How prison vocational training can help keep America’s productive sector afloat

A shortage of skilled laborers in the craft of welding is poised to seriously hinder America’s production capacity in the coming years. With education policies emphasizing that all students should pursue “traditional” college upon high school graduation, there’s been a serious drop in the number of individuals pursuing vocational training in the last decade or so. But industrial demands for skilled workers has grown, and those needs aren’t being met. Several states are setting themselves up for success by recognizing the capacity of prison populations to help stem that shortage once released. 

The same RAND study that revealed the importance of prison education to reducing recidivism also found that individuals who received vocational training were “28% more likely to obtain post-release employment.” With NPR reporting a possible shortfall of 300,000 welders over the coming decade, a welding certificate could create a world of opportunities for inmates.  Folsom Prison in California has been running a hugely successful welding program for over 20 years, but for some reason it’s only recently that other states have recognized its potential. 

Just as it is with any college graduate, one of the most serious barriers former inmates face upon re-entry is a lack of available positions in their field. This challenge is compounded for ex-inmates who may face the “box” barrier of having to reveal past convictions on their primary job application programs. This past week Oklahoma graduated its first class of welders in an integrative program that also helps eliminate that issue by forging partnerships with community organizations and employers in the region. The program has also taken things a step further by including financial literacy components into their courses.  This type of holistic approach to education can act as a template for how prison education can work towards achieving social and economic goals for everyone involved.

Unsurprisingly, for so many of these programs, funding is a major hurdle. Oklahoma’s program was a collaborative effort with non-profits, but a large chunk of its funding came from the Department of Labour, and that funding is set to end next year. A promising welding program in Alabama is also at risk, with looming funding cuts set to further cripple a prison system already nearly 200% over capacity

In the past, certain conservative pundits have railed against technical training (and every other kind of education) for prisoners—making unfounded claims that giving prisoners access to heavy machinery or equipment poses a danger to public safety. But when their states face shortages and public outcry because of stalled infrastructure works, they’ll have only themselves to blame. Because inside each prison’s walls are individuals ready, willing, and eager to help.



“Inside-Out” is a “right-side up” approach to prison education

Some years ago an inmate at SCI Gratford Prison Pennsylvania conceived of an entirely new approach to prison education, designed not only to enlighten its participants intellectually, but socially as well. Through its implementation it’s succeeded in providing prisoners with hope, and breaking down barriers between social groups.

Called “Inside-Out classes,” an inmate by the name of Paul (last name withheld), the programs operate by inviting college students to participate in courses held inside prison walls.  Paul, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for a gang-related stabbing, conceived of the idea in 1997: “ He envisioned a space where the two groups could maintain an ongoing dialogue and delve into the root issues of crime together, where individuals could ask questions, address stereotypes, and examine criminal justice literature – in the context of honesty, authenticity, and trust.” They operate as an exchange program of sorts, where instead of students going to another country, they study in another world, as it were. To that effect, once a week, college and prison students meet inside the prison to share their insights and ideas, and work together on term projects.

Since I first began to observe Inside-Out programs when writing College for Convicts, their popularity and importance has been steadily growing, to the extent that they’ve expanded beyond national borders. Several courses have been implemented in Canada, plans are underway for customizing training across the country, and training of individuals from Norway, Ireland, the UK, South Africa, and Australia have also begun.

What makes these so important and so effective, is the way they promote dialogue and through that dialogue, deepened understanding of a variety of social, economic, and political topics.

The impact such courses have on participants on both sides is immeasurable. Inside and outside students are able to relate to one another without the bias of media lenses, bias, and socially constructed perceptions of one another. Outside students gain insight into the complexity of reasons behind incarcerations, and the systemic machinations that lead many of them to find themselves in that position. Inside students are able to interact and connect directly with other students, and grow to understand the opportunities education may afford them and know that they will be represented passionately and truthfully on the outside.

Outside students’ understandings of the prison experience are also challenged. There is no candy-coated view of what it means to be in prison, and students who may have grown up with the view that it’s an “easy ride” with free room and board have the opportunity to look behind the curtain. Similarly, they are privy to the emotional toll of imprisonment and the added impact this has on prisoners’ lives. 

