Life in a maximum security prison

Michael Santos, US, spent a decade in a maximum security facility. Gang violence was part of the routine. Administrators blocked his ambitions to study. Today Michael has been released and works to change the American prison system.

Michael was arrested on August 11, 1987, aged 23. He was charged and convicted for drug related crimes committed between the ages of 21 and 23. The sentence was for 45 years but he was released after 26. Today he wants to change the laws to help prisoners adapt to life outside the walls. In this interview, he shares his experiences from inside an American maximum security facility and the administrative obstacles prisoners are faced with.

Read an Interview: You were sentenced to 45 years for selling cocaine. Did you agree with the sentence at the time?

Michael Santos: It’s true that a judge sentenced me to serve a 45-year sentence. But the crimes were for more than simply “selling cocaine”. There were no allegations of violence or weapons in my case, but I was charged and convicted of leading an “organization” that distributed cocaine. That charge exposed me to a more severe penalty.

Of course at the time, I didn’t agree with it. After all, I had never been confined before and my crime did not include violence. Since all participants were consenting adults, I perceived the sentence as being inconsistent with a pursuit of justice.

Michael holding a speech at UC Berkeley, 2013,
Michael holding a speech at UC Berkeley, 2013,

RAI: Do you agree with the sentence now?

MS: No. I don’t characterize the sentence as being consistent with my perceptions of justice. When we consider justice, from my perspective, we should consider what we’re striving to achieve. Imposing sentences of multiple decades on nonviolent offenders doesn’t serve the interests of society.

Statistics show that the longer we expose an individual to “corrections”, the less likely that individual becomes to live as a law-abiding citizen. When I make such statements, people sometimes say that the lengthy prison term worked out fine for me. I emerged from prison as a well-educated man with many opportunities awaiting me.

Yet my case is an aberration, and I wouldn’t attribute my adjustment in prison to any emphasis on the part of prison administrators to prepare me for success. On the contrary, I met considerable resistance from the administrative system of corrections.

RAI: We’ll get back to that resistance later on. What would have been a fair sentence in your opinion?

MS: I don’t know how to answer that. From my perspective, we cannot answer that question at the outset of a sentence. When a person starts a prison term, there is no indication of how well he is going to adjust while inside.

RAI: So instead sentences should be changed with time?

MS: Let me illustrate with an example. Take Steve and Tom. Both men were convicted of identical offenses. Both men have the same criminal background. Both men received 10-year sentences at the start of the journey. Steve spent every day of his sentence watching television and playing cards. He didn’t care about anything other than serving his sentence so he could return to society. When he returned to society, he had the same type of value system that he had when he started his sentence. Consequently, upon his return to society, he reverted to the same behavior as prior to his term. After another crime, authorities arrested Steve again and he returned to prison.

“I met considerable resistance from the administrative system.”

Tom, on the other hand, wanted to reconcile with society. The day he started serving his sentence, Tom began to educate himself. He earned numerous degrees and developed numerous skills. While in confinement, he seized every opportunity to contribute to the community in prison and outside of prison. He built a strong support network that had a vested interest in helping him succeed upon release. Tom emerged from prison to become a fully functioning, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen.

The judge who sentenced both Steve and Tom didn’t know how either man would adjust when he imposed the 10-year sentence. Yet the judge would like more people he sentenced to prison to adjust like Tom. The judge would like people in prison to prepare for success, as law-abiding citizens. Yet at the outset, he cannot tell how a man will adjust over 10 years.

In my case, a fair sentence may have been whatever the judge imposed. By the time that I had served eight years, when I had earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree, I was as ready as I would ever be to live as a law-abiding citizen. Yet no mechanism existed to reassess whether continued imprisonment served the best interest of society. Consequently, I served another 16 years. That system doesn’t strike me as being particularly beneficial to society. It’s one reason that prisons extinguish hope, a reason why few people who emerge from prison after lengthy terms can function in society effectively.

RAI: But who would be in a position to decide when a prisoner is ready to be released? Imagine the protests from people affected by the crime committed…

MS: In a better system, taxpayers or citizens would be qualified to determine this. They could use their discretion to determine whether continued incarceration would be the best use of taxpayer resources. They could determine efforts an individual has made to reconcile with society and atone for bad decisions that brought him or her to prison. Also, judges should have that discretion. In our current federal system, that discretion does not exist.

