Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Advertise in our classifieds section
Your classified listing could be here!
October 4, 2022

Learn from system-impacted individuals

Natan Murillo

Texas has an incredibly large prison population that stands out internationally. Mass incarceration found a home here, and Austin is no exception. In Travis County alone, there are 2,294 people in jail. 

Incarceration is a piece of every community, but when we talk about our city, we often forget to include those who are system-impacted or part of the prison population. As a government student, my exposure to this community informs how I look at our country’s systems, forcing me to think more critically about the problems that Americans face. 

UT students can grow their perspective and help system-impacted individuals through volunteer work and engagement with community-based organizations. 

System-impacted individuals continue to face collateral consequences, sanctions, restrictions or disqualifications that stem from their criminal history. Political rights, like the ability to vote, and social rights, like access to housing assistance, are affected even after they leave the criminal justice system, regardless of why they served time.  

“There’s still social resistance to employment, to housing, where we’re restricted because of our felony convictions, and there’s still the barrier of education, one of the number-one guarantors of prevention for recidivism,” said Robert Lilly, a criminal justice participatory defense organizer for Grassroots Leadership

Not only do system-impacted people face barriers to reentry, but they are also negatively impacted by the societal stereotypes placed upon them. 

“No matter what progress we make individually, we are still seen as a group, and so if one person reoffends or one parolee acts out, the likelihood is that all of us can be tainted from that person’s choices,” Lilly said. 

By educating themselves on the issues that system-impacted individuals face, UT students can help this community push past barriers and better connect with the rest of Austin. 

“There’s so many ways that our society divides people up and it becomes difficult to see connection or commonality, and this is just one of them,” said Michael Hames-Garcia, a Mexican American & Latina/o studies professor and director of education for the Initiative for Law, Societies and Justice. “Whatever we can do to break those barriers down and see people as complex humans, that enriches students’ lives and gives them an opportunity to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of someone who’s completely different.”

Students can learn from system-impacted people and help change preconceived notions through volunteering with groups like Grassroots Leadership, Texas Center for Justice and Equality and Austin Justice Coalition. By picking up the phone and reaching out to organizations that serve system-impacted individuals, we can lead within our community.

Interacting with system-impacted people can expose us to experiences we cannot otherwise understand. 

These organizations have a need for research and also run programs where students can take on active roles in the community. Run by Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Advocates for Justice Program observes courtrooms to hold them accountable and ensures public opinion is present in these spaces. Students can also volunteer to go to a prison, share their experiences and learn from those currently in the system.

“(Through their work), students must realize that just because someone has been incarcerated  doesn’t once again disqualify them from being a human being,” Lilly said. “It’s just about realizing that this person may be uncertain about everything that you might consider the norm or that you take for granted.”

System-impacted individuals deserve our understanding, focus and attention. There is so much we can learn from them, and we must take an active role by seizing the opportunity to help our community. 

Muthukrishnan is a government and race, indigeneity and migration sophomore from Los Gatos, California.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Sonali Muthukrishnan, Associate opinion editor