Prisoner’s Escape from Illinois Jail Aided by Former Guard, Incompetence

By Christopher Zoukis

prison fence

A convicted murderer’s brazen escape from an Illinois jail was aided by a former guard who provided him with information that “substantially assisted him,” as well as apparent incompetence among jail staff, according to the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Office.

Kamron T. Taylor, 23, made a bid for freedom from the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee in the early hours of April 1, 2015.

The 5’9”, 170 pound Taylor had overpowered and choked unconscious a 10-year veteran guard with military experience. Wearing the guard’s uniform and using his keys, Taylor passed through at least three sets of doors after camera verification by control room staff. He then used the guard’s key fob to find the guard’s Chevrolet SUV in the parking lot, and drove away with a .38 handgun that had been left in the vehicle.

Taylor was being held at the jail awaiting sentencing after he was found guilty of first-degree murder in February 2015, stemming from a 2013 shooting during a botched robbery.

According to authorities, Taylor’s 3 a.m. escape was assisted by former jailer Tonya D. Grant, 50, who was Taylor’s aunt. Grant was charged with obstruction of justice and aiding in escape; she was accused of providing Taylor with information about jail protocols.

At a news conference after the escape, Kankakee County Sheriff Timothy Bukowski speculated that “someone didn’t do their job properly.” He later admitted that Taylor was able to abscond by hiding in the jail at lockdown and surprising the guard making his rounds hours later. “That’s where the big mistake happened. Someone missed that. And from that point on, things broke down.”

Taylor’s flight from custody ended three days later when he was arrested in Chicago on a “suspicious person” report, and was found carrying a loaded .38 and ID under a false name. Fingerprints and distinctive tattoos led to his identification.

Taylor’s dramatic escape from the jail was not his first attempt. During his trial, he tried to flee the courthouse after the verdict was read, but was wrestled down by deputies and bailiffs. He also escaped briefly following his 2013 arrest, but was recaptured several blocks away. Remarkably, Sheriff Bukowski told reporters that Taylor’s escape history and propensity for violence did not necessarily warrant stricter security measures at the jail.

“It raises an alert, I guess,” Bukowski said, “But you figure the people that are locked up in our facility aren’t altar boys and you take certain precautions for all of them. And you can’t get complacent with anybody ... especially a murderer.”

After he was recaptured, Taylor was sentenced to 107 years in prison in May 2015. Prior to sentencing, prosecutors advised the court that he was also suspected in another Kankakee murder and another robbery. He had not been charged with either of those crimes.

In her sentencing remarks, Kankakee County Circuit Judge Kathy Bradshaw-Elliott addressed Taylor, calling him “extremely dangerous” and beyond reform. “I have to keep the community protected,” she said when committing him to more than a century behind bars.

In December 2015, the obstruction charges filed against Grant were dropped by prosecutors. In a terse statement, Assistant State’s Attorney Ed Pentuic said the state was “unable to prove the allegation and therefore dismissed the case.”

As reported by the Kankakee Daily Journal, Kankakee County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Ken McCabe stated another individual was set to face discipline related to the escape, but that person had since left the sheriff’s office and taken employment elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Taylor remains incarcerated in an Illinois state prison. His projected parole date is December 25, 2123. 


This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on March 9, 2017.

Answering the Real Questions About Federal Prison

What happens on the first day of prison? Are showers really that scary? 

Thousands of people are sent to federal prison each year in the United States. Add to that the many family and loved ones effected when someone they know is going to prison, and you have a larger percentage of the population who have burning questions about life in prison. 

Finally, there is a comprehensive, realistic guide to surviving in a federal prison - the Federal Prison Handbook.

“I wanted to provide a definitive guide for individuals facing incarceration, prisoners who are already inside and their friends and family,” says author Christopher Zoukis, a college-educated inmate and prison advocate.

The newly-released Federal Prison Handbook compiles information to not only help prisoners and their loved ones protect themselves and their rights, but to help keep prisoners safe by explaining how to avoid the near-constant conflicts found inside prisons. 

Some of the topics inside include:

  • What to expect on the day you’re admitted to prison, and how to greet cellmates for the first time
  • What to do about sexual harassment or assault 
  • The best ways to avoid fights, and the options that provide the greatest protection if a fight cannot be avoided
  • Medical, psychological and religious services
  • How to communicate with the outside world through telephones, computers and mail.
  • What you can buy in the official commissary and the underground economy
  • How to avoid scams, schemes, theft and other problems
  • Comprehensive analysis of Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and regulatory guidelines
  • And much more!

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoners rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis and the Federal Bureau of Prisons at

Media Inquiries

Christopher Zoukis is pleased to speak with media by telephone about topics related to prison education and justice reform. For more information or to book an interview, email his publicist or send a request in writing to:

Christopher Zoukis
Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg
P.O. Box 1000, #22132-058
Petersburg, VA 23804

What Others Say About the Federal Prison Handbook

"A true resource for anyone involved with the prison system." -- Alan Ellis, America's leading federal criminal defense attorney
"Provides a wealth of useful information and solid advice. . . [A] treasure trove of penal acumen and knowledge." -- Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor, Prison Legal News
"The Federal Prison Handbook is one of my go-to guides for matters related to the federal prison system. An invaluable resource for attorneys . . . , prisoners, and their families." -- Jeremy Gordon, federal criminal defense and appellate attorney, General Counsel of Prisology
"This is the most informative . . . prison handbook that we've ever seen; and we've seen them all." -- Mark Varca, expert attorney and Chairman of FedCURE

Presidential Commission Criticizes Some Forensic Methods

 Forensic investigations not always reliable.

Forensic investigations not always reliable.

