When Americans think of prison censorship, images of prison guards throwing away letters come to mind. So too do images of books and publications like Prison legal News being rejected for being a “threat to the good order, orderly operation, and security of the institution,” which covers about any number of theoretical penological objectives. And for serious prison writers, such as myself, images of retaliatory incident reports, delayed or destroyed mail, ever-constant shakedowns, complete monitoring, and prison transfers come to mind. All of these images are true at times. Prison censorship in America is alive and well.
My Personal Experience with Prison Censorship
As someone who regularly writes for online and print publications from the confines of my prison cell, I am no stranger to censorship or retaliation for my writings. Usually there is a trend. When I write about vanilla stories, nothing much occurs. When I write about Federal Bureau of Prisons officials — even worse, when I write about prison officials here at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg — I can expect some harassment. This usually takes the form of the above-mentioned censorship. But when I write books, I inevitably receive a few incident reports for writings surrounding the promotion of books, not to mention manuscripts becoming “lost” in the mail. Needless to say, my publishers now send all manuscripts via certified mail so we can track them.
The long of the short of my experiences with prison censorship is that I’ve had my fair share. I’ve collected some 7 incident reports, 5 months in the hole, several years of lost privileges like telephone and email (of which I’m still on), and the seizure of 10 copies of my own books, all as a result of retaliation for my writing efforts. The pattern is clear. After I receive a few meritless incident reports, my attorneys — Alan Ellis, Todd Bussert, Jeff Fogel and Steven Rosenfield — come in and fight the FBOP until they leave me alone. Of the last 7 incident reports, 3 have been expunged upon appeal, and of the other 4, which we are currently appealing, there have so far been 4 initial hearings, 1 partial expungement, and 4 ordered remands for rehearings. It’s a dance, one that is designed on one side to dissuade me from writing and on the other side to enable me to write.
To this point in my career as an incarcerated writer, I have only been afraid a few times. I’m rather stubborn, after all. The first was when they locked me in solitary in 2012. The second was when my unit team artificially inflated my custody and classification points and attempted to transfer me to a maximum security federal prison from my current medium (the attorneys stopped it). And the final time is now, as I share the story of Ashley Jean Arnold.
Ashley Jean Arnold
For the past few years, I have worked hard to help a transgender inmate named Ashley Jean Arnold. Along with another prison litigator (whom I won’t name here due to the threat of retaliation), we have pushed the FBOP and, in particular, FCI Petersburg to provide Ashley, and her transgender sisters here, meaningful treatment for their gender dysphoria. The process has not been an easy one. It has included filing grievances, a state lawsuit, and a federal lawsuit (Arnold v. Wilson, EDVA 1:13cv900). Over the years we had a few successes, but almost all tempered by either severe delays in care or failures.
During this process, Ashley was subjected to harassment and retaliation not by inmates, which would be expected, but by prison officials. They lodged 4 incident reports against her (3 of which were obviously retaliatory and 1 of those was administratively thrown out), locked her in the hole for a month, took several privileges for months on end, fired her from her job, and filed false treatment notes in her Psychology Department file. These were the tangibles. The intangibles include gender-based harassment from virtually all levels of the administration. She reported harassment on the part of the FCI Petersburg Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Compliance Officer, a unit manager, a case manager coordinator, drug treatment specialist, and a treatment specialist. These are in addition to the “regular” harassment by line cops. It was ugly, and when we filed administrative remedies concerning this abuse, they were largely ignored by prison officials.
Ashley’s Suicide; My Call to Action
While I worked hard on Ashley’s case, it wasn’t until Tuesday, February 24, 2015, that I decided to pull out all the stops. This was the day that she hung herself in her prison cell, the day that the calculus changed. From that point on, and as I told a senior prison official shortly after her death, I was going to hold each and every one of Ashley’s abusers accountable for their actions. They killed my friend, what more could they possibly do to me? Well, as it turns out, a lot, at least mentally.
As the war machine heated up, I, along with several others, started to pump out articles, letters to our representatives, attorneys, fellow activists and friends, and even a Department of Justice complaint. Prison administrators at FCI Petersburg were not amused. They quickly administratively cut off email for Sangye Rinchen, Ashley’s best friend and fellow transgender prisoner. They followed this with an incident report and within 24 hours, a quick disciplinary hearing which found Ms. Rinchen guilty and sanctioned her to 90 days loss of email. The meaning was clear: write about Ashley and we’re coming for you.
The issue is that Ashley’s supporters, including me, are alleging hefty misconduct on the part of FCI Petersburg prison officials, some of which might constitute criminal activity. Needless to say, prison officials aren’t pleased with this narrative getting out. It would be more convenient to simply silence those who are trying to expose the manifest injustice in Ashley’s plight. This is exactly what they are trying to do. I have personally been told by a lieutenant that we are not permitted to tell anyone outside of the prison about Ashley Arnold’s suicide. Another prison official told a friend that the word from on high was that anyone who speaks with the media will be issued an incident report. The battle lines have been drawn.
Waiting for the Gestapo to Arrive
Those of us who knew Ashley best refuse to back down and capitulate to these illegal and unconstitutional tactics and demands. To do so would be to allow Ashley’s abusers to win. That would soil her legacy. That we are not willing to do.
For me, I’m going to keep on writing and advocating until it is literally impossible for me to continue. These days that means when my hand gives out from writing, but the day is coming when they will snap my pen, shred my pages, and throw me in some dark hole to serve my final 3 years in custody. That is a cost that I’m willing to pay.
Last night at around 11:00 pm three prison guards came to my cell. They unlocked my door and escorted me into the unit team offices area. As we walked I wondered when the cuffs would go on, and if this was the fabled beating for those who dare to speak out. The whole time I was waiting to be pulled into a tile cell and stomped for my offenses. It never happened. After leaving the Lieutenant’s Office, the story was they grabbed the wrong guy. But then again, perhaps it was really a dry run, a sign of things to come.
(Published by blackandpink.org; used by permission)
Note: Christopher Zoukis can be reached for comment, interview, or supporting documentation at: Christopher Zoukis (#22132-058), FCI Petersburg, P.O. Box 1000, Petersburg, VA 23804