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 8,344th Day—Section 6 

Michael Santos

Michael Santos

While in prison, we make decisions every day that influence our prospects for inner peace or despair. In Section 6 of Prison! My 8,344th Day, I discuss the thoughts that carry me through morning exercise.

Prison: My 8,344th Day—Section 6—Inner Thoughts

When people I meet in prison get familiar with me, they ask questions or venture unsolicited opinions. Some say I’ve lived in prison for so long that I no longer understand the challenges, pressures, or complications of living in society. They say I won’t have time to exercise every day when I’m free. Work will take so much of my time that I won’t be able to dedicate hours each day to run. Others tell me that women I meet will tempt me, and my relationship with Carole won’t last.

They may be correct in saying that I no longer understand what it’s like to live in society. On the flip side, people I meet don’t know how time alone has influenced my character or commitment to making values-based, goal-oriented decisions.

I appreciate the time alone because it spares me from having to hear unsolicited opinions. It’s an insult to my character when anyone suggests that I’ll be unfaithful to Carole. Any conversation about pressures and temptations that will confront me in society lack perspective.

Society has changed since the judge sentenced me to prison, but so have I. No one can know the discipline, the values, and the commitment that has strengthened me for the past 23 years.

If I have exercised consistently through every week of my imprisonment, why would I abandon that commitment upon release?

If I have lived as an open book, announcing my values and goals at the start of each year, then recording my progress with an invitation for others to hold me accountable, why would I stop?

What sense would it make for me to switch from living completely transparently to living a life of deception and betrayal?

I understand that I will be transitioning from imprisonment to liberty, but why would I abandon the virtues that have brought meaning to my life through adversity?

When people advise on what I should expect when I return to society, I listen but don’t accept their wisdom or perspective without question. In many ways, it’s like the guidance I received when I first started to serve my sentence.

Frequently, people said the best way to serve time would be to forget about the world outside. I should focus on my reputation inside. Many belittled the decisions I made to focus on preparations for release. They pointed out that I had decades to serve and advised against immersing myself in education or other programs that would impose so much structure on my life. I was in prison, doing time, they told me.

Regardless of what I achieved, mechanisms didn’t exist for a person in federal prison to get out early. Other people didn’t understand my perspective. With good decisions, I could create freedom within myself. For that reason, their guidance didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to learn how to succeed in society, not live in prison.

To reach my highest potential, I would question everything. I would contemplate how I would resolve problems—not make decisions that could lead to more problems.

How will I earn a living?

What can I do while I serve my sentence to accelerate prospects for success when I get out?

Those kinds of questions guide the decisions I make. I may not control when I get out, but I can always control how I prepare for the challenges that I expect to face.

*******

Freedom, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean release from prison. Over the years, I’ve known many men who served shorter sentences than mine. They served their terms in the usual, meandering way. When they re-entered society, few opportunities opened. It wasn’t long before they reverted to crime. I met them again when they returned to prison. Their stories convince me that getting out does not necessarily mean freedom. With aspirations for a meaningful life, I focus on what I can do today to build the tomorrow I want to enjoy with Carole.

Decisions and commitments create the inner freedom that empowers me. It motivates me to begin my work before 2:00 every morning and inspires me to exercise every day. Regardless of weather conditions, body aches, or where administrators choose to confine me, I grow stronger from the commitment of being out here, doing what others say that I can’t do.

When I set clearly defined goals and then exceed them, I feel the prison isn’t blocking me. When others tell me they’ve found value in my work, that my writings have helped them somehow, I feel as if I’m part of something bigger than myself, as if I’m part of the broader society. This perspective lifts me from the despair or negativity that makes life difficult for many people I meet here.

I feel freedom when I contemplate the blessings of family. I am grateful for Carole. Besides her, I have my mother, two sisters, a grandmother, and an extended family of friends who love and support me. My father passed away during my 18th year, and my grandfather passed away during my 15th year.

Life is about proving worthy of our blessings, not about living with the fear of challenges or complications ahead. We build strength and confidence by making deliberate decisions and by preparing.

*******

I run through my final four laps of the morning. The countdown continues, with 97 more hours to pass before I visit Carole on Friday. The question I ask now, and every day, is what more can I do to show how much I appreciate all she brings to my life? She didn’t commit a crime, but she willingly serves this sentence with me.

This quest to live as the best husband I can be, the best person I can become, will not end with the expiration of my sentence. The sentence is simply a part of my journey. External factors—like whether I’m in prison or not—do not define who I am. Instead, my decisions and whether those decisions harmonize with my values express who I am.

*******

I’m glad to complete the next-to-last lap of the 10-mile distance I set out to run this morning. Since I’ve got to abide by the prison’s timeline, I suspend the run. Otherwise, I’ll miss the “pill call,” which ends at 7:30 a.m.