By Christopher Zoukis

If you were to judge only by what’s shown on detective-procedural television shows like CSI, you might think forensic investigations and crime lab results are virtually infallible. But from time to time, a government study comes along to point out how that’s frequently far from the truth.

Take, for example, a groundbreaking study ordered by Congress and released in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council. It pointed out numerous shortcomings, including scant scientific validation, for many forms of forensic evidence other than DNA, and urged more research, better standards and greater credentials for crime labs.

Then in April last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a report admitting its analysis of microscopic hair analysis frequently overstated the scientific reliability of such tests. In fact, DNA evidence in some instances revealed crime labs wrongly identified the source of hair fibers found at crime scenes.

On September 20th, 2016, after a year-long review of research studies, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a new report that was sharply critical of some forensic evidence methods commonly used in federal and state criminal courts.

The PCAST report, Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods, looked not only at the innate reliability of several types of forensic evidence — including analyzing bite marks, identifying firearms, microscopic hair analysis, footwear and tire-tread analysis — but also how the reliability of even better-validated types of evidence, such as DNA and latent fingerprints, are presented in criminal prosecutions.

The new study found quite a few potentially serious problems, both in the weakness or absence of proof of the scientific validity of some types of forensic evidence — notably bite marks —especially “feature-comparison” attempts to differentiate between the particular source of a particular sample. Even for more reliably established types of evidence analysis, the report cautioned, experts may exaggerate their value by claiming greater-than-provable confidence in such findings.

The PCAST report also recommended specific actions that federal agencies — such as Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, the White’s House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the FBI Laboratory — could take to bring greater scientific certainty to forensic testing, as well as steps the Justice Department and federal courts could take to improve courtroom use of forensic test results.

Perhaps predictably, the PCAST report drew mixed responses. Some noted jurists associated with the project, such as federal appellate judges Alex Kozinski and Harry Edwards, wrote op-eds praising the report, but the reaction was quite different from prosecutors’ and crime labs’ groups. The National District Attorneys Association, for example, shot off a press release calling the PCAST report “scientifically irresponsible” and attacking the panel’s members as unqualified to pass judgment on the issues they addressed.

The FBI also dissented, saying it takes issue with “many of the scientific assertions and conclusions” in the PCAST report, and the Justice Department has advised federal and state prosecutors that it planned to send them materials to use to counter claims in the report in case they are raised by litigants.

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

Virginia GOP Legislators Sue to Stop Ex-Inmate Voting Rights

 Virginia gov. terry mcauliffe   

Virginia gov. terry mcauliffe


By Christopher Zoukis

Carrying out their earlier pledge to seek court reversal of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to an estimated 206,000 former inmates, Republican leaders of the Virginia legislature filed a lawsuit on May 23, claiming McAuliffe’s action violates the state constitution.

In Howell v. McAuliffe, filed in the Virginia Supreme Court, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates William J. Howell is the lead plaintiff, joined by state Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. and four other state residents.  

The governor on April 22 proclaimed he was dropping the state constitution’s lifetime ban on felons’ post-release voting, which dates back to the Civil War era. Other restrictions on state residents with felony convictions include serving on juries, holding elective office, possessing firearms, and becoming notary publics. 

Under McAuliffe’s “Restoration of Rights” order, former felons after completing their sentences and any post-release conditions, such as parole or probation, will be automatically able to register to vote. State officials say nearly 5,000 former inmates have registered to vote since the governor’s order. The legislators’ lawsuit asks for the cancellation of those registrations, and a court order forbidding further automatic voter eligibility for persons with felony convictions.

Republicans, a majority in both state legislative chambers, denounced the governor’s action, claiming it was motivated to increase Democratic turnout for elections this November. McAuliffe, who chaired Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential run, once headed the Democratic National Committee and is a long-time associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton, denied the charge.

McAuliffe defended signing the order, calling it his “greatest day” as governor. He argued restoring voting rights was justified for ex-offenders who had “paid the price” and belong “back in society.” When the governor announced the order in April, his administration did not release data on the type of crimes committed by those whose rights he was restoring. Weeks later, it put out a statistical study saying 79% of those covered had not committed violent crimes and overall affected ex-offenders had on average been released 10 to 20 years earlier.

Opponents sought fuller data and countered that the governor’s figures meant 40,000 ex-offenders with convictions for violent crimes might be allowed to serve on juries and own firearms (though local courts would review gun applications by now-eligible former felons). 

The lawsuit’s challenge turns on whether Article V, Section 12 of the state constitution -- which empowers a governor to “remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction” -- lets McAuliffe make blanket restoration of rights for entire classes of ex-prisoners, or requires case-by-case analysis and determinations for specific individuals. 

The lawsuit asked for accelerated hearing; the state attorney general’s response opposed that, saying there was no need to rush, since plaintiffs took over a month to bring the case. A hearing has been scheduled for July 19. The state claims if the governor is unable to issue large-scale restoration orders, he will issue them individually. 

Besides wrongly viewing the governor’s powers, the McAuliffe administration claims, the plaintiffs lack standing to bring the challenge. The same day the state made its response, a statement from McAuliffe called the lawsuit “frivolous” and a “partisan attempt” to deny civil rights to over 200,000 state citizens.

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

More than bricks and mortar: the relationship between architecture and recidivism

This week New York Governor Cuomo revealed the intention to transform a notorious former women’s prison into a site providing resources and assistance to women in need. The announcement served not only as reminder of the symbolic representation such buildings hold, but of the power inherent of the physical structures themselves. Changes in the physical structures of prisons over time tend to be indicative of social attitudes towards crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. 

Designing a prison is not a simple task. Aside from the obvious security concerns, new prisons need to be designed in a way that allows for meaningful rehabilitation efforts to take place. And that can only occur when we eliminate segregation as an appropriate method of containment for securing safety. 

