“Then I started noticing how I was always kind of called out as opposed to other folks, you know? I always felt like after a while, it was just me being targeted, whether it was by administration in our school or whether it was like teachers or even like the resource officers who we had in our middle school. It became kind of like this trend.”
“I think probation would have essentially been over if I did a year good without catching any new violations, new charges and things like that. I think for many of us in the community, that’s not realistic. I think we have to talk about the way our communities are over-policed and just the connections that we have within the community. I think, like, all the resource officers that we’ve ever experienced in our lives, especially if we’re moving place to place, play a big role in the way you’re perceived in society. It’s one thing in school but then it’s like what happens when they see you out in the community and you’re simply, like, just trying to exist anywhere, you know? Or just trying to get by and they’re like, ‘oh, I recognize this person. Let me bug him,’ you know? Or, ‘let me check in with him,’ but in reality, it’s causing more harm.”
Dani Casillas is a 21 year old college student from California. Caught up in the system very early in his life, he experienced school push-out from his junior high an, during his teen years, the rotating doors of the justice system through lengthy probations sentences for minor infractions. He was released from detention at 18.
Currently, Dani is enrolled in community college and pursuing a degree in Ethnic Studies. He worked to establish a Multicultural and Dream Center at his college and serves as the Special Events Scholar Intern, heading up different events and projects. He also serves on his county’s Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission, where he is the only commissioner that was formerly incarcerated.
Interview with Dani, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on January 31, 2019 via phone in Redwood City, CA.
Joann: Tell me your name and how old you are and where you live right now.
Dani: My name is Dani Casillas. I’m 21 years old. I live in Redwood City, California.
Joann: Tell me a little bit about your background. Specifically, tell me where you grew up and what that environment was like and what were the most significant experiences of your early years, like, your years as a child and then becoming a teenager.
Dani: Alright. So, growing up, I would constantly move around in Redwood city. I didn’t discover at the time but I think it was the sense of, like, we’re kind of moving up in the socio economic aspect of things. Yeah, I think from my my experience, we’re still affected by a lot of the things that a dark skinned, brown person would also be affected by - whether it was racism, which is being classified, you know, being kind of, racially profiled and whatnot. I would constantly move from school to school so I never really got to know that many people, you know, and then, like, often times I ended up getting to know a lot more people because I moved school to school. But then, at the time, I wasn’t able to make these kind of intimate and long lasting relationships. I feel like, also, set a big tone in my life, you know?
So, I moved school to school and then I think during the time, I have some siblings and I think I was just watching them, kind of, transform into their middle school identities, so, I think that played a big part in my own life. I think overall, I was always expected to kind of do everything on my own. My parents were working class people. They would have to leave the house by 5am at the latest and they wouldn’t be back until 5p - sometimes a lot later working multiple jobs. I think of us as the kids, we’re expected to really take care of our own, you know?
Joann: How many siblings did you have and where were you in the order?
Dani: I have 3 other siblings, so it’s a total of 4 and I am the youngest. I think growing up I kind of learned a bit about being independent. But, it also put a lot of room to be shaped by multiple folks in multiple environments. I think that played a big role. Fast-forward a bit to getting into middle school and I think that’s where I really started, kind of, really just started getting out there. I think it was like a big kind of social experiment I felt. I just really started kind of trying to fit in and usually got kind of recognized and accepted for multiple things that I think that mainstream shows us. That’s when I started being influenced a lot and just stopped caring a bit about my academics and started really more focusing on more kind of what the public image thought of me as a teen.
I started being rebellious in class and whatnot. Then I also started noticing how I was also directly always kind of called out as opposed to other folks, you know? I always felt like after a while, it was just me and a few other folks just being like targeted whether it was by administration in our school or whether it was like selected teachers or even like the few resource officers who we had in our middle school. It became kind of like this trend, you know?
I eventually ended up getting kicked out of that middle school in 8th grade when I was, uh, for fighting. Essentially, the kind of case they built around me was about truancy and just kind of the threat I was to other students. But, I think also, one of the things they really talked about in truancy, or failed to talk about, was about the kind of the expectation of students and how they, like a lot of students, they might have had access to kind of whether its their parents that could drop them off or just like having other kind of forms of resources there. As opposed to me at the time, where it’s like I’m expected to walk this 30-45 minute walk, you know, to the school and I’m a kid. I think that played a big shape in things, like, where I felt like I would start getting criminalized whenever I would go into stores and just try to get some breakfast or even just a snack on my way to school whether I was just kind of walking around. Sometimes it would just be a group of us walking to school and seeing the way we’re perceived in our society, you know? So, yeah, I think I was put on informal probation and then I ended up being put onto regular probation because the last week of my informal probation, it was like a 90-day contract, I believe. I was doing perfectly good and then the last week or last few days, I was essentially just like celebrating. I ended up just catching a new charge and it essentially extended from what I would now experience to be 4 to 5 years on probation from the age of 13 or 14, until I turned 18. So I think that, that really shifted my experience as a youth.
