Interview With Christopher Zoukis, Prisoners’ Rights Advocate

Interview With Christopher Zoukis, Prisoners’ Rights Advocate

By Katherine White

Christopher Zoukis is a prisoners’ rights advocate, and the author of Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012). While incarcerated, Mr. Zoukis spends his time writing books, articles, blog posts, and school papers (he’s pursuing a degree in Business Administration). He also spends much of his time either in his prison’s law library or out and about consulting with those he assists with legal pleadings.

Katherine White: Why did you decide to use your time in prison to fight for the rights of other prisoners? That is, wouldn’t it be easier if you just did your time, as they say, and concentrated on your writing?

Christopher Zoukis: When I came to prison, it was a great shock to me to see how few prisoners were able to speak for themselves or assert their rights. To add to this, I was stunned at how often prison administrators seemed to just do as they pleased, even if their actions violated the law, or were clearly unconstitutional. I was despondent about such actions and felt that it would be up to me to protect myself. Legal study was the path I chose. And I used this legal study, prompted by witnessing the existing abuses, to motivate myself to help my fellow prisoners.

Like most Americans, I assumed that there was somebody, somewhere, who reviewed practices inside prisons and other centers of secure detention. I assumed that there would be someone charged with protecting America’s incarcerated class. You always hear about the ACLU or some other legal organization suing on the behalf of prisoners. Sadly, the truth of the matter is that those instances are very rare. There is no one charged with ensuring that inmates’ rights are not violated. Because of this void, I, and my fellow incarcerated litigators, have stood up and are fighting for our brothers and sisters who find themselves the subject of America’s criminal justice system.

So, yes, it would be easier to simply stay to myself and work on my own projects. But this wouldn’t address the abject abuses which occur in American corrections daily, abuses that occur in front of all of us who are incarcerated. I feel as if it is my duty and responsibility to do what I can to help my fellow prisoners however I might.

KW: Were you trained in the law when you came to prison?

CZ: No, I was a teenager. A high school dropout. After I managed to calm down a bit, and matured in some ways, I decided that I would pursue an education while in prison. I just couldn’t bring myself to write these years of incarceration off as a lost cause. I was determined to come out of prison a better, more qualified person than when I went it. Happily, after watching the struggles of others, the law seemed exciting and challenging enough to hold my interest. Learning the law fits perfectly with my desire to effect change in our prison culture. I took it from there and have never looked back, except for a short stint studying sociology and English at Ohio University. Perhaps I lost my mind for a brief moment.

KW: So what do your legal activities entail; do you help other inmates file lawsuits?

CZ: My practice usually involves administrative law, within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I help prisoners negotiate the byzantine administrative remedy process that the Prison Litigation Reform Act and other recent provisions require them to endure before they are even able to file in federal court. Sadly, if they don’t fully exhaust their claims administratively, then court relief isn’t even possible. Actions are simply denied for failure to exhaust one’s administrative remedies. For all inmates, this exhaustion component is very frustrating and many don’t bother to fulfill it. Instead, they opt to drop their action because of the work required, and this frustrates me to no end.

Other work includes assisting fellow prisoners when they are issued disciplinary reports. I draft written statements for the accused, compile witness statements, coach them through the whole process, and help file appeals. This includes defensive strategy, the procurement of evidence, and researching applicable case law. In fact, I find this arena to be a specialty of mine. I enjoy the battle.

In short, I see myself as a paralegal and prison consultant. I research the issue at hand, find appropriate remedies, and consult my fellow prisoners on what the next best action is to take.

KW: What is the criterion you use to decide whether to get involved in a case?

CZ: To start, I have the money I need. So, that is not a motivating factor. Instead, if I see someone in need, someone who has a legitimate complaint that isn’t being addressed, that piques my interest. I’m also always up for helping those in the fringe groups since their abuse often precedes future woes for the general population. First Amendment complaints draw me in too. I’m a writer who’s been under fire by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, so naturally, this area would interest me.