Open layouts are increasingly being embraced as a way of fostering improved relations between inmates and staff and engendering trust. Those studying prison architecture, have all pointed to the traditional panopticon model (multiple levels of cells all centered around a singular observation point) as being most problematic in these respects. The suspected reason for this is the tendency for inmates to feel as though they are constantly being watched, which undermines the building of trust relationships. Yes, I can hear people already saying, “They committed a crime, we shouldn’t trust them!” But in the prison setting, such sentiments breed resentment—a major barrier to rehabilitation. This kind of set-up also decreases the amount of staff-inmates possible, because staff simply observe from afar, rather than interact. Notwithstanding Indonesia’s proposed plans to surround prisons housing drug traffickers with crocodiles, à la James Bond, there are a growing number of examples of how effective these prisons can be. 

Bastøy Prison in Oslo, Norway, at first glance may appear to be a modern-day version of the UK shipping off its prisoners to Australia, or the Alcatraz of the past. But with Europe’s lowest recidivism rate (16% compared to Norway’s 20% and Europe’s average of 70%), it’s another model of how architecture is shaping the prison experience.  Bastøy is engineered to act as a social microcosm, rather than an institution geared strictly at containment and punishment. Inmates live in self-contained cabins, are fed by professional chefs, and are charged with tending to the island’s farmland and animals and are given various other jobs. For many incarcerated, it represents the first glimpse at being able to contribute meaningfully to their community. Arguably the facility operates primarily as a transition system, facilitating prisoner re-entry; any prisoner in Norway is eligible for transfer to the facility once they have five years or less remaining in their sentence. Unsurprisingly, critics have been vocal about the so-called resort conditions on the island, but the results simply don’t lie. Prisoners who feel invested in the well-being of their communities will be motivated to succeed upon re-entry.  A similar model is found at Austria’s Leoben Justice Center, and Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Island also boasts a 20% recidivism rate.

A new women’s prison built in San Diego followed in Bastøy and Leoben’s footsteps. Its designers are seeking to adopt a campus-style model, which arguably also serves to foster the educational components known to reduce recidivism dramatically. Las Colinas’ prison village is already seeing a reduction in violence. 

Lest observers consider this a strictly industrialized world option, in the Philippines, there is an open-air prison, Iwahig Penal Farm, that from the outside, looks like an ordinary village surrounded by farm lands worked by its inhabitants.  But it is very much a prison, albeit one that is largely self-sufficient and also a tourist destination. The village features a decidedly artistically oriented rehabilitation program operating alongside its manual labour activities, where inmates not only perform highly choreographed dance routines for visitors, but also stock the “gift shop” (yes, you read that correctly) with handcraft goods. However the open concept applies only to minimum and medium security inmates, with maximum security prisoners housed in an overcrowded facility on the grounds. Prison staff live on the grounds, as do many of the inmate’s wives and children, with education services being provided to everyone on the penal farm. At the moment, Iwahig has the country's the lowest recidivism rate,

Recognition of the important role that buildings can play in social cohesion and rehabilitation efforts, the American group “Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Justice,” who  advocate for “responsible design,” not only in prisons, but also in communities—with the aim of reducing the need for the former.  Part of their actions have called for an end to the construction of solitary confinement spaces altogether. Members have also signed pledges not to work on any prison projects unless dramatic reforms are made, or not at all. 

Of course there are additional costs associated with the creation of such facilities, however analyses indicate they are marginal. But if your fundamental goal is to rehabilitate prisoners and actually reduce recidivism, then it’s virtually impossible that such investments will not yield dividends in the long-term. It feels as though we have to constantly remind people that the punishment is the loss of freedom—not the treatment we receive in prison itself, or the physical structure itself. But prison buildings have become an additional form of punishment, increasing isolation and threatening the mental and physical well-being of everyone involved. 

“Everybody says this, or something like it: I guess crime does pay…Maybe I should move to Austria and rob a couple of banks. It’s a reflex, and perfectly understandable, though it’s also foolish and untrue – about as sensible as looking at a new hospital wing and saying, Gee, I wish I had cancer.
To be more accurate, free people say these things. Prisoners don’t...No one, however down-and-out or cynical, wants to go to prison, however comfortable it may be.” 

When prisoners are treated like human beings, they are able to discover their own humanity.

Prisons in Washington teetering on the edge of disaster

In a shocking example of how dire the situation is in this country’s prisons system, a recent article has revealed that Washington state prisons are having to resort to begging for food to feed inmates.

 Prison food safety remains a serious issue.

Prison food safety remains a serious issue.

Several of these counties are teetering on the brink, fearful of any major court trial that will tax their resources. The budget shortfalls are being largely blamed on tax policies, but present serious challenges to the criminal justice system nonetheless, as only a fraction of the funds spent on indigent defense in the counties is reimbursed by the state. County jail operations are woefully inadequate to deal with the increasing number of incarcerated individuals. Not only are counties relying on volunteers, but those volunteers are sourcing food donations to cut costs on the amount spent on inmate meals.

It’s a situation that could spell disaster, creating a dangerous domino effect across the state’s criminal justice system.

Incarcerated Writer Christopher Zoukis Vindicated!

All Incident Reports Overturned and Expunged

 After being issued three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business, christopher zoukis was  recently vindicated once again.

After being issued three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business, christopher zoukis was  recently vindicated once again.

