Human Rights Center Blog

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #4: Danny Murillo

Sharing his life to change lives


Danny Murillo1

Danny Murillo, Co-Founder of the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC Berkeley

Danny Murillo grew up on the “one-way streets” of Norwalk, California, southeast of Los Angeles, at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s, landing in a California prison before he could even vote. At first he just learned how to be a smarter prisoner, to work the system, to survive. Facing solitary confinement in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City with more than five years to go on his 15-year sentence, Murillo found the people (mainly cell mates or fellow prisoners on the yard) and the books (Voltaire and Galeano) that shifted his focus to scholarship and began to transform his life. Upon his release at age 31, he finished his AA degree and was then accepted at several University of California schools. He chose UC Berkeley, where he become a Ronald McNair Scholar and a Peter E. Haas Public Service Leader. Murillo, the middle of five siblings, co-founded the Underground Scholars Initiative, a network of formerly incarcerated students and family members that is thriving today. Now he is working at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and the NJ-STEP Mountainview Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey—serving formerly incarcerated people and helping carve pathways to college. He is a John W. Gardner Fellow in Public Service at the University of California, Berkeley. Murillo returned to UC Berkeley in February for The [in]Justice System series on California prisons. 

Q. How would you describe your neighborhood growing up?

I grew up in a predominantly Mexican-American/Chicano neighborhood [in an area known to some as the “one-ways”]. I saw three gang-related shootings before the age of 13. By the time I got to the third one, it was already very normalized. The first one, when I was about 8 years old, happened on my block. The next day, I was scared to even walk out to the corner.

The second time, I was at baseball practice. Not far from baseball field was the basketball court where young men were playing. Other men came out and started shooting. I just hit the ground. It was interesting because my baseball coach, who never experienced this, just started running around. I remember he asked me, ‘How did you know what to do?’

The first time I was placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station, I was 8 years old.


Q. What was home life like?

A. I had issues with domestic violence at a young age and that really put a strain on the relationship between me and my father and to a certain extent also between me and my mother. I couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t just leave and get out of there.

My mom had a third-grade level education and my father the same thing. He dropped out of school at eight years old and started working—planting, taking care of cows and horses. I almost got very violent with my father at age of 13 and around that time, the domestic violence just stopped.

I didn’t see my parents having a very good relationship. I didn’t have good relationships with other people. I was full of anger, full of rage, and I didn’t know how to channel it.

Q. Did anything distract you from the streets and gangs?

A. Between the ages of 10, 11, and 12, I loved playing baseball. It allowed me to escape from the reality at home. Baseball was my sanctuary, my passion. [But when I went to high school in eighth grade] I couldn’t play baseball because we were just eighth graders and couldn’t participate. That whole year there was really nothing to do. My grades dropped off. When I couldn’t play baseball anymore, my childhood friends and I opted to become taggers or graffiti artists.

Q. Did you know many people who were in gangs or incarcerated?

A. We had fifteen houses on each side of the street. It was a small block, but four men were on parole. It’s something I grew up around. It’s easy to adapt to that lifestyle. If it happens, it happens. Once you start getting involved in the gang lifestyle, it becomes a mentality. This is our destiny. This is who we are. I lacked a critical understanding of the way social structures were set up to impact my upbringing.

Q. Nobody stepped in to change that dynamic for you?

A. The only one that I really remember who had a positive influence on me was my second grade teacher, Mr. Carapia . He was dark skinned. An immigrant. I remember one time a kid stabbed me with a pencil. The next day Mr. Carapia sat me down and talked to me about just being able to forgive. Where I come from, we are not conditioned to forgive. If someone does something to you, you just strike back. That’s just the nature of things. I can’t say I had a lot of positive influences in my life.

When I was 13 or 14 years old, my mom would come looking for me at 12 or 1 in the morning. I thought about that when I was in prison: If love didn’t exist in her heart, she wouldn’t be there.

Q. What were your first experiences with the system and incarceration?

A. The first time I was placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station, I was 8 years old. It was my brother, a friend of mine, and me. My mom never liked this friend and she had a reason. Looking back, he came from a home where his mom, dad, and uncles were in prison. There was drug use. He was always on the streets and we just hung around with him. My mom asked my uncle to give us a whooping because my dad wasn’t home. And then when my dad got home, we got a second dose of it. One of the sad things is that when we were in the station, they called my parents to come pick us up and my mom came. When they called my friend’s house, their reaction was, ‘whatever, we’re not going to pick him up.’ That was a shock.

I got arrested again a few times without doing time. I got arrested again to do time on December 31, 1994. I had cut off my house arrest bracelet. They had a warrant for me for two months until they caught me. I also got possession. I think three and half grams of crack cocaine. Once it’s bagged up individually, it’s easier for the DA to argue it’s for distribution. I was sent to a juvenile facility in Malibu, part of LA County probation, for six months. I had just turned 15.

Q. At the time, your friends were being killed in gang violence. Did it feel safer to be in prison?

A. In 1995, when I was incarcerated, a young man was murdered in another community and they automatically thought it was a member of my community. That same day, one of my friends was murdered. My friend’s uncle was shot fifteen times with an AK 47 but survived. He didn’t look like himself. He was probably 70 pounds. Skin and bones. He was hooked up to all these machines. It just hit me. And it filled me up with rage. That same day, I was like ‘fuck this shit. It’s payback.’ It was at that point in my life, that I really embraced the mentality of a lot of kids, which was, ‘You are going to go to jail.’ I just don’t give a fuck. ‘You are going to get killed.’ I just don’t give a fuck. That was just our lifestyle.

I’m sorry for the language, but that was just the realness of the situation. After about nine months, I ended up getting arrested for two armed robberies, a car jack, and a kidnap—but technically it was an adult nap because the guy was like ten years older than me. I got arrested at the end of March 1996 with three other individuals who combined had ten years of experience being incarcerated. These guys were already over 18. Two of them had been in California Youth Authority, juvenile prison.

Q. Did you go to school during this time?

A. I had stopped going to school. I was actually going to a continuation school where I only had to go on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours. It was just [homework] packets. I was already selling large amounts of crack cocaine. I would buy up to twelve ounces of crack cocaine every two weeks, flipping it and making $1,500 out of each ounce. I would go to somebody’s house and drop off a homework packet and say, ‘Here’s $50. Do this packet for me.’ It was a way to shortcut the system.

