From solitary confinement to UC Berkeley: a story of redemption | #College. | #Students

After Kevin McCarthy’s parents divorced, he slipped into the back seat of a friend’s Oldsmobile hoping to smoke some yesca. Instead of weed, he got heroin and became addicted within a year.

He was 14 years old.

By 22, he had shot a man and was sentenced to 25 years and 8 months for attempted manslaughter and other havoc: dealing, extorting, stabbing. Guards at Pelican Bay State Prison escorted him to solitary confinement and left him there — for nine years.

From inside prison and without a computer, McCarthy went on to persuade one of the world’s best universities to let him in. He is the first incarcerated applicant ever accepted to UC Berkeley where, at 41, he is a senior.

McCarthy is also one of a growing number of prisoners being accepted to California colleges, thanks to activists and the supportive programs they’ve created on many campuses. Enrollment from prison rose after 2014 and the passage of SB1391, which let colleges collect state funding for incarcerated students. Today, 14% of California’s nearly 99,000 prisoners are enrolled in community college, or about 14,000 people.

“We’re limited only by the number of classrooms,” said Rebecca Silbert, who runs the community college system’s Rising Scholars Network supporting such students. “We have wait lists at every single prison.”

Enrollment is about to explode again. In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB416, requiring every prison to offer college programs. And in 2023, incarcerated people across the country will become eligible for Pell Grants — a change expected to spur applications to four-year universities next year.

Hinting at their potential is the story of McCarthy, whose life mirrors that of so many people behind prison walls.

In 2016, while still a prisoner, he applied to UC Berkeley, joining 19,000 others hoping to win one of the 3,867 seats available to transfer students that year.


“What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?”

There is violence around me. It is challenging to witness another human being getting stabbed numerous times, hear his screams, and then go back to my cell to study for a final exam.


Along Highway 101 just south of the Oregon border sits the maximum security Pelican Bay prison and its “Security Housing Unit.” The SHU consists of more than 1,000 windowless cells measuring 8 feet by 10 feet, each smaller than a parking space.

Affiliation with a prison gang, true or not, could land you there. Officials told McCarthy they had a photo of him with a gang member.

Kevin McCarthy, left, stands with Jessis Fernandez at Stiles Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley, on June 28, 2021.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

They put him in a concrete closet on July 26, 2006, and didn’t say when he might leave. Some prisoners had been in the SHU for more than a decade.

“It was just an ugly, ugly place,” McCarthy recalled. “I forgot what human touch felt like.”

Prisoners remained alone in their cells for all but 90 minutes a day, when they went into the “dog run,” a slightly larger room with a plastic ceiling through which the sun might shine. Visits to the law library were allowed in a solitary setting, as were TVs. But no calls, computers or pens — only pen refills — were permitted.

Endless solitary confinement is known to drive some people crazy. But the practice of leaving people in the SHU indefinitely wouldn’t be outlawed until 2015, and only after thousands of prisoners, including McCarthy, stopped eating for weeks in protest.


“Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.”

I began taking college courses in 2007 while in Solitary Confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) suspended college programs for inmates in solitary confinement in 2008. I was unable to take courses again until 2015. (The California prison system denies ever suspending correspondence courses.)

“Additional comments?”

I grew up in a volatile home. I love my parents very much, but our home was not a healthy environment. … Our home could be loving one minute and abusive the next. When I was 13, my father left my mother for the cheer coach of my football team. … She sent me to live with him. He was often gone … I felt lonely and abandoned.


McCarthy’s upbringing in El Toro (Orange County) prepared him less for the lecture hall than for the streets. The young addict joined a gang at 16 and spent the rest of his teens in the custody of the California Youth Authority, fighting, escaping and being returned, often to solitary. Nights were cold in the now-shuttered Preston School of Industry in Amador County, where pajamas were outlawed.

“They left you in boxers and socks because they were afraid of suicides,” McCarthy said.

Yet there he earned his GED and, released at 20, enrolled at Orange Coast Community College.

At UC Berkeley’s Stiles Hall, senior Kevin McCarthy scrolls through letters he has sent back to incarcerated people, on Monday, June 28, 2021. McCarthy, who spent 14 years in prison and more than nine in solitary confinement, is the school’s first student to be admitted while incarcerated. He is a part of UC Berkley’s Underground Scholars initiative, which helps build a prison-to-university pipeline and help incarcerated and formally incarcerated people navigate their education.
At UC Berkeley’s Stiles Hall, senior Kevin McCarthy scrolls through letters he has sent back to incarcerated people, on Monday, June 28, 2021. McCarthy, who spent 14 years in prison and more than nine in solitary confinement, is the school’s first student to be admitted while incarcerated. He is a part of UC Berkley’s Underground Scholars initiative, which helps build a prison-to-university pipeline and help incarcerated and formally incarcerated people navigate their education.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

The lure of drugs and the street quickly outweighed the classroom’s charms. He stabbed a man and spent a year in county jail. He broke probation, used heroin, sold it, cycling in and out of jail.