KW: You’ve published some writings on the legal struggles of transgender prisoners in recent months, is that an area of the law you find challenging and appealing?

CZ: This goes back to my fringe group comment. I decided to lend my legal support to some transgender prisoners because I saw them getting bullied by the system and denied needed medical treatment. As such, I wanted to make sure that their rights are being protected and that they are being provided with prevailing community standards of treatment. It’s my belief that all people in prison deserve the protections the Constitution offers, whether they’re transgender, from a marginalized religious group, or convicted of unpopular crimes. When we’re divided that’s when our true power to advocate for ourselves fails. A united front, one which protects all of us, is required if we are to demand change and demand that abuses stop.

KW: Don’t you worry about retaliation for being a jailhouse lawyer of sorts?

CZ: Well, first, I don’t consider myself to be a jailhouse lawyer. To me, that term conjures up thoughts of ill-trained inmate hustlers, harming causes for a bag of coffee or a few dollars. In my opinion, the system is overrun with these charlatans, filling the court dockets with frivolous litigation, the kind that the talking heads smirk about on Fox News or CNN. They’re why it’s so challenging to bring a legitimate complaint to court. Prisoner complaints aren’t being taken seriously because of these untrained people and their deficient pleadings.

I see myself as an incarcerated litigator. I’ve educated myself, and taken the formal courses, and I consider my work to be as good as any lawyer’s, at least when it comes to internal prison matters and prison litigation. I implore all of my fellow prison litigators to spend the time to truly learn the law and to come to the understanding that it’s not about sticking it to the man but effecting needed change for our fellow prisoners. Learn the law, study it, practice it, and help others. This is the code of the jailhouse or prison litigator.

As to worrying about retaliation, well, I’m not afraid. I enjoy a good legal scrap, and I’m willing to pay the price for what I believe in. In fact, I have and will continue to do so for as long as I remain behind bars. This includes whatever sanctions might be levied against me.
KW: What kind of consequences do you mean?

CZ: An example of this actually occurred last year. Starting in February of last year, I spent five months in the hole, the Special Housing Unit. It’s essentially 24-hour lockdown with a few hours a week, supposedly five, in a dog-run cage for exercise. The administration of my prison apparently didn’t like my prison education advocacy efforts, which involved a free, non-profit, national newsletter, the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, and my debut text, Education Behind Bars. Within a month of my book being published, they locked me in the hole for a series of disciplinary reports for “conducting a business.” Apparently, this was to silence me.

It didn’t work. With the help of my attorneys, the Law Offices of Alan Ellis, we overturned all three incident reports. So after five months in segregation, a significant loss of privileges (e.g., phone, email, commissary), and the loss of much good conduct time, they had to let me out, and they had to cancel a planned transfer to a maximum-security federal prison. After all, that would be the next step up for me since I’m currently at a medium-security federal prison. As a result of the expungements, all of my privileges and the good conduct time were restored, though they never give you any form of compensation for being locked in the hole for half of a year. Funny how that works!

But I did receive the extra gift of having to drop out of college while I was battling the ordeal because I wasn’t able to type my school papers or sit for examinations while in the hole. It’s irony at its worst since that was what I was advocating for in the first place. I am proud to say that I am still advocating for educational opportunities for America’s incarcerated class. That has not changed one iota.

KW: Do you feel like your rights were violated during the ordeal?

CZ: Absolutely. Prison officials, as with all other Americans, are not allowed to attack a person for engaging in constitutionally protected activities. They took some unfair swipes at me, and at a number of my friends whose incident reports were also expunged, for speaking publicly about the deplorable state of educational and rehabilitative programming within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state prison systems. The retaliation was plainly illegal. A police officer can’t lock someone in jail because they voted for Ralph Nader, or because they post those annoying campaign signs in their front yards. The same is true in prison. Prison officials can’t attack an inmate or lock them in a dark and dirty cell for 23 to 24 hours a day because they disagree with the inmate’s political speech. You’d hope that prison authorities would realize this from the start. Sadly, this is not always the case, as my case indicates.

