In the last several years, incarcerated author Christopher Zoukis has taken the prison law and prison education markets by force. In 2014, not only is his latest text, the Directory of Federal Prisons, being published by Middle Street Publishing — of which I’m a co-author — but he also recently signed a contract with McFarland & Company for his latest text College for Convicts. Clearly, he’s on a hot streak.
Today I sit down with him and ask the 10 questions that are on all of our minds.
Randy Radic: To start, please tell us a bit about yourself and your published work.
Christopher Zoukis: My name is Christopher Zoukis and I’m a co-author of the soon-to-be-released Directory of Federal Prisons: PrisonLawBlog.com’s Federal Bureau of Prisons Facility Directory (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland & Company, 2015). I’m also a regular contributing writer to Prison Legal News, founder of PrisonLawBlog.com, PrisonEducation.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter.
Randy Radic: I understand that you’ve accomplished all of this from behind prison walls. Where are you incarcerated and how long have you been in?
Christopher Zoukis: I am currently incarcerated at FCI Petersburg, a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. Come June I’ll have been incarcerated for eight years. I am scheduled for release in September of 2018.
Randy Radic: What is it like, writing and advocating for criminal justice reform from inside prison?
Christopher Zoukis: Dangerous would be the word. While my fellow prisoners respect the work that I engage in, the prison administration makes no bones about silencing incarcerated writers and advocates. I view my work as being a prison education and prisoners’ rights advocate. They view my craft as the activities of an agitator. What American correctional administrators can’t control, they view as a threat. As such, repercussions are not only possible, but expected.
But outside of the constant — and traditional — prisoner/guard conflict, I find that I am motivated that much more to strive for change due to my surroundings. To me, prison reform isn’t some abstract concept, but a beast which stares me in the face every morning as I exit my prison cell. And its need is personified with every prisoner I see leave, but return. To me, prison reform is real, personal, and of the utmost importance. My experiences are a living testament to the need for change in America’s criminal justice system.
Randy Radic: Have you ever been retaliated against for your writing endeavors?
Christopher Zoukis: Sadly yes. In early 2012, on the heels of the publication of Education Behind Bars, I was accused of conducting a business — a violation of Federal Bureau of Prisons disciplinary policy — and thrown in the Special Housing Unit (“the hole”). In total, I was issued and convicted of three separate incident reports, which resulted in me being remanded to solitary confinement for five months. Due to the severity of the sanctions, we retained counsel and fought back. Eventually, all three guilty findings were overturned on appeal and my record was expunged. Regardless of having been cleared of the alleged misconduct, five months in a small, dingy, loud cell certainly made an impression on me. The impression was that my work was even more vital than I thought. Being locked in a tiny cell and prodded by my accusers for months on end is certainly enough to put this form of abuse into perspective. It motivated me and drove me to push further and harder forward for true prison reform.
Randy Radic: Does writing from prison present additional challenges not faced by non-incarcerated writers?
Christopher Zoukis: Absolutely. Many of the tools used by writers the world over are not even accessible to prisoners. There are no personal computers. There is no Word program to use. There are paper, pens, typewriters, and a monitored email service as the only tools. So, the staples of the trade are not made available.
To add to this, federal prisoners can’t email anyone they want. The process is a cumbersome one and often precludes casual contact due to the onerous set-up and approval requirements. There are also word count limits which make emailing a manuscript challenging. Truth be told, I type most of my manuscripts on a typewriter and mail it out to be scanned and saved in an electronic format. Restrictions on telephone usage make this form of communication cumbersome, too.
There are also other restrictions which make life that much harder on incarcerated writers. For example, incarcerated writers have to obtain prior approval to be interviewed by the news media, something the Federal Bureau of Prisons works hard to thwart. To not adhere to this regulation by just speaking to the media is asking to be issued an incident report and sanctioned with loss of privileges or time in solitary confinement. Likewise, federal prisoners are only allowed to possess five books at any one time. As such, engaging in comprehensive research can be problematic, not to mention the challenge of having limited space to house research materials. To put this into perspective, I have been sanctioned for causing a fire hazard for possessing too many books. For this “violation” of the prison disciplinary code my commissary privileges were taken for three months.