Joann: So, you said it was a 30-day probation?
Dani: It was a 90-day informal probation so it’s one step before formal probation.
Joann: Explain to me what the difference, what that looks in where you living in California?
Dani: Where I was living, so I think from my understanding, I think there’s very surface level, this diversion program where folks get in and it’s kind of out of court kind of stuff where your name won’t essentially be part of like a system? Even though I think you’re probably referred to by the system but, yeah, I wasn’t part of that. I think one step above is this informal probation where it's kind of like this contract where its like you go in front of a judge and they are like we know you are a good kid and I would also deconstruct what a good kid is. They were pretty much saying, ‘we know that you’re a good kid, you've never been in front of us. We want to focus on your rehabilitation,’ say... I think they would kind of not essentially divert you but be like, ‘look. Let’s put you on this 90 day contract or agreement.’ I think there’s also this other that’s like 180 days and it’s essentially it’s a way to kind of monitor you and see if the individual to say has the tools but taking an effect in fact, like, I think just the structural violence that’s imposed on us, you know? Basing it on an individual, especially a kid, you know? So, I think that was one thing that I noticed. I think that’s that one I was part of where they would assign you kind of like this probation officer for that time and they would evaluate you, kind of do like I think a mental health evaluation to be like, okay, let’s check out what this kid has experienced,’ you know? Or, ‘what’s going on,’ you know? I think that’s what they did and they kind of figured out, ‘okay, maybe this one will be the best kind of solution.’ I was on that contract where essentially they assigned me a probation officer. I would have to meet for the expectation where there was drug or alcohol counseling, where there was kind of this restoration group with my victim and things like that. I think it was just kind of like these little fulfillments that had to do to be able to kind of complete that 90 day contract, if you will.
Joann: So, you said a restoration group with your victim? This was because you were fighting in the hallways at school?
Dani: Oh, no no. So, I didn’t get a criminal charge for that but I think my charge… sorry, I didn’t elaborate that. My first charge was essentially vandalism and I essentially.. It’s just for tagging, simple tagging. And then, pretty much, the victim was essentially, happen to be on school property so, essentially it was kind of like this… it wasn’t my school either, so, yeah.
Joann: So, what did that restoration look like? Did you actually speak with somebody? Or did you have to go paint over it? Like, what was that…?
Dani: Yeah. I think it was like, uh, the restoration group was essentially it was a mutually agreed upon kind of thing. So, like, whether if I didn’t agree with it but my victim did, we wouldn’t have it. Or if I agree with it and my victim didn’t, we still wouldn’t have it but I think it was like this way to kind of focus on a more restorative justice aspect of things where we can try and divert certain things. Also, kind of, get this baggage or just like be able to kind of express how we feel a bit. It would be monitored by somebody that's kind of trained and just like has a lot of tools in that field. Essentially, we would get together in a mutually agreed upon location, preferably, somewhere close by to where y’all can like have the midpoint or whatnot, you know?
Joann: I guess I’m just confused because I am trying to figure out who the victim was - if it was a school property, who was representing the property that you tagged?
Dani: Oh, the principal.
Joann: Oh, okay. Gotcha.
Joann: So, your 90-day contract was based on this tagging?
Joann: Okay. When you said it towards the end, when you, I guess, when the probation officer put you in a violation, that was because you said you were celebrating because it was almost the end?
Dani: Yeah. I ended up getting a disorderly conduct charge. Yes.
Joann: Okay. You said it was just continued probation? You said 4 to 5 years you basically were just continuing probation? Were there like multiple violations that kept it going? Or was that, or was there some specific…?
Dani: Yes. So, essentially that night, after pretty much the whole incident, I got arrested but I got released to my parents. Then I went before a judge and then pretty much what the district attorney was recommending was to give me 1 year probation and then just kind of a variety of other stuff, like, kind of the same thing with drug and alcohol counseling, being put on formal probation, I think restitution like, I continued to pay the restitution to the victim of my first charge with the vandalism. Just things like that.
Joann: At what point did it actually go from having the probation officer check in on you to actually having like a physical ankle monitor?
Dani: Okay, so that took, let’s see… the first time I was in an ankle monitor was I believe in 9th grade. So, about a year? Maybe a little less?
Joann: And what was it that triggered that?
Dani: The ankle monitor?
Dani: During the time, I had something happen within my family. Essentially, I had to also understand that I would have to kind of take care of myself in multiple ways. I went to school once and then I just, the way I grew up I would always have like something with me, you know, just for protection? Essentially, I had like a box cutter and it was a little clip on and I had it hooked up to my pants. Then, one day at class when I was getting up just to go to lunch it happened to unclip and it fell. Then the teacher has seen it and so then she kind of panicked. She knew that I wasn’t using it at all, you know? I just happened to have it and it happened to fall. But, she panicked and then she called the police officer in our high school. Essentially, that got me another charge - it got me arrested that day. I got taken to juvenile hall and then I ended up getting released on ankle monitor given the kind of circumstances of things, you know? I was on ankle monitor I believe for 90 days. I was about to get off and I ended up having like a family disagreement or something and I ended up cutting it off a few weeks shy of me getting off of it.
