Sunday , May 26 2024
In most federal prisons, there is a building designated the Special Housing Unit. This can be thought of as a prison within a prison.

Prisons Within Prisons: An Interview with Prison Law Expert Christopher Zoukis

Special Housing Units (SHUs), better known as “the hole” or “the bucket,” are distinct locations inside America’s prisons which house prisoners under investigation for misconduct, those actively being sanctioned for misconduct, and prisoners in protective custody. By and large, they consist of small, cramped cells in which prisoners are often locked down for 23 or 24 hours a day. Lengths of stay can range from a few days to decades. Almost all of the research in the field indicates that the SHU experience is damaging to those housed therein.

Today I sit down with prison law expert Christopher Zoukis to discuss Special Housing Units. As a current federal prisoner, a regular contributing writer to “Prison Legal News” and Blog Critics, and the founder of and — and one who has personally experienced confinement in a federal Special Housing Unit — he has a unique perspective to offer on the experience, its usage, and the damage caused to those subjected to it.

Randall Radic: What is a Special Housing Unit? How does it differ from regular prison?

Christopher Zoukis: A Special Housing Unit is a type of segregated imprisonment. Generally speaking, these are much more restrictive than regular prisons or general population housing units.

In most federal prisons, there is a building designated the Special Housing Unit. This can be thought of as a prison within a prison. Or, better yet, a jail within a prison. Inside this building — which is often fortified and completely separated from the regular prison — rows and rows of cells can be found. Sometimes these rows of cells are called “ranges.” Within these cells, which can have either one or two occupants, are those locked down due to disciplinary sanctions, those currently under investigation for misconduct, or those in for protective custody. Depending on the federal prison in question, inmates housed therein are locked down for either 23 or 24 hours each day, can shower daily or a few times a week, and are afforded a total of 5 hours or recreation time each week. This recreation time is spent in an outdoor cage which resembles a dog run.

Long story short, a Special Housing Unit is a prison within a prison where special populations are intensively confined. This existence is significantly more restrictive and damaging than regular prison life.

Randall Radic: I’ve read statements from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that only the worst of the worst or the most violent prisoners are housed in Special Housing Units. Since protective custody status inmates are also housed in SHUs this doesn’t seem to add up. What’s the truth of the matter?

Christopher Zoukis: You know, I’ve even read statements from Charles Samuels, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to Senate committees in which he makes the same assertions. It’s plainly untrue. Any federal prisoner can be placed in a SHU for any number of reasons. The fact that prisoners in protective custody are housed in SHUs is direct evidence that they are used more expansively and extensively than one would like to believe, or the BOP would have you know.

The truth of the matter is that SHUs are full of prisoners who, in addition to being in for protective custody, are either under investigation for misconduct, being sanctioned for a disciplinary violation, or are in the process of being transferred between prisons (called being on “holdover” status). Generally speaking, prisoners confined in a Special Housing Unit for disciplinary matters, regardless of due to an investigation or formal sanctions, have been accused of committing an infraction of the high or greatest severity. This can cover a wide range of misconduct. For example, at the top of the scale, prisoners could be confined in a SHU for killing someone in prison or for escaping (or attempting to do either). But, on the lower end, prisoners are sometimes placed in the SHU for drinking, failing a urine test, misusing the inmate telephone, stealing food from the kitchen, or a number of other less severe violations.

Randall Radic: I understand that at one point you were confined in the Special Housing Unit at FCI Petersburg. Could you discuss the circumstances surrounding your placement and confinement in the SHU?

Christopher Zoukis: In early 2012, right after my book Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012) was published, I was the editor of a free educational newsletter called the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter.” This newsletter was mailed to prisoners for free by my outside contacts. Its goal was to help prisoners learn how to further their educations. As the third issue was about to be published, the Federal Bureau of Prisons apparently became unhappy with the project — it had quickly grown to several thousand enthusiastic subscribers — and decided to call it a business, even though it was a free publication. Federal prisoners are not allowed to conduct a business. As a result of this misclassification, disciplinary proceedings were launched against me. I was charged with conducting a business and using the mail, email, and telephone to do so.

As a result of these incident reports, I was confined within the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit. In total, I spent 5 months in the SHU for this alleged misconduct. Part of the time was a result of being formally sanctioned to time in disciplinary segregation, and the other part of the time I was awaiting the issuance and resolution of the other incident reports.

