Kevin McCarthy is the first parolee applicant ever accepted to UC Berkeley.
His academic achievement inspired Gov. Gavin Newsom’s endorsement of Senate Bill 416. The bill requires all California prisons to offer college programs this year.
In addition, starting in 2023, Pell Grants will become available for incarcerated people throughout the nation.
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Nanette Asimov wrote that California’s new commitment to prison education would create an exponential increase of incarcerated applicants to four-year universities next year.
Annually, Berkeley denies 14,133 applicants who wish to transfer to its campus. Currently the campus accepts only 3,900 students each year.
McCarthy’s experience being accepted to one of the top universities in the world was paved with obstacles uncommon to most students’ struggles.
Asimov reported the unique restrictions on incarcerated students. “From inside prison without a phone, computer or pens, McCarthy went on to persuade one of the world’s best universities to let him in.”
McCarthy spent 14 years in prison. Nine of those years were in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit.
Asimov described McCarthy’s experience of solitary as a place where he was put “in a concrete closet on July 26, 2006.” Administration never told him when he might leave and some prisoners were held in solitary for more than 10 years.
McCarthy recounted to Asimov that “it was an ugly place. I forgot what human touch felt like.”
Indefinite lengths in the solitary program were outlawed after thousands of prisoners, including McCarthy, began a hunger strike known as the Short Corridor Hunger Strike.
After joining the protests — protests that started with small groups at Pelican Bay and grew statewide to 29,000 men — he committed his life to obtaining the skills to fight for the rights of the underprivileged and disenfranchised.
The two-month-long statewide hunger strike contributed to the abolition of indefinite solitary confinement in the 2015 settlement in Ashker v. California.
This experience helped McCarthy solidify his intended major for college. He planned to pursue legal studies and criminology in preparation for law school.
McCarthy told the Chronicle that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation eliminated all college programs for inmates in solitary confinement during 2008. However, Asimov notes in her article that CDCR denies the suspension of correspondence courses.
After he started his collegiate career in 2007, McCarthy did not have access to college coursework until 2015.
Following Pelican Bay, McCarthy transferred from one end of the state to the other as he moved to Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County. At Calipatria, McCarthy’s passion for assisting other inmates with legal strategies continued to grow.
He also enrolled in a paralegal course while taking correspondence classes through Coastline, Lassen and Feather River Colleges. McCarthy had to enroll in multiple schools as he realized not one of the correspondence school offered all the transferrable classes required by the UC system.
McCarthy’s cellmate introduced him to a program at UC Berkeley called the Underground Scholars, which is specifically designed for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.
He also gained mentorship from prison reform lawyers Carol Strickman and Carole Travis, who inspired him to study law. “Their belief in me made me believe in myself,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy graduated in 2016 with an associate degree and enough transferrable credits to apply to CSU and UC campuses. The question was where.
He applied to five University of California campuses and five California State University campuses with assistance from Travis. She submitted his applications online because colleges no longer accepted paper applications.
Although he was accepted to San Francisco State and the University of California campuses at Riverside, Merced and Santa Cruz, he continued to wait for his dream to come true.
In April 2017, he received news of his acceptance to UC Berkeley, something he had waited for since his transfer from Pelican Bay in 2015. During his transfer to Calipatria, McCarthy saw the San Francisco skyline and promised himself he would get back there.
McCarthy returned to San Francisco through academic rehabilitation and a COVID-19 release that allowed him to enter UC Berkeley in the fall of 2020.
He now works for Underground Scholars, where he assists other incarcerated people applying for college. He also works for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and was recently published by the UCLA Law Review. McCarthy’s recent article opposed certain prison policies that he argued promote violence and have led to lawsuits seeking abolition of the policies.
UC Berkeley was the first step of McCarthy’s dreams. He now understands that his study of law, motivated by a desire to help others, is what led him back to becoming a “part of the democratic process.”
It is this insight that allowed him to tell the UC admissions committee that his own generosity is what saved his life. “When I supported others, I felt like I was answering a calling. I was developing a new identity and shedding an old one. I grew, matured and became a person of empathy and kindness,” he told the board of admissions.
Eric Lopez, incarcerated for 22 years, said, “McCarthy’s enrollment to UC Berkeley after his release is an inspiration to everyone. I know I will be reaching out to him and the Underground Scholars as I hope to parole this year.”