Joann: Did you ever actually have to go and spend time at a DYS? At a facility?
Dani: What do you mean? Like, juvenile hall?
Joann: Yeah. So, different states have different kinds of setups but I have heard that in California, there’s like something called ‘probation camp’ where you have to go and be, like, you basically get a placement that’s outside of your home. Like, something, the next step up from ankle monitoring.
Dani: Okay, yes. I spent a lot of time in juvenile hall and I also spent a lot of time at, uh, we have things called ‘The Boys Ranch.’ So, I spent a good amount of time at The Boys Ranch in San Mateo County.
Joann: Describe to me the difference of what juvenile hall detention, like, what that environment looks like and what’s expected of you there versus what it’s like at the ranch.
Dani: Okay, so, juvenile hall, it’s a seedy facility. Pretty much, they’re really strict in a lot of different senses. The food is terrible. I think, yeah, there’s multiple units. I think they have a certain amount of programming. The first few days when you’re there, you’re not allowed to come out for any of the programming. I think they’re trying to evaluate who you are and things like that. Then I think there’s kind of the school department once you know you’re going to be there for awhile, you start kind of going to the school department and just like kind of participating in all of the little activities that they do. It’s just a locked facility to say the very least, you know? I think the boys ranch that I was at, it was like kind of this open setting deep in the woods in La Junta, California. The juvenile hall is located in San Mateo, California so it’s a good way away from each other. La Junta is kind of like, I don’t know if you know the terminology, but it's like ‘the boonies.’ Yeah, it’s like in the woods, you know? It’s like in this weird area to say the least, at least me being a city boy.
Joann: Was it in a place where you were able to have visitors? Like, what was the transportation like? How far away was it from your home?
Dani: From my home physically, it was about a 30 to 45 minutes drive depending on, like, your ability and that road because it’s very winding, it’s very narrow roads because it’s all in the woods. So, it’s like, about, I would say more like a 45 minute drive from my home and my home is the closest city to it. I think it’s inaccessible. I think that’s the reality. It’s out in the woods. There’s no public transportation that takes you up there. You can get visits but the things about the visits is that they’re only once a week and they’re on a Sunday and they’re kind of in this window but they're just, reality is, the people that are, from what I’ve seen and just with what the studies have shown is like the folks that are incarcerated, especially kids, are black and brown kids that are socioeconomically impacted. I think that kind of says it in itself where a lot of folks are working class parents. A lot of them may not even have a car or the means to get up there every week and they’re already kind of having to pay, at the time, out of their pocket for their youth being incarcerated, for the kid being incarcerated from $36 a day. I think that really kind of gives you the context of, kind of, on inaccessibility, you know? But also, for The Boys Ranch, after 5 weeks, at least when I was there, yeah, they’re closing down I believe now due to funding reasons. But, when I was there, I believe after 5 weeks, depending on your programming, you were eligible for home passes. What a home pass would look like was essentially the camp system runs by the point system. So, everyday, you get two grades when you’re at camp. The grades go from 0 to 4 and then 4 being like you’re really taking care of business or you’re really kind of kissing ass. And then essentially, the 0 would like let’s say, I don’t know, you just had a bad morning, you know, or something? Or kind of you just acted upon a way that wasn’t expected for you to be acted upon or wasn’t respected, you know? So, like, maybe just having a bad morning and just being like, ‘F this. Fuck this. I don’t want to do this,’ you know? They would essentially, kind of, mess with your grades sometimes I felt and a lot of kids felt.
Joann: You spent about 5 weeks there and you were able to come home?
Dani: Yes. So then, your first 3 home passes, you have to have 3 successful home passes at The Boys Ranch, um, 24 hours home passes before you’re eligible for 48 hour home passes. Under the point system, there’s a certain limit. So, let’s say there’s a certain limit that allows you to get 24 hour home pass and a certain amount of point that you need to get for a 48 hour home pass. So, then, let’s say I need 60 points for a 48 hour home pass and I need 44 points for a 24 and then let’s say I had a few rough mornings that week and then let’s just say I just scored to 55 or whatnot, you know? Then essentially, I would only be eligible for a 24 hour home pass, so, yeah. Then it would be usually on the weekend, or it is on the weekends just because you’re not going to miss the programming of the camp really or like the school of it to say. Just to give you context of the camp because I don’t think I did, it’s kind of this outdoor setting and they have a variety of different things. They have little school department there that you walk to. They have a full-on kitchen as opposed to the juvenile hall. I also did a culinary arts program there where one person that’s incarcerated there cooks for the whole camp and learns this culinary arts thing.
