Maryland Focuses on Crime Prevention and Re-entry Programs

600,000 individuals will be released and returned to their communities this year — more than 8,000 of them in Baltimore.

600,000 individuals will be released and returned to their communities this year — more than 8,000 of them in Baltimore.

By Christopher Zoukis

Maryland has increased its efforts to focus on crime prevention and rehabilitation programs for offenders as a way to reduce recidivism and reliance on the prison-industrial complex.

It is of increasing importance and necessity crime-reduction programs are installed to prevent crime before it begins, and rehabilitation is the focus for offenders so they can lead productive lives and contribute to their communities, instead of falling back into old patterns.

To do that, corrections — not just punishment — should be a key philosophy, and facilities should provide support in the form of re-entry programs and skills building. Across the country, there is a need to do a better job preparing incarcerated individuals to return to home. It's ludicrous to lock up offenders, give them no education, skills or tools, and expect that they will all come out transformed, or even know how to change.

Politicians, lawmakers, nonprofits, and other community leaders are all getting on board, realizing change needs to maintain momentum. “Our mission is preventing crime, not just sending people to prison, so we focus our crime-prevention efforts on two groups: school students, to deter them from turning to crime, and ex-convicts, to stop them from re-offending, said Maryland State's Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement.  Rosenstein’s office has received funding to promote re-entry and crime prevention programs and efforts. These programs are crucial, considering 600,000 individuals will be released and returned to their communities this year — more than 8,000 of them in Baltimore.

There is a comprehensive list of programs in Maryland available to newly released adults, organized by county. The list is 181 pages and covers resources for substance abuse, mental health, emergency funding, conflict resolution, job training, mentoring, food help and legal assistance.

Here are a few of those programs:

• Several counties offer SHORE UP! The organization name is an acronym for Self Help on Rural Economics and Urban Problems, with the main focus being to help low income and disadvantaged persons reach economic sufficiency. Programs include energy assistance, emergency assistance for food, housing and medical, job training and employment programs including Job Start for youth ages 16-19, Adult Basic Education and GED, and housing programs.

• The Druid Heights Community Development Re-Entry Program’s mission statement is "to cause, encourage and promote community self-empowerment through the development of economic, educational, employment and affordable housing opportunities." It focuses on newly released ex-offenders. Services provided include transitional housing, peer mentoring, mental health services, family reunification, life skills, conflict resolution, computer literacy, resume writing and job placement assistance. This comprehensive range of services helps to ensure a complete and successful reintegration into the community.

• Maryland Correctional Enterprises' Continuing Allocation of Re-Entry Services (CARES) is a reintegration program for inmates nearing their release, with the goal of reducing recidivism by 20 percent  in comparison to the general MCE release population. Participants receive three months' training in cognitive behavioral therapy, and three months of the Employment Readiness Workshop, with a minimum of 50 contact hours providing assessments, interview skills, job search strategies and skills building. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Folsom Prison Programs Improve Lives Inside and Outside its Walls

Programming at California's second-oldest prison take a holistic approach at rehabilitating — from puppies to addiction assistance.

Programming at California's second-oldest prison take a holistic approach at rehabilitating — from puppies to addiction assistance.

By Christopher Zoukis

Johnny Cash may have talked about time "draggin' on" at Folsom Prison in his '60s-era hit song, but times at California's second oldest prison have changed.

Folsom State Prison first opened in 1880 and has come a distance from its harsh, punitive roots, increasingly offering a wide range of rehabilitation and re-entry programs. The facility houses primarily medium-security males but also contains minimum-security facilities for both males and females, and offers programs that not only build inmate’s skills, but that also have a direct impact on the community outside of the prison.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recognizes that programming opportunities are the best way to prepare an offender for success upon release, ensuring that programs are available at all stages while in prison, and upon parole. These programs benefit the community in numerous ways including reducing recidivism, which contributes to lower taxes and costs, and increasing numbers of ex-offenders that can effectively re-enter society and contribute to it.

Some of these programs also have immediate tangible benefits to the community — such as providing bicycles to children, supplying hand-sewn items to charities, and delivering well-trained puppies that eventually become service dogs.

Canine Companions for Independence currently has 8 puppies in training at the Folsom Women’s Facility. Each dog is paired with an inmate, who is responsible for its care and basic training 24/7. These dogs will go on to do more advanced training, and hopefully pass muster to become service dogs for a wide variety of community members in need, including children with autism and veterans suffering from PTSD.

In the meantime, not only do the dogs receive care and attention, the inmates involved take pride in their service, given responsibility to care for a creature for completely non-selfish reasons. Participants learn a lot about themselves, build self-esteem, learn group dynamics, and come to appreciate unconditional love and the importance of sustained, long-term goals. The puppies are also pretty good stress relievers inside the prison walls.

Hooks and Needles is another initiative at Folsom. It began in 2011 as a charitable crocheting and knitting program with the purpose of helping inmates to design, develop, and craft various handicrafts such as booties, bonnets, blankets and toys for donation to hospitals, shelters and children’s care facilities. More than 1800 items have been donated since its inception. This program teaches inmates new skills, and there is a direct tangible benefit to the local community.

In a similar vein, another program that has been running for 20 years sees inmates repair and refurbish bicycles, which are then given to children in need year-round, with a particular focus on Christmas. Local service clubs contribute to the program by donating paint, parts and tools for the prison bicycle shop.

Beyond those programs, Folsom’s other rehabilitative programming focuses on helping prisoners become more productive, address issues such as addiction, and learn how to successfully re-enter society. Each offender’s risks, needs, and skills are assessed upon incarceration, and each is enrolled in the appropriate programs.

Vocational and educational programs include masonry, welding, auto mechanics, GED, ESL, parenting skills, college programs and correspondence courses. Inmates can participate in a pre-release program called California New Start Prison to Employment Transition Program, consisting of transition planning, job searching and applications, interview preparation, and career orientation. A transitional treatment facility houses inmates and parolees where they tackle their substance abuse issues. About 40 parolees per month graduate from the program.

This holistic approach to helping inmates come out of prison better prepared to participate in society than they were when they entered is an example of a system focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. In the best-case scenario, these opportunities help ensure those released have dealt with their demons, and are prepared with new and relevant skills to rejoin the community and the workforce, becoming — perhaps for the first time — functioning members of society.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and


Nearly Half of Prisoners Lack Access to Vocational Training

Nearly half of prisoners in the United States do not get vocational training in jail. Learn more at

By Christopher Zoukis

In the ongoing discussion of prison reform, mass incarceration and reducing recidivism, vocational programs are often overlooked in favor of formal educational courses and other activities and programming.

Maybe it is assumed that most incarcerated individuals have access to, and participate in, vocational training and prison jobs. At least that’s what popular TV shows and the media might lead us to believe. But in reality, despite the crucial role that vocational training plays in the success of an offender upon release, there is not nearly as much focus on vocational training as is needed.

In a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, it was found that only 7 percent of inmates receive vocational certifications while incarcerated, and only 2 percent receive associate degrees. This is not for lack of interest — 29 percent of respondents wanted to obtain vocational qualifications, but there was no program availability. For 47 percent of these respondents, future job prospects were a serious concern. Some respondents indicated a lack of interest in enrolling in programs, but reasons included a lack of quality programs available — a 2005 report from the Department of Justice found that only 52 percent of state and federal facilities offered vocational programs. Other respondents cited not wanting to have to sacrifice a current prison job or assignment in order to take vocational training.

There is a wide range of good programs offered in some facilities, but it's clearly not enough. The majority  — 95 percent — of those currently incarcerated will eventually be released. It's incumbent upon society to see that ex-offenders are not the same — or worse — coming out then they were going in. These individuals need opportunities to lead different lives once they're released.  And vocational programs that teach real and desirable skills are one of the most effective ways of ensuring this, by qualifying people for jobs that can help stabilize their lives.

The importance of these programs is highlighted in a 2013 RAND corporation report, which performed a meta-analysis of all reports on educational and vocational training in prisons from 1980 to 2011. Inmates with vocational training were 36 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated, and much more likely to find employment, and this training was found to be even more successful than having a high school or college education in obtaining post-release employment.

Obtaining employment upon release for offenders is critical. Offenders need the tools and skills to secure employment and be able to contribute to their communities. Without these opportunities, the rate of recidivism is significantly higher. Those who participate in vocational training are 28 percent more likely to be employed after release.  Participation in prison programming can also have a marked effect on how constructively a prisoner's time behind bars is spent. Program participation has been shown to reduce institutional problem behaviors by offering meaningful work and other opportunities during otherwise idle time, and participants sometimes even help with prison maintenance while learning new skills. Offering a range of vocational programs and certifications behind bars is a rehabilitative approach that can go a long way toward ensuring the goals society should have for prisoners — recidivism reduction, a more skilled and employable citizenship, reduction of mass incarceration and greater safety inside institutions. Nearly half of the nation's 2.3 million prisoners do not have vocational programming available to them.  It's time to take a look at expanding programming to reach the other 48 percent. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

From Inmate to Inspiration: Man Helps Prisoners and Youth Turn Lives Around

John Valverde spent 16 years in prison, now focuses on helping improve the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and at-risk youth.

