Three flights after leaving New York, I arrived in an overcast Austin, Texas. I was literally and figuratively a bit lost.
My decision to attend the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break was what some might call impulsive. I had booked my flights a mere three weeks earlier, despite the fact that I had never been to Austin and didn't know anyone else going. I knew that the "traditional" college spring break didn't really appeal to me though, and I wanted to do something with significance lasting beyond the pictures I would take to document it with.
Over the course of the week, I spent time with six exonerated former death row inmates, family members of innocent men on death row and several experts and members of death penalty abolition groups. The strategic location of the conference - in a state notorious for its long record of capital punishment - reinforced the message of its organizers: Federal- and state-sanctioned killing is wrong, and must be opposed by regular citizens if there's any hope of stopping it.
I soon found out that my fellow attendees all resided in Texas, and many were surprised by my interest, perhaps because we treat the death penalty a little different "up here." Despite the lack of diversity in terms of location though, everyone had compelling reasons for being there and came from very different backgrounds.
We wasted no time diving right into the heart of the issue, having received a call from a death row inmate just two hours into the conference. Though I knew what the program entailed, I was unprepared for how personal it became.
Spending a week in the presence of those who are directly affected by the death penalty was quite emotional. Through them, I got a firsthand look at the injustice of the law of parties, the severe underfunding and poor organization of the mental health system and the healing journey that many murder victims' families embark on, which often amazingly results in many of them deciding that the death penalty isn't moral, with some even fighting for its abolition.
The week culminated in a press conference, lobbying visits and rallying at the state capital and through downtown Austin. We received very mixed reactions from the general public. While some gave us strong support, others expressed their sentiments through generous use of some colorful words.
Though I have been involved in human rights activism since high school, it wasn't until this trip that I directly immersed myself in a cause. I don't know if capital punishment reform will be my main focus in the future, but I definitely came away from my trip with a newfound disrespect for the death penalty and awareness of the ways in which the capital punishment system is seriously flawed, particularly in Texas.
I encourage anyone who is looking for a truly unique experience to explore the many alternative spring break programs offered all over the country because, as I learned, Cabo can wait. Those biding their time on death row can't afford to.