By Middle Street Publishing

It is with great pride and joy that we at Middle Street Publishing share the terrific news that embattled prison writer Christopher Zoukis has been vindicated once again! He's now back available via email and can again make telephone calls from Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg following his victorious fight with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The History: The 2012 Incident Reports

In 2012, Chris was issued three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business. The alleged business was the free "Education Behind Bars Newsletter" (EBBN). Prison staff, led by Special Investigation Supervisor (SIS) Department agents, decided that the free EBBN was a business because the publisher accepted donations and advertisements to help defray her costs. Rather unsurprisingly, those involved with the publication disagreed.

As a result of the incident reports, Chris was confined to the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit (SHU) for five months and had his email and telephone restricted for over a year. While in the hole he managed to dodge a retaliatory transfer to USP Lee, a maximum-security federal prison. As a result of the ongoing harassment and retaliatory actions by FCI Petersburg staff, Chris and his family retained the services of renowned criminal defense attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. Together they fought the BOP back into their corner. While it took some time, all three of the incident reports were eventually overturned on appeal and Chris' record was expunged.

Recent Events: The 2014 Incident Reports

In late 2014 Chris was again subjected to a series of retaliatory incident reports for his writing endeavors. This time SIS agents issued him four incident reports for allegedly conducting a business. The business this time included writing articles for The Huffington Post, inquiring about the number of Facebook likes and Twitter tweets that his articles receive, asking a friend to start printing and mailing him his "Prison Legal News" writing assignments, offering to help a fellow prisoners' rights activist update his prison survival guide, and obtaining his own personal credit reports. For this he was sanctioned to nine months loss of email, six months loss of telephone, and three months loss of commissary and visitation.

As in 2012, Chris again retained the services of attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. This time he also retained noted First Amendment attorneys Steve Rosenfield and Jeff Fogel. After seven months of fighting the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all of the adverse findings were overturned on appeal and Chris' record once again cleared.

The Path From Here

With Chris back in daily communications with us we proceed forward with our prison education and prisoners' rights advocacy. While we had to slow down somewhat due to communications being delayed, we can now push forward and make 2015 the year that it is meant to be. For this means a new series of research papers and possibly a more robust section on in-prison and correspondence education programs for prisoners. For this means a new, online directory of federal prisons which will provide information on every federal prison, along with a new design by the team at MKT Communications. And for this means regular postings profiling Chris' reform and publication efforts.

As for Chris, while he's still under many levels of monitoring (after all, all of his emails, postal mail, and telephone calls are now monitored by SIS staff), he's looking forward to June when his next book, Correspondence Courses for Prisoners, will be released by Prison Legal News Publishing. He's also looking forward to getting back into the swing of things and preparing for a series of interviews with CBS, NBC, and several websites and podcasts. In his words, "It's time to do what we do best: push forward and raise our voices for our brothers and sisters behind bars who don't have a voice loud enough to raise above the din of prison censorship."

We couldn't agree more.

Mother's Day at Your Local Prison

 Image courtesy

Image courtesy

By Christopher Zoukis

This Mother's Day, like this past Christmas I won't be able to speak with my mom and tell her I love her. (And this isn't because I'm in prison, but because I've spoken out about prison conditions and have had my phone privileges rescinded). I say not this to say "poor me," but to think about what my mother will go through on May 10th when she doesn't hear my voice. And knowing how this breaks my heart, I can only begin to imagine what that must be like for thousands of incarcerated women who will face this reality not just on Mother's Day, but for most days during their incarceration.

It is never so black and white as "well, you should have thought about that before you did the crime." Because regardless of whether foresight plays a role in someone's imprisonment, the children are punished in this situation. It's easy enough for people to spout the old "you do the crime, you do the time" adage. But people who say that are usually so single-mindedly focused on the incarcerated individual that they forget about the world of people they leave behind.

Regardless of how we feel about people who are in prison, children have a right to see, to touch, and to speak with their parents (obviously, provided doing so poses no risks for the child).

The problem begins early on for mothers who are pregnant when incarcerated, most of which are forced to hand the child over to authorities (and then either family or state services) immediately after birth. The detrimental short-term and long-term effects this can have on a child's well-being are well-recognized, and have spurred on prisons in some states to adopt nursery programs.

But these programs are only a band-aid solution for mother's whose incarceration extends beyond their infant's first 12 months (there are also concerns about the safety and regulation of these programs when they're being run by prison officials).

The fact is that only 9 percent of incarcerated women will ever receive a visit from their under-18 children. Prisons are often too far away to be viable for family members to visit. They may not have dependable transportation, or associated costs may be too high. Over 50 percent of state prisons are between 101-500 miles away from an inmate's last residence, and 43 percent of federal prisons are more than 500 miles away.

In institutions where calls have to be made collect, the cost of long-distance may be too prohibitive for even maintaining phone contact. And given that overwhelmingly the families of individuals incarcerated in this country live in poverty, these things matter if we're actually interested addressing the reproduction of cycles of poverty and recidivism in this country.

Contact with family is critical in the rehabilitation process, as the maintenance of strong familial connections through quality visitation and contact reduced recidivism by up to 40 percent.

But even more important than the impact on inmates (and it is important), is what being deprived parental contact means to the children left behind. Contact with parents helps ease feelings of abandonment or a child's fear that they somehow caused the parent to leave. And the odds of a child of an incarcerated parent being involved in delinquency themselves increases significantly when they're denied parental visitation.

Organizations exist to help facilitate children's visits to incarcerated parents, but they are few and far between. This Mother's Day, Get on the Bus will (as it does on Father's Day) reunite hundreds of children with their incarcerated mothers in California -- so for some women they will have the bittersweetness of the day eased. But for thousands more, the day will remain one of profound sadness.

And so while people run to the stores on Saturday, getting stressed and upset over the crowds I hope they will be grateful that for every word or every touch they share with their mothers the next day. Because so many children will not be afforded that luxury -- and as a society, we might be well-served spending some of that energy spent stressing out at the shopping mall trying to do something to change that.
If you know someone who could benefit from a children's visitation program, please point them to the following links:

P.S. Mom, I love you.

