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“My Words Are Dangerous”: An Interview with Christopher Zoukis

By Aviva Stahl

While there has been a lot of interest in recent years in journalism about prisons and the criminal justice system, less well known is the journalism being done by prisoners themselves. From the San Quentin News in California to Prison Radio in Pennsylvania there are dozens of prison newspapers and radio stations and individual authors writing and publishing from inside prison. Among them is Christopher Zoukis, an award-winning writer, currently incarcerated at FCI Petersberg in Virginia. Since he was first locked up, in 2006, Christopher has published three books and written for a number of outlets, including Prison Legal News Service, the Huffington Post, AND Magazine and the New York Journal of Books. But writing behind bars is fraught with difficulties, as Zoukis told Aviva Stahl in this recent interview.

When did you first start thinking about being a journalist? What drew you to it?

I would say that I was a prison writer before becoming an incarcerated journalist. I wanted to make something of my time in prison and I wanted to connect with others like myself. In a way I suppose I was searching for community and camaraderie.

But as time went on things changed. No longer was I writing poems, but more and more serious articles. While yes, this is the direction that I wanted to take my work, I didn't so much feel that it was a choice, but almost an obligation or an honorable duty. I'm now the guy people come to when they don't know where else to turn. This is a responsibility that gives my life in here purpose, but also a tremendous weight.

My work is not always successful in the vein that I view my published work not as the end of the process, but the beginning. The goal of the writing is primarily to expose injustice, correct wrongs, and hold governmental wrongdoers accountable for their actions. But one of the people that I wrote about, Ashley Jean Arnold, a transgender prisoner incarcerated at FCI Petersburg, took her life on February 24, 2015. To date that has been my greatest failure. It is due to Ashley that I realize the work that incarcerated journalists engage in isn't merely asserting that prisoners are an essential stakeholder in the discussion, but that without our input more lives will be lost.

Talk about the process of reporting from the inside (e.g., meeting and establishing rapport with sources/interviewees; conducting interviews; doing research for current or future stories; writing up; communicating with editors, etc.).

In terms of the process, it is all pretty much the same these days. When a story is not yet on my radar, a prospective interview subject will approach me and explain what is going on with them. This could be in the law library, walking the track, in the chow hall, or, as of last night, while working out on the small rec field. Regardless of how I meet them, we usually sit down and I try to understand if they have something worth exploring.

In terms of research, I have to rely on my friends outside of prison to help me when the law library computers aren't enough. Note that I can gain access to case law, federal regulations, and statutory law, but not the internet or any scholarly journals. Due to these limitations, I extensively rely on Google Alerts. Friends print and mail these to me on a daily basis. On the other hand, when I want to delve into a specific topic, I ask an outside contact to search it out online and mail me whatever she finds.

If I find that there is a need that I can fulfill, or at least try to, then I'll use the same old tools of the trade that others have used before I was even born: paper and pen. I sit down, outline what the person has explained to me, show it to them to ensure that I'm understanding them correctly, and then get to drafting. This is where my tools of the trade differ. Federal prisoners don't have access to true word processors. Instead I have access to a clear Swintec typewriter and the computer system. For larger projects I use the typewriters, but for articles I use the computers, which allow me to email friends and family. Using this monitored email system I can draft my articles and zip them off to my outside contacts, who then make submission to specific outlets for me. This is one area where I'm largely at a loss because it’s often not worth it to convince editors to sign up to the email service, so I can't communicate with them directly. Instead I must rely on my outside contacts to do so for me.

What is the greatest challenge you face in reporting?

I would say that there are three areas that cause me much trouble: source material, technology, and the media in general. For the most part, I have to come up with my own article ideas and, hence, source material. This is never easy. The only publication that actually helps me with this is Prison Legal News, who, understanding the plight of incarcerated writers, send the materials that I require in order to fulfill the articles that they assign. My gratitude for this knows no bounds. Paul Wright and Alex Friedmann, Publisher and Managing Editor of PLN, intimately know the problems that incarcerated writers have due to being incarcerated writers at one point in their lives.