The First Amendment has taken some hits in recent years, but prisoners still retain the right to speak. And those outside of prison still retain the right to listen to prisoners when they speak, regardless of the format in which this speech takes place. I’m willing to stand up for this, and if I have to pay a price, so be it. While I feel some measure of vindication in the upper levels of the Federal Bureau of Prisons expunging all of the disciplinary findings that kept me in the hole, I plan to bring the matter to federal court to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else. It’s up to those of us who can do good to actively work for good. There are no excuses here. In my view, when someone has the power to help those in need, they have the duty to help those in need.

Our nation’s history is replete with critical commentary from behind the walls, from Thoreau to Dr. King, to today. It’s most assuredly worth standing up for.

KW: It seems as though prison officials really did a number on you. Was this a personal vendetta or something more innocuous?

CZ: In the beginning, I don’t think that it was personal. Instead, I think that Federal Bureau of Prisons staff members just got a bit ahead of themselves. Much of the time it appears as if they weigh actions by thinking of what prisoners deserve to do or should be allowed to do, but they fail to base their beliefs on prison system policy or the law. As such, any rule or regulation is subjective to what the prison official wants it to be. I think that this is what occurred in my situation. But instead of it being one official, it was a number of them. This includes regular prison guards, members of my unit team, lieutenants, SIS personnel, associate wardens, and even the warden himself.

By the time the warden got involved, through colorful comments to me while I was in the hole, I think it then became personal. And to respond publicly to his assertion that I should get comfortable in the hole, no, I will not. And even though he might have told me that he was, in fact, “the janitor,” I still do not believe him.

KW: What is the most important issue in the realm of prisoners’ rights today?

CZ: Censorship is a big one, as are the restrictions on inmate correspondence in general. A decade ago, prison officials started by banning publications that contained nudity, like Playboy magazine. Now they’re expanding such prohibitions to include Sports Illustrated, Interview magazine, and other commercial publications which don’t specifically feature nudity, and, more nefariously, to political speech that prison administrators deem to be a threat to prison order. Even Prison Legal News, the premier prison law publication, has had problems with various prison and jail systems banning their publication even though they repeatedly win in court. It’s a very slippery slope that prison administrators are on, and censorship will be at the forefront of prison litigation in the years to come.

The regularity with which prison officials rely on sex offenders’ unpopularity and the unpopularity of other fringe groups, to harass and subject such groups to additional restrictions is disturbing. At my prison, the administrators swept in and removed dozens of religious DVDs — from “minor” religions — because they had children in them, and thought that some inmates were misusing the materials. Kundun, Martin Scorcese’s story of the Dalai Lama, was seized. This is absolutely absurd. The concept of restricting religious speech and practice because it might be misused by relatively few inmates is abhorrent. If problems with such materials were to occur, the offending parties should be dealt with on an individual basis. All inmates at the institution shouldn’t have their religious practice restricted because of the actions, or potential actions, of a few inmates. This is a clear instance of prison administrators taking issues that apply to a specific segment of the incarcerated population and forcing additional religious, and First Amendment restrictions on all of the inmates at the local institution.
The treatment of sex offenders as pariahs is in my opinion, a harbinger of future restrictions for prisoners as a group. Look at the sex offender registries — now there are methamphetamine registries and violent offender registries. What’s next? I’ll tell you what. Prison administrators are going to test out restrictions on the sex offenders, or on the Buddhists or Muslims, or on other fringe groups, to see if these smaller groups put up with the additional restrictions. If they do, they’ll apply the restrictions to the general population. This is where we are heading. And it’s going to be an ugly fight, but one in which I’ll be swinging, along with my fellow prison litigators.

KW: What restrictions on correspondence are you referring to?

