Charged Up! podcast: The cost of debt in prison
Episode 24 with author, federal prison inmate Chris Zoukis
By Jenny Hoff | Published: June 14, 2017
Christopher Zoukis has been in jail for 12 years, since he was 18 years old. Since then, he's earned his high school diploma, an undergraduate degree and is currently working on his MBA, in addition to writing several books on prison life including his latest, "The Federal Prison Handbook." In this episode, Chris talks about the prison economy: the loan sharks you'll meet behind bars, what happens to you if you can't pay your debts, the currency prisoners come up with and the most important lessons life behind bars teaches you about finance in the real world.
Let's get Charged Up! about learning financial lessons only prison can teach you.
Transcript: (Interview is split into two parts due to prison rules of only 15 minutes per phone call).
Operator: This call is from Chris Zoukis, an inmate at a federal prison. This call is being recorded and is subject to monitoring. Hang up to decline the call, or to accept, dial 5 now. [beep] If you wish to block any--
Chris Zoukis: Miss Hoff?
Jenny Hoff: Yes, hi, Christopher. How are you?
Zoukis: I’m good. How are you doing?
Hoff: I’m good. Thank you so much for calling me. I think this will be an interesting conversation.
Zoukis: Thank you for having me.
Hoff: You have a pretty incredible story. You've been in jail, I believe, since you were a teenager, essentially, and yet you've written books, you've gotten your degree, you've worked as a prisoner advocate. Can you tell me a little about what motivated you, knowing you were going to spend 12 years behind bars to do all this? What do you hope comes from your work?
Zoukis: You know, I think as with many other prisoners, you have to look out to know what the future holds: what happens on Day 1 of my release? A lot of us think about that, and for me, coming to prison when I was a senior in high school, I really didn’t have a lot to look forward to. I don’t have any real work experience or history. If I left prison kind of situated to where I was when I first came to prison, I really have nothing to try to build a life from, so it was a number of years ago but I finally kind of came to the realization that if I want to make something of my life and not be a failure, I needed to start building and I did that, primarily through retribution.
Hoff: That’s amazing because I feel like a lot of people who are not in prison feel sometimes strangled, like there’s no options, they don’t know what to do to make their lives better and yet—
Operator: Calling from a federal prison.
Hoff: And then you were in not ideal circumstances and yet you have created a future for yourself and an education, and I want to talk a little bit about that. Now, I read your book. I thought it was fascinating to learn about so many different aspects of prison that you don’t expect as somebody who’s never been there and I’ve never even confronted it, things that I wasn’t aware of at all and I’d love to talk about so much of it, but since this is a financial podcast, I’m going to focus on financial issues. Obviously, prison affects millions of families in America, friends and family members of people who are incarcerated, and so I do want to talk about that financial impact that it has on the people who are outside once their family member or loved one goes to prison. I also want to talk about financial lessons that you've learned since being in prison. As you mentioned, you had really almost no experience in the working world when you went in, and yet you've gotten a business degree, etc. I’m sure you've learned a lot of lessons, even from the prison economy. So I want to try to cover both of those issues, but first, let’s talk a little bit about the financial impact going to prison has for the family left behind.
Zoukis: It really can be devastating. Particularly if it’s the primary breadwinner going to prison. I think that when people get charged with a crime, whether it be a state crime or a federal crime, their life gets put on hold, and a lot of the money that they would have used for other things, their family, their children, their future has to go into the defense. While at the state level, there can be some mitigation, let’s say, with company and counsel, you'll come out scared but maybe not so badly. At the federal level, virtually everyone loses, so you have people who put up all the money that they have to hire a private attorney. They go to prison anyway, and then not only are they left with nothing but their families or loved ones. I wrote an article for the [0:05:26] a couple of weeks ago, but their mission really struck me. I’m in prison but my parent are here with me. They suffer. They’re held hostage because of my actions, and not that’s not just emotionally. I mean, I [0:05:38] a breadwinner but I think for a lot of families, that’s not actually true. If you're loved one’s in prison, yes, you now have to take care of not only whoever’s left behind but also them in prison. Quite devastating.
Hoff: Absolutely. Are there ways the families can cope with this kind of financial impact, when it comes, obviously, there’s lawyer fees, there’s child care fees, there’s traveling fees if the prison’s far away. There’s, perhaps, therapy fees, there’s loss of income. Have you heard from other prisoners or just gleaned from your experience there, how families can really cope with this financial burden?
