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Federal Prison Discipline: The Case of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter

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solitary confinementThe Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prides itself on running a tight ship. For many decades the BOP has been deemed the gold standard of corrections in America. That day has passed, however, and now the BOP has apparently adopted the warehousing model of confinement. What follows is the story of the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter,” the disciplinary action taken against its writers, and the way the Federal Bureau of Prisons mishandled the case, including placing myself, the publication’s editor, in a Special Housing Unit for five months, only to have all guilty findings overturned, and eventually be released.

Prison Education Advocacy: Newsletter, Book, and Website

In early 2012, Sunbury Press published my first book: Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security. This book — along with the companion website http://prisoneducation.com — strove to provide state and federal prisoners with the tools required to locate, evaluate, enroll in, and successfully complete correspondence courses from their prison cells. An outgrowth of this book was the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter,” a free, bi-monthly education newsletter which aimed to help encourage and inform inmates concerning engaging in education from behind prison walls. Both projects were widely supported by prisoners and prison educators alike and received favorable niche media attention.

As the third issue of the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter” was set to go to print, the prison administration of FCI Petersburg — a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia — determined that this free newsletter was not an altruistic project, but a commercial business. They alleged that this free publication was designed to turn a profit because it accepted advertisements, which helped the outside publisher of the publication defray some of her costs.

In the end, the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter” lost money, and a healthy amount of it. But then again, it was never designed to turn a profit. It was made possible by two noted philanthropists who were prison education supporters and agreed to bankroll the project so that prisoners everywhere might further their education and become transformed through that education. With these objectives in sight, the publication was made available for free to both those in prison and those not. No reader ever paid for a single copy.

The Prison Administration’s Response: Disciplinary Reports

Once the administration of FCI Petersburg classified the free newsletter as a business, it moved surely and swiftly. I — the editor of the publication — along with the associate editor, Bill Batton, who was also incarcerated at FCI Petersburg, were issued incident reports for conducting a business without the authorization of the Warden, Eric D. Wilson, and for using the monitored Corrlinks/TRULINCS email service to do so. We were given two weeks to prepare our defense, then two hearings were held to ascertain guilt or innocence.

These hearings, which were held on the same day in the Education Department due to the large number of educational staff members being called as witnesses, were presided over by Disciplinary Hearing Officer Bennett. The first hearing, which was mine, involved perhaps six different Education Department staff members and Mr. Batton. With the exception of one of the staff members (who had a curious case of amnesia and didn’t recall not only supporting the publication, but critiquing the articles contained therein), all of the staff and inmate witnesses testified on my behalf. There were no witnesses for the prison administration, simply an incident report, a copy of the publication, and a copy of a single email which showed my management of the publication.

After 25 minutes, a finding was made: guilty as charged. For my role as the Editor of the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter,” I was sentenced to 60 days disciplinary segregation, six months loss of email privileges, and the loss of applicable good conduct time. This sanction was of the type applied in cases of assault or other serious infractions. Within 20 minutes I was remanded to the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit to serve the imposed disciplinary segregation sanction.

Directly following my hearing, Mr. Batton had his. Seeing that justice was not to be served, he begged for mercy and pleaded guilty as charged. He too was sanctioned to time in the Special Housing Unit, loss of email privileges, and loss of good conduct time. Fortunately for him, all of his sanctions were suspended, meaning that as long as he stayed out of trouble for six months, he would not have to serve any of them.

The Battle Continues: In the Special Housing Unit

Upon admission to the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit I was placed in a two-man cell by myself. The walls were dingy and pale, graffiti and carvings the only decorations. The only amenities were a stainless steel sink/toilet combo, a desk with a welded metal stool attached, a stainless steel shower (with an impressive community of fruit flies), and a window (of course one which was frosted so that I couldn’t see out of it). Under the bunk was an assortment of trash, including a plastic trash bag that smelled of fermented, rotten fruit. The only reading materials available were a single, solitary Bible with print too small to read. I was alone, utterly and shamefully alone.

The first day was tough; the first night, too. It takes some effort to adapt to almost total sensory deprivation. From a life of fairly free range of motion — including teaching classes in the Education Department, playing in an Ultimate Frisbee league, and other social interactions — to a life of abject nothingness, the mind strives for meaning. It strives for social and sensory stimuli. Yet, in a federal prison’s Special Housing Unit, very little comes. Days are structured by meals, a 6:00 AM recreation call (where the inmates are permitted to stand, sit, or walk within a large dog cage), and lights out. The primary excitement comes when keys are heard, at which point the solitary confinement inmate rushes to his cell’s window, only to watch a guard or prison staffer walk by for a moment. Pathetic is what this life is, a combination of pathetic and hopeless; despair and loathing.

