Formerly incarcerated students at UC Berkeley face barriers to education. A majority of them are Latine, who are overrepresented in California prisons.
Daniela Medina, the associate director of UC Berkeley Underground Scholars, said the students she works with — formerly incarcerated individuals — do not get the same warm welcome compared to most golden bears.
“A lot of our students are being discriminated against,” Medina said. “Staff were telling them that they don’t go to school here, that they don’t come to this campus. I have other students, mostly all Latino men, who say people don’t want to sit next to them in class.”
According to Medina, 60% of people who the Underground Scholars work with are Latine, despite campus’s Latine student population being 18% of all undergraduates.
This problem is representative of a larger statewide issue of the disproportionate incarceration of Latine men. Historical penal codes and entrenched racial biases have further spurred this issue along.
Latine men are overrepresented in California’s carceral system
Across California, Latine men are overrepresented in the incarcerated population.
According to Public Policy Institute of California associate researcher Joe Hayes, Latine individuals make up 40% of the state’s population and 44% of the incarcerated population. Historically, California gang laws unfairly targeted the Latine community, according to campus law professor Jonathan Simon.
“When you’re unfairly, unjustly labeled as a gang member, you experience hyper surveillance,” Medina said. “That is definitely what folks are experiencing in the community.”
Overall, California has very high incarceration rates, and, according to Hayes, state prisons were forced to decrease their capacity in 2011 under State Assembly Bill 109.
Local county jails are playing a major role in this issue and have high imprisonment rates, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Prisons in California are overcrowded, with most of the prison population coming from Black, Native American or Hispanic communities.
California’s incarceration rate is 549 per 100,000 people; this is higher than most global democracies, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. According to Hayes, individuals have many interactions with law enforcement throughout the process that leads to incarceration. At each step, race and ethnicity play a factor in the risk of apprehension by law enforcement, Simon added.
“Racial threats tend to be the common thread across time in our carceral state’s history,” Simon said. “We have to look closely to see the way in which race and threat are being responded to within law enforcement.”
Local economies are supported by prisoners at the detriment of individuals
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a high amount of California’s incarceration rates are focused in smaller, rural counties in the Central Valley and Northern California.
Simon said these economies have become centered around prisons. According to Simon, many rural communities buy prisons to improve local economies because they can provide up to 1000 local jobs.
As these local economies shift away from being reliant on Latine labor, they follow[ing] a historical pattern of incarcerating groups who have been seen as “threats” once their economic value has worn out, explained Simon.
“We have a penal code that is like our nuclear arsenal; overpacked and hyper-punitive sanctions that, in this case, are giving rural prosecutors enormous power to decimate their local Latinx population,” Simon said.
Medina said she personally sees the hyper-criminalization of the Latine and Chicanx communities as an issue.
The use of Aztec imagery and the reading of political literature are deemed as signs of gang affiliation and can lead to increased surveillance in and out of prisons, according to Medina. These identifications and associations unfairly target the Latine community, she said.
“Those kinds of laws are theoretically color blind, but they were promoted with a racial bias and picture of who a gang member was in mind and are not enforced against white-collar criminals who organized themselves,” Simon said. “They were focused on inter-city or rural marginalized communities of color.”
These laws, such as the STEP Act or anti-gang legislation in the 1980s and 1990s, gave law enforcement the ability to add penalties if individuals were suspected of gang association, Simon said.
He added that part of this issue is that prison officials and police officers are considered experts of gang membership and rely on the racial assumptions that Medina explained.
“It’s a really dangerous concept,” Simon said. “If we are going to have criminal laws, they should never be based on the status of who you are.”
Formerly incarcerated students face barriers to higher education
Latine men are underrepresented in higher education, Medina noted. She said the barriers to higher education are especially high for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Medina noted that in the United States, education is difficult for formerly incarcerated people to access.
“Education in this country is seen as a form of social mobility,” Medina said. “Not having access to education makes it more difficult, on top of already not having access to certain housing or being able to have many jobs that they don’t qualify for because they have a record.”
Simon also noted that formerly incarcerated individuals are at a higher risk of being unhoused.
Medina said she thinks the campus should do more to support the efforts of Berkeley Underground Scholars. Campus needs to prioritize formerly incarcerated Latine people in their conversations about diversity, she said.
“Formerly incarcerated Latinx people in general haven’t had any kind of connection to that strategy that the (campus) is working on,” Medina said.
However, this is an issue that reaches beyond campus. Simon said he hopes California will revise its penal code and change the racial orientation of the carceral system.
He implored people to spread awareness about the role of rural counties in state incarceration levels and draw attention to what is going on in these communities.
“I fear that rural communities are disadvantaged,” Simon said. “It is really important to focus on some of our rural counties and how they are driving the new profile of incarceration in the state.”