Reading Prison: My 8,344th Day—A typical day in an ongoing journey. Section 1 helps readers a deliberate adjustment strategy.
Section 1: Opening
Any person going into the prison system should set both long- and short-term goals. We need context to set those goals.
I’m Michael Santos, founder of Prison Professors. When I was 20, back in 1985, I began trafficking cocaine. The crimes I committed led to a 45-year prison sentence. I started serving that term after authorities arrested me on August 11, 1987.
When DEA agents took me into custody, I didn’t know anything about serving time. I made bad decisions at the start of the journey. I knew that I was guilty. Yet instead of learning steps, I could take to redeem myself, I pleaded not guilty. I went to trial. I perjured myself on the stand.
Those bad decisions influenced the lengthy sentence I served. In my book, Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, I offer that entire story. Readers can access the digital version of that book from our website at PrisonProfessors.com, or they may order a paperback from Amazon.
In Earning Freedom, readers get insight into what it takes to make it through a long sentence.
I wrote the present book as a companion to Earning Freedom. Let me tell you about the book that inspired me to write.
While in my 23rd year of confinement, I read a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In his book, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he wrote about a fictitious person who served a 10-year sentence in Siberia. That book inspired me to write Prison: My 8,344th Day—A typical day in an ongoing journey.
During my 23rd year, I wrote the original manuscript by hand. I remember finding quiet places in the prison where I could concentrate on writing back in 2010. For motivation, I thought about how I could use my time as a launching pad for the career I would build upon release.
I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons on August 12, 2013, after 9,500 days of confinement.
As I’m making this recording, we’re in the spring of 2022. I’m recording in both audio and video to help as many people as possible. I hope that justice-impacted people will find value in this message that shows the discipline necessary to climb productively through a typical day in prison.
After each section, I’ll ask some open-ended questions. I hope to prompt readers or listeners to create a systematic, deliberate plan to guide them back to success.
Readers or listeners can send responses or comments to the following address:
32565 Golden Lantern Street
Dana Point, CA 92629
Email: [email protected]
Subject line: Reader Response
We receive thousands of letters, so I may not have time to respond personally. Members of our team would welcome an opportunity to publish your responses on our website at PrisonProfessors.com.
Now, I’ll read from the original manuscript, adjusting with commentary as necessary.
Prison! My 8,344th Day
Government statistics show that our nation confines more than 2.3 million people on any given day. To pay the costs of America’s prison system (both state and federal), lawmakers deploy $75-billion of taxpayer funds every year, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Those funds originate from the same limited resources that must pay for our nation’s education system, health care system, and social services.
Consequently, as prison budgets expand, resources dwindle for college students, healthcare providers, and all types of social services. Despite the massive expenditures to maintain America’s prison system, relatively few taxpayers understand what society receives in exchange. Lobbyists who represent the prison system (including the unions and businesses that benefit from this government expenditure) strive to control the message.
Some lobbyists argue for increasing prison budgets and they work aggressively to fight any prison reform. They like to predict chaos, claiming lawlessness would result from reforms that might allow for shorter terms and earlier release. Some do not espouse the maxims that ‘truth can never originate from lies’ or that ‘a nation confident in its judicial system should not shy away from mercy.’
I am a prisoner who does not expect relief from the sentence my judge imposed in 1987 when I was 23 and convicted of selling cocaine. Since then, I’ve worked consistently to reconcile with society, earn freedom, and prepare for triumph over the obstacles I expect to encounter upon release.
I strive to contribute by writing to open a window into America’s prison system. The more transparency placed on this growing subculture behind bars, the better-equipped taxpayers become at making informed decisions. With more insight, taxpayers may more effectively evaluate the policies governing long-term imprisonment and whether those policies serve the best interests of America’s enlightened society.
As those who support and generously sponsor my work to bring this book to press, in August of 2010, I have more than 23 total years of imprisonment behind me. In the pages that follow, I describe a typical day at this stage.
My life differs from what others might expect of a long-term prisoner. Many blessings enrich me, and I live without bitterness, anger, or hatred. I feel well prepared to emerge from prison unscathed. The resources and support network I’ve worked hard to build will allow me to enjoy the remainder of my life as a law-abiding, contributing citizen.
Simple cost analysis reveals that my long-term imprisonment has been expensive. The Bureau of Prisons has a 2010 budget of $6.1 billion. In dividing that number by the approximately 210,000 people confined in federal prison, I arrive at an annual “per-prisoner” cost of $29,000. Some simple math illustrates that taxpayers have (thus far) spent $647,000 to confine me. Authorities scheduled me to serve 1,155 more days. I will conclude my sentence on August 12, 2013. The additional cost to taxpayers totals $91,707—a grand of $738,707 for my 26 years of confinement.
Lobbyists argue that America needs more rather than less spending on its prison system. I would counter that argument. I point out that tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders serve sentences far too long and do more harm to society than good. Those sentences render individuals less likely to function upon release than when they began, as high recidivism rates make clear.
Further, newspapers now report problems of inter-generational recidivism. The children of prisoners join them behind bars. Although prison may be necessary for measurable doses, it isn’t a panacea, and too much of it brings diminishing returns.
After completing my eighth year, I stood as ready for release as I would ever be. By then, I had earned an undergraduate degree from Mercer University and a graduate degree from Hofstra University. My confinement had already cost taxpayers $232,000—$506,707 less than what taxpayers will ultimately spend to keep me, just one man, in prison. The cost savings would have gone a long way toward funding programs for more worthy causes than warehousing humanity.