John Valverde spent 16 years in prison, now focuses on helping improve the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and at-risk youth.

By Christopher Zoukis

John Valverde is living proof that second chances are possible, and that the criminal justice system needs to be about more than just punishment — it should focus on rehabilitation and facilitating successful re-entry for the legions of ex-offenders who will eventually rejoin their communities.

Valverde this year becomes CEO of YouthBuild USA Inc., a network with a global organization of programs for low-income youth, which provides education, employment, and other opportunities to help them become leaders in their communities. These programs are important on both a local and global scales, as in the US alone there are more than 2.3 million youths who are not in education or employed, and whose prospects of becoming successful adults are pretty grim.

Valverde is certainly a good candidate for the position, and youth from troubled backgrounds appreciate the candor with which he shares his story. He was sent to prison in his early 20s after killing a man who was accused of raping his girlfriend. The man was a serial sex offender, on probation for two other sex offenses at the time. Valverde spent 16 years behind bars, during which time he felt remorse for his crime, and sought opportunities to better himself and those around him.

He earned two degrees — a Bachelor’s in Behavioral Science from Mercy College, and a Master’s in Urban Ministry from the New York Theological Seminary. He also taught other inmates how to read and write, acted as an HIV/AIDS counsellor, and lead initiatives to create educational programs after the elimination of TAP and Pell finding. The Certificate in Ministry and Human Services, today called Rising Hope, still continues in several New York State prisons. And he co-founded Hudson Link for Higher Education, which provides college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women, from which more than 450 students have graduated.

After his release from prison, Valverde worked as a paralegal before going on to work for The Osborne Association — a New York organization that provides treatment, education, and vocational services to current and former inmates. Their mission is to help these individuals transform their lives, and to serve the community by reducing crime and its human and economic costs. The Osborne Association offers a broad range of programs that serve more than 10,000 people each year, including programs on economic independence, health, connecting families, and strengthening communities.

Now at YouthBuild, Valverde will continue his work to provide much-needed programs that build strong communities and give tools to some of society’s most vulnerable. The program started in 1978 in East Harlem, where a group of teens rebuilt an abandoned tenement. It now encompasses 250 programs around the US, and more than 80 programs in 21 other countries. Each helps to provide at-risk youth with the skills they need. Many participants work toward finishing their high school diplomas while learning skills through hands-on projects such as building affordable housing or participating in other community services. Participants are also offered leadership training. Valverde brings a lot to the table through his previous experiences and youth find him relatable. He is an example that no matter what you did before, you can always turn your life around, create a worthwhile future, and make a difference.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Incarcerated Author Releases Federal Prison Handbook

When Christopher Zoukis first went to prison over 10 years ago, he was completely unprepared. “I had no idea how the system worked, where I was going or what to expect,” says Zoukis, who is still incarcerated at FCI Petersburg in Virginia.

Like most of the other 10 million Americans imprisoned across the country, he didn’t even know what to prepare for emotionally, financially or otherwise. “There was no one resource to go to and find the real information I was desperate to find,”

Now that’s all changed.

The newly-released Federal Prison Handbook compiles resources and information to help prisoners and their loved ones understand how the federal prison system works, as well as help keep prisoners safe by explaining how to avoid the near-constant conflicts found inside prisons.

Some of the topics inside include:

  • A brief history of the Bureau of Prisons and a breakdown of the current inmate population
  • Details about the different security levels and special administrative facilities
  • What to expect on the day you’re admitted to prison, and how to greet cellmates for the first time
  • What to do about sexual harassment or assault
  • Navigating racial and cultural divisions at different security levels and during transport
  • The best ways to avoid fights, and the options that provide the greatest protection if a fight cannot be avoided
  • Typical daily schedules, controlled movements and inmate counts, and how to carve out a life between mandatory activities
  • The best ways to avoid gangs and fights, and options that provide the greatest protection if a fight cannot be avoided
  • Comprehensive analysis of Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and regulatory guidelines

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoners rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal NewsNew York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at

Media Inquiries

Christopher Zoukis is pleased to speak with media by telephone about topics related to prison education and justice reform. For more information or to book an interview, email or send a request in writing to:
Christopher Zoukis
Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg
P.O. Box 1000, #22132-058
Petersburg, VA 23804

What Others Say About the Federal Prison Handbook

“The Federal Prison Handbook is an excellent resource for individuals currently incarcerated or facing incarceration in a federal prison." -- Brandon Sample, federal-prisoner-turned-attorney, author of The Habeas Citebook, and Executive Director of Prisology

"A must-read . . . [Filled with] extensive details on the nuances of federal prison culture." -- Jack Donson, Director of Case Management at FedCURE, Chair of the American Bar Association's standing subcommittee on Federal Bureau of Prisons policy, nationally awarded FBOP retiree.

"The go-to reference book for answering all those 'good questions' the incarcerated client asks but which the attorney doesn't know the answers to because they never teach you [this] in law school." -- Kent Russell, expert attorney and author, California Habeas Handbook

From Ex-Prisoner to Professor and Prison Reform Advocate

Aaron Kinzel faced obstacles after being released from a 10-year prison stint, and now teaches criminology and is an active prison-reform advocate.

Aaron Kinzel faced obstacles after being released from a 10-year prison stint, and now teaches criminology and is an active prison-reform advocate.

By Christopher Zoukis

It’s easy to think only of the crimes committed when words like “offender,” “incarceration” or “prisoner” come up. But we should remember that many offenders in our system of incarceration will be released each year, hoping to become functioning and productive members of society. With support and rehabilitation, these individuals can become more than just their past crimes. They might even become role models and pillars of their communities.

One such example is Aaron Kinzel. Growing up surrounded by crime, in his late teens — when he should have been graduating high school — he was imprisoned for 10 years after a serious confrontation with law enforcement while on probation. He fired at an officer and led law enforcement in a high-speed chase and overnight manhunt, ending in his arrest.

Flash forward to today, and Kinzel's life is completely different. After earning three degrees, he is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters, focusing his work on criminal justice reform and education for offenders. By focusing on education, mentoring and deterrence, his aims are to eliminate criminal behavior. He also teaches classes for the Criminal Justice Studies program, where students appreciate his real life experience, and frank and meaningful discussions in class.

Kinzel launched an experiential tour of Cell Block 7 Prison Museum in Jackson, MI, for sociology students and faculty, which thoroughly engaged the participants and gave them an idea of what it’s like to be incarcerated. He is considered an expert on the criminal justice system and in advocating for reform, and has conducted training seminars for upper-level personnel for the Department of Justice, has completed contracts with the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Prisons, and routinely does speaking engagements.

Kinzel was recently named a UM Difference Maker. Each year 50 students are selected, who are at the forefront of their fields, who make an impact on campus and in their communities, and who embody academic and professional achievement. In addition to this, Kinzel has received numerous grants, scholarships and fellowships, and is a finalist for an Open Society Foundation Soros Justice Fellowship, awarded to those who are leaders in criminal justice reform in the United States. The Open Society Foundations aims to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on individuals, families and communities, by ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.

Kinzel is a perfect example of why prison reform is needed. Even while working to obtain his three university degrees, it took him more than six years to find a job after leaving prison — because of the box he had to check on job applications. Now many states have "banned the box" in an attempt to level the playing field for ex-offenders who are re-entering society and want to become productive members of their communities. It wasn’t until Kinzel was working on his Ph.D. that someone gave him a chance at employment, and he was hired to teach criminal justice courses.

It is a reality that most prisoners — more than 90 percent —will be released. So advocating for reform and rehabilitation makes sense. We do not want these formerly incarcerated to reoffend, so they should be given a fighting chance after they’ve served their time, making housing and employment easier to obtain. Programs like banning the box, or prisoner re-entry programs help with the transition. In Michigan, recidivism has been reduced by 18 percent since the adoption of such a program. Kinzel is proof of what supports and opportunities can mean to someone who has grown up in a life of crime. People can change while they're on the inside, and thrive on the outside. All prisoners should be given the opportunity to do so.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Changes to Pennsylvania DOC Improves Life for Prisoners, Staff

Educational and vocational training initiatives in the Pennsylvania prison system have improved conditions for both inmates and staff.

Educational and vocational training initiatives in the Pennsylvania prison system have improved conditions for both inmates and staff.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spent 2016 making laudable strides toward helping improve the state of mass incarceration in this country.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel made a statement in December outlining improvements the Department of Corrections (DOC) has made in public, prisoner, and staff safety, improving transparency and fiscal responsibility, providing more opportunities for prisoners to gain life skills, and providing staff with increased knowledge and education.

Some of these improvements include funding to help 150 people fight opioid use and return home healthier and more productive, training more than 1,300 employees in crisis intervention to appropriately respond to mental health crises, changes to the delivery of mental health services, and directing those with mental health and disabilities away from the use of solitary confinement, instead providing specialized treatment for their individual needs.

Inmates in the state are given numerous educational and other learning opportunities that help improve their chances of successful re-entry, including training in mental health first aid and becoming peer counsellors. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program allows access to post-secondary education for inmates in six state prisons, working with four institutions of higher learning.

