Life after solitary confinement: How education paved the way for Danny Murillo
Originally published at The Daily Californian on May 10, 2015.
Sipping beer in his apartment and eating homemade ceviche, Danny Murillo, 35, could be any other UC Berkeley student.
But spend a little more time with him, and other things become apparent. Odd little details. Such as how his closet is unusually neat — winter jackets hang on the far right, followed by long-sleeved shirts, pants, belts and a white towel folded exactly in half. Medicine is organized in tidy rows on the top shelf, next to a small storage box and a suitcase. No space is wasted. In his bedroom, he keeps to-do lists and records of deadlines for what seems like countless scholarships and programs, all written in neat print and colored markers. He’s easy-going most of the time, but now and again, he’s restless. He talks very fast.
“I’m a creature of habit. If I have to work out at 7 in the morning, I have to work out every day at 7 in the morning,” Murillo said. “That’s how I function.”
Murillo keeps himself on a set schedule because he has trouble with unstructured time — a concept with which he has had limited experience in his adult life. He spent 14 years in prison, six of which were in solitary confinement, before making his way to UC Berkeley.
When he was 16 years old, Murillo was arrested and charged with two robberies. After accepting a plea bargain and a sentence of 15 years, he was sent from Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles County to Wasco State Prison in December 1997. He had just turned 18. Murillo was later moved to High Desert State Prison and then to California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi before making his way to Pelican Bay State Prison’s notorious Security Housing Unit, or SHU, where he spent his last five years in solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement is designed to fucking break you. Not just emotionally — spiritually,” Murillo said. “In spite of that, I was able to build up a type of resilience. I didn’t let that place take ahold of me.”
An ex-con turned UC Berkeley researcher, Murillo is one of thousands of formerly incarcerated persons struggling to re-enter society. During the 2013 hunger strikes at Pelican Bay, Murillo — from outside prison walls — became an active spokesperson against solitary confinement. That spring, he also co-founded the Underground Scholars Initiative, a campus support group for formerly incarcerated students.
According to a report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, about 61 percent of felons released from its institutions from 2008-09 returned to state prison within three years. How does someone like Murillo, who statistically should be back behind bars, end up at a place like UC Berkeley?
Despite being released, he and other formerly incarcerated people grapple with employment barriers, psychological trauma and social stigma at every turn. For some, education is the way out.
Since he was a teenager, Murillo knew he would end up in prison. Murillo grew up in Norwalk, California, a city that had a higher crime rate than the average U.S. city from 2000-07, according to City-Data.com. Growing up, there would be about six people on parole on his street at any given time, he said. College was never in the cards.
Independent and part of a street gang, he started selling $2 joints when he was 13 years old. By the time he was 16, he was buying about 8 ounces of crack cocaine per week and making $1,000 from each ounce. Murillo said he spent his teenage years drifting in and out of every juvenile hall in Los Angeles County and was put into solitary confinement multiple times.
In his family, Murillo said, three people, including himself, have been incarcerated. Many of his childhood friends didn’t live to see their 20s, and the majority of those who did ended up incarcerated as well. Eight of his close friends, including his older brother and his best friend, were killed, he said.
“I’ve always been a hustler. I always learn how to make do, but I used to do it with these very negative means,” Murillo said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to end up in fucking prison if I don’t end up dead at a certain point of my life.’ Something’s not right about that.”
In 1996, Murillo said he and three others were arrested after two robberies. They were offered a plea bargain: the oldest, who was about 22 years old and was a third striker, would receive a 25-years-to-life sentence, while the rest received 15 years. The alternative was going to trial, where they would have been looking at 75 years to life. They ended up taking the bargain.
“I’ve always been a hustler. I always learn how to make do, but I used to do it with these very negative means. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to end up in fucking prison if I don’t end up dead at a certain point of my life.’ Something’s not right about that.” — Danny Murillo
Murillo said his friend’s tougher decision of taking 25 years to life pushed Murillo to work hard to get out of prison and stay out. They still keep in touch and write letters to each other. “That’s something I carry with me,” Murillo said. “Doing what I’m doing now is a way of repaying back to him, so his sacrifice wasn’t in vain.”
