Formerly incarcerated individuals and criminal justice impacted populations often face significant barriers to accessing higher education. Unfortunately, marginalized formerly incarcerated students often lack the types of critical support that are needed to navigate complex application processes, and earn the credentials needed to succeed in an economy that increasingly demands “highly-skilled” workers. In an effort to address these issues, create a support network, and advocate for a prison-to-school pipeline, formerly incarcerated students at the University of California, Berkeley formed the Berkeley Underground Scholars (BUS) and the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI).
Established in the spring of 2013, the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) has a mission to support formerly incarcerated students and create a robust pathway for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals into higher education. The cornerstone of their initiative is dedicated to building a prison-to-school pipeline through recruitment, retention, and advocacy.
Since their formation, the Underground Scholars Initiative has:
- Provided transfer advising and one-on-one support to currently and formerly incarcerated community college students, ensuring 90% of assisted students receive an acceptance letter to a UC campus.
- Created the Incarceration to College (ITC) program—a nine-unit college readiness course designed to be taught inside juvenile facilities, and currently offered for youth incarcerated in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
- Expanded the Underground Scholars model to serve every undergraduate serving UC campus, including UC Los Angeles, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Merced.
- Advocated and helped support the adoption of a Ban the Box policy so that UC job applicants will no longer be asked to check a box on initial employment applications that indicates whether they have been convicted of a crime.
- Createdthe USI Policy Fellowship—a year-long policy training institute for formerly incarcerated UC students.
- Advocated for legislative bills, including cosponsoring SB 416, the Incarcerated Students Bill of Rights (2021).
The Underground Scholars initiative is creating pathways and impactful partnerships for formerly incarcerated students to thrive, in and out of the public university system.