Zoukis: You know I think you can liken this situation to having a drug addict or an alcoholic in the family. There’s really no cure, per se. There’s only really coping, so I think the primary way I’ve seen people cope in those situations is through support groups. People can sit around, they can talk about their problems, but there’s no clear cut solution to alleviating the issue. You have to wait your loved ones out of prison. Obviously, prison doesn’t make people better people, but hopefully, someone who’s not going to do the same types of things they did that led them to prison in the first place.
Zoukis: So unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good answers. Not a lot of support agencies out there that visibly try to help prisoners’ families. This is kind of silenced [0:06:54].
Hoff: Wow, yes, and it impacts so many people. I want to talk to you also a little bit about the prison economy which I found fascinating in your book. It’s really dealing with minute amounts of money, right? Small amounts of money. You're talking about dollar stamps and that kind of stuff which we wouldn't even consider, that’s money you spend on a coffee out, yet it could be the whole life blood of people in prison. Let’s talk a little bit about the prison economy which really operates as a mini-economy, and what you've learned from being inside of there about finances and business in general.
Zoukis: Prisoners are an interesting group. Now this is a soft thing, so to speak. Outside of prison, you would consider thousands of dollars, a significant sum of money. In here, tens of dollars or a hundred dollars is a very large amount of money. For example, from my prisoner work detail, I make $5.25 a month. That’s all the prison gives me, and they don’t--they’ll give you other things, like you got soap, you got a little two-inch toothbrush, you got a small tube of fresh mint toothpaste, but they don’t see you fit to give us things like shampoo, we don’t get any of that. If you want a nice bar of, say, Dove soap or Irish Spring soap, that comes out of your pocket. If you want coffee, that comes out of your pocket. So wages that I receive from my prison job, I can buy three bags of coffee beans or I could buy three bars of soap a month. If it wasn’t for my family’s support, I could never buy much of anything. I couldn't even buy a pair of reading glasses because those are $6 and that’s more than I make, but I think at, looking at the prison economy, it really shows you that regardless of where you're at, people find ways to make ends meet. You even have interesting kind of business models in prison. You have loan sharks, you have an authorized store that has special markups, and in prison, you don’t have access to currency, so you have to create your own currency. So many federal prisons use postage stamps. They have dollar stamps which are worth a dollar, or you have foil packets of mackerel which also equate to a dollar. So you’ll literally see someone carrying around packets of mackerel to buy something.
Hoff: So it’s those basic fundamentals of really how an economy works, and it’s really bartering what you have to get something for what you want and hoping to strike a deal somewhere along the way.
Zoukis: And there’s also a service-based economy, so when you think of barter, I do a lot of—I don’t personally partake in this, but I do a lot of free legal work. For other people though, if they are a lawyers, they’ll do legal work in exchange for something else that they require. For example, they might say, “Well, I’ll handle your appeal for you if you will go make a bag for me or if you'll go carry my laundry up to the laundry every morning.” Yes, there’s lots of bartering of services too.
Hoff: Wow, and so I want to transition this because I also want people who don’t have any connection to prison system to get something out of this, and I think that there’s a lot of nuggets that we can learn, and on one side is side hustle, which is kind of the big phrase, the buzz phrase going around right now. People are picking up side jobs to supplement their income, pay down credit card bills, etc. So there’s two things I want to talk about because I also love the credit system and the advice you give against racking up credit with your fellow prisoners, but I also want to talk about side gigs. What did you learn about so called side gigs and hidden talents that we may have to really make extra money if we need to?
Zoukis: I think that everyone has a talent. I just—
Operator: This call is from a federal prison.
Zoukis: Sorry, it does that sometimes. I think everyone has a talent, but figuring out what talent can be monetized, so in prison, it’s what people do: They make food, tons of food, they make all sorts of things and they sell it, like wraps, they create like burritos, basically, and walk around and sell those. The other day I saw there’s a cheesecake, cheesecake. I mean, they make cheesecakes out of non-dairy creamer and Snickers bars and other things. It’s amazing, like slushies, you have all sorts of things, but I think it’s all about what can you do? What is your passion that someone else will appreciate? A good equivalent on the street are mosaics. I’m not very artistically inclined, so I see mosaics as if someone breaks things and glues them back together. Well, there is certainly a market for mosaics. My mother loves them, so I think you should get to liken that. What can you do that is worth something to other people? And everyone has a talent or a skill that they can sell. Especially, in the digital economy where everyone is interconnected.