I hate interrupting my run before finishing, but I have an allergy that brings on dizziness if I don’t take a yellow pill. The medical staff will not allow the commissary to sell the allergy pill. And the rules prohibit me from stockpiling medicine. If I want a daily dose, I have to present myself at Health Services between 7:00 and 7:30 each morning. Regulations require that I wear a shirt, so I pull mine over my sweaty torso.

Jim, another prisoner, walks by as I’m leaving the recreation area toward Health Services. “How was your run?” He interrupts the conversation I’ve been having in my head.

“Fine,” I respond, “Thanks for asking.” While walking away, I consider the question as relevant as how it felt to brush my teeth. I look at my watch and see that it’s 7:24. I’ve been awake for six hours and just uttered my first words of the day.

Hundreds of men walk around the compound now. Despite my fluorescent orange earplugs, my sunglasses, and my determined disposition, maintaining silence will not be as easy. Wanting to be polite rather than rude or disrespectful, I nod or smile when others say hello. I open the door to Health Services and greet the officer who sits in the lobby area.

At the window, I show my identification. The nurse recognizes me, and she slides a paper cup the size of a thimble beneath the window. I remove the allergy pill, put it in my mouth, then wash it down with a sip of water from the fountain.

Before leaving the lobby of the health services building, I comply with the inspection routine. I turn to the officer and hold out my hands, palms open. Then I open my mouth wide so he can look inside to confirm that I’ve swallowed the allergy pill. I may be 46, but being a prisoner means that I must accept the indignities that go along with it. They matter no more to me than rain matters to a fish.

When I exit the lobby to walk back toward the track, I’m mindful of the time. At 8:30 this morning, I’m scheduled to attend the Toastmasters meeting, so I have less than one hour to finish my exercise. Walking quickly, I pull the tank top away from my torso, but I don’t take it off until I’m back in the recreation area. The sun has risen off the horizon, and I feel the heat.

When I get back to the track, I pull my shirt off and drape it across the bleachers to dry. It’s 7:34 when I set off for my final lap of the morning. I restart my stopwatch. Running creates a breeze against my sweaty skin, cooling me. I complete the 10 miles in 1 hour and 32 minutes.

*******

I walk to the recreation office from the track, mixing in with about 100 other people. They’re walking, running, or riding stationary bicycles and stepping machines. This prison doesn’t have weights. Many of the men work out on the pull-up or dip bars to build strength. Some rely on medicine balls for resistance training. They put the heavy balls into a gym bag and then hang the gym bag over their shoulders while they exercise.

I give my ID card to the clerk who staffs the recreation office and request a set of pushup blocks.

I’ve been strength training with pushups since my incarceration began. This exercise strengthens the entire upper body, and I like that I can do pushups anywhere. During my sentence, there have been times when guards locked me in the special housing unit—otherwise known as solitary confinement. It’s a single cell, the size of a closet. When in solitary, I’m locked in a small room for 24 hours a day, sometimes for weeks.

While in the small space, I can easily adjust. By dropping to pound out pushups or running in place, I convince myself that external conditions don’t determine who I am or what I am. Maintaining physical fitness keeps my spirit strong. Like everything else, it requires daily attention. Exercise will be a part of my everyday life for as long as I’m physically capable. I cannot imagine outside forces would change this perspective any more than outside forces would cause me to stop brushing my teeth.

I never had pushup blocks before I got to Taft. They’re just two wooden platforms held together by a crossbar that I grip. I like exercising with the blocks because they give the chest a deep stretch, strengthening the pectorals, shoulders, arms, and torso. I do 20 reps, walk about 20 paces, drop for a second set, hit another 20 reps, and then repeat. The blocks keep me from developing scars on my hands.

I used to do pushups with clenched fists. That exercise strengthened my wrists as well as my torso. During visits, the ugly calluses that formed on my knuckles grossed Carole out when she sat next to me. For that reason, I stopped the closed-fist pushups years ago.

When I was younger and held in higher-security prisons, where violence was daily, I constantly kept vigilant of the danger around me. Physical fitness became an integral part of my defense mechanism. Outward signs of strength, I thought, might persuade predators to seek easier prey. I wanted to project an image of “don’t mess with me,” and I hoped that the scars on my knuckles would help.

Delusions about intimidating people in the penitentiary were as likely as a bunny trying to scare snakes in a viper pit. Although I avoided conflicts with others, I did not learn until several years had passed that inner strength rather than outer appearances was the path to peace.

Serving time is easier for me now as I walk through this final stage of imprisonment. I rely upon the same strategies that powered me through the early years.

I no longer live in an environment with a persistent threat of violence. Still, I will never forget that I’m a prisoner. A constant threat of failure awaits me. These pushups are an integral part of my preparation.

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