Q. At age 17, you were tried as an adult and offered a deal.

A. Me and two co-defendants were offered a 15-year sentence with two strikes with the condition that the fourth co-defendant had to take a 25-years-to-life deal. I wanted to take the deal, but I couldn’t put pressure on my friend to take that life sentence. He was under no obligation to do that, but nevertheless he did. We actually had a date for parole. He’s still in there.

At this point, I was sent from Eastlake Juvenile hall to the LA county jail. It was a module with 24 cells on the bottom and 24 cells on the second floor. At this point they were treating us like we were in prison because they were separating us by race. We had already adapted to the mentality that Black people were our enemy and vice versa. Every time we had a chance to cause harm upon a Black body or vice versa, we were taking an opportunity. It was a very violent place. It really prepared me for prison.

Q. Your first actual prison was High Desert in Susanville. What was it like?

A. We were constantly on lockdown. If an incident happened with southern Hispanics, we’d go on lockdown for like a month or then once for three months when three different people were stabbed simultaneously within the facility.

Q. What does lockdown mean?

A. You don’t get yard with the rest of the incarcerated people. You don’t walk to chow. They bring your breakfast, lunch, and dinner to your cell. They handcuff you to walk you to showers. They escort you to medical. Any time you get pulled out, they escort you. It’s like solitary confinement, but in a general population setting. The longest I experienced was nine months.

Q. How did you learn to survive in prison?

A. I ended up moving into a cell with a gentleman who took me under his wing, gave me insights about prison life—not with the intent of being a positive reinforcement. He was not much older, but he had a lot of experience with prison violence and had been in solitary two or three times. He taught me how to survive that lifestyle and educate myself, not really in a liberation type of way, but to use the system to your advantage; how to engage in deviant or criminal behavior; how to find ways to not get caught; how to be a smarter criminal. We read The Art of War and Machiavelli. These were not liberating ideologies, but I did love the learning process.

Even though I didn’t want to go to solitary confinement, I tried to look on the bright side: I’m going to be in a situation where I won’t get in trouble again. I took the negative and turned it into a positive.


Q. While in prison, you experienced the loss of your brother and other loved ones. How did that affect you?

A. Two of my best friends and my brother were murdered. My brother was murdered after he was deported to Tijuana. That’s where he was born, but we have no [other] connection to Tijuana. He was assaulted. They didn’t shoot or stab him, but he died of asphyxiation because he was functioning with only one lung. In 1995, he was shot by the Norwalk’s Sherriff’s Department and they punctured one of his lungs, so he was always short of breath. My mom went to the morgue and saw bodies on top of bodies. The treatment she got was very inhumane. I didn’t know how to deal with that. I was angry. I just wanted to hurt someone.

Q. Did anyone in the prison system help you with your feelings about this loss?

A. There was nothing offered. It was me dealing with it on my own and not knowing how to cope. I got caught up in an incident. I was charged with an assault with a deadly weapon. I still had these anger issues and going back to the mentality of not giving a fuck. I got placed in solitary confinement—not in ‘the SHU’ but in ‘the hole’ in High Desert State Prison. The hole is where you are put first until the classification committee decides your punishment.

Q. So it’s prison within prison?

A. Yes, but you’re put there under a kangaroo type of court. Nobody is defending you. They charged me with assault with deadly weapon, but they couldn’t prove it.

In the first three months I was in the hole, I picked up another assault. It was a fist fight. Me and three others attacked two individuals. My stay in solitary was extended to nine months.

Q. You were also accused of being part of a prison gang. The evidence they used was a newsletter from a prison abolition group in San Diego and an old calendar that included artwork by people in solitary confinement and a borrowed dictionary with the name and ID number of an inmate who was validated as a prison gang associate.

A. There’s no hearing. There’s no process. It’s a more extreme version of the kangaroo court because they’re having a hearing without you present. You are already classified as guilty. Once I was under investigation, I knew that they were going to ‘validate me.’ That means that you get validated as an ‘associate’ of a prison gang. That’s the kind of validation nobody wants.

Q. You saw solitary confinement as an opportunity.

A. Even though I didn’t want to go to solitary confinement, I tried to look on the bright side: I’m going to be in a situation where I won’t get in trouble again. I took the negative and turned it into a positive. As a kid, I knew people who would come from solitary confinement and know how to speak Nahua, a native language in Mexico, or know the history of the Mexican revolution.

Before I got moved out of High Desert to Tehachapi, they put a young man in my cell who was serving a life sentence. He grew up in a family involved in gangs. This young man was actually a student at UC Riverside. Unfortunately, he went to a party and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was reading the Communist Manifesto. He influenced me. He talked to me about education.

Q. Your interest in education grew at Tehachapi State Prison.

A. In Tehachapi, when you went outside for your recreation, they would put you and your cellmate in a cage that was gated with four walls. But there was proximity in that space. You’d have people around who you could talk to from every racial and geographic group. Everyone would work out, and then we’d have an hour to talk. We shared knowledge on an organic level without teachers or textbooks.

Q. Finally, you were transferred to Pelican Bay. It must have been scary.

A. Right, entering the unknown. We’re all still cuffed up, ankles, wrist, waist. The lieutenant, I’ll never forget this, said, ‘Gentlemen welcome to the security housing at Pelican Bay State Prison. I just want to let you know that the only way to get out of here is if you parole, you debrief , or you die.’

Q. What does debrief mean?

A. You have to snitch. The only way to get out is to give up information on other people. And for me, that was never an option. One thing I understood was that I’m not going to put this burden on somebody else because I can’t handle it. It doesn’t stop the torture, it just hands it off to another person or another family.

Q. You stepped up your education in a big way at Pelican Bay.

A. Some of the books that made an impact on me were Voltaire’s Candide and Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.

Q. Who helped you?

A. A white man from southern California played a very big role in me getting my GED [General Education Degree]. It took me like nine months to prepare for the GED, with seven months dedicated to math. Every day after dinner for an hour, we’d go over the material.