Randy Radic: How do you obtain research materials in prison if you can’t use the internet or go to a public library?
Christopher Zoukis: I rely on dedicated friends and associates outside of prison to help me in locating and obtaining required research materials. For example, one good friend has Google Alerts set up on her computer for topics that I regularly write about. She prints these alerts off weekly and mails them to me. Likewise, another good friend is always willing to swing by Amazon.com or the Social Sciences Research Network and either order books for me or print off academic papers and mail them to me. If it weren’t for my dedicated friends and fellow advocates, I would be at a loss for the research materials that I require.
Randy Radic: I see that you’ve managed to create quite a platform for your writing and advocacy endeavors. Is it your outside contacts that maintain this platform?
Christopher Zoukis: It most certainly is. I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to partner and collaborate with a number of very talented and dedicated people outside of prison. My outside contacts work wonders in the online realm. If it weren’t for them, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. While I can come up with good ideas, I can’t log onto the internet and actually put the concepts into practice. This they not only do, but manage to do in a very professional manner.
Randy Radic: What inspired you to write the Directory of Federal Prisons?
Christopher Zoukis: The American prisoner’s greatest obstacle to achieving something of importance is a lack of communication with the outside world. When prison administrators manage to cut prisoners off from their families, friends, and outside associates, they gain an impressive level of control over their incarcerated charges. The problem with this is that this lack of communication then hinders prisoners from being productive while in prison and successfully reintegrating back into society upon the conclusion of their term of imprisonment. This lack of contact with the outside world also fosters a lack of perspective about their actions. Prisoners simply become so entwined in the prison culture that they forget that the prison culture is not the only one, and that actions deemed acceptable in this culture of violence are seen as appallingly inappropriate in normal American society.
The goal of the Directory of Federal Prisons is to fight against this correctional ideal of severing ties. I aim to help family members and friends of federal prisoners to stay in contact with their incarcerated loved ones and friends. I aim to help attorneys in scheduling legal visits and phone calls. And I aim to provide journalists with basic character profile information about every federal prison and private contract prison (which houses federal prison inmates) so that they can better report on the criminal justice beat, thus opening a door to the life of the incarcerated American.
This project is about breaking through the iron curtain of silence that surrounds prisons. While the Directory of Federal Prison alone won’t do that, it is a laudable step in the right direction.
Randy Radic: Any new projects on the horizon?
Christopher Zoukis: In fact, I have a number of projects currently in the works. Several weeks ago I signed a contract with McFarland & Company to publish my latest prison education book, College for Convicts. I’m very excited about this recent development. I’m also in discussions with North Law Publishers about a book which will profile every prison within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and every private contract facility. We’re also discussing an e-book entitled The Aftermath of Alleyne with North Law Publishers. This is a truncated e-book for attorneys battling mandatory minimum sentencing issues. These are all exciting developments.
Outside of these projects, I’m co-authoring a prison fitness and health project with former U.S. Field Hockey goaltender Todd Broxmeyer. This book — which is tentatively titled Total Prison Fitness — aims to teach prisoners about proper sports nutrition and how to exercise safely and effectively. The final project on my plate is a book about surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I’m still in the researching and drafting phases of the last two projects.
Randy Radic: If readers want to learn more about your work, prison education, or prisoners’ rights, where can they go?
Christopher Zoukis: Readers can swing by PrisonLawBlog.com, PrisonEducation.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com. These are all projects of mine. Also, I can be reached directly at Christopher Zoukis, P.O. Box 1000, #22132-058, Petersburg, VA 23804. Lastly, but most certainly not the least, my work can be read in Prison Legal News, where I regularly contribute articles about prison law and prisoners’ rights.