Graduating from Berkeley, after prison: "Coronavirus disrupted everything in my life"

It was "Berkeley or bust" for Hanima after she was paroled. Now she's caregiving from afar, waiting for what's next

Published August 1, 2020 6:30PM (EDT)

House plants, with a medical mask hanging off the stem (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
House plants, with a medical mask hanging off the stem (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

This is an excerpt from the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness. Interview and editing by Ela Banerjee and Cliff Mayotte.

Hanima Eugene, 42, is a graduating college senior at UC Berkeley and a coordinator for the Underground Scholars Initiative, a student organization on the Berkeley campus that focuses on recruitment, retention, and advocacy for formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals. Note: Hanima's name was changed to protect her identity.

* * * 

I'm sitting at my desk. I'm looking at my computer screen and my cat, Isis, is sitting over to my right on her little pillow. And there are some plants. It's sunny, there are trees outside. It's airy and bright. My husband is normally here, but he's at work. He does construction, and all that work is continuing right now.

I'm born and raised in Oakland, California. And when I was younger, I went to schools in East Oakland. During the summertime they had a math, engineering and science program, which was held at UC Berkeley. I remember going to that campus and I always said, "Hey, when I get older, this is the college that I want to go to." However, circumstances in my life led me to a violent domestic relationship and ultimately into prison for a term of 15 years to life. During that time I put my focus back on my education.

I earned my associate's degree through a community college that offers courses to a number of California state prisons. One of the professors, Dr. Joan Parkin, basically challenged me and a friend. She said, "It's Berkeley or bust." And we were looking at her and looking at each other like, "What is she talking about?" She knew that incarcerated students were going to school at UC Berkeley. We couldn't believe it. She said, "You could also have the opportunity to go to Berkeley if you get good grades." She gave us a road map on what classes we needed to take, what we needed to do in order to get there. Three years later, I was up for parole.

And I made sure that I did all those things. So when I was released from prison in 2017, I immediately submitted my application to UC Berkeley and I was accepted.

I was sick on March 2, and there was notification that there was community spread in Solano County. I realized that COVID-19 was real. I don't get flu shots, and I normally don't suffer from the flu every year. But when I became sick for about seven days, I had all the symptoms. I had fever. I couldn't keep anything down for two days. I had chills and night sweats. I had a headache. I called Kaiser Health around day four and explained my symptoms. And the doctor was like, "It's just the flu." But I'm watching the news and I'm seeing all of this unfold. I also knew doctors didn't have tests and there was really nothing they could do. They told me, "Just stay home for two weeks. If it doesn't get better, contact us again." After that, there were signs of more people having infections or symptoms.

I'm a caregiver for my grandfather, who's 88 years old. I don't know if I had COVID-19 or not, but I'm mindful of my grandfather and other vulnerable people who are more susceptible. My grandfather has ADT security monitoring for his house. He lives about ten minutes away from me. Since the shelter-in-place orders, I use that to log in and make sure to see him. He sits in the same chair every day. So I can see, hey, he's up and moving around. Or my husband and I go over there. We don't enter his home but talk to him through the screen door, with our masks on. And he sits at the door and we talk. Just to check in and see if he needs anything: groceries, food, stamps, because he mails a lot of his bills. You know, making sure he's OK. Before all this, he was already kind of isolated. A few of his friends would normally come by and visit, but they can't do that anymore. So I know it's extremely hard for him right now. And making sure that he doesn't feel alone or he has somebody to talk to is important to me.

I do miss my peers at school and advocates that I work alongside. I miss creating and strategizing with them. USI is Underground Scholars Initiative, a student-run organization on the UC Berkeley campus that promotes educational opportunities and success for formerly and currently incarcerated students. Imprisonment is glamorized in the U.S. All the TV, reality shows, music, provide a false narrative of what it means to be incarcerated. This is reflected during this pandemic when people on the news are talking about "lockdowns," "get out of jail free cards," "isolation," and "enforcement." This type of language forces me to reflect on the way society has interpreted the very harsh realities of prison life.

USI has been a bedrock for me these last two years. I feel like people understand me because a lot of times sitting in the classroom, I'm looking around for other faces that look like me and there aren't a lot. But being a member of USI dispels that feeling of being alone and lets me know, "Hey, I'm also supposed to be here on this campus."

Because this is my last year, my senior year, we would've been planning for graduation. This has been my best semester there. I was able to be on campus and network and really absorb what I've been learning without having to juggle a full-time job in addition to a full-time course load, and then this hit. It threw me for a loop mentally.

I fear our economy is going to be a lot worse off. I'm thinking about people like me who are graduating this year and what the employment field will look like after this. I have a feeling it's going to be really competitive. A lot of people are going to be looking for jobs, and I just have a lot of worry.

Before coronavirus, my typical day varied throughout the week. I had classes in the morning on campus. Then, from 1 to 2 p.m. I'd have another meeting. From 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., I go to the USI office, see if there are any letters from students who are incarcerated and need assistance. I help them with transcript analysis and data. And then, I have another class. After five o'clock, I'm normally off campus and headed home. I start preparing dinner, getting laundry done, getting ready for the next day. Sometimes I'm participating on coalition calls up until at least eight. And then off to bed. Then I wake up and do it all over again.

Now with COVID-19 and shelter in place, nothing is typical. I get restless. I've lost motivation. The university grading system defaulted to a pass/no pass model. So basically it's extremely hard for a person to not pass a course right now. You have to really be trying to not pass and that makes it easier for students to relax their studying habits. I'm like, this is my last year, I need to absorb everything that I can. So I'm trying to remain motivated when others around me are like, "Screw it," you know?

Yesterday I went out and purchased some plants and began rearranging, decorating and cleaning my home. Putting some love into it. My plan is to work with incarcerated women, doing research on law and social factors, especially California murder and domestic violence laws that remain on the books and denote women as property. There are a lot of criminalized survivors in prison, so I want to collaborate with those women to perform research to create reports and develop some policy recommendations to support and help free them. My main concern is what the country will look like in the next couple months. I thought I had everything planned out. I was going to graduate; I had interviews scheduled. I thought I had it pretty mapped out so I could transition back into full-time employment. But coronavirus disrupted everything in my life.

We're in a moment where, you know, everybody needs help in some way. And how do we, with so many people needing help, prioritize? Folks can help by not forgetting that formerly incarcerated people are struggling and also have additional barriers.

During my incarceration, I found that people often forget, or fail to prioritize, people or things that are not part of their daily interactions. Therefore, speaking these "invisible" communities and people into spaces is a way of prioritizing them.

By Hanima Eugene

Hanima's name was changed to protect her identity.

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