Richard Rodriguez-Leon is one of four formerly incarcerated Cal students followed in a new film. Photo: FITE screenshot

In the opening scene of the new short documentary From Incarceration to Education, Berkeley native Clarence Ford talks about making the transition from the criminal justice system to academia. Having a criminal record can make it difficult to get into college, but, says Ford, it can actually be an asset once you are there.

“If you’re able to overcome prison, jail, streets or whatever, that experience in itself is so rich,” Ford says. “That’s a system in itself. Academia is a system in itself too. So I feel like if we can learn this thing, we could also learn this.”

There are many people at UC Berkeley who have experience with both systems, thanks in part to programs like the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), which helps formerly incarcerated students navigate higher education and find a community on campus. From Incarceration to Education, or FITE, follows four members of USI through their struggles and successes at school. Ford, who was first arrested for firearm possession while at Berkeley High and is now pursuing his master’s in public policy up the hill at Cal, is one of the students profiled. He is also a producer of the film.

FITE has its roots in a documentary film class Skylar Economy took when she was a junior at UC Berkeley. She had read an article about USI, so she met with the program’s co-founder Danny Murillo. They ended up talking for hours and that interaction was the impetus for the film, which Economy co-directed and executive produced.

“I was just so amazed that there were formerly incarcerated people who had served time in solitary at UC Berkeley,” said Economy, now a 23-year-old graduate. “Now I think back and say, ‘Wow, how naive.’”

FITE stars and filmmakers spoke on a panel at the premiere. From left: Shalita Williams, Richard Rodriguez-Leon, Clarence Ford, Skylar Economy and Christian Collins. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Murillo himself enrolled at UC Berkeley in 2012 after 14 years in prison. He began his education in solitary confinement, then got his GED and went to community college when he got out. Like Ford, he sees untapped potential in those who reenter society after being locked up.

Take a guy who was incarcerated with Murillo: “This man used to break into a car in less than 60 seconds,” said Murillo at the FITE premiere. “That’s intelligence. He never had the opportunity to put that intelligence to good.”

The film Economy made was simply meant to satisfy the class assignment, but she ended up sending it around to juvenile halls. She was delighted to find out it was being screened at some of the sites. The strong reception prompted Ford to encourage Economy and co-director Christian Collins to turn the project into something bigger, with more interviews.

“These are the stories that we want the world to know,” Ford, 29, told Berkeleyside.

Once the group won two top prizes from the Big Ideas @ Berkeley grant program, the project took off. The cash, as well as a crowdfunding campaign and a grant from the Berkeley Film Foundation, helped with the production of the new, longer version of the documentary, which has now premiered at UC Berkeley and UCLA and, as of last week, is available for free online (watch full film below). The goal is to get the film shown at juvenile detention centers nationwide, to let incarcerated youth know that college is an option, and to prevent recidivism. Currently, more than two-thirds of those released from prison in the U.S. are rearrested within three years, according to the National Institute of Justice.

FITE is “catered to people who are currently incarcerated or have been incarcerated, to show how one can take the initial steps to achieve higher education,” Economy said. But she hopes the film reaches a broader audience as well, to demonstrate to the public “why it’s important to have people with these pasts in higher education. It shouldn’t be stigma.”

The FITE premiere at UC Berkeley in October sold out. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The four students featured in the film spoke on a panel at the UC Berkeley premiere of FITE in October.

Undergraduate Richard Rodriguez-Leon told the audience about his childhood in San Jose, where life on the streets felt inescapable. “I was selling drugs, I was gang-banging, because that’s what I had to do to survive. Just to go to school was life or death,” he said. At age 12 he was put on probation. Enrolling in community college and getting into UC Berkeley were monumental accomplishments, but, said Rodriguez-Leon and others, it was not simply smooth sailing after the acceptance letter arrived.

While Rodriguez-Leon was settling into to Cal, his brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had to travel back and forth between Berkeley and San Jose, acting as a translator for his mother throughout the process.

“While we’re learning these theories in class, we’re still living them,” Rodriguez-Leon said. For him and his co-stars, USI is a unique support system.

“You need people that understand where you’re coming from and walk like you and talk like you, to help you make it through this process,” says David Maldonado, a Ph.D. candidate, in the film. “This can be a scary place. We need to support each other.” Maldonado also completed his undergraduate and master’s degree programs at UC Berkeley after spending 16 years in and out of jail.

Maldonado is the coordinator for USI’s community college outreach program, facilitating cross-enrollment so students can get a taste of UC Berkeley before applying to transfer. All of the formerly-incarcerated community college students USI has helped to transfer have been accepted at Cal.

“USI gave me a community, an extended family and a sense of belonging,” said Shalita Williams, an undergraduate from East Oakland who is also in the film. “Tutors helped me with writing and catapulted me in so many ways imaginable.” Without that support, “I would probably be in and out of here,” she said at the premiere.

In the documentary, Williams talks about the pressure she faced to sell drugs and shoplift while growing up in poverty and a verbally abusive environment. After giving birth in jail, she vowed never to get locked up again, but “having a felony on my record, it’s not that easy to just change my life,” she says in FITE.

Some of those profiled in FITE have spoken about the responsibility they feel to use their new position of privilege to advocate for their home communities and transmit the knowledge they are gaining at school to the world outside of academia.

Ford said he first became interested in public policy through his involvement in the Safe Return Project, a research group and community organizing initiative led by formerly incarcerated Richmond residents. Using skills he picked up there, Ford and USI led a successful “ban the box” campaign, getting UC Berkeley, then the entire UC system, to adopt a policy prohibiting questions about prior criminal convictions during the first stages of the employee hiring process.

Members of Berkeley Underground Scholars, a program by and for formerly incarcerated Cal students, celebrated at the FITE premiere. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Ford never expected to make his way to Cal from his childhood home on Harmon Street. As a kid, he thought UC Berkeley was only football games and frat parties, but Ford has thrived at Cal and was recently hired as a graduate student researcher for the California Attorney General’s office. But, like his peers, he said acclimating to higher education was a challenge, and setbacks along the way inevitable. Last fall, during his first semester of graduate school, Ford experienced a devastating loss.

His sister Cierra, who had also made it to college after incarceration, was fatally shot at her home Thanksgiving weekend. The Ford siblings had been close, and Clarence felt he had given Cierra “the tools” she needed to do well in college.

“When that happened, I almost lost it,” said Ford, who shared loving memories of Cierra with Berkeleyside after her death, and is working to set up a scholarship in her name for Berkeley High students.

Cierra’s death challenged some of Ford’s previous ideas about the criminal justice system. He and the others involved with FITE are beginning to work on a longer version of the documentary, to further explore those issues and others.

Filmmaker Skylar Economy and producer/star Clarence Ford at the premiere. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The project continues to receive support, including from State Senator Nancy Skinner, who spoke at the premiere and serves on board of the Berkeley Film Foundation.

“Having served time should not be a life sentence,” Skinner told Berkeleyside before the screening. “That criminal sentence is an albatross around your neck.” Last month, a bill by Skinner, allowing some former juvenile offenders to petition to seal their records, was signed into law.

The filmmakers are partnering with advocacy organizations to develop a curriculum and resource list to accompany FITE when it is screened at juvenile halls and elsewhere. While the film deals mainly with higher education, Economy hopes it reaches a wider audience.

“We want to make this as big as we can,” she said. “Hopefully while doing that, people who are employers, landlords and people in politics will see: once a felon, not always a felon.”

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...