Berkeley Underground Scholars creates ‘prison-to-school pipeline’ on campus

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Leonie Leonida/Staff

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In 2013, UC Berkeley alumni, Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, met on campus and shared their backgrounds on being formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals. Together, Murillo and Czifra co-founded the Underground Scholars Initiative, or USI, a student-run organization for those who have been personally impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system.

Eventually, the USI pioneered the development of the Berkeley Underground Scholars, or BUS. This program helps provide a pathway to formerly incarcerated students and students with incarcerated family members to pursue higher education.

“We started off small with a student group and built it up from there. Five years later, this is where we’re at,” Murillo said.

BUS is a part of the UC Berkeley Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, or CE3, which helps non-traditional students. BUS provides a variety of academic support and campus resources to support these students’ academic, professional and personal goals.

The Underground Scholars consist of the USI, an independent student group with its own constitution, BUS, which provides employment for students and helps individuals who are impacted by the prison system transfer into the campus, and various foundations that provide money to the Underground Scholars.

Former BUS outreach coordinator Abdullah Puckett previously told The Daily Californian that BUS has been operating solely on a one-time 2014 donation of $500,000 from the California government. According to Murillo, the majority of the BUS funds are from private donations, ASUC funding and the government donation. BUS does not receive funding from the university, Murillo said.

“So coming into Cal, as a former incarcerated person, I just joined a community. A community that understands that we all have a common struggle and we all have a common goal as well,” said Aaron Harvey, campus junior transfer and BUS transfer coordinator. “To have the place at any university, especially at the University of California, Berkeley, it’s pretty much helped me complete my first semester at Berkeley in all aspects—not just in academics, but also my personal life as well.”

According to their website, BUS is building a “prison-to-school pipeline” through recruitment, retention and advocacy. Their goal is to create a connection between “the popular academic theoretical discourse of mass incarceration” and the personal experiences of campus students and other community members.

Under their recruitment work, BUS has developed an ambassador program, a transfer partnership, a correspondence program and offers cross-enrollment for community college students.

“What transfer coordinators do is that we go into community colleges and recruit people of color to apply to Berkeley and we help them with their application processes,” Harvey said. “We’re just giving people equitable opportunity to be able to compete at the highest level.”

The USI works on the retention aspect of the program by providing campus resources to support campus students affected by mass incarceration. Resources provided include tutoring, guidance for research opportunities, free printing, general mentoring and graduate school application support and mentoring.

BUS also advocates for formerly and currently incarcerated individuals by promoting policies that increase opportunities for them to have access to higher education.

With its campaign efforts to “ban the box,” removing the disclosure on applications of prior convictions, its website says campus job applicants who have prior conviction histories will undergo a more equitable process when reviewing their application.

The members are currently working to develop higher education access opportunities by making financial aid and Pell Grants available to all incarcerated people.

With about 60 people in the program, many continue to work together to achieve their goals and bond with each other through their similar backgrounds.

“The program helps people navigate through their resources, and just classes, and just support through the process because people who have been system impacted or formerly incarcerated tend to have a harder time maybe acclimating,” said Daniela Medina, campus senior and BUS administrative coordinator. “So just having that support system on campus and having a space here to come and support each other (is helpful).”

Contact Thao Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tnguyen_dc.