Proposed Illinois Life Skills Facility to Benefit Prisoners Poised for Release

Providing education and life skills to help prisoners return to society will be the focus of a refurbished facility that once housed juveniles.

Providing education and life skills to help prisoners return to society will be the focus of a refurbished facility that once housed juveniles.

By Christopher Zoukis

Criminal Justice reform has been a major focus for Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois, and a number of changes have already been made toward the ultimate goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

Since launching a commission on criminal justice and sentencing reform, Rauner has implemented initiatives such as providing offenders with state IDs upon re-entry to help facilitate transitioning into the community, reducing one common hurdle to becoming productive members of society, and a move toward reducing recidivism.

Recently, Gov. Rauner also announced that a juvenile facility, the Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro, which has been empty since 2012, will be repurposed into a minimum security Life Skills and Re-entry Facility, focusing on prisoners who are about to be released back into their communities. The facility will provide education, vocational skills and life skills, which will help them successfully re-enter and integrate into society as productive citizens.

During the news conference announcing the initiative, Rauner commented about the “revolving door” that is the current criminal justice system, and how it needs to change, stating that an almost 50 percent recidivism rate is unacceptable, and that society needs to give offenders a real shot at a second chance. “After somebody has been punished for a crime, we can keep our communities safer. We can reduce crime, if we give them skills so that they’re not right back doing illegal things again,” he said. “They have served their time, they have served their sentence. They need a viable second chance.”

Support has also been garnered for this reform from senators who applaud not only the positive changes to criminal justice, but for the jobs that will be created by opening the facility, including correctional, educational, and rehabilitative positions.

It was also announced at the news conference that the roundhouse – F House — at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet would be closed. Built in 1922, the facility is deteriorating, has long been considered a safety hazard to both prisoners and correctional officers, and was one of the costliest facilities to operate. The closure, which was finalized at the very end of November, will save money from its deferred maintenance costs. This was the only roundhouse still in use in the United States, and conditions have been heavily criticized. Prisoners and officers have been relocated to other facilities. The roundhouse itself will likely be retained for its historical significance.

Illinois Department of Corrections offers a number of other programs for incarcerated individuals including the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program which assists with obtaining VA benefits, resume and interview workshops, and addresses critical housing needs with Project CHILD and transitional housing units, which include programming to address issues such as anger management, socialization and family reunification. A variety of educational and vocational programs are also available, including educational assessments, basic literacy and math skills, GED instructional programs,  and programs focusing on food service, auto body, horticulture and cosmetology.

While these moves are applauded, and are making good strides toward reform, there is room for more. Addressing issues that lead to crimes before they are committed, and taking root issues into account during sentencing and not just during incarceration and upon re-entry, is crucial to help with the reduction in mass incarceration. There are calls to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing, and to seek alternatives to incarceration at the outset.

In the meantime, however, other states should look at Illinois for examples of successful programs that can help to slow down or eliminate the criminal justice system’s “revolving door” through programs that aim to ensure smooth re-entry into society for former prisoners, and ultimately result in safer and more productive communities. 

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

Georgia’s Criminal Justice Overhaul Demonstrates Widespread Positive Effects

Reforms have helped successfully reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10 percent, and have demonstrated cost savings

Reforms have helped successfully reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10 percent, and have demonstrated cost savings

By Christopher Zoukis

In the last five years, Georgia has been successful in making badly needed, sweeping changes to its criminal justice system under the direction of Republican Governor Nathan Deal.

The state has come a long way from where stood in 2009, when a Pew Research Center study indicated that one in 13 citizens were involved in the prison system in some capacity — whether incarcerated or on probation. That was the highest per-capita prison system in the country — well above the nation’s already-high rate of one in 31 adults. Recidivism rates were 30 percent for adults, and 65 percent for juveniles. As well, 70 percent of the state’s prisoners lacked a high school diploma. State officials were determined to change these statistics, and Georgia is now a model of successful criminal justice reform.

Reform initiatives have been wide reaching, collaborative, and achieved through the support of many interagency programs. They cover juvenile offenses, address issues with the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and include programs for the currently incarcerated, and involved the implementation of much-needed re-entry programs.

For juveniles, the reforms focus on reducing sentencing rates, diverting charges for offenses such as truancy and breaking curfew, seeking instead to address root issues of such behaviors instead of locking up teens. Juveniles now have increased access to community programs and educational opportunities. The Second Chance Court offers alternative sentencing for minor offenses, helping reduce the chances that things like minor drug charges do not eventually result in a lifetime prison sentence. Counties using these programs saw a 62 percent reduction in juveniles being sent to detention —much greater than the 15 percent target when the programs were first enacted. And to raise levels of education, charter schools have been established inside correctional facilities.

Outside prison walls, programs have been set up aimed at increasing released prisoners’ chances at successful reintegration into society. For example, the Max Out Re Entry Program (MORE) helps eligible offenders find jobs, obtain driver’s licences, and participate in programs to address personal and behavioral issues.

The Re-Entry Partnership Housing Program supplies housing to ex-offenders. This is particularly needed in Georgia, where offenders cannot be released unless they have a documented address to go to. Securing housing can be tough in the face of barriers including credit checks, the need for references, the overall lack of access to public housing, and landlords requiring criminal records checks. This housing gives the formerly incarcerated a supervised place where they can begin reintegration.

And to give ex-offenders a fairer chance at obtaining employment, Georgia has banned the criminal history check box on state agency job applications.

These reforms have helped successfully reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10 percent, and have demonstrated cost savings. In Georgia it costs $18,000 per year to house an adult prisoner, and $90,000 per year to house a juvenile in a detention centre. But rehabilitation programs are much more cost effective. Second Chance Court programs for youth cost less than $8000 per year per youth. The reduction in sentencing and recidivism has also translated into savings on infrastructure — two juvenile detention centres have now been closed, and new prison construction has been halted.

Georgia’s prison reforms have their origins in Governor Deal’s personal experiences and knowledge. He spent time as a juvenile judge, and realized his only two choices — sending youth back to the bad situations they were in; or prosecuting and sending them to detention centres — both resulted in bad outcomes that didn’t solve any of the core issues leading to crime. After becoming governor, he convened a panel or prosecutors, attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, and legislature members to form the Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Many of the reforms that have been enacted passed uniformly or almost uniformly, demonstrating this is not a partisan issue.

Reforms like those made in Georgia are crucial because they are being enacted at the state level. While there has been national attention on criminal justice reform, and President Obama has enacted many changes, those changes only affect those in federal facilities— fewer than 10 percent of the national prison population. Changes must occur at state levels in each state. These reforms create safer and more productive communities, break generational cycles of crime, and give offenders — particularly youth — second chances to turn their lives around by addressing root problems that lead to crime, such as addictions and mental health issues.

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

New Guidelines Target Ending “Zero-tolerance” Policies, Aim To Stem School-to-Prison Pipeline

"Zero-tolerance" policies have been blamed for sending students into the justice system and contributing to mass incarceration.

"Zero-tolerance" policies have been blamed for sending students into the justice system and contributing to mass incarceration.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Obama administration has taken more steps to improve an atmosphere of fairness and equity and to support a climate of achievement for public school students. New materials to be used as tools by educators were released in September as part of continuing effort to urge schools to abandon controversial, harsh “zero-tolerance” punishment policies for students that commit offenses.

