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 8,344th Day—Section 5 

Michael Santos

Michael Santos

The harder we work, the luckier we become. Section 5 of Prison! My 8,344th Day shows a strategy to build strength through the adversity of imprisonment.

Prison: My 8,344th Day—Section 5—Creating Luck

I finish writing blog number 919 and stand to look out the window. The sun shines brilliantly in the clear, blue sky. It’s going to be another spectacular, with temperatures eventually reaching between 85 and 90 degrees. I thank God for allowing me to serve this portion of my sentence in such an easygoing environment.

I’ve always seen the good in the prisons that held me. That probably sounds somewhat delusional to outsiders, but by living a goal-centered adjustment I made progress wherever administrators assigned me.

When I meet prison staff for the first time, they sometimes tell me that I’m lucky. Multiple decades in prison didn’t harden me to the point where I wouldn’t fit in with society. I see the adjustment differently. To me, luck sounds serendipitous. I’ve learned that by working hard, we can create luck.

As I wrote about in Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison term, while confined in a higher security prison, I worked hard to persuade universities to admit me—even though I didn’t have any financial resources. After earning a degree, I persuaded a graduate school to admit me. While in Fort Dix, I leveraged that education to create business opportunities. While in minimum-security camps, more opportunities opened.

As wise people have often written, the harder we work, the luckier we get. During these past three years that I’ve been in the Taft Camp, I’ve made excellent use of the laid-back atmosphere. Experience has taught me that it’s not the prison that makes a person’s time productive. The grass is greenest wherever a person waters it. A good prison adjustment begins with a good attitude.

I intend to create my own luck regardless of where administrators send me.

******

The guard who works the day shift hasn’t arrived yet, so the housing-unit door is still locked. I’m impatient, eager to begin exercising. Beyond the door of this quiet room, a crowd of prisoners stand by chatting. Everyone is waiting for a guard to unlock the door. Most of the men will walk to the chow hall for breakfast. I’ve been awake and working for longer than four hours, and I still haven’t spoken to anyone. The quiet space gives me time to think, which I appreciate.

Someone left the New York Times from Sunday, May 23rd on the table. Although three weeks have passed since the publication date, the paper is new to me. I flip through the pages and pull out the magazine section, where I find an article by Emily Bazelon about California’s three-strikes sentencing law. She is a writer and scholar from the law school at Yale University. I begin reading her story. Before I finish reading, I see the day-shift officer walking toward the housing unit.

It’s 5:57, and time to go exercise.

I tear the article from the magazine and put it in a stack with my other writing materials that I organize in a pile on the table. I’m confident no one will disturb my books and papers while I exercise, so I don’t mind leaving things unattended. In the right pocket of my running shorts, I have a set of orange earplugs. I pull them out, roll each between my thumb and index finger, and insert one into each ear. I’m ready to go.

Immediately, when I open the door to leave the quiet room, I join scores of other prisoners walking out. The chow hall will serve scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and a sausage patty this morning. Breakfast never interests me. I don’t like to exercise with more than the early-morning slice of bread in my stomach.

I descend the stairs of my housing unit, then turn right toward the track, weaving my way through the men who converse while they walk.

*******

When I reach the track, the air already feels warm. In this community near Bakersfield, we have more than 300 days of sunshine every year. Although temperatures rise into the triple digits on some days during the summer months, it’s always pleasant before 9:00 a.m.

I pull off my tank top, fold it around my ID card and set it on the steel bleachers in front of the basketball court. In this camp I’m free to run without a shirt, and I am grateful for this privilege. Some prisons are more strict, requiring us to wear shirts, even when we’re exercising. Before transferring to Taft Camp I hadn’t been allowed to exercise without a shirt since 1995, when I was in the Federal Correctional Institution at McKean, in Pennsylvania.

About 17 other regular, early morning exercisers are in the recreation area with me. They’re jamming to music that blasts through their headphones or talking among themselves. I still have not said one word aloud since opening my eyes at 1:34 this morning.

