Three of California’s postsecondary student leaders joined the National Conference on Higher Education in Prisons (NCHEP) on November 13, 2021, to share their experiences navigating higher education. Representing pivotal programs—Project Rebound, Rising Scholars, and Underground Scholars–Jimmie Conner, Nohealani Casperson, and Kevin McCarthy not only shared their successes but also detailed some of the challenges incarcerated students faced, which are critical smart justice policy opportunities. After the conference, Kevin, who is a UC Berkeley Student that re-entered his community fifteen months ago, reflected on the experience.

An Underground Scholar’s Story

In July of 2020, I was released from Pleasant Valley State Prison and began my first semester at UC Berkeley. I paroled full of enthusiasm—not only towards my own educational goals, but also towards making four-year university education accessible to some of the most restricted and mistreated incarcerated people in California’s gulags. Unfortunately, after a year of pouring my energy into reform and watching some of it get vetoed or fall upon deaf ears, I have found myself depleted and empty this past month. I thought my determination would be enough to pass legislation and new policy–I painted a rosy picture. Such was my mental state when I arrived in Denver for NCEP, but it definitely was not where I was when I departed. 

I was moved by listening to others across the country, who are so passionate and devoted to bringing higher education into lockdown facilities. Their stories and ideas made me feel and realize that Underground Scholars, Project Rebound, and the Rising Scholars Network are not in this alone: There is a robust national, higher education movement that is fully committed to bringing higher education to prison while simultaneously working towards prison abolition. I found that I could relate to a lot of the obstacles they face, and the revelations they have had on their journey. Their stories rejuvenated me and filled me with hope. I created a new network of friends whom I can call upon for advice, support, and collaboration. As a result, I return to California with renewed hope, energy, and focus. 

I also found great pride in sharing Underground Scholars’ progress in assisting formerly incarcerated people gain access into higher education. While our blueprint assisted an educational administrator’s reentry plans, it was the sharing of my personal mental health struggles, and the assistance that I receive through the Disabled Student Program, that created the most substantive dialogue and seemed to be most helpful. It is not always easy or comfortable to become vulnerable, but I am proud that I pushed myself to do so. 

I remind myself that this work will not be easy—and I have a long, arduous road ahead of me—but the goal is worth every bit of discomfort and sacrifice. Education has such great transformative value: It fosters unity among diverse groups and provides the insight and power to bring out the best in people. If we are going to have any hope to abolish the carceral state and bring true equity to a nation where economic subjugation and racism is deeply embedded, we must become and remain fully committed to educating the most disadvantaged and deprived groups of people.

Kevin McCarthy is a UC Berkeley student studying Legal Studies.

Kevin’s story is motivational because it demonstrates the transformative nature postsecondary education can have, which is the catalyst behind our Smart Justice initiative. We hope you were able to participate in NCHEP or stream it live and look forward to continuing to move the needle over the coming year via the 2021 cohort of Smart Justice Spark Grantees.


Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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