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.’