CZ: Our friends at Prison Legal News are in court right now fighting “postcard-only” mail policies, in which prisoner correspondence is restricted to a small postcard, incoming or outgoing. It’s a troublesome issue, a real affront to the First Amendment. We’re also going to be seeing more general restrictions where more liberal publications will be banned, and anything which features swimsuits will be too. This is the direction in which we appear to be heading.
More troubling to me is the expanded use of “Communication Management Units” (CMUs) and “Special Administrative Measures” (SAMs), which make outside communication so restrictive that many prisoners just give up on outside contact altogether. Thus far, the courts seem to be ignoring or rubberstamping such policies. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at least two Communication Management Units without even bothering to create formal federal regulations that are subject to congressional oversight. This is akin to a business owner saying that they are lowering the minimum wage rate or doing away with Obamacare for their employees, but not bothering to alert the local, state, or federal government as to their actions. The difference is that those employees would have somewhere to go to protest this injustice, whereas inmates have nowhere to go but to one another.

KW: Is there anything that seems hopeful out there?

CZ: Yes. It’s encouraging to see the issue of long-term segregation percolating in the mainstream press. Mental health professionals have had the data for a long time, showing the seriously damaging effect that long-term segregation has on virtually everyone who endures it, particularly on those with pre-existing mental and emotional impairments. The Supermax model is unsustainable, and now that the mainstream press is reporting on it, I think that it’s only a matter of time before legislatures step up to the plate and eliminate or modify the policies allowing such abhorrent treatment. Ten years alone in a locked boxcar will make anyone crack. Five months certainly did a number on me, causing feelings of frustration and anger to gain a temporary foothold in my own life. The public is waking up to the issue. God willing, this torturous method of locking people away will be ceased once and for all.

It’s also encouraging to see that prison overcrowding is becoming a political issue and that legislators are beginning to pay attention. When the latest GAO report and Congressional Research Service report on the matter are brought into the mix, there might even be hope. These are encouraging signs. They show that all is not lost and our agitation efforts have not been in vain.

KW: You’re a regular contributor to the Prison Law Blog; do you think a blog on prison legal matters is something a wide audience will respond to?

CZ: Yes, I do. Remember, there are now more than two million men and women in America’s prisons and jails, and over five million people under some form of judicial supervision. Both of these numbers exceed those of any other country in the world. Heck, the United States imprisons 5 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. These are astounding numbers. To add to this, there are many people who work in the prison and corrections industries who support these millions of people. Plus there are an untold number of other concerned parties, like the families and friends of prisoners, as well as those in the academic and legal fields who have an interest in the subject.

Irrespective of the huge number of people who are a part of the corrections industry caught within it or know someone who is, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good information on prisoner legal issues out there at the moment. There’s a need for it. I see the Prison Law Blog as a central clearinghouse for quality information on the subject, for anyone to access when they need it. I don’t necessarily see PLB as being a source point, but more as a clearinghouse for informed discussion on American corrections and prison law.

KW: Who is the Prison Law Blog?

CZ: The Prison Law Blog (PLB) is a consortium of legal professionals and others who are committed to advancing the interests of men and women in America’s prisons and jails, supported by the generous contributions of time and resources of like-minded individuals. But it doesn’t end there. The Prison Law Blog isn’t simply Chris or Dianne, or you, Katie. It’s an anonymous, yet interconnected, group of people whose very lives and quality of life depend on the work that is published here because the work published here very well might not be published anywhere else. And if the work wasn’t to be published, the change which it will affect could not have been accomplished. When I speak at the PLB, I don’t speak merely for myself, I speak for the millions of other people who have no voice, but need to be heard.

KW: Will PLB ever accept advertisers or otherwise generate income?

CZ: To my understanding, no. The PLB is, in my view, a “community resource,” with nothing to hawk, nothing to sell. I think everyone at PLB understands that its loyalties are to our incarcerated citizens, and not to outside vendors, no matter how well-meaning they may be. One cannot serve two masters. You realize, of course, that’s my perspective. Middle Street Publishing owns and operates the PLB, thus they establish the policy. On the one hand, I’m merely a contributor. On the other hand, in an indirect sense, I’m more than that because my voice is part of the PLB choir.

