While in prison, Michael Santos reconciles with society

150 150 Michael G. Santos

Michael Santos sits in his the living of his wife Carole’s house

Today is Friday, October 5, 2012.  It’s been roughly seven weeks since federal prison officials in Atwater authorized my release to a San Francisco halfway house after 9,135 consecutive days of confinement.  

Contrary to what many people would expect, I’ve been blessed with numerous opportunities that opened with my return to society. In my initial blog posting, I provided some insight into my background and the bad decisions that led to my serving a quarter century in prison. Now I’d like to reveal more about my initial adjustment to prison and describe how that experience influenced my return to society.

After my conviction, prayer and readings in philosophy convinced me that I would have to make changes. I had never been confined before, nor did I have a history of weapons or violence.  Still, I understood that the nature of my conviction would require at least one decade in prison.  

The writings of Socrates, Rousseau, Aristotle, and other great thinkers influenced my thoughts during those many months while I was in jail and awaiting sentencing. I realized that I had a duty to reconcile with society though I didn’t fully understand what steps I could take to do so.

Thinking about taxpayers and the cost of my incarceration, I wondered what I could accomplish during my imprisonment to earn the respect of my fellow citizens. Those thoughts brought forth a plan, convincing me that if I were to follow a three-part strategy, in time, people would see me as something more than a coke dealer.

To earn the respect of others, I made a commitment to following a principled adjustment pattern:

  1. Work toward educating myself.
  2. Make measurable contributions to society.
  3. Build a support network that would have a vested interest in helping me succeed upon my release.

On the day of my sentencing, I made a declaration to the court. Although I expected to serve a lengthy prison term, I would use all of my time to work toward becoming a better person who understood his responsibility to atone. The judge had likely heard such words many times before. He imposed a sentence of 45 years.

Soon thereafter, Federal Marshals transported me far away from my family’s home in Seattle. I began serving my term inside the high-security United States Penitentiary in Atlanta.  While there, I made a commitment to focus on the first of my three-part adjustment plan.  

Although I had been a mediocre high school student, I was determined to earn a university degree while imprisoned. Research led me to a correspondence program at Ohio University. Then, professors from Mercer University began teaching courses inside the penitentiary’s foreboding and seemingly impenetrable 40-foot walls.  In June of 1992, Mercer University awarded my undergraduate degree.  I then enrolled in a graduate program at Hofstra University, and in 1995, Hofstra awarded my master’s degree.

My graduate studies focused on America’s prison system and the people it holds. Through that course of study, I found numerous mentors from the academic community.  I developed  correspondence and friendships with many scholars, including Norval Morris, John DiIulio, George Cole, Todd Clear, Francis Cullen, and many others who worked tirelessly to improve  our nation’s prisons.  Those relationships broadened my understanding of the criminal justice system. They gave me hope that if I were to learn more, I could emerge from prison and contribute to their work.

In the late 1990s, the advancement of the Internet opened new opportunities.  I began writing about what I was learning from others in the prison community. Specifically, I wanted to share what I was learning about prisoner adjustment patterns and their expectations upon release.  Those writings led to publishing opportunities, first with articles, then book chapters, then with books that described my observations and experiences as a long-term prisoner. The work brought meaning to my life, helping me to believe that despite the decades I was serving, I was living a life of relevance inside prison boundaries.

Those published writings brought Carole into my life.  We had grown up together in North Seattle, but I had no contact with her since we graduated high school together in 1982. After coming across my writings, Carole wrote me a letter. That letter led to a correspondence, and that correspondence led to a romance. We married in a prison visiting room during the summer of 2003. I was scheduled to serve another decade in prison, but Carole agreed to serve that term alongside me as my loving wife, helping me in every way.

Earnings that my writing generated from prison supported Carole. They allowed her to return to school. While I served my final decade, Carole studied biology, chemistry, microbiology, and numerous other subjects that led to her earning a nursing degree while simultaneously visiting me at every opportunity, and doing everything possible to both nurture our marriage and the career I aspired to build.  She is now a registered nurse, preparing herself to return to school again to earn a master’s degree as a clinical nurse leader. 

This posting represents an abbreviated summary of my 25-year odyssey through prison. Future blog entries will describe events that led to my release and observations I’ve had while moving through these first weeks of quasi-liberty.  I look forward to sharing more, and I invite readers to ask any questions they may have.   I strive to live transparently, eager to help others understand more about the complexities of confinement as well as the challenges of reentry.


Michael G. Santos

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