In prison, Murillo tried to get along with the people around him. While at High Desert State Prison, he owned a radio that could also record, and he would offer to record songs for other inmates for free so that they could listen to new tracks. Throughout his 14 years spent incarcerated, he was written up only four times — twice for physical altercations and twice for obtaining contraband — he said with a touch of pride. He also got his GED certificate.
But in 2003, Murillo was accused of gang affiliation, which he denies, and was consequently sent to solitary confinement. Another inmate provided confidential information to officers alleging his involvement in a prison gang, which led to an investigation. After searching his room, officers found two belongings that were used as further evidence of his alleged gang affiliation. The first was a newsletter from the Chicano Mexicano Prison Project that had a picture of a Mexican flag. The second was a calendar with Aztec and Mayan drawings inside that was given to him by his mother.
Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary at the CDCR, said that before 2013, the CDCR put inmates affiliated with a gang indeterminately in the SHU, and the process of validation relied more heavily on confidential informants as well as evidence such as drawings and other documents.
“Unfortunately, they would just keep somebody in the SHU based on this kind of evidence,” she said.
Since then, the CDCR has also changed other policies regarding those suspected of gang affiliation, Thornton said. Now inmates suspected of gang affiliation are no longer automatically sent to the SHU based solely on the CDCR’s validation, unless they are connected to “criminal gang behavior,” which includes both violent and nonviolent offenses such as smuggling and extortion.
“We’re in a better place. … I think it’s fair because it still holds people accountable,” Thornton said. “We have an obligation to manage these gangs.”
Murillo knew he was going to be sent into solitary confinement when the other inmates began asking him how much he wanted for his radio. He sold the radio and was sent into solitary confinement for a year at the California Correctional Institution before ending up in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison. Unlikely as it seems, it was in the SHU that Murillo began his college career.
The cell is about 9 by 11 feet. Its walls are made of concrete slabs. There’s a sink, a toilet and a bed. No windows. This is the SHU, and Murillo spent 22-and-a-half hours per day there every day for five years.
Murillo believes that no one can ever recover from being in solitary confinement. “It’s something that we’re always going to carry,” he said.
While in solitary confinement, Murillo spent a lot of time reflecting on the decisions he made. “At a certain point in my life, I said if I got released I would go back to dealing drugs. When I first went into solitary, I was still having those thoughts,” Murillo said. “But I think being in solitary confinement gave me a lot of time to think. I was able to put myself in other people’s shoes.”
Ever since his time in the SHU, Murillo has struggled with anxiety. Solitary confinement has left other marks, too, such as an inability to express certain emotions.
“It’s hard for me to tell people — other than my mom and my three nieces — to say, ‘I love you,’ ” Murillo said, pausing. “It’s hard to say it to anybody else.”
Like many people in prison, Murillo didn’t know much about higher education. But during his time in the SHU, he met a few inmates who explained the process of applying to community college and encouraged him to take college-level courses through a distance-learning correspondence program. Taking courses in business, critical thinking and ethics, he became part of a group of inmates who were taking college-level courses and supporting one another, sharing textbooks and advice.
“What little bit (of resources) that was available there, I was able to take that and use it for my advantage,” Murillo said. “Education gives people a different outlook on things. It gave my life context.”
While in prison, Murillo said he constantly thought about the future and feared returning home to his family and having nothing to contribute. Earning college credits became a way to prepare for life after prison, to move forward.
He was also put in a prerelease program for inmates who have less than two years left to serve. The program lets inmates take courses — such as those on anger management and job searching — designed to help them re-enter society.
For inmates, participating in any type of educational program reduces their chances of re-entering prison after they are released by about 43 percent, according to a 2013 analysis by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy think tank. Those who took part in college programs during incarceration also lowered their chances of re-entering prison by about 51 percent.
As of last June, the CDCR reported that 28 colleges were offering courses at CDCR facilities but that only one of those — the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison — was teaching classes in person, according to a February study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and UC Berkeley’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. Prison University Project volunteers include UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students.
