By Kamea Zelisko
How about these for credentials for an authority on prison issues: authoring a handbook on prison life, three books on subjects examining ways education can benefit inmates, plus a steady stream of articles in national magazines, newspapers and blogs on a wide range of legal and other incarceration-related topics. No less an authority than the American Bar Association last year named the author’s Prison Law Blog (now named prisonerresource.com) on prison law one of the nation’s 100 best blogs on any legal topic.
The author, Christopher Zoukis, has one additional asset in understanding and explaining these subjects that few other authors can claim: he’s been incarcerated since 2006 in a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia, and unless the newest set of disciplinary charges against him delay it, is scheduled to be released to a halfway house in Charleston, South Carolina, early next year.
Despite the acclaim he’s received, and the value of his writings in explaining important, but not widely understood, issues for prisoners, their families and the general public, he’s once again in trouble with prison authorities, and has drawn more time in solitary confinement.
The most curious part of the story is why: his disciplinary offense, each of the times he’s faced solitary confinement or other discipline in the prison, was not due to brawling in the exercise yard, smuggling in contraband, or any of the other infractions most commonly found behind bars. Instead, Chris’ disciplinary offense, plain and simple, has been that prison officials have objected to the writing for which he’s been so widely praised.
Make no mistake: he’s not a polemicist, writing calls to insurrection or revolution. His offense, from the point of view of prison administrators and security officials, is being hard-working and widely read on topics of interest to persons concerned with prison life. On 10 occasions in a row over the past five years, he’s been written up by prison security officials, who ought to be more interested in bigger issues, like gangs, drugs and violence, but still apparently have ample time to worry about an inmate who’s managed to become a well-respected writer while in prison.
To be clear, prison authorities say they don’t object to the content of Chris’ writing, as much as they do to the fact he’s successful at it and visible because of it. The usual charge brought against him: he’s “running a business” behind bars (a Code 334 prohibited act in the Federal Bureau of Prisons). Of course, that’s not the easiest thing to do in prison, not that very much is easy in prison. Inmates can’t access computers or the internet, and their visits and use of phone and email services are limited and monitored.
On several occasions, helped by his family, Chris hired noted federal criminal defense attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert to defend against the prison disciplinary charges. In 2012, following the release of his first book, Chris was issued three incident reports for his writing activities. While the charges were eventually thrown out, this was only after Chris spent five months in solitary confinement. In 2014, following the release of College for Convicts, Chris was issued four more incident reports. Again they were wiped out, though not until after Chris was sanctioned to years loss of communication privileges.
And this year, following the release of his Federal Prison Handbook and the issuance of three more incident reports, a hearing in mid-July found him guilty of again running a business. The business? Being an author (even though it’s legal to write and publish books from behind bars). While two of the latest incident reports were expunged during his disciplinary hearings, he is currently in the process of appealing the sole conviction, which he fully believes will be overturned on appeal, as so many before have.
Clearly, though, at least some prison officials would rather not have to worry about prisoners’ writing, or what it might reveal to the outside world. They would rather engage in wonton censorship – the law, prison policy and federal regulations be damned.
The sad truth of all of this is that, as Chris’ lawyer Alan Ellis observes, “Chris is really a poster boy for the Bureau of Prisons. He came in as a thug and turned his life around with his writing.” Indeed, he has spent the bulk of his time in prison furthering his own education; earning his bachelor’s degree in 2016 from Adams State University, where he is currently enrolled in their Masters of Business Administration program.
Another attorney, Brandon Sample, who is familiar with the case and Bureau of Prisons operations, succinctly put the issue into perspective by saying, “The Bureau of Prisons touts itself as ‘the model’ correctional system in the United States. But there is nothing ‘model’ about taking retribution on a prisoner, like Chris, for the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
While officials with the Bureau of Prisons, in this case and others, might have done a very good job at whitewashing and making their actions look almost clinical in application, the truth of the matter is that federal prisons, and state prisons too, are hotbeds of censorship and repression. While prison administrators hold themselves out as upholding the law, they often break it and the policies that they are sworn to uphold. The difference between the guards and the inmates in this respect is that only the inmates are held accountable for their actions, even when their actions are protected by sacred documents, such as the U.S. Constitution.