(Published by; used by permission)

Prison Pecking Order

 Image courtesy

Image courtesy

By Christopher Zoukis

In the world outside of prison, everyone wants to know what others do, where they work, how much they make, where and in what type of house they live, what they drive, and the answers to many other personal identity questions which help us to quantify and categorize others. These are social signals to those around all of us. They help us to understand how to treat others, how they compare to us, and a plethora of other interpersonal protocols. Not very surprisingly, prison is no different.

The Prison Pecking Order

In prison, unlike life "on the street," social status is not based upon what a fellow prisoner makes or what they do for a living, but what their crime of conviction is, if the fellow prisoner is an informant or not, the group (or "car") they associate with, and how they carry themselves. Also unlike the world outside of prison walls, this social status can mean the difference between a life of torment and assault, and a relatively peaceful life, where due respect is proffered by perceived social equals and lesser-thans. As such, it is vital for new arrivals -- and others who want to understand the prison experience -- to understand how stratification works in a correctional context. Doing so will ensure that they maximize their chances of surviving relatively unscathed.

Crime of Conviction: Social Stigmatization at its Best

The convict stratification equation starts, much like many other components of prison life, in a seemingly backward fashion. When judging a fellow prisoner's social status, one doesn't start by thinking of who they are today, but what they did to be locked up in the first place. This is a common starting point for any evaluation because it helps to quickly -- and relatively accurately -- quantify complete strangers. After all, if a fellow prisoner is, for example, doing time for bank robbery, then it can be assumed that he is a traditional convict, schooled in the criminal lifestyle. On the other hand, if someone is in for wire fraud or embezzlement, then they are probably not considered "good people" -- according to the social construction of prison society -- and will be categorized as a "citizen," not a true convict.

The same form of judging occurs with other, less savory crimes, too. Having an unpopular crime of conviction is a quick path to the lower realms of the prison stratification system. Those with a criminal history of sexual assault, possession, distribution, or production of child pornography, rape, molestation, and such are deemed in prison to be the lowest of the low. Those with these types of crimes are almost automatically shunned from Day One, though they can often find a place amongst fellow unsavory types (those many regular prisoners disparagingly call "weirdos").

The Rat Factor

After this initial evaluation has been figured, the next question -- regardless of crime of conviction -- concerns if the prisoner in question has testified against anyone else. This could be in terms of testifying in court (they would be deemed an "informant" in this case) or snitching on their fellow prisoners (they would be deemed a "rat" in this context). Regardless of crime of conviction, if a prisoner is known to assist law enforcement or the prison authorities, they are deemed to be the lowest of the low. Add a conviction for an unsavory crime, and any "good con" wouldn't be seen dead speaking with them, or worse, many might make a point to openly assault such individuals based upon principle. Whereas in regular American society, those who are a bit odd or disagreeable are avoided, those in prison face a much harder fate: ostracism, shunning, and possible assault (depending on the prison security level in question).

Association: The "Car" You Ride In

After a fellow prisoner has been evaluated for their crime of conviction and if they are an informant or not, the next step in the social judging ladder concerns who they associate with. In prison, associations matter. In fact, they can be vital to a healthy and safe prison experience. This is because, in prison, when one prisoner gets into an altercation with another -- or even when others think about causing a problem for a fellow prisoner -- they must take into account that they are not merely picking a fight with one person, but that person, plus everyone that person associates with. Prisoners tend to form smaller groups -- called "cars" in the prison context -- whom they eat with, work out with, cell with, and defend one another.

These cars can be formed for any number of reasons and can include any number of different groupings. For example, a common trait amongst the cars concerns where someone is from. This could be as micro as the street or city they lived in prior to their incarceration, or it could include all of the prisoners at a specific prison from a state or county. These can be informal groups of likeminded persons, based on racial or religious factors, or even be traditional prison or street gangs (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, etc.). The car could even consist of what most prisoners would consider "weirdos" (those with unsavory charges or character).

Depending on the car in question -- and its reputation -- an association can make all the difference in the world. For example, in prison, no one in their right mind would openly assault someone from the Muslim car unless they had permission from their crew and, possibly, an approving nod from the Muslim "shot caller" (the leader of the group). This is because there are many, many Muslim prisoners in almost any American prison. On the other hand, someone from a weirdo car wouldn't have anywhere near the same sort of protection because their car probably wouldn't step up to the plate and defend even their own.

Personal Projection: It's the Image that Counts

The way a prisoner presents themselves is a bit of a wildcard. Usually, crime of conviction, the potential rat factor, and associations lead the way in determining where someone will reside in the prison social stratification system. But this is not always the case. More often than not, a prisoner's personal projection -- or perceived image -- will dictate their pecking order within their particular car, and it's the car that determines the prisoner's social status.

But from time to time, there are prisoners who are either afforded additional respect or additional harassment due to the way they carry themselves. For example, not too long ago, there was a guy in my prison who associated with the weirdo car -- and was openly gay, a somewhat taboo subject in prison -- yet could fight very, very well. So, while some groups didn't like him because of his sexual preferences and lifestyle, many respected him because he was a standup convict and could hold his own (a physical and personality trait very much respected in the prison environment).

External Social Ranking Factors: Prison Security Level and Time

There are even external social ranking factors which can come into play when quantifying a fellow prisoner. A simple one is the amount of time that the person was sentenced to. As long as the prisoner hasn't been charged with an unsavory crime, the more time they receive the more respect they seem to garner from their fellow convicts. Likewise, prisoners who receive very short sentences (called "bids") tend to be regarded as insignificant pests by those with more time. This is largely due to "short timers" always complaining about simple things or problems associated with getting ready to be released. Obviously, those in for decades don't want to hear about how a short term prisoner is going to get home from prison on the day that they are released or how much halfway house time they received.

