By Randy Radic
We at Prison Education News are concerned regarding several recent events at FCI Petersburg, the medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia where PrisonEducation.com founder Christopher Zoukis is incarcerated. Due to the importance of this matter, we've decided to go public and share what has transpired in the past two months. We do so in the hope that public scrutiny will force FCI Petersburg to reverse its present course.
The History: Attacking Prison Writers
In 2012, FCI Petersburg officials, led by SIS Technician P. Vaughan, launched a series of incident reports against Christopher Zoukis for allegedly conducting a business. The alleged business was the free Education Behind Bars Newsletter that Mr. Zoukis edited. As a result of being convicted of these three incident reports, he was sanctioned to five months of solitary confinement and the loss of good conduct time, along with email, telephone, and commissary privileges. After a protracted battle between attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert and Federal Bureau of Prisons' counsel, Mr. Zoukis prevailed. All of the adverse disciplinary findings were overturned, he was released from the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit, and his record was cleared. All of this is described in detail in Mr. Zoukis' article "Prisons Within Prisons: An Interview with Prison Law Expert Christopher Zoukis".
The Present: The Censoring of Christopher Zoukis
On October 10 and 17, 2014, Mr. Zoukis received two incident reports for allegedly conducting a business.* In the first instance, it is alleged that merely writing uncompensated articles for The Huffington Post and inquiring about the number of Likes and Tweets that they receive constitutes business activity. In the second incident report, FCI Petersburg officials allege that a letter that Mr. Zoukis mailed out constituted a second business. This letter was to the author of an out-of-print prison preparation guide in which he expressed a desire to update the text and publish it online so that soon-to-be prisoners and their families could read it for free.
Each incident report was adjudicated by Mr. Zoukis' Unit Disciplinary Committee (UDC) on the next business day (a very quick turn-around). Unit Manager Angela Tomlinson was the chairperson for both UDC hearings, and Correctional Counselor Felecia Brown was a UDC member for the first hearing. At both hearings Mr. Zoukis was not permitted to call any witnesses, present any documentary evidence of his innocence, or make a statement in his defense. He was convicted on both incident reports and sanctioned to 90 days loss of visitation, email and commissary.
The Story Behind The Incident Reports
The story behind these incident reports is fairly straightforward. Whenever Mr. Zoukis comes out with a new book, FCI Petersburg actors issue incident reports in a knee-jerk reaction which is intended to quickly censor and dissuade him from publishing his writings. This occurred in 2012 on the heels of the publication of his first book, Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012), and again in October of 2014, within weeks of the publication of his second book, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). Clearly these actions by FCI Petersburg staff are retaliatory in nature.
Over the past 5 years there has been a lot of friction between Mr. Zoukis and FCI Petersburg staff. This all started with Federal Bureau of Prisons' staff being unaware of the law as it pertains to incarcerated writers, making several missteps because of it, and then in a bullish manner continuing on in their uninformed pursuit. The disagreement and antagonism have become continually more severe as time has progressed and the issues have spilled over into the public forum. As it currently stands, both parties are digging in for an all-out war. Mr. Zoukis has retained Alan Ellis, Todd Bussert, and Steven Rosenfield to apply pressure and litigate against the Federal Bureau of Prisons. FCI Petersburg has backed their officers in their actions and started to retaliate against Mr. Zoukis in instances of daily life. For example, following the publication of College for Convicts, SIS Technicians P. Vaughan and A. Holderfield seized all inbound copies, suggesting that Mr. Zoukis "might try to sell them" at the prison. After an aggressive campaign against this censorship, senior officials at FCI Petersburg allowed Mr. Zoukis to autograph five copies and mail them out, and retain the remainder of the seized copies.
Prison Education News' Position
It is the official position of Prison Education News that Christopher Zoukis has done nothing inconsistent with Federal Bureau of Prisons' disciplinary regulations or those contained in the Code of Federal Regulations. We feel these new incident reports, much like the ones issued in 2012 (which were eventually expunged), are retaliatory in nature and we have faith that they too will be expunged during the appellate process, which is currently in process.
While no one knows what turns this story might take, we at Prison Education News stand firmly behind Mr. Zoukis and the First Amendment.
Note: If anyone would like to reach out to Christopher Zoukis with words of support or interview requests, they can do so by writing to him at the following address:
P.O. Box 1000
Petersburg, VA 23804