The other two areas go hand in hand. Being incarcerated in a federal prison, I'm very much disconnected from the outside world. This makes it very difficult to show my value to mainstream media outlets and to simply obtain the materials that I need to do timely report on developing stories. It's hard to get someone to invest in myself as a writer when I can't communicate with them on a regular basis due to communication barriers. Prison administrators also make this challenging due to restricting access to communications (e.g., limitations on telephone minutes, email access, and visitation) and retaliatory actions against incarcerated writers. The deck is stacked against us from the start.

What about retaliation -- have you ever endured any kind of punishment for your work? How does that fear shape your experiences as a journalist?

I think that all successful prison journalists and jailhouse lawyers experience retaliation due to their work. While the theory of retaliation is ever-present, it'only when you actually become successful and visible that critical mass is achieved and the ugliness starts. In my case the critical mass hit in early 2012, when my first book, Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press), came out. At the time I was thrown in the hole, sanctioned to years loss of various privileges (i.e., email, telephone, visitation, and commissary), and even put in for a transfer to a maximum security federal prison. While we were able to stop the transfer, get me out of the hole, and eventually beat the three incident reports, it was ugly. This certainly left me with the understanding that successfully writing from prison would be punished severely. At this point I had to make a decision: sit down and shut up or pay the piper. I chose the latter.

Come late 2014, when my second book, College for Convicts (McFarland & Co.), was released, I again was subjected to disciplinary action. This time I received four incident reports and again years loss of privileges. After another few months of fighting FCI Petersburg officials, all of the incident reports were expunged and removed from my record. That was my least pleasant Christmas in a decade of incarceration.

Of course, all of this just constitutes the tangibles. The intangibles include cell shakedowns, the ongoing opening of my legal mail, and complete communication monitoring. To date SIS officials -- the internal branch of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that monitors and investigates serious prison misconduct -- listen to all of my phone calls, read all of my emails, and open and inspect all of my mail. There is literally no communication that is not read, recorded, and reviewed by prison security officials. The cost of being a prison writer, I suppose.

In terms of fear shaping my experience as a journalist, it makes you vigilant. The honest answer is that every word might be my last for quite some time. They are coming; the question is when. One day prison security officials will group up, march up the stairs to my housing unit, slap cuffs on me, and haul me away. It has happened before and it will again. This real risk of reprisal, at least in my mind, makes my work that much more meaningful. Unlike my non-incarcerated peers in the United States, my words are dangerous and come at a cost. I'm within the confines of a federal prison trying not to get thrown in a small, dark hole and never heard from again. If I don't step up to the plate and do what I believe to be the right thing, then who will?

You've published a lot of writing over the past year -- what piece of reporting are you especially proud of?

Two topics come to mind: the story of Ashley Jean Arnold and my work advocating for prisoners to again become eligible for Pell grants. Ashley was a transgender prisoner at FCI Petersburg who hung herself from her prison bunk on February 24, 2015 at 2:00 in the afternoon. I knew her well and put in a lot of time suing and filing grievances against the prison officials who refused to treat her gender dysphoria and who continued to abuse her with impunity. I think she realized that through her sacrifice other trans women would receive better care. She was right. In the wake of her death, while the care isn't great and her abusers have been allowed to continue in their positions without cause for concern, care has been expanded. This is by far the most important story that I've ever covered, and perhaps ever will.

Pell grants is another issue that I'm very passionate about. The research is clear that with each additional level of education obtained that the rate of recidivism is slashed. Correctional education is the single most cost-effective, proven method of recidivism reduction that the world currently knows of. But prisoners as a group don't have the funds required to improve their lots in life. With Pell grant funding restored, they will be able to afford the tools (academic education and career training) that they need in order to succeed post-release.

What are some projects you're currently working on or issues you're hoping to cover in the coming years?

After serving over ten years in prison I feel that my time is running short now that I only have two more left to go. During that time I'd like to focus strongly on the current Pell grant push (which will continue in some form beyond my release date). I hope to accomplish this through my work with the Huffington PostPrison Legal News, and In addition to this, I'm also finishing up my "Federal Prison Handbook." This will probably be my final book project while behind bars. The idea is that through detailed research, which is verified through personal experience, that I can put out a book that will advise not only soon-to-be and current federal prisoners of life in prison and their rights, but more importantly to help attorneys introduce themselves to prison life and the governing regulations.