Uncharacteristically, availability of Inside-Out programming to women is high—especially important given the relative paucity of prison education programs in women’s prisons.  The educational needs of incarcerated women are unmet even more often than they are for men, which is particularly problematic given that many of these prisoners will need to provide for children upon release.

This model has proved to be so effective that it’s also being expanded to promote dialogue and communication between other at-risk or marginalized groups in settings like homeless shelters, halfway houses, and domestic abuse shelters. 

While other prison education programs have suffered from unrelenting government cutbacks, Inside-Out classes have been better able to weather the retrenchment storm through their reliance on private donations and university contributions. But in the long-term, such dependence may be unsustainable. As such, I would urge institutions to start looking at forging partnerships with universities and colleges willing to participate in training and implementation, because even law enforcement officials involved are testifying to their effectiveness. But at the end of the day, aside from the educational opportunities these sessions afford, it provides its participants with lessons in empathy and compassion that is an absent guest in most classrooms of today. 

The University of Oregon is one of the main providers of these programs, and several journalism students created a short documentary on their impact. You can view it here: 

Where alternative sentencing and education meet

News out of Iran’s criminal justice system last week could not be more surprising. One Judge Qasem Naqizadeh in the city of Gonbad-e Kavus is adopting an alternative sentencing mechanism for juveniles that the rest of the world would do well to pay attention to.

Juvenile offenders with no previous records, having committed relatively minor crimes, are being sentenced to buy and read books. They are then required to summarize them and submit a “book report” to the judge, the books the children buy are then donated to a local prison. Putting aside the jokes that most of us would probably have made back in our school days, that writing a book report is “cruel and unusual punishment,” the judge’s actions serve as recognition of the systemic role prisons may actually play in increasing criminal activities and result in a social deficits.

The rationale guiding such decisions are not dissimilar to those regarding prison education and access to books more generally, namely that reading and education develop individuals’ critical thinking abilities. It also acknowledges the propensity of prisons to exacerbate existing mental health issues, and present very real physical dangers to juveniles. And as with adults, many of the issues that land juveniles in the criminal justice system are often related to issues of poverty and lack of opportunity—a lack of hope. Books and education offer hope for an alternate future, and also help provide young people with the tools for realizing that future.


Mr. Smith went to prison, and what did he learn?

A new memoir has been released from a former candidate for the Democratic party turned inmate, and its timely release is poised to bring another voice to the current debate on prison reform and, in particular, the lack of education available in American penal institutions. Jeff Smith spent a year in prison for conspiracy for election law violations and, like many who actually spend time in a prison environment, realized that the system is fundamentally broken. 

In interviews surrounding his memoir, Mr Smith. Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught me About America’s Prison Crisis, he accurately highlights the complete lack of rehabilitative program content in most prisons in this country. And he provides an important contrast with Scandinavian countries where the emphasis is not strictly on punishment, but on providing individuals with the skills and tools needed not only to become productive members of society, but emotionally healthy community contributors. Smith has stated that one of his key concerns is the lack of education in the system, and the fact that behind those walls, so much potential is lost because of it. 

I applaud Smith for speaking out about his experiences, and for pushing us to examine prison reform through a humane lens, and I'm eager to read his book. Let’s not forget, that in the one year Smith spent behind bars, he saw but a fraction of what life in prison is like, and even that was enough to reveal to him the profound failings of our system. And also that Smith went into, and came out of, prison with advantages most prisoners could only dream of (like a doctorate). So please, while Smith makes the rounds largely because of his prior public presence, remember that everyone in prison has a story. Theirs are no less important and no less deserving of a moment of your attention.


Internet provides more education options for inmates—if they can access them

A new online course is being made available to students across a spectrum of backgrounds that holds great promise for prisoners preparing for re-integration into society. Designed to suit the needs of a broad range of populations. Alison, a company based out of Galway, Ireland, has launched a new set of courses for their Advanced Diploma in Workforce Re-entry Skills , part of their growing massive open online course (MOOC) program.The course is offered free of charge, as part of a growing trend amongst institutions the world over. But what differentiates Alison’s programs is its focus on practical skill acquirement, rather than university-style classes. These courses provide for the development of competence in a wide variety of areas that are valuable in and of themselves, but are also important to those wishing to go on to further studies.