On my second night, though, excitement came. Upon hearing a knock on my cell’s door I approached. Standing on the other side was a lieutenant. In his hand was another incident report. This time I was being charged again with conducting a business without the Warden’s authorization, but instead of doing so via email, I was being charged with doing so via the Inmate Telephone System.

The facts were the same, just a different incident report. The primary difference was that several of the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter” contributing writers were also being charged with conducting a business, simply for submitting educational articles to a free newsletter, for no compensation, which had the gall to publish them. The Federal Bureau of Prisons was out of control, impinging upon the First Amendment rights of half-a-dozen incarcerated citizens, most of whom were inmate tutors or educators in the FCI Petersburg Education Department. They had written articles to help students further their education and were being punished for doing so.

Luckily for the writers, after mounting an attack upon this incident report, the contributing writers had their incident reports dismissed. But the same fate was not to be had for myself or Bill, the associate editor, when our turn came — around a month after the issuance of this second incident report. While this time Bill stood up and fought the repetitive charges, he was convicted. Luckily, his sanctions were partially suspended, and, again, he did not have to spend any time in the Special Housing Unit. I was not so lucky.

My second Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) hearing, which was also presided over by DHO Bennett, was held in a room within the Special Housing Unit. I was brought in, hands cuffed behind my back, with an escort of a regular, front-line prison guard, a lieutenant, and a single solitary witness. This time around, I knew that whatever I had to say would not make any difference. As such, I had the forethought to type a statement so as to create a record from which to appeal. After nodding to my pocket for my statement to be removed and entered into the record, DHO Bennett read the statement, and promptly found me guilty, albeit of lesser charges. This time I was sentenced to 15 more days in the Special Housing Unit, six months loss of email, six months loss of telephone, and the loss of good conduct time.

Two months later I was issued a third incident report for conducting a business, this time for using the mail to conduct the business. The business was the same, the free “Education Behind Bars Newsletter.” The administration of FCI Petersburg was doing all they could to put the final nail in my coffin. After several months of administrative delays, I was eventually convicted. This time I was convicted by the Unit Disciplinary Committee, due to the charges being reduced prior to the DHO hearing. I was sanctioned with six more months of email and telephone loss.

The Cavalry Charges: The Law Offices of Alan Ellis

During my stay in the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit I realized that I was in over my head. There was talk of a transfer to a high security federal prison (USP Lee, to be exact), possible confinement within one of the Federal Bureau of Prison’s notorious Communication Management Units (CMUs), and additional retaliation for my prison education advocacy. Realizing that I was fighting a losing battle against a very strong and powerful foe, I retained the services of the Law Offices of Alan Ellis. This became my salvation.

During my stay in the SHU, my legal team intervened at every possible insertion point. Todd Bussert — an “of counsel” attorney with the Law Offices of Alan Ellis — flew in from his New Haven, Connecticut office to ensure that I was holding up okay. This seemed to make a significant impact upon the staff at FCI Petersburg. It was a show of force, asserting that they would not allow me to suffer or be steamrolled anymore. They also participated in a number of conference calls with the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Director and Regional Counsel, along with other BOP counsel at the Butner Legal Center, a group of offices where the BOP has most of its legal representatives.

As a result of their steadfast work, all three of the incident reports that I was convicted of were eventually expunged. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took about 11 months for the final incident report to be expunged, but it eventually occurred. And for this I am eternally grateful.

What My Time in Solitary Confinement Taught Me

My time in the hole was painful. It was physically damaging and mentally scarring. To this day, I am no longer the person I was when I went in. I was happier, more open, and had fewer mental walls in place. Now I am angrier, more prone to conflict and confrontation, and, yes, even hardened, to a point. The prison administration of FCI Petersburg might have put me in the Special Housing Unit as a punishment and a general show of force (perhaps to stop me in my advocacy efforts and leanings), but its plan backfired. I came out hurt, angry, and emboldened in my efforts. They took a small-time prison writer and turned him into a serious, visible, and prolific advocate for prisoners’ rights, one who is no longer afraid to step on any toes or speak the truth. Shame on them.

I’ve also learned that disciplinary proceedings within the Federal Bureau of Prisons are a complete sham. The Disciplinary Hearing Officer and Unit Disciplinary Committee hearings are simply preliminaries in the rubber-stamping process. And my experiences have shown, yet again, that the Federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t singularly lock up the “worst of the worst, violent inmates” in solitary confinement, they often do so to inmates who have been accused of committing non-violent, non-security-threatening acts, such as writing articles about education for prisoners. Again, shame on them.

While I — and others subjected to Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Special Housing Units — might retain the scars of our abuse, we will never allow our experiences to be forgotten. We will not be silenced, and we will not remain silent while such abuses of power persist. This is my story, may it impact the future.

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.