Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Christopher Zoukis
Federal Correctional Institute Petersburg, Medium

It’s been a pretty good day today. I walked over to the education department around 10 a.m. to see if I had any tests. I’m waiting on a few examinations for my college correspondence courses, which are sent to my proctor.

In every prison you have a few problem fixers — also known as “jailhouse lawyers.” I’m that person. I try to fix whatever legal issues inmates are having: criminal appeals, habeas corpus petitions, prison disciplinary appeals… It’s a drastic departure from my former life as a high school dropout. When I was 18 and a senior in high school, I had relations with an underage girl and was charged with indecent liberties with a minor. I was sentenced to probation, but my probation officer seized my computer, where he found underage pornography. I was sentenced to 151 months in federal prison.

While in state prison, I earned my GED diploma. Now I’m a 30-year-old college senior in a medium-security federal prison, set to graduate after studying business and law via correspondence education through Adams State University.

I work with a group called Middle Street Publishing. In prison, we have no internet access, but we’re pretty innovative and good at problem solving. Through phone calls, postal mail and CorrLinks [a stripped-down, monitored email service], we are able to accomplish a lot. It’s all about figuring out how to overcome obstacles. My biggest problem is obtaining research. I use Google Alerts to help keep me in the loop, but they have to be printed out and mailed to me.

Prison officials don’t like when we talk about how life is in here. This very phone call is being monitored by the Special Investigation Supervisor’s Department, the same one that monitors drug dealers, dirty guards and, evidently, prison journalists. At a certain point of visibility, the Federal Bureau of Prisons starts to take offense. I believe I’m now beyond that point.

Several years ago, my law partner, Sangye Rinchen, and I were trying to force the Bureau to treat transgender inmates with prevailing community standards of care. Steven Arnold was the legal name of one of the inmates we were advocating for, though she went by Ashley Jean Arnold. She really needed treatment, such as hormone replacement therapy and other kinds of feminizing therapies approved by the leading transgender health and treatment authorities. FCI Petersburg didn’t want to provide it. They even threw her in the hole once, for possession of female undergarments. On Feb. 24, 2015, Ashley hung herself from her prison bunk. We were in the middle of a federal lawsuit that sought to force the Bureau of Prisons to treat her gender identity disorder.

Sangye, who was also transgender, was later diagnosed with ALS. We retained an attorney, wrote a few articles about her situation and were eventually able to get her home to Boston, to live out her last days on compassionate release. She died in June, surrounded by family and friends.

I think that what defines us are our greatest highs and lows. In prison, there’s certainly a lot of both.

It’s unfortunate that it took a lengthy prison sentence for me to grow up. I feel bad for what I did back in high school. It’s something that I’m ashamed of. Back then, I was battling some demons — a drinking problem, substance issues and just plain old immature ways. In the last decade, the education I’ve obtained while in prison and the treatment programs I’ve completed have helped me grow into a reformed man, even if it did cost me my 20s.

Everyone thinks a felon can’t be a lawyer. But why not? Once I’ve paid my debt to society and become a reformed man? In January, when I earn my bachelor’s degree from Adams State University, I will be admitted to ASU’s MBA program. Many think this is impossible. But I ask: Why not have the audacity to try? Why not have the gall to dream of a future beyond prison walls?

Comment

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.