These policies have funnelled countless kids — a disproportionate number of them black and Hispanic — into the juvenile justice system, and have been tied to the “school-to-prison” pipeline contributing to mass incarceration in the U.S.

To help mitigate these issues, the Departments of Education and Justice released new recommendations and guidelines for school resource officers and student discipline. Both departments encourage the utilization of the SECURe rubric, which outlines five steps of action. SECURe stands for Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding and Respect.

In 2013-2014 at least 30 percent of schools had at least one school resource officer (SRO), and 11 percent had one law enforcement officer not designated as an SRO. The presence of officers is ostensibly to keep schools and children safe, however a 2011 study published in Justice Quarterly states that the increased use of police in schools increases referrals to law enforcement for minor transgressions, and increases harsh responses to minor disciplinary issues. When minor issues are criminalized, teachers, administration and other staff step away from disciplinary responsibilities and rely on SROs and police.

The new recommendations call for limited involvement by officers in discipline matters, and training for teachers and staff aimed discouraging them from calling in officers for nonviolent issues. At the same time, training is recommended for SROs in the areas of child development and conflict de-escalation. The goal is not to take SROs out of schools, but to have them operate under new guidelines that more sharply define their roles, in an effort to foster greater trust between law enforcement the community.

This is a vital overhaul of the system, considering there are more than 17,000 school resource officers working in schools across the country. SRO programs and goals need to be clearly defined, and mutual understandings of roles should be developed between schools and law enforcement. This ensures appropriate disciplinary actions are taken, rather than unnecessarily escalated. Under the guidelines, schools and teachers are being urged to move away from relying on officers to administer discipline.

Zero tolerance policies are disruptive to classrooms, schools, and can affect students’ educational futures if they are suspended or expelled. According to civil rights data collected in 2011-2012, black students were three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school. Between 2013-2015 black students were twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested compared to their white peers. The difference in treatment is so stark that the Education and Justice departments issued a letter to school districts stating that racial discrimination in school discipline is a definitive problem. Zero-tolerance policies are not meted out evenly for the same infractions. Some punishments result in arrests, which can severely limit future opportunities and have been correlated with lower academic achievement and increased incidence of repeat offenses.

The U.S. needs to move away from zero tolerance policies in the classroom, and toward other forms of discipline which better foster a supportive learning environment, and which do not result in the expulsion or suspension of students. Students should not face expulsion or jail time for nonviolent offenses, which can send them into the school-to-prison pipeline. If schools embrace these new guidelines and resources, it is a step in the right direction to help create brighter futures for public school students, to alleviate strain on the justice system and to reduce mass incarceration.

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

Community Involvement in Programs Boosts Chances For Successful Lives After Prison

Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education to help with successful re-entry.

Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education to help with successful re-entry.

By Christopher Zoukis

Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is located in the United States, and most — 95 percent — of those incarcerated will eventually be released into their communities.

The issues that arise from mass incarceration and high recidivism rates are well known. A family with an incarcerated father is 40 percent more likely to live in poverty. About 65 percent of prisoners haven’t completed high school, with 14 percent possessing less than an eighth grade education. Children whose parents are incarcerated are at higher risk for antisocial and violent behaviour, mental health problems, school dropout and unemployment, according to a presidential report from the Council of Economic Advisors called Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System, released in April.

Education, vocational programs, skill building and other programs, are all vital tools for ensuring that prisoners who will be returning to their communities will be able to lead productive lives. Access to these opportunities will help break the cycles and factors that can lead to further incarceration.

It’s not only lawmakers and prisons themselves that are realizing the benefits of various programs, but local communities too. Community organizations can help to fill some gaps in resources, funding and programming, as well as providing reassurance to current inmates that the community is there for them, aware of them, and will continue to be there after release and during integration.

Just knowing that there is support from people outside of the prison walls can make a huge difference in the mindset and motivation of someone currently incarcerated, and who will soon be released. Programs that bring volunteers inside prisons, such as those driven by colleges and church groups, can also benefit the community, as individual interactions with inmates helps to humanize them. These interactions also allow community members to learn about the criminal justice system, and about the various external factors at play that may have influenced prisoners to end up where they are. This is an important way to help de-stigmatize prisoners and change viewpoints of those who might see prisoners as deserving only of punishment behind bars, and not of rehabilitation, when in reality many have received sentences for nonviolent crimes.

This shift in attitude can be demonstrated in Lubbock County, Texas, where 60 percent of the population in the detention centre are serving time for offenses related to addiction. Sheriff Kelly Rowe has addressed this, noting that while some people need to be kept away from society “the biggest majority of our population, they’ve got a debt to pay, but we don’t need them in a recurring cycle.”

The issue of addiction leading to recidivism needs to be addressed, so that prisoners can return to communities and be successful. In order to address these issues, the Lubbock Country Detention Center offers several educational and rehabilitation opportunities, as well as optional religious services. Volunteers from the community lead many of these programs, which include AA meetings, bible studies, resume-building skills and GED classes. These programs are vastly needed in an area where some prisoners arrive with first-grade reading levels. The programs also encourage prisoners themselves to become long-term mentors within the facility, who are invited to return as mentors after release. Some programs also strive to address transitional housing after release.

Meanwhile other states have also made inroads toward connecting prisoners with their communities. In Nebraska, First Plymouth Church recently presented its Love of Neighbor Award to Nebraska Wesleyan University’s “College is the Key to Inmate’s Tomorrow” program, which pairs college students with inmates. The students help teach inmates, and in turn receive college credits for a course in criminal justice, benefiting both participants.

In San Quentin State Prison in California, prisoners are taught how to code with The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Students who may have had zero experience with smartphones or computers before the course will learn enough basic coding to secure an entry-level job upon re-entry. Programs like this can provide prisoners with purpose and passion, as well as hope.

These are just a few examples out of many that demonstrate the difference community involvement can make in the lives of prisoners. Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education, to increase the chances of successful re-entry and reduced recidivism. Other communities would do well to emulate these shining examples, as we continue to combat the root causes of incarceration and re-offense, and to help offset the stigma that prisoners can face in their communities upon release, so that they can feel that they are welcome — not isolated — in society.

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

Internet Access Is a Human Right. Should Prisoners Have It?

Allowing supervised access to the internet could help with rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

Allowing supervised access to the internet could help with rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

By Christopher Zoukis

Internet and computer access dominates most people’s lives to a major degree in many countries around the world. More than 45 percent of the world population has an internet connection at home — that’s fast approaching 4 billion people.

In the United States, 75 percent of people are connected. Most developed countries can also access the internet outside the home in work places, schools and libraries, and many people can connect through multiple devices. We’ve never been more connected, with access to so many resources, and so able to communicate with each other. From accessing free online university courses, to being able to keep in touch with old friends or faraway family, it’s hard to imagine not having regular access to the people in our lives, not to mention limitless entertainment in the forms of apps, games and videos.

Internet access is now considered so fundamental that the United Nations declared internet access basic a human right in 2011, affirming that connectivity is importance for democracy, freedom of expression, communication and government transparency. While this is a nonbinding resolution, it does reflect the essential nature of the internet, and how fundamental it is to our everyday being.