We have work crews that essentially, like, just maintaining the camp so, to make it look pretty and all of us work right after school. Or sometimes, on the days where we don’t have school, we’re kind of forced to work, too. If we don’t work, essentially we’re kind of discipline. Often time, we would be doing other stuff outside of camp with work crew. Sometimes we would be kind of like on the sides of La Junta just kind of whacking weeds and stuff and just like picking up trash or like going to local schools and kind of doing some of their maintenance there, too. So, yeah.
Camp had a lot of outings, too. They would do a fishing trip. They would take folks to Alcatraz. There’s a lot of, kind of, to say freedom in a sense there, you know? Maybe not the freedom that is good. They also had a lot of trips to expose folks to a variety of different things and just kind of give them tools, you know? I felt like in a sense it was more about rehabilitation there as its just exposing you to a variety of different things and also, understanding how much the outdoors plays a big role into the expansion of a kid, you know? It kind of allows this a different sense of an environment, a different take on an environment. I think they used that to their benefit to kind of, expose a whole array of possible things to get involved in later and implement that in your head now so maybe you can let it manifest later in life.
Joann: You said that you had a positive experience of mental health treatment and education or enrichment. What I am hearing a lot of is that the enrichment piece about the outings. What kind of emotional/mental health support did they offer there?
Dani: The mental support that they had when I was there was that they had a full time counselor there that was only dedicated to that location. She was really good at what she did. Yeah, I think she would pretty much see everyone there, you know? When I first started, we were, kind of, a lot of folks, but then when it started to end it was a lot of little people. She would literally see everyone at a time and it would just be that counselor but they also have like a whole variety of different programs too that would often need, um, you would need to have to take like a little group counseling thing or a group therapy kind of thing but then you would also do an individual one with whatever service provider that was. Then there was also always room for like, um, you could always get like, um, let’s say you have your own counselor, you have your own person that you work with outside of this or maybe even before incarceration, you know? Or it’s just someone you feel more comfortable with, you could always have them just come visit you. They were pretty lenient with the visits, if it was kind of like a professional visit to say or just things like that, you know, that they knew would help you out later in the long run as opposed to being more kind of authoritarian and being like, ‘no, you can’t do this’, you know? I think that’s the way supported I think a bit on mental health, you know?
Joann: Was that something that you personally experienced? Did you have a relationship with somebody before you came there?
Dani: Yes. I think for me, like, I went to camp after my whole initial juvenile experience. I went to camp pretty late as opposed to some of the folks, you know? I think that was kind of the last resort where it’s like you’ve been spiraling through the system for the last 2 to 3 years and you became dependent on, like, institutionalization, so I grew a lot of networks, you know? So then essentially, one of the things I benefited was from folks that were in the professional realm of things whether it was therapy or whether it was kind of like other different things where it’s like legal advice or just simply like, ‘yo. How are you doing? We really want to see you and just let you know that even though you’re incarcerated, we’re still supporting you and we haven’t forgot about you.’ There would be a good amount of folks that wouldn’t be like, ‘hey, I’m going to come visit you’ or things like that and actually come through.
Joann: How old were you when you got there?
Dani: When I Got to camp, I think, sorry I’m getting old… I’m like, damn. I think I was, let’s see… I was 16, I believe when I was at camp. Yeah because I had my 17th birthday… did I have my 17th birthday at camp? I think so. Yeah.
Joann: Was everything just automatically over when you turned 18? How did the release from the system work? It was probation over… how did that work?
Dani: Okay, so probation was over essentially for me whenever I decided that, or not even me, but whenever…. Um, because I don’t want to put the full blame on me even though I take responsibility for my actions, you know? I think probation would have essentially been over if I did a year good on probation without catching any new violations, new charges and things like that. I think for many of us in the community, that’s not realistic. That’s not an approach because I think we have to talk about the way our communities are over-policed and just the connections that we have within the community. I think, like, all the resource officers that we’ve ever experienced in our lives, especially if we’re moving place to place, play a big role into the way they perceive you in society. It’s one thing in school but then it’s like what happens when they see you out in the community and you’re simply, like, kind of just trying to exist anywhere, you know? Or just trying to get by and they’re like, ‘oh, I recognize this person. Let me bug him,’ you know? Or, ‘let me check in with him,’ to say, but in reality, it’s causing more harm. I take that into account and I take into account how many folks in whatever community they’re living in, are not welcome in those communities where, like, kind of, they’re going back to community that has traditionally pushed them out and has traditionally done a lot to kind of erase their existence or make them feel out of place. For me, it was whenever, essentially, I would do good for a year which I never did. I always did a lot of good stuff but then I would also kind of go down a path and then I would kind of equal both of them, you know? It was like I was doing a lot of good stuff but then I was kind of messing up, too. It was like kind of, I don’t know, a sense of balance.
