New UK Super Prison A Model of Reform Over Punishment

By Christopher Zoukis

It's a slow shift, but the criminal justice system moving its focus more toward rehabilitation and corrections, and away from a philosophy of punishment and incarceration. Critics of this shift say it's a soft-on-crime approach, but research backs the effectiveness of the approach in reducing recidivism and the costs of re-incarceration.

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New Utah Prison Opening in 2020 Will Emphasize Rehabilitation

By Christopher Zoukis

Major changes are afoot in Utah's criminal justice system as part of the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Approved in March 2015, the initiative is part of a series of changes approved by Gov. Gary Herbert to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, save taxpayer dollars and provide solutions to the current system of incarceration, aiming not just to lock up offenders, but to change the lives of those who are incarcerated.

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Literacy A Crucial Tool to Stem School to Prison Pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

Across the U.S. fully 43% of adults read at a grade 8 level or lower — 29% can only read at an eighth grade level, and 14% can only grasp material at a fifth grade level or lower. Throughout the country, thousands of adults are functionally illiterate, which has a huge negative impact on their day-to-day lives. Early childhood is a crucial time to set the right path for literacy. An interest in reading is often determined as early as first grade, with fourth-grade reading levels being an indicator of future success. Research shows that children who struggle to read in first grade are 88% more likely to struggle in grade four. And those who struggle in fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.

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The Choice Bus Uses Prisoner Perspectives to Discourage Dropping Out

By Christopher Zoukis

In an effort to stem the school-to-prison pipeline and to keep kids in school, the Choice Bus was rolled out to help students understand their options in life, and how their decisions can affect their futures.

The Choice Bus is an initiative of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a national nonprofit created in 2007 to help educators, community leaders and other interested groups reduce the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate. Dr. Shelley Stewart named the foundation in honor of his mother, whose murder he witnessed at the hands of his father at the age of five. The tragic incident put him at risk of poverty, homelessness and dropping out of school. Had it not been for a passionate teacher, Stewart's life may have gone in a different direction. Instead, education made all the difference in his life.

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Florida's Troubled Prison, Juvenile Justice Systems Gearing Up For Overhaul

Proposed reforms to the Florida DOC include reducing harsh penalties on youth offenders.

Proposed reforms to the Florida DOC include reducing harsh penalties on youth offenders.

By Christopher Zoukis

Following the launch of a new goal plan for the Florida Department of Corrections, big changes should be arriving in the beleaguered system, with several new pieces of legislation introduced and new budgetary items requested. All of the proposed changes are meant to reduce recidivism, increase safety for corrections officers and inmates, improve conditions and perhaps most significantly — help keep youth of out of the criminal justice system altogether.

While bills are still being debated, their tabling is a positive sign of improvements to come, and they are grounded in hard statistics and research showing the detrimental effects of the current system — including minors being arrested for misdemeanors. Currently in Florida there are three 7-year-olds in the criminal justice system for low-level, first-time offenses — something that sounds outrageously impossible, but sadly isn’t. Florida also has the highest level in the country of transferring children out of thejuvenile justice system and into adult court.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones has detailed plans focusing on inmate and officer safety, facility repairs, recruitment strategies for new corrections and probation officers, and hopes to open an 11th mental health facility to help inmates re-enter society. This proposed residential facility at Wakulla Correctional Institution would create new jobs for 104 full-time employees, in addition to enhancing current treatments.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly has similar goals, including increasing residential capacity, using evidence-based residential services, early intervention programs and improved assessment tools, expanding workplace education programs and also de-criminalizing youth.

Programs focusing on rehabilitating youth have a proven track record. For example, in 2015-2016, 60 percent of DJJ youth that participated in workplace education programs found employment, joined the military or went to school.

