During the past several years, America’s ever-burgeoning prison population and the devastating problem of recidivism has become a topic of much public discussion. With billions, many billions, being spent every year to incarcerate America’s 2.3 million prisoners and jail detainees, the American people have begun to call for reforms to our go-to policy of locking criminals up and throwing away the key. It has become clear that while we can try to incapacitate away our problems, that the cost is simply not worth the benefit. With this concept in many policy makers’ and reform advocates’ minds, the discussion has shifted from a punitive one to one which highlights rehabilitation, reformation, and reintegration.
Today I sit down with Christopher Zoukis, co-author with me of the Directory of Federal Prisons: PrisonLawBlog.com’s Federal Bureau of Prisons Facility Directory, to discuss this latest project, why it matters, and how a simple directory of official information can help rehabilitate, reform, and reintegrate American prisoners.
To start, who are you and why should we care?
My name is Christopher Zoukis. I am the author of Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons: PrisonLawBlog.com’s Federal Bureau of Prisons Facility Directory (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland & Company, 2015). I’m also a regular contributing writer at Prison Legal News — the world’s premier prison law monthly — and the founder of prisoneducation.com and prisonlawblog.com.
Simply stated, you should care because I haven’t only talked the talk, I have walked the walk. I have worked hard and earned the respect of those in prisoners’ rights and prison law fields, who have accepted my work for publication. And I have done all of this from federal prison. Who better to ask how to fix America’s prison system then someone who is currently incarcerated and who studies and writes about America’s broken system of criminal justice?
What is the Directory of Federal Prisons?
The Directory of Federal Prisons is a smaller project of mine with high expectations. This is a shorter e-book project which profiles every federal prison and private contract prison which houses federal inmates. Not only does the e-book provide basic character profile information (i.e., gender of the prisoners, security level, prison population, federal judicial district, and if there is an adjacent satellite prison camp), but it also provides the contact information for all of these prisons. This contact information includes the official address, inmate correspondence address, and official telephone number, fax number, and email address. Nowhere else is this information so easily available.
What is the need for such an e-book and what do you hope to accomplish through it?
You would be astounded at how challenging it can be to locate this basic information, even for family members of federal prisoners. Simple questions like, “What is the street address of the prison?” or “What is the inmate correspondence address?” are important questions that are answered in few places. And this information isn’t only preferable, it’s vital for family members and attorneys who might need to visit someone or write to someone in federal prison. Not knowing this information can be a real barrier to communications and staying in contact with a friend, loved one, or a client.
I hope to connect people to one another. Just because someone is in prison doesn’t mean that they lose the right to visit or correspond with their parents or children. Likewise, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, like many prison systems, regularly engages in an unofficial policy of media blackout. This means that inquiries from reporters are rarely answered, or rarely answered in full. It is intended that the basic character profiles will assist journalists reporting on the prison beat and the contact information will provide them with multiple avenues of contact through which to make their inquiries.
I understand that a personal experience drove you to write this book?
Yes. I was frustrated with the failure of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to make this information available to my own loved ones and friends. I’d call home — via the inmate telephone system — and family and friends would say something like, “I’ve been meaning to send you a letter, but I just can’t find the address.” Or my father would write and say that a good friend wanted to write but didn’t know my address or how to find it. Understandably, this was incredibly frustrating, and most certainly is the case with others in federal prison.
Just because someone has violated a law doesn’t meant that they forfeit the right to communication with those who are positive influences in their lives. It’s cruel and it’s callous. One of the primary goals of this project is to help connect families, friends, clients, and sources with those outside of prison. I think this project is a laudable step in the right direction.
How important is communication to prisoner reformation, rehabilitation, and reintegration?
Vital. Let’s say that you just moved to a new city, you know no one, and you have no work history, no assets or money to speak of. Where do you start looking for employment, lodging, food, and so on? It’s a good question, and one many of us try to prepare for so that we are prevented from having to deal with it. Yet, close to 700,000 prisoners are released from custody each and every year. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 95 percent and 97 percent of prisoners will eventually be released. So, this is a big problem, and it applies to virtually all prisoners.
Well, these prisoners are released from prison and really don’t know where to turn. They have no one to pick them up from the prison or bus station. They haven’t been able to make arrangements for housing or employment. Yet, we expect them to hit the ground running. This is just plain ridiculous. It’s no wonder most fail.