But not everyone has the same degree of access, despite the increasing importance of digital literacy and the recognition of it as a human right in our increasingly globalized world. Populations with limited access include those living in developing nations where internet usage is much lower than in the United States, people living in areas without the necessary infrastructure, and other groups, such as those currently incarcerated in the U.S.

Most prisoners in the U.S. have no access to the internet. Some institutions even punish inmates whose families post online on their behalves. Some prisoners use outside people to assist them to post blogs and opinion pieces, by dictating them over the phone, or sending letters to friends or family. But others gain access to the internet illegally, through contraband cell phones. In some cases, prisoners have been harshly punished for these activities, slapped with extra years in detention. In one extreme case, a South Carolina inmate named Tyheem Harris was handed 37 years in solitary for making 38 posts to Facebook — 23 more years than his actual sentence.

Some prisons do allow inmates to access email on secure, private intranets. Some also allow limited access to tablets for a variety of purposes, such as listening to music or delivering educational programming — certainly a step in the right direction. But time is often limited on tablets and other devices, and fees for using them can cost prisoners, or their families, a great deal of money.

Given how connected the world has become, should prisoners have more internet and computer access? There are hesitations around this issue for those that envision internet access as a potential free-for-all that could give rise to an increase in contraband, access to pornography, threats to victims or engagement in digital crimes. But these fears should be tempered by the fact that digital technologies can be custom designed for each purpose, and access to them strictly monitored and controlled in secure environments.

Allowing greater internet access could give prisoners the opportunity to broaden perspectives, connect with the wider world in meaningful ways, and learn essential digital skills that exist in the world waiting for them upon release. It could also avail them of important learning resources including college and vocational courses and language skills. The internet is a useful tool for self-improvement.

Granting access could contribute to more educated and skilled inmates, which has been shown to reduce recidivism. Done right, there is a potential to use this life-enriching technology without the need for increasing staff or expenditures for things like physical classrooms, materials or teachers. It would help prepare prisoners to be reintroduced to society by giving them basic workforce-ready familiarity with the online world, leaving them less likely to reoffend. The internet could be a useful rehabilitative aid to improve prisoners and prison communities, with the trickle-down effect of having more educated and equipped people being released into society.

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

Virtual Reality Behind Bars For Real Change

Virtual reality technologies could have a wide range of applications for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

Virtual reality technologies could have a wide range of applications for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

Already a hot topic in the gaming world, virtual and augmented reality technologies are slowly spilling into other venues such as museum exhibits and educational institutions. But could these technologies someday be used behind bars? In prisons, where education and training resources can be scarce and difficult to administer, could VR be used to help deliver much-needed skills, education and rehabilitation?

Immersive 360-degree videos can completely transport users into a new environment. The possibilities for its application are endless, as technology advances so quickly. Virtual and augmented reality could be used to supply career training using real life scenarios — including mock-hazardous situations — without any of the actual risk.

VR trades instruction might, for example, give prisoners access to virtual versions of a construction site or a kitchen in a home — training scenarios usually not possible for most prison inmates.

Besides immersive career and vocational training, VR can be used to create individualized learning plans, virtual field trip opportunities such as to museums, galleries and even other countries, and access to books and libraries.

Virtual Reality, which relies on images and scenarios rather than text, may also benefit low-level learners and those with language barriers, ensuring a wide range of learning needs are covered. It has the advantage of providing the best view for demonstrations for all users, instead of different points of view found in traditional classroom settings. With it, students can review and repeat any information as needed.

In addition, virtual reality can let its users learn at their own paces. That means if a user wants to advance quickly through material or access more material, they can. Compare this to the limitations and constraints of a traditional classroom, where students are expected to move through material as one group at the same pace.

Beyond education and career skills, virtual reality technology has been established as a useful treatment for mental health issues. It can be used to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients change negative or destructive thoughts and behavior, and to help treat PTSD. It has been used successfully for reduction of stress, anxiety and phobias. Given that 56 percent of prisoners in state prisons and 64 percent of inmates in local jails have some form of mental illness, the rehabilitative power and potential cost savings in using virtual reality are worth examining.

While the positive benefits of VR are clear, some people may have concerns. Those focused on the punishment aspects of prison may see the use of virtual and augmented reality as giving prisoners access to expensive games and entertainment. But in reality, content would be focused on educational and vocational skills, literacy, and programs such as mental health. Educating and rehabilitating prisoners ultimately reduces recidivism, translates into numerous types of costs savings, and helps integrate released prisoners into society, making them contributing members of communities.

On the flipside, virtual reality can supply great insight into prisons and prison conditions for those not inside. Project Empathy is one such project that supplies a first-person-experience glimpse into various aspects of society using virtual reality films. Viewers get an intimate look at what prisons are like on the inside, including a feel for solitary confinement. Project Empathy kick started its film series first with a focus on prisons to create a dialogue on why prison reform is necessary

Despite perceived potential negatives, the possibilities for virtual reality technologies to enact positive change for prisoners are worth serious consideration. It could be a powerful tool for delivering a full compendium of educational and rehabilitative services during incarceration. More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released into our nation's communities each year. Don't we want them to have the best chance at being capable members of society?

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



Books Behind Bars Mean Better Outcomes

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. 

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. 

By Christopher Zoukis

Evidence is overwhelming prisoners benefit in myriad ways when they have access to books and education. An increase in education of any kind is connected to reducing recidivism, as reported by the 2013 Rand Corporation Study, and as demonstrated by the outcomes of numerous programs that have been implemented across institutions.

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. The odds of obtaining employment upon release are also greatly increased for inmates that have availed themselves of books and programs. This is extremely important because 95 percent of the 2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. will eventually be released. There should be more focus on ensuring these people can successfully reintegrate into society.

Changing Lives Through Literature is one program that successfully demonstrates this. Started in 1991 in Massachusetts, the first program participants had a recidivism rate of 19 percent, compared to the control group, which had a 45 percent rate of recidivism. The program connects works of literature with offenders with the driving idea that reading can transform lives. Through reading groups, participants learn to connect with characters and ideas, explore their imaginations, and go deeper in thinking about what has driven their own actions in life.

Besides reducing reincarceration rates, reading and other educational programs benefit prisoners by providing means of entertainment and escape, offering constructive ways to pass the time. On a deeper level, books help improve literacy rates — something that certainly needs to be worked on, as 68 percent of inmates in state prisons lack high school diplomas. Reading opens up avenues to learning vocational and professional development skills. Some of the most requested books behind bars cover topic including legal information, career development, and dictionaries and GED prep materials.

Beyond basic literacy skills, reading also builds vocabulary. It can also enrich people's emotional and social lives, boosting empathy, social perception and context, learning about choices and consequences, allowing for self-reflection and insight, and connection to society though an understanding of what is happening in the outside world. In some institutions where book clubs are run, these skills can go even further, as prisoners learn respect, discussion, listening and community building, while discussing important themes.

Prison education programs also save money. A $1 investment in education means a savings of $4-5 in further incarceration costs post-release.

