Christopher Zoukis Discusses Education & Recidivism with Toronto’s AM640

Christopher Zoukis Discusses Education & Recidivism with Toronto’s AM640

On Friday, Dec. 5 Christopher Zoukis discussed the benefits of education for prisoners and its direct effects on reducing recidivism with Canadian radio station Toronto AM 640.

Listen to the Interview or view the Transcript below.

Christopher Zoukis is an expert in the field of correctional education, he’s been incarcerated for the past eight years in Virginia, he’s an advocate, an active advocate for prison education, a noted legal commentator and practitioner, and author of several books, including his most recent one called, “College for Convicts”. It examines how recidivism drops when those convicted are afforded the opportunity to educate themselves, and Christopher Zoukis is on the line and joins us here this afternoon on Talk Radio in Toronto AM640.

Jeff McArthur: “Chris, how are you, sir?”

Chris Zoukis: “I’m very good, and you?”

JM: “I’m okay, thanks for joining us, and I have to admit, off the top, this is a first for me. Twenty years of broadcasting, and we’re doing an interview live from jail today.”

CZ: “Live from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”

JM: “Can you give us kind of an idea of what a day in the life is like for you?” You’re in medium security? Correct?”

CZ:: “I am. I’m in medium security. My mornings usually start around 6 a.m. when they call chow, and ah from that point, Monday through Friday, I usually work out until 10ish. Um, and then they really revolve around the meals and around work. (background automatic female voice “You are calling a federal prison”) Um lots of time in my cell, lots of time reading and writing. “

JM: “What was that in the middle?”

CZ: “They do that twice in each phone call. It’s just to remind you that, in fact, you are talking to a federal prisoner.”

JM: “And is this conversation likely being monitored right now?”

CZ: “It certainly is.”

JM: “Alright, and you’re a big promoter of, as I mentioned in the intro of education. Ah, how did you get involved in this? Did it kind of provide a salvation for you, for your time in prison?”

CZ:  “You know it really did. When I came to prison. First of all, when I came to prison, I was a senior in high school. Um, so I actually didn’t graduate high school.  But when I came to prison, I earned a GED. Ah, and I wanted to continue my education, so I ended up finishing my high school diploma through a correspondence program. Well, after that, I wanted to go to college, but there weren’t any resources around. I didn’t know of any programs that were available. There certainly wasn’t any funding for anything, so I started digging, and with the support of my family, I was able to compile a mini research library of correspondence catalogues, and through that, I was able to start taking baby steps. I first took a paralegal course, and as the years went on, I took other courses. I took some theological courses, and now I’m in college through correspondence.”

JM: “Well, you know I was jokingly going to say I hope you studied the law so you could find a way to get out of there, but….”

CZ: “That is the first thing I started on. I really learned how to read. I read a little bit on the street, but I wasn’t a big fan of it. I really got into the habit of reading by doing legal work.”

JM: “Ok, so is. From that, have you developed a love for the law in a strange way? Or has that kind of been a jumping-off point into other studies?

CZ: “ I think it’s been a jumping-off point, but I think the law is what, for prisoners is what confines us and what dictates our lives. And it’s also what frees us too. So I think that the law is something that all prisoners can have a significant interest in but not necessarily rule our time.”

JM: “Right. So do you think most prisoners, if they do get hooked on education, it is, as you suggested, a great thing for them? Is that what they naturally gravitate to, first and foremost?

CZ: “I think once a prisoner gets a taste of education, they want to continue it, but often there aren’t any opportunities, so they get frustrated, and then they stop. So, for example, a lot of students here. They earn their GED, and they want to continue on with something more, but there’s nothing there. There’s no money to go any place. There’s no person here to help them figure out what their options are. I think for the people who actually dig into it a bit and actually figure out about correspondences and if they get a passion for something and I think that they have so much time on their hands that they’re willing to put in the time and effort to see it through.”

JM: “ Joined on the line by Christopher Zoukis, his book is called “College for Convicts,” and he joins us live this afternoon from FCC Petersburgh, a medium-security prison in Virginia

“And Chris, what is it about education that, and I know you’ve examined this, those that have been convicted, they are less likely to re-offend if they take the opportunity to educate themselves behind bars. Why is that? Does education give them or provide them hope?”