The DOC also changed its controversial "food loaf" punishment, — a practice of punishing misbehaving prisoners by serving their food cold after being mixed and baked into an unappetizing brick — resulted in media attention on the mistreatment of prisoners.

The changes and programs implemented in Pennsylvania prisons have improved safety, better equipped staff for their jobs, and more positively prepared inmates poised for release to re-enter society and become contributing members of their communities, since they will leave prison with increased education and life skills.

The 2016 improvements enriched the existing educational and vocational programs in offered in prisons across the state, including GED tests, computer/electronics technology and repair courses, ESL programs, financial literacy classes, cosmetology and barber programs, literacy, Braille, and a wide range of other vocational programs, though not everything is offered at every institution.

Since the statement Wetzel made in late 2016, further changes to the DOC have been announced including that the state is looking to close prisons, with several facilities under consideration. This is not only a cost-saving measure, but also a consequence of reduced crime rates and fewer incidences of recidivism. Two are expected to close, but only one has been selected thus far, slated to shut down by June 20.

In further reforms, automatic solitary will no longer be a practice for former death row inmates who no longer face capital sentences. Currently these inmates can still face years of unnecessary solitary confinement, which can cause major psychological consequences, including anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal impulses. This new policy will reduce these damaging effects looking forward.

Pennsylvania has the right idea when it comes to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction, and these efforts have created better environments for both prisoners and prison staff. It's a mere drop in the bucket toward reducing mass incarceration, but it's a meaningful splash all the same.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Prison Misuse a Huge Burden on Taxpayers, Society

Mass incarceration costs billions each year, but the toll on society is not just financial. 

Mass incarceration costs billions each year, but the toll on society is not just financial. 

By Christopher Zoukis

There are myriad issues with the current U.S. system of mass incarceration where more people are imprisoned than any other country in the world, and often in a hugely skewed manner — one which varies widely across states. It's vital to reduce mass incarceration for the improvement of society, and for the additional perks of saving massive amounts of money and resources.

The nation’s prison systems cost taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars. In Texas, which has the largest prison population, more than $3 billion is spent every year on prisoners —  more than $50/day or around $20,000/year per inmate. That isn’t even the highest cost per state, by far. The average is $31,000. In New York state, it tops $60,000 per year. These amounts don't reflect additional incidental costs in other departments or jurisdictions, or reflect the conditions of the prisons — such as potential overcrowding, additional programming or counseling. They may also not reflect all of the costs associated with prison operations, such as employee benefits or health care, which may fall under other budgets.

These numbers also don't include the additional costs of recidivism, costs related to degrading mental and physical health incurred while in prison, or the costs to the community that may occur as a result of, for example, a family member being incarcerated. Losing the primary wage earner can result in families becoming dependent on state and federal programs.

Even staunch conservatives and others who are tough on crime are beginning to recognize that this system isn’t working. It wastes money, time and resources, it punishes the lowest-level offenders too harshly, it breaks up communities and families, and in many cases — as high recidivism rates bear out — it is ineffective.

There are more cost effective and intelligent ways to deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders. Diversionary and alternative sentencing programs are one way of stemming the tide of bodies going to prison. Alternative approaches seek to address the underlying causes of crime — which often include mental illness, poverty, and a lack of employable skills or education. Many alternative programs have shown heartening results in reducing recidivism rates and enriching quality of life post-release. Supervised probation is also another option that should be increasingly considered — at a cost of $3 per day in Texas, compared to $50 per day to house a prisoner.

The costly practice of imprisoning everyone is ineffective as a crime-reduction measure — since 70 per cent of those released will re-offend — and it should not be the first response to low-level offenses. For the good of American citizens, families, communities and budgets, we need to seriously look at the cost of our current system of incarceration and address it head on.

Why not move to a model where, when possible, we can keep families together, foster thriving communities, and retain talent and taxpayers in our society, at the same time reducing the financial burden on state and country? The prison system is a misuse of resources.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Museums Take Measures to Spotlight, Reduce Mass Incarceration

The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison turned museum that spotlights the issue of mass incarceration using experiential and contemporary exhibits.

The Eastern State Penitentiary is a former prison turned museum that spotlights the issue of mass incarceration using experiential and contemporary exhibits.

By Christopher Zoukis

At a time when museums aim to become more active hubs in communities and are taking stances on social justice issues, some are using their spaces and voices to address the issue of mass incarceration, and as venues to implement new rehabilitation and alternative sentencing programs.

Many museums are also learning that it is no longer enough to present the past, but to frame the contemporary present within a larger historical context to encourage critical thinking.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is a former prison that has been turned into a historic landmark and museum. It presents permanent exhibitions and contemporary art installations that deal with the issue of mass incarceration. While they continue to offer historically based tours, including details on Al Capone and famous escapes, they are also kick-starting dialogue on important related issues that affect so many Americans, and inviting visitors to think critically. Their new exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration creates awareness and stimulates empathy,  — even aiming to cause some discomfort. This is done by presenting a variety of statistics and data, as well as presenting very personal stories. The exhibition spotlights numerous issues that exist with the current prison system.

From the Center For the Future of Museums blog:

“Visitors are forced to walk through one of two corridors, based on their willingness to admit if they’ve ever broken the law. Admitted lawbreakers are confronted with artist Troy Richards’ installation, asking if they see themselves as “criminals.”  He invites these visitors to leave written confessions. He also mixes visitor confessions with confessions from men in and women living in prison. Visitors try to guess which is which. They can’t.”

In 2014 the Eastern State Penitentiary also commissioned the building of a sculpture called The Big Graph — a 16-foot infographic demonstrating the enormous per-capita growth of the prison population, rates of incarceration in comparison to every other country, and information about capital punishment and racial disparity in the prison system.

Feedback from the museum's board of directors and visitors has been positive, with 91 percent of visitors reporting they learned something thought provoking about the prison system. Positive online reviews of the exhibition laud the incorporation of contemporary elements that “encourage activism and engagement within the community, and hopefully bring more reflection about the government’s view."

Beyond creating awareness about the issue of mass incarceration from history to the present, some museums are also taking an active role in rehabilitation and alternative sentencing. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has been implementing the RAISE (Responding to Art Involves Self Expression) program for 10 years, and it is considered one of the most effective programs offered through the Berkshire County Juvenile Probation Department, as well as being a positive experience for the museum and its staff.

This alternative sentencing program for juveniles aged 12-18 focuses on engagement with art in order to contemplate the human experience — both their own and throughout time; to engage in self-awareness and self-expression; and to develop a constructive sense of themselves and the larger world. The engagement in, and analysis of art, which is often a first for many of the youth, sets the ground work for discussions about each person’s crime, viewed from multiple perspectives, exploring context and the motivations for their behaviors, and helps give tools to control those behaviors.

A three-year program evaluation demonstrated the success and benefits of the program on its participants, and concluded that RAISE accomplishes its goals over the course of the five-week program. These include significant improvements in behavior, engagement and participation, an increased knowledge of art and critical thinking, and increased self-awareness. The museum has also found additional value in serving new audiences, expanding their community engagement, and becoming more relevant to the community by meeting different needs.

What these museums are doing demonstrates how important it is for different institutions to start and continue the discussion on mass incarceration and its widespread effects in a larger context. Museums might not be the most obvious venue for critical discussions on social issues, or for hosting alternative sentencing programs, but perhaps they — and other outside-the-box venues — should examine how to become involved in creating awareness and solutions. These two very effective programs demonstrate the vital importance of community involvement in reducing mass incarceration. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Answering the Real Questions About Federal Prison

What happens on the first day of prison? Are showers really that scary?
Thousands of people are sent to federal prison each year in the United States. Add to that the many family and loved ones effected when someone they know is going to prison, and you have a larger percentage of the population who have burning questions about life in prison.
Finally, there is a comprehensive, realistic guide to surviving in a federal prison - the Federal Prison Handbook.

“I wanted to provide a definitive guide for individuals facing incarceration, prisoners who are already inside and their friends and family,” says author Christopher Zoukis, a college-educated inmate and prison advocate.

The newly-released Federal Prison Handbook compiles information to not only help prisoners and their loved ones protect themselves and their rights, but to help keep prisoners safe by explaining how to avoid the near-constant conflicts found inside prisons.

  • Some of the topics inside include:
  • What to expect on the day you’re admitted to prison, and how to greet cellmates for the first time
  • What to do about sexual harassment or assault
  • The best ways to avoid fights, and the options that provide the greatest protection if a fight cannot be avoided
  • Medical, psychological and religious services
  • How to communicate with the outside world through telephones, computers and mail.
  • What you can buy in the official commissary and the underground economy
  • How to avoid scams, schemes, theft and other problems
  • Comprehensive analysis of Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and regulatory guidelines

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoners rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal NewsNew York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Read more about the Federal Prison Handbook or Christopher Zoukis.

