What’s notable about Steven Czifra isn’t that he was in prison for nearly two decades, or even that some years after his release he was accepted to UC Berkeley despite initially dropping out of school in the fourth grade. Rather, it’s what he’s managed to do in response to these experiences that stands out. Since 2013, Czifra has become a recognized activist for the abolition of the prison system and co-founded a UC Berkeley student organization called the Underground Scholars Initiative. For this work, he has been recognized and in 2016 was awarded a prestigious Soros Foundation fellowship.
Early on in his time at Cal, Czifra wanted to “remain invisible,” in no way wanting to advertise that he’d spent nearly so much of his life in prison. He also felt out of place on campus due to his age and the stigma associated with being formerly incarcerated. It wasn’t until he met a fellow classmate with a similar incarceration experience, and was invited by him to a prison-themed reading group, that his desire for invisibility on campus began to change. In fact, what followed Czifra’s engagement with these newfound connections was his participation in student solidarity demonstrations with the California Prison Hunger Strike to protest solitary confinement.
“We found each other and were like, ‘Formerly Incarcerated!’”Czifra explained, making a high-five gesture. “All of a sudden, I’m walking through campus like, ‘Yeah baby. Formerly incarcerated. That’s right!’”
Czifra explained that this event and others like it led to the 2013 creation of the Underground Scholars Initiative, an organization that now helps formerly-incarcerated and systems-impacted students get into and succeed in university, especially Cal and the other UC campuses. He credits his transparency about his incarceration history, and the subsequent formation of the Underground Scholars Initiative, with the lifting of much of his internalized stigma around being in prison.
Czifra and I disagree on one important point: it’s my opinion that he is special, though he disagrees. To Czifra, “special” means having innate gifts that put one above the rest. The reason he gave me for not being special is that he is not, “gifted like Barack Obama,” or that he hasn’t yet written a book or learned to surf or play the guitar. Despite the challenges he’s overcome and the things he’s achieved, he doesn’t believe he has the kind of gifts that qualify a person as special.
Perhaps being “special” can be quantified in more implicit ways, though. What about having the bravery to take what could be construed as a shameful experience and become articulately open about it, using it to help others and turning it into a strength? What about taking full advantage of the intelligence and talent one does have? What about having the courage to name an ugly societal problem and having the drive to work for its resolution? What about the strength to do all of this, while working through the effects of trauma and the challenges of being in recovery? While it would seem that most people might allow themselves to succumb to their hardships and pain by turning away from the daunting road towards resolution and short-changing their full potential, Czifra remains on the front lines of advocating for the abolition of the prison system and the achievement potential of formerly incarcerated students.
You told the LA Times that prison gave you the gift of marveling at the ordinary. Can you say more about that?
I was in prison for a long time — 17 years — and a lot of that time, eight years, was in solitary confinement. Prison is first and foremost about scarcity, right? So, for those 17 years, maybe 10 days out of each one of those years, I wasn’t hungry. Safeway is one of my favorite places in the world.
When I was in prison…if you had a can of tuna and a bag of refried beans, you were a one percenter. You really were. Out of all of those 17 years I probably ate 10 cans of tuna and maybe 10 bags of refried beans. So, for me to walk into Safeway and go get some brown rice and some red meat and take it home and chop it up is unbelievable. I have never gotten tired of not being in prison. I have never gotten tired of being able to eat.
And being able to see leaves. Just imagine going 17 years without seeing a leaf. Or a piece of fruit hanging on a tree. Or a cat. Or a squirrel. Or a child—unless you get a visit—so that time of day, that witching hour, when the light is changing and the air, when you can smell oak leaves and dirt, the day changes…I marvel at the ordinary.
You’ve mentioned a love for learning. When did you realize you loved learning?
I always loved learning certain subjects. But for me, I went to school and it was really boring to be in the second, third, fourth grade because I pretty much knew what they were teaching the second it was presented. I wasn’t good at math. Math [was] very boring, uninspiring. I could do it well enough, if I tried…but I was reading books. I read a book in a day, when I was in the fourth grade. And then, when I went to prison, when I started doing time, I always made sure I had a book. If I didn’t have a book, I made their lives hell. So, I always had a book. Read the Bible five times, front to back, just because it’s a page turner. It’s like a horror movie; I love it. When I started doing solitary time, I started being intentional about learning, not just reading pulp novels. I started reading literature, history, philosophy, economics. I learned all about the stock market. I learned all about biology, physics.