The pattern ended in a Santa Ana junkyard on July 22, 2003. A dealer who McCarthy forced to sell drugs for him was drunk and aggressive. McCarthy, in his drugged state, pulled a .22, thinking that would calm things.

The man lunged for the gun. McCarthy pulled the trigger, hitting him in the belly.

McCarthy was arrested two days later.


“Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major.”

I’ve been in prison for 14 years, nine in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, Security Housing Unit. My intended major is legal studies, criminology, disciplines which will prepare me for law school and give me the knowledge and skills to fight for the rights of underprivileged and disenfranchised people.


By the time McCarthy walked into Pelican Bay’s SHU in 2006, he had been clean of heroin for nearly two years. He began ordering books from a catalog.

“Maybe I’d read about negotiations, strategy and tactics. Another time about feudal Japan,” he recalled.

He wasn’t the only one in the SHU to harbor intellectual curiosity.

Each isolation cell at Pelican Bay had a small vent near the ceiling. Although prisoners in solitary couldn’t see each other, they could yell from beneath the vent — or stand on the sink and speak into it — so those in the three other cells connected to the air shaft could hear.

It was how they played chess, calling out moves. And it was how McCarthy tutored prisoners in math and English to help them get their GEDs. Eventually, he hit on the idea of teaching his unseen neighbors Spanish, which he’d picked up on the streets from young outlaws who dressed and spoke in a unique, unapologetic style that attracted the lonely kid.

“I would not pass up any opportunity to practice Spanish,” he said. “It was romantic.”

Now, in the SHU, McCarthy wrote lesson plans for two other men. Allowed only the pen refill to write with, he wrapped the skinny object in paper soaked in soap. It dried hard, making the pen easier to hold. Then he slipped his Spanish lessons and quizzes under his students’ cell doors as he walked by.

Kevin McCarthy, 41, , a senior, attends class in Durant Hall at UC Berkeley on Friday, October 29, 2021. McCarthy was the first UC Berkeley student admitted while still incarcerated.
Kevin McCarthy, 41, , a senior, attends class in Durant Hall at UC Berkeley on Friday, October 29, 2021. McCarthy was the first UC Berkeley student admitted while still incarcerated.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

In 2009, a review board denied McCarthy’s request to exit solitary, on grounds that his name appeared on the back of a gang member’s business card. He was denied again the following year when prison officials said he was listed on a “gang roster.”

“I was furious,” McCarthy said, denying affiliation with any gang.

He began to realize that learning a language mattered less than learning how to get out of solitary — and how to seek justice while still there.

He discovered that a prisoner named J.R. had filed lawsuits on his own behalf. Housed in the cell below and to the right of McCarthy, J.R. was not part of the vent communication system. So one day, McCarthy put his mouth to the 3-inch gap beneath his grated metal door and called: “J.R., man! They’re holding me on some bogus stuff! I want to take it to court! Can you teach me how?”

In a painstaking back and forth, they slipped each other notes or yelled questions and answers. J.R. shared his self-help legal book, and McCarthy read case after case until he grew into a “jailhouse lawyer,” a prisoner who knew the law better than many attorneys.

Such prisoners are “like encyclopedias,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, a law school graduate who, in 2012, was on a campaign to help end long-term solitary confinement. She met McCarthy at Pelican Bay.

McCarthy began helping other prisoners with administrative appeals, which got them hearings before a judge. He examined depositions for inconsistencies, and wrote a civil rights complaint. He filed at least 30 legal challenges and won a new sentencing hearing for a prisoner given life without parole as a juvenile. His proudest moment, he said, was winning the release of an inmate from solitary. And he got 2½ years shaved off his own sentence after uncovering technical errors made in calculating it.

Helping fellow prisoners untangle their legal woes “felt like a puzzle,” he said. “A challenge that I loved.”

Sometimes the challenge demanded more. McCarthy quit eating for 20 days in the summer of 2011, and for 17 days that fall, after prisoners organized a hunger strike to protest indefinite solitary. Thousands joined in across the state. Two years later, he and 29,000 prisoners struck again, rejecting food for two months.

California virtually ended its practice of indefinite solitary confinement in 2015, following the coordinated hunger strikes and a legal settlement in Ashker vs. California.

After nearly nine years, prison officials released McCarthy from solitary on April 2, 2015.

