Silhouette of a woman raising her fist in the air
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On the Fourth of July, sometimes those of us in prison can hear the fireworks boom outside the walls. Sometimes we even catch quick glimmers of light from the explosions off the bars in our windows. For me, and almost 2 million other incarcerated Americans, these are not signs of independence, but a reminder that we are not free.

“America, land of the free, home of the brave” is a powerful mantra heard in our country this time of year. But I believe there is a word missing. It should be “America, land of the free or home of the brave.”

America — land of the free — has the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world. The causes are widely debated, but as a woman incarcerated in America, I am forced to be brave when facing the harsh conditions inside these walls.

My use of the word “or” is meant to imply that we have a choice. It draws attention to our need for all of us — those of us who are not free and those of us who are — to be brave. For too long in the justice system, the word “or” has been forgotten. What would happen if we paid more attention to it?

Can the rest of America — and the politicians and the judges — be brave, too?

Prison term or rehab.

Prison term or drug court.

Prison term or home confinement.

Sentence harshly or sentence smartly.

Tear apart or rebuild society.

Throw away the key or believe in redemption.

Our country believes in punishment. Can we as a nation believe in rehabilitation? We do not need more prisons. We need more compassion and more treatment.

I often think of the “or” while I am counting bricks.

Let my circumstances break me or raise me up.

Just take it or stand up for my beliefs.

Be quiet or demand to be heard.

Defeat or atonement.

Wrong or right.

Die or live.

Those are my choices.

So this Independence Day, to acknowledge the choices I have made, I too am making a bold declaration.

My name is Heather Jarvis, not #93371.

I declare my life is more than this.

I declare I won’t be shattered by a broken system.

I declare I am a good, worthy person.

I declare my story will not end here.

I declare the cycle will be broken, and I declare I will redeem myself.

What do you declare?

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.

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Heather Jarvis

Heather Jarvis is a writer incarcerated in Ohio. A winner of the PEN America annual prison writing contest, her work has appeared in the Iowa Review PWP, The Crime Report and The Journal of Woman and Criminal Justice.