Benefits of education programs, and in particular reading, are also recognized around the world. From book clubs at Warkworth Institution in Canada, to reading programs in Italy and Brazil, many institutions are turning to books and libraries to help with rehabilitation. The benefits are so recognized that in both Italy and Brazil, sentences can be reduced for reading books and writing short reflective essays — up to a reduction of 48 days per year.

The New York Public Library Correctional Services Program highlights the importance of its work of providing services to inmates, fulfilling the democratic mission of the library because it gives access to information many take for granted to a "wholly segregated group of people."

Books and libraries are especially important in prisons where other educational resources, such as formal education classes, may be very limited or not available at all.

There are a variety of book programs to donate to or volunteer with that can ensure books meet the requirements of the institution they are being sent to, including content and genre. In many cases, books must be shipped new from a bookstore, to prevent contraband entering the institution. However access is gained to books, it is important to ensure this access is not limited, and that adequate and diverse collections are provided. Additionally, books and libraries should not be regarded as an earned privilege, but as a vital and powerful tool of rehabilitation. 

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

States Should Follow Feds On Rethinking Private Prisons

A report on for-profit private prisons indicates the model has serious problems.

A report on for-profit private prisons indicates the model has serious problems.

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently the US Department of Justice announced they would be closing all privately run federal prisons, declining to renew contracts, or significantly reducing the scope of private prison contracts.

This comes following a report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General indicating that private companies do a poor job of housing or caring for inmates, and found serious problems with a number of categories involving the safety and security of inmates.

The switch away from contract prisons may lead to cost savings, and reduce problems such as contraband, incidents of violence, and lockdowns. Private prisons were found to have higher levels of property damage and bodily harm. One prison riot over poor food quality and medical care in Mississippi caused the death of a correctional officer, and injured 20 people.

Eight times more contraband cell phones were confiscated at contract prisons as in Bureau of Prisons institutions. New inmates at some of the contract prisons were found to be improperly housed in solitary. Services such as vocational training and education are provided at a lower level at private companies. Thus, ending contract prisons and bringing them back into the BOP fold should result in some benefits to the inmates and to society, including a reduction in recidivism, since this is linked to the availability of higher quality programs focused on rehabilitation the provision of other opportunities.

These changes will affect 22,000 inmates that are housed federally across the country, with an aim of a 50% reduction in the number housed in private facilities by May 2017. Several states have also made promises to de-privatize prisons, noting the greater benefits, and the growing recognition that for-profit prisons may skew crime rates. If there is incentive to have more prisoners, this can negatively affect sentencing, and could send more people to prison for longer — people who otherwise might be diverted into different types of punishment. The for-profit model is partly responsible for our system of mass incarceration and prison overcrowding.

Already states including Texas, Idaho, Colorado, and Mississippi have announced, already closed, or taken over privately run facilities.  Should Florida, and other states, follow in their wake? Florida, for example, currently has seven private prisons housing approximately 10,000 inmates, in addition to all juvenile corrections, and fund inmate services such as health care, education, and vocational training. While these numbers may not seem like a large portion of the 2.5 million incarcerated individuals in the US, the yearly cost to house Florida inmates alone in private prisons is $142 million.

It's reasonable to think that, if privately contracting prison services is costlier, less safe, and less effective, we should abandon the use of private prisons. Institutions like prisons should not be for-profit businesses, in whose best interest it is to see a continual increase in the prison population. They are guaranteed fat bank accounts through paying prisoners low wages — 25 cents per hour in many cases — and raking in income through contracting their labor. This is the opposite of what we should strive for: rehabilitation, less prison time, and the creation of safer and more secure communities through the proper oversight of prisons.

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

Help Reduce Crime Through Treatment, Not Charges

Treatment programs for offenders charged with minor crimes grant second chances and aim to solve underlying issues.  

Treatment programs for offenders charged with minor crimes grant second chances and aim to solve underlying issues.


By Christopher Zoukis

Utah has become the latest state push for treatment — not prison — for minor offenses, as part of an effort to offer those who without serious criminal histories and people with substance abuse and mental health issues a chance at turning their lives around.

While Utah was already making strides in state facilities, the effort will now expanded to cover federal charges and institutions, based on similar programs in California. The Utah Alternatives to Conviction Track – U-ACT- was designed by a team that included federal prosecutors, defence attorneys, probation agents, and judges, and is aimed at giving second chances, addressing the deeper causes behind crime head on, and reducing long-term costs to the court system and communities by reducing crime rates and recidivism.

The program is aimed at defendants without long criminal histories, who have committed minor, non-violent offenses, or for those struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. A guilty plea is necessary before admittance to the voluntary program, and admission is expected to be competitive. The program lasts between one to two years. Defendants are split into two different tracks — one for people who have little to no criminal history, with minor offenses such as credit card fraud, minor mail theft or minor narcotics or other fraud offenses; and another group for those whose crimes include committing robberies not involving firearms or specific acts of violence, mail theft or credit card fraud. Some offenses — including those related to child exploitation or pornography, larger-scale fraud, or drug offenses or involving violence — will automatically exclude defendants from program eligibility.

Program participants are closely supervised, and receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues, or are given education and training. They attend regularly scheduled program meetings, and depending on the track, may take part in community service. Those who complete the program successfully could see charges dropped or be put on probation, and in select cases, agree to plea to reduced charges before entering the program.

Programs like these ensure that the causes of crime are addressed, instead of forgetting the individual lives involved, and punishing based on the crimes alone. By addressing underlying causes — such as heroin addiction or untreated bi-polar disorder — the likelihood of an individual re-offending is reduced. In many prisons today, people who need treatment for addictions or mental health issues slip through the cracks, and the results of going untreated can be shown in much higher rates of recidivism. By giving defendants the tools to combat addictions, or to provide them with education, we are helping ensure they are more likely to support themselves and their families, which ultimately translates into safer communities. Funding alternative treatment programs also saves money. Human Impact Partners estimates that the cost of treatment is about a quarter of the cost of putting someone behind bars.

Expanding the availability of programs like this on both state and federal levels makes sense. Reduced crime, stronger communities, retention of family unity, and reduced spending on prisons is what is gained through a more compassionate approach using rehabilitative programs. Let's hope that more states and federal institutions get on board with alternatives to incarceration, taking a closer and look at addressing the deeper issues leading to criminal behavior. 

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

Isolation Cells Empty After Change in Solitary Confinement Use

Up to 100,000 prisoners are placed in solitary confinement in the U.S. every day. Thankfully, many states are beginning to change their policies surrounding this harsh form of punishment.

By Christopher Zoukis

Picture solitary confinement — a.k.a. "the SHU." Isolation, loneliness, deprivation. A place where a prisoner might be alone for up to 23 hours per day, in a windowless room, with non-contact visits from behind glass. You might imagine that this form of punishment is used only when absolutely necessary, for the worst offenders and rule breakers inside prisons. But that's not the case, and too many inmates have been subjected to this harsh form of treatment unnecessarily. On any given day, 100,000 prisoners across the US are held in solitary.

Thankfully, some states are beginning to realize that the SHU is no place to just put prisoners arbitrarily. It cannot be used a response to overcrowding, to a prisoner mouthing off or disobeying orders, or as a location for someone who has been victimized, therefore literally punishing the victim. Nor should solitary be used as a place to house inmates that are suspected of gang involvement and held indefinitely, regardless of proof.

