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.

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