Hoff: You show that more than everybody. You are the most productive person I’ve seen out there. Your book is not a 50-page, 100-page little manual, it’s a very thick, big, dense book. You even include a lot of information. You got your degree, and I think you're working or Master’s degree. You wrote another book, you write blog posts all the time - what did you learn about productivity especially when you're in a place where you're never alone? You really never have peace in the sense that there’s always probably somebody making noise around you, whatever. What did you learn about focus and productivity, and really putting your mind to accomplishing something and ignoring all the noise around you in your life?
Zoukis: This is probably an unhealthy lesson to teach people because I’m a workaholic, but it’s all about how much pain you're willing to put yourself through. So if you're willing to sit there and just do whatever needs to be done to see the project complete, you can get a lot done. Now, in business school, we talked about competitive advantages. One thing people don’t realize about prisoners are that we have a lot of time, so I don’t have to cook my meals. In fact, I don’t even have a way to cook my meals. I don’t have to go grocery shopping, I don’t have any kids, I don’t have to pick them up from school. All I have to do is whatever projects that I choose to do, so really what I like to do is, because I’m very ADHD, I have a hard time focusing, so I wait until they lock the cells at night and then I just work throughout the night when it’s nice and quiet, there’s no distractions. It’s quite a set-up. I have my desk and I have these two little battery-powered book lights that I turn on so I don’t bother my cellee while he’s trying to sleep. But then that teaches, if there is a will, there is a way.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely. I definitely also want to go back to what I talked about with the credit system, so we work at creditcards.com, we give a lot of advice about avoiding racking up credit and getting interest charges and loan sharks like that, and you kind of went into that there’s loan sharks there, but I found it fascinating in your book that you really are giving credit advice to people - avoid doing this so you don’t, I mean, the repercussion could be even much more than just you get a bunch of debt collectors calling you, obviously, in prison if you're not paying back. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Zoukis: Sure. In fact, I just saw yesterday, there was a guy in our housing unit who ran up much bills, so they kept him in. That means they basically threatened him and made him go to the housing for protective custody. In prison, when you have a lot of people after you over money, things can turn violent or you might have to go to the hole for a while so you can get your family to send you enough money so you can pay off your bills. It can be very, very dangerous.
Do you want me to call you back at 12?
Hoff: Absolutely, yes. I’ll be waiting for it. Thank you.
Zoukis: Okay, [0:13:56].
Operator: This call is from Chris Zoukis. To accept, dial 5 now. If you wish to [beep] block any—
Zoukis: Miss Hoff?
Hoff: Hi, Chris, thanks again for giving me a call back. That discussion was very fascinating and I look forward to more of it. So I want to talk about the credit business of prison because obviously, this is something that we deal with a lot, and we get a lot of people who are fearful of debt collectors and they develop habits of continually racking up debt, yet there are different repercussions in prison when you rack up debt, so talk a little bit about how this debt economy works, how it’s even functioning, how people are keeping ledgers about what you owe, what kind of interest is charged and what happens if you are unable to pay your debt.
Zoukis: Sure, I think outside of prison, obviously, there’s the common issues with debt. You have debt collectors calling, you're getting conferences, you have liens placed upon your property. Well, in prison, things are a bit more, I don’t want to say serious, but the threat of violence is much more severe and acute. So first of all, the way they tally these types of things, those prisoners engage in the underground economy to some extent. It could be as simple as buying a soda off a guy who keeps sodas cold, so you pay some level of markup, so a common cost would be $0.50 for a cold soda or $1 for two cold sodas. Whereas in the commissary, they would actually go and purchase 12 packs of soda for $4.40 each, so they get some amount of markup. They put up prison stores, so you have an official commissary that sells products, but then you have people on housing units that also sell store items. There is no cash on hand, so they’ll take stamps or mackerels or what have you, or they’ll do credit. Either way that they do those, there’ll be a markup built into the price of whatever the product is, so in terms of keeping tabs of credit, let’s say, they’ll have a ledger of some sort where they’ll mark down people’s name or symbols from different people and then they’ll tally up all of their different purchases and then they’ll give them a list on store day for them to go buy items to pay back the list. In terms of collection, I think in an ideal economy, everyone knows what they’re getting into. If I go and buy a car or the sticker price or whatever I negotiated to be the actual price.
