Panelists Discuss Lack of Support for Students Affected by Incarceration

A panel of two students and one professor spoke to about 30 people on March 26 about the challenges of navigating Emory as individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, or “systems-impacted” individuals.

“Systems-impacted” individuals include people affected by their own incarceration or the incarceration of family members or friends, according to panelist Jamani “Roe” Montague (16Ox, 18C). At Emory, systems-impacted students often lack a strong support system, the speakers said.

The panel, held in the Math and Science Center, was moderated by Assistant Director of Emory’s Center for Women Chanel Craft Tanner (16G) and hosted by Emory Students for Prison Education, Activism and Resistance (SPEAR), Feminists in Action (FIA) and Behind the Glass.

Panelist and SPEAR Volunteer Coordinator Sabrina Nargiz (17Ox, 19C) shared how she sought emotional counseling on campus last semester after her brother was incarcerated. Nargiz’s counselor eventually referred Nargiz to a counselor at an off-campus location and recommended that she pay out-of-pocket for appointments.

“The only thing [my first counselor] could use to compare [my emotional struggle] with was grief, which wasn’t really right,” Nargiz said. “In my mind, my brother wasn’t dead — he was locked up.”

Panelist and Office of Student Success Programs and Services employee Christina Jordan (04C, 08PH) acknowledged that it can be difficult to start active dialogue in environments like a university campus, where systems-impacted narratives comprise a minority of experiences and encouraged students to find safe spaces.

“If you can find safety, if you can find individuals who can understand [systems-impacted] conversation, speak,” Jordan said. “There are people who are just like you, who are here.”

Montague demanded change in Emory’s support systems.

“We gotta shake things up,” Montague said about advocating for improved institutional support for systems-impacted students. “I don’t think that our administrators are intentionally overlooking this issue, [but] I just think that it’s not on their radar.”

Montague and Nargiz (17Ox, 19C) first heard the term “systems-impacted” in November 2017 at the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. They expanded the original definition, which applied only to previously or currently incarcerated students, to accommodate the experiences of Emory students.

“As long as [SPEAR] keeps discovering groups who are impacted by the system, we’re going to keep expanding the definition,” Montague said.

SPEAR, which was founded in Fall 2017 with a focus on students volunteering at municipal prisons, attracted systems-impacted students who found the organization’s services meaningful, according to Nargiz. Now, SPEAR doubles as a safe space for system-impacted students.

Montague said that attending Emory has given her access to resources about prison systems that she could not have otherwise accessed. She said that studying at Emory has changed the way she understands and talks about incarceration.

“Even [in] the ways in which I talk about incarceration, there’s a divide between me and my family,” Nargiz said. “An academic standpoint … allows me to distance myself from the issue.”

Nargiz acknowledged that as a white student, she considers herself to have “privilege” when discussing a topic that largely impacts black people.

“Mass incarceration of black bodies is a problem and, obviously, I can’t identify with that in my [experience],” Nargiz said. “I feel like there’s a difference, even a sort of privilege, in that.”

Fransha Dace (17Ox, 19C), who attended the event, said she was surprised to learn that Emory lacks proper support for systems-impacted students.

“These worthy students … who work hard for their position here are not supported in the right way,” Dace said.

Ashley Rivas-Triana (20C), who also attended the panel, said that she appreciated hearing Emory students and alums discuss unexplored issues, such as systems-impacted students’ difficulty receiving financial aid.