I got moved to what was called the ‘long corridor.’ At this time, I didn’t want to move. I had a great community. But I got placed next to a young man who was doing a paralegal degree through a school in Pennsylvania. He was taking five courses at Coastline Community College. We’d work out together, play chess together, and he would also draw. I said, ‘Man how did you make time for this?’ He said, ‘You can get your AA. I’ve got the books right here.’ He said it’s a lot of work, but I got you man. I was taking all courses he had already taken. The beautiful thing was that he would never give me the answers.

Q. Did you get any family support?

I tell people that my longest cellmate was my mother. She was there from the first day to the last day.

Q. After finishing your sentence, you went to Cerritos Community College and didn’t stop there.

A. One day [at Cerritos Community College], I was going to campus to the admissions building and a guy was coming out. I knew this guy [from prison]. He said, ‘What’s up, man? When did you get out?’ He was going to UC Irvine for pre-med to become a brain surgeon. I was blown away. We talked for about 45 minutes and in that time, he broke it down. He said, ‘Cool that you want to get your AA and pursue your education, but don’t limit yourself. If you put that work in and take advantage of opportunity, you can go to university.’ He told me everything to make my application more robust for the university.

Q. How did you feel when you heard you were admitted to UC Berkeley?

A. The first school I heard from was UC Riverside. Then I heard from UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, and UCLA. All four of these schools sent emails and letters to my house saying I was accepted. The last one was Berkeley. I went to a party. They all knew I was looking at my phone, looking at my phone. I was waiting for an email. On Monday, I went to school, to my mentor, and told him I didn’t get accepted to Berkeley. He said, ‘Congratulations, you got accepted.’ I came out of this office with a big ol’ smile. People said, ‘you’re shining.’

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #3: Hernán Reyes

Watching the world’s prisons


Hernan speaking on prison panel


Dr. Hernán Reyes thought he was signing up for a brief stint with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after finishing his medical studies and specialization as an Ob/Gyn.  The job turned into a passion and a three-decade career, taking him to hundreds of prisons worldwide to document and bear witness to torture and other abuses. While most people are aware of the Red Cross—especially the country-specific American Red Cross, French Red Cross or Turkish Red Crescent—the ICRC itself is less known. The organization was launched in 1863 with the first Geneva Convention to ensure that the battlefield wounded weren’t left to suffer and die. Later, the ICRC helped implement wartime protocols to protect prisoners of war. The son of a United Nations translator, Reyes was born in Chile and raised in New York and Geneva. Reyes is retired from the ICRC now, living with his wife in Geneva, and serving as a Human Rights Center Senior Fellow. His grown children are traveling (and positively impacting) the world. He recently visited UC Berkeley to speak on a panel about prison conditions, solitary confinement, and hunger strikes.

Q. Your career path in medicine shifted pretty radically, from obstetrics to prisons. How did that happen?

A. I knocked on the ICRC’s door, thinking they might need a gynecologist. They said no, we need surgeons or midwives, not a gynecologist. But would you be interested in looking into prisons and prison medicine?…The last delivery I did was my youngest daughter who is now 24! All in all, I’ve spent 28 years working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, visiting hundreds of prisons in more than 40 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and practically everything in the middle, including Guantánamo and Maze prison in the UK—the worst and the best, and the most gruesome prisons you can imagine.

Q. Isn’t the Red Cross a disaster relief agency? Where do prisons come in?

A. The International Committee of the Red Cross was created in the middle of the 19th century in Geneva by a Swiss citizen who saw that after battle, the wounded were abandoned and left to bleed to death. Nobody took care of them. Nothing was structured on one side or the other. More often than not, the wounded were knifed by the locals, the peasants who came to steal whatever they had on them. He said, ‘We have to do something to stop this.’ He went back to Geneva. He got together four citizens of Geneva, and they formed the first founding committee of what they called the Red Cross.

Q. How does it work?

A. Medical neutrality means that you can’t stop war from happening, but once somebody is out of action, either because he’s wounded or has surrendered, you do not finish him off. You have to provide medical attention for your wounded and for the wounded on the other side….The second principle is that each army has to organize its own medical services, medical orderlies, and doctors, as well to go pick up the wounded. The third principle is to do that, these ‘care givers’ so to say, have to be protected. If you shoot the guy who has the stretcher, he’s not going to pick up anybody. He has to have a distinctive mark on him to be recognized so that nobody takes a shot at him. That’s when the red cross came up.…A red cross on a white background. That means medical neutrality. Don’t shoot this guy. This guy is looking after our wounded and your wounded. Then each country had to implement these principles and found their national Red Cross.

Q. Did anyone object to the use of the cross?

A. The Red Crescent came into being in 1878 because the Turks, fourteen years after the convention, said could not accept a cross, which for them signified the Crusades. As Muslims, they couldn’t do that. The Geneva committee agreed and said they could adopt the crescent instead.

Q. How did ICRC’s work on the battlefield transfer to prisons?

A. The 1929 Convention on Prisoners of War was a revised and expanded convention, which specifically said that the ICRC could have the role of visiting prisoners on both sides and seeing to it that they were adequately taken care of and, in addition, seeing to the exchanges of the severely wounded, delivery of family parcels to prisoners, and even more importantly, exchanges of mail between prisoners and their families.

“Nobody seems to reflect on the fact that hundreds of Afghans were sent to Guantánamo because bounty hunters were offering something like a $5,000 reward….Do you think they got an apology? Any compensation? They got a kick in the butt and had to sign a statement saying they were not mistreated, which was false in many cases.”

Q. Did you get an easy first assignment?

In 1982 and 1983, I covered four countries and the situation was completely different in each. The Argentinians were extremely, extremely harsh with their prisoners. As is known now, up to 30,000 were killed, many thrown into the sea off helicopters. The Uruguayans, on the other hand, did not kill their prisoners, but subjected them to psychological torture, which was actually orchestrated by psychiatrists and psychologists. They had a specific prison, which was almost a laboratory for studying the effects of psychological torture on prisoners. They used solitary confinement on leaders of the Tupamaros and the Communists. Paraguay was more the poor country without resources. In Paraguay, torture was not really an issue. As for Chile, ten years after Pinochet’s taking power, torture and extra-judicial killings were still going on, less than in the early years, but there was the additional problem of political prisoners or internal exiles being relegated thousands of kilometers from their families and needing assistance.