Media Inquiries

Christopher Zoukis is pleased to speak with media by telephone about topics related to prison education and justice reform. For more information or to book an interview, email or send a request in writing to:

Christopher Zoukis
Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg
P.O. Box 1000, #22132-058
Petersburg, VA 23804 What Others Say About the Federal Prison Handbook


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President Trump Preaches Privatization

Trump seems poised to reverse the previous administration's stance on phasing out private, for-profit prisons.

Trump seems poised to reverse the previous administration's stance on phasing out private, for-profit prisons.

by Christopher Zoukis

In the weeks and days leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, he made several statements about privatization — and his team is full of privatization supporters. From public television, to Veterans Affairs to prisons — there are many things he seems to be considering privatizing.

As prisons go, this is a very big step away from the stances and actions of the Obama administration, which announced in August 2016 that private prisons would be phased out. The Department of Justice released a memo detailing the decision after reviewing their privately run operations and finding that those prisons didn't save money and weren't safer than government-run facilities, which are two of the traditional arguments in favor of private institutions.

Privatization has been heavily favored by Trump’s choice for Attorney General — Jeff Sessions —  and was reiterated by Trump at an MSNBC town hall in March 2016, where he discussed the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and the mixed reports on its effects on the prison population.

"I think that as far as drug legalization, we talk about marijuana, and in terms of medical, I think I am basically for that.  I've heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.  I'm watching Colorado very carefully to see what's happening out there.  I'm getting some very negative reports, I'm getting some OK reports.  But I'm getting some very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what's happening, so we'll see what happens.

 I think a lot of people are really looking at Colorado (ph) for prison reform.  I think our -- as you know, our prison system is a disaster, it's complete disaster all over the country.  Almost everything we have, Chris, if you want to know the truth, is a disaster

I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons.  It seems to work a lot better," Trump said.

Trump’s stance seems clear, but he hasn't outlined any details for his reforms, nor why he thinks private prisons work better.

In reality, any savings at private prisons are generally the result of cutting corners. Private prisons may refuse to take sick or elderly prisoners in order to reduce health care costs, and they are more likely to employ younger, lesser-trained guards, with higher inmate-guard ratios, resulting in less-safe environments for both prisoners and prison employees.

In 2014 Corrections Corporation of America lost their contract to run the prison dubbed "Gladiator School," — the Idaho Correctional Centre — the state's largest prison, after many violent incidents had that resulted in numerous lawsuits. Private prisons also tend to lack suitable rehabilitative programming, which makes sense when you're running a facility to make a profit, and that profit is based on how many beds are filled — not how successful at rehabilitation you are.

The two main concerns about private prisons are that rehabilitation and programs are not emphasized, and that their very existence depends on — and reinforces — mass incarceration. Many current contracts require that prisons operate at least at 80 percent capacity. The government is actually fined if this is not the case. This contributes to a system where there is no incentive to change sentencing structure, reduce sentences, or to reduce incarceration or recidivism rates.

We shouldn't support a system that continues to reinforce our current cycle of mass incarceration; we already have the largest prison population in the world. Trump needs to focus on how to reduce incarceration, not maintain this broken, unwieldy and unfair system, which results in billion dollars in profits for two big private prison corporations and the six big Wall Street banks. If private prisons are to continue, there should be revisions to their operational structure and their contracts, and incentives should be based on performance, not how many cells are filled. By moving to a performance-based model, the government ensures that it's not advocating imprisonment, but advocating reform. Move to incentivize the reduction in recidivism and the operating of demonstrably successful rehabilitation programs. Systems like this have been working in Australia, and closer to home in Pennsylvania. This country should not take steps backward from the reforms launched by the Obama administration. The Trump administration must continue to focus on reform. There is too deep a human and societal impact to seeking to fill prisons to capacity.  

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Prison Education in America: The History and the Promise


By Catherine Prigg

Concerned citizens began the first American prison system in Pennsylvania in 1787, and a clergyman, William Rogers, was the first educator (, 2012). There has been ongoing national debate since then concerning what we as a nation should do with wrongdoers, including whether the criminal justice system should focus solely on punishment, rehabilitation, or a measure of both.

One side states that criminals do not deserve the privileged of an education. The proponents of prison education state that its value contributes to the reformation of corrupt character, is more cost-effective than incapacitation (i.e., incarceration), and reduces recidivism more efficiently than any current mechanism employed. Regardless, there is "almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do" (Keller, 2014).

Even the United Nations, an international humanitarian agency, sees the inherent right in education. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was published by the United Nations after World War II, states in Article 26, "Everyone has a right to education." Sadly, this sentiment doesn't appear to fully extend to the U.S. political class or to the American people.

The Crumbling of Prison Education in America

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet a quarter of its prisoners (Aalai, 2014; Liptak, 2008; Zoukis, 2016). Despite the U.N. resolution, the American political system falters back and forth between the two sides of the prison education debate, and interestingly, it is not a partisan issue.

Before 1995, the country was home to roughly 350 in-prison college programs. Ten years later, that number had dwindled to just 12 (Neyfakh, 2015). In support of this closing down of in-prison education programs, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson erroneously explained, "Some convicts have figured out that Pell Grants are a great scam. Rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree." Senator Hutchinson's statements were aimed at convincing the Clinton administration to make inmates ineligible for federal student financial aid, which was accomplished in 1994 (Cohen, 2016; Neyfakh, 2015). While an engaging sound bite, the idea that anyone would choose to rob a store so that they could get a free education is ludicrous.

Defunding Correctional Education Programs

Between 2009 and 2012, on the behalf of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the non-profit RAND Corporation conducted a study in which they found that states reduced funding for prison education programs by an average of 6 percent. The study reported that states with large prison populations cut prison education funding by 10 percent, on average, while states with medium-sized populations slashed prison education budgets by an average of 20 percent.

According to Prison Legal News (Clark, 2014), "Congress failed to renew federal funding in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for a grant program that help[ed] [to] finance higher education courses for prisoners. The grants, known as Specter funds -- named after correctional education advocate and late U.S. Senator Arlen Specter -- provided money to state prison systems that helped underwrite a portion of the cost of post-secondary programs for prisoners."

New York's Attempt at Funding College in Prison

In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided that it was time to better prepare prisoners for life after incarceration by implementing a state-sponsored college program for New York state inmates. This innovative program was designed to cut New York's crime and recidivism rates (Cohen, 2016). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this set off a wave of debate against his initiative (Bakeman, 2014).

Senator Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, argued that the state should increase the availability of financial aid to traditional students before providing free college to prisoners. Grisanti wanted to restore funding that would extend the state Tuition Assistance Program to graduate students.

Assemblyman Kieran Lalor, a Hudson Valley Republican, had his own take, declaring that the state should first reduce prison spending by 10 percent and then consider offering student loans to prisoners, not free college tuition. "The whole notion of rewarding bad behavior is completely backwards," Maziarz explained. "It should be -- do the crime, do the time -- not do the crime, earn a degree. It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost" (Bakeman, 2014).

Cuomo argued that the plan would help curb the state's high recidivism rate, and ultimately reduce the costs for the state, along with reducing crime and victimization. "It costs $60,000 per year to house an inmate in prison, and it costs an estimated $5,000 per year to provide higher education. Right now, chances are almost half, that once he's released, he's going to come right back," explained Governor Cuomo. "With the country's highest rates of recidivism, solutions that reduce that rate are the best method for reducing overall costs" (Della Costa, 2015).

Support for Education from the Catholic Church

In early 2015, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, one of the most influential conservative figures in the state, showed his support for prison education by delivering a speech at the Bard Prison Initiative program's 12th commencement ceremony. "We have an opportunity and an obligation to use smart methods -- and advance innovative new programs -- that can improve public safety while reducing costs. As it stands, too many individuals and communities are harmed, rather than helped, by a criminal justice system that does not serve the American people as well as it should. This important research is part of our broader effort to change that" (Della Costa, 2015).

Visceral Reactions to Education for Prisoners

In July 2016, the U.S. Department of Education released a brief stating that spending for correctional education outpaced K-12 spending (Ujifasa, 2016). However, on the campaign trail, President Elect Donald Trump said, "Vocational training is a great thing" and lamented, "We don't do it anymore." He promised to "expand vocational and technical education" in his first 100 days in office (Goldstein, 2016).

But does this mean that this will occur in the prison education system as well? All across the country citizens are heatedly against funding a criminal's education when they themselves go into deep debt to fund their own. "Education is a privilege, and if you commit a crime, that entitlement is revoked" (Aalai, 2014). Many feel that criminals should do the time for the crime, not for a degree. There is a fear that by educating criminals they will become better criminals, and the political system responds to these emotions.

The Connection Between Prisoners and Literacy Rates

There is a tremendous amount of research that proves that these fears are unfounded. Inmates who receive an education behind bars are 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime following their release (Keller, 2014). "There's a strong connection between illiteracy and incarceration. A recent national study found that 85 percent of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates.

Another study concluded that inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy education, as opposed to 70 percent for those who receive no education. This equates, according to the study, to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders. Other research suggests that 75 percent of inmates have an education at or below the 12-grade level and 19 percent are completely illiterate" (Maximino, 2014; Rosario, 2016).