With regard to the second part of your question, in my case, the government stated that victims were not a part of my crime. The people involved were only consenting adults on a nonviolent drug crime. That said, if there were victims, they too should have a seat at the table in determining whether continued incarceration would be appropriate. My thoughts are that our system would be better off if it incentivized people in prison to work toward earning freedom, rather than maintaining a system that only measured justice through the turning of calendar pages.
Michael with wife Carol while still imprisoned in 2011.
Michael with wife Carole while still imprisoned in 2011. The couple married 10 years before Michael’s release.

RAI: You write on your website that you spent time in prisons of all security levels. What levels would that include, and how do they differ?

MS: I began serving my sentence in a high-security penitentiary, the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. Forty-foot tall walls of concrete surrounded it. Administrators governed the prison with many rules and regulations that restricted liberty for all of the people inside. The prison confined individuals who served long sentences and who had histories of violence or escape. I didn’t have a history of violence or escape, but my sentence was of a sufficient length that administrators thought it wise to confine me in a high security prison.

I served the first seven years of my sentence inside that environment, during which time I had to walk through many puddles of blood. Then administrators transferred me to a medium-security prison. Restrictions were lighter. We had more opportunities to spend outside of our cell. There were more opportunities to visit. There was less violence.

After a couple of years in medium-security, administrators transferred me to a low-security prison. In low-security, the population was very different. I found higher levels of education. There were far fewer acts of violence. Acts of violence were more isolated and individual rather than organized with groups. Prison gangs were less present inside the low-security prison, too.

Instead of living in cells, we were confined in open dormitories. I served my final decade in minimum-security camps. Time inside differed in remarkable ways from secure prisons.

Prisons operate different security levels for economic reasons. Higher security levels have a much higher guard-to-inmate ratio, which influences costs in a major way. To confine a prisoner in minimum security may cost less than $20,000 per year, while confining a prisoner in a maximum-security penitentiary can cost north of $75,000 per year.

RAI: While in prison, what’s the worst thing you’ve experienced?

MS: The prison system frequently blocked me from progress. After earning an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree, I persuaded a university to admit me into a doctoral program. When a warden blocked me from completing that program, I felt violated. Pursuit of academic credentials had been an integral component of my adjustment plan. When the warden blocked me from the possibility of earning a terminal degree, I felt the gravity of my predicament.

Then I contested his decision through administrative remedy. Administrators responded to my pleading by uprooting my life. They transferred me across state lines to another institution. Those were difficult times for me. But I found my way, transitioning from student to writer. As I achieved a modicum of success as an author, authorities would respond by confining me in solitary or transferring me to other prisons. They blocked me from seeing my wife.

“The first time that I was alone with my wife, after ten years of marriage, was the day she picked me up from prison.”

RAI: You said earlier that you had to “walk through many puddles of blood”. Did you mean that literally?

MS: Violence was a regular part of the penitentiary. Staff members assigned a work detail that was the “blood cleanup crew”. For a long period of time, a week never passed without violence that brought bloodshed at the United States penitentiary where I began serving my sentence. When serving 26 years in prison, walking through blood becomes a part of the journey.

RAI: You’ve already mentioned your studies twice and that you aimed toward a successful life after your release. What motivated you?

MS: I still remember with vivid clarity what motivated me to change. I had been convicted but I wasn’t yet sentenced. The charges in my case exposed me to the possibility of a life sentence. I prayed for guidance. Those prayers led me to a philosophy book. In that philosophy book I read the story of Socrates. He was in jail, awaiting his execution. When I read how Socrates responded to that punishment, I remember putting the book down on my chest. I stared at the ceiling of the jail cell. Then I made a commitment. I was going to serve every day of my sentence working to reconcile with society for the bad decisions of my youth.

I set a goal of emerging from prison as a contributing citizen. Regardless of how hard I would have to work, or how many obstacles administrators would erect, I made a commitment to emerge successfully.

“I remember putting the book down on my chest. I stared at the ceiling of the jail cell. Then I made a commitment. I was going to serve every day of my sentence working to reconcile with society for the bad decisions of my youth.”