He was moved to Calipatria State Prison at the other end of the state, in Imperial County. The bus ride took him through redwoods, a riot of color to eyes accustomed only to gray. San Francisco seemed to float on water, its skyline majestic.

“I told myself, some way I’ll get back here,” he said.

At Calipatria, McCarthy completed a paralegal course. He chaired a weekly meeting of Narcotics Anonymous. He enrolled in Coastline Community College.

He was working toward an associate degree when his cellmate received a pamphlet about Underground Scholars at UC Berkeley, a program for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.

“My cellmate was not interested,” McCarthy said. “I was.”

Prison reform lawyers Carol Strickman and Carole Travis had encouraged him to study law when he got out — at UC Berkeley.

“Their belief in me made me believe in myself,” he said. “So I started putting that in my mind. I want to go to Cal, and go to law school.”

He wrote to the Underground Scholars and received a list of majors and requirements. An associate degree would not be enough, he learned. He would need classes transferable to UC Berkeley.

McCarthy gazed at the list in amazement. “I was like, this is the blueprint!”

He set about fulfilling requirements for a legal studies major — but no community college offered all the classes. He took Spanish from Coastline, composition from Lassen, and a science lab via Feather River. It took five semesters, including summers, to complete them using pen, paper and snail mail.

He graduated in 2016 with an associate degree in sociology and American studies, and plenty of transferable credits.

But when he requested an application from UC Berkeley, he found that paper versions no longer existed. So attorney Travis and her friend Ilene Abrams, a former college counselor at Berkeley High, submitted his application for him online.

And he worried: How could others apply?


“What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?”

I encourage other inmates to abandon a life of crime. I must find ways to do that so gangs won’t interpret it as threatening. I encourage them to forgive. … Too often people think of courage in terms of not backing down from a fight. I believe that it takes courage to apologize or admit a wrong. I encourage them to not let their anger lead them into self-destruction.


McCarthy applied to five UCs and five California State University campuses. Travis and Abrams set up an email account, and as acceptances rolled in in April 2017 — from San Francisco State and UC Riverside, Merced and Santa Cruz — they messaged the news to McCarthy’s father, Robert, who relayed it to his son.

“Congratulations!” his father said one day on a call to Pleasant Valley Prison in Fresno County, where McCarthy had been transferred. McCarthy said he’d already heard about getting into UC Irvine.

No, his dad said. “You got into Berkeley.”

“I just started crying,” McCarthy said. “I couldn’t believe I pulled it off.”

Henry Tsai, UC Berkeley’s assistant director of undergraduate admissions, said past crimes are no deal-breaker. On the contrary, he said, “we look for things that stand out in a student. Kevin has helped dismantle the idea that it’s impossible for a lot of prisoners to go any further in life. He set up other students to succeed.

“I don’t know what more you can ask for in a human being.”

McCarthy’s scheduled release date was Aug. 20, 2020 — more than three years away. That would be just six days before classes started, hardly enough time to get ready. He had barely used a computer. He didn’t know what a pdf was. And he would have nowhere to live. So he planned to defer entry for another half year.

Then the pandemic arrived in spring 2020, and with it a faint silver lining. Prisoners with less than six months’ time left were being released. Paroled on July 24, 2020, McCarthy enrolled at UC Berkeley a month later. For the first time in years, housing around campus was plentiful.

When they were young and did wrong, people like McCarthy “were punished severely. They were criminalized,” said Zohrabi, the law school graduate who met him in Pelican Bay. Kids were labeled gang members and added to gang databases, so any interaction with law enforcement meant “they were viewed and treated as gang members — and not as young people who needed to be supported.”

Today, Zohrabi runs Underground Scholars at UC Berkeley, which works with more than 100 students. McCarthy is on the staff, and recently helped two more prisoners enroll at UC Berkeley. He and Zohrabi have met twice with UC officials to persuade them, unsuccessfully so far, to offer paper applications for prisoners.

McCarthy also works with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. He wrote a UCLA Law Review article in May challenging prison policies that he argues lead to violence, and has sued the state to end them.

“I love Kevin!” said Romarilyn Ralston, who served 23 years of a life sentence before being paroled and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She and McCarthy advocated this fall for the passage of SB416, the college mandate for prisons.

As program director of Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, Ralston has a view of something few people ever see.

“I see lives change, and I see generational trauma and poverty reduced,” she said. “And I see the transformative power of higher education.”


“Additional comments?”

I deeply regret shooting another human being (thank God the man did not die).


McCarthy credits his study of law in prison with helping him think methodically and “be part of the democratic political process.”

But he believes practicing generosity is what saved his life.

“When I supported others, I felt like I was answering a calling. I was developing a new identity and shedding an old one,” he said in his application.

“I grew, matured and became a person of empathy and kindness.”

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

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