For Formerly Incarcerated Students, Sheltering in Place Can Feel Like Prison Again

Prentiss Mayo at his home in Oakland on April 24, 2020. Mayo is part of the Underground Scholars group at UC Berkeley. He's legally blind and has had to navigate an additional set of challenges during the pandemic.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On the first night of Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order, UC Berkeley graduate student Daniela Medina had a dream: She was back in prison.

Medina is a part of Berkeley Underground Scholars, a campus community of formerly incarcerated students. Since the pandemic hit, she and other members say shelter-in-place orders are triggering memories of their past confinement, compounding the stress of the moment and making studying nearly impossible.

“It's really hard to shake that and to remind yourself that you're not in that space, that this is something different, that you’re OK,” she said.

Years ago, before Medina got her bachelor's degree at UC Berkeley, before she started her master’s in social welfare, she spent a decade in prison, including about six months in solitary confinement.

Daniela Medina at her 2019 graduation from UC Berkeley with a certificate from state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, recognizing the work of Underground Scholars. (Courtesy of Daniela Medina )

"You start remembering being closed in,” she said. “It triggers in your body those same feelings.”

It’s not just claustrophobia, it’s a deep sense of powerlessness and uncertainty; it’s her body bracing for deprivation, preparing to once again ration food, pads and tampons, Medina said. “It puts you right back into survival mode.”

Formerly incarcerated students have become more visible on the state's college campuses in recent years, with the expansion of Project Rebound at California State University campuses and growing support networks at community colleges. There are now about 100 students in Berkeley Underground Scholars, and according the organization's director, students are building chapters at nearly every other UC campus.

For Medina, the group has been an essential source of encouragement. "We thrive off of each other," she said, explaining that the campus was a safe space that brought them together. "We enjoy being in school, we enjoy learning, we enjoy being in the library — that's what has made us whole out here," she said. With the campus essentially closed, she and other members of the group are struggling. 

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As college students manage the financial and emotional toll of the crisis and adjust to a new way of learning, non-traditional students — those raising kids, those with disabilities, veterans, former foster youth and formerly incarcerated students — have been pushing schools to consider their unique needs, to offer more flexibility in grading and to provide mental health support.

Daniela Medina stand alongside fellow Underground Scholars. (Courtesy of Daniela Medina)

“We’re super non-traditional students,” Medina said of the Underground Scholars. Medina herself is a parent, and many others are former foster youth or have disabilities.

Fellow Underground Scholar Prentiss Mayo is legally blind, and since learning moved online he's been working overtime to master the assistive technology that allows him to read online materials in addition to the distance learning platforms and his coursework. At the same time, he's been helping his high school-age daughter adjust to her new school reality. “The first couple of days, oh yeah, it was hell,” he said.

In the early days of the shutdown, Mayo also found himself falling back into a routine he’d established in jail. He’d workout, he says, then just lay in bed. Not an ideal place to be when trying to study.

“We’re just in fight or flight mode. It cuts off memory, cuts off everything else,” said UC Berkeley sociology major Ngoc, who’s formerly incarcerated, too, and asked to be identified only by his middle name because he’s trying to steer clear of people from his past.

For Ngoc, home confinement dredges up trauma from prison, but it also triggers feelings from a violent and lonely childhood in the foster system.

“Home has always been a scary place,” he said, explaining that he’s had to learn to be diligent about keeping stress out of his living space. Before, he took pains never to study at home because he said his brain struggles to differentiate between academic pressure and the stressors he experienced as a child.

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Since transferring from a community college, Ngoc has embraced the rigors of academic life at UC Berkeley and thrived: He’s racked up scholarships and awards, including a public service award from the chancellor. He’s a research fellow, a member of multiple committees in his department, and he created a program for underrepresented students on campus.

But this is different.

Ngoc, Medina and Mayo all say UC Berkeley’s move to pass/no pass grading is a relief. Still, they want their professors to recognize the toll this is taking.

"When you're this close to mental breakdown you're very scared of taking on more than you can handle, because I've given up on school before; I've given up on life before," Ngoc said.

That's why he's advocating for professors to give non-traditional students more flexibility in this moment. He wants the option to be graded only on work done before the start of this crisis. “We're not asking to be equal," he said. "We're saying be equitable.”

Daniela Medina and fellow Berkeley Underground Scholars with Angela Davis (center) at their May 2019 graduation. (Courtesy of Daniela Medina)

With the support of elected student representatives, Ngoc helped draft a template letter which students can present to their professors and department heads. "Continued learning, under these current circumstances, can/will exacerbate mental health issues," it reads in part, "... allow them to focus solely on their well-being for the rest of the semester."

In a statement, the university said the transition to a pass/no pass option takes into account the stresses and challenges of the moment in an equitable way, and that students seeking additional consideration should work individually with instructors to find solutions.

Ngoc is just hoping those instructors are willing to listen. “We didn’t come this far to fail," he said. “So whatever our professors tell us at this point, we're gonna do. But at what cost?”

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