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

Lawsuit upholds atrocity of forcing inmates to drink tainted water

By Christopher Zoukis

After filing a lawsuit in 2014, 4 prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit, Navasota, Tex., will hopefully be feeling some relief after US District Judge Keith Ellison recently gave the prison 15 days to replace the water supply.

However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it plans to appeal the ruling, with a spokesman saying a new filtration system has been designed, and should be installed in 2017.

The lawsuit was filed in relation to unsafe drinking water, which is laden with unsafe levels of arsenic, up to 4.5 times more than that permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, and exposure to dangerous heat levels without air conditioning, which are allegedly unsafe and could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

One of the attorneys for the inmates said that the prison system has unacceptably known about the unsafe arsenic levels since 2006, and inmates have made comments about the extreme conditions, noting that the heat and humidity can cause difficulty breathing, as temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.

The inmates have not been seeking monetary damages- they just want to be in a place that is safe, and besides safe drinking water, want the inside temperature to not exceed 88 degrees. It is tragic that this is a lawsuit that even needs to happen, and it is not the first set of complaints – at least 20 prisoners have died in non-air-conditioned Texas prisons from overheating since 1998, including 10 who died in 2011 alone.

As one of the attorneys for the prisoners commented, you have taken away people’s liberty, and they are there to serve their time for the crime committed, but you have to provide certain protections, and inmates do not lose all of their rights.

While the United States does not recognize the human right to water, many other nations, and international bodies such as the United Nations, do, and this would certainly be considered a violation of the right to safe drinking water. The UN considers “The human right to water … indispensable for leading a human life in dignity” and that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential.

“We should be ensuring these rights for all people, including those who are incarcerated. It should not require lawsuits or multiple deaths before safe water is provided,” the UN says.

Unfortunately, these are not the only rights violations seen in the U.S. prison system. Prisoners can spend years, or even decades, in solitary confinement, face excessive violence or even torture, lack of access to medical care, and unfair and extreme sentencing, according to organizations such as Food and Water Watch.

All of this is a continued problem with the current mass incarceration system, which thankfully many lawmakers seem to be increasingly aware of and working to change, but clearly not enough. When we are violating our most basic rights, and denying the most basic of needs, regardless of to whom, we are doing something wrong. Provision of water and adequate shelter should be de facto, not something that needs to be earned or won.

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

Juvenile records create major hurdles, says study

By Christopher Zoukis

The United States has no national standard for how juvenile records are dealt with, and no states earned a five-star rating from the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm that ensures child welfare.

The center scored each state on factors such as confidentiality of records, availability of sealing of records, and expungement of records, and recommends a variety of standards and criteria to ensure fair treatment of youth.

Juvenile records, and what happens to them, can be a huge issue, as youth who have recently left prison face huge barriers for what can be even minor indiscretions, and these barriers can continue throughout their lives. They affect graduation rates, acceptance into colleges, and finding work, since many job applications and college applications will ask about even juvenile records. Those affected may even be barred from living with family in public housing.

Keeping juvenile records, and in some cases leaving them unsealed – meaning anyone can have access to not only criminal records, but even mental health and personal information – ensures that youth are not given second chances, and may continue to be punished. At-risk and disadvantaged youth become even more at risk, and are much more likely to commit another crime, whereas automatic expungement of records sees a much higher rate of juveniles remaining arrest free, and more likely to graduate from college.

But in states like Massachusetts, even a false accusation of crime, or arrest without a charge can mean records will never be expunged, and misdemeanours like disorderly conduct can disqualify the affected person from public service or becoming an adoptive parent. Idaho received a 1/5 rating on the scorecard.

Riya Saha Shah from the Juvenile Law Center sums up the issue: “Retention of juvenile records does little to improve public safety but creates significant barriers to success for youth who are trying to move beyond the mistakes they made as a kid. Permanent, open records are like a ball and chain that prevents youth from becoming productive adults, reducing opportunities for employment, eroding the tax base and can lead to increased recidivism due to reduced job prospects.” 

Not only should expungement of records be available to all juveniles, it needs to be automatic, as well as straightforward, with Alaska serving as an exemplary model. Expungement that requires a petition by the youth sees no reduction in recidivism, and complicated court proceedings, as well as high costs, can deter many in some states from seeking sealed records or expungement, if they are even aware of their eligibility.

In order to continue to reduce mass incarceration, and give youth offenders – 95%of whom were arrested for non-violent offenses – a second chance, we need to continue to reduce the barriers they face before, during, and after incarceration.