“Distance learning in most situations is never as good as in person,” said Rebecca Silbert, executive director of the Institute on Law and Social Policy and co-author of the study. “It’s particularly troublesome when you have a student population that likely did not develop the basic skills in their K-12 education.”
Silbert pointed out that everyone sentenced to jail and 96 percent of those in prison will eventually be released. “We can’t, as a society, send people to prison or jail and think we’re done,” Silbert said. “The conversation has to continue.”
According to Silbert, higher education institutions and prisons have to start working together to provide education to inmates. Having access to education during incarceration can help people find jobs upon release, which allows them to help their families and build communities, she said.
When Murillo got out of prison in January 2010, the first thing he did was head to the mall to buy clothes. “It was loud,” Murillo said. “Walking into stores, there was music blaring. It was weird. There was a lot of movement.”
Crowds weren’t the only thing Murillo had to get used to. Smartphones, social media, a multi-gender society, buying metro tickets using an electronic system — the world outside prison was completely different, especially after 14 years. After he was released, Murillo went back home to live with his family in the house where he grew up.
“When I walked into the house, it felt very small — it’s because I was so used to being in these massive structures,” Murillo said. “But after a while … I started thinking about it, and everything seemed big. I could actually reach out and not touch a wall. Space was endless.”
Having a place to return to and a family that supported him were crucial factors in helping him re-enter society, he said. Although Murillo enjoys seeing his family, he still finds it difficult to spend a lot of time back home because the place carries painful memories.
“When I walked into the house, it felt very small — it’s because I was so used to being in these massive structures. But after a while … I started thinking about it, and everything seemed big. I could actually reach out and not touch a wall. Space was endless.” — Murillo
His return was also a big transition for his family.“It was also difficult because we had a lot of unresolved issues. People that are getting out of prison are getting sent back to the same communities they came from — it’s the families that are carrying the burden of helping people transition into society,” he said. “It doesn’t really get talked about.”
Karla Alvarez, Murillo’s older sister, said it was hard to have close interactions with Murillo when he was first released because he was very guarded. He would carry himself as if he were still in prison, and he found it difficult to relax, she said.
“We didn’t want him to think he doesn’t belong here,” Alvarez said. “It was hard for him to be able to socialize with people.”
Shortly after his release, Murillo got a job unloading boxes for the California Cartage Company in Carson, California. He then enrolled at Cerritos College, a nearby community college. By going back to school, Murillo was able to cope with the stress of re-entry by trading one institution for another — prison for an academic setting, where many of the people with whom he interacted were understanding of his background and interested in learning about the prison system.
In fall 2012, Murillo transferred to UC Berkeley, where he is now a senior pursuing research on the trend of primarily low-income underrepresented-minority students moving out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. “That’s why I do the work that I do,” he said, referring to his own experience of going from school to incarceration. “I love learning. I love giving back to folks in the same situation.”
Last week, about two dozen students, faculty, staff and community members gathered at UC Berkeley’s Stiles Hall to reflect on mass incarceration. Using colored markers, some wrote their thoughts on pieces of paper taped to windows and walls, answering questions about their experiences with incarceration and ways to support people affected by the system.
The event was hosted by the Underground Scholars Initiative, or USI, a campus support group for formerly incarcerated students and people who have been affected by the prison system.
In 2013, Murillo helped create the USI with Steven Czifra, a 40-year-old senior who was formerly incarcerated and spent eight years in solitary confinement. Murillo approached Czifra on campus and introduced himself, and the two figured out that they had both been in Pelican Bay’s SHU “within a minute” of talking to each other. “We sniff out our own,” Czifra said.
Murillo was the first formerly incarcerated person whom Czifra met at UC Berkeley. “He really inspires me as a student — he’s very diligent,” Czifra said. “He got lucky. There are loads of people in prison who want to be Danny. He has a family that loves and cares for him. That’s everything.”
The USI aims to create a safe space for students who have been affected by mass incarceration and a place where formerly incarcerated students feel like they belong. Still in its initial stages of development, the group now has about 20 active members and runs a program designed to help formerly incarcerated community college students transfer to UC Berkeley. The group also hopes to work with prisons and jails to reach out to potential students while they’re still incarcerated.