"The issues that arise from mass incarceration and high recidivism rates are well known. According to a presidential report from the Council of Economic Advisors titled 'Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,' released in April 2016, a family with an incarcerated father is 40 percent more likely to live in poverty. About 65 percent of prisoners haven't completed high school, with 14 percent possessing less than an eighth grade education.

Children whose parents are incarcerated are at higher risk for antisocial and violent behavior, mental health problems, school dropout and unemployment. Education, vocational programs, skill building and other programs, are all vital tools for ensuring that prisoners who will be returning to their communities will be able to lead productive lives. Access to these opportunities will help break the cycles and factors that can lead to further incarceration" (Zoukis, 2016).

Paying for Prisoners to Go to College?

A common question is, "Why should the American public pay for prisoners to get a free college education when they have to pay for their own children's education?" This is a very understandable argument. After all, many outside of prison have had to pay their own way through college. And it is clearly true that hardworking, law-abiding, intelligent kids deserve a free college education. So why?

The answer is that education is the best mechanism that we know of to reduce recidivism. Ninety-seven percent of the nation’s prisoners will be released and will reside in our neighborhoods. What we need to ask is: "Do we want these prisoners to succeed when they return to our communities?" The thoughtful answer is "yes" -- we want and expect released prisoners to become law-abiding, taxpaying, contributing members of our communities. That will not happen without interventions that address the issues that contribute to their poor decisions.

"Inmate education is a cost-effective intervention that puts prisoners on a different path that generates hope and employability" (Taylor, 2015). The RAND analysis "found [recidivism has a] notable effect across all levels of education, from adult basic education and GED programs to postsecondary and vocational education programs."

While it might not feel like just desserts to provide an education to prisoners, the research bears out that education reduces recidivism better than anything else. Released prisoners fail at astounding rates. It is expected for them to return to a life of crime. But by providing them with an education -- in particular, one focused on job skills in demand in their communities -- they will have a chance of supporting themselves, their families, and their communities. It is just that simple. This is a smart on crime policy that must not be cast aside in favor of more tough on crime political rhetoric and policies.


Aalai, A. (2014, April 11). Access to education for prisoners’ key to reform. Psychology Today. Retrieved from:

Bakeman, J. (2014, February 18). Republicans rally against Cuomo’s prison college plan. Politico. Retrieved from:
Clark, M. (2014, May 19). Prison education programs threatened. Prison Legal News. Retrieved from:

Cohen, T. (2016). College-in-prison for inmates serving life sentences. The Morningside Review. Selected essays from the Columbia University Undergraduate Writing Program.

Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steel, J.L, Saunders, J., Miles, J. N. V. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education. A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. Rand Corporation.

Della Costa, C. (2015, April 8). How prison education can save taxpayers money. The Cheat Sheet. Retrieved from:

Glenner, S. (2016). Prison libraries and the internet. Diversity and Outreach Columns. Retrieved on December 4, 2016 from:

Goldstein, D. (2016, December 1). Will Trump overhaul public education? From privatization to civil rights, his Department of Education could transform the American system. Slate. Retrieved from:

Henson, K. (2009, December 3). Prison inmates shouldn’t receive free college education. The Round Table. Retrieved from:

Keller, B. (2014, April 9). College for Criminals. The New York Times, Op-Ed. Retrieved from:

King Jr., J. B. (2016, July 26). U.S. Secretary of Education: Let’s educate, not incarcerate. Education Week. Retrieved from:

Kirchner, L. (2014, March 4). Are prison education programs worth it? Pacific Standard. Rerieved from:

LaBossiere, M. (2014, December 5). College education for prisoners. Talking Philosophy. The Philosophers’ Magazine Blog. Retrieved:

Maximino, M. (2014, June 3). The effects of prison education programs: research findings. Journalist’s Resource. Retrieved from:

Neyfakh, L. (2015, January 28). Throw the book at them. Should prisons offer degree-granting courses to convicted felons? An influential conservative voice says yes. Slate. Retrieved from:

Prison (2012, December 13). A brief history of prisons and prison education. Retrieved from:

Rivard, R. (2014, February 28). Prison U. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

Rosario, R. 75% of inmates are illiterate (19% are completely illiterate). Invisible Children. KARA Group. Retrieved from:

Taylor, L. (2015, October 9). Prison education is a smart investment it reduces crime. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from:

The Daily Orange. (2014, February 17). Taxpayer money should not fund inmate higher education program. Retrieved from:

Ujifusa, A. (2016, July 8). Corrections spending grows at triple the rate of school funding, Ed. Dept. reports. Ed Week Update. Retrieved from:

United Nations. (2016). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved on December 4, 2016 from:

Westervelt, E. (2015, July 31). Measuring the power of a prison education. National Public Radio. nprED. Retrieved from:

Zoukis, C. (2016, November 17). Community involvement in programs boost chances for successful lives after prison. Prison Education. Com. Retrieved from:
(2016, November 10). Internet access is a human right. Should prisoners have it? Prison Education. Com. Retrieved from: 

Education a Solution to Repeat Crime, Not a Privilege

By Catherine Prigg

The ongoing national debate about whether incarcerated individuals deserve the privilege of an education is fueled by strong emotions about how unfair it is to pay for a criminal to go to school when law abiding citizens work very hard, and incur lots of debt to put themselves and their children through school.

Even with these legitimate concerns in mind, research continues to prove that education has a value as it contributes to the reformation of character, is more cost-effective than incarceration, and reduces recidivism at a more significant rate than other forms of crime control.

The pipeline from school to prison is an epidemic. There is a strong connection between illiteracy and incarceration. As shown in a recent study, juveniles who have interactions with juvenile court systems have been found to be 85 percent functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates. This is significant because a direct correlation has been shown between literacy levels and recidivism rates. This is unsurprising considering that a significant factor in if a released prisoner returns to crime is if they were able to secure sustainable employment.

While 70 percent of released inmates return to crime, both Journalists Resource and Invisible Children found that only 16 percent of inmates returned to prison if they benefited from prison education programs. Clearly such programs have a significant impact on recidivism rates.

It is a crime that we do not educate illiterate people. After World War II the United Nations drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26 states, "Everyone has a right to education." Despite the U.N. resolution, the American political system falters back and forth between the two sides of the debate, and interestingly it is not a partisan issue. An education can prevent up to 43 percent of inmates from returning to a life of crime. Regardless, as put by Keller in a terrific New York Times op-ed, there is "almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do. The influence of high-profile crimes, fear of crime, and issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital -- all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just."

Perhaps it's time for us to do what we know works, not just what feels good or is politically palpable?

Prison Entrepreneurship Project Reforming Lives

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program prepares offenders for successful lives upon release from prison.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program prepares offenders for successful lives upon release from prison.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Prison Entrepreneurship Project has helped transform more than 1,300 convicted felons into business graduates that have transitioned successfully back into society.

The project focuses on male prisoners, and is a comprehensive, holistic program aimed at reducing recidivism, giving second chances to ex-offenders, and helping to ensure successful reintegration into their communities. Based at the Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, Texas, and the Cleveland Correctional Center in Cleveland, Texas, entrance to the program is highly competitive. From more than 10,000 eligible candidates and an average of 2000 applications — consisting of a 20-page form and three exams and interviews — about 500 men are accepted per year. The prisoners come from a multitude of backgrounds and have committed a wide variety of crimes, but all are eligible for release within three years.

The project is highly successful — more successful than the other nine major rehabilitation programs in Texas. One hundred percent of graduates will be employed within 90 days of release, almost 100 percent are still employed after one year, and the recidivism rate for PEP graduates after three years is less than seven percent — the national average for recidivism is 50 percent.

More than 200 small businesses have been launched by PEP graduates, several of which make more than $1 million per year. The Prison Entrepreneurship Project is clearly doing something right.

The program is an intensive one, combining a variety of classes and work with mentorship, and a competitive business plan competition. The goal is to spur innovation, realize potential and transform communities, using 10 driving values:

Fresh start outlook
Servant-leader mentality
- Innovation
- Accountability
- Integrity
- Execution
- Excellence
- Wide stewardship

The program is results-oriented, preparing prisoners for successful re-entry and having addressed their own needs, building a business plan, and moving forward with defined goals. One aspect of the project includes a Family Liaisons program, which helps the men to rebuild family relationships.

On their successful completion of the program, graduates receive an entrepreneurship certificate from Baylor University Hankamer School of Business, and may also receive certificates in financial literacy and Toastmasters.

