Danny Murillo was sent to prison the day he turned 18. “My sister and I had been good at selling crack together,” he told me. “I started with a $6 rock, and sold it on the street for $100. I was earning $6,000 a week when I was 15.” But he was arrested in a drug deal gone bad, and received a 15-year sentence. Because he was labeled a high-level gang member, he wound up at Pelican Bay, California’s only maximum-security prison, where he spent a decade in solitary confinement.
“The idea was to break me, emotionally and spiritually,” Danny said, but he was determined to turn his life around. He had always loved to read, and a neighbor in the next cell got him hooked on novels about social justice like The Grapes of Wrath. Another person tutored him in math, his weakest subject, yelling instruction from one prison cell to another.
“Berkeley was the dream on the inside,” he said, and he got there after earning a GED in prison and an associate degree at a community college. He was a solid student at Berkeley, as well as a presence on the campus, cofounding a support group for formerly incarcerated students called Berkeley Underground Scholars. After graduating in 2015, Murillo went to work for Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy organization. In “The Possibility Report,” a research brief published last winter, he made a convincing economic and moral case for encouraging formerly incarcerated students to go to college.
Every year, more than 600,000 people are sentenced to prison in the United States. While 95 percent will eventually be released, prison is a revolving door. More than three-quarters of them will be back behind bars within five years.
The best way to break this pattern is to give former inmates the chance to enroll in college as well as the financial and psychological support essential for success. Just one in six incarcerated individuals with an associate degree—and one in 20 bachelor’s degree-holders—ever return to prison.
Building the prison-to-college pipeline is also a boon to the public. Taxpayers save a boatload—a year in prison costs more than a year at Harvard. What’s more, securing a college education for the formerly incarcerated can break intergenerational cycles of poverty and crime. Yet only 4 percent of this population, seven times less than the general public, earn a college degree.
In December, Congress removed a major barrier to college access when it restored Pell grants for currently and formerly incarcerated students. That program had been eliminated during the get-tough-on-crime 1990s. “Why should prisoners get something that our kids don’t?” went the argument, and even though the premise is false—every student from a low-income family is eligible for a Pell grant—it carried the day.
Pell grants paid for community college classes in prison, which gave inmates a head start on a degree. When the program was shuttered, colleges couldn’t afford to offer those classes, but they can do so again. For formerly incarcerated college students, being eligible for a Pell grant means they have money to pay their tuition.
Biased admissions policies and campus rules, however, still keep many formerly incarcerated individuals out of college. The biggest obstacle is a question on many college applications: Do you have a criminal history? A sizable number answer yes. In a single admissions cycle, nearly 3,000 applicants to a State University of New York campus checked that box, a figure that jumps to more than 120,000 if the rate is the same nationwide.
These applicants face tough odds. An audit of 271 four-year colleges found that they were about 13 percent more likely to be rejected than candidates with identical academic credentials who didn’t have a criminal record. In a national survey, a third of admissions officers said they would consider penalizing an applicant for even a misdemeanor arrest. And the mere fact that the application includes this question doubtlessly scares off would-be applicants. “Why even bother to apply?” they ask themselves.
Formerly incarcerated students may well encounter a frosty reception on campus. College administrators and state officials may keep a close eye on them. Some institutions refuse to allow them to live on campus and bar them from participating in extracurricular activities.
Forget about the ethical imperative of second chances—the belief that these students pose a threat to their classmates explains this hostility. Allowing them on campus would “jeopardize student safety,” Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, contended, vetoing a bill that would have removed the felony conviction question from the public universities’ application. But there’s no evidence that these students commit crimes on campus; football players and fraternity brothers are worse bets.
The reformers’ rallying cry is “ban the box”—forbid colleges to ask about an applicant’s criminal record. John B. King Jr., a former secretary of education, told me, “We can create more inclusive, productive, and stronger communities by ensuring that students who have paid their debt to society are provided with the chance to pursue higher education.” There has been limited progress on this front; the Common College Application, used by 800 institutions, no longer asks the question, and neither do the Ivy League schools, but 70 percent of colleges still do.
California, one of five states with “ban the box” laws, has pioneered in creating college opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Case in point: Dale Lendrum. “I was a full-blown coke addict by the time I was 18,” Lendrum told me. “Over a 20-year period, I was in and out of prison more than 20 times. It was life on the installment plan.” Things started turning around when a parole officer sent him to a hard-core detox program. “I’d never known what it felt to be alive, but I knew I didn’t want to die.”
Once out of prison, Lendrum enrolled in community college. He was a star on campus—an honors student, elected president of the student body twice—and after graduating he transferred to Long Beach State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree, compiling a 3.5 GPA. Last year he completed his doctorate, with a thesis titled “Transformed Lives and Identities of Formerly Incarcerated Women in California’s Community Colleges.”
“I’ve gotten nothing but support at Long Beach,” said Lendrum. “President [Jane] Connelly is big on inclusive excellence. She’s really supportive, not just about helping one person change their life—changing everyone’s life around them.” The university has made a point of recruiting students like him.
Lendrum is now an adjunct professor at East Los Angeles College as well as a volunteer instructor at Likewise College, which offers college classes to people in Arkansas prisons. “I want to be honest and open about my life with my students, to encourage and inspire them,” he said. “I want to help people, to pay forward.”
Lendrum and Murillo are among the leaders in the successful drive to construct a system of supports for undergraduates who have been in jail or prison. In 2015, Berkeley was the only University of California campus with an Underground Scholars project; just one California State campus had a similar program, called Project Rebound; and fewer than 10 community colleges had any activities geared to these students.
With state funds, Underground Scholars has expanded to eight of the nine UC undergraduate campuses. Project Rebound operates at 17 of the 20 Cal State campuses. Community colleges have formed the Rising Scholars Network, which includes more than 50 campuses, and the legislature is poised to support this venture as well. These students get help obtaining financial aid. They get tutoring and peer mentoring, as well as career and mental health counseling.
“We hit the perfect storm, with new state funding, leadership from the governor, and interest at the local level,” explained Rebecca Silbert, who leads the Rising Scholars network. “There has been a big change in public perception—mass incarceration has reached so far into the population that it’s no longer seen as someone else’s problem. And these students, who used to be fearful of ‘coming out,’ are standing up and saying, ‘I deserve an education.’”
California’s efforts are paying off. A study of four community colleges found that formerly incarcerated students tend to have higher GPAs than their classmates and are more likely to go to school full-time, increasing their chances of graduating. During the past five years, Project Rebound undergrads in the Cal State system have maintained a B average, and those who have graduated have either secured full-time jobs or are pursuing advanced degrees. Not a single one of them has been sent back to prison.
To Lendrum, this comes as no surprise. “These students are driven by their determination not to go back. They know that getting a degree will rewrite the script of their lives.”