With this in mind, it is also my understanding that PLB will be promoting texts and groups which advocate for change or help the incarcerated class. This means that you’ll probably be seeing a page in the future where information concerning needed and relevant books are promoted, but not sold. As such, you might one day see a text about prison education or the state of American corrections or prison Buddhism, but this will not be a property of PLB, but of its contributors and supporters which the PLB feels you would find of interest. My understanding is that PLB will never make any money off of its readers. Ever. Period.

KW: In your opinion, what can be done to address the problem of overcrowding in America’s prisons?

CZ: First, I think there needs to be some basic reform in the way we punish lawbreakers in America. As it stands now, we seem to focus on incapacitation irrespective of other more productive tools that could save lives, while holding the wrongdoer responsible for their actions and reducing costs. We’re talking about drug courts, probation, and treatment programs. We’re talking about reforming the individual, not placing them in prison where criminality is furthered and responsible social skills are deadened.

Second, with the understanding that incapacitation is not the answer sentencing guidelines must be revised to reflect sensible sanctions. Twenty, thirty, or forty years for a first-time offender should be the exception, not the rule. This would probably mean adjusting statutes and sentencing guidelines in a downward manner. Our sentencing guidelines should be in line with other Western nations. Sentencing is a mode of judicial correction and chastisement, not a game in which political points are accrued for years sentenced. The judges and prosecutors, who boast of sentencing criminal defendants collectively to over one million years in prison should be disbarred, not celebrated.

Third, we, as prisoners’ rights advocates need to change the way we think. We need to open our minds to the possibility of success, not a controlled failure. It is amazing to me that sentencing reform advocates celebrate an 18 to 1 crack cocaine to powder cocaine sentencing ratio as a victory! It’s a culture of defeatism. We need to aim higher.

KW: How so? What can be done?

CZ: Sentencing and penalty provisions are serious subjects, and if we continue to legislate from a politics-over-logic perspective then we are bound to fail; bread and circus legislation is anathema to democracy. Sentencing policies based on empirical data need to be the rule, not the exception. This goes with all areas of the criminal justice process. While emotion does have a place, it is not in the place of logic. And politics should remain within its domain: in Washington, hopefully not failing to pass a budget, not at the end of a gavel.

KW: How is the prison overcrowding problem where you are?

CZ: Delightful! The prison in which I’m housed has had approximately 500 “temporary” beds, which have been housed in “temporary” three-man cells, for more than 5 years. These 500 “temporary” beds are added to the roughly 1,100 permanent ones. This should say it all. The Government Accountability Office just provided a report for Congress that specifically notes FCI Petersburg’s overcrowding, among many other facilities.

Overcrowding is a serious problem, everywhere. Look at California, ordered by the Supreme Court to release thousands of prisoners and spend billions — billions! — of taxpayer dollars on prison medical facilities. But the cost of overcrowding is not weighed by a ruling in a court of law but on the human toll. Those of us who must live in these conditions are the ones who must pay. And we pay with our mental stability, physical safety, and ongoing health concerns which are further endangered by the overcrowding compromising services like health care.

KW: Do you think that your efforts, and those of folks like PLB, can really affect change, given these obstacles?

CZ: I certainly do. In my mind, there are a few areas of our culture that need more attention than our prison system. It’s a broken system, and the opportunity to reduce the suffering of so many people — no matter how “good” or “bad” we view them — should be a priority for all of us. I’m committed to this fight, and there are many like me willing to suffer for the cause. It’s easy to stick up for stray animals or preserve natural resources. Standing up for true democracy, for real equality for all citizens, to me, is the American ideal.

KW: Thank you, Chris.

CZ: Always a pleasure to stand on a soapbox and spread the word.