For prisoners, ‘lack of education is education’

May 18, 2016

From the May-June 2016 issue of News & Letters

Berkeley, Calif.—In February the University of California, Berkeley Human Rights Center put together a talk, “The (In)Justice System: Incarceration, Education, and Reentry: Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline” as part of a series about imprisonment, arbitrary and racist “mass incarceration.”
Panelists were Violeta Alvarez, Board Member of the Underground Scholars Initiative, a student services and advocacy program at Berkeley, and Co-facilitator of the “Teach in Prison” DeCal class there; Danny Murillo, Program Analyst at Vera Institute of Justice and NJ-STEP Mountainview Program; Ronald Moss, Executive Director of the Gamble Institute and “Street Scholars Peer-Mentoring Program”; and Simon Woodard, Program Coordinator of the Prison University Project in San Quentin. Honored guests were also present. The talk was moderated by Professor Emerita Patricia Hilden of the Ethnic Studies Department.


Unfortunately it was going to be somewhat ineffectual from the start because the primary purpose—to create different realities for impacted people including the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, and those yet to be incarcerated—was not made central. This event was for people that academia sees as leaders: other people in academia. Yet the change academics seek, and the kind of change the panel has the potential to create, cannot get at the root cause, and cannot foment a real solution.
Nevertheless, there were some real highlights, including the honored guests Harrison Suega of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, and Jose Gonzalez, Bikila Ochoa and Michael Mendoza of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, who were given a few minutes to speak from the heart on their experiences with incarceration, education and advocacy. Formerly incarcerated people often bring the heart to events and yet the event was not for them, and therefore it missed an opportunity.
Cultural relevance and ethnic studies became the topic, as a well-meaning professor from San Francisco State lovingly hijacked the meeting during the Q&A portion. Anyone wanting a strong Ethnic Studies department should bring resources to bear on the unmet needs of formerly incarcerated people in higher education. After all, you cannot talk about ethnic anything in the U.S. without coming back to imprisonment, where the state cannot hide its disproportionate level of incarceration of Black and Brown people.
Prof. Pat Hilden reminded us that the lack of education in prisons is education, as those living in the intellectual deserts of California’s prison system are learning not to learn. Maybe we should be thinking about Ethnic Studies classes in prison, where they were carried out in secret at the risk of life and freedom.


Danny Murillo, co-founder of the Underground Scholars Initiative, spoke about his path to higher education, which ironically was made possible by his indeterminate sentence to the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit. He spoke of the breakdown of racial and ethnic barriers that were the result of sharing knowledge between himself and his white neighbor who would tutor him, and with whom Danny would share “tamales,” homemade confections of corn chips and whatever was saved from dinner plates. The event would have been a raving success from this and other anecdotes from the formerly incarcerated people who spoke.
The last to speak was Violeta Alvarez. A formerly incarcerated woman, she spoke heartbreakingly of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and its treatment of the women it imprisons. The California prison system, like most, was created with men in mind. Because of this, and because of the monstrous nature of imprisonment, women face extreme deprivation in all areas the men do with the added burden of being mothers, the physical demands of having a reproductive system in prison, including being denied supplies, giving birth in shackles, forced sterilizations and rape. Thank goodness for people like Violeta and other women doing this work.

—Steven Czifra, Underground Scholars Initiative

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