CZ: “Absolutely! Now, when we look at the research, we see that with each additional level of education obtained, the recidivism rate goes down accordingly. So, for example, prisoners who have some high school tend to at a recidivism rate of 54.6 %. Once they have quality vocational training, that number drops to about 30 %, with an associates degree 13.7 %, with a bachelor’s degree 5.6%, and out of Hudson Link, which is a great program out of New York, they show a 0% recidivism rate for anyone who earns a master’s degree. The proof is the pudding. There are hundreds of studies dating back to 1930 that all agree that education reduces recidivism. No one disagrees with this.”

JM: “So does it kind of come back to if you see jail/prison as punishment or rehabilitation or maybe a combination of both? And do you find, I guess do you find, particularly in the American system, since you’re the one you’re incarcerated in? Is there too much emphasis on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation?”

CZ: “Absolutely! I think that victims of crime have a right to be angry. That people have committed crimes against them. They’re completely justified in that, and people who violate the law should be punished. On the other hand, once they are punished. Going to prison is a punishment. It’s not the start of the punishment. But once they’re in prison, we need to provide people with the tools to succeed. Most people in the American prison/complex all the different systems. They tend to have an education of less than 6th grade. What can a sixth grader do? What kind of person who’s 30 – 40 years old and has a sixth-grade reading level and mathematic skills do? Nothing. So what do they do? They go out they sell drugs. They commit petty crimes. They just don’t know better. And once they get incarcerated, we need to give them the tools they need to succeed in the future. They need an education. They need a GED to start with. Then they need some kind of training so when they get out, they have a marketable skill. That way, they can support themselves, and they can support their families.

JM: “So I guess there’s, I don’t know, a public education campaign, if you will, a battle for the hearts and minds on the outside that think that these prisoners just deserve to be punished. But what about those on the inside, Chris? And did you talk to your fellow inmates and tried to convince them that education is the way, the path to a better life? What’s their reaction?”

CZ: “You know most of them already know it. They come to me because they want to know. They don’t come to me because they don’t know if they should educate themselves. They come to me because they want to know how. Now the Bureau of Justice statistics says that between 95 and 97 % of all American prisoners will one day be released. That means that there are around 650,000 people a year being released from custody. Of those, 67 – 80 % are re-arrested within 3 – 5 years. The system is failing. People want their future neighbors to be successful, to not commit crimes against them. They need to teach them something. They need to educate them. So people in prison, know education is their path and their key they just don’t have a way a mechanism of obtaining it.

JM: “For those who aren’t convinced, I think it’s a pretty easy argument you can make that this is a great saving for taxpayers. Invest in convicts now, they are less likely, as you say to re-offend, and they won’t be a burden on the system or society and costing taxpayers. As a matter of fact, they might become productive members of society and taxpayers.”

CZ: “You know absolutely. It costs 30 around $25 – 55,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner depending upon what system their in. It costs around $1,400 a year to incarcerate them. I mean, correctional education is easily two times as cost-effective as incarceration. The United States spends 70 billion dollars a year on its prisons. It’s ridiculous! That’s money that should be going to community colleges. They should be paying more into programs. There are people in our country and in Canada who need help. I mean, this is just money that we’re taking away from the social support programs that people rely on.

JM: “So finally, Chris, how much longer have you got left on your prison term?”

CZ: “I have four more years.”

JM: “Alright, and after that four years, what do you hope to do?

CZ: “I would like to open a consulting group that helps people who are getting ready to go into prison. Prepare them for prison. And once they’re in prison, help them to get through the trouble spots. And on the tail end, when they get ready to get out, help them figure out how to get their life back together. I mean, no one has experience in these things, you know. No white-collar criminal says, ‘Oh well, I’m ready to prison..” And on the flip side, people who don’t have a whole lot of experience being successful outside of prison. They don’t know how to be successful, they don’t know how to get back into society. I want to find a way to help people on both ends of the spectrum.”

JM: “Well, listen, I think it’s a good thing for the convicts, a good thing for society as a whole there’s no sense just punishing people and not rehabilitating them as well. Interesting discussion. Again the book is called “College for Convicts”, by Christopher Zoukis. Chris, thanks so much, I really appreciate you joining us.”

CZ: “Well, thank you for having me.”