The oval track in this prison has a much bigger perimeter than the typical quarter-mile track at most high schools. It’s not well-maintained, with slopes and ruts, and fist-sized rocks protruding through the surface in various places. Although I’ve never tripped over the rocks, I’ve seen others who have, so I’m conscious of every step.

I look forward to exercising because it’s one of the clearly defined ways that I gauge progress. Since making the commitment to run every day back in December 2008, I’ve changed the goal a few times. First, I was striving to reach 500 miles. That became 1,000 miles. Then 5,000 miles. Now I’m striving to exercise every day until my release.

As I take my first steps this morning, I am at 4,877 miles. If I run 65 miles this week and next week, I anticipate that I’ll reach 5,000 miles in about two weeks. That distance is a significant milestone for me. I calculate the distance as being halfway to 10,000 miles, and by the time I reach 10,000 miles I should be home—or within striking distance of release.

Clear goals have empowered me through these years. I was still in the county jail when I came up with a clear plan that would guide my adjustment. At the time I couldn’t contemplate what it would mean to serve 26 years in prison. I hadn’t been alive that long. It seemed too far away. I remember setting goals that I wanted to hit during the first ten years. I wanted to earn a university degree, persuade a publisher to bring my writing to market, and persuade ten people to join my support network.

Once I set those specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, time-bound goals, I empowered myself. Either I would succeed, or I would fail. The prison couldn’t stop me. That strategy meant that I wasn’t serving time. Instead, I pursued something that felt meaningful to me. It put me on a pathway to build confidence. I’ve used goals to guide my decisions throughout the journey. While running, I think about the goals I’ll set going forward.

Gravel crunches under my feet, but my earplugs muffle the sound. Although I prefer to run without the earplugs, as I round the first turn and come upon Jerome, I remember why I need them. Jerome runs several times each week. He runs with Pete and they either argue about sports or sing while they run. As I approach them this morning, I hear music blasting from their headphones. Both Jerome and Pete sing, hollering the lyrics.

My bright orange earplugs serve another purpose besides muffling noise. The fluorescent color contrasts with my short black hair and white cotton headband. People easily recognize the unmistakable sign that I’m not looking for small talk while I exercise. Running is my time to appreciate nature, the blessings of life. As my body slices through the light morning breeze I don’t feel like a prisoner at all.

Fences don’t enclose us at Taft Camp. A few hundred acres of sagebrush and tall grass separates us from the real world. People who are so inclined could dash for the highway to my right and reach it in about ten minutes.

But what would be the point of running away?

Although every person makes his or her own decisions, I would never want to live as a fugitive, with law enforcement pursuing me for the rest of my life.

When I transferred from Fort Dix to Florence, Colorado, the first minimum-security camp for me, I had ten more years to serve before release. Even then, I felt no inclination to escape. While I confined at the camp in Lompoc, I had a job in the prison’s powerhouse. The job required that I drive in an unescorted car on a public highway every night at midnight. Other people said they would leave if they could. I didn’t have any intention of escaping. Strangely, I feel more freedom in here as I’m running around this track than I could ever feel as a fugitive.

******

More people have joined me on the track now. They walk in pairs, conversing or listening to music through headphones. I weave my way around them. The track circles a soccer field, a softball field, tennis courts and a basketball court. I intend to run 10 miles, as I do every day except Friday, when I run between three and five miles.

On Friday’s I visit with Carole. The thought of those visiting days carry me through.

While I’m out here running, I think about the life Carole and I will lead when my sentence ends. That thought stays on my mind throughout every day. We’re not young. I’m reminded of how my body has aged each time I press the lap counter on my Ironman watch. The scope of my exercise routine has changed over the years.

During my 20s, I lifted weights, always striving to increase my strength and size. I began incorporating running into my routine during my 30s. Although I continued training for strength during my 40s, running became my primary exercise.

As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed that my muscles take longer to recuperate, and my running pace has slowed considerably. I don’t mind at all.

