Michael G. Santos: Working with the system that incarcerated me

150 150 Mchael G. Santons

When I surrendered to the San Francisco halfway house, on August 13, 2012, I carried a suitcase, a duffel bag, and a hygiene bag.  As I wrote in previous posts, my wife Carole and I had been planning on my return to society for months.  We were allowed to visit on weekends, and we spent several hours each visiting day going over the things that she could purchase for me so that when I began my life in society, I would have everything ready.  She packed the suitcase carefully, providing all I would need to begin living as a law-abiding, contributing citizen.  

Although many administrators within the prison system obstructed efforts I made to prepare for release, I understood that I had a responsibility to overcome all obstacles.  That responsibility became clear to me in 1996, when I was approaching the completion of my first decade in prison.  Hofstra University awarded my master’s degree in 1995, and with Professor George Cole’s assistance, I was admitted into a program at The University of Connecticut that would lead to a Ph.D. in political science.  After the completion of my first term at U. Conn., however, the warden of the prison where I was confined ruled that my studies presented a security threat to the institution.  His decision put an end to my formal studies.

At that point, I realized that regardless of what efforts I made to reconcile with society from within prison boundaries, the system that held me would never look beyond the bad decisions of my early 20s.  Despite having no history of violence, weapons, or previous incarceration, the criminal decisions I made to traffic in cocaine led to a lengthy prison term.  As far as the system was concerned, nothing else would matter besides the turning of calendar pages and the avoidance of disciplinary infractions.  That realization led to an acceptance that I would serve my sentence in its entirety.  Rather than dwelling on the negativity and complications of confinement, I had to tune out the noise and figure out steps I could take to prepare myself for release.

Laws under which I was convicted conditioned me to expect that I would serve a quarter century inside.  Okay, I could do that.  That was the reality I had to embrace.  But what complications would I face upon release?  I had to think about them, anticipate them.  Employers would not give a hoot about claims I could make about being a model inmate.  Who cared about that?  My sentence meant that I would return to society in my late 40s.  If I did not make changes, I knew that I would return without a work history, without financial resources, without clothes, without  a vehicle, and without much in the way of support.  In order to emerge strong and independently, I knew that I would need a plan to guide me through the remaining 16 years I was scheduled to serve.

It was at that point that I began to focus on the challenges I would face upon release.  I did not want to return to society as a burden to my family or friends.  The bad decisions I made during my youth had caused them enough heartache and I sensed a responsibility to prepare in meaningful, measurable ways for the challenges that I knew would come.  If I didn’t prepare myself, I recognized, the real struggle would come after my release from prison.  I would have to accept the first job that came my way.  It likely would be a low-paying, dead-end job that would keep me locked in the cycle of failure like so many others who emerged from prison.

Through my graduate studies I learned from interviews I conducted with hundreds of recidivists.  They told me about how they had tried to work after they were released, but that the only jobs they could find did not pay a sufficient income to cover their expenses.  Financial pressures led them to revert to criminal activity.  I focused on a strategy that would lessen the likelihood of my encountering such struggles upon release.

I began to estimate what it would cost to return to society as a strong and independent citizen.  I came up with a budget, recognizing that the more financial resources I could create, the greater cushion I would have.  With anticipated costs for clothing, a vehicle, housing, and incidental expenses, I estimated that I would need $15,000 at a minimum.  With the minimal opportunities to earn an income in prison, the obstacles standing in the way of building such a savings account seemed insurmountable.  If I wanted to prepare for my return to society in a meaningful way, I would have to create opportunities to earn financial resources from beyond prison boundaries.  Through writing, I was able to do so, and those resources made a huge difference in easing my adjustment. 


Mchael G. Santons

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