examples where we fixed our mistakes. It’s our system of government that made that possible.
Our country allows free speech, the ability to lawfully assemble and we have a free press (even, in some cases, in prison). We can fix or amend documents, we can change laws and we have the opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of those who cling to the past.
And our constitution protects us against cruel and unusual punishment. I am grateful that I am here in America and not serving my time in some foreign prison, where treatment is often much worse.
Our country has a legacy of legalized social injustice — the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Plessy v. Ferguson and too many more to name — but we have become better. And it is the Constitution that has allowed us to make these changes and expand freedoms.
Social justice is what our country is about, and I am proud to be part of this experiment in self-government.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.