Of more significance is the security level the prisoners are incarcerated within. Generally speaking, the higher the security level, the more important the pecking order. At maximum security federal prisons (called either "United States Penitentiaries" or "USPs") this pecking order determines where prisoners sit at chow (if they are even allowed to sit at a table by their fellow prisoners), where they cell, where on the recreation yard they workout or hangout, and every other component of prison life. Those who belong to stronger or more revered cars often have an easier prison experience, and those who are alone (called "independents") or who belong to a weirdo car tend to have a more challenging time.

The lower the security level, the less the pecking order and prison politics comes into play. Prisoners incarcerated at the low security and minimum security levels don't really have to worry about being assaulted for their characteristics, their associations, or their crime. On the other hand, those at the medium security and maximum security levels do. Much of this security level discussion is outside of the individual prisoner's control since it is the prison administration, not the individual prisoner, who scores and designates a prisoner to a particular security level.

Convict Stratification: A Fluid and Evolving Discipline

Clearly there are a number of components which contribute to the stratification system employed in American prisons. These various components all add together into a fluid mental equation which results in a snapshot -- or a belief -- of what a fellow prisoner stands for and their social value in the prison context. This estimation of social value is a constantly evolving belief, but one which is shared by the prison population as a whole. In a word, the prisoner's reputation is what is at stake here, something hard to earn, and easy to lose. And in the prison context, this can be the difference between a life of comfort and a life of abject torture and fear.

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Book Marketing From Prison

 Image courtesy

Image courtesy

By Christopher Zoukis

Book marketing in the world outside of prison is fairly straightforward. The author writes a book, ideally has the foresight to build an author platform in the process, and then uses the platform and other tools to market their book once it is published.

These other tools often consist of a snazzy website, writing commitments at relevant and visible publications, outreach to book reviewers, optimizing Amazon sales page copy, and targeted advertisements. Many, many books profile this straightforward, yet work-intensive and challenging process.

But what if the author is in prison? What if they don’t have access to a computer, the internet, email, or even a regular landline or cell phone? Now things start to get interesting. This article focuses on my experiences as an incarcerated book author and my efforts to promote my books, even from within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where I currently reside. It is presented with the hope of helping those inside prison in marketing their books, and to enlighten regular book authors of how good they really have it.

Find A Dedicated Outside Assistant

Authors outside of prison have it easy. Their first question is, “Where do I start?” This is often several steps down the road for incarcerated authors. For the incarcerated author, the first question is, “Who can help me do what needs to be done?” And this can often be a crippling issue.

Incarcerated authors understand early on that they cannot possibly market a book from prison without the expert assistance of someone outside of prison, someone who has access to a computer and the internet. Often this position can be filled by a dedicated family member or friend, or, if absolutely necessary — and if funds are available — then by paying an assistant or helper. Due to the hustle and bustle of regular life outside of prison, this latter option is often the best by far. While it is challenging, effective assistants can be found on websites like Craig’s List. It is this outside assistant that will help with most of the following tasks. Finding a good one is perhaps the most essential task in the book marketing process.

Create an Author Website

One of the best tools for an incarcerated writer — or any sort of writer — is a website with a hosted blog. While prisoners can’t access the internet, their outside contacts can. Through the use of platforms such as SquareSpace and WordPress, websites can be created and hosted fairly inexpensively. By using templates — and generous support services — the outside contact can get by not even knowing a bit of coding.

This website should have several different landing pages. There should be a succinct homepage which essentially summarizes the incarcerated author’s work. A bio page is also very helpful since it educates visitors about the prisoner and their plight. A contact page is essential for fans and supporters to have a mechanism through which to connect with the incarcerated writer. By incorporating a blog into the website, the prison writer can regularly appear in front of their target audience and grow a fan base. This blog should be hosted on the website itself, not on an external blogging service. And last, as they publish each new book, a new page should be published which focuses specifically on the book in question.

My website is an example of a good website for an incarcerated writer. At my website, we incorporate much of the advice in this article.

Email Newsletters

Let’s face it, most visitors come to a website perhaps once or a few times, forget about it, and don’t return. This is akin to a newspaper selling a single copy of their publication to a reader, then not bothering to remind them to buy another. Well, the same concept applies to websites. By incorporating an email newsletter feature — whereby visitors can input their email addresses to receive updates — not only will the incarcerated author be able to reach past visitors via email, but they will also be constantly growing a targeted email marketing list for when their books are published. Prisoners should have their website managers take a look at low-cost email marketing services like Mail Chimp and Constant Contacts. These provide tools for website integration and statistics tracking on all emails sent.

Author Platform Building

Author platforms are very subjective and topically specific. To start, an “author platform” is any mechanism by which a writer can get in front of their target readership. In this day and age, this is primarily done through websites and other online publications, although it can also be done in print publications, even if this is substantially more challenging due to space limitations and fierce competition.

Incarcerated fiction authors should focus their platform building efforts on their blog, any websites that publish fiction, or literary journals. They could also submit to award competitions like Glimmer Train, or even the free PEN American Center Prison Writing Competition. For incarcerated nonfiction authors, there are many more opportunities, especially if the writer focuses on prison law or social justice topics since there are several worthy print publications who regularly publish writings by prisoners. The two premier print prison publications are probably Prison Legal News and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Since Prison Legal News has the largest circulation in the prison marketplace of any publication the world over, it is an excellent publication to submit quality content to.

