University of California at Berkeley filmmakers visited San Quentin for an exclusive screening of “From Incarceration to Education,” an original documentary about four formerly incarcerated persons who successfully became UC graduate students.
The April event included a question and answer session with first-time directors Skylar Economy and Christian Collins. They were joined by two of the film’s formerly incarcerated stars, Richard Rodriguez-Leon and Shalita Williams.
“SNY [Sensitive Needs Yard] …comprises roughly half the California prison system,” according to Lody Lewn in the Prison University Project Spring 2018 Newsletter Volume 13, No.1
“We just hope all y’all can see the possibility of achieving a college education for real,” Williams told a packed house of San Quentin inmates. “It’s a lot of hard work, but there’s a support network here to help.”
“From Incarceration to Education” showcases Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), an advocate group formed by students to embrace formerly incarcerated individuals and those impacted by incarceration in order to help them overcome the challenges of acclimating into academic life.
“The normal college student doesn’t relate to where we’ve been and what we’ve gone through to get here,” Rodriguez-Leon said. “It’s important to understand that being here is the easy part compared to everything else we overcame to make it this far.”
“It’s definitely awkward being around all these kids,” Williams explained about her feelings of alienation. “Underground Scholars lets us know we belong here, too.”
Initially an informal grassroots student union, USI now receives federal funding and is officially recognized by the entire UC system. The program provides assistance throughout the university application process and then offers a support group on campus. USI sponsors local cross-enrollment programs that can help community college students gain exposure to Berkeley coursework.
“Struggling on my own in community college, just to complete the work to get accepted to Berkeley, that was tough,” admitted Rodriguez-Leon. “But now, there’s plenty of financial aid and peer support available.”
Williams spent over a decade in and out of prison before fighting off her drug addiction and completing her bachelor’s degree at Berkeley. She will begin a master’s program at UCLA in the fall.
“There were days where I’d get home from work and school, the sink would be full of dirty dishes, and the kids would be screaming to be fed,” Williams remembered. “I just wanted to cry.
“I still talk with my friends from the drug days, but I can’t hang out with them like I used to,” she said. “It’s cool. They’ve got their lives, and I’ve got mine.”
“I do my thing at school and still kick it with the homies in the neighborhood,” said Rodriguez-Leon, who also stays connected with a brother currently in prison. “My goal is to use my education to inform my community and break down the social barriers against us.”
“I wanted to show the way these students succeeded after their time incarcerated,” said filmmaker Economy. “They’re a part of Berkeley’s rich tradition of diversity. I knew I had to film these guys and tell their story.”
When asked what she found most rewarding about her newfound achievements, Williams smiled at the crowd and said, “Being invited to speak to groups like y’all and help make a difference. I want to do all I can with the advantages I’ve gained.”