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From Prison to Ph.D.: Berkeley’s Formerly Incarcerated Students

March 19, 2020
by Robin Estrin
Prisons_fp Image source: After 32 years incarcerated, James Carlin, 76, is now Berkeley's oldest first-year student. // Photo by John Powers

The Underground Scholars took a different path to Cal.

JAMES CARLIN WATCHED A SMALL AIRPLANE snake over the field beyond the barbed wire fence at Deuel Vocational Institution, a state prison in Tracy, about 60 miles east of Berkeley. He’d seen the plane before. It came at daybreak, flying low and trailing behind it a plume of chemicals. As his years in prison passed, Carlin began to notice a pattern. Each time the plane came, red bumps blistered the skin of the men lifting weights on the yard. Carlin had read environmentalist Rachel Carson; he thought the chemicals and the rashes must be related. Then it got worse. He said his friends from prison started getting cancer.

At 76, Carlin—the oldest first-year student at UC Berkeley—wants to find out why.

David Maldonado, one of USI’s founders, helps the formerly incarcerated like Carlin enroll in college courses. // Photo by John Powers

Now in his second semester, the interdisciplinary studies major is researching the question he first asked at Deuel in the 1980s: When millions of gallons of pesticides are applied annually near Central Valley correctional facilities, what becomes of the men and women locked up just across the fence? If all goes according to plan, he’ll leave Cal with enough research to deliver an answer to state legislators. 

That won’t be easy. Plenty of barriers await students like Carlin, who arrived at the country’s premier public research university with 32 years of prison under his belt. Formerly incarcerated students face many challenges, from social stigma and financial struggles to housing and job discrimination. Recognizing this group’s unique needs, two formerly incarcerated Cal students, Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, wanted a space to build community and talk critical prison theory with other students impacted by the carceral system. The political reading group they started in 2013, where they read Angela Davis and imagined a world without cages, has since transformed into the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), a student-led retention and advocacy organization with chapters at six University of California campuses.

A week before the start of this school year, Carlin signed up to do outreach for the Underground Scholars. It was hard to compete with other clubs at the event. He didn’t have a proper sign to draw people in, and he had to share a table with another student organization. So he stood there in his signature three-piece suit and cap, wearing his favorite International Workers of the World pin and waving his arms at the incoming class of 18-year-olds and their parents, saying things like, “Excuse me, ma’am, has your son been to prison?”

Carlin was released from San Quentin State Prison in 2012 and started to show up at USI a couple of years later. It was there that he met David Maldonado, one of USI’s founding members, and now a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education. Maldonado helped Carlin, who was taking community college classes at the time, cross-enroll in a UC Berkeley history class and encouraged him to apply as a full-time student. But Maldonado said Carlin hardly needed the help. “He’s had wildly more preparation—in terms of reading canonical authors—and more schooling than probably most of us put together.”

Criminalization policies in schools feed a carceral system with even more drastic racial disparities: As of 2015, around 70 percent of people in state-run prisons were men of color.

Encouraging formerly incarcerated community college students to apply to Cal is just one part of the Underground Scholars’ work. To reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, the Scholars are recruiting students from jails and prisons—and working to effect policy change. From their headquarters in Stiles Hall, social welfare student Sammie Gilmore runs a program for “Incarcerated Scholars.” Her mailbox is regularly brimming with handwritten letters from students enrolled in community colleges behind bars. Gilmore and her team of volunteers make sure that every person requesting academic advising or support with their college applications gets a meaningful reply.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the agency provides college opportunities to some 14,000 students in 35 prisons statewide. But many incarcerated students, cut off from federal Pell Grants since the mid-’90s, struggle to pay for classes on wages as meager as $.08 an hour. Plus, Gilmore said, prisons are overcrowded statewide, and the limited courses offered are often overenrolled. “They don’t have the resources, or the time, or the funding to properly operate these educational programs,” she said. “If they did, we would not exist. There would be no need for our program.”

Meanwhile, a small group of Scholars are lobbying for reform—at Cal and at the Capitol. The group is effective. In 2017, they convinced the University of California to “ban the box,” effectively removing questions about a person’s criminal convictions from job applications. The entire UC system quickly followed suit. This semester, Executive Director Azadeh Zohrabi said a group of paid fellows is partnering with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children to work on one bill to ban the box in higher education statewide, and another to relax parole terms for those enrolled in education programs.