No one at Taft camp pounds out more miles each week, but several prisoners run faster than I like to run. I never accept invitations to run in competitions. When others try to run beside me, I change directions; I’m not trying to be rude, but this is my time for planning, for thinking, for reflecting.

This morning I’m calculating how much Carole and I will have to earn each year to prepare ourselves for a comfortable retirement. I expected to have more money in savings by this stage of my imprisonment.

The lawyer who represented me during my criminal trial successfully relieved me of all the ill-gotten gains I earned from selling cocaine. Although I didn’t have any financial resources after the sentencing hearing, I created numerous income opportunities while serving the sentence.

At the start of my sentence, other people advised me on how to serve time. Their advice didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I didn’t want to be a prisoner. I wanted to become successful after my release. Since I knew what I wanted, I started to think about what I should learn while I served the sentence. I decided to invest my time on personal-development projects. I wanted to learn how to communicate effectively. That meant I needed to develop better verbal skills, and better writing skills. By building a more robust vocabulary, I could improve my reading comprehension. With better reading skills, I could improve my critical-thinking skills.

Pursuing those goals made all the difference. They allowed me to create opportunities regardless of where administrators kept me. From writing, I earned an income. That income allowed me to begin building financial resources. By reading about financial markets, I had good fortune investing in the stock market, earning money, and losing money.

Since Carole came into my life, I had a bigger sense of urgency. Writing projects I created from inside of prison boundaries generated more than $200,000 in after-tax income for our family. That wouldn’t sound like much in the real world, where income opportunities abound. But I’ve never come across another prisoner who generated as much income through self-generated work projects while serving a lengthy prison term.

Learning to write made all the difference. That skill helped me to earn resources that would support my wife. We used those resources to cover Carole’s living expenses while she advanced through nursing school. We’ve built our life together, and any time prison administrators moved me from one prison to another, she uprooted her life to join me so we could take advantage of every visiting opportunity.

As I make loops around the track, I press the lap counter on my watch, but I’m not paying attention to interval times. Instead, I’m absorbed with these mental calculations.

By the end of this year, when Carole graduates, I expect that we will have between $30,000 and $40,000 in savings. By the end of this year, Carole will have her credentials to work as a registered nurse. That means she won’t have to rely upon earnings we accumulate through my writing and publishing projects. By the end of 2011, I anticipate that we’ll have $100,000 in savings.

With $100,000, we’ll have sufficient savings to start our life together when I get out. We’ll be 48 when I expect to transfer to a halfway house. We won’t own a home, nor will we have a retirement plan.

How much will we have to earn each year to prepare for retirement?

That question consumes my concentration this morning as it frequently does.

Once I finish my prison sentence I do not want to suffer from financial stress. Carole and I must live beneath our means with a total commitment to building stability. As an RN, she should earn at least $60,000 a year. While I’m in the halfway house, I expect that I will earn at least as much as Carole earns.

Will $120,000 in income be sufficient for us to build stability or a retirement plan?

By the time we reach our 60s, I hope that we’ll have enough financial resources to enjoy my life with Carole. But I don’t have any realistic notion of how much we’ll need.

With $120,000 in income, I estimate that we’ll pay about $40,000 in taxes, leaving us with $80,000. From that, we may spend another $40,000 each year to meet living expenses, leaving us with only $40,000 to invest in a retirement plan.

At 60, we will only have deposited $400,000 into that plan. The more I calculate, the more I realize how little $400,000 will provide. It won’t be sufficient to generate a fixed income stream to support us through our advancing years. As I complete lap after lap, I accept that I will need to work hard and generate an income well into my 70s, perhaps even into my 80s.

Those kinds of thoughts give me reason to exercise. I’ve got to do what I can to stay healthy. I’ve read news stories about obesity being an epidemic throughout America. To reach my fullest potential, I’ve got to stay healthy.

Questions:

  • In what ways have you worked to create luck?
  • What strategies have worked well for you to stay productive?
  • What thoughts do you have about earning potential upon release?

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