Censorship in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Censorship in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

BOP Attacks Incarcerated Writer Christopher Zoukis, Again

By Kamea Zelisko

Christopher Zoukis is no stranger to censorship by Federal Bureau of Prisons officials. Those who write from prison often have to contend with interference and retaliation at the hands of prison officials. They are thrown into solitary confinement, transferred to more violent prisons, and have their communications channels cut off. Christopher can check all of these boxes and plenty more.

In 2012, following the release of his first book, officials at medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia, issued Zoukis three disciplinary reports for conduct relating to his writing activities, locked him in the hole for five months, and attempted a retaliatory transfer to a much more violent and dangerous facility. After months of fighting the false allegations, all three incident reports were expunged from his record.

In 2014, following the release of his second book, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), Zoukis was issued four more incident reports. The same general allegations were made: that he was conducting a business and using the mail, telephone, and email to do so. As a result of the incident reports, Bureau of Prisons officials restricted his access to phone, email, and visitation for several years. Again he fought back, and again all of the adverse disciplinary findings were expunged from his record.

Come 2017, Christopher released his latest book: Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017). As has become the custom, Bureau of Prisons officials issued him three incident reports, one for allegedly conducting a business as part of his various writing activities, another for unauthorized contact with the news media, and the final one for sending money to his book publicist. While he was thrown in solitary confinement for six weeks pending his hearings before the Discipline Hearing Officer (DHO), eventually, the second and third incident reports were completely expunged from his record, while the more serious charge alleged in the first incident report was thrown out. He is now in the process of appealing the adverse disciplinary finding. This makes nine expunged incident reports in a row for his writing activities. Federal prison officials will do just about anything they can to silence his voice and still his pen.

Today I sit down with Christopher Zoukis to discuss what has occurred, why, and what he believes is to come.

Q. I see that you write for The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. How were you able to accomplish this from behind bars?

A. It certainly has been a process, but it all comes down to hard work and determination. Writing from prison is incredibly hard. I don’t have access to the traditional tools of the writer. So, I have to find ways to make due. I also rely on a dedicated team of supporters outside of prison who help ensure that I can write and publish my thoughts in the public square.

Q. Tell me about the 2012 incident reports. Who was the driving force behind these? Why do you think that these were issued?

A. In 2012, a total of three incident reports were issued. One was for a Code 296 (email abuse) due to communications surrounding the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, a free educational newsletter that I edited. Gerald Wolberg, a Trust Fund Technician at FCI Petersburg, issued the incident report. The other two were for Code 334 (conducting a business) / 297 (telephone abuse) / 396 (abuse of postal mail) violations. These concerned my writing activities. They were issued by Phillip Vaughan, a Special Investigative Service (SIS) Technician at FCI Petersburg. I was found guilty of all three and ended up spending around five months in the hole, plus the loss of virtually all of my channels of communication.

While it is always hard to find a smoking gun in cases like these, all of these incident reports appeared to me to be straightforward attempts at censorship. Prison officials decided that I wasn’t allowed to write books or articles and most certainly wasn’t allowed to publish them. While they were wrong on all accounts, by issuing incident reports, prison officials were able to virtually cut me off from the outside world and attack my mental stability by placing me in solitary confinement. Prison staff are very successful at such illegal and underhanded tactics, and they rarely have to answer for them.

Q. FCI Petersburg Medium prison officials attempted to transfer you to a higher security prison. Tell me about this. How did you stop it?

A. This is an interesting story. Common practice is for prison officials to release inmates from the hole a few days early, assuming that they have behaved during their stint in solitary confinement. While other prisoners were being released a week or even two weeks early while serving much shorter terms in the hole, I managed to get the Special Housing Unit (SHU) lieutenant to agree to release me two days early (a very paltry sum). But, on the day of my supposed early release, he advised me that my Unit Manager, Angela Tomlinson, had denied the request, stating that I was being transferred to United States Penitentiary Lee, a high-security federal prison.

I later learned that Unit Manager Tomlinson had directed my case manager to artificially increase my security point totals to make it appear as though I was then a high-security inmate. My attorneys promptly reached out to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Christopher Eichenlaub, protesting this decision. Following a review of my security point scoring, Regional Director Eichenlaub issued a letter to FCI Petersburg Warden Eric Wilson, which he copied to my counsel, advising that I would remain a medium-security inmate and that at the conclusion of my time in the SHU, I would be released back into general population at FCI Petersburg Medium.

Q. Were the 2014 incident reports similar to those issued in 2012? Were the same prison officials behind them?

A. The 2014 incident reports were very much in line with those issued in 2012. This time around, I was accused of a series of Code 334 (conducting a business) violations. They all concerned my writing activities. For example, staffers asserted that I could not write for The Huffington Post or Prison Legal News, contact a book author about partnering with him on the second edition of his book, have a personal bank account outside of prison, or write articles for the websites PrisonEducation.com, PrisonLawBlog.com (now FederalCriminalDefenseAttorney.com), or ChristopherZoukis.com. These incident reports were issued by Special Investigation Agent Jose Negron (who was head of FCI Petersburg’s SIS Department), SIS Technician Aaron Holderfield, and SIS Technician Phillip Vaughan.

This time around was interesting due to the fact that we had already won three times in a row. As such, they knew good and well that their conduct was not permissible and that I was not violating any rules. But SIS officials again used the vehicle of business prohibitions to try to censor me. While they were successful for a period (after all, they did restrict me from telephone, email, and visitation privileges for several months), we eventually prevailed. All four of these incident reports were eventually expunged from my record.

Q. Bring me up to speed on the 2017 incident reports. What were they for, who issued them, and what has happened to date?

