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While much of  the country gathers to celebrate the Fourth of July with barbecues and fireworks, nearly 2 million incarcerated people in this country will not be able to enjoy either activity.

Prison Journalism Project writers have authored stories that explore the complicated feelings of being locked behind bars on a day when millions of people are celebrating freedom. To mark the holiday, we have compiled a collection of essays and poems from our writers about patriotism, independence and how their identity as an American has been affected by incarceration.   

To some, like M. Yayah Sandi, being American is synonymous with privilege, pride and love of country. For others, like Heather C. Jarvis and Kevin D. Sawyer, celebrating freedom from behind bars feels ironic. While all of the stories we’ve curated acknowledge injustice, they also express hope for the future.

Why Prisoners Don’t Feel Patriotism by Kevin D. Sawyer: “When one’s freedom is assailed constantly, one tends to form a dim view of fidelity to the state.”

Silhouette of a woman raising her fist in the air

This Independence Day, I Declare My Life Is More Than This by Heather C. Jarvis: “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.”

Immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds appear at a swearing in ceremony for US citizenship

Even in Prison, U.S. Citizenship Keeps Me Where I Want to Be by M. Yayah Sandi: “Regardless of all its flaws, America provides me with opportunities I do not believe I can have anywhere else in the world, especially with a criminal record. I will always refer to myself as an American citizen by choice.”

Color fireworks light up a night sky

An Incarcerated Man’s Feelings of Longing and Patriotism by Kory “Hussain” McClary: “The older I grow in this cell, the more I wish I would’ve served my country better.”

Roll of U.S. Constitution laying on top of the American flag.

On Fourth of July, Remember America’s Potential by Ken Wyatt: “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.”

A river rushes through large boulders and trees

The Rock, the River and the Tree by Mesro Dhu Rafa’a: “​​My life / Consists of standing firm / Through the ages. / I represent the rock / And its various stages. / The river rushes / Around my foundation, / Causing commotion, / Its motion / Thins my stature / By public erosion. / Yet, / Like the tree, I stand / Firm, brave, and courageous.”

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.

Elena Townsend-Lerdo is a volunteer editor at Prison Journalism Project and a student in California. She has been writing about prison journalism since 2017.

India Claudy is a volunteer editor at Prison Journalism Project and a student in California. She is passionate about inclusive, accessible journalism.