‘Underground scholars’ reverse school-to-prison pipeline

After transferring to Berkeley in his early 30s, Danny Murillo did a research project on suspension practices in the public schools, looking at discipline meted out, in particular, to young black men.

Martin Vela-Sachez and Danny Murillo

“Underground scholars” Martin Vela-Sanchez, left, and Danny Murillo (UC Berkeley photo)

As an ethnic-studies major, Murillo had a strong academic interest in what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

As a former prison inmate, he also had a deeply personal stake in the topic – one it wasn’t in his nature to hide.

On campus, Murillo soon met Steven Czifra, an English major who had also spent his young adulthood behind bars, survived the harsh deprivations of solitary confinement, and sought to square his past with student life.

Together they were instrumental in founding the Underground Scholars Initiative, an organization for students and prospective students who have been personally impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system. Two years on, the fledgling group has a small core membership, ASUC funding and an office in Stiles Hall, on Bancroft Way, where it hosted a soft launch in December.

There, in a high-spirited conversation with some 50 students, campus staff and supporters, “underground scholars” talked about how the group has helped them transition to university culture and navigate unique challenges — from laws that shut former felons out of public services and jobs (“those hundred little deaths,” as one student put it) to the risk of stigmatization should they share their story with classmates or teachers.

Violeta Alvarez told her Stiles Hall audience that her history was “bottled inside” when she first came to Berkeley. “Little by little, I started disclosing: ‘I’m formerly incarcerated,'” she said. And though some did judge her, on balance it’s been good, she added.

Former ASUC senator Wendy Pacheco has not served time herself, but said her father’s imprisonment “brings a lot of hurt.” Being able to ask Murillo what he liked to get in the mail while in prison — “that was really helpful, to know how I could be a supportive daughter…. USI means a lot to me.”

Keeping it real

In interviews and speaking engagements, formerly incarcerated students speak of struggles to “keep it real” in all aspects of their lives, to fend off “imposter syndrome” and stigma on campus and cope with the trauma of incarceration.

“I need to represent” when other students express attitudes about criminality that contradict his own experience, says Martin Vela-Sanchez, a fourth-year comparative literature and Spanish literature major.

Steve Czifra on his personal story and the effects of solitary confinement.

“‘You’re all tatted up. How are you at Cal?'” Claudia Gonzalez recalls folks saying, back home, of her unlikely “180” from gang member to social-welfare major and aspiring lawyer. Some people “think you’re a traitor” — though for others she’s become a role model, she adds. “They’re proud that one of us made it out.”

“For some of us,” notes Murillo, “our communities in prison and on the streets have been our biggest supporters.”

The emergence of Underground Scholars parallels growing attention to incarceration in the curriculum. Recent additions include an American Cultures “Big Ideas” course on prisons (taught by Berkeley faculty from ethnic studies, law and architecture). A Townsend Center working group, “Critical Prison Studies in an Age of Mass Incarceration,” helped lay the groundwork for “Carceral Geographies,” a new course thread that helps undergrads organize interdisciplinary studies around issues of crime and punishment. In the student-led DeCal course “Teach in Prison,” first introduced in 2000, students explore prison issues in class and can volunteer as tutors at San Quentin.

Creating a different pipeline

Gonzalez — who calls getting into Berkeley “my ultimate act of redemption” — discovered Teach in Prison during her first semester on campus, and is now a leader of the program.

“I’m motivated, I’m fueled,” she says. In addition to her course work, Gonzalez has been doing anti-gang and prison-reform organizing in Merced County; this semester she’s taking a leave of absence to direct an anti-gang program.

“Everyone who’s formerly incarcerated has the power to educate, to empower our communities. Because that’s what’s needed,” she declares.

The desire to be of service is shared by many formerly incarcerated students. As a result of her work in the Valley, Gonzalez is interested in going into immigration and constitutional law. Both Murillo and Vela-Sanchez want to teach, most likely in community college, where they say they may be particularly useful as role models.

Czifra plans to go to graduate school and become a professor, after first completing a research project on writing and solitary confinement — “a form of torture,” he says, that against all odds led him to “a life beyond my wildest dreams. I understand scarcity, so I live in a constant state of gratitude…. The Titanic went down and everybody died except for a few people in boats. I’m in the boat. I made it.”

He hopes that Underground Scholars will continue to build a prison-to-school pipeline after he and its first wave of students earn their Berkeley diplomas.

“We’ve been on the 10-yard line” for a while, adds Vela-Sanchez. “Now finally we’re ready for some yard gainage. A lot is going to come to fruition.”

To reach the Underground Scholars Initiative, email undergroundscholars@berkeley.edu.

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