There's been a real increase in the coverage of prison issues in the mainstream news in the last few years. Do you think news outlets do enough to seek out and publish the work of journalists on the inside?

While the additional coverage and interest in our nation's prisons are important developments, the news media generally doesn't seem to care about prisoners that much. While the New York Times does present an honest review of what is occurring behind bars, most of the other news outlets seem to me to be focusing on the sensational. But this response is more about coverage than what the mainstream news media is doing to connect with incarcerated writers, which it generally doesn't bother to do.

When I think of where incarcerated writers typically publish, I think of Prison Legal News and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. That's about it. Both, especially PLN, really try to get incarcerated journalists involved. These two publications are the exception to the rule. While the Huffington Post has provided me with a regular venue to publish my thoughts, most other mainstream media outlets have been much more challenging to crack, even when the topic concerns prisons and crime.

Any pet peeves when it comes to the writing of outside journalists who write about prison issues?

Absolutely. Prisoners are not stupid brutes. This is especially the case as it concerns incarcerated writers, lawyers, and academics. Regardless of this, journalists outside of prison seem inclined to characterize us as such. While we all did something to get locked up, and I'll be the first to accept full responsibility for my actions, this emphatically does not mean that we have nothing of importance to contribute. It just would be nice if journalists would reach out to those in prison when doing stories that pertain to those in prison as opposed to advancing stereotypes.

Closely related to this pet peeve is of academics discounting the published research of prisoners. In the prison education realm Dr. Jon Marc Taylor, a Missouri state inmate, has been a leading voice. In the 1990s he even published an influential op-ed in the New York Times concerning Pell grants for prisoners. Yet, most of the academics in the realm ignore his work and refuse to cite him simply because he is a prisoner.

Another issue is that journalists seem very inclined to be fed information by prison officials. Impartial and meritorious journalism does not mean receiving a one-sided press release or interview with a prison official and then writing the story based on the best spin possible for the administration. Journalists need to actually investigate stories that concern prisons, prisoners, and prison administrators fully. Once they understand the full issue, then it is time to write the story. We see time and time again that prison officials first come out with a story that supports their position (e.g., the inmate violated the rules and was punished), but then when the lawsuit follows we see the truth (e.g., the prison officials were angry about the prisoner's comments in an interview or article and decided to write an incident report so that they could turn off his phone for a few months).

What are some ways that journalists and readers on the outside can support your work and the work of other journalists on the inside?

There are several ways that journalists can help. First and foremost, when reporting on prisons, ensure to get both sides of any stories that you cover. Just because the prison administration has a position, it doesn't mean that it is the correct one, much less a transparent answer. As for me and my fellow writers, I'm sure that all of us would be grateful for the olive branch of opportunity to be extended. There are a handful of world class writers in American prisons. Given the opportunity, I'm sure that we would be up to the task for extensively bolstering your coverage and expertise on the crime, criminal justice, and prison beats. As with many ideas, the first step is to reach out and discuss the possibilities.

Finally Christopher, what are your plans for your writing career once you're released?

In September 2018 I will be released to Charleston, South Carolina, where my parents live. My hope is to first get acclimated to society again -- it's been 10 years after all -- and then to sit for the LSATs. I hope to follow in the footsteps of Brandon Sample and Shon Hopwood by earning a law degree and aggressively advocating for my clients. But I don't plan on becoming simply a criminal defense or civil rights attorney, I hope to also become America's leading voice for the incarcerated. Through the written word I hope to ensure that those confined within America's broken prison system have a voice. I hope to become someone that others can count on to always do the right thing, even when it hurts to do so. This I feel is my single greatest asset: I'm willing to endure hardship in order to realize my goals. And in the battle for truth -- in this case the subject of prison journalism -- that is what is often required of those who follow this turbulent path into the terrifying unknown.

The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate. At The Prison Complex, George Lavender tracks and reports on issues related to imprisonment in the U.S."

This article is reprinted from In These Times magazine, © 2016, and is available at Reprinted with permission of editor.


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