When Steven Czifra became a student at UC Berkeley in 2012, he struggled with feeling like an imposter. As a kid he started skipping school in fourth grade; at 12 he was incarcerated for the first time, and was serving a 10-year sentence by the age of 14. He remained behind bars for the next 15 years, eight of them spent in solitary confinement, and emerged at 29 with no high school diploma and very few skills for living. Although he went on to excel at community college and was admitted to all four University of California (UC) schools he applied to, he said "as soon as I stepped foot on the Berkeley campus, I was persona non grata in my own mind."
Czifra felt alone as he struggled with the culture shock, stigma, and logistical hurdles he faced as a formerly incarcerated student — until he stumbled upon a reading group examining the prison industrial complex, which, for him, changed everything.
"I met another student who had also been incarcerated in the same prison I had — Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit. Unlike me, he was open about his incarceration history, and was [comfortable] with the school environment [and] in his own skin. It gave me permission to be myself, and not allow my background to make me feel ‘less than,’" Czifra said. He graduated with a degree in English in 2015 and is now applying to doctoral programs.
This reading group, started by ethnic studies professors Patricia Hilden and Victoria Robinson, would become the launching pad for the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), an on-campus organization created to support current and prospective Berkeley students affected by mass incarceration.
Though Czifra said he was lucky to find his way to Berkeley (the right counselors at the right time encouraged him to apply to UC schools), USI is helping to take luck out of the equation, providing deliberate and strategic support for formerly incarcerated students to prepare for, apply to, and thrive at UC Berkeley. Recently established as an official center within Berkeley’s Centers for Equity and Inclusion, USI has the potential to become both a test case and a catalyst for building pathways from prison to college within the broader University of California educational system.
Overcoming discriminatory policies in education and the economy
Quality jobs in the U.S. economy require ever-higher levels of skill and education, but many Americans are being systematically left behind by an education system that too often reinforces and reproduces racial and economic inequities. According to the National Equity Atlas, 43 percent of jobs in 2020 will require at least an associate’s degree, but only 27 percent of Blacks and 20 percent of Latinos are projected to attain this level of education, compared with 43 percent of Whites.
These gaps are only further exacerbated for the millions of people in the United States with criminal records, who are disproportionately from low-income communities and communities of color. Many reenter society with little-to-no work experience, only to encounter a host of other roadblocks — such as legal restrictions on student financial aid, discriminatory hiring policies, and widespread social stigma — that cut them off from opportunity and make it nearly impossible for them to reach their full potential.
It is illegal for schools to apply blanket bans on admitting formerly incarcerated students, though in practice many colleges treat a criminal record like a scarlet letter. Depending on the school, formerly incarcerated students may be subject to special screening processes, excluded from campus housing, have restricted access to campus, or be under special surveillance and tracking during their attendance.
These discriminatory practices — combined with the fact that many individuals returning from prison lack the resources, experience, and social capital necessary to navigate life at a university — can effectively make higher education unattainable.
"Many of us come from communities where people aren’t geared up for college," Czifra said, "problems with housing, transportation, finances, mental health — we have to do everything everyone else does just to get our foot in the door, and then deal with the legal consequences of being formerly incarcerated, and the social stigma (from others and within ourselves) that make us feel that we’re not good enough to be at these institutions."
With all of these pressures, it’s no wonder that many formerly incarcerated students struggle to succeed in college, even after they’ve overcome the barriers to admission.
Considering 70 million U.S. adults have criminal records, the experiences of students like those in the USI are not a fringe issue. These challenges confront millions of Americans seeking to reach their full potential, whether in the classroom or the workplace. Without access to education, many formerly incarcerated individuals are relegated to the outskirts of the job market, struggling to gain an economic foothold for the rest of their lives.
Bringing lived experience to criminal justice advocacy
What started in 2012 as a small reading group exploring the effects of mass incarceration soon blossomed into a student-led movement to increase the visibility of formerly incarcerated students on campus and to advocate for the rights of formerly incarcerated individuals in the community. By 2013, the Underground Scholars Initiative had received university funding to become an on-campus student group, and began developing outreach, advocacy, and retention services.
"When we set out our mission, it wasn’t only to reduce recidivism through education, it was to provide a supportive and politicized community that would be instrumental in helping formerly incarcerated students reach their potential," said David Maldonado, who, along with Czifra, is one of the founding members of USI, as well as its first member to pursue a PhD.
USI’s outreach program leverages ambassadors throughout California who help formerly incarcerated students apply to UC schools. Members of USI also write to people currently in prison, advising them on how to get on the UC track while still incarcerated. As transfer coordinator for USI, Maldonado arranges for community college students to take some courses at Berkeley and "demystifies" the process of applying or transferring into UC schools.
The group also advocates to remove systemic barriers facing formerly incarcerated individuals. For example, the group was instrumental in getting UC Berkeley to "ban the box" on campus job applications that forced applicants to disclose a criminal history before even being interviewed. As of this spring, job applicants will not have to discuss criminal background until they’ve interviewed in person or are a finalist for a position. Now, the group is working to ban the box for job applications across the UC system.
Support for and retention of formerly incarcerated students has been the bedrock of USI since its founding, connecting students to research and scholarship opportunities, to the broader project of building community, as well as raising consciousness on campus.
"I can’t underscore enough how crucial it is to have a supportive community of formerly incarcerated students, who know where you’re coming from," Maldonado said. "And then for us to be visible on campus, to share our lived experience, and add our voices to conversations that are happening on campus around the criminal justice system — it’s a huge difference from the way it used to be, when students felt like they had to hide their past for fear of being judged, excluded, or discriminated against."
To date, the retention model has been a unanimous success: every USI member has gone on to graduate (some 20 this May alone); two, including Czifra and another founding member, Danny Murillo, are Soros Justice Fellows; and several others have gone on to graduate from programs in law, education, and public policy.
Underground Scholars recently hired its first full-time director, Violeta Alvarez, a 2016 UC Berkeley graduate and USI member, who will help establish USI within the school’s Centers for Equity and Excellence. The USI student group will remain a separate entity in order to preserve its ability to conduct activism and policy advocacy.
"Some people say our group is an anomaly, and in certain respects we are unique," said Alvarez. "But it’s not because we’re all so special, or that we’ve pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. It’s because we had teachers, family, friends, counselors, strangers, all along the way who helped us get where we are. It’s because of all the people who gave us the opportunity to thrive, the opportunity to imagine that we could be more, that we have been able to be such a success."