From Incarceration to Reentry: The Importance of Higher Education

A month after moving to the east coast to begin serving my fellowship, I’ve hit the ground running. In this short time I returned to the University of California, Berkeley to attend the 30th anniversary of the John W. Gardner Fellowship. I was invited to the White House by President and Mrs. Obama to attend the 50th anniversary of the White House Fellows. Lastly, I participated in a round table discussion with New Jersey Senator Corey Booker’s legal team to discuss best practices for reentry and higher education. In my personal experience with reentry I recognize this process is not an individual effort. The intellectual influence of my friends whom I was exposed to during my time in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison played a key role in my reentry process. In collaboration with those around me I overcame my learning insecurities and gained the confidence to participate in the education and reentry programs that were being offered in the SHU.

I participated and completed the General Educational Development program (G.E.D). I enrolled in a correspondence course through Coastline Community College, and participated in the Estelle pre-release program. Which offered various certificates; such as, preparation for release, anger management, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Without access to these resources I would not have the tools at my disposal to begin building a bridge towards a successful reentry. Without a doubt the most important tool was higher education, having access to the correspondence courses were instrumental in helping me prepare towards a successful reentry. Continuing my education after my release gave my life structure similar to prison, but without the physical, spiritual, and psychological torture of solitary confinement. It was within this structured environment at Cerritos College and UC Berkeley that I was able to excel and continue to develop my critical thinking skills, which have transformed and changed the direction of my life.

Access to higher education has been instrumental in helping me achieve numerous accomplishments: such as avoiding being a casualty of recidivism, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, co-founding the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC Berkeley, participating on a national community-driven research project as a national policy intern at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and lastly, becoming a John W. Gardner Fellow for Public Service, which opened the doors to work at the Vera Institute of Justice, and the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ – STEP) Mountainview Program (MVP) at Rutgers University – Newark.

As I move forward in life I carry with me the idea that every barrier I overcome is not only a victory for myself, but for all formerly and presently incarcerated people. As a member of All Of Us Or None I am seeking to end the discrimination faced after release and to increase awareness about the human rights of presently incarcerated people. Working at the Vera Institute of Justice I am learning different approaches and best practices to create sustainable and efficient reentry programs and develop strategies that increase access to higher education for formerly and presently incarcerated people. Working at NJ–STEP/MVP gives me the hands-on experience to help transform the lives of people who are directly impacted by incarceration. In addition NJ–STEP/MVP provides me the opportunity to collaborate with formerly incarcerated students who seek to pursue higher education.

Access to education for incarcerated people prepares them to confront and mitigate the barriers they will encounter upon release. Higher education for formerly incarcerated people has proven to reduce the high rates of recidivism. In addition, a postsecondary education increases their chances for employment and access to higher earnings while improving the quality of life for communities that are disproportionately impacted by criminalization and incarceration.

As the completion counselor at NJ–STEP/MVP my role is to advise and help formerly incarcerated students build a bridge that will allow them to reach their goals through higher education. This is a familiar approach, after all it is the model of success that has allowed me to reach my goals after my release. In the following nine months I seek to become a resource to formerly incarcerated students to help them build a bridge that will allow them to reach the goals they have set for themselves through higher education. The Gardner fellowship has given me the opportunity to continue the work I began during my time at Berkeley, and that is to create a space where formerly incarcerated students have the opportunity to empower themselves through higher education and contribute to the discussion that will inform incarceration and reentry policy nationwide.

Danny Murillo is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, receiving his BA in Ethnic Studies. He is currently a John Gardner Fellow, working at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City and the Mountainview Program at Rutgers University.