Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Independence Day is Subject to Interpretation

By Walter Fortson
Photo credit:
Each year, Americans across the nation celebrate Independence Day; commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence by our forefathers, solidifying our freedom from Great Britain.  With American pastimes of fireworks, sporting events, picnics and parades, every year our citizens don the streets with their children, wearing light-up necklaces and bracelets, showing patriotism to our dear country.
As for me, and millions of others, the concept of Independence Day doesn’t quite resonate; at least not in terms of patriotism. July 4, 1776 was not a celebration for those serving life sentences on southern plantations, and 237 years later, the same demographic struggles with American systems that occlude freedom.

African-American males are the most incarcerated demographic in the nation –and on the planet. From 2008 to 2010, I, too, was a part of that population. Vividly, I recall the feelings and emotions that came with being stripped of my freedom, sanctity, and integrity throughout that period in my life. For those two years, I was property of the state of New Jersey. “810161D” became my identity.

Forced to work 14-hour days in a kitchen preparing meals and snacks for the New Lisbon Development Center, a state-based facility for individuals with developmental disabilities, I, and many inmates, felt like modern-day slaves. As a part of New Jersey’s Stabilization and Reintegration Program, inmates were forced to carry out all the day-to-day duties for maintaining this state-run facility.

There was no option to quit. If you refused to report to work, you were given a disciplinary sanction called an “I-override,” and were immediately sent to “lock-up” or solitary confinement, and later moved to administrative segregation; which basically is the prison of the prison. The days were long and hard, and always ended with the all of the inmate workers being strip searched all at once in what was called the multi-purpose room.

I was paid $1.40 a day, which resulted in $26 dollars a month after fees for states fines were deducted.  The money I earned was used to purchase commissary items like soap, deodorant, and other toiletries, and food. Many items of the commissary list cost more than I could ever pay.  For example, a hand-held AM/FM analog radio, an item that isn’t even sold in dollar stores anymore, would have taken a month and a half’s pay to get. It was $40.

I remember, every night, going to sleep staring at the grey cinder-blocked wall thinking “How did I get here?” As time went on, my dreams began to incorporate prison, as if I’d forgotten what it was like to be free. I was cut off and shut out from the world, and only connected through a one-time a week phone call that cost my mom $15.

For me, July 4 was just another day of the year.  I couldn’t relate. Freedom enjoys the luxury of the what, where, when, how, and why of life.  Living as a prisoner in a free country was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. One can never appreciate freedom until you’ve lost it, and earned it again.  March 29, 2010 was my independence day, and I’ll never forget it.

Walter is JPI's research intern.  To read more about Walter, click here.


  1. Wake them up, Walter. Thank you for writing this. A modern-day “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”
    I respond with a modern-day Thurgood Marshall:
    Only one thing can justify mass incarceration and the wage-slavery of prisoners: a determination that people made poor, and a disproportionate amount of those once enslaved, should be kept as near to those two conditions as is possible.

    - S.G.

  2. Walter:

    Whether your efforts to effect redemption were buttressed by a strong external support system (i.e., family, friends, church, community, etc.), or they are simply the result of your own inner resources, I heartily applaud your resolve.

    Hopefully, you will recall me as the 6'8", dreadlocked man who attended Monday's book-signing at OSI-Baltimore. Having met and interacted with you, however briefly, I think I can reasonably conjecture that you'll do just fine.

    However, I can't help but wonder how much of your regeneration is attributable to any service(s) or programming to which you were made privy by the institution or staff where you were an inmate? In particular, what meaningful, substantive role did your case manager(s) or counselor(s) play in preparing you for your re-integration to society?

    On the basis of my own recent 13-month encounter with the federal prison system, I suspect that the answer to my question is most "little" or "none. And, to me, therein lies the the most fraudulent ruse about corrections.

    I was incarcerated as a 56 year-old man who was utterly imbued of the misconception that correctional institutions were places where willing inmates could obtain formal educations, learn hard skills, as well as, acquire life skills and abilities – perhaps, trades – that would aid their reentry into society, upon release.

    What I saw was a system wherein hordes of young Black and Brown men are warehoused, virtually enslaved and provided with no meaningful rehabilitation programs or services -- despite the funding they receive to do precisely that.

    You will succeed, Walter. There is no doubt in my mind about that. All that I observed about you, as well as, what I've now read gives me that assurance. You will likely prosper, personally and professionally. You will walk a straight and narow path through what portends to be a productive life. You will most certainly not recidivate.

    And, while they likely did little-to-nothing to engender your regeneration, the criminal and juvenile systems -- and all of their component parts -- will hold you up as a shining example of their efficacy.