SACRAMENTO -- A few days stood between Steven Czifra being freed from Corcoran State Prison on parole when he threw a punch at another inmate.
Prison guards accused Czifra of inciting a race riot and ordered him to spend one year in the remote prison's secure housing unit. There, he would be confined to a cement cell with little natural light for most of the day.
Then he spit on a guard.
His new punishment: three additional years locked away alone for assaulting a corrections officer.
Czifra, 39, testified Wednesday during a hearing called by two Bay Area lawmakers to review the use of solitary confinement in the state's most secure prisons.
Over the summer, lawmakers promised to hold the hearing to end a 60-day hunger strike that inmates started in secure housing units at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Tehachapi and Sacramento state prisons to raise awareness about their living conditions.
Speaking through tears, Czifra called his years in a secure housing unit torture.
"When I walked into that torture chamber, I walked in a whole human being," said Czifra, who is now a student at UC Berkeley. "When I left, I was a deeply fractured human being."
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, are expected to introduce legislation early next year aimed at reducing solitary confinement in state prisons or possibly eliminating the practice. Ammiano said the large number of men and some women living in secure housing units for years at a time is "beyond the pale" and likened the living conditions to those at a zoo.
Currently, more than 4,000 inmates are being held in secure cells for most of the day at California prisons, said state Inspector General Robert Barton, whose office investigates complaints of abuse at prisons across the state.
Nearly a quarter of those inmates have been kept in isolation for more than five years, he said. Twenty three inmates have lived in secure housing units for more than 25 years.
Access to sunlight, time outside the cell and time outdoors varies by prison, and about half of inmates who live in secure units have cellmates, Barton said.
The inmates eat, sleep and receive therapy in their cells, which are about 75-85 square feet — the size of a small bathroom in some homes. Some cells have solid metal doors. Others have doors made of heavy wire mesh.
Though many speakers at the hearing said they opposed the use of solitary confinement, officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the practice of segregating some inmates from others is essential to keep prisons safe.
Many of the men who are sent to secure housing units are involved in prison gangs and drug trafficking, said Michael Stainer, the department's director for the division of adult institutions.
Opponents of confinement, however, testified that hundreds of men have been unfairly identified as gang members and sent to live in isolation. More than 60 percent of inmates who contested their gang affiliations whose cases have been reviewed recently under new prison rules were sent back to general prison populations, Barton said.
Better data collection on secure housing units should be the backbone of any policy decisions moving forward, Hancock and Ammiano said.
For example, state corrections officials don't know how many inmates who served time in isolation left with mental health problems or how they fared after they left prison.
"That must change," Hancock said.