By thinking about what law-abiding citizens would expect of me, I came up with a three-part strategy. The strategy would require that I work to educate myself, to contribute in meaningful ways, and to build a support network.

The plan also required that I write to universities and find opportunities to educate myself. With that vision I found the energy and discipline necessary to drive me through the days, weeks, months, years, and decades that I served.

Michael receiving his undergraduate degree.
Michael receiving his undergraduate degree.

RAI: So when you got out… what was the first thing you did?

MS: I’m very fortunate to have found the love of my life while I was incarcerated. Carole and I married inside of a prison visiting room. We nurtured our marriage through the final decade that I served, but we were never together more than visiting hours would allow. We were never able to hold each other, to kiss for longer than a few seconds, or to experience physical intimacy. The first time that I was alone with my wife, after ten years of marriage, was the day she picked me up from prison.

It was a wonderful experience to be in the car with the woman I loved. On my instructions, she had a pizza waiting for me in the car and I ate while she drove. Eating that pizza and being together with my wife, alone in a car for the first time, was an incredible joy for me. I’ve appreciated every day of my liberty since.

RAI: How did you meet her in prison?

MS: I actually met Carole in the fifth grade. We attended school together, but she had the good sense to stay away from a guy like me. We were not friends. While I was incarcerated I wrote and published extensively. Someone who had read one of my early books was doing some research on me. He discovered that Shorecrest high school was hosting a 20-year reunion for the class of 1982. The guy wrote an email and inquired if it was the same Shorecrest that Michael Santos attended.

Carole was coordinating the reunion and she responded, asking why he was interested. The guy told her about a book I had authored and he said he was a fan. That email exchange prompted Carole to write me a letter about the reunion. Her letter led to a correspondence. Then a romance. We fell in love and she married in a federal prison’s visiting room, on June 24, 2003. I had more than a decade of prison ahead of me, but we cultivated a rich and meaningful relationship.

RAI: That’s an incredible love story. Once you were released and with your wife, did you keep pursuing writing? What career opportunities did you have?

MS: I had many, many career opportunities. Not only did I have academic credentials from great universities, I had skills. I was a published author. I wrote numerous books. Those publications exposed me to a wide support network.

I had three employment opportunities waiting for me. Further, I had an extensive list of sponsors who pledged to assist me. I reported to a job and that job gave me liberty to work toward building a more meaningful career. I’ve been working seven days a week since.

Michael and Carol got married in the prison visitor's room.
Michael and Carole got married in the prison visitor’s room.

RAI: What do you do today? Would you call yourself successful?

MS: I’m director of communications for a global property developer. But my passion remains to work toward improving outcomes of our nation’s prison system. I work to write programs and lesson plans that teach others how to navigate the criminal justice system successfully, and I do a lot of public speaking on the subject. The 26 years that I served as a prisoner gives me a different perception or definition of success than many people have.

I would never call myself “successful” because that would imply the journey is over. In reality, success is a pursuit, a daily commitment. Every day I work to succeed in accordance with the values that define my life and the goals that I set. I’m happily married and I’m employed, but I must work very hard to continue achieving goals that I set.

RAI: But your journey through prison is over. You succeeded with your three-stage plan. Surely that would allow you to call yourself successful, wouldn’t it?

MS: It’s true that I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons. But I’m not yet free. I remain on a term called “special parole” and it’s my understanding that I’ll remain in this status until 2035 or so.

There have been costs that have come with serving 26 years. I don’t know how to relax in ways that other people take for granted. I’m obsessed with preparing for my future, as if it hasn’t yet arrived. My focus remains on building more financial stability. I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons on August 12, 2013, but I have yet to have a sip of alcohol — not that I’m missing it. I just can’t allow myself to live like a normal adult. Those who know me say that I’m not yet adjusted to the world — and they’re right.

RAI: Will you ever be?

MS: Perhaps another few years will give me a deeper sense of being a part of the community. For now, I focus on building my career.

Michael and Carole Santos, 2014.
Michael and Carole Santos, 2014.

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One thought on “Life in a maximum security prison

  1. Tremendous read, fantastic journey that is now going to be a happy one. You both are inspired with your goals, I commend you 100%. I love you both, Mom

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