In a significant number of cases, inmates placed in solitary suffer from mental health issues—which may have gone undiagnosed or untreated. Sometimes SHU is used as protective measure for those places there—and this can include disabled or transgendered prisoners — which isolates individuals who do not deserve punishment.

But there is a dawning realization about the wrongness of the misuse of solitary confinement, and action is starting to take place.

In the year since California laws changed on how solitary confinement can be used—after inmate hunger strikes brought attention to the issue—the numbers of inmates in Solitary Housing Units has been cut by two-thirds. That number includes 1,226 inmates released from solitary at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California.

Any SHU term must now be based on an inmate's behavior, such as committing a violent offense. Problematic in the past has been basing SHU terms solely on the words of confidential informants who accused inmates of possible gang involvement. Cases like these should no longer go forward on this basis. This is good news for those at the prison, and their loved ones. Pelican Bay is known for its high use of solitary confinement, with more than 500 prisoners having spent 10 years in solitary, and more than 75 prisoners doing more than 20 years. The rule changes mean a big difference in how the prison will operate.

The use of solitary confinement has been under scrutiny of late, and for good reason. California is not the only body to recognize and act on the issue. Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system in January, and stated that it could not be used for low-level infractions. Other states, including Illinois, Oregon, and New York have also made moves to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary. Many activist groups have spoken out against the misuse of solitary confinement.

These types of actions are important. Harsh punishment for the sake of punishment accomplishes nothing. Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging. It's been shown to cause anxiety, insomnia, social withdrawal, depression, and a wide range of other severe symptoms. There are also higher incidences of self-harm. Research has also shown there are links between confinement and higher levels of recidivism. Housing prisoners this way is also significantly more expensive. Throwing inmates into the SHU with improper bases for doing so doesn't lead to safer, stronger communities—but the opposite. We need to ensure that measures like SHU terms are kept to a minimum, and used only when absolutely necessary, in the most extreme cases. Focus should be on rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates, and preparing incarcerated individuals to re-join society, knowing how to live within it, not to be isolated from—and afraid—of it.

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

Technology Boosts Prison Education

technology use in prison can improve learning outcomes.

technology use in prison can improve learning outcomes.

By Christopher Zoukis

Technology use has grown in all aspects of life outside of prisons, including in classrooms. Prison classrooms and communities can also benefit greatly from the use of technology. There are many benefits to using technology within all education systems, including in prison settings. Personalized learning is recognized as being increasingly important to successful outcomes. One size does not fit all learning styles, and technology is one way to address personalization efficiently and effectively.

Blended learning, combining traditional teaching methods with supplementary technology, can provide access to a much wider range of content and resources. Along with traditional core teaching, it allows the individual student to access more material as needed, offers personalization within the educational system, and allows students to work at their own pace. This is especially important within the prison system where resources are limited, and where there are a wide variety of people with very different backgrounds and education levels. Formal education offerings may be infrequent, or limited to a certain number of participants. Technology use would also help streamline the process in cases where the population can be transient, such as being moved from one facility to another. It would ensure records from multiple institutions are combined and kept up to date, with as little disruption in education as possible. Interactive technologies can also be cost-effective, with the potential to purchase and circulate several of them for the equivalent cost of one staff member, but traditional teaching methods should not be entirely replaced.

The use of new technology also has the potential for more content creation by each institution, and can be used for vocational training, rehabilitation, careers skills, and mental health services. Boosting access to higher-tech options can be as simple as providing digital copies of books and learning materials versus relying on the limited materials donated to the prison library. The regular use of tablets on which these materials would be delivered would also increase much-needed technology skills.

American Prison Data Systems is one company providing secure educational technologies on a tablet-based system, which includes content, assessment tests, and delivery of small rewards for achieving goals, such as unlocking a song to listen to. Jail Education Solutions provides a system called Edovo, which provides a wide spectrum of educational resources, from college credit courses to anger management to financial literacy.

IDS is another similar system offering secure and managed learning. There are also other systems, such as JPay, which offers common-space kiosks in prisons providing music, gaming, e-mail video visitation services for inmates to connect to friends and family. Access to the service is through paid credits, and JPay users on the outside must purchase secure tablets from the company to communicate with inmates. However, there have been concerns expressed about the for-profit model used by such platforms and technology services, which are being accessed by some of the most impoverished members of the population. Complaints have been launched against Securus Technologies for the high cost of video calls, for example.

For those concerned about what kind of access these technologies provide to the greater digital world, the tablets used in prisons are completely secure. APDS, for example, uses a tablet that has been verified unhackable, and is encased in military grade plastic to ensure it is unbreakable.

These systems are now being tested in a number of states, including Alabama, which is using the American Prison Data Systems platform. APDS is also looking at expanding into telecommunications, financial services, and retail, ensuring that the needs of incarcerated individuals and their families are met comprehensively by one service, and which may make these systems even more attractive to all parties involved. Other states have already signed on to tablet based systems, including California, Indiana, Kansas, and New York.

Using technology like this, as long as it is comprehensive and well designed, and is not an additional cost burden to inmates, is another way to ensure that incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to use their free time constructively. They can improve themselves and their futures through technology and other programs. These systems may also help reduce inmate violence by addressing isolation and boredom. Technology also has the potential to be used widely to reach more individuals than ever before. This ultimately will help contribute to a reduction in recidivism, and the creation of stronger communities.

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


How To Send Money to Someone In Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

If you have a loved one or friend who is incarcerated, you may be wondering how to best send them monetary resources. This can be important, as prisoners often need money for essentials including for phone time and computer use, including to receive, read, and send emails on a secure system (this does not grant Internet access), as well as buy supplies such as supplementary food, medical supplies, and even pads or tampons.

The commissary may also sell items such as books and magazines, or writing supplies such as paper and writing utensils. A percentage of the money in their account may also be used to pay fees or restitution. Any funds received will go a great way to supplementing the money that may be earned when an inmate is assigned to a work detail. While they may earn an hourly wage, this can be quite low – sometimes just a few cents an hour.

While thinking of how best to send money, it’s also important to keep in mind how much the inmate may really need – not enough money, and they could do without some essential hygiene products, too much, and they could be targets for others, although the amount they are able to access weekly may be limited. Also, be wary of requests from other inmates, or to send resources to other inmates.

There are a number of different ways to send your loved ones money for their commissary or telecom accounts. This may also depend on the correctional institution that your loved one is in. Federal, state and local institutions may have different regulations or restrictions, and private contract facilities may have their own regulations too. There may also be certain regulations that have to be followed on the side of the receiver- such as ensuring the account is set up properly, and approved to receive payments from outside the facility.

Restrictions may exist over who is allowed to make deposits, so ensure that you qualify. There may also be maximum limits on deposits. In general these guidelines and suggestions may prove helpful, but please ensure that you contact or look up the guidelines for the relevant institutions to ensure you are following the correct procedures.

There are three ways to send funds to inmates, to be deposited into their personal commissary accounts, or phone accounts, at a Federal Bureau of Prisons institution. To send money electronically, you can choose to send via MoneyGram or Western Union. Using either of these forms will ensure prompt payment to the commissary account, generally within four hours. It is important to ensure all of the correct information is included.

