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Public Humanities, Justice-in-Education

December 7, 2016
Animated drawing of an individual in orange with a book under their arm staring at two towers backlit by the moon

Formerly incarcerated undergrads started a group on campus to offer mentoring, support, and advocacy to other former inmates.

The first day of his first semester at the University of California, Berkeley, Danny Murillo walked into the Cesar Chavez building and saw a white man with tattoos on his arms. Something about the man felt familiar. He could tell from the tattoos that the man was, like him, from Los Angeles, and he was around his own age, mid-thirties, but it was something else that he recognized. He went up to the man and said, “Damn, I feel old around all these youngsters.” The man said, “Yeah, me, too.” Murillo said, “I haven’t been in school for a long time.” The man said, “Yeah, me, too.” Murillo said, “I was on vacation.” The man said, “Yeah, me, too.” Murillo said, “I was in the Pelican Bay shu.” The man said, “Yeah, me, too.”

The Pelican Bay shu—Security Housing Unit—is where California sends some of its most recalcitrant inmates. Both Murillo and the white man, Steven Czifra, had spent much of their lives in prison, including many years in solitary confinement, but by the time they met they were pretty sure they were never going back. Neither had finished high school—Czifra got sent to juvenile hall at twelve—but now they were undergraduates at U.C. Berkeley. They knew that although most people who had lived lives like theirs were still in prison, many were capable—given the right advice, incentives, and money—of making it to college and leaving prison forever. They started talking, and during the next few months they formed a plan to get those people out.

It was not such a long shot as it sounded, because the qualities that had got the two of them into the shu were not so different from the ones that had got them into Berkeley. “I’ve always been somebody who went out and got what I wanted,” Murillo says. “Fifteen years old, I was selling crack cocaine and making close to fifteen hundred dollars an ounce. I was a very resourceful individual.” But what switch—what new thought, or new chance—had deflected Murillo and Czifra from one track to the other? The trick was to go back over their lives and figure out how they’d done it. Continue to full Article -->