My name is Steven Czifra, and I am a formerly incarcerated person who spent time in the both Pelican Bay, and the Corcoran SHUs. As a former SHU inmate I think it is important that I write a response to Jeffrey Beard’s piece in re: the prisoner hunger strike, and give the public a different perspective. I do not have a stake in this issue, except to see the practice of long-term solitary confinement cease to be an accepted practice in California.
The thrust of the CDCR’s stance on solitary-confinement is that those who are refusing food are either Machiavellian-style manipulators, or weak patsies starving themselves out of fear, yet the CDC is allowing harm to come to people they have identified as victims by allowing the strike to continue. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I am being trained to think critically, and when I apply these critical thinking skills to the CDCR’s stance, it doesn’t add up. To put it plainly, the CDCR says it is keeping gangsters in the SHU to inhibit their ability to threaten other inmates, yet inmates are starving themselves because they are scared of retaliation by prison gangsters. I can attest that not all those who have refused food to protest conditions in the SHU have done so out of fear of prisoner retaliation. I have personally fasted along with other Cal students, none of us having anything to gain, except to see the CDCR treat prisoners humanely.
Beard’s illustration makes the SHU seem like quite the wonderful place to spend one’s time, should a person find themselves incarcerated in the CDCR. Television, education (untrue), recreation (alone, in a small windowless pen), skylights in the cells (ridiculously untrue), with outfacing windows (opaqued with paint), and even a buddy to pass the time playing cards (double-celling of some people is evidence that the CDCR is keeping individuals in solitary who they have deemed to be “safe” to socialize) and cheering each other up! While it is true that an inmate who has resources can purchase a television, the fact is that sitting alone in front of one is a small consolation for a person who has no chance of leaving their cell to see and interact with real people for the remainder of their lives. While I was in the SHU I had a television, which I rarely watched. My decision to not watch television was intentional. I knew if I was going to salvage my ability to function intellectually and emotionally in the free world I would have to deny myself the urge to waste away in front of the television Still, having a television is better than not having one. Only some prisoners have the resources to afford a television, or a radio. As I could afford books, I chose to read instead. This was one of the factors that lead to my eventual admission to Berkeley. It wasn’t until I paroled, and enrolled in college as a free man that I acquired an education. Many people in the SHU do not have the ability to read due to illiteracy, and learning disabilities, (as well as problems with cognition, and vision, known to be caused by solitary-confinement) which precludes the opportunity to learn. There is simply no out of cell programming in the SHU. Some people can pay for in-cell correspondence courses, and have the ability to comprehend college material without instruction. They are the few. The CDCR’s use of rare scenarios as part of his paltry excuse for torturing people with endless isolation only speaks to what the SHU is about. Beard stated that he is “concerned about the toll this hunger strike is taking on…the inmates and their families.” The SHU tears families apart, denying prisoners contact with their families, phone calls, and mail, some for decades. The CDCR has an obligation to actually care for the people in its custody, rather than limit its actions to rhetoric. California remands people to the custody of the CDCR with the expectation that it would treat them humanely. In the spirit of that great responsibility the CDCR has to do more than explain why it is tormenting prisoners, and stonewalling this protest.