Q. Are you caring for prisoners or rather evaluating their conditions?

We’re not there to provide medical care because we’re not there to replace the local medical staff. The idea is to evaluate the situation. What are the health risks? What is the medical staff like? What kind of infrastructure do they have? And is it working? Maybe the doctors have all the good intentions in the world, but the system doesn’t work. Maybe it’s corrupt and the prisoners have to pay a guard to go see the doctors, so they don’t go. You have to get into it and see what’s working and what’s not and try to make it work.

Q. Why do countries that torture or otherwise abuse prisoners let you in the door?

A. When a country really tortures, they don’t let us in. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, we never got close to visiting political prisoners—although we did visit POWs during the three international wars. The easiest way for a dictator to do what he pleases is to not to let anyone visit. But in other countries, they do let you visit. There are many reasons why. Maybe the country wants to look good to the United Nations. They get mileage out of it. But then again, if they don’t follow our recommendations, we can always say we’re pulling out and say we can’t work with you. And they’ll look even worse.…In Idi Amin’s Uganda, things were terrible. People were being killed under the noses of the Red Cross. So the ICRC pulled out. They went back in a year or so later. The Ugandans said, ‘Why did you leave? At least when you were here you saved some people. When you left, it was five times worse. Ten times worse.’ You have to really think about if you pull out or don’t.

Q. Do you release your reports or are they kept confidential? 

A. That’s one of the main ways the ICRC works—by publishing reports that are only for the country. Argentina gets the reports on Argentina and Chile gets the reports on Chile, et cetera. But not for Prisoners of War. For POWs, they give the reports to both sides.

Q. So you can’t talk freely about what you see?

A. No. For the most part, at least now, the media is so extensively developed it wouldn’t make sense to publish our reports because most of what we say in them is already out there by Amnesty International, by Physicians for Human Rights, by Human Rights Watch, et cetera. They have their sources from families, from ex-detainees, from ex-guards, from ex-doctors from the prisons. The information is out there. Everybody thinks ‘ooh, if we could only see the ICRC report.’ They wouldn’t find much they don’t already know. If we’d publish them, we’d be part of the crowd. And countries would never let us in.

Q. Have things gotten better over the span of your career?

A. Yes, but no. In general, no. Torture is still very much going on. We still have situations like Guantánamo. The Middle East is getting much, much worse than when I was there. South Asia has not changed. It gets better in a country when the situation changes. For example, Uruguay used very severe psychological torture, but then [the country] changed completely and became a democracy again. The former political prisoners actually went into government. Recently I went to see one of the old leaders of the Tupamaros movement. He was tortured and in solitary confinement for like 8 or 11 years…. and now he’s Minister of Defense. The military has turned the page.

Q. What about Guantánamo?

A. I visited Guantánamo in the years when they had 500 or 600 internees in 2003 and 2004. George W. Bush said the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply, but, ‘we’ll be nice to them anyway.’ The U.S. would have looked very bad if they didn’t let the ICRC in. They knew our reports would go only to them, so they did let us in. Everything that happened in Guantánamo has been published so it’s nothing new. It’s frankly a disgrace.…And not just Guantánamo, but Abu Ghraib. Many Muslims, Palestinians, Iraqis and others said to us, ‘We could never have thought of better publicity for our cause than what the Americans gave us.’ Those posters are all over the Middle East. It was not a good thing for anybody, especially those tortured that way.

Q. Has global attention improved how the United States treats its prisoners?

A. An ICRC report on Abu Ghraib was leaked—I don’t know where—and it was quite horrendous and then the pictures came out. A soldier leaked them. If the pictures and report hadn’t come out, would anything have changed? I’m not quite sure. I’m not sure at all. It came out and so obviously they couldn’t continue.

Guantánamo is just a holding place, which is a bloody disgrace. Nobody seems to reflect on the fact that hundreds of Afghans were sent to Guantánamo because bounty hunters were offering up something like a $5,000 reward. Afghanistan is a tribal country.…For example, all of a sudden, an Uzbek sees his Tajik neighbor who has a nice little house, donkey, a good looking wife, too. He’d tell the military sergeant, ‘He’s a Talib. I’ve seen him.’ This poor Tajik would then be arrested and put in a helicopter and in a plane and sent to Guantánamo. The Uzbek then got the $5,000, plus the donkey, plus the house—possibly also the wife. No questions asked. That is a disgrace. Hundreds of Afghans taken in the same way were eventually cleared and sent back. Do you think they got an apology? Any compensation? They got a kick in the butt and had to sign a statement saying they were not mistreated, which was false in many cases. And nobody is riled up about it. I think that’s a disgrace. All this has been published extensively, but still there’s no accountability.

Q. Are prisons on United States soil violating human rights?

A. Long-term solitary confinement is used on prisoners who have nothing to do with the war on terror or any security issues. Solitary confinement is used just because you possess a book by al Qaeda or have a tattoo that links you to a gang. This is what you used to get from tin pot dictators in some parts of the world where we visited. I didn’t know the U.S. had ‘political prisoners’ like that. And some states like California even use solitary confinement not for ten days or a month, which is extreme limit in Europe but for ten months, ten years, twenty years and more. And now, big deal, they decide you can’t use solitary confinement for more than ten years in California? What do you mean ten years? You shouldn’t use it for more than ten days.

Q. Tell us a story that really changed you.

 A. The Falklands war was in 1982. In 1991, the Argentinians wanted to visit the tombs of the Argentinian soldiers who fell in the Falklands. Obviously, relations between Argentina and the UK were not good. The military was still very much established in the Falklands. They asked the ICRC to supervise a visit….We went to the cemetery to the tombs of the Argentinian soldiers. Everyone was crying. It was very emotional. I was standing with a British colonel. A tough guy, a decent fellow. A young woman with long hair comes by. She was crying her eyes out. She tells us her brother had died in the Falklands. She had brought some earth from her garden. A little plant. [Her brother’s] tomb was unmarked so she just chose an unmarked tomb and planted it there. She had another little plant. She said, ‘Could you please, doctor, translate for the colonel?’ [Dr. Reyes is starting to cry as he recounts the story.] She said, ‘Colonel could you please take this and plant this on the tomb of a British soldier?’ That was the enemy. And the tough colonel was then crying. I’ll never forget that.