Included in the program are courses that teach digital and computer literacy. Their courses provide the basics of computer knowledge—even explaining the fundamentals of how a mouse works. The programs are also extremely flexible, an important consideration for the incarcerated which many other college programs do not account for. Access to computers/tablets and internet (which are easily monitored) are critical tools for online education that could help make the difference in reducing recidivism.

It continues to be heartening to see how many organizations are dedicated to expanding the access of education globally. Unfortunately, the bulk of American prisons do not share that level of commitment, and are reluctant to provide the infrastructure to make these plans a reality. While, of course, programs like these will be accessible to inmates upon release they would be best served as an option while still incarcerated, to give them a head-start on their reintegration efforts.


Pitfall in path to Pell Grants

The recent announcements of the pilot project restoring Pell Grants to qualified inmates has been greeted almost universally with praise; there is no question that the positive social and economic outcomes of this initiative will be huge.  But while we should certainly applaud these measures, we must remember that there’s an important step that becomes before inmates can even think about accessing college courses, let alone the grant system: the GED.

However, as a recent piece in the Guardian highlights,  tens of thousands of inmates in United States correctional facilities are waiting just to take GED classes. Functional literacy rates among prisoners are astoundingly low when compared to the general population; I cannot count the number of times I have been called on in FCI Petersburg to help inmates read and or draft even the most basic of documents.

As I outline in College for Convicts, within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it is a requirement that prisoners either earn a GED, or spend an equivalent amount of time in classes. This likely conjures up images of prisons filled with classrooms where inmates spend their days behind desks. But given budgetary restraints and increasing cutbacks to prisons the reality is that in institutions like mine, less than 10% of the population are actually able to access the GED program. Many prisoners will spend their entire time behind bars on a waiting list to get in. New testing methods for obtaining GEDs were enacted in 2014 using computers, which will help streamline efforts, but unless a prisoner has basic computer proficiency, again we’re putting the cart before the horse.

When we have a population of people who are eager and willing to improve their situation, to leave these institutions with the intention of helping others, why wouldn’t we afford them that basic right—and it is a right under Federal Bureau law.

So if we want the recent changes to the Pell Grant system to have real meaning in our criminal justice system, let’s also make sure that we ensure that the building blocks for accessing them are also in place. If we are committed to seeing these programs succeed, to producing the results that lead to decreased recidivism, strong social networks, and healthy communities, we need to give prisoners the tools to make that happen. And to do that, we must keep the pressure on Obama to take a serious look at basic education funding in correctional institutions as well.

As the old adage goes, “celebrate today, but fight tomorrow.”

Pell Grants Extended to Support Prison Education


In the spring of 2015, the Obama administration made the exciting announcement that it would allow colleges at select prisons to provide face-to-face instruction to select prisoners. Titled The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, it will assist released prisoners "get jobs, support their families and turn their lives around," according to the Department of Education.

The program, which is not yet operational, will permit colleges and universities to submit proposals to the Department of Education for the 2016-2017 academic year. Once the programs are selected and in operation, prisoner eligibility will be restricted to those who meet eligibility and who will be released from custody within five years. 

If enacted, the pilot program would be a great first step towards re-enacting federal funding for prisoners since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994 (learn more about Prison Education’s Controversial History). However, the administration’s announcement does not mean federal prisoners will necessarily be getting educated en masse anytime soon.

While the U.S. Department of Education and the Obama Administration have the authority to authorize the pilot program, this does not effect general prisoner Pell Grant eligibility. New legislation will need to be passed to permit inmates across the country to actually use Pell Grants for their individual studies outside of the limited number aided by the pilot program. In May 2015, a group of congressmen and women announced their sponsorship of the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants. So far, it has received widespread institutional support from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Correctional Education Association, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Legal Action Center and others. The support is most likely spurred by the dismal state of America’s prison systems and the many proven benefits of prison education. But so far, the Act has not been passed. 

So while education for prisoners is certainly not a sure thing, our country does finally seem to be heading in the right direction. Prison education is on the legislative agenda in a way not seen since the 1990s, and for prisoners and supporters this provides some hope. 

