Marcus Simmons was released from prison almost two decades ago, but says he's still chasing freedom.

He was among a crowd of about 100 protesters who commemorated the Juneteenth holiday — which marks the day in 1865 when the last American slaves received news of the their emancipation — with a march to the front gates of the massive Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Protesters at Juneteenth events across Louisiana said they were speaking out against the systemic racism they see within the American criminal justice system. They said the holiday wasn't just about reckoning with America's racist past, but examining its present.

"Everybody knows what Juneteenth represents, but the meaning is almost irrelevant now," Simmons said. "I was raised in Angola. I left behind family in there. As long as your family isn't free, you're not free either."

Juneteenth celebrations have taken on new meaning this year amid the nation's public grappling with questions of racism in the wake of George Floyd's recent death at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

Inequities in the criminal justice system have been central to the ongoing debate, prompting local prisoner rights advocates to call out what they consider the lasting impacts of slavery.

"Our people built this America that we have no place in," said Simmons, who said he served 12 years on an attempted manslaughter conviction and now teaches college welding courses. "So this time has come and it's long overdue. We're just asking for fairness."

Louisiana holds the nation's highest incarceration rate, and about two thirds of state prisoners are African American. Many are housed at Angola — the largest maximum security prison in the country, which was constructed on the site of a former slave plantation.

Even today, Angola inmates cultivate acres of crops, marching out to the fields each morning in long lines escorted by armed guards on horseback, and getting paid just a few cents an hour for their labor.

"It's a modern day form of slavery," said Ivy Mathis, a community organizer with the prisoner rights group VOTE, which planned the march to Angola. "Here it is 2020 and we're still marching for change."

She said the novel coronavirus lends a new urgency to their work. The virus has spread rampantly behind bars, where social distancing is often impossible. So far, 15 state prison inmates have died from coronavirus, 12 of them at Angola, according to Department of Corrections data.

Corrections officials have done little to reduce the state's prison population, even for the dozens of inmates who have applied for clemency and received positive recommendations from the pardon board but are awaiting the signature of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Meanwhile nationwide public health data has revealed the coronavirus pandemic is having an outsized impact on communities of color with African Americans dying at a higher rate than their white neighbors, in part because underlying health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes are more common.

Protesters said that confluence of factors is shedding light on America's racial inequities.

Most of the Angola marchers came from Baton Rouge and New Orleans. They walked almost two miles in the hot afternoon sun, sometimes pulling down facemasks to wipe away sweat and chanting along the way.

West Feliciana sheriff's deputies escorted the group, closing down the right lane of Tunica Trace.

The group then gathered in the parking lot outside Angola's front gates, listening to speeches and praying together for the thousands of incarcerated men behind the prison walls.

"They're not alone," said Rene Smith, another VOTE organizer. "This system doesn't treat them like humans, but we're out here fighting for their rights."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.