You may also be able to access these services in other ways, such as by phone, or in person from an agent. You can also send funds via post through the United States Postal Service. This must be done through a money order only, not a personal cheque, cash, or including any additional items. The money order must include the inmates’ full name, as well as their complete eight digit register number. The money order should then be sent to the central processing center in Iowa.

While the BOP may not accept personal cheques, other institutions may. In California, for example, you should be able to send money with a personal or cashier cheque via lock box, as well as using an electronic funds transfer, or by post. In Illinois, inmates may receive money via Global Tel*Link, JPAY, Western Union or money order. In Orange County, Fla., you cannot use a personal cheque, but you can deposit money in person at the Video Visitation Center. Clark County, Nev., accepts debit and credit transactions via Touchpay.

Besides MoneyGram and Western Union, there are other electronic services you may be able to use, including JPay, and Access Corrections. Depending on where you and the inmate are, there may be more or less options. It is worth exploring these options to see which have the best delivery times, ease of use, fees for use, and what other services, such as email, may be offered.

There are also other ways to connect with loved ones who are incarcerated. You may be able to send emails or letters, conduct video visitations, visit in person, or send books and supplies to the institution they are located at. Again, it is important to check the specific rules and guidelines of each institution, as they can vary widely across level of facility, and state by state.

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

Cal State to Participate in Second Chance Pell Pilot Program

By Christopher Zoukis

The Department of Education has announced a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as part of the Obama administration’s goals to have a fairer criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and reduce the impact of the effects of incarceration on communities. The Second Chance Pell Program will allow incarcerated individuals to receive Pell Grants to pursue further educational opportunities while still in prison.

Source: ICPA

Source: ICPA

The program was eliminated in the 1990s, and the goal of this experimental program, offered at only aa limited number of institutions, is to provide opportunities for prisoners in a system of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and rates of release to match. Educational opportunities allow individuals to work and support their families, as well as to grow and learn personally, and ultimately reduce the rate of recidivism and further incarceration costs. Incarcerated individuals who participate in educational initiatives are 43% less likely to return to prison than those who don’t.  For every dollar spent on educational initiatives, an estimated $4 is saved on further incarceration costs. 

The Pell grants cover tuition, books, and fees for eligible students in need of financial aid. For prisoners to participate, they must be eligible for release within 5 years of first enrolling in coursework. The pilot program for prisoners will not affect any other Pell funding, and the money earmarked for the program is much less than 1% of regular Pell funding. 
Only a limited number of institutions have been chosen for the pilot program.

California State LA launched an education program in 2015 at the state prison in Lancaster, a minimum and maximum security prison for males, and is the only university in California to offer an in-person bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated students. It is an initiative of the university’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good along with the College of Professional and Global Education and the College of Arts and Letters.

Twenty-five students are currently enrolled, with goals to further increase the program by 2018. These incarcerated students will now be eligible for Pell grants under the new pilot program. The prison also offers a range of other programs to assist with effective re-entry including plumbing, masonry, and computer literacy, as well as the Words Uncaged Lecture Series, also in partnership with Cal State LA, to offer informal educational opportunities to prisoners who are not enrolled in formal programs. 

Cal State LA is not the only school participating in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. 67 universities and colleges will partner with 141 federal and state institutions to educate 12,000 students. Other participating institutions include the University of Baltimore, and education will be provided in a range of formats, including prison-based education, online education, or a hybrid.

Like with Cal State LA, for many participating schools, this will be an expansion of existing educational initiatives for prisoners. The Second Chance Pell Program is not the only educational initiative of the Obama administration for incarcerated students. A range of resources has been released, as well as the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce. 

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

LGBTQ Students More Likely to Be Disciplined, Contributing to School to Prison Pipeline

Unfortunately, the school to prison pipeline has become all too familiar, particularly for those students who may be people of colour, impoverished, or otherwise disadvantaged by the current system. LGBTQ students, and particularly transgender students, are also more likely to be disciplined at school, including suspensions and expulsions. As in other cases, these disciplinary actions lead to a lower level of educational attainment and may contribute to the school to prison pipeline. In prison, LGBTQ inmates are also further discriminated against.


GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network aims to have every student be valued and treated equally, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender, and works towards promotion of a safe school environment. They conduct research, develop resources, partner with decision makers and educational organizations, and work to empower students. Recently, they published a report detailing the challenges that LGBTQ students face, as well as suggestions on how to promote the safe environment needed for students to stay in school, and to reduce incarceration for youth.

The report, Educational Excluson: Drop Out, Push Out, and the School to Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ Youth, details a variety of statistics demonstrating the challenges faced by these students, as well as those with intersectional identities, such as also being a person of colour.

Eight out of ten LGBTQ students have been harassed at school, and transgender students in particular are more likely to be disciplined than their peers, with nearly half receiving disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion. LGBTQ students may be prevented from writing about LGBTQ topics for school assignments, almost 18% have been hindered in forming a GSA at school, 18% were not allowed to attend a school dance with a person of the same gender, and 19% said they had been disciplined for wearing clothes deemed inappropriate for their legal sex. As many as 42% of transgendered students were barred from using their preferred name. Students are receiving harsh punishments simply, in some cases, to enforce gender norms, although they pose no real risk. One case was described as follows, where a gay student added weaves to his hair and was suspended for a week: “He goes to a pretty much all black school, lots of girls have colorful hair extensions… [but] none of the other girls are getting suspended for having hair weaves.”

As a consequence of these statistics, which contribute to a hostile and unsafe environment, and can disrupt learning potential, LGBTQ students are more likely to miss or drop out of school, feel isolated, and face mental health and emotional issues.

In part, these high rates of discipline are due to the increasing use of zero-tolerance policies across the board for all students. While in theory they are meant to reduce bullying and unacceptable behaviour, these policies often succeed only in isolating the most at risk students, or unfairly punishing students for minor infractions. In 2009, 1 out of every 9 students had been suspended from school each year. Policies like this then lead to lesser educational attainment, and increased risk of interaction with the juvenile justice system- as of 2010, one in every 444 youth was incarcerated. Out of these, while LGBTQ youth make up only 7% of the population, they make up 15% of the juvenile justice system. These numbers are unacceptable.

In order to reduce these disadvantages and risks of contributing to the school to prison pipeline, a safe and welcoming environment needs to be ensured for all students. We need to decriminalize our youth, and ensure equality when thinking of punishment and consequences, and ensure that some students are not signalled out. Bullying and zero tolerance policies need to be addressed, and staff, teachers, parents, and youth need to be educated on LGBTQ issues and rights, as well as alternative methods of dealing with issues besides suspensions or expulsions. There is no need to increase risk of incarceration by punishing students for actions that do not present harm to others or to the school environment. We should be providing a safe learning environment where these risks are reduced- not where we signal out certain youth and increase their isolation.




How to Get Books Into the Hands Of Prison Inmates

By Christopher Zoukis

prisoner book literacy

Young Tyler Fugett from Tennessee recently used his allowance money to buy books for local prisoners, scouring clearance sales at local book stores. The boy, 9, donated more than 100 books to the Montgomery Sheriff’s Office in hopes they would go to the local prison, and has been collecting more, along with toiletry items since then.