Stay up-to-date on prison education news on this website. For more information on how Prison Education Reduces Recidivism, how Prison Education improves Communities, the Economy and more visit our Prison Education Facts section.



NY State alliance designed to close gaps in prison education system

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

For anyone imprisoned, the possibility of a transfer can be very disruptive emotionally; after spending years in the same facility you become accustomed to the same faces and routines. But the impact can be far more serious when an individual is in the process of completing an education program when it happens. A student may find that they’ve lost credits; someone who has nearly completed a degree over many years may suddenly find they’re forced to start all over again. The result for many is that their efforts are completely derailed and some cases, abandoned altogether. Yet it’s a factor that very few (if any) institutions take into account when organizing such moves.

It’s a serious crack in the system that has widespread ramifications for anti-recidivism efforts and one of the reasons that several of the top prison education providers in New York State have formed the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison (NYCHEP). Guiding the creation of the alliance was the recognition of precisely the kind of difficulties students in prison face in ensuring the transferability of credits when changing facilities.

One of the members of the new consortium is Cornell’s Prison Education program, a highly respected provider of quality university-level education to New York prisons. Cornell (along with other institutions like NYU) have been at the fore of implementing innovative college instruction programs, providing one of the best examples of effective quality prison education; their prison educators include some of the best thinkers in their respective fields. Unfortunately, because of budgetary constraints (they are donor-funded) the program is limited to accepting but a few students each year (though they hope that the recently announced changes to the Pell Grant system may help improve that situation); only about 10% of those who apply are accepted. And so for this institution it’s particularly important that when a student is transferred out of their program that their efforts are not laid to waste.

But even with the high quality level of the instruction and curriculum provided through Cornell, along with fellow NYCHEP members, they all recognized that these benefits are seriously hindered in the absence of a continuity of standards throughout all organizations that serve the prison community. They have joined with these other groups to work towards “streamlining” the system and achieve a degree of universality and standardization common to them all. Doing so will not only assist students while incarcerated, but also allow them to transition into formalized education programs upon release. It will also allow better measurement and tracking of student needs and outcomes, all of which will assist program developers.

The process has only just begun, but it’s a critical development and the timing could not be more critical. With the impending changes to Pell Grants meaning possible funding shifts to the federal level, it will be more important than ever for organizations to be able to demonstrate continuity in terms of quality and accreditation 


Completing the education circle with financial knowledge

Curtis Carroll, AKA "Wall Street"

Curtis Carroll, AKA "Wall Street"

Zak Williams may not be as well-known as his late father, Robin Williams, but the impact he is having on the lives of others is no less note-worthy. A Columbia MBA, Williams has been working at San Quentin State Prison to provide prisoners with important financial skills to help facilitate their rehabilitation efforts. 

He is working alongside the inmate known as “Wall Street,” Curtis Carroll. Carroll is serving a life sentence, but knows the value of such classes given his own misguided focus on crime for financial gain.  So they’ve developed a popular program at the facility to help inmates avoid many of the pitfalls that can lead to disaster.

Preparing an inmate for re-entry into the working world goes beyond providing them with literacy and job skills, because getting a job is really only the first step towards making a life outside the walls of an institution. Many prisoners will be leaving the facilities with few to no financial resources; they might literally be starting at rock bottom. They will need to learn how to re-establish credit, they may have existing debts, and they may have a history of “high risk” decisions that may actually have played a role in their incarceration.

The banking habits of many of the poor rely on predatory lenders cashing “payday loans” and delving them further and further into debt. And unfortunately for some of those desperate people, it leads them to crime. With little knowledge about financial management, saving, debt reduction, retirement preparations, or investment, many who left that life for one in prison, are bound to return to it. Some facilities currently offer large-scale classes on the subject, but inmates find that without opportunities for in-depth or one-on-one interactions, their scope is too limited to be of help. Williams and Carroll are changing the way these programs are run, and the results so far are promising.

