Scholars for Justice ignites dialogue about mass incarceration with mock prison trailer


Members of Scholars for Justice, a student club for formerly incarcerated students. (Photo courtesy of Scholars for Justice).

Kat Uher, Staff member

Scholars for Justice, a club that supports formerly incarcerated students, invited Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, a youth violence prevention non-profit that helps reform prison policies, to haul in a mock prison trailer last week on Nov. 14 at Diablo Valley College. The prison trailer stood in the DVC commons and was used so students can learn what life is like inside a prison. 

Daniel Nebout, a member and leader of Scholars for Justice, helped prepare the trailer.

“I have a mutual friend whose cousin runs Barrios Unidos,” he said. “He’s coming out and spreading awareness to spark student discussion about prison reform and the cost and realities of mass incarceration. Imagine going from a prison yard to a school setting – that’s just a big transition right there.”

Robert Solis, the tour guide, gave a lecture to DVC students, one group at a time, as they squeezed into the cramped space inside the mock prison.

Solis stated that prisoners are surrounded by concrete everywhere. As they’re escorted outside in cuffs – even more concrete and prison bars surround them.

Inside the prison trailer sat a dummy of a prisoner. According to the guide, when prisoners get into altercations, the individual is put into a box for “therapeutic reasons” – something that Solis noted with irony.

“There’s nothing therapeutic about this,” he said, pointing to a caged box barely the size of a telephone booth. “It is torture, and if you’re a minority, white people spit on you more.”

Nebout explained that while he was promoting student discussion, there was a difference between empathy and sympathy, where he was trying to promote the former and not merely pity.

“We want to get rid of the stigma for former prisoners so that those they don’t automatically come across as bad people.” he said.

Although some students relate to the experience based on knowing a loved one in prison, Robin Sierra, DVC student, said it was a requirement for her to visit the event during class as they were studying mass incarceration.

She was interested about the topic and found the tour fascinating.  

“I don’t think the prison system is an effective way to treat crime,” she said. “I think it’s more of a punishment rather than a rehabilitation system. That needs to be reformed.”

She believed a better alternative would be rehabilitation, which would focus more on health and getting to the root of the issue rather than outright punishing prisoners and then releasing them without any job prospects.

In the case of repeat offenders, she said the prison pipelines make sure that people go back to prison, because those with a felony charge are allowed to be denied jobs, school loans, and basic rights.

“With the current prison system, that isn’t justified,” she said.

Nebout hopes this event will reach out to more people at DVC who have been affected by the prison system. For instance, he came across someone on campus he did time with. Nebout saw a spark in his companion’s eyes when he introduced the idea of school to him.

“I think that if they feel welcomed, their likelihood to stick to school is higher,” he said.

Nebout, who was formerly incarcerated, came out as proof that his support group can be great help with school experience. His turning point in helping combat drug addiction was attending school and knowing that he could focus in personal goals for himself. He stated that’s how incarcerated people get a second chance to come clean: through a support system that is willing to reach out to those who want to change their lives.

“Just even showing up to school was a hard feat in itself just because of certain social anxieties,” he said. “But for me, that was a healthy turning point.”