Outside of print publications, incarcerated authors can also submit to quality online outlets like AND Magazine, Slate, Salon, Examiner, and others. While some swear by article banks such as Ezines Articles, Article City, and others, my experiences with large article directories like these is that they have been lackluster and unimpressive. Instead, incarcerated authors are encouraged to submit to targeted and active outlets like,, and Solitary Watch.

Amazon Sales Copy Optimization

Perhaps the most important sales channel in this day and age for all authors is their book’s product page on Amazon. While many authors are ignorant of this, those with books for sale on Amazon can apply for an Amazon Authors page. This page allows authors to add a bio, syndicate their latest blog posts into the page, add photos and other extras, but most importantly, edit their book’s product details.

Every author with an Amazon Authors page can edit and add to the existing marketing copy their publisher submitted. Often, traditional book publishers have such a huge workload that they can’t spend the time required to optimize the product details for each of their books. And this is sad since Amazon really is the largest small bookstore in the world. Incarcerated authors — and regular authors alike — should spend the time to provide as much effective copy as they can. This can only improve the book’s discoverability.

To see a good example of an optimized Amazon book product page, take a look at my Directory of Federal Prisons page.

Goodreads and LibraryThing Author Profiles

Goodreads and LibraryThing are a mix of book catalogs, recommendations, and social media websites all wrapped up into one. While readers can catalog, review, and rate the books they’ve read on each of these websites, authors can edit the details of their products, engage in easy outreach to readers, and syndicate their blog posts (ideally from their stand-alone website) into their author profiles. Thus, while some initial legwork is required to create and optimize the Goodreads and LibraryThing website profiles, all the incarcerated author and outside contact need to do is post to the blog on the author’s website, and the new posts will effectively update the profiles not only on Goodreads and LibraryThing, but the Amazon Authors page, too.

Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, and Google+

While prisoners love the idea of being on social media, it is often more hassle than it’s worth. The return on investment — both in terms of time and any funds spent on a professional presence — just isn’t there. But what does work on these three social media channels are automated updates from the incarcerated author’s blog. Just like with the syndication of blog posts, both SquareSpace and WordPress both allow for posts to be automatically tweeted on Twitter, shared on Facebook, and G+ed on Google+. All of these social media profiles can also be integrated into the aforementioned author’s pages. Marketing automation at its best.

Online Author Tours: Book Reviews and Interviews

By and large, independent authors are shifting away from expensive time-based publicists to lower-cost service-based online marketers. This is a good thing, especially for the incarcerated author since they usually can’t easily do interviews in person, on the telephone, or via email.

The model that appears to work the best for incarcerated authors and their outside helpers is to retain the services of an online book tour expert to promote the book, schedule book placements on relevant blogs and websites, and handle all other busy work surrounding such a project. For $1,000, upwards of 50 placements can be secured. These placements often consist of guest blog posts, book reviews, or interviews, which the author can answer ahead of time. Thus, the disconnection of writing from prison doesn’t become a detriment to book publicity or marketing.

Targeted Advertising: Online and in Print

Much of the time authors get hung up on the big book outlets like the New York Times Book Review or Publishers Weekly. After all, these are the big dogs, and, as such are where the world’s largest and most influential publishers regularly advertise. Since an incarcerated author’s entire book marketing budget might only be a few hundred dollars, their money is much better off spent in specialty, hyper-targeted media because that is where their readership resides, and costs are significantly reduced.

An incarcerated author’s budget in print should be spent at Prison Legal News if their book is nonfiction and about prisons or social justice. If it is of a more general flavor or fiction, they shouldn’t bother with print advertising. It’s plainly much too expensive. Regardless of the type of book, advertising on Goodreads is an excellent option. The Goodreads self-serve advertising system is based off of clicks (called “Cost Per Click” or CPC), not impressions (called “Cost Per Impression” or CPI). And the cost is based on the bidding system. This means that the prisoner, via their outside helper, can set a total campaign budget (say, $100) and a bid per click (say, 10 to 50 cents per click), and they only have to pay for the ad when it is actually clicked on. This is very low cost advertising which is only incurred when an active user actively follows the link to the incarcerated author’s book page.

A side component of the Goodreads advertising system concerns book giveaways. Goodreads allows users to give away copies of their books through their system. This is a free service which the Goodreads staffers manage. So, for the price of 5 to 10 books at a time, an incarcerated author can have a steady stream of book giveaways. The huge bonus here is that many of the readers who receive a free copy of the book will also review the book and post the review to Amazon.

The Truth About Online Press Releases

One fable often promoted in the independent author industry — and, in particular, in the prison writing genre — is that press releases result in massive amounts of attention and possibly book sales. This is plainly not the case. Much of what is distributed through these online press release companies is simply spam that results in no return on investment. Some outlets charge thousands of dollars for an SEO optimized press release, a gross overpricing for a relatively simple action that is usually accompanied by unrealistic promises of its effectiveness.

The long and short of online press releases is that it is generally a good idea to send one out announcing a book’s release, but to not spend an arm and a leg on it. This money is much better spend on a quality online book tour, or better yet, if funds are very limited, on optimizing an Amazon Authors page. With literally no money to speak of, an incarcerated author could easily create an Amazon Authors page, optimize the product description for their book, and post blog posts to the profile. While not nearly as good as a stand-alone website, certainly a good step in the right direction, and one which doesn’t require a large expense of capital.

The Focus of All Efforts: Selling the Sizzle

Even with all of the hurdles to effectively marketing a book from prison, incarcerated authors have one huge step up on fellow, non-incarcerated writers: the novelty of writing from prison. This simple fact offers a certain controversy that can help to open doors. Readers, much like the American people as a whole, tend to be fascinated with crime. They also generally believe that those in prison aren’t the sharpest pencils around. Because of these two factors, a well-spoken prisoner — or better yet, a talented incarcerated wordsmith — not only surprises and catches the attention of editors, book reviewers, and readers, but also commands a certain amount of authority, and cachet, when writing about prisons, corrections, and criminal law.