Currently, harsh policies in many states are preventing youth from successfully reintegrating into their communities, and this needs to change. Ensuring confidentiality of records, and then automatic expungement, is one way to ensure that some of these barriers to success are broken down.

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

White House Pledges to Invest Millions in Prison Reform

By Christopher Zoukis

The Obama administration has announced plans to spend millions to address many of the facets of a life of incarceration, from mentoring at risk youth, helping families with incarcerated parents, to addressing employment and re-entry issues.

Referencing several studies which demonstrate the effectiveness of education and re-entry programs at reducing recidivism, the President noted the programs are a much-needed start at reforming our failed prison system, ensuring that at risk and previously incarcerated individuals can become functional members of society and removing unnecessary barriers.

This announcement comes at a time when more than 2.2 million are incarcerated – more than any other country, more than 4 times the world average. The incarceration rate has grown by more than 220 percent since 1980, and sentences are longer. Incarceration rates are disproportionally high for minority groups, and many who face prison time come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as many as 50% suffer from mental illness.

Mass incarceration is failing, particularly those who need support the most, and these programs are a step in adjusting our current prison system- ensuring we provide support to divert from the system in the first place, and give support to those leaving prison, who can become productive members of society if the right structures are in place. The programs will also be in line with current research, which suggest that every dollar spent on education is 4-5 dollars saved on future re-incarceration costs, and that a 10% increase in high school graduation rates means a 9% reduction in arrest rates.

The statistics don’t lie –  education is proven to reduce crime and recidivism.

Besides opening access to federal Pell Grants, which will see 12,000 students from 141 correctional facilities enrolled in educational programs from 67 colleges and universities, millions in grants are being awarded to multiple organizations to develop solutions to other issues. Some $31 million will be given to design programs for young adults to provide job training, as well as mentoring, focusing on apprenticeships and occupational training and $21 million will be given to organizations to serve individuals in high poverty and high crime areas.

Another $5 million will be given to specialized American Job centers inside correctional facilities, to assist soon to be released inmates with the transition to life in their communities and prepare them for employment. About $6.5 million will provide mentorship to youth at risk of dropping out of high school or entering the justice system, including mentorship by justice and emergency services personnel; $8.7 million will also go toward addressing the cycle between the justice system and homeless services, as well as funding supportive housing.

These welcome programs build on previous work by the administration, including initiatives such as establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce and the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, encouraging the private sector to create jobs for previously incarcerated individuals, and ‘Banning the Box’ for federal employment opportunities to ensure greater access to jobs. In January President Obama also announced banning solitary confinement for juveniles and for low level infractions, increasing the amount of time those in solitary are allowed outside of cells, and broadening treatment for the mentally ill.

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 Youth Inmates Proof Juvenile Reforms Work

By Christopher Zoukis

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz, who turned their lives around while in prison, are now advocates for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (Source: KOIN)

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz, who turned their lives around while in prison, are now advocates for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (Source: KOIN)

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz were both sentenced to years in prison at 17 years old, under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Fortunately for them, both had access to mentors, role models and educational opportunities – and were inspired to turn their life around and make the most of the opportunities many others don’t have.

Sentenced to serve time at Oregon Youth Authority Maclaren Youth Correctional Facility, Dao took the opportunities offered by mentors and supportive staff to participate in vocational programs, as well as a research internship focused on youth rehabilitation. He also completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Portland State University. While incarcerated, Dao acted as a mentor, including to Schultz, who was sentenced to the same facility a year later.

Schultz earned not only his high school diploma, but a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Sciences, and a B.S. in Sustainability. Both men are now free after serving their sentences, Dao having been issued clemency because of his many accomplishments, and both are now working toward juvenile justice reform.

Dao has been a program aide and Juvenile Court Counsellor Assistant for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice Juvenile Services Division, and  Schultz has been involved with the Community Peace Collaborative Forum, and is also a spoken word poet, dealing with issues around violence and prison. The Community Peace Collaborative Forum holds biweekly meetings to develop solutions, interventions, and prevention strategies to reduce violence and crime in Oregon’s Multnomah County.

Both Dao and Schultz advocate for justice reform because keeping teens locked up isn’t the solution, nor is the branding of teen offenders, which can be detrimental to rehabilitation, and reduction of recidivism. Juvenile offenders need mentors and educational and occupational opportunities inside corrections facilities. Schultz also outlines how juveniles need to be treated as such – not as adult offenders being pushed through the system.

Dao and Schultz are great examples of not only the factors than can lead to youth ending up in the system – difficulties at school, cultural barriers, exposure to gangs and violence – but also of how important rehabilitation and educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals are.