Tackling the school-to-prison pipeline is no small task. A 2018 report from the American Bar Association found that, in under-resourced, over-policed schools, it’s not uncommon for a misbehaving student to be handed off to law enforcement rather than a school counselor. In 2012, the year Carlin was released from prison, schools referred more than a quarter million students to law enforcement and had 100,000 students arrested on school property. Black students, who account for just 16 percent of the public school population nationwide, make up 31 percent of school-related arrests, according to research from the American Civil Liberties Union. Criminalization policies in schools feed a carceral system with even more drastic racial disparities: As of 2015, around 70 percent of people in state-run prisons were men of color.

Education disparities, of course, lead to employment and opportunity disparities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan organization that studies incarceration, more than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people don’t have a high school diploma or GED. That population is facing unemployment rates rivaling those of the Great Depression, ranging from 25 percent among white men to 60 percent among black women. 

The monotony of prison life was sometimes punctuated with murders and violence, but if you played it right, Carlin said it was also a place where community and growth were possible.

Carlin is white. For 30 years in prison, he avoided trouble. He never joined a gang or got in a fight. His plan when he arrived at Folsom in 1980 was simple: no sex, no drugs, no gambling. Anything that could get him into debt with another guard or inmate, he avoided. His only “serious” rules violation in decades was for the unauthorized possession of a TV set. 

The monotony of prison life was sometimes punctuated with murders and violence, but if you played it right, Carlin said it was also a place where community and growth were possible. Especially at San Quentin, which Carlin calls “the Harvard of the prison system” for its proximity to Bay Area nonprofits, and its abundance of educational and vocational programs. Inside the state’s oldest penal institution, the Prison University Project offers academic courses ranging from calculus to creative writing to around 300 students per semester. Not everyone is so lucky to end up at San Quentin, said Carlin, who lived there for 20 years. If you want to understand what prison is really like, he said, “You have to talk to some of the others. They had it much harder.”

USI FOUNDERS DANNY MURILLO AND STEVEN CZIFRA met on their first day at UC Berkeley in 2012. Murillo was in his thirties, more than a decade older than most of the students on campus and feeling out of place, so he went to the Student Parent Center, hoping to connect with other parent-aged students. It was there he first saw Czifra. He had faded tattoos on his arms, and one on his forehead right above his eyebrow that indicated to Murillo that Czifra had grown up in a Mexican neighborhood. “I remember sensing his presence,” said Murillo, “I was intentional in wanting to talk to him.” He made his way across the room and introduced himself: “I feel uncomfortable around all these young people.” Czifra said, “Yeah, me too.” “It’s been a minute since I was in school,” Murillo said. Czifra said, “Yeah, me too.” “I was on vacation,” Murillo said. Czifra said, “Yeah, me too.” “I was in Pelican Bay SHU,” Murillo said. Czifra said, “Yeah, me too.”

The Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit—better known as the Pelican Bay SHU (pronounced “shoe”)—was designed to house the state’s most serious offenders in isolation. Men in the SHU, or solitary confinement, spend 22.5 hours a day locked in a parking space-sized cell. Most days their only interaction is with the guard who pushes a meal through a slot in the door. Physical contact is not permitted. Most communication that happens in the SHU is auditory. You might yell through the thick concrete walls, “I’m Danny from Norwalk” and hope your neighbor is well enough to call back. 

Pelican Bay SHU was also the origin of the largest protest movement in California’s prison history. Men there, including some of Murillo’s friends, staged three hunger strikes, in 2011 and 2013, the last of which amassed the participation of 30,000 prisoners statewide and resulted in a legislative victory—the end of indefinite solitary confinement. 

“We had so many ideas,” Danny Murillo said, “But we were always forgetting about, like yo, we don’t even have an office. Y’all over here trying to dismantle the prison system and you don’t even have an office?”

Maldonado, who is writing his dissertation on the entanglements of the carceral state and the university, explained that universities, like prisons, generate conditions ideal for organizing. At school, he said, you can find yourself and other subversive intellectuals in “the undercommons,” a concept he’s adopted from the black scholar and poet Fred Moten. Murillo concurs. He said the university is a place where formerly incarcerated people can find “places where people can organize and strategize about a different world.” 

