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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Formerly incarcerated students seek support


UC Davis lacks space for students previously detained

Students who received a questionnaire from Tina Curiel, a third-year transfer student and sociology major, responded that, if they were in a class with a formerly-incarcerated student, they might feel that such a person should have to share their past with future colleagues. Curiel, who was present while students took the survey, did not reveal that she had been formerly incarcerated.

“There was definitely a proportion of the students we interviewed that […] didn’t know what somebody who has been incarcerated might look like,” Curiel said. “[That] is why I am really open about my past. It’s our job to challenge what that image looks like.”

Groups like Project Rebound, established in 1967 at San Francisco State University and now at seven other California State Universities, and the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), founded at University of California (UC) Berkeley in 2012, provide formerly incarcerated students with support, including tutoring and networking. Presently, UC Davis has no such group to support formerly-incarcerated students enrolled at the university.

Caleb Martinez, a fourth-year political science and policy major at UC Berkeley who is the transfer and outreach lead coordinator for USI and a formerly-incarcerated student himself, said that USI has contacts with several formerly incarcerated students enrolled at UC Davis.

“All of us [at USI] have made it here through support [from] our community or, in many cases, being fortunate or privileged enough to have mentors,” Martinez said. “We feel like we provide resources and opportunities […] to people coming out of detention to help them [arrive] here at Berkeley or at other institutions.”

Both of Curiel’s parents struggled with incarceration, addiction and poverty, and she struggled with heroin addiction and served differing amounts of time in prison from age 18 to 23. After receiving a possession charge, she enrolled in a yearlong, state-run program that, along with the fear of prolonged incarceration, was a turning point. After her release, Curiel had no financial support, but, with the help of her sister and a 12-step program, she was able to find a job and started taking classes at Modesto Junior College (MJC).

“I worked full-time when I went to community college, so two years took me like seven years with two semesters off,” Curiel said. “Funding [is a] struggle […] more often than not for people that have served time. How do you prioritize school over survival?”

Two professors at MJC, including history professor Eva Mo, encouraged Curiel to apply to the honors’ program. Mo was not aware of Curiel’s background but recognized her talents and later assisted in her applications to UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

“She had so much potential and she just needed the space to explore her abilities,” Mo said. “The more opportunities she had to demonstrate that she can very well succeed, and do it with amazing grace and eloquence, the more she became convinced of the idea that she deserved these things.”

In addition to mentors, both USI and Project Rebound promote the importance of education for both currently and formerly incarcerated people. Mary Maguire, a Sacramento State professor and chair of the criminal justice division, said that she believes education has the power to create systemwide change.

“The correctional system just isn’t really set up to help people get out and be successful,” Maguire said. “As a result, we have an incredibly high recidivism rate. I believe that education is going to make a difference in helping people get on their feet and be productive members of the community.”

Curiel has plans to become a public defender. She views education as a privilege that she can use to help those who do not have access to education. Additionally, Martinez said that he thinks education is unnecessarily politicized.

“For USI, […] we feel that barriers have been placed [making it difficult for] us to receive education, in a way that it hasn’t been for other groups,” Martinez said. “Education is the equalizer, and it’s going to put our population on the platform to better advocate […] for issues of people that were incarcerated or are incarcerated.”

Education is at the heart of third-year transfer student and sociology major Daniel Mendoza’s story. Mendoza was incarcerated from ages 14 to 19 on charges of first-degree murder with gang enhancements. Mendoza took college courses while incarcerated, and he was the first in the institution he was held at — as well as in his family — to do so. He had recently been sentenced to life as a juvenile, meaning he would remain incarcerated until the age of 23. At the time of the sentencing, Mendoza was enrolled at Sierra College, a community college, and showed the judge that he planned on continuing his education.

“Walking into that courtroom that day, [I thought] I was going to […] serve more time,” Mendoza said. “This community of people went up to the judge, wrote letters [and] were personally in the courtroom. The judge [decided to] release me with conditional terms. I got out in December, and started my first semester at Sierra College that January.”

Before his release, Mendoza spent his last four to five weeks in solitary confinement, with no human contact for 22 to 23 hours a day. His abrupt reintegration into society and community college was a struggle.

“I had anxiety, […] I was always looking over my shoulder [and] sudden movements would freak me out,” Mendoza said. “I couldn’t find a job, […and] I had no previous work history. For the next couple months, for my first semester, I would go to school, excited, of course, for the opportunity, but come back […] and stay in my room all day.”

After getting involved with the Annie E. Casey Foundation advocating for juvenile justice, Mendoza became more vocal about his past and the change he wanted to see. At his community college, Mendoza approached his counselor about starting a support group for formerly incarcerated students, but was told that it was not the right place for such a group.

Now, in his second quarter at UC Davis, Mendoza said that he has already met five or six formerly incarcerated student peers who have also not found a safe space on campus.

“I can walk into the Cross Cultural Center and they can accept me as much as they want, but there’s always that negative stigma behind my story,” Mendoza said. “My plan here, […] is [to] create some kind of support system. I don’t see [anything] around here that says, ‘You were incarcerated? That’s okay.’”

Curiel and Mendoza are in the process of brainstorming how to go about creating a support group for formerly incarcerated students. Maguire, who was also the former director for CSU Sacramento’s Project Rebound program, strongly believes in the importance of support groups for formerly incarcerated students at universities.

“The students that have been incarcerated have spent months or years in a really anti-social environment […] where people assume [they are] essentially bad,” Maguire said. “These students need a different level of support to avoid that feeling of isolation.”

Formerly incarcerated students, whether enrolled at community colleges or four-year universities, continue to be defined by their past. Martinez, speaking about USI and formerly-incarcerated students, emphasized that support is still needed.

“It is still a stigma and still a barrier to be formerly incarcerated in society [and] on a campus,” Martinez said. “Many of us suffer from disabilities. We graduate from college and can’t find employment. Some of us are in college and can’t find employment. Many are food insecure [or] housing insecure. We always [need the] community support of everyone in any way they can.”


Written by: Hannah Holzer– features@theaggie.org


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