There have been marked changes in how what used to be considered innocent pranks are now dealt with. Senate President Joe Negron shared a personal story. In his youth he played a prank involving election signs on someone else’s property. Instead of being charged, he was warned and given a second chance by the officer who ordered him to go and clean up the mess, and never do it again. But today, Negron believes things would have gone differently. Perhaps he would have been charged with "criminal mischief, defacing property, trespassing, fleeing and attempting to elude, and since there were two of us, it’s a conspiracy,” he said. “I would probably still be explaining this on bar exam questions, on law school applications, on questions at editorial board interviews, [saying] ‘it’s not as bad as it sounds.’ "

Misdemeanors and first-time offences resulting in arrests and charges greatly damages the prospects of our youth. Besides institutionalizing them and isolating them from their peers and communities, affected youth are plagued by a criminal record, which damages their  future employment and educational prospects. Recidivism rates are high.They are set up for failure.

Going forward, new legislation, though yet to be finalized, will mean that first-time youth offenders will receive mandatory civil citations instead of being arrested and entered into the criminal justice system. In addition to the citation, the person receiving it will be required to participate in programs such as community service and life skills, meet with community-impact panels, and may be referred for counseling. Currently, this system is voluntary, and applied unevenly across the state. In counties where this system is consistency applied, recidivism rates are lower, and any officer bias is prevented.

This approach results in less jail time and fewer criminal records for youth, sparing youth that really aren’t a threat to public safety from getting trapped in the system, and reduces costs and resources for processing youth in the court system. According to a recent Stepping Up report, increasing the use of civil citations statewide would significantly improve outcomes for more than 7,000 youth.

As the Corrections reform bill goes to the House floor, an amendment has been added to allow adults to enter a diversion program for certain crimes. 

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

Literacy and Love: Programs Allow Parents in Prison to Read To Children

Programs for imprisoned parents help increase literacy for parents and kids, and encourage parent-child bonding from behind bars. 

Programs for imprisoned parents help increase literacy for parents and kids, and encourage parent-child bonding from behind bars. 

By Christopher Zoukis

So many factors can affect childhood — and adult — success. Having a parent in prison can have a profound effect on a child's path in life.

The level of involvement a parent has in their child’s life can trickle down to many areas, including literacy. A child's ability to read can be greatly affected by both parent literacy rates, and factors such as the ability for parents and children to spend time reading together.

So what happens when parents are incarcerated? Up to 70% of U.S. inmates are functionally illiterate, and more than 800,000 state and federal inmates have children. More than 1 million children have parents that are incarcerated, and these numbers are increased when including other types of detention. One in 28 children in the U.S. have a parent behind bars — that's a total of 2.7 million. This issue greatly affects the future levels of success for those children.

Fourth-grade literacy measurements are often considered a yardstick for a child's future achievement. Fully 68% of children in the U.S. do not meet the fourth-grade proficiency standard. These children are most likely to come from rural, low income or at-risk homes — including homes where one or both parents are incarcerated.

How can these challenges be surmounted? A variety of programs across the country are helping to overcome these hurdles, assisting imprisoned parents with fostering and maintaining relationships, offering some semblance of normalcy, helping to build vocabulary and literacy skills, and assisting children to learn patience, listening skills, and how to use their imaginations.

In 2004, Jane Handel, an eighth-grade student in Needham, Massachusetts, started A Book From Mom in order to fulfil volunteer hours. She was inspired by her own relationship with her mother and the power of books, and based her ideas on a program where her school sent used books to other schools. Jane had heard about the lack of resources in prisons, and wanted to foster a tangible connection between incarcerated parents and their children. She began collecting new books, and donating them to prisons. Mothers can pick out new books, read with their children on visits, and send the books home with them.

Since the program launched, more than 30,000 books have been passed from parents to children, and the program has expanded from the MCI-Framingham women's prison west of Boston to include fathers, at five institutions. Each book donated represents a positive interaction and vital connection between parent and child.

The donor base has also expanded. For example, a young girl donated 700 books after requesting books for the program in lieu of bat mitzvah gifts. And a local Barnes and Noble offers customers an option of donating from a series of preselected books. Jane Handel and her mother Elizabeth hope to continue expanding the program.

At Suffolk County House of Corrections, Diana Barbero teaches literacy and parenting classes, and helps fathers record themselves reading from the books before they are sent to their children. This ensures that children receive something more valuable than the physical book — they get personal connections to their fathers through the ability to listen to their voices whenever they want. This is important, when parental interactions can be extremely limited.