Murillo, who majored in ethnic studies, spent 14 years incarcerated—the last 5 at Pelican Bay in solitary. Czifra, who studied English, served two four-year terms. The two never met inside, but they were able to confirm they were at Pelican Bay together by exchanging the names and origins of their shared neighbors. It seems like too much of a coincidence, that two men with such similar histories might meet on their first day at UC Berkeley. But when asked if he was surprised to run into Czifra that day, Murillo laughed. “I ran into so many intelligent individuals that could be at Berkeley, or at any of these top Ivy League schools, that it doesn’t surprise me that he was there.”

Still, it took another year for Underground Scholars to get off the ground. Murillo, for one, was busy. At 32, he was balancing schoolwork with supporting his friends who were on strike, starving in Pelican Bay SHU. He had his first-ever girlfriend, and he was working overtime to find healthy ways to deal with the trauma of solitary. During his first semester at Cal, Murillo kept his past incarceration a secret, but the hunger strikes mobilized him and countless others to be more open about their experience. “Being part of hunger strikes … allowed us to gather support from people on campus but also in the community,” Murillo said. “People were like, ‘You were in the SHU but now you’re at Berkeley?’ We literally went from the worst of the worst to the so-called best of the best.”

In the spring of 2013, the Scholars got organized. Murillo and Czifra started a reading group. Attendees numbered around 15 students that first year, including Maldonado and two women—Wendy Pacheco and Valerie Jameson, who had incarcerated friends or family members. They read and discussed legal and historical documents, critical theory, nonfiction, and poetry. Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow were staples in the discussion, as were W. Wilson’s When Work Disappears and former Cal assistant professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s The Golden Gulag. “We had so many ideas,” Murillo said, “But we were always forgetting about, like yo, we don’t even have an office. Y’all over here trying to dismantle the prison system and you don’t even have an office?”

It’s not easy navigating Berkeley’s campus for any new student, let alone as a student who has served time.

Soon after, Pacheco and Jameson were elected to student government. The two learned that student organizations could apply for a $135,000 grant to fund any on-campus initiative. The group applied to become an official student organization, won the grant, and launched the Underground Scholars Initiative. Their name would take inspiration from the Underground Railroad, their spirit grounded in its history of abolition and insurgency. In 2014, USI received a one-time, half-million-dollar budget allotment from then-Governor Jerry Brown’s office. “That was a game changer,” Murillo said.

That grant provided seed money for Berkeley Underground Scholars, which helps recruit scholars from community colleges, and also pays an executive director and a handful of part-time student workers, and rents a space in Stiles Hall. Formerly incarcerated members of the organization, many of whom struggle to secure necessities like employment and housing due to their criminal convictions, are eligible to apply for basic-needs stipends. They can sign up for academic tutoring, psychological and financial counseling, career advice, resume workshopping, and mock job interviews. Stiles Hall also offers community. “Peer-to-peer support is critical,” said Director Azadeh Zohrabi. “The program makes space and connection possible, but they do more for each other than the program does to support them.”

It’s not easy navigating Berkeley’s campus for any new student, let alone as a student who has served time. Zohrabi said the formerly incarcerated are under pressure traditional students aren’t, though the expectations are the same. They may be parents or caretakers, have open court cases, be on parole or probation, or paying restitution in addition to tuition—responsibilities, Zohrabi said, that aren’t taken into account when professors and administrators imagine how a Cal student is supposed to perform. “They don’t fit in at Berkeley really because of who they are and where they come from,” Zohrabi said, “but they don’t really fit in back home anymore either.” 

In prison, Carlin felt like he fit in. He described life there as a microcosm of society outside. There are good people and people you want to stay away from. Berkeley students have been kind to Carlin since he arrived—one student in Carlin’s Gaelic language class offered to tutor him throughout the semester. But still, he said he feels more out of place at Cal than anywhere else he’s been. 

IN 1980, CARLIN WAS A NEW FATHER on disability for a work-related injury, unable to work to support his family, and according to his lawyer, likely abusing prescribed pain medication. Carlin describes the time leading up to the murder as a “descent,” a “structureless fall,” which culminated at San Francisco’s Golden Eagle Hotel that year in June. According to the statement Carlin gave police, his 9-millimeter pistol was stolen after a drug deal. Armed with another gun, he confronted the suspected thief.