Q. What will spark prison reform and better treatment of political prisons?

A. You can’t have a global answer. Every country is different. People are different. The earth is a beautiful place, but the problem is that it’s populated by humans. Despite what Rousseau said, not everybody is born a good person and stays a good person. There’s the Blaise Pascal quote: ‘The whole ocean rises for just one stone you throw into it.’ So you do your part. Keep on throwing stones in.

The Human Rights Center launched in 2015 a series of interviews to capture the stories of UC Berkeley alumni, professors, and other visitors who offer insights on protecting and defending human rights globally. For more information or to suggest a Berkeley Human Rights Q&A, email Andrea Lampros at

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #2 Keramet Reiter

Shedding light on solitary



UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter is one of the nation’s leading experts on U.S. prisons, solitary confinement, and mental health. From her first blog post on crime and delinquency as a Human Rights Center Fellow at UC Berkeley in 2010 to her new book (co-edited with Human Rights Center Executive Director Alexa Koenig) Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement, Reiter has illuminated egregious flaws in the United States prison system. Her forthcoming Prisons within Prisons: The Hidden Hell of the American Supermax is due out from Yale University Press next year. Reiter recently came back to Berkeley (where she earned her Ph.D. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy in 2012) to speak about the court settlement spurred by Pelican Bay prisoners that ended indefinite detention in solitary confinement in California.

Why did you start studying prisons?

While I was in college in Boston I worked with the American Friends Service committee, which is a Quaker organization that has historically done prison reform work. They were just beginning to look at solitary confinement issues in Massachusetts. That’s when I first learned about it as a practice that people were thinking about challenging.

Do any particular stories motivate your work?

The stories that come to mind first are the people who have been in isolation for 10, 15, 20 years…the people who are not able to hug their mother or sister or child. I think in particular about the people who are genuinely afraid they’ll never get out.

What is solitary confinement like in the United States?

In California’s isolation units, prisoners aren’t allowed to make phone calls. It’s a concrete cell. It’s very stark. The lights are on 24 hours a day. They don’t have contact with their families.

It’s pretty easy to think about softening a little without many safety repercussions. So why not have a window? Why not have somewhere with grass where you can go outside and see living things? Why not be able to call your family? There’s excellent research that family contact is good for mental health, good for community stability.

“I think it’s an important step to think about prisoners as people who made mistakes and think about how to make prisoners more of a part of society.”


What’s the financial burden of solitary confinement?

In California, it costs close to $90,000 per year and that’s because it takes much more staff energy to run a true isolation unit. The buildings are really expensive to maintain because people aren’t allowed out of their cells. Everything has to be done for them. So, the obvious answer is that reducing solitary confinement is potentially  much cheaper.

Will the recent court settlement in California lead to any significant change in regard to solitary confinement practices?

Two big challenges with isolation in particular are that it’s been a very secretive process and there has been significant discretion over what circumstances and for how long people are sent to isolation….Now, under the recent settlement, you have to do something wrong instead of just being labeled a gang member and isolation terms are capped at five years. So that’s an improvement. But you still don’t have a right to a lawyer at the administrative hearing in which people decide whether you’ve done something wrong or not. The prison staff have a lot of control over what counts as a rule violation and who they charge with violations. Five years is a long time, and you’re under really intense scrutiny when you’re in isolation, and it’s easy to break more rules because of that.

Do we have enough information about people in solitary confinement?

I think requiring the collection of really basic data would be valuable for figuring out if these institutions work the way people say they do and just for keeping track of who’s there and why—data that hasn’t historically been available in California— literally who’s in isolation for how long, what the underlying justification is for keeping them there, what the rates of violence are in these isolation units and what happens to these people over time? Are they cycling back into isolation when they get released from prison? Are they recidivating? These are all things we don’t really collect data on or have answers to, and that kind of information would really help people think about good policies.

Is there a better model somewhere in the world?

Having been in Denmark this summer, one of the things I was struck by was more training for prison staff….I think a lot of the challenges in incarceration are about prison staff feeling like they have unmanageable jobs. They’re not listened to, and they don’t have the resources or the skills they need to manage overcrowded [prisons], [or] mentally ill, manipulative prisoners… .They’re constantly blamed for that. … There’s this liberal sense of ‘oh we can fix this from the outside’ but I think it’s going to take looking at it from the inside as well.

What can we do to make prisons better?

I think it’s an important step to think about prisoners as people who made mistakes and think about how to make prisoners more of a part of society. Again, I’m not implying in any way that there aren’t people who are dangerous and that there shouldn’t be consequences for actions. But I think if we put people away and hide them and don’t look at it ever and have no social contact with them, it creates all kinds of problems in terms of whether those people ultimately come out, or if those people are ultimately suffering unjustly, if they haven’t done anything wrong.

I would also make prisons much more open. Make them allow media in. Mandate that they allow a certain number of tours a year by educational groups, whatever we can do to try and make prisons more transparent and accessible to the general public.

Should reform of the criminal justice system be the new focus of the civil rights movement? 

Yes, but I’m biased. I think everyone should care about prisons. It’s one of the most important issues facing this country, in terms of economic and social costs, the potential for rights abuses, and long-term consequences of institutionalization. But I would certainly respect someone who said it should be the environment or immigration issues.


The Human Rights Center launched in 2015 a series of interviews to capture the stories of UC Berkeley alumni, professors, and other visitors who offer insights on protecting and defending human rights globally. For more information or to suggest a Berkeley Human Rights Q&A, email Andrea Lampros at

On #CalBigGive: Students at the heart of HRC’s work

The Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law is known around the world for our research and investigations. But here on the UC Berkeley campus, we’re also known by students for something else: human rights education. Last spring, close to 100 students took the legal studies class our Executive Director Alexa Koenig taught along with our Faculty Director Eric Stover. One of the students, Sayaka Ri, shared with us how this class changed the trajectory of her life:

“There are few classes at Berkeley that have the ability to redefine a student’s academic career….From the start of the semester, it was clear that Professor Stover and Koenig were not only interested in lecturing about human rights, but were invested in developing the next generation of human rights activists. Lectures were invigorating, discussion sections were thought-provoking and office hours were mentoring sessions, where the professors did everything within their capability to realize your aspirations. Through personal experience, after Professor Stover’s health and human rights lecture and many office hours with Professor Koenig, LS 154 helped me discover my passion towards medicine and human rights, allowed me to critically and skillfully apply lecture material to research projects in the Human Rights Center and introduced me to a summer internship in New York with Physicians for Human Rights that changed and consolidated my life pursuits entirely. For these opportunities, enrolling in LS 154 has been one of the most invaluable decisions I have made and know that this class and its exceptional professors will be pivotal for the lives of many Cal students to come.”

