On this Juneteenth, let’s remember those in prison.

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Juneteenth” by Synthia Saint James

Tomorrow is Juneteenth, the commemoration of a declaration of emancipation for the last remaining enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy, in Galveston Texas.

On this year’s Juneteenth, we are in the middle of a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black, Latinx, and Native communities, as well as a national movement to address the longstanding impact of racism and white supremacy in our country. We are in a fight for collective liberation.

And as we are fighting for freedom from racist police structures, violent and deadly supremacist narratives, and institutional inequities in every sector of society, let us not forget those who are still held captive by our nation’s system of mass incarceration.

As Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself.”

Prisons are a microcosm of many of the worst narratives held by our nation. Combine our nation’s myth of meritocracy, with its obsession with law and order, faulty theologies based in retribution and redemptive violence, and the narrative of Black (and brown) criminality that undergirds white supremacy, and you get our current system of mass incarceration that is vastly ineffective, costs billions, and disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and Native communities. These racialized narratives of criminality and immorality are similarly projected onto many of our immigrant siblings, building up a rhetoric of certain human beings as “illegal,” and allowing both children and adults to be separated from their families and detained by ICE in unjust and harmful conditions. Some of these adults are held in ICE detention after serving previous prison sentences.

As Dr. Angela Davis states so powerfully in Are Prisons Obsolete:

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“Because of the persistent power of racism, “criminals” and “evildoers” are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs — it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

Our prison system is not only racist, but also invests massive amounts of our resources into the control and criminalization of communities of color, rather than into their health, economic development, and flourishing. We spend an estimated $100 billion on policing every year, and another $80 billion on incarceration (which some say is a gross underestimate), and consequently, these systems consume a vast majority of our social wealth and divert funds away from alleviating the conditions that lead people to prison in the first place. Imagine how different our society would look if we spent $180 billion a year on programs that supported education, jobs, housing, health care, economic development, and healing for communities who are most vulnerable!

As an Asian American who used to volunteer regularly in prisons, and experienced deep kinship and shared faith with many incarcerated siblings, I take a moment to remember them in this moment:

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Prison Crowding in the midst of covid-19: Image from ABC News
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Inmates at Mesa Verde Detention Facility share their demands.

If you feel compelled to work towards the rights and liberation of those impacted by mass incarceration and immigration detention, consider these 4 simple action areas.

Co-Pastor @bethelcommunitysl | Director of Advocacy @fphayward | pastor, activist, writer | married to @eubanksme | co-author of @lentenlament | she/her

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