We push for educating inmates because we want them to leave prison with the skills needed to become contributing members of society—so why financial information is so often precluded from curriculum is a mystery. Especially given that one study has identified that there is a much higher likelihood of former inmates working freelance or in an entrepreneurial capacity, where financial knowledge is critical. Financial education is also important for their time while they’re incarcerated; it is all too easy for people to take advantage of the loved ones of those in prison.

While finally gaining your freedom is clearly a celebratory moment, re-entry can be absolutely terrifying for those who are unprepared for the challenges of day-to-day life in a world that is dramatically different from the one they left. The contributions of the likes of Carroll and Williams are seriously underrated, but ones that we can hope will be expanded to other institutions across the country. Financial acumen is an important element of the education puzzle that’s frequently lost in prison programs, yet it might well be one of the most important.

New prison-oriented tablet released

The new JP5mini from JPay

The new JP5mini from JPay

JPay has just released a new tablet, the JP5mini, an Android-based tablet that’s specifically designed to deal with some of the rigours of use in the prison setting. Its purchase cost to inmates is $69.99, and there are additional per-use fees with it. Its casing is more durable than the typical tablet's,  its firmware is locked and the programs allow prison officials to screen content.

JPay is not a company without controversy, specifically as regards its financial gouging of inmates and their families, not unlike other companies discussed.  But they do seem to be demonstrating some enthusiasm over opening up possibilities for online education with their technology, if their CEO's words are any indication.

But while JPay has been quick to tout the importance of the tablet to improving access to educational resource and online courses, it’s important to note that American Prison Data Systems are also providing inmates with tablets for entertainment and educational purposes, but at no cost to the prisoners themselves. And would seem to me that if JPay is truly committed to reducing recidivism through education—as they suggest on their blog—then they should follow suit in those cases where the tablets are being used for the dedicated purposes of coursework. After all, it's counter-productive to require individuals engaged in online study to pay $70 for the unit and then $0.40 for a digital stamp each time they want to contact an instructor. A system which differentiates between personal use and educational use would hardly be difficult to implement.

The technology offers promise nevertheless, and we look forward to seeing how it develops and hope that appropriate infrastructure that allows access to educational resources is developed alongside it. Because as long as we’re only providing access to these tools to those who have financial means, its potential impact on recidivism will remain unrealized.


UK Justice Secretary calling for improved prison education

Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Justice

Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Justice

By Christopher Zoukis

In a recent speech, newly-appointed UK Secretary of State for Justice, MP Michael Gove echoed what so many prison reform advocates have been saying for decades: education is key to reducing recidivism. In doing so, he appears to be demonstrating a commitment to making prison education a top priority in his portfolio. Gove has called not only for an overhaul of the prison education system, but also for the possibility of earned early release for those inmates demonstrating commitment to learning.  

He began his tenure as Secretary by removing the previous limits to the number of books prisoners could have in their cells.  Admittedly the 12-book ban was actually deemed unlawful by the high courts, but Gove praised the decision highlighting the importance such decisions have for providing the skills inmates will need upon release in order to succeed.

Some critics have pointed out, however, that while Gove is eager to ease the burden on over-crowded prisons through early release and education-based programming, the same emphasis has yet to be placed on reducing the number of individuals incarcerated in the first place. Because education does not only reduce recidivism, it reduces crime itself by tackling one of its root causes: poverty. 

Many in England and Wales have been fearful of announcements to come from the Conservative minister may fall in line with Thatcher-esque focus on efficiency and cost-containment, so the recent announcement comes as some relief to prison advocates and opposition party members. The supposed vision for a “Rehabilitation Revolution” was first expressed by Gove’s predecessor in 2010, and has yet to produce any solution to the problems of over-crowding, cuts to legal aid, violence, and recidivism.  But for the moment, at least, prisoners in the UK may have reason to be hopeful.

Opening up a world of reading opportunities for youth offenders

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently librarian and literacy advocate Amy Cheney recounted an experience of teaching young offenders in a max unit how they could read to their children and/or younger siblings. One of the most poignant moments in her account, is her recollection that of the six girls in her group, just one of them had been read to as a child. She posited further that the lack of reflective characters in books generally must have had a significant impact on their young minds. The piece goes on to list several titles—both chidren’s and YA—that embrace the type of diversity Cheney sees as being critical to young minds from marginalized backgrounds. 