After release from prison, the participants in the program receive continuing support, with transitional housing, access to mentors and other PEP graduates, transportation, counseling, social events and emergency financial assistance. Through project partners, there is access to bus passes, dental and health care, and phone cards. Graduates can continue their learning and development in the business world through e-school, and upon completion of a certain number of workshops and courses, are eligible for small grants to assist in starting their businesses. The PEP also runs Communitas Business Centers in Houston and Dallas, which provides access to typical office resources, from internet and printers to accounting services and conference facilities, for a low monthly fee.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Project receives no government funding, and is largely reliant on donations and volunteers. It's partially self-funding, with a goal to be 30 percent self-funded by 2025. The program is so successful because of financial support and collaboration with a variety of community partners and organizations, including 10 University MBA/ entrepreneurship programs, 14 churches, 10 companies and corporations, and re-entry service programs including Crossroads Community Services, Kiva Zip fundraising loans, People Fund and Workforce Solutions. For individuals and organizations, there are many ways to participate in PEP — as a volunteer, donor, business plan advisor, mentor, teacher, or by hiring a PEP graduate.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Project is a glowing example of a successful program that addresses many issues ex-offenders face upon release, such as finding employment and housing. These are key factors affecting whether someone will successfully reintegrate, and whether or not they will return to prison. This model should be followed on a broader, national scale, with or without government funding, so that Americans can stop reinforcing the cycle of incarceration and move toward more comprehensive, effective and cost-efficient rehabilitative solutions.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Instructional Leadership in Prison Education

Submitted by Peter Zitko
Adj. Professor of Political Science at Solano College

Different organizational settings require the use of various leadership theory tools. For instance, a military leader on the battlefield may necessarily use a leadership model that is quite different than that of a cleric. In many instances, a specific leadership model does not provide a single best leadership solution. Therefore a competent leader may blend leadership theories and draw from each model as necessary for the task at hand. 

This is most certainly the case for educational leaders and teachers who work in atypical environments such as a prison. This brief article will depict the prison educational setting and address several leadership models which are appropriate in the correctional environment. T

he rationale for this assessment will be described along with an explanation of the leadership culture that exists in the prison education paradigm. Moreover, a justification for the selected leadership models that fit this unique educational culture will be clarified along with a recommendation for leadership adaptations that may be necessary to provide exceptional leadership as an educator of institutionalized persons.

The Prison Educational Setting

The education of convicted felons is an understandably challenging venture. In the prison milieu, there are many factors that require an educational leader to alter existing models of leadership and inevitably adopt new leadership tools. 

The prison environment itself challenges normative leadership behavior in ways that typical educational leaders do not experience. The ethos is one of authority and safety is always an utmost concern. Furthermore, the institution itself restricts the ability of leaders to function as they would in a mainstream school. Hence, models such as servant leadership are circumscribed by the authoritarian nature of the prison. 

In many ways, the individual who is employed in a leadership position in prison must adopt some of the management methods of a military leader on the battlefield as outlined in the opening statement of this essay.

With this in mind, a leader, even one who is engaged in the education of inmates, can use one overarching leadership model as the foundation to be built upon. In general, the education industry is highly conducive to Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model (Focht & Ponton, 2015; Smith, 2005). In Greenleaf’s view, servant leadership is the ultimate model of leadership (Greenleaf, 1970). In short, a good leader must serve others as the primary goal. 

However, it is unlikely that Greenleaf himself had experienced the difficult role of leadership in a correctional institution. Accordingly, the educational leader in a penitentiary setting must draw from alternative leadership models which are appropriate in this challenging environment.

Leadership Models for Prison Educators

As noted in the preceding section, servant leadership is a good starting point for educational leaders. As a prison educator, the person in a leadership position can use servant leadership theory as a base model from which to build upon. 

Perhaps even more than traditional educational settings, for an educator of inmate students it very important to remember, as Townsend advises, that “True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders” (2007, Loc. 1056). Yet, as altruistic as this philosophy is, it is not an exclusive model of educational leadership that can be solely applied in this custodial venue.

The educational leader who is tasked with instructing and managing inmates can draw direction from several other leadership theories. Fiedler’s Contingency Model offers some guidance. This theory suggests that there is not a single best leadership model, rather, the circumstances at hand may dictate the appropriate managerial method (Bolden, Gosling, Marturano & Dennison, 2003). Fiedler looks at three situational criteria and attempts to match the leader to the circumstance. 

He considers the relationship between the leader and subordinate, the position of authority, and whether the circumstance is structured or unstructured (Bolden et al., 2003). However, this theory is somewhat confounding because in the prison setting leaders must be adept in all areas described by Fiedler. Consequently, the educational leader must assume a position of authority, refrain from abusing the position of power, be skillful in managing structured and unstructured tasks, and create a relationship of trust with students while maintaining a safe, professional distance. 

In addition, Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s (1973) Leadership Continuum is equally problematic as a manager of inmate students must be autocratic, consultative, persuasive, delegating, associative, and democratic as the situation dictates. Hence, these contingency theories are of narrow use for the educational leader that practices within the backdrop of a penitentiary.

Education within a prison is certainly a situation that will require innovative leadership techniques. As noted, servant leadership is a good starting point. Contingency theory is limited but helps to inform the leader as to innate leadership characteristics. Nonetheless, the educational leader can also draw from both transactional and transformational leadership theories along with Max Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership.
Transactional Leadership

If nothing else, a prison is a highly-structured environment. This is the lifestyle that inmates are accustomed to and have learned to accept. As Spahr (2016a) points out, “A transactional leader is someone who values order and structure.” This type of leader is well- suited for environments that are highly-controlled and have formative rules and regulations. A correctional facility is the embodiment of this type of structured setting.

Therefore an educational leader in a penitentiary must be comfortable in working within a decidedly controlled environment and competent in carrying out an authoritative leadership role when necessary.

Transformational Leadership

While the transactional leader is capable of being imperious as the need arises, the transformational leader is predominantly concerned with creating positive change in her or his followers. In this respect, transformational leadership is similar in nature to servant leadership. Transformational leaders are optimistic, committed to their long-term mission, have high ethical values and inspire others to perform at their very best (Bolden et al., 2003). These are critical leadership attributes to utilize in a setting that seldom promotes any positive virtues. Charismatic Leadership

A charismatic leader, as suggested by Max Weber (1864-1920), is a person with “extraordinary” qualities (1946, p. 290). Expanding upon Weber’s view, Antonakis, Fenley and Liecthi (2011) suggest that a charismatic leader is someone who “must use powerful and reasoned rhetoric, establish personal and moral credibility, and then rouse follower’s emotions and passions” as a means to an end (p. 2).

Others like Beyer (1999) view “charisma as an unusual form of normative social structure that emerges in times of crisis” (p. 310). Spahr (2016b) simply believes that “charismatic leadership style relies on the charm and persuasiveness of the leader” (para. 1). While these scholars have different viewpoints regarding the qualities of a charismatic leader, they all contribute to a normative leadership theme that is very appropriate as a prison educator. While charisma may be an innate character trait, it is a highly desirable and productive skillset that can be used to motivate students and achieve academic success. A person with charismatic leadership traits will be far more effective as an educational leader in an environment of skepticism and oppression, which is the prison norm.

Rationale for Specific Leadership Models

The justification for emphasizing the leadership models in the previous section is quite simple: the educational leader in prison, or any venue for that matter, must be focused on students and producing the maximum academic outcomes. For this reason, servant leadership and transformational leadership theories are quite desirable. 

However, the circumstances of teaching in prison necessitate the use of other skills which may not be as vital in the traditional school setting. Accordingly, the leader must look to other models that enhance her or his preferred theories. 

It is quite conceivable that educational leaders in correctional facilities may look to other leadership theories beyond those listed in the preceding section. Servant leadership theory may be the foundation, but good leadership requires the utilization of any relevant model that helps produce the desired outcome of student success.

Support for using the listed leadership theories is quite compelling. The typical inmate has the reading skill of a seventh-grade student (Reed, 2014). A large majority of inmates have never completed high school before their incarceration and about forty percent dropped out of school prior to tenth grade (Reed, 2014).

This data may suggest a lack of guidance and student- centered leadership in the pre-incarceration lives of inmates. Countless prison students are inexperienced with positive forms of leadership. Many are unfamiliar with proactive leadership methods that embrace productive learning and place the student at the forefront of educational achievement. 

This unfortunate fact gives credence to leadership methods that alter existing negative modes of education and create an ethos of engagement and constructive learning. Transformational leadership is one such model that inspires followers and helps to construct a norm of student-centered learning (Bolden et al., 2003; Tng, 2009).

Moreover, servant leadership promotes a normative ethos of the student as the focal point of learning, which counterbalances the pre-existing culture of absolutism inherent in the correctional facility (Fitzgerald, 2015). Nolands and Richards (2015) declare, servant leadership “puts the goals, needs, and development of ‘followers’ ahead of those of the leader” (p. 16).

This is an unfamiliar condition for incarcerated students who are accustomed to a totalitarian lifestyle. Yet, this selfless mode of leadership can build trust between teacher and student which is conducive to creating a positive learning environment (Fields, Thompson & Hawkins, 2015; Parris & Peachey, 2013). When coupled with charismatic leadership, servant leadership along with transformational leadership offers a trifecta of positive student-centered learning models.

Nonetheless, the nature of education in a correctional facility requires that leaders utilize elements of absolute leadership models. Transactional leadership is one such model that exploits leadership power to affect outcomes. 

This is quite necessary for prison education programs as many students do not react to positive leadership models in the absence of authority. Nevertheless, transactional leadership is not simply an autocratic method; it employs a system of rewards and punishments. 