I love physics. I’m so crazy about physics I think I missed my calling. Right now it’s quantum mechanics. There is no speed of light. There is no cosmic speed limit.
You said Shakespeare got you through prison?
I read every book in the unit … all that was left was this four-play book of Shakespeare, and it was like the big four: “Othello,” “Hamlet,”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Lear”… I started reading it and I was like, … This is impossible to read. But, it was all I had, and I had to read. I would kill myself if I didn’t have books. I’m not kidding. I’m not being outrageous. I will f*cking kill myself, if I don’t have books. And so I had to read it … and I realized what was going on. Once I realized how he was writing and how he was talking, the rhyme scheme, the iambic pentameter, I didn’t have any words for it. But, I was like, “Yeah, this is deep.”
You’ve talked in various articles about wanting to go through Cal being invisible. Now you are rather visible. What’s that like?
The only thing that’s changed in my life is not having the internalized stigma. Everything else is superficial.
I’m only known in a very small slice of the world to like activists and occasionally family members. I consider myself an abolitionist, because once you admit to yourself that incarceration and policing is part of an oppressive capitalist system that doesn’t make communities safer and is used as a mechanism for controlling people, to keep the wheels of commerce running, once you admit that, there’s a clear nexus between chattel slavery and modern imprisonment. Once you learn that and admit that’s what’s really going on…you have to be an abolitionist. You don’t have a choice.
People will often not admit that. “What are we going to do with the bad people?” [they ask]. That’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is ending systemic racism, policing and class oppression.
Joseph Brandt is one of my favorite thinkers and writers. He said, “I would rather be tortured by your worst torturer than spend a year in your jails.” Because he considers jail that undignified. It’s really dehumanizing to put somebody in a f*cking cage. And to act like it’s natural and good for the community, when we’ve known for 100 years that people who go to jail almost universally become more activated. Become more criminal. More marginalized. More oppressed. More desperate. Look at San Quentin in the 1960s and 1970s; it was all about rehabilitation, and it created one of the most dangerous, hellish environments on Earth. You can’t put people in prison and go, “Here’s all your book learning, here’s all your skills. Okay, now go be subhuman.” People demand their dignity.
How does your experience in solitary still affect you today?
The farther away from it I get, the more I can understand about it. At the time, it was very natural to be in solitary confinement; it was all I ever knew. I started going to solitary when I was 12 [years old] and I didn’t stop until I was 30. I got out when I was 30. I’m 43 now. I get to know myself, how I live and how other people live, and what normalcy looks like emotionally. Emotional and mental normalcy, I don’t have that. It doesn’t take much to trigger the trauma, the traumatic response that I have from solitary.
Being in a room by myself — it happened to me in my teens and in my early 20’s, really critical stages of my development — I’m never going to get over it. Initially, [my wife] couldn’t touch me … [besides on] my face, my neck, my arms, that was it. That was the only place she could ever touch me, for years. Now she can touch me all over and I’m okay. It hurt to be touched. It f*cking hurt. Physical pain. I thought that was what happened. But that’s superficial, believe it or not … quite literally because it’s on my skin.
But this sh*t is deep. Like I have these deep grooves, these really shorn up pathways in my brain that tell me I’m not going to be okay. Ever. If I don’t turn in my assignment on time, I’m going to die. I am just not okay.
Any last thoughts?
With my incarceration history and dropping out of school in the fourth grade—I want to work against the idea that children, no matter what they do, be held criminally culpable for anything … You cannot hold a child criminally culpable because children don’t raise themselves. If a child is a sociopathic monster or cut off from humanity, don’t tell me that you’re not going to be able to go into that child’s background and find that some part of the community, or his family, or some adult let him down. That person might be criminally culpable, but not the child … so, [advocating for criminally convicted children is] kind of my life’s dream and my life’s work.
At the top: Steven Czifra with a beloved progressive children’s book
Photo Credit: Jessika Duran