I ended up getting out of camp and I was doing very good. Then I landed a job at Target at the time. I was just taking care of business with my job and it was my first real gig. Yeah, and then I ended up catching a violation, I believe, it was like a curfew violation. Oh, and then… well, okay. So, one of the things you asked about electronic monitoring, one of the things after camp, everyone gets released on electronic monitoring. For multiple people, it might look different ways. For some people, they just get the electronic monitoring, other folks might get the MEMS which is kind of the breathalyzer that comes with it that also charges a lot of money to have, too. So, the ankle monitor, I believe, is like $1 to $2 a day and then the MEMS is about $5 to $10 a day. Just because I remembered it, once you’re released from camp, you’re at least have 30 days on the electronic monitoring. We call it ‘EMP,’ the Electronic Monitoring Program. I got off EMP, and then I ended up, you’re still expected everyday, I think, while you’re furloughed from camp to be home by 10pm. Then, I essentially didn’t answer one phone call once, I believe, at 10pm and I ended up catching a violation and I got sent back to camp for 45 days. I was at camp for 8 months beforehand and I think the thing about that was once you’re done with camp, once you feel like you’ve got everything you could’ve got from there, you’ve literally got everything you could’ve got there and like your mind kind of shuts down any possibility of further growth, you know? Because I think even though the environment is very open, it kind cleanses you of a lot of things. It can also turn out to be very toxic. I think there wasn’t an understanding of that or like even like folks wanting to listen to that, kind of being like, ‘Hey, I need to get the fuck out of here. Just send me back to juvenile hall where I know I can kind of just be locked in my cell and just get my time over with,’ as opposed to being expected in this higher world, you know? I think I was kind of like at that phase my second time around where it’s like, ‘I can’t be here. It’s not good for my mental health,’ you know? I think I got everything I literally could have gotten out of camp I felt. And I ended up getting into an altercation at camp and I turned those 45 days into about 9 and a half months to 10 months at juvenile hall.
Joann: At juvenile hall? So they basically did... they sent you back to juvenile hall and that’s where you spent that time?
Dani: Yes. So that was the thing. I kind of informed them like, ‘hey, I just want to finish my time at the juvenile hall,’ because I don’t want to be at camp because at camp you’re expected in a higher, how do you say, you’re expected to act in a higher manner where you’re kind of forced to go with the program as opposed to juvenile hall, I could just be like, ‘no, I’m just gonna chill,’ you know, ‘I just want to do my time and that’s it. I don't want to be involved in other stuff.’ Pretty much they weren’t listening to me when I said that they had too much faith in me, I guess, to kind of, and like to shape other boys, you know, to kind of be like, ‘oh, you’re a really good role model and stuff. You really got your stuff together and you’re working,’ and things like that where I was kind of burdened in this aspect of teaching other people, you know? And I was still trying to take care of myself. So, I ended up getting into a altercation at camp and I got hit with a new charge. I think it was like, yeah, they pretty much, like, forget what charge it was but I ended up getting my time extended to about 9 months extra.
Joann: So, by this time, I mean, at some point you turned 18…?
Dani: Yeah. So, after that 9 months I ended up getting released a little shy, I think, like, 2 months shy of my 18th birthday. One of the agreements I had with my probation officer was that I would stay on probation until my 18th birthday and then on my 18th birthday I would come to the probation department, um, or because I was released… I was released once before my 18th birthday and then I would stay on probation and then for my 18th birthday, I would go to the probation department and I would sign the papers to essentially get me terminated from probation and that’s the way it went down. Then my 18th birthday, I was terminated off probation and I’ve been free since.
Joann: So, you’re in college now? Tell me, this was 3 years ago… about? 2.5-3 years ago?
Joann: So, what’d you do next?
Dani: I think upon release, shoot, uh… I can’t recall that much but I think I knew one of the things about me was I became institutionalized. I became dependent on the structure that was forced upon me, so, I knew I had to kind of, whether it was kind of replicate a certain structure or kind of find myself in a certain community to be able to kind of, um… I don’t know if ‘fit in’ is the right word or just kind of have a chance in society, you know? Have a chance in kind of being free and a chance of, like, existing in someway that does not revolve around, kind of, the control of people's freedom or bodies or anything. I essentially enrolled into college through this program that kind of, they have college courses at juvenile hall and they also assist the youth that are getting out of juvenile hall if they’re ready for college to transition into the local community college. So, I got involved with them. At first, I started getting into criminal justice because I felt like a lot of folks would always come up to us and be like, ‘Oh, I’m a criminal justice expert,’ or whatever, but they only have a degree in criminal justice but they don’t have the lived experience that many of us have and have this very valid perspective of the apparatus of the criminal justice system, you know? So, I think that’s why I got into it because I knew everything from a street perspective. I knew everything from a hood perspective but I was a little, kind of, I didn’t understand - I did but I didn’t - I didn’t understand it from kind of a professional perspective. Or, like, to put the terminology into what I already knew existed. That’s why I got into criminal justice. It ended up being very difficult for me to kind of even exist there because I think like everyone was coming from like, ‘Oh, let’s examine these people,’ you know? Like, I think, just kind of a nasty discourse that was often perpetuated in those classes was like something I… it was hard for me to navigate it especially being 18 and just getting into these things, you know? I ended up shying away from there after a few classes just because I also started kind of thinking about my vision of the way that I want to support folks that are formerly incarcerated and it did not revolve around being a police officer. It did not revolve around, kind of, being tough on crime. I think my own perspective on things was how can I support it on an interpersonal level or, like, with folks that talked like me, look like me and just have similar experiences as me. So, I think that way the way that I was trying to go about it and I knew if I kind of stayed in this, it might have kind of very shifted my perspective on things and very shifted my own lived experience on things where I would essentially kind of compromise some of the things and I was not willing to do that.