As Stone and Patterson (2005) note, “Transactional leaders lead through specific incentives and motivate through an exchange of one thing for another (p. 6). In the prison education setting, leadership from a position of authority is absolutely vital.
Although, while this position of power is quite necessary, it must be used judiciously.

The Culture of Leadership in the Prison Setting

A correctional facility that houses convicted felons has a culture which can be best described as a continuum between authoritarian and totalitarian rule. This is quite understandable as a great majority of inmates are convicted of horrific crimes. 

Structure, rules, subordination, and violence is the culture by which inmate students are accustomed. Ergo, those in leadership positions must work within a pre-ordained ethos of authority, force, harshness and submission that permeates the institution. This culture is established, and the educational leader must use appropriate leadership tools that work within this atypical society.

Selected Leadership Theories as Suitable Models for the Prison Education Setting

Several viable leadership theories are discussed in this article. It is important to understand that while these may serve as a base model for educational leadership in a prison, they do not represent an exclusive database of leadership theories and tools. 

Nonetheless, the blended theories of servant leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership and charismatic leadership as described in this essay are valid leadership models that should be considered by those entering into management positions in correctional institutions. 

Each of the listed theories informs the leader and offers a set of tools and ideals that can be utilized at the discretion of the manager. In sum, there is no single best model for leading in a prison school, although, the leader must keep the ideal of servant leadership at the forefront of decisions to adopt alternative leadership models.

Recommendations for Leadership Adaptations as Prison Educators

As an experienced educator of inmate students, several leadership recommendations are worthy of consideration. At the outset, a person who is considering taking on an educational leadership role in prison must assess the personal reasons for doing so. 

Unlike correctional officers who work predominantly from a position of power, the educator must be willing to embrace the idea of serving the student first and using authoritative methods sparingly. 

Servant leadership and transformational leadership models are a good foundation that establishes a student-centered approach to leadership. Additionally, it is preferable to have inherent charismatic leadership qualities as those leaders who may be inclined to submissive or tedious tendencies will have a very difficult time motivating and managing inmate students. 

Related to charisma, the manager of prison education must have the ability and innate qualities to purvey a sense of power and authority while simultaneously presenting a true sense of commitment to the students. In conclusion, the leader that chooses a career in educating inmate students must be powerful, compassionate, honest and fully committed to the altruistic goal of helping her or his students attain an excellent education.



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Florida Community Initiative Supports Female Prisoners and Ex-Prisoners

The Red Tent Women's Initiative helps female inmates feel supported through education, group therapy, financial literacy, and post-prison re-entry assistance.

The Red Tent Women's Initiative helps female inmates feel supported through education, group therapy, financial literacy, and post-prison re-entry assistance.

By Christopher Zoukis

A forward-thinking group in Florida is helping women both in and outside of prison to empower themselves and help better their lives and families, after recognizing that many of their needs were not being met in the community.

The Red Tent Women’s Initiative was inspired by Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, which follows the character of Dinah — daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph in the Bible. The red tent refers to the tent in the novel in which women of Jacob's tribe must, according to law, take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, and in which they find mutual support and encouragement from other women in the community.

Barbara Rhode, director of the Red Tent Women's Initiative, saw that this kind of community support and encouragement seemed to be missing for many women in their communities, particularly for women who were in jail or prison, and who very often felt isolated. In 2013, The Red Tent Initiative started offering sewing therapy classes at Pinellas County Jail, and continued to grow from there. It has become the most popular class, often with a waiting list, and has been successful at helping reduce recidivism among the women who participate.

The Red Tent Initiative has become a safe and empowering space for women to come together, and improve the lives of those involved. In prison, inmates create handmade products from recycled, donated fabrics, which are sold, with profits going to support each woman who created that item. Not only are the women taught sewing skills, but how to create marketable products, financial literacy and social bonding. Beyond that, there is group-based education and support offered, including trauma resolution, anger management and parenting classes, as well as opportunities to hear volunteer speakers who share their stories and expertise on topics including addiction, yoga and successful reintegration into society.

Beyond the prison walls, the Red Tent Initiative is also active with building safe community spaces, continuing outreach to offset possible isolation for those who have been released, and offering support and vocational empowerment groups. The initiative advocates for clients and partners with other community groups and organizations. For example, the organization helped publicize “Coming Home: Showcase of Services for Ex-Offenders” presented by Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition, held at Pinellas Technical College. This was a job fair that featured employers hiring on the spot, educational assistance, information and referrals, resume help, voter registration and identification assistance. It gave access to more than 40 social services agencies. This is vital support for those who need to re-establish a place in the community and start their lives post-incarceration.

The Red Tent Initiative and similar grassroots initiatives in the country play important roles in rebuilding communities, empowering individuals and breaking cycles of incarceration. Current studies show that children who have an incarcerated parent have an increased risk of mental health issues, emotional trauma, impacted social behaviours and decreased educational prospects.  Incarcerated mothers are often placed an average of 160 miles away from their children — much further than fathers. These numbers demand reduction so that families can remain as whole as possible. Incarcerated parents must be given the tools and opportunities to break the cycle. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and

Increased Access to Higher Education Programs for California Prisoners

By Christopher Zoukis

Some California prisoners, including those confined at the notorious Pelican Bay supermax, are enjoying access to higher education courses provided by the state’s community colleges. A 2014 law eliminated the requirement that all classes taught by community colleges must be open to the public; as a result, such colleges can now offer programs exclusively for prisoners. This allows them to comport with prison security requirements and receive state funding for prison education courses at a time when California community colleges are suffering low enrollment rates and thus low revenues. Consequently, doors to educational opportunities are now open to thousands of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoners.

In September 2014, California Senate Bill 1391 was signed into law. Amending Section 84810.5 of the Education Code and adding a new section, 84810.7, the statute not only waived the public availability requirement for community college courses, but also provided $2 million to create 18-month pilot programs and supply staffing, classroom space and educational materials for incarcerated students.

The participating schools include Lassen Community College in Susanville, which is paired with High Desert State Prison; Folsom Lake College, paired with the Folsom Women’s Facility; Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, paired with the California Institution for Women; and Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, paired with California State Prison, Los Angeles County.

The pilot programs will run until 2018, when the CDCR and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office will issue reports to the state legislature on their performance.

A key feature of the new law is that community colleges will receive the same level of funding for educating prisoners as they do for students who attend school on campus. The pilot programs began by offering two or three courses per semester, geared toward business classes and associate degrees in liberal arts, with up to 25 prisoners per class.

California’s prison education initiative comes as the federal government has rolled out its own program to restore federal Pell grant eligibility to prisoners, which had been eliminated in 1994 during that era’s “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice. The Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program will fund a limited number of college courses for prisoners nationwide. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.45; Aug. 2015, p.32].

“Launching a pilot program to help students in prison pay for college, because everyone willing to work for it deserves a second chance,” President Obama tweeted at the time.

Since the elimination of federal Pell grants for prisoners, higher education in CDCR facilities has mostly consisted of privately-funded programs like the Prison University Project, which has operated at San Quentin since 1996, utilizing volunteer faculty from UC Berkeley, Stanford and San Francisco State University. In other cases, prisoners have paid for their own college correspondence courses.

California’s state prison system currently houses more than 124,000 prisoners. According to CDCR officials, around 7,000 are involved in higher education programs, with the vast majority enrolled in distance learning courses.

State Superintendent of Correctional Education Brant Choate expressed his belief that the new federal Pell grant pilot program will “provide the much needed funding to ensure those who are interested in turning their lives around are provided that opportunity.”

The Prison University Project’s executive director, Jody Lewen, agreed that the federal program could be helpful, but acknowledged that such ideas don’t always pan out in the real world of prison administration.

“It could be fantastic, but if we allow institutions to come in and do it as cheap as possible with little investment, it will be garbage,” Lewen said. “It will be one of those things in the prison system that’s called better than nothing.”

As to the recent California community college initiative, Lewen pointed to the fact that the new law does not incentivize in-person teaching over cheaper and easier correspondence courses.

“If the schools are not held accountable, and are allowed to create low-quality programs that are unresponsive to both the academic and the psycho-social needs of students, it could be a disaster and it would be impossible to get rid of them,” she said.

Lewen added the Prison University Project will provide training to community college faculty members involved in prison classes, noting that interactions between teachers and incarcerated students can break down misconceptions about prisoners.

“We imagine people in prison as animals and that there is no common ground between us,” she said. “[B]ut the students are phenomenal. They couldn’t be more motivated and grateful. It’s what college should be: adults who have chosen freely and are passionate about learning.”

A 2012 report by a Princeton University researcher found that only 17 percent of the Prison University Program’s graduates had committed new offenses or violated parole, versus the 65 percent average rate for California prisoners as a whole.

In tandem with the community college pilot programs, in 2015 California implemented a project that provides digital tablets to incarcerated students. The tablets, supplied by Nashville-based IDS – with protective cases and no Internet access – are pre-loaded with digital copies of students’ text books. While CDCR prisoners may be granted tuition waivers by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors based on financial need, all students are required to purchase their own text books. The tablets were touted as an attempt to lower the cost and increase the availability of such educational materials.