Evidently editing a free, educational newsletter is a rather risky endeavor in federal prison, so I obtained counsel to help defend myself against further harassment. I retained the Law Offices of Alan Ellis. Attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert lead the team of attorneys who helped to defend me. While the process was not an expedient one, we were eventually victorious. After serving 5 months in the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit, I was released back into general population. This was a feat in itself since the process was already initiated to transfer me to a high security federal prison (called a “United States Penitentiary”). Several months after my release from the SHU, all three of the incident reports were expunged from my record. My record was cleared.

Randall Radic: So, you were confined to a Special Housing Unit in a federal prison for promoting educational opportunities for prisoners? That doesn’t sound like someone who is violent or the worst of the worst.

Christopher Zoukis: It’s a sad reality that what the Federal Bureau of Prisons tells the American public and Congress is often plainly not the case. I suppose that you could say that the system worked in that I was eventually cleared. Keep in mind that this was after I was found guilty on multiple occasions by several Unit Disciplinary Committees and the same Disciplinary Hearing Officer on several occasions. But it took 5 months of being subjected to staff intimidation, antagonism, and psychological damage to right the wrong. And still, even after the expungements, those responsible like to joke with me about my stay. I think that they are sorry that the incidents were overturned, not that it happened in the first place.

Randall Radic: Some have written about the damage incurred as a result of placement in Special Housing Units and control units. What are your thoughts? Your experiences?

Christopher Zoukis: My personal experience is that placement in such restrictive confinement can’t help but be damaging. The noise — from the banging and screaming and antics of fellow prisoners — is certainly oppressive. The noise makes it so sleep is often short, conducted in bursts between screaming sessions. The guards are abrasive and abusive. There are no other words for it when the prison guards use items such as toilet paper and toothpaste and food as tools through which to wage war. It should be offensive to anyone to hear that prisoners have to beg a government employee for a roll of toilet paper or for them to push a button to flush a toilet so that waste can be disposed of. If this isn’t enough, the fact that law library access is often banned due to prison guards not wanting to take prisoners there and paper and pencils often being unavailable amount to clearly unconstitutional conditions.

As for damage, I can tell you that after 5 months in a Special Housing Unit, I am no longer the person I was. A close friend says that I grew up in that Special Housing Unit, that I had become more hardened and angry. I went into the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit with the belief that justice would prevail, even in a prison disciplinary hearing; something many others have called a “kangaroo court.” I left the SHU understanding that justice is not what the Federal Bureau of Prisons is about. They don’t care about justice or the value of human lives or dignity. No. They care about control. And if lives are crushed in the process, then that’s just the cost of doing business.

Randall Radic: What was it like being released from the Special Housing Unit?

Christopher Zoukis: Challenging and frustrating. I was released on a Tuesday, my commissary shopping day. Since I had been locked down for so long, I was in need of many items. So, I went to the commissary, but what greeted me was overwhelming. A significant period of time in a Special Housing Unit amounts to sensory deprivation. The damage was evident in a minor panic attack standing in the commissary line. I just wasn’t used being around people anymore. For many months I was locked in a small cell with another man, who was very mentally ill. My life revolved around trying to get my cellmate to take a shower, change his clothes, and calming his psychotic screaming and crying attacks. But after my release, I found everything to be a bit too much. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’d consider this a symptom of something more, and something which certainly affects others subjected to like experiences.

Randall Radic: There is also a lot of talk about mentally ill prisoners being confined in Special Housing Units. You said yourself that your cellmate was in need of mental health treatment. What do you think that SHU confinement is like for such people?

Christopher Zoukis: To them, it’s terrorizing. Half of the time my cellmate would talk to himself about not understanding what was going on or why he was in the Special Housing Unit. He understood that he was being sanctioned for drinking, but couldn’t grasp the concept. In fact, his story was far worse. He had served a month in the SHU as a drinking sanction. After he had served his segregation sanction, he was returned to the adjacent low security prison where he came from. Sadly, he came back very soon and requested to cell with me again. He came back under a protective order due to being sexually assaulted. It is plainly absurd that to protect a mentally ill sexual assault victim that the Federal Bureau of Prisons places them in segregation, and this without any form of counseling.

