When Steven Czifra (MSW ’20) arrived on the Berkeley campus, his humble intent was to earn his BA in English — a goal he met in 2015 — and continue on to a doctoral program in the same field. “My whole plan,” he says, “was to get through here without being noticed.”
That bid for anonymity changed, however, when Czifra met fellow undergraduate Danny Murillo. The two were both formerly incarcerated students who served sentences in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU), more popularly known as solitary confinement. Czifra spent a total of eight years in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison; the first of his two four-year terms beginning when he was just 17 years old.
On July 8, 2013 the California Prison Hunger Strike was initiated. Organized by long-term inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU, the hunger strike became the largest in the state’s history and lasted 60 days, with many of the participants fasting the entire two months. Czifra was invited by Murillo and other campus activists to join in demonstrations of solidarity. It was during this time that Czifra says he contemplated his relationship with the past — “Is it going to be a dirty secret or is it going to be an asset?”
“Danny was always open about his story, and I wasn’t,” he says. “I took strength from Danny’s example.”
Czifra’s press advocacy on behalf of the currently and formerly incarcerated first began with the Daily Cal, which published a student profile piece in July 2013. Since then, his story has been picked up in national and global media outlets, ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Los Angeles Times to MSNBC to GQ Magazine to the Guardian. The most recent coverage was a high-profile interview for CBS’ 60 Minutes.
He and Murillo are among the founders of the Berkeley Underground Scholars (BUS), a campus-based initiative that “creates a pathway for formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals into higher education.” In 2016, the two were also selected for the Open Society Foundations’ prestigious Soros Justice Fellows program, which supports community leaders seeking to “challenge long-standing assumptions underlying the US criminal justice system.”
Following his graduation, Czifra was serving as BUS director when fellow organizer and former Ella Baker for Human Rights National Campaigner Azadeh Zohrabi, a 2012 Soros Justice Fellow, urged him to apply for the fellowship. As part of the program, Czifra focused on creating a pathway to universities for formerly incarcerated community college students. In conjunction with school administrators, faculty and legislators, he worked to identify and ameliorate barriers to matriculation. “Sometimes that work involved simply getting a person a book they didn’t have,” he says.
Czifra conveyed to a mentor that this was the type of work he wanted to do permanently. “That’s social work,” his mentor replied. “You should look at getting an MSW.”
Czifra was familiar with Berkeley Social Welfare from his time on campus. In addition to knowing people enrolled in the program, he had met Professor Kurt Organista, who served as faculty advisor on the BUS board. Czifra reached out to Dr. Organista to get a sense of his prospects for the MSW program. “He was encouraging,” says Czifra. “That’s really a big deal because it’s hard to imagine success. I wouldn’t have put in an MSW application if it wasn’t for Kurt.”
Another deciding factor, Czifra shares, was that “Erin Kerrison is here.” Dr. Kerrison, whose research investigates how compounded structural disadvantage, poverty and state supervision affect health outcomes for those touched by criminal justice intervention, joined the Berkeley Social Welfare faculty as assistant professor in 2016. “When I wanted to do a paper on incarceration and policy, it wasn’t even one of the options [for the course], but she didn’t blink; she just gave me a different reading,” says Czifra.
Now in the midst of his first year as an MSW student in the Community Mental Health concentration, Czifra’s outspokenness and efforts to shed light on the prison industrial complex show no signs of slowing down — even as he is often disappointed that the spotlight is not where it needs to be. He cites as an example his and Danny Murillo’s recent appearance on 60 Minutes, in which he was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey for the news story, “Reforming Solitary Confinement at Infamous California Prison.” “I believe [there] was the intention of being justice-promoting, but they didn’t tell what really happened,” he says. “The real story was the historic hunger strike and the will of the human spirit — people willing to organize and put their lives on the line.
“The Department of Corrections, one of the most heavily invested and enfranchised institutions in California, was brought to its knees by a few dozen prisoners and a handful of indigent family members [protesting by] driving up and down the state with sticks and cardboard,” he says, referring to what eventually became the state’s termination of indeterminate solitary confinement as well as the significant reduction of individuals held in the SHU. “That was the story.”
Czifra observes, too, that the televised news program never referred to him or Murillo as “formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley students” or “Underground Scholars.” “There are two million people in prison; hundreds of thousands of them could have seen us as Berkeley students and drawn hope from that,” he says. “All they were shown were ‘former prisoners.’”
As a critic of powerful, influential systems and institutions, Czifra is not letting the academy off the hook, either. The privileges and conflicting values of the ivory tower ultimately factored into his decision against pursuing a career as an English literature professor. He also is extremely cognizant of the issues he sees closer to his current scholarly home. “Here in California we put troubled children in cages, and the School of Social Welfare is not outraged by that,” he says. “There should be a wing [training] activists and social workers to engage in changing perceptions about penal transgressions at the site of a juvenile mind and body — and that’s not happening.”
But Czifra says he is here — and proactively refers formerly incarcerated peers to the MSW information workshops and to apply for admissions — because he feels the School is “moving in the right direction.” Moreover, his wife Sylvia is planning to earn her undergraduate and MSW degrees at Berkeley. (Their oldest son, Shane, though still in elementary school, has let them know he is going to be a social worker as well.)
“What I see is Erin Kerrison and Kurt Organista and [Assistant Professor] Tina Sacks [whose research examines racial inequities in health and healthcare],” says Czifra. “We have [PhD student] Katie [Savin, whose research interests includes critical social theories in examining institutional (mis)trust] here. We have people who are acutely aware of incarceration and the effects it has on communities of color.” Noting that it is a first step to “hear it in the rhetoric,” Czifra is pushing for the institution to move faster in making these reforms — and those advocacy skills and sense of urgency, after all, are the qualities that Berkeley Social Welfare wants to instill in future social work leaders.
The campus is also where Czifra began to re-examine his understanding of the prison system he had known so well as an insider. “When I got to Berkeley, I did a reading group on prisons [and read] all these [critical resistance] theorists — Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Sharon Dolovich, Michelle Alexander,” he says. “I read about structural racism and policing…and I had always wondered why White people were outnumbered eight-to-one in prisons. There were people in the SHU because they were Mexican or Black.
“It’s like solitary confinement — once you know, you can’t unknow. Just like locking kids in prison. You cannot go to a single child locked up in any cage in California and not find trauma, neglect or sexual abuse.
“So I’m going to get my LCSW. I’m going to intervene,” says Czifra. “I’m going to go before the court and tell judges, ‘This person you’re about to give a 20-year sentence to saw their mother hooked on crack. They watched their dad kill their uncle.’
“But I will also be saying, ‘This person is smart. We can get them into Cal.’”