Counter-Terrorism Unit Tasked with Prison Censorship
By Christopher Zoukis
The life of an incarcerated writer is anything but ordinary. While my fellow prisoners are working out on the yard, playing cards, or watching television, I am often at the desk in my cell or in the law library working on my next project. It's long and hard work, but it gives me purpose. And it allows me to bring attention to important issues of which the public may be unaware.
As with other successful writers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, I am no stranger to censorship and retaliation. It is a part of life, and it seems to come in waves. Following the release of my first book, Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), FCI Petersburg Special Investigative Service (SIS) officials struck out at me. They issued me three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business and using the phone, email, and postal mail to do so. I was locked in the hole for five months, barely managed to dodge a retaliatory transfer to a high security federal prison, and lost several methods of contact with family and friends for years. They hurt me as a writer and a human being by cutting off my ability to communicate.
The same scenario played out in 2014, following the release of my second book, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons, (McFarland & Company, 2014). This time Bureau of Prisons officials issued me four incident reports for allegedly conducting a business and, of course, using the mail, email, and phone to do so. Luckily, this time they didn't throw me back in the hole, though they did take several years' worth of email, telephone, and visitation "privileges." FCI Petersburg SIS officials even went so far as to seize all incoming copies of College for Convicts under the guise that I might try to sell this prison education policy text to fellow inmates. In the process they also seized a copy of my first book, along with four other books on writing and publishing.
A surprising aspect of these skirmishes with Bureau of Prisons officials is that, in the end, I won, and did so on both occasions. After several months of grievances and appeals, all seven of the incident reports were overturned and expunged from my record. Not a single apology was made. Not a one. I was merely met with either smug smiles or angry glares. Prison administrators do not appreciate losing, and here they lost seven times in a row over the span of four years.
Fast forward to 2017. I just released my fourth book, Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), which by all accounts has been a hit. In fact, on June 1 the book won third place in a national nonfiction contest, the Indie Reader Discover Awards. The national media took notice, and so did the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So far, they have issued me three new incident reports. The first was for allegedly conducting a business (again). The second was for having unauthorized contact with the news media due to an interview that I participated in concerning the book. And the final one was for paying my book publicist and a friend who helps me submit my articles. The first alleges that inmates can't write books or publish articles (whether in print or online), which is clearly incorrect — the previous seven expunged incident reports establish that. The second and third incident reports have already been expunged from my record, though I did have to spend six weeks in solitary confinement as I awaited my hearings. That makes nine expunged incident reports in a row over the last five years.
In addition to all of these bogus disciplinary reports, FCI Petersburg's SIS Department has monitored all of my communications for the last seven years. They listen to every phone call, review every inbound and outbound letter, and even have to approve every single inbound and outbound email. This is unusual because SIS officials are charged with serious prison misconduct investigations, such as guards who smuggle drugs and cell phones, prison gangs that operate lucrative drug and alcohol trades, and violent prison assaults. At FCI Petersburg, they are also directed to monitor the content of a prison writer's communications and publications. It is clear to me that local SIS officials have been tasked with finding ways to censor prison writers.
But this last batch of incident reports really takes the cake, and for all of the wrong reasons. It is still SIS that is issuing the incident reports, but it isn't only SIS at FCI Petersburg, it is SIS in the Central Office, located in Washington, D.C. To make matters worse, it appears to primarily be a member of the Counter-Terrorism Unit issuing the incident reports. Instead of investigating terrorists and trying to foil plots, the Federal Bureau of Prison's Counter-Terrorism Unit is finding creative ways to shut up a single prison writer; one who has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. Instead of focusing on ISIS threats or other terrorist plots, they are spending their time (and taxpayer money) focusing on what I post at PrisonEducation.com and the content of my latest book or interview.
I don't know what the future might hold for me, but a few things are certain. The Discipline Hearing Officer (DHO) heard my case last week and found me innocent of most of the alleged misconduct (and all of the most serious allegations). I will soon start the process of appealing the adverse disciplinary finding and the incident report will eventually be expunged from my record. That will make ten attempts to censor my writing shot down in a row. Of course there will be no apology. And in about a year I will be leaving prison, never to return again. I also will be earning my MBA around that time, which I have been working towards for years.
I have striven to educate myself, better myself, and rehabilitate myself during my time in prison. I have also tried to help other prisoners by writing about important issues, such as the education system (or lack thereof) in prisons. The Bureau of Prisons did not encourage me in my efforts to ensure that I rejoin the community a reformed person. Instead, the Bureau has done what it could to shut me down, censor my writing, and discourage my pursuit of a better, crime-free life.
But I only have a year left. Here's to hoping that the Bureau of Prison's counter-terrorism department can find something better to do than censor my writing.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 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 ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.