The Children’s Literacy Foundation also helps parents in prison record themselves as part of their Storybook Program, working across 17 institutions in New Hampshire and Vermont to inspire a love of reading and writing among rural, low income and at-risk children. They provide books for family visiting rooms, pay for professional authors to perform on visiting days, provide literacy seminars, and help circulate children’s books in prisons so that inmates can read stories to their children at night over the phone.

Similar programs are also run in Franklin County, Ohio, in Colorado, with Read to the Children, in Wisconsin with Reading Connections, and in Alabama with Aid to Inmate Mothers' Storybook Project. All have the goal of nurturing relationships between incarcerated parents and their children, and to foster literacy amongst both children and inmates, and are excellent examples of how seemingly insurmountable hurdles can be beat with the aid of innovative ideas, and caring volunteers and donors.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

New Programs in Pennsylvania Boost Opportunities for Female Inmates

New opportunities to participate in rehabilitative programs give inmates opportunities to learn and heal through exploring a variety of topics.

New opportunities to participate in rehabilitative programs give inmates opportunities to learn and heal through exploring a variety of topics.

By Christopher Zoukis

For five years, inmates haven't even had the opportunity to obtain high school equivalency diplomas at the Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The GED program was scrapped during a county budgeting crisis in 2012 and has yet to be reinstated.

Still, positive changes are on the horizon at the facility, with three new programs recently added to boost the rehabilitative offerings for female inmates. It's good news in a county where only 49 percent of inmates have their high school diploma compared to 89 percent of the general population.

While advocates are calling for reinstatement of the GED program, which would help inmates with job prospects after release, funding is an issue. One possibility is renegotiating telecommunications, which could include tablet-based educational systems, broadening educational opportunities significantly. Beyond this, basic programming currently offered includes Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and computer classes.

The new programs include a sexual assault education program, which will be run by the Women’s Resource Centre, and offered to 15 women at a time. The program assists participants to understand that being a victim of sexual abuse is not their fault, and facilitates making connections between trauma and behaviour — unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug use, for example.

The nationwide Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program will also be implemented at the facility. Established in 1997 and based in Philadelphia, the program helps to "facilitate dialogue across difference" and allows participants — inmates and college students — to meet each other as equals, providing learning across social boundaries and dispelling stereotypes. The program, offered as part of Keystone College’s Criminal Justice Programs, sees students and inmates learning side by side in a classroom setting, with the hope that barriers are broken down, students gain real-world exposure, and that inmates might gain the confidence and inspiration to attend college in the future.

A creative writing program through the University of Scranton’s Campus Ministries’ Center for Service and Social Justice will also be offered. The program aims to provide a superior, transformational learning experience and to prepare students to make a difference in the world. Following Jesuit ideals of academic excellence, the importance of the liberal arts, and the education of the whole person, the Center for Service and Social Justice participates in numerous community and campus initiatives.

The creative writing program is offered to 10-20 inmates at a time, over a 5-6 week period, and is facilitated by student volunteers. Exercises have included blackout poetry, word mandalas and storytelling. Through writing, participants learn about themselves and each other, and how to express their emotions through telling their stories.

The program has spilled beyond the prison walls in the form of a theatrical play. Ten education majors and three former Lackawanna County inmates performed We Rise, written by internationally renowned playwright Nancy Hasty, who has conducted arts programs at the prison.

The play highlighted the various struggles of all of the performers, demonstrating both commonalities and differences. Personal experiences from childhood bedrooms, to stories of abuse, to decisions made later in life were shared, showing how surprisingly similar histories and experiences can be shared between educators and women imprisoned only blocks away from the university.

The play was also a means of raising awareness of the struggles the former inmates had experienced, and how unaddressed issues early in life affected their later decisions, and the ultimate consequences of those decisions. 

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

North Carolina Prisons Add Technology to Rehabilitation Toolbox

Edovo tablets deliver an array of educational and life skills programming, also offer prisoners incentives in the form of rewards points for hitting milestones.

