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UC Davis receives state funding to expand services for formerly incarcerated students

By Maricela De La Cruz

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    DAVIS, California (KCRA) — It’s been a long road to higher education for Laurin Williams after incarceration. Williams spent roughly a month in a county jail for involuntary vehicular manslaughter. But those 28 days were enough to keep her homeless for 20 years.

“It was very hard to try to reenter society,” Williams told KCRA 3. “It’s almost like you go through double jeopardy. You go to jail. They say you’re repaying your debt to society and then you get out and everyone punishes you for ever having a mistake.”

She’s now one year away from graduating and says that her accomplishments and drastic life update are in part, thanks to the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC Davis.

The Underground Scholars Initiative was recently funded with $490,000 annually by the state to support higher education for formerly incarcerated students and those directly impacted by the criminal justice system.

Today, she’s one of 21 UC Davis students turning their lives around through the Underground Scholars Initiative, which is designed to help formerly incarcerated students and others directly impacted by the justice system.

The program is being led by Gunner Johnson, who knows first-hand the challenges that individuals and families face.

“[It’s] a peer support model, meaning those like myself that are formerly incarcerated help others navigate reentry in the university system. We use our own experience to give back,” Johnson said.

While the program was created in 2019 at UC Davis, a lack of funding made it impossible to help students with needs such as housing, internships, and research grants – a possibility now.

Johnson’s efforts have been noticed outside of California. In Oregon, where he served 18 years in federal prison, the University of Portland has implemented a similar program. Johnson is also hosting educational presentations at four California state prisons.

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