Social welfare student Sammie Gilmore runs a program that provides academic advising and support to students enrolled in community colleges behind bars.  // Photo by John Powers

“I raised the gun, and it went off. But I don’t remember pulling the trigger,” he said during a 2002 parole hearing, more than two decades into his sentence. It wasn’t his first time before the parole board, and it wouldn’t be his last. 

“The taking of a life will change you,” Carlin said in 2008. He’d been taking classes at San Quentin on moral and social accountability, on relationships and building positive support systems, and another on developing self-esteem. “It’s my crime. It’s my murder… It’s a horrible thing.” It was his 14th time standing before the parole board. 

“Carlin relives the offense over and over, and believes that might be his punishment as well,” his lawyer said at the hearing. “It cannot be rectified.” 

Carlin’s participation in self-help groups, the decade he spent working as the prison librarian and tutoring his peers made him an attractive candidate for parole. Despite entering prison with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Rutgers, he continued his education behind bars, taking classes with the Prison University Project. Outside of class, he read voraciously—Dickens, Melville, and Marx. At San Quentin, he taught himself Italian so he could read the The Divine Comedy the way Dante intended. 

It’s a spirit of learning he’s carried with him to Berkeley. Recently, I ran into Carlin on campus holding a tensor calculus workbook. I was confused. I knew he was taking Gaelic in addition to his public policy and anthropology classes, but calculus? Carlin told me he was working through the math problems on his own time, just to prove to himself that he could.

Carlin stood before the parole board for the 15th and final time in February of 2012. His attorney requested the board not ask him about the crime; Carlin had said enough about it in years of hearings and evaluations—and the facts hadn’t changed. What had changed, and what Carlin was willing to discuss, were his current attitudes, and the steps he’d taken in the years since his last bid for parole. Carlin wanted more than anything to go home. At 65, he hadn’t seen his mother in 30 years and he had a new grandson. 

Carlin’s admission helped his lawyer and the parole board commissioner understand why, at that hearing, his head was shaved to the scalp. He wasn’t a skinhead; he was losing his hair in treatment.

The proceedings that day were familiar, but something in the room was different. Carlin wasn’t feeling well. The board commissioner reviewed statements Carlin had made about his crime, read letters from friends and family members in support of his parole, and asked questions to gauge his sense of insight and remorse. Then the presiding district attorney asked Carlin why, in a decade-old evaluation, he’d said that he shot the victim in self-defense. It wasn’t consistent with other accounts.

“I’m not sure,” Carlin said. “I can’t remember if that’s what I said … I have no idea. And I’m sorry, but I need a bucket, or something to vomit in, I mean, I’m sick.”

He didn’t like calling attention to his condition. In fact, he hadn’t even told his lawyer, but there wasn’t any way around it now. Carlin was diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his last year at San Quentin. His doctor had given just five more years if the chemo didn’t take. 

Carlin’s admission helped his lawyer and the parole board commissioner understand why, at that hearing, his head was shaved to the scalp. He wasn’t a skinhead; he was losing his hair in treatment.

He got out of prison—this time for good. The commissioner was clear with Carlin; his release date was a result of his excellent record, his low risk of recidivism, and his clear expression of remorse. But “frankly,” the commissioner said, “when people have serious health concerns, it is a mitigating factor. It’s not the factor that we’re releasing you on, but it is a factor that we’ve considered.”

Carlin thinks his illness was caused by the environment of the prison—the asbestos and lead paint, or the crop dusters he’d watched fly past the yard. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Carlin notes, has been linked in multiple lawsuits to glyphosate, a product sold by the herbicide giant Monsanto, and studies routinely suggest a connection between it and that cancer. “If you looked at the epidemiological data, you’d see interesting clusters,” Carlin said. At least that’s his hunch; he is just beginning the rigorous process of researching the question. 

He might not be able to do it, but now that he’s in remission and a Berkeley student with the support of the Underground Scholars, he’ll have the freedom to try.  

Robin Estrin is a student at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former California intern.

For more, read our Q&A on the inmates-turned-journalists of San Quentin State Prison here.

From the Spring 2020 issue of California.

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