It’s an important piece we want to share, one that highlights how critical reading is to breaking the cycles of poverty and crime. It is not simply a question of literacy—although literacy skills are clearly imperative when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners—but also one of broadening a young mind’s understanding of the world at large, allowing them to see themselves as part of that greater whole, reflecting the realities of their environments and situations, and affirming their value as human beings.

When Britain’s ban on sending books to prison (which was ultimately overturned) passed last year, a former youth offender had this to say when speaking of the impact of reading on turning his own life around:

“We should know from history…that we become a little less human when books are attacked. We should support any creative alternative to the dominant prison culture: boredom, hopelessness, violence, self-centred pettiness. Books cannot take the blame for the prevalence of drugs or religious extremism in our prisons; they can help create empathy, encourage thoughtfulness and reflection and represent the possibility of change.”

And this is what having books in prison fundamentally boils down to: it opens a prisoner’s eyes to the possibility of another future.

I urge anyone who a loved one in juvenile detention to head to Cheney’s site for a list of titles chosen specifically for their relevance to marginalized and imprisoned readers. 

The surprising new source of prison education advocacy

Prison education advocacy is coming from an unlikely country: Lebanon.

Minister of Education and Higher Learning Elias Bou-Saab

The country is generally only on America’s radar for its assistance in the conflict against ISIL and a fractured and complex internal political state. But despite the beleaguered state of the nation at the moment, the Minister has seen fit to prioritize the rehabilitation of prison populations.

This past week, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab announced his desire to see complete educational facilities integrated into the nation’s prisons. His comments came on the heels of a recent visit to a woman’s prison where he met women with women in the process of taking the first ever Life Sciences Baccalaureate exam hosted inside a prison. The visit formed part of a widespread initiative by the Minister to examine the state of education across the country.

Like so many of us involved in prison education, Bou Saab has realized how important education is to providing hope to inmates, and fostering their will to make a better life for themselves and their communities upon release. He noted that he would be discussing the building of education facilities within Lebanese prisons with the Minister of the Interior.

If a country as mired in conflict and political gridlock, with one of the most infamous prison systems in the world, can appreciate the role that prison education plays in contributing to a strong social and economic fabric, and prioritize it accordingly, what’s our excuse?

New Zealand Prisoners in the Information Age: NZ's Newest Prison Permits Inmates to Use Cell Phones, Computers, and Tablets

By Christopher Zoukis

NZ's Newest Prison Permits Inmates to Use Cell Phones, Computers, and Tablets.

NZ's Newest Prison Permits Inmates to Use Cell Phones, Computers, and Tablets.

Excerpt from original article published in The Huffington Post on May 27, 2015.

In an era where American prison administrators are losing the battle against illicit cell phone usage in our nation's prisons and lawmakers are creating draconian criminal statues to punish offenders, New Zealand's newest prison, the high-security Auckland South Corrections Facility in Wiri (which is also known as Kohuora), is permitting inmates to use both cell phones and computers, plus some to use tablet computers, in their cells.

The new $300 million, 960-bed prison, which is operated by private prison provider Serco(1), opened May 8, 2015, but prisoners didn't start arriving until May 18. Between 60 and 70 inmates will arrive weekly at the prison through August. The complex consists of 30 buildings, including inmate housing units, recreational facilities, a school, and buildings designed for inmate industry activities. At maximum capacity it will house a quarter of the country's prisoners.

Serco also operates the same "responsible prisoner model" in its prisons in the United Kingdom. Both there and in Wiri inmates have access to cell phones, through which they can call pre-approved numbers, and televisions, which have a keyboard and mouse attached to aid in educational programming. All telephone calls are monitored and prisoners can't call one another. The televisions, which have computer functionality, do not allow for internet access.

You can read the full article on The Huffington Post.

Incarcerated Writer Christopher Zoukis Vindicated!

All Incident Reports Overturned and Expunged

After being issues three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business, Christopher Zoukis was recently vindicated once again.

After being issues three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business, Christopher Zoukis was recently vindicated once again.

