During the years most young adults spend completing college, UC Berkeley student Steven Czifra was serving a four-year sentence in solitary confinement.
By all accounts, Czifra had a rough childhood. Born into a family of addicts, he was smoking crack at age 9, in juvenile hall at age 13 and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison at age 14.
Now, as a 38-year-old transfer and re-entry student of English literature at UC Berkeley, Czifra has become an advocate for California state prison reform, protesting the use of solitary confinement. Most recently, he went on a hunger strike in solidarity with inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison, in which thousands of prisoners have been on hunger strike for 21 days as of Sunday.
In total, Czifra has spent eight years of his life in solitary confinement. When Czifra was 17 and serving a prison sentence for carjacking, he says he was found guilty of initiating a prison fight, which landed him a four-year term in solitary confinement. When he was 24, he says he took a plea bargain for another four years in solitary confinement after being found guilty of spitting on an officer and in violation of California’s three-strikes law.
While he was imprisoned at a Secure Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, Czifra spent 22 and a half hours in his cell each day and was only allowed 90 minutes outside of his cell, which he would spend alone in a concrete, windowless pen. Czifra continues to suffer from severe anxiety and insomnia as a result.
“You take a person, you put them in a box, you don’t let them see the sun for eight years, you don’t let them talk to anybody or have fun,” Czifra said. “You don’t let them eat or make mistakes. The fact that I’m not a raving lunatic is a miracle.”
A few years after being released from prison in 2003, Czifra enrolled in a 12-step program, where he met his partner of seven years, Sylvia Garcia. Czifra began working odd jobs but found that they did not fulfill his academic ambitions.
“I owned a tree-trimming business, I was driving a tow-truck, I was swinging a hammer,” Czifra said, “and the entire time, I knew that I had other gifts that were being underused.”
Czifra originally received his GED in prison because of the promise of getting coffee and cookies in the prison quad. In his early 30s, he failed community college twice. The third time around, at the age of 34, he received straight A’s, helping him gain admission to UC Berkeley.
Today, Czifra lives in Albany with his partner and his 6-year-old son, Shane, whom he lovingly calls “the most incredible human being” he has ever met.
On an average sunny Tuesday afternoon, Czifra and his son spend the day bowling, playing with Legos and making lunch. Afterward, Czifra heads to his afternoon classes and does his homework for a few hours before having dinner with his family.
“If I could use one word to describe our family life, it would be ‘peaceful,’” Czifra said.
Despite the joys that come with pursuing an education and having a fulfilling family life, Czifra still faces the lasting psychological effects of spending eight years detached from human interaction.
“The dominating theme of my life is overcoming anxiety,” Czifra said. “Unless I stop and think everything through, my life is an earthquake. I was by myself during the time when I learned how to be with other people … when my emotional and mental systems were forming.”
Czifra was introduced to the prison hunger strike movement by his friend and UC Berkeley peer Danny Murillo, who was also kept in solitary confinement.
In recent weeks, Czifra, Murillo and other members of the campus organization Human Rights of the Incarcerated at Cal have been holding demonstrations in support of the statewide Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, which began in Pelican Bay State Prison on July 8. Last Monday, Billy “Guero” Sell, a state prison inmate who had participated in the hunger strike, committed suicide after allegedly being denied medical attention.
Leaders of the movement are demanding that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation comply with core demands, which include ending group punishment, changing policies that force prisoners to snitch on gang members and expanding privileges for inmates in solitary confinement.
“The reason why I’m in this movement is that I’m in California and I care about my community, and this isn’t happening in Palestine or North Korea,” Czifra said. “This is happening here.”
A scholarly take on prison reform
When speaking about how he spends his time at UC Berkeley, Czifra says he is thankful that he is in a place that allows him to combine his activism for prison reform with his academic scholarship.
Last fall, Czifra began attending a prison studies independent reading group taught by UC Berkeley academics in the ethnic studies and gender and women’s studies departments. There, Czifra explored the intellectual meaning behind mass incarceration in society.
Patricia Penn Hilden, professor emeritus of ethnic studies, developed a bond with Czifra during the class and began meeting with him independently to discuss literature.
“I introduced him to my husband, who is a professor of comparative literature, and they talk about Descartes once a week,” Hilden said.
Czifra said that he read the classics while incarcerated but was unable to apply the knowledge he gained in a prison setting. Now, he is able to articulate his ideas with people from all backgrounds — both within and outside of the prison system.
“There’s nothing he likes more than diving headfirst deep into the pool of the literature,” said Victoria Robinson, a lecturer on campus in the ethnic studies and gender and women’s studies departments. “It is probably the thing that got him through his years in prison and solitary confinement.”
Czifra says that when he first started college, he wanted to teach inmates literature after graduating, but now, he says he is considering other careers, ranging from being a lawyer to a professor of literature. After an unexpected journey from solitary confinement to UC Berkeley, Czifra says he’s certainly not afraid of taking a chance.