Currently, not all youth have the same opportunities offered to Dao and Schultz – Maclaren Youth Correctional Facility not only offers high school education, workshops, mentorship, vocational programs such as welding and woodcrafting, but also participated in Project Pooch, which sees incarcerated youths paired with a shelter dog, training them and finding them new homes.

Through such programs the Oregon Youth Authority not only gives opportunities and builds skills, but reduces recidivism and sees a return on investment. For each $1 spent on treatment in life skills training, $25 in returns is seen, and the more education a youth receives, the less likely they are to reoffend. It only makes sense, from all angles, that these programs, and other forms of support, are established. And as Dao and Schultz have shown, give the opportunities, and they will be taken.

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


Compensation Statutes Fail Those Wrongly Convicted

The Innocence project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is fighting injustice such as compensation for exonerated prisoners.

The Innocence project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is fighting injustice such as compensation for exonerated prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

Imagine serving a decade or more for a crime you didn’t commit. Maybe even on death row. By what seems a miracle, you find yourself exonerated on DNA evidence, and you are released. Euphoria; freedom! But now imagine what comes next – you’re thrown into a world you no longer understand, depending on when you were first put away you may never have had a job before, or finished school; maybe your friends and family are estranged, thinking you did that terrible crime.

And on top of the difficulties you face, you receive no compensation whatsoever. 

Unfortunately, that is reality for many wrongfully convicted individuals. Twenty states still do not have any form of compensation statutes, so the only chance for compensation is to bring a lawsuit, and those that do have them are all over the place in the compensation they provide, or who is eligible. 

Louisiana law provides up to $330,000 in compensation, but the burden of proof of innocence, despite the fact they were released, is placed on the wrongly convicted. This is similar in states with no compensation statutes, if someone chooses to bring a lawsuit, in that they must prove official misconduct- suits often fail because of this burden, if they are even undertaken due to the financial burden. In other states a burden of proof may not be required, but any previous felony convictions makes a person ineligible for compensation, as may any thought that the person may have contributed to their own conviction, such as a false or coerced confession. In other states, the compensation is woefully low. New Hampshire provides a flat fee of $20,000, no matter how long the person was imprisoned. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Texas is the state that provides the most compensation, providing $80,000 per year spent imprisoned in a lump sum, plus an additional annuity, and help reintegrating. But you are barred from filing a civil suit later. This is possibly most in line with the recommendations of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.  

They recommend $50,000 for each year in prison, with no restrictions on previous convictions or false confessions, reimbursement of attorney fees and access to social programs which would greatly ease the transition back into normal life, and clearing records- which is a surprising issue, leading to some exonerees carrying newspaper clippings to prove their innocence.   

It’s astonishing that compensation statutes are still so inadequate, and vary so widely. There should be no debate that those who are wrongfully convicted are compensated for their lost time, and that they receive help transitioning back into normal life, which even most compensation statutes do not provide for. Every person wrongfully committed should receive help transitioning, with mental and physical health, receive financial compensation for their lost time and inability to work, and should have their records cleared. This also doesn’t always happen, and can be hugely damaging, as is the stigma of having been in prison- guilty or not. 

Not only would higher, and more equitable, compensation payments provide better for those whose lives have suffered, but it is also suggested that this may help deter prosecutorial misconduct, which has led to so many wrongful convictions- important when 1281 exonerations were recorded from 1989 to 2013, representing 12,500 years in prison - and when our prison system is already vastly overburdened. 

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

Re-Entry Programs Ease Transition From Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

More than 650,000 prisoners are released every year in the United States, and so it’s in everyone’s best interests that they are prepared as possible to reintegrate into society. Especially if they have been incarcerated for years, or even decades.

Effective inmate re-entry programs go a long way to ease the transition.

An example of this can be found in Kristopher Larsen, who recounts an incident in a supermarket after his release from prison. He recalls how the man behind him in line kept accidentally grazing his back. While Larsen kept inching forward taking this as an invasion of personal space the man thought the line was moving forward, and kept inching forward with him.

Eventually, Larsen turned around and snapped at the man, asking what his problem was. After 10 years in prison, Larsen admits he was ill-equipped to deal with this sort of every day scenario he described it as a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), not unlike a culture shock. It’s an example of the psychological and behavioral issues that many release prisoners face, and the effects can be severe. So severe, in fact, that some former inmates may actually wish to go back to the security of their old prison routine.

