The term “gadfly” was used by Plato in the Apology to describe Socrates’s relationship of to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. Essentially, Socrates was a goad, a poignant reminder of right and wrong. So a gadfly is someone who upsets the existing state of affairs by asking uncomfortable questions, questions that no one really wants to hear much less answer. And if you recall, Socrates eventually lost his life because he insisted on being a gadfly.
Gadflies are healthy. Polemics serve a function. Change is good – for society and for individuals.
Christopher Zoukis, who is in federal prison in Virginia, is a gadfly, a voice for prison reform and a writer of some repute. Mr. Zoukis likes to grab hold of his right to free speech and shake it in peoples’ faces. Sometimes it doesn’t make him very popular. Other times, like Socrates, he suffers for his outspokenness. But it doesn’t seem to bother him.
I sat down with Mr. Zoukis – the gadfly and author – to find out what he’s up to and whose tree he’s been shaking lately.
RR: You’ve been in federal prison for 8 years. Generally speaking, what have you learned about yourself?
CZ: I’d say that I’ve learned that when one has to struggle for something, that it makes it that much more important and valuable. My time in prison has been characterized by strife and struggle. This has taught me to push forward as hard as I can when obstacles get in my way. Generally speaking, I feel that this lesson was an important one to learn and that it has served me very well.
RR: From your day-to-day experience, what is your view on gangs inside prison?
CZ: It depends very much on the prison that you are incarcerated in. Here at FCI Petersburg gangs aren’t a huge issue. Yes, there are seating issues in the chow hall, and various groups congregate in certain areas, but generally, this isn’t a big issue. But at other prisons where I’ve been, you can’t even walk the yard if you’re not affiliated. If you don’t belong to a crew, then good luck even taking a shower, using the bathroom, or sleeping in peace. It really is that serious, and dangerous.
RR: When did you decide to start writing? And how did you catch the writing bug?
CZ: I’ve always enjoyed writing. For many years it has been a creative outlet for me, although it was only several years ago that I started viewing it as a craft and as a passion. That came to fruition while in prison.
I’d say that my struggles in prison — particularly against the prison administration — has furthered the utility of writing for me. In terms of productive activities, there really isn’t much that prisoners can do but write. But the power that can be wielded through the written word also has a significant appeal. Through my writing, I can hold official actors accountable for their misconduct, and I can protect and help those who need, and deserve, it.
RR: You have now become an established and successful author from behind bars. Does your new status make it easier to get through the day-to-day grind of being in prison? Or has it become harder?
CZ: Writing is my passion. It gives me a vehicle through which I feel that I can change the world if only the sliver that I reside within. As such, I get to wake up every day — always mindful of my prison cell — and figure out what wrong I’m going to right, what issue I’m going to shine a spotlight on. This helps me to get through the days.
But it also makes it incredibly difficult. There is only so much time in the day, and there is so much to accomplish. Also, I do not forget that my writing makes me more visible to my prison’s administration. FCI Petersburg staff, like many prison administrators, seem to relish attacking incarcerated writers for their published thoughts. As such, I’m no stranger to official retaliation. In light of this, my passion for the written word is both a gift and a curse. It makes me feel as though I’m making a difference, but it’s also painful when I experience retaliation for exercising my First Amendment right to free speech. Yet, it is worth the price. Someone has to do it. Today it happens to be me.
RR: You’ve written several books and countless articles from your prison cell and have become very successful. How difficult is it to write a book from behind bars?
CZ: It is indeed difficult. To start, I don’t have access to a true word processor. Instead, I use paper and pen, and a see-through Swintec typewriter that has no spell-check. Modern conveniences are not to be found here. But I make it through. A single Bic pen often lasts me about a week, even if it takes two pads of lined paper. As with many challenges in life, perseverance and dedication go a long way. With enough effort, and creativity, much is possible even in the worst of circumstances.
RR: Why do prison administrators respond so negatively when inmates like you express your thoughts in written form?
CZ: I think it all comes down to control. Prison administrators like to have absolute, totalitarian control over their charges. At the extreme, when they lose control of the prison, riots and gang wars ensue. As such, their go-to state of being is to “lock it down,” regardless of what “it” might be. But this is a motivational and characteristic critique of their mental state.
The true issue is that inmates who have the capability to publish their thoughts in a public forum are a threat to the status quo. If an inmate, such as myself, can publish articles in the Huffington Post that critique the government (and prison officials, in particular), as I do, then control has been lost and embarrassment ensues. In their minds, it is better to find ways to stifle the incarcerated writer than to allow this sort of activity, and exposure, to persist.
