By Justin Chapman

In 2005, Danny Murillo arrived at the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State prison, where he would remain in solitary confinement, known as “the SHU,” for the remainder of his sentence. It wasn’t long before his fellow inmates encouraged him to take advantage of the limited educational resources available in the SHU.

“Little did I know that higher education was the spark that would bring the light into the darkness of my cell,” Murillo said. “The desire to change, combined with the supportive community of individuals who saw in me what I could not see myself — my humanity — inspired me to be proactive about my education. What kept me motivated was the possibility of being a college student on campus. How would I make that happen?”

Despite the circumstances that landed Danny in prison and much of it in solitary confinement, through his own hard work he was able to educate himself sufficiently to go on to receive an associate’s degree from Cerritos College and a bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley, and he is currently in a graduate studies program at California State University, Long Beach. He is the recipient of the John Gardner Fellowship for Public Service and the Service Fellowship for Justice Advocacy.

Now, in part because of the work of Murillo, state legislator and educational equity advocates, many students will benefit from new California legislation designed to increase access to education for incarcerated students.

Murillo said that Senate Bill 416, recently signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, will bridge the gap between incarcerated students and the counselors who can guide them to a better life and provide quality face-to-face instruction from local accredited colleges and universities.

To honor the state leaders who have taken bold action to advance an educational equity agenda, the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation and the Michelson Center for Public Policy co-sponsored the Campaign for College Opportunity’s 2021 Legislative Dean’s List,  a virtual celebration of a historic year of higher education policy on January 19. Watch the full event here.

Last year Murillo, currently a Smart Justice Fellow at the Michelson 20MM Foundation, authored the Campaign for College Opportunity’s Possibility Report: From Prison to College Degrees in California to raise awareness.

The report outlined a series of recommendations for campuses and the state to address the barriers in California’s educational system and to create more equitable opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students to be educated, improve their lives and the lives of their families, and contribute to California’s future economic well-being all at the same time.

Murillo did not have an academic or career counselor to help him prepare for his transition to academic life. As he had to figure out how to navigate community college while incarcerated, he also had to figure out his transition from the Pelican Bay SHU to Cerritos College.

“I want to thank Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the Michelson Center for Public Policy, Project Rebound Consortium, Berkeley Underground Scholars, and the Campaign for College Opportunity for the steadfast support of this bill,” Murillo said. “I also want to thank state Senator Ben Hueso for his dedication and support in providing pipelines to college opportunities for incarcerated students. This bill will change lives.”

“The governor and our legislators, and in particular those that we are honoring today, have been courageously leading the charge on advancing landmark laws to ensure that all of California’s students have a fair chance to succeed.”

—Dr. Gary Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies, Michelson 20MM, and the Michelson Center for Public Policy

In 2021, Michelson 20MM and the Michelson Center for Public Policy worked alongside dozens of partners to secure SB 416 and other critical pieces of legislation which will impact disadvantaged students.

“The governor and our legislators, and in particular those that we are honoring today, have been courageously leading the charge on advancing landmark laws to ensure that all of California’s students have a fair chance to succeed,” said Dr. Gary Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies, Michelson 20MM, and the Michelson Center for Public Policy. “California has been the tip of the spear, the state that has against the odds chosen to do the right thing and to bravely go where no other state has gone before it. California is leading the way for other states to follow.”

During the event, Dr. Michelson thanked Governor Newsom and the legislature for a historic $115 million allocation in the state budget to drive down the exorbitant cost of textbooks and make possible Zero-Cost-Textbook degrees, a cornerstone of the mission of the Michelson 20MM Foundation. Then he applauded Senator Hueso for his leadership in the passage of SB 416, which will ensure that incarcerated students across California’s prisons will receive high-quality classroom-based instruction and be protected against predatory, for-profit entities following the reinstatement of Pell Grants.

“For decades our system of higher education has been the engine of the California Dream, that conveyor belt for talent,” Gov. Newsom said. “Now we’re seizing the opportunity to expand college access, affordability, and success for all Californians.”

Newsom highlighted last year’s unprecedented $47 billion investment to make college more affordable, improve graduation rates, and help eliminate equity gaps. He recently signed legislation that will make it far easier for community college students to transfer to four-year universities.

“This year, we’re tripling down on that work,” he said. “We’re launching a new multi-year framework that will provide unprecedented funding and support with specific prescriptive goals with more accountability and transparency for our system of higher education. That includes a brand new degree completion goal for the state of 70%. We’re counting on your partnership to ensure that these plans and investments manifest into outcomes and real concrete benefits for Californians today and, of course, into the future.”

Newsom made the case that all California students deserve access to a higher education, which he said is inherent to making the California Dream become the California Promise.

In addition to Governor Newsom receiving the Distinction in Higher Education Vision & Investment and Senator Hueso received the Distinction in Providing Pipelines to College Opportunity. The Legislative Dean’s List event also honored Assembly members Marc Berman, Lorena Gonzalez, and Jacqui Irwin; state Sen. Connie Leyva; and Assembly Higher Education Committee chief consultant Jeanice Warden-Washington.

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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