The adjustment period can be so intense, that in the first two weeks after release, rates of suicide can be more than 12 times higher than the general population, as demonstrated by a report looking at released prisoners from Washington State. And it’s why comprehensive re-entry programs are so needed.

Effective re-entry programs can help previously incarcerated individuals adjust to their new lives and routines, helping with psychological and behavioral issues, as well as connecting prisoners with needed resources, including employment training, new skills, and educational opportunities. These programs not only help prisoners adjust and reintegrate as productive members of society, but also help ensure that rates of recidivism are less.

Larsen is now working to help others, including recently released individuals reintegrate more effectively. He is an instructor for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, whose mission is to “provide high quality services and support for African American and other underrepresented communities in Metropolitan Seattle and throughout the Puget Sound Region,” helping people to achieve their greatest potential, focusing on education, employment, health and housing.

Larsen also works with FIGHT Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together, which assists incarcerated or recently released Asian Pacific Islanders, and is also involved in advocacy. Their services include vocational training, transitional housing, counselling, and in-prison support groups, and also focuses on issues that might be specific to Asian Pacific Islanders, such as the threat of deportation.

Another program, at South Seattle College, consists of five weeks of training, including mental wellness and family health, as well as learning how to navigate the job market, write resumes, and find housing.

These are only a few of many successful examples of re-entry programs and support groups, but we need to ensure that all prisoners and recently released individuals have access to such programs, which include not only hard skills, such as vocational training, but other transition services as well, including mental health. Without these programs, it is difficult to adjust, with little support, and few opportunities.  

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


Prisoner Art Takes Public Spotlight

Raising awareness and finding allies towards prison reform during HOPE Hoopla. L-to-R:Vanessa Lim, Lia Musumeci, Taylor DeMotta, Dashni Amin, and Gavin White. Photo credit: May Lim.  

Raising awareness and finding allies towards prison reform during HOPE Hoopla. L-to-R:Vanessa Lim, Lia Musumeci, Taylor DeMotta, Dashni Amin, and Gavin White. Photo credit: May Lim.


By Christopher Zoukis

At the University of Washington in Seattle, the Quad recently featured its second annual art exhibition of prisoner’s artwork. Organized by Huskies for Opportunities in Prison Education (HOPE) in partnership with University Beyond Bars and the Monroe Correctional Complex, the exhibition featured visual arts and written pieces, as well as a 6 by 9 foot representation of a prison cell for two inmates. 

The purpose of the art exhibit was to demonstrate the humanity, creativity, and intellect of incarcerated people, by exhibiting tangible evidence of the raw talent that exists in perhaps unexpected places. The exhibit also demonstrated HOPE’s mission, and that education is a human right, regardless of what an individual as previously done in their life. HOPE is trying to break down barriers and destigmatize incarcerated people. 

HOPE is a student group at the University of Washington that promotes and increases postsecondary education programs, recognizing that prison education reduces recidivism and increases successful reintegration into society. Besides the annual art exhibition, HOPE also collects textbooks for prisoners at Monroe Correctional Complex, created a scholarship program, holds panel discussions and film screenings, and has started a GoFundMe campaign. 

During the exhibition on campus the group also fundraised by selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts and lemonade, with funds going to buy dictionaries for prisoners at Monroe, and art from the previous year’s exhibition was on display and selling in a silent auction, with proceeds going to two non-profits, University Beyond Bars and Freedom Education Project, which provide accredited college courses for incarcerated students. Other art and prizes were also auctioned off, with proceeds benefitting the Social Work Students Scholarship Fund. 

HOPE’S art exhibits are not the only example of art exhibitions featuring the work of prisoners. Recently the Prison Creative Arts Program held its 21st Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, featuring more than 500 works in visual arts, creative writing, and theatre, by 250 inmates, from the state’s 30 plus prisons. This is one of the nation’s largest collections of prison art, and culminates largely from workshops done over the course of the year taught by students from the University of Michigan. 

 In California at the Del Norte County Courthouse works were also exhibited in Student Art from the Inside II, and art from Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, was on display at the Madison Public Library in Artists in Absentia. Like the participants of HOPE, the prisoners are given the chance to express themselves creatively, learn new skills, and connect with the outside world, and the exhibits create dialogue about incarceration, prison education, and the humanity of the prisoners. 

These exhibits and programs are examples of effective initiatives with tangible results. They have obvious benefits for those who are incarcerated, as well as providing real examples to share with a larger public that these programs work, and that prisoners cannot be solely defined by their criminal pasts. They create an important forum discussion, and it is great to see so many similar projects, which are all going into at least their second year, if not longer. 

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