Sangye Rinchen and Christopher Zoukis
By Randy Radic
We at the Prison Law Blog are on high alert following a series of retaliatory incident reports against Christopher Zoukis, PLB founder, by FCI Petersburg staff. Due to the significant amount of inquiries received, we’ve decided to present the facts of the evolving situation.
First Incident Report
On October 10, 2014, Mr. Zoukis was issued an incident report for allegedly conducting a business. The alleged business was the publication of an interview at The Huffington Post, along with him inquiring about the number of likes and tweets that the interview received. The incident report was written by SIA J. Negron and issued by Lieutenant J. Del Valle-Sojo. On October 14, 2014 — the next available business day — Mr. Zoukis was seen by the Unit Disciplinary Committee (UDC). This UDC body was chaired by Unit Manager Angela Tomlinson.
Correctional Counselor Felecia Brown was the other UDC member. During this hearing Mr. Zoukis was not permitted to call any witnesses, present any documentary evidence, or make a statement. He was only permitted to sit for a reading of the incident report and be pronounced guilty.
At the end of the UDC hearing, Mr. Zoukis was found guilty of the alleged misconduct and sanctioned to 90 days loss of email. As Unit Manager Tomlinson was making a copy of the incident report for Mr. Zoukis, he inquired, “Out of curiosity, what in this seems like a business to you?” Unit Manager Tomlinson responded, “Truth be told, I didn’t read any of the attachments, but the description [of the attachments in the incident report] seems credible.”
The sanctions were not imposed until several days later, when Unit Manager Tomlinson had a chance to discuss the matter with FCI Petersburg Legal Technician S. Harris. While Mr. Zoukis was not permitted to present any documentary evidence of his innocence, Unit Manager Tomlinson did assert that she would expunge the adverse findings if Legal Technician Harris felt that it should be expunged and that Ms. Harris would be permitted to submit evidence if she wanted to (that is, after the guilty finding had been made; a very unusual, and probably imaginary, protocol).
Second Incident Report
On October 17, 2014 Mr. Zoukis was issued a second incident report for allegedly conducting a business. This time the alleged business — a purported new one — was a letter that he sent to an author requesting permission to update an out-of-print book and publish it online for free. Mr. Zoukis was clear in his letter that he didn’t want the author’s prison preparation manual to fade away, and that he wanted to make it available to soon-to-be-prisoners and their families for free. This incident report was written by SIS Technician A. Holderfield and issued by Lieutenant J. Del Valle-Sojo. When issuing the incident report, Lt. Valle-Sojo exclaimed, “Who’s out to get you?” The retaliatory motive was clear.
On October 20, 2014 — again, the next available business day -Mr. Zoukis was seen by his unit’s UDC. Unit Manager Tomlinson again chaired this hearing, along with another FCI Petersburg official (who is not being named due to her not being a part of the retaliation). At this hearing Mr. Zoukis was again not permitted to call any witnesses, present any documentary evidence of his innocence, or even make a statement in his defense.
At the conclusion of this second UDC hearing, Mr. Zoukis was pronounced guilty and sanctioned to 90 days loss of visitation and commissary. During this hearing Unit Manager Tomlinson — a 22-year Federal Bureau of Prisons veteran who has conducted hundreds, if not thousands of UDC hearings — made three phone calls in an attempt to ensure that she was following the proper protocols. It is presumed that she called Legal Technician Harris and DHO W. Bennett. The hearing ended with her stating, “I’ll see you next time.” It is our belief that this alluded to future retaliatory incident reports.
Where The Cards Lie
Following these two UDC hearings we at the Prison Law Blog, including Mr. Zoukis himself, launched an aggressive advocacy campaign against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and FCI Petersburg in particular. This has included interviews and articles in various media outlets, along with outreach to various prisoners’ rights groups, several of which have already spoken up on Mr. Zoukis’ behalf. These have included, FedCURE Director of Programs and Case Management Jack Donson, and Executive Prison Consultants‘ Executive Director Richard Zaranek. It’s clear that Mr. Zoukis has widespread institutional support in this matter.
As for Mr. Zoukis, he has started the appeals process and looks forward to obtaining expungements of the adverse findings. In 2012, FCI Petersburg officials used the disciplinary system in an attempt to silence Mr. Zoukis. After 5 months in the hole, all of the guilty findings were expunged from his record. We at the Prison Law Blog anticipate the same outcome, just without the time in solitary confinement.
Burning Books: What The Future Holds
The future of Christopher Zoukis is certain: he will fight the Federal Bureau of Prisons and FCI Petersburg actors as long and as hard as it takes. To this end he has retained attorneys Alan Ellis, Todd Bussert, and Steve Rosenfield to litigate against the Bureau of Prisons and bad actors at FCI Petersburg. He’ll have his day in court, and we at the Prison Law Blog will be right behind him when he does.
What is less certain is the direction this story will take. FCI Petersburg staffers SIS Technicians P. Vaughan and A. Holderfield recently seized all incoming copies of Mr. Zoukis’ latest book -College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) — in an attempt to intimidate and censor Mr. Zoukis. The FCI Petersburg Mail Room has started opening his legal mail, suggesting that prison officials are attempting to understand his litigation strategy.
Image courtesy amazon.com
In Solidarity: We Stand With Christopher Zoukis
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a sickness, as do many other departments of corrections. This sickness leads them to believe that prison writers like Christopher Zoukis are the enemy and must be crushed. This belief leads correctional officials to attack incarcerated writers with incident reports and the loss of channels of communications.
We at the Prison Law Blog understand this. We know what is and what is not occurring. We understand that Mr. Zoukis has done nothing wrong, that he is being attacked for exercising his First Amendment rights. This we find deplorable.
As prisoners’ rights advocates, we find this type of conduct unsurprising. As prison law experts, we find it unconstitutional. And as friends and supporters of Christopher Zoukis, we are saddened that he must go through these tribulations seemingly alone, and during the holiday season at that. But we will not lose faith. We will continue in the struggle. FCI Petersburg officials might be able to cut off Chris’ email and bar him from receiving visits, but they can’t take the lead out of his pencil or the ink out of his pen. In this we find comfort beyond words.
Note: Christopher Zoukis can be reached at the below address. He welcomes written interview questions, letters, and other correspondence from fellow prisoners’ rights advocates and supporters.
P.O. Box 1000
Petersburg, VA 23804