Escape from ‘The Devil’s Playground’


(l-r) Ryan “Flaco” Rising, Maria Elena Morales, Kenneth Cochran, Cesar Garcia and Patrick Wallace share stories of redemption, perseverance, and rebirth as they move from incarceration to education and into success as free citizens. Photo by Natalie Mosqueda.

Marilena Morales locked herself in the bathroom of an abandoned house with a razor against her wrist, threatening suicide as her husband pounded desperately on the door.

He encouraged her to do it.

“I was in the way of him getting high,” Morales said.

Addicted to drugs and squatting in an empty, dilapidated house, Morales was not aware as she looked into the filthy, cracked mirror that this was her rock bottom.

She made it back from the brink. Most do not.

Morales is the co-founder and president of Urban Scholars Union, a support group focused on easing the transition from incarceration to education. Morales, co-founder Ryan “Flaco” Rising and three USU members were invited by Professor Kathy Parrish and Director of Staff Development Janelle Williams to share personal testimonies. They spoke on how pursuing education has helped defy the notorious school-to-prison pipeline.

Rising’s charisma contradicted the bleak testimony he shared of being in and out of lockup since age 11. A life of gang violence led him to maximum security at Folsom State Prison, which Riser called “The Devil’s Playground.” Rising joked about having a unique form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following his release from Folsom, which he called Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder.

USU provides essential support, he said.

“It gives us a blueprint to not go back to prison,” he said. “Urban Scholars Union saved my life.”

Weekly meetings center on moral and financial support. Members discuss the struggles to finding a post-prison identity, staying out of prison and defying stigmas attached to the formerly incarcerated. Participants work to reclaim their personal narratives and capitalize on their second chances.

Panelist Kenneth Cochran said he did not know how to handle going from a 6’x9’ cell to a classroom. He, like most former inmates, received no transitional support.

“This system is geared for you to fail,” he said.

Ex-prisoner Steven Czifra, now attending UC Berkeley, agreed.

“People with convictions don’t get to be professionals,” Czifra said. “We get no support with our education. Cops say, ‘Fuck that. I have to pay for my kids to go to college. I’m not paying for these dirtbags.’”

Czifra is co-founder of Underground Scholars Initiative, a support group for Berkeley students affected by incarceration. Czifra spent 16 years in prison, eight in solitary confinement. He is now a prominent activist, speaking out against mass incarceration, solitary confinement and the denial of meaningful education.

Rising said he contacted Czifra near the end of his sentence after hearing about USI, eager to start a similar group upon his release. With the help from Morales, the Urban Scholars Union was born.

“My experience has only been a liability and I was going to use it to benefit people,” Czifra said.

Members of Urban Scholars Union share the same sentiment, Morales said.

“The hustle I had on the street, I now use with the (activism) work I do,” she said. “I know how to manipulate the system and I do it well.”

Not everyone surrounding the members of Urban Scholars Union are supportive, despite their motivation and chipper spirits. Some instructors at San Diego City College ridiculed the former prisoners for their lack of computer knowledge, Cochran said. One said he could see the fear in the eyes of classmates when they learn there is a convicted felon in the room.

Panelist Patrick Wallace said even family members can join the ridicule. Upon his release, he said, one relative teased that they had better not drop the soap in front of him.

Parrish said USU members were courageous to share their testimonies at SWC. Riser said USU aims to branch out from City College and SWC, to create a network for those affected by imprisonment in San Diego County.

“This incarceration monster is not going away,” said Riser. “We need to get back into the business of making people, not breaking people.”


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