Incarcerated writers and authors must use this as their hook in everything they do. While some might try to minimize this aspect of their circumstance in an attempt to look more professional, to do so is a grave mistake. There are many good, even superb writers in the world. But in prison, there are only a handful. Incarcerated writers should use this novelty aspect of their circumstance to open doors, sell more books, and create something they can then take with them upon their release from custody. Not only will the bottom line become more favorable, but their chances at success upon release from prison will improve, too.

The Long and Short of Book Marketing from Prison

Effective book marketing is hard. It’s hard with a ton of money at an author’s or publisher’s disposal, and it’s even harder if there is no money at all. The key is in prioritizing expenses, finding smart outsource opportunities, and managing the rest of the legwork oneself. Virtually all of the components discussed in this article are optional. The only mandatory component concerns finding a dedicated person outside of prison to act as the communications manager. This is essential. Effectively marketing a book from prison is not possible without a reliable outside contact.

The best advice in this realm comes from personal experience. My personal experience marketing my books about prisons and prison education has been to spend the majority of available funds on a central platform (i.e., our websites and This is because these are our own properties, and can be used for all of our book projects. Following this, the best money spent is on a virtual book tour. They are very effective at pumping up book sales, but they can be time intensive and sometimes too technical for an outside contact to plan, engage, and manage. Last, if funds are still available, targeted, low-cost advertisements are very helpful, but they should be focused on an audience who are already engaging in ways the author wants engagement (e.g., ads on Goodreads promote book reviews, ads in Prison Legal News promote sales to prisoners, etc.).

Writing books in prison is hard. Prison administrators and prison guards like to shut prisoners up or otherwise hinder their public advocacy. Prison mail rooms and the communication protocols in place make timely correspondence very challenging. And lack of internet and true computer access make book marketing almost impossible. But by following the above plan, effective book PR is possible. The proof is in the results of those of us who have come before and succeeded. And the results can be replicated through thorough research, trial, and error. But as missteps are made, a road map too is created. And eventually, the road map of what works will prove to be sustainable and will afford even someone stuck in a prison to become a visible, world-class author.

(Published by; used by permission)

Reducing Recidivism

By Christopher Zoukis

Not pleased with their perpetual need to keep expanding their prison's capacity, local leaders and officials in Northampton County, Pennsylvania have been searching for a comprehensive strategy to reduce the county's high levels of recidivism. In 2012, the recidivism rate for inmates being released from Northampton County Prison was 58 percent, a full 18 points over the national average.

Encouragement has come from an earlier initiative in the county, contracting with Community Education Centers to provide alcohol treatment programs and parenting classes, which demonstrated the success of initiatives of this sort, cutting the rate of recidivism in half for those inmates who completed the program. For over a year, a working party has been looking into further measures to build on this success.

In March, the final report, authored by the county's re-entry coordinator Laura Savenelli, was presented to prison officials, local community leaders, and mental health providers at a re-entry summit in Bethlehem, PA. The group identified three key problems:

  1. Seventy percent of inmates have substance abuse issues, which need to be addressed.

  2. Many prisoners have mental health problems, with more than 20 percent taking psychotropic medication.

  3. There is a lack of classroom space for GED classes, and a need for better vocational training.

As in almost all prisons and jails, a large majority of Northampton County Prison's inmates, almost three-quarters, have substance abuse issues. For many non-violent offenders, drug treatment is a far more effective response than incarceration. One proposal, therefore, is to establish a specific drug court to handle these cases, and to decide who would be better served by treatment than a term of incarceration.

Similarly, according to, mental health problems are far more prevalent in prisons than in society as a whole. In part, this is due to a failure of community mental health provision, and partly because vulnerable members of society often do not seek out appropriate treatment. As a consequence of the closure of the vast majority of psychiatric hospitals, such individuals are now far more likely to find themselves in prison, where mental health treatment is typically inadequate.

In response, another proposal in the report is the establishment of a specialized mental health court to decide the relative merits of incarceration versus referral for mental health treatment, a proposal supported by Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.

Judge Stephen Baratta, Northampton County President, said that his colleagues at the bench were interested in exploring the practicalities of both courts, and will be meeting soon with the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts as well as county officials and local prosecutors to discuss this further.

The report also found that both education and training programs need to be strengthened. A high proportion of inmates do not have a high school diploma or a GED, yet there is a long waiting list to get into GED classes due to limited classroom space and teacher availability.

The report recommended the reintroduction of vocational training. An auto-mechanics program was run at a garage in the prison until 1995, when the space was converted into additional cells to house the growing inmate population. The authors now envision vocational programs with strong links to local businesses. This would ensure that the inmates learn practical, real-world skills, and could also potentially offer employment with those businesses when the incarcerated students are released from custody.

According to, Pennsylvania has the sixth highest prison population in the country, and saw a 40 percent increase in that population between 2000 and the start of 2012, to a total of over 51,000 inmates. Clearly this is a huge financial burden on the state, and it is greatly exacerbated by the high rate of recidivism. For many, it also represents a lost opportunity to address substance abuse and mental health issues, and to fill educational gaps whilst the individuals still have a chance to get their lives back on track, and an opportunity for a full and productive life.

Northampton County is to be applauded for taking time to see the bigger picture, and for looking for a more holistic approach to combating crime, recidivism, and mental illness. The county's Criminal Justice Advisory Board is now studying the report in detail to decide how best to act on its findings.

(Published by; used by permission)