When Christopher Zoukis entered federal prison in 2006, he had no idea what to expect.
However, he adapted to his new environment and spent his time pursuing higher education. He even used his time to write and publish practical books about what to expect in prison, how to navigate life behind bars, and how inmates can access higher education.
Zoukis was a senior in high school when he had his first encounters with law enforcement. These were largely driven by substance abuse issues; he wasn’t always lucid and committed several petty crimes. He ended up being convicted of a federal offense that put him in prison for 12 years.
Before Zoukis was incarcerated, the only expectations he had of prison were based on popular culture and media portrayals. In reality, he didn’t know what he was about to face, and the unknown was frightening to him.
When he was initially incarcerated, he quickly learned that different prisons had tremendously different cultures. The first two prisons where Zoukis spent time were particularly violent. They were described as “gladiator schools.” The inmates were younger than 25, and most were under 21.
“It was the horror show of, within reason, what the popular media seems to suggest. When you put a bunch of young people together–very testosterone-oriented–people who are not old enough yet to reason fully, it was very much that. It was a very toxic and violent experience,” Zoukis said.
After Zoukis turned 21, he was transferred to an adult federal prison in Virginia. His experience there contrasted greatly with the prisons where he had been previously, where it hadn’t been safe enough to even read a book. Now, life was much more monotonous, and while the environment wasn’t optimal, at least he didn’t have to focus all of his time and attention on his safety.
While Zoukis was incarcerated, he knew he wanted a better life for himself. He entered prison without any ambitions, and hadn’t considered higher education or a career. Eventually, he realized that he was going to use all that time to make something of himself before being released.
“An old adage of prisoners is, ‘Do the time, don’t let the time do you,’ and I really bought into that concept,” Zoukis said.
Since Zoukis had been arrested when he was in high school, he didn’t have the opportunity to graduate, so he finished in prison. He knew he wanted to go to college, but there weren’t any resources available to prisoners on how to access higher education.
He spent a couple of years trying to determine what was available to him and other inmates, which led him to write his first book, “Education Behind Bars.” It advocates for prisoner education and is a guidebook for inmates who want to pursue an education.
Zoukis, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from Adams State University, went on to write “College for Convicts,” and “The Prison Education Guide,” which make the argument, based on peer-reviewed studies, for accessible prisoner education.
“If we invest money in educating people and helping them develop marketable skills when they get out, they have something to use. They have something to look forward to. This is a positive influence in an area where there’s just not a lot of positivity,” he said.
In 2017, Zoukis published another book entitled “Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” From his own experience, he realized there wasn’t much reliable information about what to expect going into prison and he wanted to help incoming inmates.
Zoukis covers all of the aspects of prison life in the “Federal Prison Handbook,” including how to greet your cellmate, how to interact with inmates and guards, and the politics of the chow hall. The book also discusses prison policy, such as how to obtain health care and what health care rights inmates are entitled to. He included information on disciplinary defense issues and the special housing unit, also known “the hole,” where inmates are sent if they are deemed to be causing a problem in the general population; sometimes, guards send an inmate there for retaliation, he says.
“When you first enter the housing unit and you’re going to the cell you’ve been assigned to, you don’t just walk in the cell. That’s someone else’s home. That’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t really think of. You knock on the door. You try to be polite. You try to greet people. If they’re not there, you walk around and ask people who lives in there,” Zoukis said.
“Because you don’t want to be barging into someone else’s home.”
The politics of the dining hall are also critical to understand. New inmates need to understand that not every table is a safe place to sit, and if you sit in the wrong person’s seat, it can create serious problems. Zoukis recommends finding someone who looks like you, and asking them about the ropes.
In addition, segments of prison are racially segregated. For example, at every prison where Zoukis has been incarcerated, black inmates sit on one side of the room and the white inmates sit on the other side.
Another topic covered in the book is how to avoid fights and violence. Generally, he advises being incredibly respectful but also assertive. Apologizing, being mindful of your surroundings, and being careful about how what you say may be perceived by others are good ways to avoid conflict.
Zoukis ultimately decided to pursue a career in law. He had two mentors in prison, talented legal strategists who showed him that the law could be a force for good when applied correctly. Zoukis had witnessed events in prison that he thought were unacceptable, and saw how the law didn’t apply to inmates.
“Prisons tend to be very lawless areas. An inmate can stab another inmate and not catch a criminal case out of it. [Whereas] If you walk up to someone in 7-Eleven, and you stab them, of course, you’re going to prison,” Zoukis said.
Before his release from prison on Oct. 12, 2018. he was able to secure a marketing position at a criminal defense firm developing websites, writing newsletters, managing a team of writers, and performing media outreach. Zoukis also sat for the LSAT exam and applied to law school before his release.
He’s now a second-year law student at the University of California–Davis, and became engaged to his longtime girlfriend on Christmas Day of 2019.
Now, he’s on a mission to improve the criminal justice system as someone who has lived through it.
“Too often, we have lawmakers, we have law enforcement, we have academics talking about criminal justice reform. The voice that’s not heard are those who have been directly impacted by it,” Zoukis said.