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 8,344th Day—Section 10 

Michael Santos

Michael Santos

In Prison: My 8,344th Day—Section 10, I show how mentoring others in jail or prison can help us restore a sense of strength and dignity. When we help others, we simultaneously help ourselves.

Prison! My 8,344th Day: Mentoring

I stand, letting Bali know it’s time for us to return to our cubicles for the 10:30 census count. We go through census counts several times each day, and I’m used to them. I straighten my papers on the table in the quiet room and walk toward the back of the building. 

Scores of other people gather around the dormitory’s lobby. While waiting for officers to enter the housing unit, some men discuss the NBA playoffs, some watch television, and others make last-minute phone calls. The noise before census counts can feel deafening. People stand around conversing, and their voices bounce off the concrete shell of the building. 

Regretting I don’t have earplugs, I weave through the crowd to walk past the bathroom towards my cubicle, avoiding conversation.

When I turn into my cubicle, I see David. He has washed the empty cereal bowl I left in my locker, and he stands drying it on the steel surface beside his locker. It’s a poor design for a desk, but the metal slab does have some practical purpose in the small space we share.

“You didn’t have to wash the bowl, jefe.” I always address David as jefe, which translates to boss in Spanish.

“They’re serving chicken nuggets for lunch,” he warns. “I know you hate that meal. Should I cook something for us to eat?”

We share a smaller cubicle than the closet of a walk-in closet. We’ve learned to understand each other’s habits and routines in the tiny space. Our living arrangement works well because we both help each other in the ways we’re able. Several times each week, David cooks meals for us, using the food from my locker.

“What do you want to eat?” he asks.

“It doesn’t matter. Whatever you want me to make,” I tell him. “You’re the jefe. You decide.”

With the limited items in the commissary, we don’t have much selection. “I can make beans, rice, vegetables, and tuna,” David suggests.

“We never go wrong with that. Let’s do it.”

When I say, “Let’s do it,” we both know that David does all the work. He grabs the food from my locker and then sets himself up at the desk to start preparations. 

It’s 10:22. I sit in the plastic chair in front of my locker, propping my feet on the steel bedpost to my left as I lean back. Taft has many advantages compared to many prisons that have held me over the past 23 years. 

Besides the lower levels of volatility that come with being in minimum-security, the prison has one of the best commissary selections. It’s not much, but the store does sell fruit and vegetables. In other prisons, we rarely saw onions, peppers, or tomatoes. At Taft, a person with financial resources can buy vegetables every week. They bring more flavor to the dry goods and canned foods we purchase from the commissary.

While David works quietly cutting vegetables, I flip through pages of my news magazines, trying to keep abreast of world events. I contemplate the challenges I’ll face when I get out.

Every day, I read articles that describe high unemployment rates. This news provides evidence that I would be foolish to ignore. With 16 million Americans looking for work, I wouldn’t expect employers to hire me. Employers routinely conduct criminal background checks on prospective new hires. When they see that I served a quarter-century in prison, I anticipate that employers will choose a different candidate. Besides my imprisonment, I don’t have any work history. I will continue working to create income out of the experiences I’ve lived.

The earnings I make from ghostwriting books for other people in prison have helped me support Carole. Those earnings have helped put her through nursing school—the economic laws of supply and demand open opportunities for a person with writing skills inside these boundaries. Once I get out, I anticipate the income opportunities from writing will become scarcer and more competitive. Ironically, I may have to take a pay cut when I get out of prison—at least until I establish the businesses I intend to build.

When I read about the health care industry, it’s the one sector providing job growth. I feel grateful that Carole and I invested our resources in her nursing education. I’m pleased that she graduates in six months. But that doesn’t diminish the urgency I feel. I’m always looking to create more income opportunities from inside these boundaries. The more I grow my savings, the more resources I’ll have to ease my transition from prison to life in the world.

Jefe,” I ask David, “have you spoken with your wife about going back to school?”

He turns around to face me. “She’s trying, but it’s not easy. Besides cleaning houses to earn money, she has to take care of our kids.”

“Keep encouraging her. She’s still very young. She can learn enough to pass the GED if she studies at home. Once she gets her high-school equivalency, she can take classes that might lead to nursing credentials. By the time you get out, she could be a nurse. The need for nurses continues to grow, and it will always provide jobs.”

“Why can’t I study to be a nurse?”

“You can do anything you want,” I encourage him. “But first, you must take advantage of the available classes here. Nursing classes aren’t available in prison. Some people say that a felony conviction can block a person from getting a license to become a registered nurse. I believe a person can always overcome obstacles. For now, keep studying the basic subjects. The more math and English you study, the more opportunities will open. That goes for you and your wife. Encourage her. Help her understand how much she could earn as a nurse and tell her about the financial aid available once she passes her GED.”

“I’m going to talk with her tonight.”

“Good.”

David resumes his concentration on cutting onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes with the plastic knife. I read on, ignoring all the noise in the housing unit. Most of the men assigned to the cubicles adjacent to ours keep the noise level down. With more than 100 people living in this dormitory, the unit vibrates with noisy chatter when we’re all in our cubicles waiting for the count.

