Campus hosts 1st ever graduation ceremony for formerly incarcerated students

Incarceration
Jessica Gleason/Staff

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David Maldonado stood above the crowd that had packed into Anna Head Alumnae Hall — a crowd that included the mayor of Berkeley, a former campus chancellor, a California state senator, Maldonado’s smiling wife and kids, and his fellow graduates — and changed the song. On top of everything else, he was the graduation DJ.

Maldonado is also a man who has, in many ways, lived two lives. Just eight years ago, he was serving the last of his prison sentences, with the prospect of graduating from a prestigious university with a master’s degree almost unthinkable.

After obtaining his GED while incarcerated, Maldonado attended Berkeley City College and then transferred to UC Berkeley at the age of 40. Since then, he has earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies and a master’s degree in education from UC Berkeley, the latter of which he received this year. He plans to stay on campus with the hope of acquiring a doctorate in social and cultural studies from the Graduate School of Education.

“I guess you could say he’s doing a lot of time at Berkeley,” joked his wife Kimberly Maldonado, whom he met on campus in the summer of 2012. “He has accomplished so much in spite of all his challenges, and I’m very proud of him.”

Pride was a central theme for the 14 formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley graduates who were honored at a special ceremony held Sunday afternoon in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. The ceremony — organized by the the Underground Scholars Initiative, a campus student group that advocates for current and prospective students affected by the prison system — was the first of its kind.

The USI was founded in 2013 by Danny Murillo and graduate Steven Czifra, who met at UC Berkeley and quickly realized that they had both been incarcerated at the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison. The pair has since worked tirelessly, alongside other formerly incarcerated students, to assist, support and “provide a safe space” for those with similar backgrounds, according to Murillo.

“We’re resilient overachievers,” Murillo said at the ceremony, adding that for the USI, “this is just the beginning.”

The ceremony’s keynote speaker, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, said the state plans to have community college and degree programs in every California prison by year’s end. She noted that such efforts to reform the prison system are driven by success stories like those of the graduates.

“Having spent so much time trying to break a pipeline, the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s amazing now to work with the USI to build a new pipeline, the prison-to-school pipeline,” Hancock said at the ceremony.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates gave a few brief remarks, telling the graduating class that “the future is going to be yours.”

Former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who delivered one of the longer speeches of the afternoon, said that as the first member of his family to get a high school diploma, he appreciated the tremendous difficulty the graduates faced in overcoming less-than-optimal backgrounds.

“You’re extraordinary people, and you should never feel second-class to anyone, ever,” Birgeneau told the graduating class. “What you’ve done is heroic.”

Birgeneau also vehemently condemned the fact that many states, including California, spend more money on incarcerating people than they spend on post-incarceration support, calling the practice a “national disgrace.”

For Maldonado, the USI is providing crucial steps on the path toward a better outlook for formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society.

“Everyone comes (to UC Berkeley) hoping to change the world, but that’s obviously hard to do, especially for people like me,” Maldonado said. “But watching everything that USI has accomplished and seeing everyone here today, it actually makes me believe that change can happen. And it is happening.”

Logan Goldberg is the executive news editor. Contact him at lgoldberg@dailycal.org and follow him on Twitter at @logangoldberg.

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  • Bob

    I love a heartwarming story. Good luck to all the graduates!

  • newattitude1951

    Congrats David and all of the other graduates!

  • lspanker

    Hooray! Let’s have separate graduation ceremonies for EVERYONE – ex-cons, the gender confused, every racial and ethnic splinter group. Let’s not try to join mainstream America – Balkanization is the wave of the future…

  • Steven Czifra

    upon meeting David Maldonado the first thing that struck me, after seeing past his tattoos, is what a brilliant and genuinely good natured person he is, making me wonder why we couldn’t have invested in this person a long time ago. Live and learn. There is no better argument for education and changing conditions for people than David.

    • lspanker

      Maybe because the David Maldonado of “a long time ago” was not the type of person who deserved to be invested in. If he has turned his life around and gotten his act together, good for him, and the best of luck, but this idea that all people by default deserve the benefit of taxpayer dollars without proving their worth is simply ludicrous…

      • Ariel Jackson

        Define this “worth”. Better yet “deserve”. As a long time educator I have seen state funds and financial aid dollars put on the education of students who could care less about a degree and are a lot more worried about a party or a boyfriend/girlfriend.
        Everyone deserves an opportunity to improve and educate themselves and even more so work their way out of poverty. If you believe people should stay indebted and impoverished until they die you might be mistaking the US or a country with a caste system. The same knowledge it takes to plot a crime (often a crime of poverty in the first place) is the very same energy that could be used in an Accounting, Chemistry or Political Science class.