By Middle Street Publishing

It is with great pride and joy that we at Middle Street Publishing share the terrific news that embattled prison writer Christopher Zoukis has been vindicated once again! He's now back available via email and can again make telephone calls from Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg following his victorious fight with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The History: The 2012 Incident Reports

In 2012, Chris was issued three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business. The alleged business was the free "Education Behind Bars Newsletter" (EBBN). Prison staff, led by Special Investigation Supervisor (SIS) Department agents, decided that the free EBBN was a business because the publisher accepted donations and advertisements to help defray her costs. Rather unsurprisingly, those involved with the publication disagreed.

As a result of the incident reports, Chris was confined to the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit (SHU) for five months and had his email and telephone restricted for over a year. While in the hole he managed to dodge a retaliatory transfer to USP Lee, a maximum-security federal prison. As a result of the ongoing harassment and retaliatory actions by FCI Petersburg staff, Chris and his family retained the services of renowned criminal defense attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. Together they fought the BOP back into their corner. While it took some time, all three of the incident reports were eventually overturned on appeal and Chris' record was expunged.

Recent Events: The 2014 Incident Reports

In late 2014 Chris was again subjected to a series of retaliatory incident reports for his writing endeavors. This time SIS agents issued him four incident reports for allegedly conducting a business. The business this time included writing articles for "The Huffington Post," inquiring about the number of Facebook likes and Twitter tweets that his articles receive, asking a friend to start printing and mailing him his "Prison Legal News" writing assignments, offering to help a fellow prisoners' rights activist update his prison survival guide, and obtaining his own personal credit reports. For this he was sanctioned to nine months loss of email, six months loss of telephone, and three months loss of commissary and visitation.

As in 2012, Chris again retained the services of attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. This time he also retained noted First Amendment attorneys Steve Rosenfield and Jeff Fogel. After seven months of fighting the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all of the adverse findings were overturned on appeal and Chris' record once again cleared.

The Path From Here

With Chris back in daily communications with us we proceed forward with our prison education and prisoners' rights advocacy. While we had to slow down somewhat due to communications being delayed, we can now push forward and make 2015 the year that it is meant to be. For this means a new series of research papers and possibly a more robust section on in-prison and correspondence education programs for prisoners. For this means a new, online directory of federal prisons which will provide information on every federal prison, along with a new design by the team at MKT Communications. And for this means regular postings profiling Chris' reform and publication efforts.

As for Chris, while he's still under many levels of monitoring (after all, all of his emails, postal mail, and telephone calls are now monitored by SIS staff), he's looking forward to June when his next book, "Correspondence Courses for Prisoners," will be released by Prison Legal News Publishing. He's also looking forward to getting back into the swing of things and preparing for a series of interviews with CBS, NBC, and several websites and podcasts. In his words, "It's time to do what we do best: push forward and raise our voices for our brothers and sisters behind bars who don't have a voice loud enough to raise above the din of prison censorship."

We couldn't agree more.

College for Convicts Book Receives Award

Incarcerated writer Christopher Zoukis 
proves the case for Prisoner Education

Petersburg, VA - Eric Hoffer was a moral and social philosopher who was lauded as one of America’s free thinking writers and a champion for the underclass of working men. It’s interesting that a writer who is currently behind bars in FCI Petersburg has won an Eric Hoffer award - since his free thinking thoughts can be tough to get out of the prison system.

College for Convicts - The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons, published by McFarland & Company, has been awarded the Montaigne Medal for most thought-provoking book. His book advocates that while it may seem expensive to educate prisoners, the resulting drop in recidivism is worthwhile.

“It’s quite an honor for my book to receive the Montaigne Medal - given that it was named after Michel De Montaigne, who was passionate about education and the way it was taught. He believed in individualized learning so that everyone could benefit. That’s exactly what I hope to convey in my book,” says Zoukis.