I ended up exploring different majors. There was a time where I really wanted to get into the healthcare stuff or kind of health in general. But then I realized, most of the time when I was away from school, whether it was cutting class or being in detention, I missed a lot of math and science. So, I was like that’s down the drain. I’m not about to teach myself all that new stuff even though I was more than capable to. It would require a lot of work and at least for me, I‘ve always been fast paced and it was like, would require a lot of time that I may have not been willing to give given that I haven’t had much time for myself as a youth, you know? I think if I put all of my time together that I was locked up in juvenile detention, it would be a total of 2 and a half years that I spent of my teenage life incarcerated. I think that was one thing that I also understood going into college, where it’s like I lacked a lot of kind of the social elements that a regular kind of 18-19 year old would have out of college, you know? I think everyone would about, ‘oh, yeah. High school this, high school that.’ It’s like I went to high school probably 3 months max. After that, I was either on the run or I was at a community school, a court school or I was incarcerated so, I really didn’t have a lot of them social elements that folks build off and kind of bond in. Like, I didn’t know what Prom was or all this Homecoming stuff, you know?
Anyways, I started exploring different fields. Then I kind of really got into Ethnic Studies at the time and then that’s where I kind of stayed now, an Ethnic Studies major. I really got into community organizing and just like a whole array of other stuff, you know? But I think that’s like one of the things that’s really been driving me now and just kind of allowing me to continue on a certain path. I think that’s been one of the social elements I’ve been able to build knowing that we all need our community and we need that kind of collective support as opposed to kind of a very individualistic kind of viewpoint on things. I think that’s one thing I’ve been really benefiting from and allowing to shape me and also shape my new experiences.
Joann: So, that’s awesome. Were you able to find a place to kind of connect with to do community organizing work? Were you working with neighborhood based organizations? Or were you finding connections through the school?
Dani: Yeah, so I think for me, early on I think we kind of, the connections that I made were more autonomous kind of connections where, like, it was like we governed ourselves, you know? One of the things that we got into organizing, at least on our campus, was kind of, um… there was kind of talk about starting up a police station on our campus and turning the public safety into essentially a police department because they wanted to arm them even though the crimes, there was… our community college in our district was very low on crime so it was like this big investment of money that they had that they couldn’t… like, money that they had but they didn’t know what to put it in. So, obviously, let’s put it into, like, for the arming of folks, you know? A few of us got together - I was exposed to it because I was still on this criminal justice email list, so they were very directly targeting criminal justice majors that were probably very pro-law enforcement, which is understandable but I think they were very selective. I ended up reading the email and I was like, ‘okay, I think I’m going to check this out.’ Everybody at the table was all pro it, they was all for it, you know? That was scary for me being someone that’s formerly incarcerated and being just like a dark brown male, you know, and I think very young and stuff. When I started thinking about it, I didn’t just think about me and how’s it going to affect me.
I was also focusing on my own formerly incarcerated community that we had on campus where it’s like a lot of us got into college to kind and try and - not get out you know? - but try to essentially do something different, you know? Get into college and try to do something different and kind of sometimes, even if it’s for an hour, it kind of not have to worry about a lot of the kind of issues that are happening in our community, you know - whether it’s an interpersonal level, a systemic level or just a societal issue, you know? A lot of us felt like, ‘Oh shit. None of these people at this college know me,’ you know? I can just chill, you know? We didn’t have to worry about getting pulled over by police. We didn’t have to worry about being all this kind of racially profiling that happens in our communities. I think it was like this sense of liberation a bit for us here where we had a good group of formerly incarcerated people just being able to look out for each other and challenge each other to be more than what society has told us that we’re going to be, you know? Be more than what we’ve kind of like told ourselves.
I think that’s the perspective I was looking at it when I started this project. Because, essentially, they were to implement a police department within our district, we knew that they would bring a lot of police officers from our communities here. I think that's one thing we wanted to very amplify our voices on where if this happens, this will kind of create this new era criminalization in our schools, you know, and what we have been deemed to kind of be the safe thing that we can kind of get into, you know? I met folks that wanted to organize under that sentiment where it’s like no further arming and providing alternatives to this militarization of police or public safety, or whatever you want to call it, you know? Slowly after we started kind of seeing the challenges that are going to be presented in our communities given certain political climates. We’re like, okay, we have this platform of students that have like essentially became awoke by us taking a stand against stuff. We formulated a good amount of students to be like, no, stand in opposition to be like, ‘what research are you doing,’ you know? Things like that. We really worked.