RR: It is my understanding that most so-called prison-writers are the objects of periodic suppression and censorship. Have you been the target of such suppression or censorship?
CZ: This question actually hits very close to home. Right now I’m dealing with some real suppression and censorship issues. I recently interviewed Sangye Rinchen — an incarcerated, transgender Buddhist here at FCI Petersburg. The interview focused on how the prison has repeatedly refused to provide meaningful medical care, and it was published by the Huffington Post. Following the publication of the interview, I was again issued an incident report. This time SIA J. Negron, the head investigator at the prison, asserted that publishing interviews such as this constitute running a business even though I received no income from the publication of the work. The pathetic thing is that this is a huge issue for me, but doesn’t cost FCI Petersburg official actors anything. I’m having to fight this — and will probably end up being sanctioned with the loss of phone and email for a number of months, and perhaps thrown back into the hole — and will only win upon appeal, after my sanctions have already been served. It’s ridiculous.
RR: I have read a number of interviews with other prison-writers. People like Seth Ferranti, Jimmy Lerner, and Michael Santos have suffered because they elected to write and keep writing. What makes prisoner-writers take such a stand? Is it simply rebellion against the man, or it is something deeper, more meaningful?
CZ: It simply has to be done. If we don’t do it — regardless of the cost — no one else will. I have a duty to my fellow prisoners to protect them and bring their abuses to the light of the world. I take this duty extremely seriously. Perhaps, at least for this moment in time, this is my purpose in life. This is God’s plan for me at this very moment.
RR: In his interview, Seth Ferranti mentioned that he went to The Hole — solitary confinement — because he wrote and published. Have you had such an experience?
CZ: I did in 2012. Back then I was the editor of the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter,” a free newsletter that helped prisoners learn how to further their education while in prison. FCI Petersburg staffers very much disliked that I had managed to put together a publication. After all, it had a reach of over 2,000 subscribers by the third issue. As a result of this, they decided to call the free newsletter a business, and issued three incident reports for me allegedly engaging in a business without staff authorization. In total, I served 5 months in the hole. It took another 10 months to appeal the findings. Eventually, I was cleared of all wrongdoing and my record was expunged. But that was only after spending 5 months in the hole, plus an assortment of other sanctions.
RR: As to the Huffington Post piece on Ms. Rinchen, doesn’t it take a lot of courage to do something like that? I mean, can’t you pretty much count on some type of blowback?
CZ: It does take some courage, and you certainly can count on some repercussions for doing so. Regardless of this, I feel it to be my duty to publish writings like this. If I don’t interview people like Sangye Rinchen, then no one will. I feel as though I serve a very specific purpose in prison. And I’m going to fulfill my purpose regardless of how much it might hurt after the fact.
RR: You have about four years until your release from prison. Do you plan to continue writing and publishing during those four years despite the obstructions?
CZ: I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Even though I’ve only been in for eight years, I feel as though I’m an old head, as though I’m now a seasoned convict and incarcerated writer. As such, it’s the fight that pushes me forward. I’ll be damned if I allow a few incident reports or a few months in the hole to dissuade me. I’m tougher than that and much harder to shut up, too.
RR: What writing projects are you currently involved in?
CZ: Too many. My book College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons was just released by McFarland and Company. In May of next year, Prison Legal News is publishing the tentatively titled College for the Incarcerated, which is a guide to correspondence programs for prisoners. And late in 2015, Headpress is publishing a book that I’m co-authoring titled United Blood Nation: The Untold Story of the East Coast Bloods.
Outside of these projects, I regularly contribute to The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, PrisonLawBlog.com, and PrisonEducation.com, along with other outlets.
RR: Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction? Why?
CZ: I tend to prefer to read fiction, but write non-fiction. Fiction for me is a release, an escape from the caustic world of prison. But when I write, I want to help people by teaching them something or exposing their plight. To write about abuses and wrongs by governmental actors is to make a difference. And when I can be the vehicle through which change occurs, I feel as if I’ve served my purpose well.
RR: Once you are released and are able to work and write in freedom, what are your plans?
CZ: I plan to found the Zoukis Consulting Group. This firm will help criminal defendants prepare for a term of incarceration, promote educational programs in American prisons, and strive to reform America’s draconian criminal sentencing statutes. In short, I want to continue to find ways to make a difference in the lives of those around me.