Juneteenth Behind Bars: A Story of Joy, Sorrow, and Persistent Inequality

Juneteenth is a complex day for those incarcerated, particularly Black inmates who are reminded of the elusive promise of freedom. It’s a day marked by both jubilation and sadness, a stark reminder of the freedoms they yet yearn for.

The tale begins with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, during the heart of the Civil War. This decree boldly declared all slaves within the rebellious Confederate states “forever free.” However, the promise of freedom was symbolic for the approximately four million enslaved individuals as it was neither applicable to slaveholding Union states nor respected by the Confederate states.

The Civil War’s end in April 1865 did not instantly erase the shackles of slavery. As Confederate territories fell to the Union Army, Texas transformed into a sanctuary for slave owners. It wasn’t until June 19, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, that the enslaved in Texas were granted freedom. This momentous day, when roughly 250,000 enslaved people were emancipated, is what we now commemorate as Juneteenth.

A unique observance of Juneteenth began in the early 2000s at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Black inmates, despite the Department of Corrections’ indifference, initiated a Juneteenth celebration by rebranding an “African American Cultural Event.” This act of resilience inspired similar celebrations across various correctional facilities in the state.

Many, like myself, were not privy to Juneteenth’s history before being incarcerated. Yet, as I became enlightened by fellow inmates, it sparked a desire to understand how African Americans commemorate this day. Over the years, the celebration has evolved, inviting family, friends, and community members to connect on a deeper level with the incarcerated. These occasions are filled with personal touches, such as customized meals and entertainment, that go beyond standard visitations.

The significance of Juneteenth is heightened within the prison walls, a potent reminder of the long journey of Black Americans from slavery to freedom. However, the celebration is tinged with a sense of grief and irony because of the mass incarceration of African Americans. This bitter reality can be traced back to the 13th Amendment which, while abolishing slavery, exempted those convicted of crimes.

This loophole, explored in theories like “Thirteentherism,” is seen as a foundation for the racially skewed mass incarceration we witness today. In Washington state alone, 33 percent of prisoners serving lengthy sentences for offenses committed before they were 25 are Black, while Black individuals only make up 4.3 percent of the state’s population.

Such disparities in the justice system are embodied in stories like Devontae Crawford’s, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison while his three white co-conspirators were released. This stark contrast between the punishment meted out to Black and white offenders is a stark reminder of the systematic racial bias that persists.

This contradiction between celebrating the abolition of slavery while suffering within a system that has replaced it is a constant struggle for Black men in prison. Despite being trapped within one of America’s most dehumanizing systems, joy is derived from the commemoration of Juneteenth. But this joy is not without its indignities.

In one absurd instance, inmates were required to pay around $1,500 for a Juneteenth celebration, including $1,000 for additional guards. Keep in mind that the average wage for inmates in Washington state caps at a meager $55 a month. This means, if Black prisoners wanted their children to partake in the Juneteenth celebration, they would essentially have to work 3,600 hours at near-slave wages to foot the bill.

Facing these persistent injustices, Black prisoners continue to maintain their joy and dignity in the face of adversity. Despite the social conditions that systematically degrade their sense of self-worth, they persist. In the face of such trials, a simple shout of encouragement from a child during a Juneteenth performance can serve as a beacon of hope.

These individuals, much like their ancestors, not only survive but sometimes thrive, refusing to allow their humanity to be disregarded. Thus, they continue to celebrate freedom and life, all while living in modern-day chains.