"Incarcerated author Zoukis gives excellent examples to demonstrate that the US would benefit from higher education for inmates by preparing them for life after prison. The author cites statistics showing prisoners with higher education have a much lower recidivism rate, reducing prison overcrowding and saving society billions. The book ends with important appendices on the FBP's position, on becoming pen pals with prisoners, funding, free book, & more. A strongly suggested purchase. Highly recommended. All public & academic levels/libraries." - M. G. Meacham of Valdosta State University

Zoukis is a prison rights advocate who won the 2011 PEN American Center Prison Writing Award for two works, and is a member of the American Bar Association, National Writers Union and the American Civil Liberties Union. He contributes to the Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, and Blog Critics. For more information, visit his blog at


To book an interview contact:
Rachel Sentes, Publicist, 604-366-7846

What The U.S. Can Learn From Prison Reform Efforts Throughout The World

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

By Joseph Erbentraut

It should come as no surprise that with the worst incarceration rate in the world, the United States has a massive problem on its hands.

With roughly 716 of every 100,000 U.S. residents behind bars, the U.S. locks up nearly one-quarter of the entire world’s prison population. Worse yet, when American inmates are released, they are extremely likely to return. The most recent recidivism data for state prisoners, reported by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows 68 percent are back behind bars within three years.

Efforts to reduce the American prison population that are already underway, including a push for drug-sentencing reform and some new investments in rehabilitation programs, have had some success. Last year, the federal prison population declined for the first time in over a decade.

Still, there’s still a long way to go -- and a lot American policymakers could learn from progress made in other parts of the world. Here are some unexpected places where prison reform efforts are having an impact.

Norway: “Nature is a rehabilitation thing now”

In Norway, many prisons are “open,” allowing inmates to take part in recreational activities like swimming and tennis and to work in the facility’s farm or to repair bicycles, just to name a few examples. Inmates are housed in private cells in wooden cottages equipped with a flat-screen TV, a mini-refrigerator and a private bathroom.

One example of an open prison is Norway’s Halden facility, a 75-acre maximum-security prison surrounded by blueberry woods, just across the border from Sweden. It has been described as the “most humane” prison in the world. According to the New York Times, the modern facility is focused entirely on rehabilitation, as reflected by the Norwegian Correctional Service’s motto: “Better out than in.” The country has focused on job training, therapy and education since its corrections program was overhauled in 1998.

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Prisoners Train Shelter Dogs for Adoption

By Claudia Kawczynska

Seven years ago, in May of 2008, Monty’s Home in Southeastern North Carolina, received state approval to start its first Pawsitive Partners Prison Program (PPPP), in conjunction with the Pender Correctional Institution, in nearby Burgaw, NC. President and co-founder Barbara Rabb was on an educational mission to use her dog training skills to shelter dogs to make them more adoptable. Bringing her organizational skills to the task, she enlisted the services of other dog trainers and convinced the local correction facility to establish a prison pup program to provide basic companion dog training for pet dogs. Monty’s Home’s volunteers help train the inmate-trainers, and they select dogs who had met basic temperament evaluations from local shelters; they also assume costs such as vet bills, grooming supplies, food, toys, bedding, etc, all expenses associated with proper canine care and training.

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You'll have to break the law to use this unbreakable, unhackable Android tablet

Image courtesy Cheryl Hurd / NBC

Image courtesy Cheryl Hurd / NBC

By Andy Boxall

How would you like to use a specially modified, 7-inch Samsung Galaxy tablet, that’s not only almost unbreakable, but also extremely secure, after having been tinkered with by security experts to make it practically unhackable? Sound tempting? Well, it’s within most people’s grasp, but there is a caveat — you’re going to have to go to prison.

This is the APDS tablet, and it’s being sold to prisons for use by inmates. The prices vary between $600 and $1,000, which isn’t paid by the prisoner, but by the prison itself. Why would prisons spend so much money on an entertainment device for people who have broken the law, and given up their freedom?

It’s all about education. Statistics show that inmates who learn while incarcerated are far less likely to offend again when released. The tablet is designed as a supplement to prison educational programs, and paying out $1,000 for a tablet to enhance these programs is far more cost effective than the estimated $30,000 per year it costs to keep a prisoner locked up.

The approach is different to other technology companies working alongside for-profit prison systems, according to Christopher Grewe, CEO of APDS, who spoke to the International Business Times recently. He said rather than “selling pacification” by providing entertainment services on the tablet, APDS is about “selling education.” When the company was in its infancy back in 2013, APDS’s COO Adam Smith said its aim was to “supply education, rehabilitation, job training, and placement” to prisoners.

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