Tyler has had a family member in jail, and hoped that reading would help distract his relative and other prisons from bad thoughts and give them other things to think about, help the inmates to not be bored, and to hopefully help change their way of thinking and to find new ways forward.

In many cases, prisoners are also hoping to prepare for re-entry, such as learning new skills, or preparing for their GED.

This is how more of us should be thinking – giving inmates ways to be constructive with their time, to learn, to grow, to change their ways of thinking. To do this, prisoners need resources, which behind bars can be severely limited. Donating books is one way we can make a difference in the lives of those who are incarcerated, as well as working towards reducing recidivism, particularly when jails or prisons can be completely reliant on donations from outside sources, such as the Sheriff’s Office that Tyler donated to.

Books to Prisoners, a Seattle based program, anticipates 13,000 book requests this year alone.

There are many ways to get involved with helping to provide books and other resources to those who are incarcerated. In some cases, you may be able to collect and donate used books as an individual, and in others you may be able to participate as a volunteer or donor to an organization that will act as an intermediary to the specific needs of the prison and inmates. Depending on the program, you may not be able to donate used books, only order new books directly from a bookstore website. Some programs prefer financial donations in lieu of book donations, to ensure that the best options are provided. Others are even looking for donations of stamps.

For example, Books to Prisoners explains its “volunteers interact with inmates by reading their letters, selecting books from [the] collection of donated materials and sending books to inmates in response to their requests. [They] also staff the two lending libraries located in the Champaign, IL County jails.”

Reading With Conviction welcomes donations, which are given to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but books must adhere to specific guidelines, such as being ordered new off of the Amazon Wishlist they provide, or falling into other, very specific categories. In many cases there may be general guidelines, or a preferred list of books.

Some other programs will not accept hardback books, and there may be limitations on certain types of books or themes, such as books with violent covers or images, or technical books that are more than 5 years old. Preferences can include a wide range of recent non-fiction books, as well as fiction, including how-to books for starting small businesses and various trades, personal finance books and foreign language-to-English dictionaries.

It is always best to consult specific program pages and their list of needs and requirements before donating. Whatever you choose to do, your time, money, or gently used or new books will be greatly appreciated by those who are the beneficiaries, and may truly make a difference in their lives both in prison, and after their release. 

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


Using CorrLinks to Communicate With Incarcerated Loved Ones

By Christopher Zoukis

It can be difficult to keep in contact with friends and family members when you are in prison, and difficult for those on the outside, too. The CorrLinks system is one tool that can help inmates stay connected, easing the angst of isolation and boredom.

CorrLinks is a privately owned company that operates the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), which is used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It offers prisoners direct access to emails and, while the system is far from perfect, it opens an important window to loved ones and other resources in the community.

There are, of course, stipulations and limitations. Not all inmates have access to what is essentially a federal program, although the system may be used to contact incarcerated individuals at state prisons in Iowa and Oklahoma. If an inmate has been incarcerated for reasons that involve the use of a computer, they may not have access. The system does not provide access to the Internet, only the secure TRULINCS system. Attachments, including photographs, cannot be sent. Messages are limited to 13,000 characters.

Messages are delivered by institution staff at the time of their choosing, which may be in as little as 2 hours, or up to 1 day or two, and they may review or reject any messages. Messages are not monitored by CorrLinks, but an inmate’s communications can be restricted (sometimes with little explanation) by prison authorities.

To access and use CorrLinks you can visit their website,  or download the CorrLinks app, although this requires a paid premium account. To begin, you will receive an invitation, and you will need the inmates’ number and identification code. Once your account is set up, the system is very easy to use.

If you are having difficulty using CorrLinks, users can access the FAQ page on the website for assistance, online support, or watch the three YouTube videos created which help explain how to use the site, and particularly the feature about video sessions. There are other videos that also explain how to use the site, and step by step articles online.

Keep in mind that using CorrLinks may incur charges. While you should not be charged for sending or receiving messages from inmates at federal institutions, as fees are paid by the Inmate Trust Fund and inmate fees, users are charged 25 cents/message to inmates in Iowa, and 30 cents/message to inmates in Oklahoma.

There may also be charges for the prisoner to send and receive the emails, which may be significant given their relative income, as well as charges to use the computer. Inmates often only make cents per hour at various jobs, as low as 12 cents, although you may also be able to provide assistance in this regards by topping up their commissary accounts.

Overall, CorrLinks is a useful option it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to use, and may be one of the most efficient and effective ways to keep in touch with those on the outside looking in.

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


Former inmates could have voting rights restored

By Christopher Zoukis

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has signed legislation effective September 1 that will ostensibly allow former inmates to register to vote. This hopefully paves the way for other states to follow suit, as the presidential election campaign enters its final stretch.

The state requires government action or petition before suffrage is restored to those who were formerly incarcerated, so this legislation is a step in the right direction in reducing the red tape associated with this restoration. This includes a requirement that the former inmate must be notified within 14 days after application whether or not their certificate of eligibility to vote was granted or not.

Currently the system can be confusing and complicated, with ex-prisoners not even knowing they are eligible to have their voting rights restored, or not knowing the process of how to do so.

While this legislation is a small step in the right direction – affecting as many as 100,000 former inmates, Alabama is also known to be harshest towards the formerly incarcerated when it comes to voting rights. Many former prisoners may never have their right to vote restored, for example, and even those who do have the right need to apply- unlike in many other states where voting rights are automatically restored after completion of serving a sentence.

In Alabama, decisions are based on whether or not a crime was committed with moral turpitude, for which there is not definitive list. Even in states that automatically restore right, the period varies by state, too - some states restore the right after prison time is served, while others include probation time too, and some have seemingly arbitrary waiting times, such as 5 years after prison time is served.

While it may not seem like a complicated issue, many would assume that prisoners should not have the right to vote – theyve broken the law, after all, and should be punished. However, sentiment is mounting, even among the American public, that prison and any related punishment is justice enough. 

Voting is truly essential part of a healthy democracy. But currently, 5.6 million Americans are unable to vote because of felon disenfranchisement. Of these, only 25% are in prison; the rest are on probation or parole.

The issue is also another of racial inequity. Black and Latino men are disproportionately affected by disenfranchisement laws, since they are also incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Nationally, 36% of the disenfranchised are black, and 13% of black men nationwide are unable to vote.

These numbers also have wider effects, as while most prisoners cannot vote, they are often counted towards the population of the legislative district of the prison, which determines a states number of representatives and presidential electoral votes. This can make a huge difference in important elections. Prisoners should be given the right to vote if they are counted towards the population of the legislative district. These numbers should not be used to sway voting district numbers.

These laws need to be addressed. All citizens should keep their right to vote; this should not vary based on class, race, or which state you are based in. Restoring voting rights is also essential to readjustment to normal life after release, and a significant part of reintegration into society. Restoration is a necessary part of reducing recidivism which allows those who may feel disenfranchised to have a say in society, and exercise their civic duties. A Sentencing Project study tracking released felons over several years found that those who voted were half as likely to be rearrested.