We ended up starting a student group on our campus. We had these 12 demands and the 12 demands are not extreme demands - they were simple. They were like, ‘let’s get a dream center on our campus,’ ‘let’s provide more culturally aware classes/trainings for both students and faculty,’ ‘let’s have a class on the prison industrial complex and one that is focused on formerly incarcerated people or just incarcerated people in general,’ you know? There was a long list and the last demand was ‘free community college.’ It was sculpting a lot of different things, you know, whether it was a breakfast program and things like that for folks that don’t have access, you know, or might just be running low, especially in the Bay area. That was one thing that really exposed me to variety of different things. Then I slowly started getting exposed to a variety of other things, whether it was refugee support, medical training so like street/medical training for demonstrations and actions… just a variety of different things, you know?
Recently, I also joined (inaudible) County Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission. I am the only formerly incarcerated person there. It’s a volunteer kind of commission so, like, I’m not getting paid for it or anything. It would help if I was, you know? But, I also just because I’m a college student, I am working 2 jobs and things like that, you know? I think I’m definitely there because I know I need to be there because I know if formerly incarcerated people are not at the table, we’re essentially going to be on the menu, you know? So, I know how important it is for my assistance on the commission to be. I’m really hoping that soon, more formerly incarcerated people will join the same commission just because I’ve been able to do a lot of work there and I will continue to do a lot of work there as long as I’m there.
Joann: That’s awesome.
Joann: So, it says that you’re working at the Multicultural Center and Dream Center, so, that happened? Tell me how the college responded to your demands and what happened?
Dani: We presented in the demands, um, so… a group of us spent like a month or two and so many nights, so many hours, so many minutes and so many days trying to get the wording right. It’s easy if we wrote something kind of like, ‘we demand this,’ and that’s it, you know? But we knew that the district was not going to listen to us - the board of trustees or anyone, anyone in general wasn’t going to listen to us if we didn’t put the effort to kind of code switch and talk their language, you know? It was kind of this thing where we knew we had to essentially get their attention - whether it was our writing, whether it was, like, actions, you know? - but we knew in the long run what’s going to help is the writing - something that they don’t have to put too much work into because the reality is they haven’t addressed these issues because it’s so much work, you know? Often times we find the people that most affected by certain things, be the ones that have to do all the work, you know, and I think we understood that. We’re like, it sucks, but if we’re going to take any collective action now and if we have to suck it up, so be it. We know it’s going to end up helping the further generations, you know? I think that’s also why I got into a ton of this organizing because we’re able to have this discourse without having this sense of like, ‘oh, we need to be recognized for it.’ Where it’s like, ‘no, the work, the work needed to be done so we did it.’
We staged walkouts in our district. One of the things we learned early on was that this is not just a campus issue, this is our district issue. We have 3 community colleges in our district. It was like okay, let’s build connections with folks that are already doing similar work or share similar sentiments as us. We expanded and this went on all three campuses and was like, ‘okay, where are the students at?’ Like, whether it’s like, ‘where are your radical students at?’ It’s like we know they exist and we know that they especially exist in these societies that have forced them to go underground or haven’t normalized a conversation about being dissonate. We ended up building a coalition on that and we staged walkouts all at the same time in all 3 community colleges to get our districts attention. That’s when we first presented all of the demands. We got our district to pass this resolution of social justice, er, yeah, reaffirmation of social justice. Under that, it also allowed us ways of getting to social equity and just equity in general. Essentially, we got, I think, a few demands met but the majority haven't been met, you know? I think we were able to get the Multicultural and Dream Center. So also, I think that’s one thing where the Multicultural Center there at the time was already doing the work of a Dream Center yet they weren’t being recognized or compensated for it. That was one thing we wanted to tackle and be like, ‘look, the folks that are in the center are already doing all this work but they’re not being recognized for it.’ They’re not there for the recognition but it sure damn helps when you know someone is obviously paying attention. We also knew the importance of having a Dream Center on campus given all the rhetoric that’s happening in our climate right now. That was one thing that blossomed out of our 12 demands where we're able to kind of, instead of, instead of it being just a little small center that is just an adjunct to other centers, it became its own center. I got hired there now and I am a Special Events Scholar Intern. I’m working on a few events and projects there now.
Joann: That’s cool. So, what year are you now? You’re 21?
Dani: Yeah, I’m finishing up at community college. I might stay a little bit longer just because I’ve had to go slow just because of me working, you know, and things like that. Just getting adjusted too, it’s just been a big shift in what I was used to as a formerly incarcerated person and someone who just hasn’t had much school experience themselves unless it was self education and things like that, you know? Right now, I'm probably going to be at community college for another year or year and a half, maybe two. I’m not in such a rush because I think I’m doing also a lot of work outside of the school that is very reflective of my own interests and what I hope to do and hope to continue to do in our communities.
Joann: Is that what Project Change is?