I see that it’s 10:32 a.m. when the lights flicker on and off. From the front of the housing unit, I hear a guard yelling “count time” and calling for quiet. The unit becomes silent in an instant. I stand by my rack, continuing to read.

The census counts pass quickly. At Taft, administrators schedule officers to count us at 1:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. They require us to stand for the 10:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. count. During the other times, rules permit us to sit or lie on our racks. Occasionally, the guards change the routine by ordering an unscheduled count, but it’s not often.

At 10:37, the lights flicker on and off again. Simultaneously, officers yell from the front of the dormitory that the count has cleared. As I move from the side of my rack to sit in the plastic chair, the noise level cranks up again. Voices ricochet off the concrete and steel. Not everyone in prison appreciates silence as much as I do.

“I’m going to the microwave,” David tells me. “Are you going to be here or in the office?”

It’s not an office where I work, but since I’m always sitting in the room with papers and books open on the surface of the round table, people in the housing unit frequently refer to it as the office. We’re fortunate to have such a space. In other prisons, administrators would put steel bunk beds and lockers inside to hold more people.

I tell David that I’ll continue reading in the cubicle while he prepares our lunch.

******* 

Earlier in my prison term, I spent considerably more time reading than I read now. I would read between 50 and 70 books every year when I began. That averaged more than one book each week, in addition to reading assignments that my academic program required. I felt as if I were learning more and preparing more by reading extensively. Even if administrators didn’t offer classes, I could learn from the books I read.

Now that I’m moving through the final 10 percent of my imprisonment, I feel pressure to devote more of each day to writing. I reserve my reading time for the breaks during census counts or just before I go to sleep.

I know that our nation confines more than 2.3 million people by reading current events. Scholars tell us that America’s prison system costs taxpayers $75 billion to operate every year. Yet few Americans know what goes on inside of our prison system. In my view, our prison system perpetuates intergenerational cycles of failure. 

As recidivism rates show, the longer we expose a person to corrections, the less likely that person becomes to function in society. Collateral consequences follow for any person that serves time in prison. The more we know about America’s prison system, the more evidence we have to show that mass incarceration is one of the worst social injustices of our time.

Those who stand behind the prison ecosystem have a vested interest in continuing the charade of “corrections.” Through the books I write or articles I publish, I hope to shed more light on what goes on inside. People should know why long-term imprisonment obliterates hope for people and why I think our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration is a misguided public policy. 

In this era, voters and legislators focus on unemployment, the declining housing market, and the great recession. No one has an interest in prison reform. I write to help people understand prison and offer ideas for people serving time; they should learn the same lessons I’ve learned to prepare for success. 

We must live in the world as it exists and not as we want it to be. We need to expect obstacles, but we must work to succeed anyway. With discipline, commitment, and deliberate adjustment decisions, we can prepare to conquer the challenges of confinement.

******* 

David returns with a bowl of beans and a bowl of rice. The dormitory has quieted down somewhat because the officers unlocked the doors for the men to go to the chow hall. It sounds empty in here, like a hollow shell.

“I mixed the vegetables with the beans,” David tells me as he passes a bowl with rice on one side and beans on the other. “Add a pack of tuna, and you’ll be all set.”

“Thank you,” I tell him as I put down the newspaper. When I get home, I’ll look forward to epicurean treats. For now, this lunch that David served in my plastic bowl looks delicious.

“I’m going to the TV room.” David carries his bowl out. “When you finish, leave your bowl on the table. I’ll clean up when I get back.”

David and I are compatible and respectful of each other. I feel fortunate to have such a considerate person who shares the cubicle. After opening a package of tuna and mixing it in with the rice, I add a little hot sauce.

I eat with a plastic spoon while holding the bowl with my left hand. As I always do while sitting in front of my locker, I stare at the photograph of Carole. I taped her picture on the inside of my open locker door. 

We’ve never lived together, and we have so much to learn about each other. Those lessons will begin for us within two years—I think. 

Beneath her photograph, I taped a graph she made for me that she titled Calendar of Confinement. It shows all the months I’ve served, color-coded to indicate security levels and institutions. 

Carole has been along with me on this journey since early 2002. We have enjoyed more than eight years together. And yet we’ve never been together outside of a prison setting. 

When I walk out of these boundaries, we’ll experience everything together for the first time, and I feel so fortunate to have her love.

I don’t know where we’re going to live. After so many years in prison, I don’t feel I have roots anywhere. One of my sisters lives in Seattle, another sister lives in Miami, and my mother lives in Los Angeles. We’re thinking about making our home in California, but we don’t know where. 

As I work through 2010, I don’t know when administrators will let me out, and I don’t know what obstacles I’ll face. Instead of dwelling on the unknown, I focus on the different ways that I must prepare. In two years, I expect that life will change dramatically for both Carole and me. Thoughts about getting out—and beginning my life with her—stay on my mind while I savor each bite of the food that David prepared.

Questions:

  • In what ways are you helping other people in your community?
  • Describe the most influential book that you’ve read since you’ve been in prison?
  • In what ways will reading influence the book you described influence your prospects for success?

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