Powerful perspectives from students like Sayaka have led us to think of new ways to engage undergraduates in research. In 2016, the Human Rights Center will work on the following projects:

    • Expand our course on human rights to include research methodologies and an engaged research project—both to strengthen undergraduate research opportunities at UC Berkeley and increase the number of undergraduate students prepared to participate in graduate-level work.
    • Launch a human rights tech lab to engage students in real-world coding and programming projects focused on addressing human rights challenges. Students will also learn how digital technologies are becoming increasingly critical to human rights investigations, research, and legal practice.
    • Award our coveted Human Rights Center Fellowships to undergraduates. To date, we’ve enabled 275 fellows, mostly graduate students, to work on the front lines with international human rights organizations, and we hope to give select undergrads the same life-changing opportunity.

Our strongest and most important collaborations over the past twenty years have been with students, and we believe that focusing on students will lead to both a stronger human rights movement and a more optimistic future. The next generation of human rights researchers and advocates is right here at Berkeley.

To make these projects possible, we need your help. Each year, the Human Rights Center must raise more than 95 percent of our budget from grants as well as from individuals and BIG GIVE is a great time to give! Every tax-deductible gift we receive directly benefit students by providing new human rights research opportunities—opportunities that will contribute to human rights globally and empower the next generation of scholars, lawyers, and advocates to harness their world-class education for good.Donations of any size will help the Human Rights Center win day of contests and prize money, increasing the impact of your gift.

Click here to donate to the Human Rights Center today. Any amount is a contribution to our work.

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #1

Three words from Ben Ferencz:

‘Law. Not War.’


Ferencz and Buxbaum small

Ben Ferencz speaks at Boalt Hall in October as Berkeley Law professor and event moderator Richard Buxbaum looks on.

If Ben Ferencz can be hopeful, so can we. The 95-year-old lawyer fought in the major battles of World War II, witnessed the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald, and—at age 27—prosecuted Nazis in the Einsatzgruppen case, the ninth of twelve trials at Nuremberg. Twenty-two SS leaders of paramilitary death squads were charged with more than a million murders in what has been called the biggest mass murder trial in history. Among the world’s first war crimes investigators, Ferencz has devoted his life to promoting international justice. His alma mater Harvard Law recently awarded him their medal of freedom—an honor bestowed on the likes of Nelson Mandela. Ferencz recently visited UC Berkeley School of Law, recounting his life’s work and delivering his signature catchphrase: “Law. Not war.” He told students that the law is not static and exhorted them to adapt it to promote human rights. “Don’t tell me it’s impossible,” he said. “Things have changed.”  

Ferencz fielded 10 questions for our inaugural Berkeley Human Rights Q&A

Q. Your family landed in New York in the 1920s after fleeing poverty and the persecution of Jewish people in Transylvania. How did an immigrant kid growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen decide to become a lawyer?

A. I don’t recall having known any lawyers, but I never recall having wanted to do anything else. I went to a special high school for so-called ‘gifted boys.’ I never knew what a gifted boy was because I never got any gifts. It was a school with an accelerated curriculum that guaranteed you would go to the city college free of charge. And from there I was able to get admitted—for reasons I don’t know—to Harvard Law School.


“These people in the dark have murdered over a million people. There is no way that we can balance that and call it justice.”


Q. You enlisted in the U.S. Army, saw battles at every major theater of the war, and witnessed the liberation of concentration camps. How did you come to investigate war crimes?

A. I believe I was the first man in the United States Army to work on war crimes. My name had been forwarded from Washington, I was told, when I was transferred from the artillery to General Patton’s headquarters and told to set up a War Crimes Branch. My earliest cases involved the ‘downed flyer cases,’ as we called them—allied flyers who were shot down on territory occupied by Germany who were almost invariably beaten to death by the mob on the ground. I would have to rush to the scene, arrange for the arrest of the people in the area, interrogate them, get statements of what they saw and what actually happened, and try to locate the bodies . . . . I would then see that the criminals were arrested and put on trial.

Q. What was it like to witness the liberation of concentration camps?

A. There was a scene [at Buchenwald], which by now I think is pretty generally known but not quite grasped—it’s impossible to grasp. Dead bodies on the floor. People dead and dying. People looking like skeletons. Pleading for help. SS fleeing, being shot at by the soldiers, being grabbed by the inmates. I saw one example, where they caught a guard and they beat him—not to death—and they put him in a tray and roasted him the crematorium oven. They took him out again. Beat him up again. Put him back in again. My role then was as an observer. I made no effort to stop it. I was not pleased by what I saw. On the contrary. . . . Outside the crematorium was stacked with bodies, liked cords of wood, waiting to be burned. If there was a hell, that was it.

Q. Even after witnessing this “hell,” you became a champion of the rule-of-law. At Nuremberg, you opened with “vengeance is not our goal.”

A. I was very much moved by my experiences and seeing the horrors of the camps, but I never let it interfere with my behavior. I absorbed everything as though I had some kind of a screen in my mind that this was not real and treated it as though I had been looking at a movie or something of that kind. When I came to writing the opening statement, I asked myself, ‘what do you ask for?’ These people in the dark have murdered over a million people. There is no way that we can balance that and call it justice . . . . If I could use this case to develop the rule of law to protect all of humanity that would be much more significant than having these murderers cut up into a million parts and fed to the dogs. So I was very careful to compose a statement which reflected my feeling as a student of criminal law and as a human being trying to prevent the repetition of those crimes to which I later gave my entire career, my entire life.

Q. Did the defendants in Einsatzgruppen Trial at Nuremberg seem like ordinary men to you?

A. There is a common opinion that people who engage in that kind of crime—killing thousands of children, bashing their heads against a tree, et cetera—are wild animals. Not so. The defendants were carefully selected by me on the basis of their rank and their education. I had six or eight generals and also an equal number of people who had Ph.D.s. They were completely normal human beings. In a war, normal human beings will become mass murderers and think nothing of it.


