Prison! My 8,344th Day—Section 14—Prison Reforms
It’s 1:58, and I’m supposed to start working on my assigned job at 2:00 p.m.
I look at my watch when I open the door to my housing unit. I grab a dusting broom from the supply closet and carry it to the room reserved for people who watch Spanish TV. Fernando sits in the back, watching a baseball game.
Fernando, a kind man in his late thirties, has spoken with me about his challenges. He misses his family, and he suffers the normal anxiety levels of a person starting to serve a sentence.
“Time for work?” Fernando asks with a smile.
My job’s minimal duties wouldn’t suit Fernando. Many people that are new to prison seek jobs that offer more structure. To them, free time feels like dead time. Fernando has told me how his maintenance job helps his hours, days, and weeks move along. He’s friendly and always willing to assist others.
He helps me stack empty chairs in the room so I can sweep. The entire job takes less than five minutes to complete. After I finish, I go to the next room and perform the same task. I see another person who is new to the camp. He surrendered only a month ago to begin serving a nine-year sentence, and he is adjusting well.
“Good to see you writing,” I tell him as I push the dust broom over the bare concrete floor.
When I began serving my sentence, I rarely met people who served sentences as long as mine. Now I routinely meet people who will still be doing time when I finish my sentence. When they tell me they won’t be getting out for six, seven, or eight years, I get a sense of how close I am to my release date. I have empathy, knowing how difficult the time feels for them.
While I sweep, the man tells me about a correspondence course he ordered. Once he receives the course, I assure him, he will feel as if he is working toward something productive—which will ease the passing of time.
After sweeping, I sit at the small table and resume my writing project. Part of my writing gear includes a black vinyl folder I use to carry papers. I’ve taped the cover art from my book Inside: Life Behind Bars in America on the outside. In prison, it’s an identifying piece of art, branding the notebook as mine. When I see other people reading the books I wrote, I get a sense of fulfillment, as if I didn’t wholly waste all the years that I spent in prison.
From inside the folder, I pull out the article by Emily Bazelon that I found early this morning before I began my exercise. Articles on prison reform always interest me. I’m intrigued by people who write about prisons and curious to know why they care. I always want to connect with them, to inquire whether there might be some opportunity to contribute to their work.
Legislators allocate billions of dollars each year to fund our nation’s prison system, but taxpayers don’t know much about what goes on inside. When newspapers or magazines publish articles like the one Ms. Bazelon authored, I get a lead—someone that shares an interest similar to mine. I start writing a letter introducing myself to Ms. Bazelon.
All I know about her is what I read in her article. The story identifies her as being affiliated with Yale Law School. Since I don’t have a precise mailing address, I put her name on an envelope that I will send to Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut. She may or may not receive the letter.
Over the years, I’ve sent thousands of unsolicited letters. As a person in prison, I’ve always felt like a guy adrift at sea. Like a person lost at sea, I want to live, but I’ve got to find my way back to land. If I don’t want to perish, I need to find a way to eat. I have to cast lines and see what I can catch. The more lines I cast out into the sea, the more I increase my chances of finding food that will sustain me.
Since I rarely have exact addresses for the people I want to reach, I understand that many letters I write may never make a connection. Further, when some people see a prison’s return address on the envelope, they may throw it in the trash without opening it to read the message.
Still, I never stop trying. This strategy of sending unsolicited letters to like-minded people that may become sponsors of mine has been invaluable. While prison boundaries held me, I’ve built a magnificent support network that has led to infinite opportunities. I’ve made friendships with some of the most distinguished professors in the country. I’ve met journalists and lawyers who didn’t know me before my arrest but now sponsor and endorse my efforts to earn freedom. Even law enforcement officers at the highest levels have joined my support network because of my writing. For these reasons, I continue writing to potential sponsors with enthusiasm.
It’s 3:05 when I finish writing the letter to Ms. Bazelon, and I enclose a résumé in the envelope. The résumé shows the credentials I’ve earned and links to my website. I want her to see that although I’ve been a prisoner for 23 years, I’m also deeply committed to reconciling with society.
As I walk out of the quiet room to drop the envelope in the outgoing mail slot, I cross paths with an officer I don’t recognize. He yells “mail call!” into the cavernous dorm, blasting my eardrums. It’s a time of day that many people in prison anticipate, hoping for news from home.
I lean against the concrete block wall near the guard’s station while scores of other people gather around. We’re like children waiting for treats. The guard dumps the huge mail sack on his workstation counter. He starts hollering out last names while sorting through newspapers, magazines, and envelopes. The men stop the chatter and turn off their radios, listening with hopes that they’ll hear their name.
I wait patiently. It’s Monday, and since guards don’t distribute mail on Saturdays, he has a high stack of letters to distribute. He calls my name, and I respond by reciting my registration number. He passes a New Yorker magazine. Magazines keep me current with significant events globally, but I’m hoping for something more personal. My name again, this time it’s Newsweek. I also get a large white envelope from Carole. Every time I read her name—Carole Santos—I feel grateful. Eight years ago, she married me in a prison visiting room, and ever since, we’ve been building our unconventional life together.