“I feel like I’m at home when I’m around these people,” said Clarence Ford, a 27-year-old transfer student who was formerly incarcerated and is a member of the USI. “We’re basically showing the world people can change. We’re just trying to change that narrative that society has about people who have been incarcerated.”
Fabrizio Mejia, the executive director of Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, is involved with the USI, and he said the group is the only organization at UC Berkeley that caters specifically to formerly incarcerated students. Mejia said this is a “pretty unique program” within the UC system.
Formerly incarcerated students have overcome tremendous hardships and face special challenges in contrast with their peers, according to Patricia Hilden, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley who also helped establish the USI.
“Danny happens to be gifted with a very warm personality and a wonderful brain that makes him different from most of the people I know from prison,” said Hilden, who taught formerly incarcerated students as well as inmates in federal prison. “While he was in prison, older guys were looking after him, talking to him, persuading him to read books — that doesn’t always happen to people when they’re in prison long term.”
Hilden, who studies Native Americans and people of other racial groups in U.S. prison systems, said formerly incarcerated students face many of the same challenges that plague underrepresented minorities, such as a sense of estrangement in a community where many are primarily white and privileged.
“I feel like I’m at home when I’m around these people. We’re basically showing the world people can change. We’re just trying to change that narrative that society has about people who have been incarcerated.” — Clarence Ford, 27-year-old transfer student
Many of them are also older than their peers, which poses social problems, she said. In fall 2014, 5 percent of UC undergraduate students and 6 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates were 25 or older, according to UC and campus data.
Having been in prison poses other social issues as well. “They’re guarded. Many of them don’t realize that anyone cares about them — they bring a lot of baggage with them from prison,” Hilden said. “(Murillo) knows how to work the system. Some of the other students don’t — they’re much more fearful.”
Violeta Alvarez, a 26-year-old campus student-parent who was formerly incarcerated, quickly became a core member of the USI. For Alvarez, being a formerly incarcerated student is like having an “added stigma.”
“A lot of folks feel like they don’t belong in institutions like this,” said Alvarez, who is a senior. “We’re sure that there’s a lot more students on campus who are previously incarcerated, but a lot of them don’t want to self-identify because of the stigma.”
While she was in community college, Alvarez never brought up her criminal background. Being a part of the USI changed her perspective, however, and she began to speak out about her experience.
“If I don’t share my experience and advocate for myself, then who will? It’s really unfair that we’re chained to our one crime,” Alvarez said, referring to the fact that she has to disclose her criminal background when applying to certain jobs and institutions. “Once you walk out of county jails, that should be the end.”
The university does not collect information on formerly incarcerated students enrolled in the system and does not not ask about criminal history in admission applications. The university, however, does conduct background checks on applications for certain job positions in the system.
Although Murillo knows a lot of people, he doesn’t have many close friends, he said. He still keeps in touch with his friends from prison and writes to them whenever he can. The majority of his friends from community college and UC Berkeley also know him from scholarship programs, or from courses and campus activities related to mass incarceration. As a result, he hasn’t had many uncomfortable interactions regarding his background, he said.
“At Berkeley, I’m stuck in this bubble. People have been supportive,” Murillo said, referring to the campus’ scholarly atmosphere. “I don’t really have too many conversations outside of just the people I know.”
At the end of the week, Murillo will be graduating from UC Berkeley. Over the summer, he will be studying abroad in Costa Rica, where he will be taking courses in peace and conflict studies. Afterward, he plans to pursue a doctoral degree in American or ethnic studies with a focus on prison reform.
Murillo feels he owes it to people who come from similar backgrounds and communities to address issues of mass incarceration.
“What happens in Norwalk isn’t isolated,” Murillo said. “I want to be a resource for people and connect people who are coming from the same conditions that I’m coming from.”
He also hopes to publish research and perhaps one day become a community college teacher. “I understand that this work is never going to stop,” he said. “I’m always constantly on the move.”