I think in person, people tend to have more impulse control problems, so what you'll find is you'll have people who are not very good at managing their money, who will go and will open lines of credit, basically with numerous store men or loan sharks, and that’s when they really get in trouble because if there things are on the up and up, so to speak, it’s fairly simple to understand what you owe, but if you get yourself into a cycle of debt, things can get tricky because creditors in prison tend to say, “Okay, you didn’t pay me on this payday.” When the prison pays you for your work detail, “So I’m charging you a special interest rate,” man, in the last year, that tough of a guy, I think things could become problematic. You can get overloaded in debt in interest rates, basically, that you have no way of controlling and there’s really no one you can go to to stop such predatory loan practices.
Hoff: And you even say in your book that people request solitary confinement when they find themselves in these situations, correct?
Zoukis: They do. They go to the SHU [Solitary Housing Unit], they stay in there until they can either negotiate some type of settlement agreement, so they do that through various means, but they’ll basically try to talk to the loan originator’s people, so to speak, and try to negotiate, “Well, let me come out and I’ll do this payment plan,” or if they have family that are supportive, they’ll stay in the SHU until they get enough money on their account to come out and pay it off.
Hoff: And when I talk about how to pay it off, because one thing I’m kind of confused by is there’s only so much money that you can accumulate in prison, and if you are racking up debt and you're making $5 a month in your work detail, how do you pay it back? And you talk about in the book that’s it’s really illegal to have money transferred into the debtor’s account, yet that is an option that people use, either through their family or through the family of the debtor. Can you talk about that?
Zoukis: Sure, so first of all, prisoner rules. At least the rules of federal prison are that inmates cannot give or receive anything of value amongst fellow prisoners, so if I see a friend who needs a stamp, I can’t give it to him. With that being said, it’s largely understood that there’s underground economy, so they come up with ways to pay this off. Most prisoners don’t spend, I mean you can spend up to $360 a month in the commissary. There are a few prisoners who actually spend that because they don’t have the kind of money, but if they were to receive money from their family, they could go and buy that amount of commissary and then pay off a debt.
Operator: This call is from a federal prison.
Zoukis: Or every prisoner has a trust fund account where their family puts money on their account for them to use on telephones or the email system, or commissary, so you could have someone put money on your store man’s account. People do that. In the book, I strongly recommend against it because that just causes problems. It’s too easy for prison officials to understand what people are doing, so it just increases risk significantly.
Hoff: And you were mentioning the book, if then that debtor uses that money for something that’s illegal, at least in the prison life, you could be responsible and your family could be responsible.
Zoukis: Absolutely, let’s say that you're paying your store man for Little Debbie’s products, now they don’t have Twinkies here. We have like Swiss rolls and other kinds of cupcakes and things, but if you buy four items from your store man, if they’re going out and they’re going and doing illegal things, it can be very easy to get yourself linked into a conspirac. I think with any lawyer it’s just a terror situation because it’s so easy to catch cases like those.
Hoff: Right, and then you don’t get out on good behavior.
Zoukis: Exactly, but I mean, you can even get new street charges out of it. I think though, if you're coming from the prisoner administrator’s perspective, where is money compiled? Or who has control? It’s down largely due to the prison gang culture. So you have people who sell drugs, you have people who do gambling, those are really the primary sources for financial transactions in prisons. So if you need stamps, who do you go to? Well, you go to the guy who sells drugs or the guy who runs the ticket. So I mean, virtually everything is interconnected and it’s virtually impossible to not have dealings with people who are doing nefarious things, that’s why I do not have any kind of financial connections with other inmates because that can just cause tons of problems that are unforeseeable.
Hoff: And why are mackerel and stamps the currency of choice?
Zoukis: [laughing] Well, since you can’t have actual currency, it’s something small that you can pass along. Stamps are very small, they have a face value, much like dollars too. Mackerel’s the same kind of concept. They’re only $1 on commissary, so they’re an easy denomination to conduct business with.
Hoff: And what do they do with this, people just eat the mackerel and use the stamps? Or you'll always find people wanting to purchase these things?
