Berkeley Underground Scholars supports students affected by incarceration

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Can Jozef Saul/Staff
Berkeley Underground Scholars, a UC Berkeley program, helps incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and other impacted individuals reverse the school-to-prison pipeline and supports them in their journey into higher education.

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A UC Berkeley program is working to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline by supporting formerly incarcerated students and students who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Berkeley Underground Scholars, or BUS, helps incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and other impacted individuals with the UC application, financial aid, housing, employment and integration into the campus community, according to Kevin McCarthy, a campus student who is part of the statewide leadership for Underground Scholars.

“(BUS) puts them in a healthy environment like Berkeley where they have the support of not only Underground Scholars, but of the school itself,” McCarthy said. 

According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people complete college at one-eighth the rate of the general public. McCarthy said that BUS’s main priorities include recruiting and retaining formerly incarcerated students at UC Berkeley.

The Incarcerated Scholars Program is a subprogram of BUS. According to Sammie Gilmore, the lead coordinator for the program, it consists of approximately 10 interns and 3 coordinators who academically support currently incarcerated students through letter exchanges.

Gilmore was incarcerated before BUS supported her admission to UC Berkeley. She said that BUS helped her overcome insecurities around applying for college.

“Personally, from my experience, it’s helped me immensely,” Gilmore said. “I wasn’t even going to apply to a UC because I was like ‘I wasn’t smart enough, I’m too poor.’ ”

McCarthy said that BUS supported him after he was paroled from prison and enrolled in UC Berkeley, and it also helps other individuals gain admittance while they are still incarcerated, calling it a “perfect” reentry system. He is chair of the Underground Scholars pre-law association and, like Gilmore, a coordinator for the Incarcerated Scholars Program.

According to McCarthy, BUS’s work includes legislative advocacy. McCarthy said he was involved in a fellowship that advocated for the passage of California’s Senate Bill 416, which was signed into law this year. The text of the law requires that college programs be made available at state prisons.

“I want to be able to use my experiences and use this space to impact policy,” McCarthy said. “Berkeley kind of gives me that validity and cultural capital.”

McCarthy also said that he was proud to see that Underground Scholars members were beginning to be published in law reviews. He said that the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals are valuable in informing the criminal justice system.

Among the many offerings of BUS, Gilmore said that a sense of community is the most important to many formerly incarcerated students — including herself.

“I had somewhere to go, a place to study, a place that really allowed me to embrace my personal story,” Gilmore said.

Contact Gabe Classon and Jude Strzemp at [email protected].