While the Directory of Federal Prisons isn’t a silver bullet, it is a start. By helping friends and family members stay in contact with those in prison, connections can be forged and sustained. Good influencers can help to mentor existing prisoners, and they will be there upon the prisoner’s release. And the benefits continue to present themselves. When these ex-prisoners are in contact with these good influences — not to mention their own children — they have external motivators to help them stay on the straight and narrow. They no longer are living merely for themselves, but all of those who have stood by their side throughout their incarceration.
Are there any in-prison benefits to staying in contact with the outside world?
Absolutely! Prisoners who stay connected to the outside world are aware of current events, have a healthy release mechanism through which to discuss and vent their frustrations, but most importantly, this offers an alternative to prison society and its damaging values. By merely writing and receiving letters, prisoners are exposed to the fresh air of healthy, non-prison influences. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
In prison, problems are usually solved with violence, aggression, and intimidation. In the world outside of prison, these responses are very much frowned upon, if not illegal. By maintaining meaningful contact to those outside of prison, prisoners don’t get as sucked into the prison culture and they are often presented with alternative, real-world ways of dealing with problems as they arise. This external influence is essential to good conduct inside prison, along with good conduct upon release.
Why an e-book, as opposed to a traditional printed book?
Three reasons: functionality, lower costs, and an upcoming project. From a functionality standpoint, an e-book is easily carried around in an e-book reader, something ubiquitous to readers these days. Also, by being available in an electronic format, users/readers can simply search for the name of the prison using the search function and be presented with the information that they seek. The e-book format greatly enhances the functionality of the product. In fact, we’re also in discussions with a developer concerning an app which will provide the same functionality.
From a cost standpoint, e-books traditionally cost less to produce, thus resulting in a lower retail price. Let’s face it, prisoners’ families have a hard enough time as it is making ends meet. Anything I can do to reduce economic burdens on them, I will. By producing this project as an e-book I can do just this. I’ll also be able to update the product much easier and at a lower price point, thus keeping costs low and the information contained therein accurate.
And last, the upcoming project. For the past several months I’ve been in discussions with North Law Publishers concerning a related, yet much more expansive project. This is an exhaustive nonfiction book about the Federal Bureau of Prisons which provides detailed profiles of every federal prison and private prison which houses federal prisoners. Whereas the Directory of Federal Prisons prides itself on being concise, easily accessible, and to the point, this new project will consist of several thousand word profiles of every prison that houses federal prisoners. The upcoming project will provide detailed information about life at each specific prison. While a deal has not yet been inked with North Law Publishers, it’s mutually understood that this is the most probable outcome of our discussions.
Outside of these manuscript projects, what are you currently working on?
Many, many side projects. The most prestigious is probably my writing for Prison Legal News (www.prisonlegalnews.org). Prison Legal News (PLN), a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center, is the world’s largest prison law publication. Based out of Lake Worth, Florida, and headed by renowned prison rights activists Paul Wright and Alex Friedmann, PLN has over 7,000 paid subscribers in prisons in every state in the United States. It is by far the largest publication of interest to prisoners, and is respected by jurists and attorneys alike, who also subscribe to the monthly publication. I am proud of my affiliation with Prison Legal News and the good work they engage in, which recently has included suits against the FCC for the extortionate phone rates charged prisoners and their families and these troublesome post card-only policies at certain jails and prisons.
Outside of this writing commitment, I also regularly contribute to prisoneducation.com, prisonlawblog.com, and other online and print outlets.
What about other book projects?
I’m currently in brainstorming mode. I recently came to an agreement with literary agent Greg Aunapu at the Salkind Literary Agency. Greg now represents all of my nonfiction work. I’m discussing with him what should be next. One such project is a book concerning getting healthy and fit in prison. This project — which is tentatively titled Total Prison Fitness — I’m co-authoring with former U.S. Field Hockey goaltender Todd Broxmeyer. I’m also interested in writing about prison control and special housing units. I think a good expose’ is needed to stop this abhorrent practice which has been proven to damage prisoners even worse than they already are by America’s broken criminal justice system. So, lots of ideas. But first the projects at hand.
How can readers stay abreast of your work?
Readers can swing by christopherzoukis.com, prisoneducation.com, or prisonlawblog.com. There they’ll find email submission forms to be added to the monthly newsletters. That’s an easy way. I can also be written directly:
P.O. Box 1000, #22132-058
Petersburg, VA 23804
And last, much of my published work appears in Prison Legal News. So, subscribing to PLN would certainly keep readers abreast of my current projects and work.