“That’s all there is, fellas.” The guard’s announcement disburses us, and people return to their cubicles, television rooms, table games, or wherever. I walk back to the quiet room with my envelope and two magazines.
Rules require the mailroom officers to inspect all mail before delivering it. I use my Bic pen to poke holes into the thick tape an officer used to reseal it. The envelope includes a stack of manuscript pages for me to edit and printouts of emails from readers. It also includes Carole’s two-page, handwritten letter sprayed with perfume. Her words renew my hopes for a better life, a life with her.
The email messages Carole forwards are from a cross-section of readers. Many are university students who read my books as part of their studies in criminal justice. Some are from family members who express concern for their loved ones in prison.
Others are from men on their way to prison, expressing disbelief that I’ve served so much time. One writer wants me to explain how I expect to be released in two or three years if my sentence is 45 years.
Responding to that question takes a lot of energy. Authorities arrested me on August 11, 1987. We had different sentencing laws back then. After November 1, 1987, people convicted of committing crimes faced sentences under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, also known as “the new law.” Since I committed crimes before November 1, 1987, the judge imposed my sentence under “the old law.” Under the old law, I earned good-time credit. I could complete a 45-year sentence in roughly 26 years, provided I received all the good-time credit under the old law.
I’ve never liked the term “good-time” credit. It implies that a person must do something good to receive the credit. That’s inaccurate. Administrators automatically apply the good-time credit to a sentence calculation if a person doesn’t get caught violating prison rules.
A person could spend his entire sentence watching talk shows or playing cards. As long as the person didn’t lose time from disciplinary infractions, the person would receive the same amount of good-time credits as a person that spent time preparing for success by participating in education or vocational programs.
In my view, the high recidivism rates show the terrible flaws in the system. Rather than incentivizing a pursuit of excellence, the system encourages mediocrity. Without meaningful incentives, people in jail and prison adjust in detrimental ways. They learn the nuances of living in confinement. The habits they develop make it less likely that they’ll have the support or resources necessary to prosper in society.
Statistics show that our system of corrections leads to intergenerational cycles of recidivism—or failure.
Opportunities exist, I think, to bring more awareness to this system. Through all the work that I’ve done while serving time, I hope that I’ll be able to build a career around spreading this message on the need for prison and sentence reform. It’s the reason I spent so much time writing Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term and the reason behind every decision I make in prison—including the time I wake in the morning, the time I sleep, and the decisions I make throughout each day.
Without access to email, I don’t have the resources to respond to all my readers’ messages. I’d like to answer every letter. Since rules prohibit me from using a typewriter, and I don’t have access to a computer, I’d have to write by hand, then impose on Carole to type each response for posting or forwarding.
Leaders have taught me that making progress requires a person to exercise discipline. I remember reading Steve Jobs advising people to say “no, no, no.” Saying no pisses people off, he warned. But if a person says yes to every request, every new project, or every demand on time, a person cannot achieve anything meaningful.
Instead of writing personal letters, I write a daily blog that I send to Carole. She types the blog and publishes it on one of the many websites that we maintain together. Our websites help us stay connected to the world. They provide a central location where I can direct people to read about the many ways that I’m striving to leave a life of meaning and relevance, and contribution. I don’t measure success by the number of visitors that the website receives, and I don’t sell anything. Success comes from being able to document my journey. I strive to show people that we can always work to prepare for a more successful outcome regardless of what challenges we face. By documenting my journey with daily entries, my website shows that I never ask anyone to do anything that I’m not doing.
Staff members have announced that people in the Taft camp will have access to an email system before the end of this year. I’ve no idea what that means. Without a doubt, they will write policies to limit and restrict what people can send through the email system. If administrators don’t allow me to use a typewriter for personal correspondence, I am unclear what they will authorize us to send through an email system.
Prisons are the epitome of bureaucracy, with countless rules and policy statements. They are slow to change. Many administrators have told me that they don’t care anything about a person’s preparations for success upon release. Their only concern, they say, is the security of the institution.
Evidence shows that when a person builds a positive support network, the person has far better prospects of overcoming challenges upon release. Yet administrators create obstacles rather than policies that would facilitate a person’s opportunities to build a support network.
Rules threaten people with disciplinary infractions rather than incentivize people to pursue excellence. They define a model inmate as someone who completely follows the rules, someone that doesn’t strive to build and nurture a broad support network. I’ve never been a model inmate. Instead of following the rules, I strive to carve out a pathway that will lead to success when I get out of here.
With that in mind, I am cynical about what rules will limit the use of an email system in prison. I’m hopeful but cynical. Although I’ve never sent or received an email, I can conceptualize how much more efficient I would become if I could send messages in real-time to Carole. Instead of her having to wait several days to receive my handwritten letters, I would be able to send her messages instantly.
That would be a prison-reform step in the right direction. It would have helped me immensely if I had access to such technology at the start of my sentence. Still, it’s never too early, and it’s never too late to work toward improvements.
What type of reforms would you like to see in America’s prison system?
In what ways are you working to contribute to the reforms that you’d like to see?
How would you say staff members define a model inmate?