Zoukis: It depends on what prison you're at. Here they’re more of a stamp economy. At the place next door, it’s more of a mackerel-based economy, but they’ll literally have people who have lockers full of mackerels, so you don’t ever actually eat this things. The can are beat up, they’ve been—just like prison stamps, they’ve been passed around for a decade now, you can hardly read what’s on them, but people just save them because whatever we decide is currency is currency. You can see that in history, certain shells used to be currency. Now it’s packaged mackerel and postage stamp.
Hoff: I guess, yes, we use paper dollars, right? You can’t eat those, you can’t do anything with those but it’s on the faith that you can then use those to barter for something else. So I want to ask you then, what would you say are the three top financial lessons that you’ve learned in prison that you will take out with you once you leave prison which I believe is in September of 2018, correct?
Zoukis: Oh, I’ll be transferred to a halfway house early next year in Charleston, South Carolina.
Hoff: Congratulations. Okay, what were the financial lessons that you have learned from the prison economy that we could all leave and use in our everyday lives that you will take with you in the outside world?
Zoukis: I think the primary one is rather unsurprising: Be a man or a woman of your word. In prison, your word is what it’s about. If you’re known as a liar, if you're known as an informant, if you're known as someone who doesn’t uphold their debts and obligations, you have nothing, no one trusts you, there is no respect. So, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in prison is, be a man of your word.
I think in terms of finances, you got to learn to live within your means. If you don’t, in prison as in the real world, things can spiral out of control, there’s no good way to stop it. The train is moving, you're just going to get run over, it just depends on how you're going to get run over. On the streets, you’re going to lose your house, you're going to lose your car. In here, you might pay with your health.
I think also it’s interesting to see that if there’s a will, there’s a way, so sometimes you can feel that you're underwater, but there is a solution. You just have to find the solution, and the solution is always never to ignore the problem. It seems that when people ignore financial problems in here, like on the street, I think that things just compound, they get worse, your debt increases. Your loan terms just get atrocious, so I think that if you can be a person of your word, if you can live within your means, I mean, you cannot ignore problems, you can try to find solutions for them, you’d be a lot better off.
Hoff: Absolutely, great tips. You're a very inspirational individual. I really suggest people go look you up and read your book. Even I have nothing to do with prison, but I read it in preparation for this interview and I’m glad I did because I learned a lot about how it goes on in there and really help people who are affected, and it affects millions of people in America. I want to ask you, what do you plan to do? You have been in prison for 12 years, your entire 20’s, what will you do when you get out? What are your plans for the future and how will your history potentially hold you back?
Zoukis: Yes, I think my history is the hardest part. It’s not my drive or what I show as my ability because I’m dedicated, I am ready to do whatever it takes to get out there and succeed, to leave this kind of life behind for good, but I think that a lot of doors are closed. It’s no longer based on merit anymore for people who’ve been in trouble before. It’s based on a bias and then if you can overcome that bias with merit, and I think in some cases, you probably can’t. That’s just the way our world works. But my hope is that, well, back up, back in January, I earned my Bachelor’s degree and it’s in business administration and legal studies. Back in February of this year, I actually sat for the law school admissions, so I took my oath to that.
Operator: This call is from a federal prison.
Zoukis: Hardest stuff I ever took, I studied for maybe six months, logic games are just a nightmare, but I did well. I got, actually, 94 percentile, so it’s pretty -
Zoukis: Thank you, so now I am working on my MBA, I’m trying to finish it up right before I get out. I’ll probably actually earn my MBA along in the halfway house, so when I get out, my hope is first to kind of reconnect with my family then kind of figure out how to live again because things are just so different out there than they are in here. I think some of that is about learning how to deal with people because the way you deal with people here is very different than the way you do with people out there, but after that, when I get my head on straight, I hope to go to law school. I don't know exactly what law school I’ll get into. I have good GPA, good scores, but then again, I’m a felon and people don’t really like felons. But I’m sure there is a law school out there that will have me. I just got to find it.
Hoff: You know, Chris, I have no doubt that you will exactly what you want to do when you get out and I think you learned the greatest lesson in prison, and that is, stay out of trouble, stay out of prison, and put all of that enormous focus and energy that humans are capable of into doing productive and amazing things. Thank you so much for this conversation. It was fascinating.
Zoukis: Thank you for having me.
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