To provide fellow citizens with a window into a typical day of one long-term prisoner, I offer a description of my 8,344th Day, June 14, 2010.
Michael G. Santos
Approximately 12 years have passed since I wrote that preface. Now let’s read about the typical day.
Prison! My 8,344th Day
It’s still dark in the housing unit when my eyes open. I press the button on my Timex Ironman watch and see that I’ve overslept. It’s 1:34 in the morning on Monday, June 14, 2010, my 8,344th Day in prison.
I prefer to wake in time to begin my work as soon as the two guards pass by for the 1:00 a.m. census count. I’m 30 minutes late. But I’m well-rested, and I sit up.
My neck hurts. This prison bunk bed consists of a thin mattress over two steel slabs that four steel posts support. I sleep on the top rack. At 46, it’s no surprise that I have some skeletal quirks like neck and shoulder aches—I’ve been sleeping on steel racks like this for 8,344 nights. I pull my earplugs out while twisting my torso and bending my neck from side to side to loosen up.
David, my cellmate, breathes deeply on the rack beneath me, and I hear much louder snoring from the 125 other men who share this dorm-style housing unit. One advantage of beginning my day at this early hour is the illusion of privacy it creates.
I have two institution-issue knit blankets, but they’re lightweight and offer little warmth. I sleep in gray sweats, a gray thermal shirt, socks, and a wool beanie that I pull over my eyes to block the light from exit signs and floor lights that burn non-stop. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to sleep in total darkness.
After folding my two white blankets, I place them at the head of the rack and drop my pillow on top. Then I slide my legs over the edge and climb down. The plastic chair beside the bed each afternoon, before I sleep, breaks my drop to the bare concrete floor. I slide into foam shower shoes and place the chair in front of my metal locker.
The locker holds all the personal belongings that I’m allowed to possess. It stands about five feet tall and, with yellowish enamel paint, it resembles every other prison locker I’ve used. I keep it organized, intending to maximize the space. The top left compartment holds toiletries, and the area below contains food items from my weekly commissary purchase. Bags of dried beans and rice stacked ten packages high line the back wall. In front of those packages are 10 to 15 vacuum-sealed packs of tuna, and a bag of sliced wheat bread sits beside the tuna. The compartment below holds plastic bottles of hot sauce, seasonings, fiber, almonds, coffee, and vitamins that I frequently forget to take. I keep my sweats, running gear, khaki pants, and underwear in the area to the right. And the long compartment at the bottom holds my stacks of paper, books, and sneakers.
While sitting in front of my locker with both doors open, I grab my plastic cup and brace it between my knees as I pull a plastic jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee from the second compartment on the left, unscrew the red lid, and drop a two-spoon dosage of adrenaline into my cup.
After quietly replacing the jar in the locker, I grab my writing gear: a black vinyl notebook, white typing paper, an assortment of mail that I’ve received (but not yet answered), a dictionary, and my Day-Timer planner. I take another cup that holds my toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, and several blue Bic ballpoint pens.
With the writing gear under my arm, the cup of coffee, and the cup of hygiene supplies gripped in my hand, I stand and grasp the knit mesh bag that holds my laundry. I leave my cubicle and walk quietly toward the laundry room.
I drop my load of clothes into the washer, turn on the cycle, then walk out toward the quiet room where I spend hours writing every day.
The guard on the graveyard shift nods at me, but we don’t speak. I pass him every morning at roughly the same time. He sits at his station, a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and a shadow of whiskers darkening his face. From what I can see, he’s flipping through a tabloid.
I enter the quiet room, close the wooden door behind me, and then set my books on the round Formica-topped table. Except for the sound of forced air blowing through the HVAC system in the ceiling, the room is silent. With a stated occupancy limit of 14, it’s about the size of a small bedroom in a moderate house.
I sit in a plastic chair (one of the two assigned to the cubicle that I leave here) at the table; each leg has a yellow tennis ball positioned on the bottom, so it slides quietly over the concrete floor. One of the white, concrete-block walls has two large, narrow windows that overlook the central compound of Taft Camp.
Each window is about eight feet tall by four feet wide, beginning at knee level and extending to the ceiling. Although it’s dark outside, I can see the glow of institutional lights in the distance. This early morning hour is my favorite time of the day, and I cherish every minute of solitude.
My ritual is the same every morning: I open my day-timer planner to record the hour and minute my eyes opened, then I spread out my papers. On the inside of my black notebook, I keep a picture of Carole, my wife. I look forward to the time when we can live together. We married in a prison visiting room, back in 2003.
The guard picks up mail at 3:00 a.m., so I use the early morning to write something that I’ll mail or resume work on my current project. Soon, I will write Carole a brief letter. But first, I stand, grab my two plastic cups and walk to the community bathroom to brush my teeth.
Each side of the bathroom has five sinks. A stainless-steel surface serves as a mirror in front of the sinks. I use the sink toward the back of the room because it has the mirror with the fewest scratches, providing the best reflection. Still, the reflection looks about as good as I would expect to see if I were to look into a skillet. By now, I’m used to these kinds of prison mirrors.
Before leaving the bathroom, I fill my coffee cup with hot water from the spigot.
Commentary and Questions:
This opening section describes how I would start a typical day. Notice that it’s methodical, with a clear plan on what I want to accomplish.
- Describe the adjustment strategy that you’re using.
- In what ways does your routine prepare you for success?
- How would journaling influence your adjustment in prison?
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