This is clearly not a simple issue, but one that needs to be addressed. All citizens should be able to retain their right to vote and remain active in their democracy, and all laws pertaining to such need to be applied fairly across the nation. Changes need to be made to address such widespread and unequal disenfranchisement.

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

Universal Pre-K Provides Builds Crucial Foundations

By Christopher Zoukis

One of the most pressing issues with mass incarceration is the school-to-prison pipeline and the current education system. One of the most effective ways at reducing incarceration is ensuring that as many people as possible have access to quality education throughout their lives, beginning as early as possible.

Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs have a range of demonstrable benefits, from ensuring school readiness, to lessening the likelihood of special education needs, to longer term effects such as higher earning potential, and reduced risk of incarceration.

Pre-K programs ensure school readiness, higher levels of literacy and other skills, and works towards reducing the achievement gap. Universal Pre-K is equally as critical. While the earliest Pre-K programs targeted only low income and at-risk children and families - who receive the most benefit from these programs - Universal Pre-K has benefits for middle and upper class children as well. Integration in these programs also ensures that a broad range of demographics are brought together, reducing segregation based on wealth or race, and reducing prejudice.

Integrated programs also ensure increased critical thinking, less work needed in public outreach, increased support for early education, and increased quality of programs.

Those students who attend preschool exhibit a wide range of benefits. Besides initial school readiness, the effects can still be seen years later academically on test scores, students are less likely to drop out of high school, or have to repeat a grade. The likelihood to commit crime is reduced, and earning potential is much higher than for those who did not attend- as much as $50,000.

There is also more likelihood of owning a home, and there are health benefits too. A more educated workforce also means less poverty in a community, more earning potential, and more public revenue. Children are not the only ones who see the direct benefits of preschool, as parents are then able to work and earn additional income, particularly mothers.

High-quality preschool programs also significantly reduce the achievement gap, which is important for the most at-risk students. For African-American children the gap in math is reduced 45%, and 78% for Hispanic children, and the reading gap essentially ceases to exist.

Returns on public investment are as high as $16 to $1, with even conservative estimates suggesting a return of $7 to $1. An MIT analysis suggests that for every $1 spent on pre-k programs, this saves tax payers $13 on future costs, and generates $3 in economic value.

Currently, out of 51 state funded programs in 39 states, only 8 are universal, with the others focusing on low income and at risk children. This is a good start, but universal Pre-Kindergarten, while expensive up front, will pay off in the long run.

We need to ensure that this is implemented fairly across all states, with truly universal access, and that the programs are high quality, with demonstrable outcomes and goals, and with qualified, and properly supported, teachers. The benefits speak for themselves in not only direct benefits to children, but to the long term social and financial benefits to the community as a whole, increasing literacy and math skills, reducing incarceration rates and prejudice, and increasing earning potential.

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

Bard Prison Initiative Celebrates 14th Commencement

By Christopher Zoukis

Success of the Bard Prison Initiative was reinforced this year as the 14th commencement was celebrated last month at the medium security Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York. The men’s prison saw 30 students awarded Associate in Arts Degrees - degrees they earned behind bars!

BPI graduate Lionel J Johnson recently gave an impassioned speech about the achievement: “What we have achieved together, all of us together, is not ordinary. [To] have transformed this environment into a campus for higher learning: that’s not ordinary, that’s extraordinary . . . I leave you all with this thought: be, because you can, extraordinary.” Johnson also spoke about their David-and-Goliath moment winning against the Harvard debate team- surely an adequate representation of many of the challenges these inmates have overcome to complete their educational goals and graduate from college.

Overall, the Bard Prison Initiative will have awarded more than 400 degrees by the end of this year, in an effort to continue to reduce recidivism and enact criminal justice reform. The program focuses on a mix of developmental skills and college study. Over 60 courses are offered each semester.

The Bard initiative began in 2001 after an expansion of a 1999 Bard student led initiative to tutor in prisons. Starting with 15 students, the goal was to provide college opportunities inside the prison system of New York State. From 15 students, the Initiative now enrols 300 men and women inside of six prisons across the state 3 maximum-security and 3 medium -security prisons. Bard College, a four year residential college of the liberal arts and sciences, which spearheads the Initiative, also leads the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which helps other colleges and universities across the country establish similar projects in prisons, including Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Goucher College in Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana.

The Bard Prison Initiative has been very successful in reducing recidivism. Without educational opportunities, as many as half of released inmates will return to prison, with 68% being arrested within 3 years. This rate falls significantly with educational opportunities while incarcerated, with rates of recidivism less than 22%. Formerly incarcerated Bard students see a less than 2% rate of recidivism. Not only are rates of recidivism severely reduced, but costs of running the educational programs are much less than that of continuing or re-incarceration. BPI is also largely dependent on private funding.

Admission to the program is highly competitive, and each inmate undergoes a written exam and personal interview, and must have a high school diploma. Participants are accepted based on these, and their dedication to the program, and it is an achievement to even be accepted into the program, as typically there are 10 applications for each spot.  Courses are taught by Bard faculty and visiting professors, and all courses are taught onsite. All students enrolled are working towards a college degree.

The Initiative, and the Consortium, is another successful example of a comprehensive program working to reduce recidivism and prison costs, while providing educational opportunities to inmates, working to reduce mass incarceration. Continuing to recognize the significant role that educational opportunities play in our society is essential, and more opportunities like this need to be provided and expanded.

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

Summer college course sheds light on prison pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

Evidence continues to mount that the school-to-prison pipeline is a huge issue in our education system, contributing to the mass incarceration across United States.

Yet the vast majority of our educators lack the knowledge and training necessary to implement changes that currently contribute to juvenile justice and recidivism. If we don’t properly equip our teacher, we are in turn setting up our youth to fail.

Thankfully, some educators are taking steps to resolve this lingering problem. One of the best I’ve heard of lately is the New England College Summer Institute for Educators, which this year has a course called A Teachers Role in Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline.

The summer institute has been offered since 2001, and offers courses that are developed in response to current issues, needs, and goals of schools and institutions, and which offer educators accreditation – required hours, graduate program credits, and practical tools and skills to enhance their teaching and improve learning. Other courses offered this year included Dynamics of Educational Reform and Systems Change, Social Problem Solving and Student Centered Learning.

The 4-day course on breaking the school to prison pipeline was offered with a goal of deepening the understanding of issues related to the school to prison pipeline, including inequality, systemic criminalization of youth, discipline policies, structural racism, and the prison industrial complex. The course, taught by Charles Virga, was worth 3 credits and offered at the graduate level.

While the idea of the Summer Institute is great – there are now many articles, online resources, and toolkits to help teachers and other staff realize their role on how to break the school to prison pipeline. But we need these across America if we want to educate teachers about needed reforms as well as new innovations.

Hands-on initiatives and educational opportunities like this are given, and encouraged, to our educators, teachers, and school staff, so that each person who is front of the line in the educational system can develop an awareness of the consequences of certain disciplinary actions, and how the current system embodies systemic, unequal, and racist policies.

Through continued knowledge and action, as well as sufficient resources, we can continue to move towards a system that is increasingly equal, fair, and provides the best education for youth, while reducing incarceration rates.

And we need to make sure that teachers, who can bear the brunt of new programs and initiatives, know that they have resources and training, and are adequately supported.

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