        • lspanker

          Everyone deserves an opportunity to improve and educate themselves and
          even more so work their way out of poverty. If you believe people should
          stay indebted and impoverished until they die you might be mistaking
          the US or a country with a caste system.

          I never said such a thing, so how about not putting words in my mouth?

          • Ariel Jackson

            ” was not the type of person who deserved to be invested in. If he has turned his life around and gotten his act together, good for him, and the best of luck, but this idea that all people by default deserve the benefit of taxpayer dollars without proving their worth…”

            Your words right? I asked you to define deserve and worth. You didn’t.

          • lspanker

            Those who meet the academic standards AND conduct themselves as law-abiding citizens are deserving of consideration for admission to the UC system. If the legal system judged him rehabilitated AFTER serving his sentence AND getting his act together, fine – do note that I didn’t make any objection there. However, during the time he WAS engaged in criminal activity, he certainly was NOT worthy of admission to Cal or any OTHER University. This isn’t an issue of “working one’s self out of poverty”. It’s an issue of limited resources and deciding what individuals are worthy of the taxpayer’s support, and which ones are not.

          • firefly4077

            “Conduct themselves as law abiding citizens” as a entrance requirement ? It sounds like you’ve had a very privileged life.. Which laws? All laws? Will a parking ticket cause your blacklisting? What about if you’re arrested but no charges are pressed? Are we differentiating between misdemeanors and felonies? Obviously this has never happened to you or anything, but some of us have had to deal with serious things in our lives, and luckily we still have the ability to go to CAL and get the same quality of education as other, more privileged, people that haven’t had to make some hard decisions.

            Last thing: “It’s an issue of limited resources and deciding what individuals are worthy of the taxpayer’s support, and which ones are not.” Prisons are also supported through taxpayer money.

          • lspanker

            “Conduct themselves as law abiding citizens” as a entrance requirement ? It sounds like you’ve had a very privileged life.

            Not at all. I was just brought up in an environment where I learned to respect the law.

            Which laws? All laws? Will a parking ticket cause your blacklisting? What about if you’re arrested but no charges are pressed? Are we differentiating between misdemeanors and felonies?

            Funny how lefty progressive liberals always sink into abject silliness when they can’t come up with an intelligent argument.

            Last thing: “It’s an issue of limited resources and deciding what individuals are worthy of the taxpayer’s support, and which ones are not.” Prisons are also supported through taxpayer money.

            Your point, or do you even have one?

          • firefly4077

            Lefty progressive liberals? I’ll need to put that on my CV

          • lspanker

            At least it’s something you can do,right? Probably not much more than that…

          • firefly4077

            Exactly! You’re just the best. Thank you!

          • ohplease

            If taxpayer dollars is what your worried about then you should be supporting shutting down more prisons and opening more schools.

          • lspanker

            Are you one of those people who make the mistaken assumption that the reason people are in prison is because they are denied access to an education?

          • ohplease

            I mean obviously thats not the only reason for EVERYONE that’s in prison, but that is certainly the case for some. Are you one of those people who make the mistaken assumption that everyone in prison is a criminal who deserves to be there?

          • lspanker

            I mean obviously thats not the only reason for EVERYONE that’s in prison, but that is certainly the case for some.

            Yeah, right.

          • ohplease

            Cool, good talk.

          • EE Z

            Could you elaborate on how that line of thinking usually goes?

          • manesg

            Now you are just showing immaturity.

          • manesg

            lol :)

          • EE Z

            >Which laws? All laws? Will a parking ticket cause your blacklisting? What about if you’re arrested but no charges are pressed? Are we differentiating between misdemeanors and felonies?

            >Funny how lefty progressive liberals always sink into abject silliness when they can’t come up with an intelligent argument.

            If you want a debate, answer the question. I’m not a liberal, I’m a conservative, and I pose the same question. Where is the cutoff, in your personal opinion? Not attacking you.

      • Peter Hong

        He proved his worth by meeting university admissions standards and graduating.

        • lspanker

          Does that somehow invalidate my point?

          • Peter Hong

            I must’ve missed your point, actually. You say “this idea that all people by default deserve the benefit of taxpayer dollars without proving their worth…” just who espouses such an idea and when is it practiced ?

          • lspanker

            I must’ve missed your point, actually.

            Then maybe you should re-read my post, particularly the first sentence, and think about it a bit. I made myself quite clear, at least to those with a nominal ability to comprehend written English.