“I never met anybody who should have had remorse who had remorse.”


Q. Did you speak with any of the defendants?

A. I knew that my lead defendant would hang. I went down to talk to him in the death house. I asked him what I could do for him. I thought he might ask me to send a letter to his wife. He loved her and his children. Instead, he said that I would see that he was right—that ‘Jews will suffer for what has happened to me.’ He was still unconvinced of anything. That was my biggest disappointment in Germany all together. No remorse. I never met anybody who should have had remorse who had remorse. There were a few Germans who had nothing to do with it who said it was a terrible thing. Those who were involved in the murder, I never had anyone say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m sorry about that.

Q. What role did the charge of “crimes against humanity” play in the Nuremberg trials?

A. When we had a big problem getting an acceptable definition of aggression, which could be tried by the court, I said let’s recognize that this is subterfuge. The big powers aren’t ready to let any foreign court determine whether they’ve committed a crime of aggression, and let’s therefore call it a ‘violation of the laws of humanity’ and deal with the illegal use of armed force as a crime against humanity—illegal being not in self defense or not approved by the UN Security Council as required by the United Nations Charter. If it is not in self defense or not approved, then it’s a crime. And it’s a crime against humanity if they know in advance that large numbers of civilians will be killed. And it would be a shame to allow such behavior to go unpunished or untried. So that’s a main focus from here on out for me, to see that these mass murderers don’t evade trial. They should have a day in court—whether they be called terrorists or anything else. Let the public judge whether that’s the kind of world we want.

Q. What’s your advice right now for the International Criminal Court?

A. The ICC must extend its power out to many other nations, particularly to the smaller nations. There will be problems. There are problems. Africa threatened to walk away because most of the defendants were Africans . . . . The chief prosecutor herself is from The Gambia, from Africa, so the idea of the court being anti-African is absurd. As the court expands its jurisdiction, and they’re doing that with local courts and mixed courts, gradually I hope we will have a universal approach to these problems. We will recognize that certain crimes are really so terrible that there’s universal jurisdiction to try them.

The most important human right is the right to life. The biggest threat today comes from wars that continue to ravage the world. Illegal violation of the UN Charter, knowing that large numbers of innocent people will inevitably be killed, is a crime against humanity that should be subject to universal and national criminal and civil jurisdiction wherever the leading perpetrators can be apprehend.

Q. You delivered a hopeful message to Berkeley law students about how far we’ve come. Are you really hopeful?

A. The law is a foundation itself for any change in human behavior. The law regarding crimes against humanity, war crimes, is still in a developmental stage and has got to be expanded to cover contemporary threats, such as threats from new weapons, which were never conceived of before, such as new techniques for acquiring the evidence of the crimes, and sufficient number of trained people to man the courts where these things can be tried. . . . Even in one human life, my life, I’ve seen all of these changes. There is great hope for future generations. It may take a couple of generations, but eventually it will come into being or there will be no planet earth. We will be one of a billion other planets floating through a vast cosmos with no life on it. I hope not. But I don’t think I’ll be around to see it.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. You ask what’s next for me? I’m going into my ninety-sixth year. I will continue doing what I’m doing for as long as I can. I have been happily wed to the same woman for seventy years. She is also my age. But she’s showing her age, and so it requires a little more attention at home than before. I have no thought of retirement. I don’t know what it means. But I am encouraged by the progress that has been made and by a very strong feeling that what I am doing is the right thing.


In 2011, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor asked Ben Ferencz, then 91, to deliver closing remarks in the case against Democratic Republic of Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo—who was accused of conscripting child soldiers and other violations of international humanitarian law. “What makes this court so distinctive is its primary goal to deter crimes before they take place by letting wrongdoers know in advance that they will be called to account by an international criminal court,” Ferencz said in his statement. “The law can no longer be silent. It must be heard and enforced to protect the fundamental rights of people everywhere.” Lubanga was the first person to be convicted by the ICC.

For more information about Ben Ferencz, visit


About the Berkeley Human Rights Q&A

The Human Rights Center launched in 2015 a series of interviews to capture the stories of  UC Berkeley alumni, professors, and other visitors who offer insights on protecting and defending human rights globally. For more information or to suggest a Berkeley Human Rights Q&A, email Andrea Lampros at

Missing Peace workshop in Uganda strengthens response to wartime sexual violence; Human Rights Center launches new research

MP 2015 group shot

The Missing Peace Practitioners’ Workshop—co-hosted by the Human Rights Center—brought together more than 100 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Liberia, in Kampala, Uganda, last week to talk about sexual violence during and after armed conflict.

Contributing to recent global efforts to highlight and address wartime sexual violence, the workshop convened doctors, forensic experts, lawyers, judges, and other first responders in a dynamic three-day conversation about supporting survivors, collecting evidence, and investigating alleged perpetrators in countries with severely limited resources. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Uganda Fund, U.S. Institute of Peace, Women in International Security, and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

“If we don’t understand why systems break down during peacetime, we will never be able to ensure an effective response during armed conflict,” said Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, when releasing the long-awaited, four-country report The Long Road: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings at the workshop.

Berkeley’s research—highlighted in The Guardian last week—emphasizes the need for more resources locally to document, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence as well as better training for those on the front lines.

“So often during our research, we heard about police officers who don’t have a car or motorbike so they couldn’t travel to the crime scene,” said Seelinger. “We even interviewed some who didn’t have pen and paper to record witness statements.”

Julie Freccero, associate director of the Sexual Violence Program, said that she visited health centers with only one nurse attending a crowded waiting room of patients, where it wasn’t feasible to complete lengthy documentation of sexual violence or collect evidence for court.

Workshop participants—some whose countries are in the midst of armed conflicts and others who live in the aftermath of war—discussed Berkeley’s research findings and brainstormed ways to overcome these challenges in their resource-deprived countries. Many had been interviewed for Berkeley’s research.

They pledged to continue to work together by sharing information, resources, and experiences.

“This is an opportunity for us to continue the conversation about the advances we make or even steps we take back as we fight impunity for sexual violence,” said Dr. Desiré Alumeti Munyali, a forensic specialist who works at Panzi Hospital in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo—a hospital that provides holistic care for survivors of rape.