The damage to people like him — not to mention mentally sound people in close proximity to them — is incalculable. It’s like taking a child who can’t appreciate their actions and punishing them over and over again even though they don’t understand what they’re doing wrong. Of course, mentally ill prisoners are going to have problems adhering to prison regulations. They require medication and counseling. Placing them in control units just exacerbates their issues. And placing relatively sane people with these badly mentally ill people — people who require hospitalization, not intensive confinement — is equally damaging to them in turn.

Randall Radic: In your opinion, is there ever a legitimate need for such units? What could make the process more just?

Christopher Zoukis: There is no time or place for the intensive confinement units we have today, but there is a need for something more restrictive than general population placement. I think that we all understand the penological concern of keeping order, and the need for punishment for misconduct. I’m not disagreeing with sanctions for violating prison disciplinary codes of conduct, but I do believe that locking a human being in a small cell for extended periods of time, and toying with them during the period, is plainly abusive conduct that the government shouldn’t be sponsoring. It’s doubly offensive when the prisoner being subjected to the abuse at prison guards’ hands is mentally ill.

What prison administrators need to be focusing on is finding ways to make disciplinary proceedings impartial, thorough, and just. Fairness should be inherent in any prison disciplinary proceeding. By effectuating a just disciplinary system, the number of prisoners being recommended for placement in a control unit will plummet. In the prison systems these hearing bodies are plainly an unfortunate joke. Prisoners are charged with misconduct with the only evidence usually a prison guard’s written statement, and the prisoner is then found guilty by the reporting guard’s co-worker. This isn’t a system based on honesty and integrity, but upon convictions and the most expedient path to them.

Randall Radic: What could be done to improve conditions inside Special Housing Units?

Christopher Zoukis: The starting point is to severely limit their usage. Only those who are actively a threat to others or to the institution should be even considered for Special Housing Unit placement. Someone who steals food out of the prison cafeteria to sell or someone who uses the Google Voice service to cut down on the cost of calling their children shouldn’t be placed in a SHU. This is mere misconduct, not a threat to others.

Next, those in control units need to be treated with human dignity. If they need their toilet flushed, toilet paper, soap, or paper, it should be provided without any nonsense. They should also have the meaningful recreation time, counseling, and social interactions that administrators always say they wish to provide but don’t, so that the damage of such intensive confinement can be negated.

And anyone placed in a Special Housing Unit should have a means to earn less restrictive confinement even while still serving a sanction of segregation. This just makes sense and promotes the adherence to rules and order.

Randall Radic: If readers want to learn more about Special Housing Units or control units, where can they go?

Christopher Zoukis: “Prison Legal News” ( regularly reports on control units both on their website and in their monthly magazine. So does Solitary Watch on their website. And I regularly blog at about control units and Special Housing Units, in particular. The ACLU’s National Prison Project also does some good work in this arena.

About Randall Radic

Left Coast author and writer. Author of numerous true crime books written under the pen-name of John Lee Brook. Former music contributor at Huff Post.

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  1. You know a good way to stay out of SHUs? Don’t do anything that will get you sent to prison in the first place.

    • That’s your response? Pitiful.

      • Where’s your response, Rose?

        • That’s Mr. Rose to you.

          My response to the article, rather than to your profoundly shallow remark, is that the US legal and prison system is one of the most aggressive in the world and certainly the most hostile of the Western democracies. It is far easier to be jailed there than people like you seem to understand or you wouldn’t make such a piss poor remark.

          I’m appalled that things like Special Housing Units even exist, to say nothing of the bitter sarcasm of the name. They are an offence, possibly a crime, against humanity and shouldn’t be tolerated.

          As Mr. Radic and Mr. Zoukis show us, the SHUs, like the entire legal
          system and, some might think, large parts of the American system, are
          all about control not liberty.

          The greater tragedy is that the USA still has the populist mental image of being the land of the free yet it imprisons far higher percentages of its population than almost any other democracy and, uniquely for a modern democracy, still carries out state sanctioned murder.

          • Bully for you for having an opinion, but I must point out that your response is – in fact – directed not only at the article but also my comment (see the contradictory opening paragraph).

            You say: “People like you…”

            You do not know me, you do not know what I understand, and you do not know what I am “like.” My initial comment was a blatant stating of the obvious – one with which the majority of law-abiding U.S. citizens might be prone to agree. Your insults and presumptions directed toward me are uncalled for and unproductive.