Edovo tablets deliver an array of educational and life skills programming, also offer prisoners incentives in the form of rewards points for hitting milestones.

By Christopher Zoukis

There are more than 37,000 inmates in 55 prison facilities in North Carolina. Each year, more than 20,000 inmates are released. In fact, 98% of the entire country's inmates will be released at some point in the future. And increasingly, a wide variety of rehabilitative programs are being offered to ensure that that those freed are prepared to become part of their communities and to decrease the likelihood of them returning to prison.

North Carolina range of programs have many focuses, including the view that education is part of the total rehabilitation process, drives behavioral changes, and provides the tools for the creation of a worthwhile life. The mission of the North Carolina Department of Corrections educational services is to provide resources from basic literacy to advanced vocational skills and life skills to inmates “so that they may become responsible and productive persons who can effectively manage their incarceration and make contributions to their community upon release.”

The main goal is to create inmates who are prepared to be successful job holders and who have been fully rehabilitated. Programs include anger management, parenting classes, religious programs, life skills, computer skills, math, GED, health issues, bible study, prayer groups, traditional groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, literacy programs, Toastmasters, mental health counseling and drug treatment programs. Many programs are run with the help of outside partners, including High Point Jail Ministry, and are carefully vetted. North Carolina also participates in the Stepping Up initiative, whose aim to help reduce the number of people with mental illness cycling through the nation's prisons. This robust range of programs targets meeting as many inmate needs as possible.

Most recently, North Carolina joined the increasing number of states offering education via technology. Tablets offer learning potential in the face of thinning resources — both financial and human — and it's heartening to see their use catching on.

A trial program where inmates use Edovo tablets recently launched in High Point Jail. Edovo (Education Over Obstacles), was previously known as Jail Education Solutions, but changed its name as it expanded beyond prison walls. Released offenders can pick up where they left off behind bars by accessing EdovoGo! The mission at Edovo is to provide meaningful access to education and self-improvement tools that can unlock the potential of every person affected by incarceration. The company hopes to be a key provider of educational programs to the four out of five inmates across the country who currently lack access. This is a crucial need, since education is proven to reduce recidivism by up to 45%.

Since the trial began, the tablets have proved very popular; in the first week, 95 inmates logged 8,751 hours working on educational programs, with math and anger management courses being among the most popular. This mimics successes logged in other states and institutions. Other courses include family skills, finance, English, religious courses, and even instruction on how to behave in a courtroom. In total, Edovo has developed 10,000 hours of evidence-based programming, from basic literacy to college equivalency.

The tablets also offer incentives to inmates in the form of rewards for hitting milestones. Points earned can be spent on music, movies, television, games, or to make phone calls and send messages. Phone calls and messages sent on the secure tablets are recorded by PayTel, a jail phone service, and monitored by jail staff.

While the trial was launched only at High Point jail, there are hopes to expand it soon, as technology issues are identified and fixed. Since jails and prisons are often made of concrete, the necessary connectivity needed can be hard to navigate, and may be hindered by the solid construction materials.

By offering a rich array of programs, and trialling new forms of programming such as the Edovo tablets, North Carolina has paved a solid pathway toward meeting its educational mission, providing meaningful rehabilitation, and to seeing results such as reduced incidences of violence and greatly reduced recidivism rates. 

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

Prison Shakespeare Programs Have Dramatic Impact on Inmates

Former inmate Dameion Brown in costume as Othello for the Marin Shakespeare Company's 2016 performance of the play. Brown became involved in the company's Shakespeare for Social Justice program while in prison. (Photo courtesy Marin Shakespeare Company archives)

Former inmate Dameion Brown in costume as Othello for the Marin Shakespeare Company's 2016 performance of the play. Brown became involved in the company's Shakespeare for Social Justice program while in prison. (Photo courtesy Marin Shakespeare Company archives)

By Christopher Zoukis

Prison might be the last place you would expect to see a great performance of Shakespeare. But for more than a decade, Marin Shakespeare Company in California has taught Shakespeare in several prisons, and to rave reviews.

