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Scholar Initiative Supports College-Bound Former Prisoners


Steven Czifra and Danny Murillo have a few things in common. They both transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, from community college. They also both served time in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California. Danny says they didn't know each other on the inside, but when they saw each other for the first time at Berkeley, they could just tell.

DANNY MURILLO: You know when somebody's been through the things you've been through.

MCEVERS: The two eventually became friends and started a project called the Underground Scholars Initiative. It's a group of formerly incarcerated people who've gone on to college and to try to help others do the same.

MURILLO: I went to Berkeley two weeks before. And my mindset was that I'm going to go two weeks before and get to know the campus, where my classes are at most importantly. I don't want to be late for the class. I went to my department, ethnic studies - talked to my adviser, asking her that I'm interested in doing work on school-to-prison pipeline. And she referred me...

MCEVERS: School-to-prison pipeline, yeah.

MURILLO: The school - yeah, she - on this phenomena that was being called - this new phenomena, supposedly, but it's been going on for years.

STEVEN CZIFRA: Incarceration comes out of sets of conditions that people grow up in and that certain people don't have those conditions and never experienced incarceration. And certain people do have those conditions, and that's unfair. That's not cool. And we're here. And if we're going to be here and it's going to mean anything, then it has to involve giving back.

MURILLO: And that's how I got involved in the conversation.

MCEVERS: And so you guys came up with the idea for the group. And what was the thinking behind it? You know, you're both there. You're both doing your thing. But you thought, let's make this into something that we can replicate with other people. Was that the idea, Steven?

CZIFRA: Well, there were - in the first meetings, there were probably - you know, in the first half a dozen meetings, there were between 12 and 20 people. And we started meeting weekly right away. Most of the people were not formally incarcerated, and pretty much everybody had a different idea about what we were doing. And so we were like, we're here.

And it's quite miraculous on some levels, and on some levels, it makes sense that we're here. But we want to make this opportunity available to other people because how I got to UC, Berkeley - there was no pipeline. There was no pathway. There was no path. That was - there was no discernible path. I got there, so obviously there is a pathway. And that pathway is actually available to every - any California resident.


CZIFRA: But they're not - they're opaque...


CZIFRA: ...Unless you fit a certain demographic. And I'm not going to go into all that.

MCEVERS: Yeah, sure.

CZIFRA: But we just want to - we want to pipeline that more.


CZIFRA: We want to institutionalize that, shore up those pathways that we've taken and expose them for other people.

MCEVERS: Right. So basically Underground Scholars is a way to show people that pathway. Like, here's what you need to do. Get into this program. Write your application this way. Do these extracurricular activities. You know, know that this funding is available. Know that kind of stuff. Is that how it works?

MURILLO: Yeah, pretty much. And...


MURILLO: But not just folks that are already in the community college, but we're already talking...


MURILLO: ...To people in prison.


CZIFRA: Equally importantly and - or if not more importantly, our presence, especially our public presence at UC, Berkeley, offers identification for people who haven't imagined themselves in places like UC, Berkeley, or other - Stanford, you name it. They see themselves in - as academics, as scholars.

MCEVERS: Yeah. You know, you guys have done this pretty amazing thing, right? I mean this has, like, affected a lot of people's lives. And if we're talking about dozens of people going to these meetings, it's a pretty - yeah, it's a pretty amazing thing. But you both kind of don't like the whole, like, redemption narrative thing, right? You don't love that version of the story. Is that - am I getting that right?

CZIFRA: I - yeah, I can speak to that.

MCEVERS: Yeah (laughter).

CZIFRA: So yeah, the redemption narrative is just about the worst possible thing you can do to this work. And when it happens, it's just - it just makes me want to scream or sometimes cry because people want to make it out like I'm special or we're special.

And I'm so extraordinarily average, and I got so lucky. And that's how I ended up where I ended up. It had nothing to do with people like, oh, no, take credit. Bull - I can't take credit for almost anything. When I was in community college, I mostly hustled.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

CZIFRA: Right or wrong, I just - there was a system in place. And I knew systems, and I worked the system. And I went to UC, Berkeley, on some level.

MCEVERS: Yeah because what - I mean I think if you take it a step further - right? - is this notion that, like, within an incarcerated population, maybe there's a couple exceptional people who deserve to bubble up to the top. And I think what you guys are saying is, like, open up the pipeline. Make it known, you know, how the system works, and anybody and everybody could do exactly what you've done.

CZIFRA: Literally - I had this big movie idea about what prison was going to be like. And I got on the yard, and I saw all these just really scary looking people covered in tattoos. And within a couple of days, I realized that they're mostly just - they're almost - to a man, they were just people.

MCEVERS: That's Steven Czifra. He and Danny Murillo helped found to the Underground Scholars Initiative which has helped dozens of former prisoners get their undergrad and graduate degrees. Murillo and Czifra have both graduated from Berkeley but still work with Underground Scholars there. And they're expanding the program to other UC campuses.