          • Sorry, I didn’t realise your brain is broken, I don’t know how to make it any simpler for you, but obviously I do know what you’re like; you’re the kind of person that ignores the blatant abuse of people by “authority” and makes stupid remarks.

            As to insults, you don’t seem to grasp that describing something as what it is isn’t an insult. Your remark actually was pathetic and nothing in your follow up has changed that.

            Instead of preening pointlessly, you should be outraged at the appalling treatment of people by your government.

          • Ah, here we go – additional insults (you were NOT describing something “as what it is” – you were expressing an opinion of my comment and now of me as a person, and an ill-informed opinion at that). You do realize your tactics say far more about you than anything I’ve said conveys about me?

            Your proclamations are an expression of pure arrogance and nullify any legitimate point you might otherwise be making.

          • Yes, my opinion of your idiotic comment and your feeble attempt at defending it, as opposed to any sense of outrage about how people are being treated.

            Whether or not I’m being arrogant or not (I’m not, by the way) has no bearing on my point and doesn’t nullify it in any way, although why you would want to make such a silly, superficial assertion is glaringly obvious.

          • I’ve not attempted to defend my original comment (as I said, it’s an obvious, common-sense truism and really needs no defense). I’ve been defending myself against your unfair, unfounded attack on my character.

            Your second comment in this thread, the only one that attempted even the slightest amount of substance, was so far beyond the scope of the issues presented in this article that it almost could be posted as a general screed in response to any article dealing with the US penal system in any way.

            I’ve nothing more to add to this, as it’s clearly not a discussion of this article. This has been all about your overreaction and misdirected outrage.

          • Your original comment is in no way obvious, common sense or true, it’s moronic, as is everything you’ve posted since.

            I really hope you don’t have anything more to add, you’ve embarrassed yourself enough for one week.

    • You can’t excuse petty inhumane stunts like withholding toilet paper and refusing to flush an inmate’s toilet by taking a holier-than-thou stance like that.

  2. At Cumberland FCI, they don’t even give you toothpaste in the SHU.
    They give you tooth powder, which contains no fluoride and is mostly
    baking soda and calcium carbonate. You mix it with water and try to make
    a thin paste out of it. Of course, the toothbrushes in there suck as
    well; they’re so short you can barely reach your back teeth with them.
    And as you know, if because of all this you get a cavity, you’re screwed
    because it takes forever to see a dentist, and when you do see them,
    the care is sub-par.

    People say, “If you don’t like it, don’t go to prison” but it’s
    one thing to go to prison and another to unjustly be sent to the SHU for
    something you didn’t do. Also, it’s counterproductive to inflict
    unnecessary suffering, because the more you antagonize prisoners, the
    harder they will be to deal with, both when they return to the general
    prison population and when they leave prison and go back to society.
    Unless you like having these guys living on your dime forever, it would
    be best to focus on their reintegration into society to the extent
    possible. That was exactly what Zoukis was trying to do, by being as
    productive as he could under the circumstances, with his teaching and
    writing projects.

    • More death penalties would reduce any concerns of the ability of convicts to re-assimilate into society. This is what me and my fellow Harvard grads are working on at the moment, the hardening of the criminal justice system. A “no mercy” maximum punishment approach is what this country needs. Truth: the majority of homicides in the US are from repeat offenders and/or former inmates. I will proudly be responsible for 10 executions come this March. All the pacifists and liberals can go read about the violent rapes and murders of innocents and then consider a better way. Death to the guilty. ZERO TOLERANCE.

      • Do you have a URL for this project? The death penalty would in some ways be superior to what we have now, if the delays and judicial costs involved in death penalty cases could be reduced. However, it would be necessary to overturn Supreme Court cases severely restricting the death penalty, e.g. Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

        What about the possibility of exile? If another country is willing to accept an offender, then he no longer poses a threat to the public, and the public doesn’t have to pay for his incarceration either. If he proves that he has rehabilitated, then perhaps he could be accepted back into the U.S. after awhile. The extradition treaties already allow people who commit political crimes (e.g. espionage or treason) to remain abroad; we could expand that and simply let all the criminals stay overseas.

  3. Would Chaz have us believe only guilty people go to prison? Seems a bit ignorant when the facts don’t bare that out at all.