In 1989, the company launched to reinvigorate Shakespeare in Northern California, but has expanded its scope over the years, teaching a variety of workshops and programs, including outreach through the Shakespeare for Social Justice Program, started in San Quentin Prison in 2003, and expanding it to several other facilities. Their mission is “to achieve excellence in the staging and study of Shakespearean plays, to celebrate Shakespeare and to serve as a cultural and educational resource for the people of Marin, the San Francisco Bay Area, and beyond.”

Shakespeare might seem like an odd choice, stereotypically relegated to the fodder of English classes and the efforts of British actors, but program proponents espouse its benefits. Studying Shakespeare teaches complex language and literacy skills, critical thinking about human emotions and the consequences of choices, emotional intelligence, empathy, self-reflection and gives rise to the exploration of new ways of thinking.

The atmosphere and exercises of theater and performance also teaches cooperation, interpersonal interaction, communication and problem-solving. It assists in breaking down barriers, building bridges, and helps people recreate themselves as their best selves.

Lesley Currier, the managing director of the company, notes that inmates delve into complex themes while exploring Shakespeare. “Macbeth and Julius Caesar are about committing murder and the psychology behind that: Why they do what they do, how they feel after they do it," he said in an interview with the Marin Independent Journal.

Heavy and emotional topics can arise through studying Shakespeare, and working through these via a fictitious character can be immensely helpful for the participants when reflecting on their own situations and past decisions. The "soft skills" they learn in navigating their emotions and pasts are immensely valuable, both in prison, and as they move into their communities after they are released.

At San Quentin every year, two plays are performed — one of Shakespeare’s works, and a Parallel Play of original pieces that are written and performed by inmates, inspired by the Shakespearean work they performed. Plays are also performed at Solano State Prison. The inmates involved don’t just memorize lines and perform; they have weekly meetings where they complete drama exercises, and learn the variety of skills that can be applied to their daily lives.

Dameion Brown is just one example of the success of the program. He played Macduff in Solano’s performance of Macbeth in 2015. He has since been released, and uses the skills he learned in the program to improve his life and those of others. In 2016 he played the starring role in Othello with Marin Shakespeare Company, and has spoken about his role with students in schools. He is now a youth case manager at Community Works West, working with young men who have been recently released from jail and others referred as part of a diversion program. Brown says he identified with the character of Othello, and had hoped to play the character long before ending up in prison. He was cast as Othello for a school play, but it was canceled after outcry from his community over the interracial romance in the story.

Beyond prison walls, Marin Shakespeare Company launched the Theater Group for Returned Citizens in 2015, to allow former inmates to continue to learn about Shakespeare and theater, and to tell their stories.

Shakespeare for Social Justice isn’t the only program teaching Shakespeare and theater skills to inmates. Other successful programs include the Michigan-based Shakespeare Behind Bars, Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York, and the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institution, in partnership with University of Wisconsin-Parkside. The Mission of Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB), as one example, “is to offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” There are 10 core values to the program, including developing literacy, empathy and problem-solving skills. The recidivism rate of SBB participants is an impressive 5.1 percent, compared to a national average of more than 50 percent. These programs clearly make an impact in the lives of participants, who learn a wide variety of necessary life skills and re-enter their communities as better citizens. Weaving arts into the rehabilitative tapestry offered inmates is a worthwhile endeavor. 

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

 

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 prisoneducation.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.

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 christopherzoukis.com.

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 info@prisonerresource.com 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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

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 info@prisonerresource.com 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

Testimonials

"A true resource for anyone involved with the prison system." -- Alan Ellis, America's leading federal criminal defense attorney
"Provides a wealth of useful information and solid advice. . . [A] treasure trove of penal acumen and knowledge." -- Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor, Prison Legal News
"The Federal Prison Handbook is one of my go-to guides for matters related to the federal prison system. An invaluable resource for attorneys . . . , prisoners, and their families." -- Jeremy Gordon, federal criminal defense and appellate attorney, General Counsel of Prisology
"This is the most informative . . . prison handbook that we've ever seen; and we've seen them all." -- Mark Varca, expert attorney and Chairman of FedCURE

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com