Dani: Yeah. That’s the program that is helping formerly incarcerated youth transition to community college but also provide college courses inside the juvenile hall for folks that have their GED or high school diploma. I think it’s very close to the heart because I think when, like I said, when I was doing those last 10 months of my time, I already had my GED. I was literally sitting around for like those 10 months in my cell with no school education, you know?
So, yeah, Danny Murillo, I actually met him through somebody named Lorena. At the time she was working at her community college and she was in charge of the Puente Project. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Puente?
Dani: Okay, so the Puente Project is in a few states but it’s mostly considered in California. Puente means ‘bridge’, so it’s like a project bridge or a bridge project. It bridges LatinX students that traditionally haven’t been represented or assisted on college campuses. Essentially it builds this bridge between LatinX students and four year institutions just so they could have a successful transfer. But also, get culturally relevant curriculum in the the classes. So, being like a cohort that has folks that look like you, talks like you and probably has similar experiences as you, because I think it’s very vital to understand the aspect that folks will drop out if they feel like they’re not represented in the mainstream or don’t have the resources to allow them to blossom under these institutions. Lorena, she connected me with Danny because she’s an alum from UC Berkeley and Danny’s an alum from UC Berkeley. She was just telling me about the program called Underground Scholars at UC Berkeley and how they’re formerly incarcerated folks and that she would love to do a joint event with Puente and Project Change to go check out the campus, the Berkeley campus so we can get that thought going for a lot of the students we work with, you know?
Joann: That’s awesome.
Dani: So, that’s how I got introduced to Danny Murillo.
Joann: Okay. That’s awesome.
Dani: Oh, yeah! Another thing that I’m working on now, so it’s going to be with him is there’s this kind of like coalition of folks that, from California community colleges that are going to be meeting altogether to strategize and implement how community colleges can support under policy from an incarcerated people where every community college will essentially have a program or a club based on formerly incarcerated people and supporting them. So, that’s one thing I’m going to be working on, too, this year.
Joann: So, you’re going to be the student representative from the college of San Mateo?
Dani: I’m going to be for Skyline College. It's another college in our district. Yeah, we’re trying to expand here a bit so I think I’m going to be helping them out too, being like, ‘look, this is what works and this doesn’t,’ you know?
Joann: Wow. Congratulations! You’ve done an amazing amount of work.
Dani: Thank you.
Joann: Tell me a little bit more about Prop 64. Is that currently under discussion in the legislature?
Dani: Prop 64 passed. Yeah, it was like this legalization of marijuana. It was a decriminalization proposition. Felonies are able to be reclassified and rescheduled, or reclassified or re-sentenced on it; for youth, to get it dropped down to misdemeanors. I went to that conference because it’s more in the legal aspect and public health issues.
Joann: What was the name of the conference and where was it?
Dani: It was the North American Cannabis Summit. It was in Los Angeles. Me and another person were the only formerly incarcerated people there. They didn’t address public health issues as a parcel issue, you know? Incarceration is a public health issue and folks are not able to kind of make that distinction. It’s very interesting to see now the data and how things have transpired with criminalization. One of the studies from Oregon, um, they have different props or whatnot. I think Oregon has a measure 21 ballot thing, where it was similar to Prop 64 but one they noticed on their research was essentially how even though it went into effect, the whole decriminalization thing, they started noticing how things started being re-labeled, or that was not a crime anymore but this is now a crime, you know? It was kind of this shifting where it made more youth crimes based on marijuana. So, now they can get a different kind of crime. It was kind of interesting to see the kind of rate that these certain legalization things have impacts on the youth within the carceral system.
Joann: Are there formal re-sentencing or did people just get their sentences dismissed?
Dani: For adults, there’s a big kind of system on it but for years, it’s very complicated because youth, their records are confidential, they’re classified essentially for a variety of confidentiality reasons. It’s definitely understandable yet, it also kind of sets this precedent of not being able to address it because the public defenders want to address it but they’re fucking overworked. The DAs don’t really want to address it but I think they’re the ones recommending sentencing so they should definitely have an active role into some of the actions that need to be taken to mitigate some of the issues this has caused. There’s a lot of different perspectives but from my understanding, what has to happen is that if the county’s not willing to listen to you, you gotta bring it up at the state level. Only sadly underneath the state level will probably see something happen, you know? So, it’s gonna be awhile.
Joann: Is there anything in particular that we didn’t talk about that you want to be able to share?
Dani: That’s always a tough one for me, I think, um… I think sometimes it’s very important to lay down the foundation of what criminality means, especially here in the United States and to often refer to the realities of what we’re living under, you know? The way we look at people and the way the systems are built to reflect a certain community that it doesn't really reflect, you know? That just further divides that community and doesn’t take into account other things than individual responsibilities. I think that’s just what I want to say and how important it is to uplift women and friends and non binary folks and queer folks in discussions of incarceration and especially folks of color and folks who have been directly impacted by such things. If there’s any takeaway I think it’s to center that and to always understand the history and historical context of what the prison industrial complex represents within our societies.