A. This time around, I’ve been issued three incident reports. One was for Code 334 (conducting a business) / 297 (email abuse) due to writing and publishing. Another was for a Code 327 (unauthorized contacts with the public) for an interview that I did via telephone. And a third one for Code 217 (giving money to anyone for a prohibited purpose) due to paying my book publicist. The first two were issued by James Buckner, a Washington, D.C.-based SIS agent assigned to the Counter-Terrorism Unit. The final one was issued by FCC Petersburg SIS Lieutenant H. McWilliams.

The disciplinary process was colorful. Code 327 was adjudicated by the Unit Discipline Committee (UDC) on May 24. They found me not guilty, though it was a fight. What came out during the hearing was that my Unit Manager, J.L. Alderman, had pressured the UDC members to find me guilty. When they did not, she called them in a rage. It appears as though she may have been pressured by FCI Petersburg Warden Eric Wilson, SIS Counter-Terrorism Unit agent James Buckner (the report writer), or some combination of the two in order to ensure a guilty verdict was reached, even though she was not present to hear my statements or review any of the evidence that I submitted.

When I was issued the third incident report (Code 217), Lieutenant M. Kowalski made the decision to throw me in solitary confinement, where I was held for six weeks pending a hearing before the Discipline Hearing Officer (DHO) for both the Code 334/297 and Code 217 reports. The UDC recommended that the DHO expunge the Code 334/297 incident report from my record. Unit Manager J.L. Alderman pulled a fast one and apparently assigned a different unit team to UDC me for Code 217. It seems that she was tired of my unit team refusing to play ball and toe the party line.

On July 19, I finally had my DHO hearing. The hearing was very long, lasting around an hour. When all was said and done, the DHO threw out the Code 217 incident report and Code 297, though he found me guilty of Code 334. I was sanctioned with six months of loss of telephone and loss of good conduct time. I’m now awaiting the issuance of the DHO report so I can appeal the finding. I have faith that I will win. This will make ten expunged incident reports in a row, all concerning my writing activities.

Q. It seems as though SIS officials have largely been the arm of the Bureau of Prisons that has spearheaded the efforts to censor you. Why is this? Is this typical of their department?

A. In 2012 and 2014, it was the FCI Petersburg SIS Department that spearheaded the censorship. This time around, it is Central Office’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, which, I believe, is an arm of Central Office SIS. I have come to expect this from the SIS department. Of course, it was FCC Petersburg SIS Lt. H. McWilliams who issued the third incident report this time around. It was an unheard-of five pages long. In my ten years of being a jailhouse lawyer, I’ve never even seen a two-page incident report. This certainly says something.

You raise a good point, though. For the past seven years, I have been under intensive SIS communications monitoring. This means that they listen to every phone call, review every piece of inbound and outbound postal mail, and even have to approve every email I send or receive. But I have broken no prison rules. They do this because I am a prison writer, and they want to monitor the content of my speech. Sadly, the Bureau of Prisons has committed a phenomenal amount of prison security resources to monitor me.

Outside of my situation, local-level SIS departments focus their efforts on corrupt prison guards, serious violence within the prison, prison gangs, and the prison drug trade. And the Bureau’s Counter-Terrorism Unit ostensibly monitors terrorists and, I guess, prison writers such as myself. It’s very telling who has been involved over the past seven years.

Q. Why is James Buckner, a Central Office SIS official with the Bureau’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, after you? You don’t have any connections with terrorists, do you?

A. Let me address the second question first. I have absolutely no connection with terrorism or terrorists. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, am a Christian, and will be released to Charleston, South Carolina, early next year. I’m just a regular American, though one who has been in prison since a senior in high school.

As for why James Buckner is after me, this is a small amount of history which may explain it. On March 31, 2017, Mr. Buckner issued a national ban on a news service that Middle Street Publishing operates. This news service emails federal inmates articles on criminal justice matters and does so for free. I sometimes write for this news service. MSP appealed the ban, and on April 14, 2017, it was overturned. My best guess is that Mr. Buckner found out about me through this news service, which might have been sent to someone on his monitoring list. It appears as if having his ban overturned has enraged him. I believe this to be the catalyst for the retaliatory incident reports that he has issued me.

So, in short, it appears as though Mr. Buckner is abusing the power of his office and the nation’s counter-terrorism infrastructure to effect a personal vendetta. Of course, other Bureau of Prisons officials are supporting his play because they dislike it when inmate writers gain a level of visibility from behind bars. Prison censorship is the name of the game, and they tend to use any tools necessary to effect it, even our nation’s counter-terrorism apparatus.

Q. Why do Bureau of Prisons officials continue to attack you even after losing nine times in a row? It can’t be that they don’t know any better, can it?

A. They certainly know better. I think that they just can’t help themselves. Federal Bureau of Prisons officials hate it so much when they can’t control the content of an inmate’s speech, or their actions for that matter, that they will do just about anything in their power (whether legal or illegal) to silence and control the inmate. This same scenario has played out countless times before. This has less to do with me, personally, than it has to do with my status as a successful prison writer who refuses to shut up.

The sad thing here is that Bureau of Prisons officials, in this case primarily James Buckner and the Bureau’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, are using their power within the agency to engage in illegal and unconstitutional censorship. What a twist! Instead of using their power to enforce the law, they are using it to break the law. But to me, the worst part is they are spending their time trying to silence me, not on the terrorists who have waged a holy war against the United States. They would rather put national security at risk than have an inmate publish his thoughts in a public venue. That is amazing.

Q. If readers want to learn more about this latest batch of attacks or about your work in general, where can they go?

A. I plan to post here at FederalCriminalDefenseAttorney.com as new developments occur. Readers can learn more about my other work on this site, as well as at PrisonEducation.com and ChristopherZoukis.com.