Providing additional opportunities for academic advancement, in mid-2015 the CDCR entered into a partnership with Pitzer College, a private liberal arts school in Claremont, with the goal of providing courses and credits to prisoners seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree. Pitzer’s Prison Education Program, intended to serve 10 students per class, was initially launched at the California Rehabilitation Center.


This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on January 10, 2017.

Dear Librarian: Filling the Information Gap for Prisoners with No Internet Access

By Christopher Zoukis

For most Americans, life without Google or Wikipedia would be quite different, and living without Internet access probably unimaginable. One might ask, “How would I obtain the information I need to live my life?” Yet for most of America’s 2.3 million prisoners there is no Google, no Facebook, no Internet at all.

While a growing number of states and the federal Bureau of Prisons allow prisoners access to limited and monitored email – usually for a fee – that does not include the ability to peruse the Internet. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.35; Dec. 2009, p.24].

As such, most prisoners have to obtain information the old-fashioned way: relying on family and friends on the outside as well as (usually outdated) encyclopedias and almanacs in prison libraries. But a program offered by the New York Public Library helps shine a light for some prisoners. Through NYPL’s Correctional Services Program, a team of librarians and researchers receive about 60 letters a month from prisoners seeking information of some kind.

From queries about post-release opportunities to pleas for baseball statistics, the team does its best to provide answers. The Correctional Services Program, which runs lending libraries in New York state prisons, doesn’t provide the service as an official program but does so in the spirit of decades of service to the community, harkening back to the pre-Internet days when libraries were a primary source of information for members of the public.

Librarian Sarah Ball, who supervises the program, has enlisted the aid of students from the Pratt Institute School of Information to answer prisoners’ questions. The only questions they won’t answer are those seeking personal information or legal advice.

Aside from book lending and informational services, the NYPL Correctional Services Program also offers other resources for prisoners. Those resources include the “Daddy and Me” program, in which incarcerated parents can audio record themselves reading a book for their child; weekly book discussion groups; and orientations regarding neighborhood libraries, such as library card registration, for prisoners nearing release.

While there appears to be no other public library system that provides such a volume of interaction with prisoners, a fledgling industry of private companies has developed to offer paid informational services to America’s incarcerated.

A perusal of any issue of Prison Legal News reveals numerous advertisers offering Internet research services; these companies help fill the void for prisoners seeking knowledge that typically requires online access. However, those who have participated in the NYPL program see beyond the mere utility of providing information.

Nicholas Higgins, director of outreach services at the Brooklyn Public Library, said answering prisoners’ letters also provides a “human connection” between the prisoners and those willing to listen and respond. Our criminal justice system is one “that resists that sort of access to information,” he added. Pratt Institute associate professor Deborah Rabina agreed, stating, “If you want people to successfully reintegrate into society upon their release, being able to have access to [the Internet] is essential.”

On July 26, 2016, the New York Public Library opened its first permanent branch at the Rikers Island jail complex, housed in the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), which holds female prisoners. The RMSC library opened its doors with more than 1,200 books and actively encourages further donations from the public.

“Everyone is always welcomed at the library. Free books, free use of computers, educational programs,” said NYPL president Tony Marx at the opening ceremony of the Rikers Island branch. “We do not want people locked up. We want everyone – everyone – to have the opportunity to read, to learn, to create, to gain skills and contribute.”

Sources: Newsweek,,,

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on January 10, 2017.

Justice System Throws Poor Kids Into Debtors' Prison

Inability to pay fines and fees related to the criminal justice system results in further punishment for youth, including extended sentences and probation.

Inability to pay fines and fees related to the criminal justice system results in further punishment for youth, including extended sentences and probation.

By Christopher Zoukis

It is becoming increasingly obvious that zero-tolerance policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, often unfairly punishing youth for offenses that should not be dealt with in the criminal justice system. Involvement in the criminal justice system often kicks off a domino effect toward further interaction with the criminal system.

For non-violent offenses that include truancy, we are not just punishing youth harshly and setting them up for failure, we are also punishing them for being poor. Our criminal justice system as it stands is seemingly set up to ensure that youth — and their families — suffer severe consequences for stepping foot in it. We are not protecting families and communities so much as we are taking away hope and any chance at future success in life.

In a country that practices mass incarceration of adults, we are also the only nation that sentences youth to life without parole. And we continue to jail more youth than ever, despite decreasing crime rates. A million young people appear in court each year. Many are arrested for minor infractions before they leave high school. And this does not bode well. About 75 percent of youth who have spent time in juvenile detention will be incarcerated later in life, and the outlook is most grim for minorities or for those from economically disadvantaged families. We have created an unfair, tiered system of justice — one that ultimately serves no one.

In cases where children and families cannot pay the costs of dealing with the legal system, including court costs, fees, fines, court-ordered exams and assessments, and restitution payments — punishment can be severe. Consequences of the inability to pay can include extended probation, denial of needed treatments and incarceration. These punishments are unrelated to offenses committed. Youth are being punished because they are poor, they get pushed deeper into the system, and families become mired in debt.

For example, a 13-year-old in Arkansas was fined $500 for truancy. Neither he nor his family could pay the fine, so he served three months in a locked facility. Another 13-year-old punished under zero-tolerance policies faced extended sentencing because of fee non-payment. After being charged with battery for accidentally bumping into a teacher in a hallway, the youth plead guilty and served a successful year of probation, curfew, meetings with an anger management counsellor, and working in a food bank. But since neither he, nor his mother, could afford the $200 in court fees, his probation was extended by 14 months.

These are consequences that wealthier families do not even have to consider, let alone face. In a system that is already unfairly prejudiced against minorities and those of lower financial means, we do not need to create further disparity.

We need to radically change the systems setting youth up for lifetimes of failure before they’ve even had a chance to begin. To force children into the criminal justice system for nonviolent offenses like school truancy, and then to subject them to detention centres because they are too poor to pay must be ended. Doing so would immediately reduce the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. Jailing children for missing school is not a solution for educational, community or criminal justice issues, and certainly solves nothing for the affected youth. We need to scrap policies that submerge kids and drown families in the criminal justice system, and aim to build support, and to build futures — not take them away. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and


New Federal Study Shows Half of Incarcerated Veterans Have Mental Disorder

By Christopher Zoukis

A report compiled by a well-respected prisoner group indicates that while the Massachusetts Department of Corrections is diligent in collecting profits from prisoners' commissary purchases, it has failed to spend those funds on prisoner benefit purchases, as required by state regulation -- to the tune of a $2 million surplus for the most recent fiscal year ending in June, 2015.

The stunning revelations are contained in a report authored by Gordon Haas, Chairman of the Norfolk Lifers Group, a prisoner group that has operated in Massachusetts prisons for several decades, advocating for better conditions and the protection of prisoners' rights. Lifers Group is comprised primarily of prisoners serving life sentences at the maximum security MCI Norfolk and has long examined the Massachusetts DOC's abuses of its fiscal responsibilities. In October, 2015, lifer Gordon Haas and his group published a report on the DOC's income and expenses relating to accounts funded primarily by commissions from prisoner commissary purchases via the Keefe Commissary Network.

Massachusetts regulations 103 DOC 476.10 and 476.11 dictate that the Department of Corrections maintain certain accounts that are intended to provide services or benefits to prisoners. The accounts are funded by monthly assessments of fixed percentages from the revenues taken in by each institution. One account, the Program Account (103 DOC 476.11(1)), receives 10 percent of said revenues each month; the Law Library Account (103 DOC 476.10(2)) receives 35 percent. These funds are tracked by monthly reports by each institution and the DOC. A third account, the Central Inmate Benefit Fund, is also used for the funding of prisoner programs and services.

As is the case at many prisons across America, revenues at the institutional level come courtesy of the monolithic Keefe Commissary Network (KCN), which provides commissions to the prisons from the sales of items to men and women behind bars, like commissary items (food, snacks, hygiene items, and over the counter medical supplies), clothing, and other services, like MP3/MP4 music sales. While Massachusetts prisons also reap revenue from other sources such vending machines, visitor locker rentals, and interest, the revenue collected from KCN usually comprises over 90 percent of the monthly income received by the prisons.

The funds collected in these accounts can be substantial, leading one to conclude that prisoners are enjoying great benefits from the power of their KCN purchases, which amount to many millions each year. But this is not the case. According to DOC figures obtained by Lifers Group and Lois Ahearns of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, the funds are not being spent:  on June 30, 2015, a surplus of $1,978,446.54 remained in the three accounts. Unspent, collecting interest for the DOC. The numbers are particularly jarring when one considers that a total of $985,763.86 was deposited into the accounts -- and that only $781,631.84 was spent from the three accounts in the same period.

Why the DOC is hoarding funds required to be spent on prisoners is not clear, but the Lifers Group study makes one fact indisputable: massive amounts of revenue are being squeezed from prisoners and their families by their jailers, and that giant corporations like Keefe Commissary Network are reaping huge profits.

Source: A Report on the Income and Expenses from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections' Central Inmate Benefit Fund, Central Law Library Account, and Central Program Account, published by Lifers Group, October 2015.

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on January 3, 2017.