Berkeley Underground Scholars works to build prison-to-university pipeline

Photo of Berkeley Underground Scholars website
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff
Berkeley Underground Scholars, in conjunction with Underground Scholars Initiative, which was founded with goals to get resources and support for system-impacted students, are working to build a prison-to-university pipeline.

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In 2014, an Ohio fifth-grader was suspended from school for three days for making a “level 2 lookalike gun” with his hands. Though the suspension sparked legislative debate, the fifth-grader was far from the first to endure this punishment.

Following growing concern of crime and violence in schools in the late 20th century, many schools adopted “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies. For example, in Ohio, a 1998 law required schools to adopt a policy of zero tolerance for “violent, disruptive, or inappropriate behavior, including excessive truancy.” Such policies have been extended to students as young as 3 years old.

As suspension and expulsion rates climbed, stark racial disparities among such rates emerged. Almost half of a century later, little has changed.

Examining the “cradle-to-carceral” pipeline

Though overall suspensions and expulsions from preschool fell sharply from 2015 to 2018, 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that Black boys make up 41% of male preschool suspensions and Black girls make up 53% of female suspensions despite each demographic only composing 18% and 19% of the preschool population, respectively.

“In schools across the state of California, across every state in this country, they disproportionately suspend and expel Black and Latinx children when compared to their white and Asian American peers,” said Travis Bristol, UC Berkeley assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education. “The very moment that little Black children are 3 or 4, starting school, they’re getting suspended.”

As a result of early exposure to disciplinary action, many such as Bristol think that the school-to-prison pipeline is actually a “cradle-to-carceral pipeline.”

A 2020 study looking at suspended youth 12 years later suggests that youth who have been suspended are less likely to earn high school diplomas or bachelor’s degrees and are more likely to be arrested or on probation.

One of the driving forces of disproportionate disciplinary actions, Bristol said, is a lack of representation among educators. According to Bristol, a study he conducted with campus education professor Tolani Britton found that, when paired with a teacher of the same ethnoracial background, Black and Latinx students were less likely to be suspended.

“I had a student in my evaluation this semester say that my class was one of the first times that they felt seen — that they had sort of given up on schools because their professors, my colleagues at the university, didn’t see them, didn’t honor them and provide them with a voice,” Bristol said.

Though Bristol’s students had the opportunity to see themselves reflected in their educators, a lack of such representation can have real-life consequences for Black and Latinx students, Bristol added.

Diverging paths

ASUC President Chaka Tellem came face-to-face with those consequences when he first visited a juvenile hall with Shani Shay, Berkeley Underground Scholars, or BUS, advocacy chair and director of the Incarceration to College program.

Initially, Tellem said he expected the hall to feel unfamiliar; however, said he was surprised to see the parallels he could draw having grown up attending a low-income, predominantly Black and Latinx middle and high school.

“The way that the kids wear a uniform, the way that they look, the way that they dress, the way that they behave — it was what I grew up with when I was in Texas,” Tellem said. “To a certain extent, I felt more comfortable or more at home there than I did at Cal.”

In response to that realization, Shay asked Tellem what he thinks his schools were preparing him for.

Unlike Tellem, many of the people he grew up with in Texas didn’t make it to university, let alone UC Berkeley, Tellem said. Some of his closest friends are spending their days behind bars rather than behind a desk.

If he hadn’t moved to California, Tellem said, both his path and those of his friends may have been very different.

“In the society that we live in, people who look like me are overrepresented in prisons, in the juvenile facility centers and are shockingly, severely underrepresented in places of higher education,” Tellem said.

BUS and the Underground Scholars Initiative, or USI, are working to change that.

Building a prison-to-university pipeline

USI was founded as a student organization in 2013 by Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, two formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley students, to generate resources and support for formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students, according to current BUS director Azadeh Zohrabi.

Zohrabi emphasized the importance of such resources, recalling her experience as a carceral system-impacted student at UC Riverside.

“During that time, my partner was incarcerated, so I spent all my weekends visiting him at the prison,” Zohrabi said. “There wasn’t any kind of support for students on campus who were either formerly incarcerated or dealing with their loved one’s incarceration and having to kind of carry that weight. It did really affect my experience as a student both financially but also the mental and emotional toll.”

As they were building up USI, Murrillo and Czifra also built a relationship with then-state senator Loni Hancock, according to Zohrabi. Interested in the work they were doing, Hancock helped allocate about $500,000 of the state budget to establish BUS in 2016. From there on out, the program was institutionalized within campus’s Division of Equity & Inclusion.

Alongside USI, BUS’ mission is to provide incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students with the opportunity to pursue higher education, according to its website. In this way, the organizations are shifting the school-to-prison pipeline into a prison-to-university pipeline.

Their three-pronged approach entails recruitment, retention and advocacy — the first of which is aided by the Incarceration to College program. Shay began this program with the intent to get as many incarcerated and previously incarcerated youth into college as possible. Formerly incarcerated herself, Shay credits college for her ability to depart from her days of incarceration.

“Education was really my pathway to liberation, and as cliche as it sounds like, that’s really the truth,” Shay said. “I don’t think I would be free today if it wasn’t for the fact that I went to school.”

When she first joined BUS, Shay had the opportunity to visit Contra Costa Juvenile Hall.

After talking to the Black and Brown juveniles incarcerated there, Shay said that she learned none of them viewed college as their next step.

“It dawned on me, in that moment, that they need to know that they’re supposed to go to college,” Shay said. “I started the program because I felt like I was showing them the light at the end of the tunnel, … but I wasn’t giving them the tools. They were going to have to essentially go through this tunnel on their own.”

Looking to give them those tools, Shay developed a college readiness course designed to be replicated and taught in juvenile halls across the country.

This year, more than 60% of the youth impacted by the Incarceration to College program have enrolled in college and successfully completed their first semester. The program has also expanded to Alameda Juvenile Hall and provided more than $6,000 to students for basic needs and technological support.

Calling on UC Berkeley

Hoping to further expand its impact, BUS is looking for institutional support from campus.

Campus’s admissions office has partnered closely with BUS to train the students who run the transfer program on how to best advise applicants, according to Zohrabi. The office is also figuring out how to collect data on formerly incarcerated applicants to assist BUS in outreach and recruitment.

Often, however, BUS and USI are not included in conversations surrounding equity and inclusion or campus initiatives that align with their programs — such as the African American Initiative or the Hispanic Serving Institution Task Force. The funding that comes along with those initiatives is subsequently not passed down to BUS, Zohrabi added.

“I really would like it to come from the top down,” Zohrabi said. “We have a model that works, but we’re not included in any of the other initiatives that are trying to do the same thing that we’re doing, which we could be doing a lot more of if we had more resources.”

As it stands, BUS is only able to support 25 to 30 applicants each year because of a lack of resource capacity. Of the students in that cohort, more than 90% get into a UC campus, with 60% accepted to UC Berkeley.

As a result of SB 1391, however, more than 7,000 currently incarcerated students are taking UC-transferable community college courses. Potentially, Zohrabi said, this means 7,000 students will be eligible to transfer to a UC school while still incarcerated — and they will need all the support they can get.

“The underground scholars have done everything they could do to support me, but I would love to see that from the university,” Shay said. “The idea of equity, diversity and inclusion is impossible if we don’t get our Black children onto that campus.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.