The Human Rights Center promised to establish an online repository of resources (including training manuals) on sexual violence to strengthen collaboration across borders.

“I think we have here found a voice which should be used to advance our shared objectives in every potential forum,” said Ambassador Allan Rock, President of the University of Ottawa and board director of the Uganda Fund, at the close of the workshop. “We will find a way to ensure that the momentum that’s been created will not be lost.”

Naasu Genevieve Fofanah, former Gender Adviser to the President of Sierra Leone, captured the sentiment of workshop participants who drew strength in sharing experiences and finding ways to combat sexual violence, even in the midst of war or humanitarian disasters, such as Ebola.

“Africans, we should be proud of our region and how rich we are in expertise and how we should take advantage of this expertise,” Fofanah said.

Innocent Zahinda Balemba, who heads the office of the UN’s special representative on sexual violence Zainab Hawa Bangura, opened the workshop by outlining key areas of concern globally, including the trafficking of women, girls, and boys in internally displaced camps, the lack of capacity to prosecute cases—especially when the military is responsible—as well as the rise of extremism.

“Over the past few years, with the rise of violent extremism, we are witnessing sexual violence being used as a tactic of terrorism,” said Zahinda. “We need to act quickly for the empowerment of women and girls.”

The workshop was covered by Uganda’s New Vision newspaper, the Ugandan Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, and The Guardian.








HRC to launch new research on wartime sexual violence at international workshop in Uganda

Kampala, Uganda—
As part of a global movement to end wartime sexual violence, more than 70 legal, health, and law enforcement leaders from six African countries will meet in Kampala, Uganda, August 26–28, to discuss strategies for seeking justice and supporting survivors.

The Missing Peace Practitioners’ Workshop will take up new findings from a groundbreaking, four-country study on conflict-related sexual violence to be launched at the workshop by the Sexual Violence Program of the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. The study, in part, highlights barriers to investigating and prosecuting sexual violence and recommends better training and more funding for the local healthcare workers and police officers on the front lines.

The workshop builds on the UK’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict spearheaded by actress Angelina Jolie last summer and the 2013 Missing Peace Symposium in Washington, DC.

“There is so much focus on what the International Criminal Court is or is not doing about sexual violence committed as a war crime, crime against humanity, or act of genocide,” said Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, “But it’s the nurse at the county clinic or the rural police officer who can actually play a central role in the pursuit of justice, even when the crime violates international law.”

The workshop provides a rare opportunity for frontline responders from Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan to collaborate.

“These experts and practitioners are those closest to survivors,” said Ketty Anyeko, transitional justice expert with the Uganda Fund—The Fund for War-Affected Children and Youth in Northern Uganda. “Their work can be challenging because victims are sometimes unwilling to pursue legal justice—fearing revenge, stigma, or loss of child support.”

Workshop hosts include the Human Rights Center, Uganda Fund—The Fund for War-Affected Children and Youth in Northern Uganda, United States Institute of Peace, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and Women in International Security.

“Whether in violent conflict, extremist settings or in the domestic sphere, we must create a zero tolerance for this form of violence,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, senior gender advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Just as the world community outlawed slavery in the 19th century and landmines in the 20th century, we must outlaw sexual violence in the 21st century.”

Innocent Zahinda Balemba, who heads the Office of the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict under Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura, will give a keynote address at the opening session on August 26.

Human Rights Photo, Day 9: Stephen Goldblatt

Goldblatt, Painting Buddha's Lips_Paddle8

Painting Buddha’s Lips, Burma, 2007
Stephen Goldblatt

Acclaimed cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt traveled to Burma in 2007 to capture moments of ordinary life during military rule. He has donated his work to the Human Rights Center’s efforts to uphold human rights in Burma and around the world. This photo is of a man painting Buddha’s lips, a coveted job.

Goldblatt, who has been nominated for two Academy Awards, is especially known for his work on Angels in America, The Help, and most recently Get On Up, the biographical drama about James Brown.


In celebration of the Human Rights Center’s 20th birthday, we are sending you a photo a day from 10 world-class photographers. These photographers have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or The auction ends Monday!

Human Rights Photo, Day 10: Sebastião Salgado

salgado for web

During a Demonstration in Support of the MPLA, Angola, 1975
Sebastião Salgado

Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1974, but immediately descended into a protracted civil war between nationalist movements involving widespread abuses of human rights. In this photo, Sebastião Salgado photographs a scene of children in the Angolan capital of Luanda, who are watching a demonstration of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA).

Writes Sebastião Salgado:
“I very much like to work on long-term projects….There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to under­stand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. …When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.”


In celebration of the Human Rights Center’s 20th birthday, we have been pleased to send you a photo a day from 10 world-class photographers. These photographers have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or

Human Rights Photo, Day 8: Ken Light

With These Hands

Onion Picker, Rio Grande Valley, United States, 1979
Ken Light

The farmworkers movement that emerged in the 1960s campaigned to protect the rights of migrant farmers, who at the time comprised a largely invisible work force in the United States. Today migrant farmworkers continue to receive lower wages than almost any other labor group and are exposed to some of the poorest working conditions. Ken Light’s photographs examine the lives of farmworkers in California, Texas, and the deep South. In this photo, a man harvests onions in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.

“We’ve become such a 24/7 moving world with a constant stream of news and sound and pictures,” writes Light. “And the wonderful thing of a still photograph is you get to linger, you get to stop, you get to look, you get to think, you get to react, and it is a very different experience. It’s interesting to think about Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” image, which I think is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It’s an image that has very deep, humanistic feelings and messages about the world and the Great Depression in the United States. And you begin to wonder, what if Lange had lived in a multimedia age? Would we have that iconic image? Would the image be different if the migrant mother was talking?”


This photo will be purchased for the UC Berkeley School of Law by generous donors. We need to raise $500 more to place it permanently in the law school. Would you like to contribute? Email us at

In celebration of the Human Rights Center’s 20th birthday, we are posting a photo a day from 10 world-class photographers who have generously shared their work with the center as part of the Envisioning Human Rights exhibit curated by Pamela Blotner at Berkeley Law this fall. Each photo touches on the center’s work with people who have suffered injustice and demonstrated great resilience.

To learn more about the photographs and the online auction, visit or