Blog Article 

 Advocating for Prison Reform 

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Michael Santos

Need Answers to Your Questions?

Every day, I log into Corrlinks to update our community with what I’m learning. Sometimes, I need several hours to read the number of questions individuals send. That is not always the best use of my time. There are systemic problems in the system, and part of my job is to execute a strategy to improve the outcomes of this system.

I’ve been working to improve this system since authorities let me out in August 2013. A lot has changed since then, and I am grateful to have spent my time working to be a part of that systemic change. That strategy led to the First Step Act, which I will explain below.

I bring attention to this strategy because it’s 2:40 a.m. on Sunday, January 22, when I write this message. I’m up early because I wanted to write our community before I board a flight that will take me to Missouri. Tomorrow, on Monday, I’ll be speaking inside a federal prison. Then, in the evening, I’ll meet with a warden, a retired BOP regional director, and another retired executive who once served as BOP director.

On Tuesday, I’ll fly to Las Vegas for a meeting on Wednesday to continue the advocacy work. I’ll return to California on Wednesday. On Thursday, I’ll work from home. Then, on Friday morning, I’ll fly to Florida to attend a national conference for leaders in the “corrections” industry. I’ll return home to California on the evening of Tuesday, January 31. 

I will visit several more federal prisons to make presentations and meet with the leadership team in February and March. All these trips are in pursuit of one goal: 

  • To improve outcomes for people in federal prison.

You’re a member of our community. For that reason, you should always know that this is a long-tail strategy. It has many moving parts. I’ve been working on this strategy for longer than 35 years. That work has helped me build upon my influence, and it’s become akin to a ministry that fills me with passion and gets me up very early in the morning.

As the founder of this community, I must communicate the strategy to each person with us. Each person must understand the ecosystem I’m striving to build and how the ecosystem contributes to changes like the First Step Act. And remember, it’s a “First Step.” Since I believe we must go much farther as a nation, my duties now include the following:

  1. Working on expanding the First Step Act to benefit every person in federal prison,
  2. Working on increasing the use of commutations for people in federal prison, and
  3. Working to reinstate the US Parole Commission.

How would you go about working to bring about this change?

As stated above, advocacy work requires many moving parts, some that have the potential for macro change and some that have the potential for micro change. 

Macro Change: Prison/Sentence Reform

The macro change would include getting citizens, community leaders, influencers, legislators, and prison administrators to understand that our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration represents the most significant social injustice of our time. We incarcerate too many people, and they serve sentences that are far too long. We overuse the criminal justice system when civil procedures would be more effective.

Micro Change: Prison/sentence Reform

I would call micro change as persuading individual leaders of prisons, and people in prison, how we should work together to change the system. It would also include helping people serving sentences understand their role in bringing about the change, inviting them to join the effort, and showing them the strategies leaders taught me so that I could climb through 9,500 days in prison.

In anticipation of this 10-day trip and the first-quarter travel schedule, I have copied the individual questions that people have sent me onto a Word document. Most of those questions or comments related to perspectives on how the BOP introduced the auto-calculation system and what has gone wrong with how the system computes individual release dates.

I had to copy the questions and put them aside because too many were coming from across the country. Either I could spend all day writing answers, or I could strive to build a body of work that would make influence change. I cannot leave the questions on the Corrlinks system because it’s not a traditional email system, that keeps the questions in a database I can access. Each time the system brings in a new message, the system automatically deletes an older one. 

Today, while I’m flying this week, I intend to respond to the many personal questions or messages I receive. I know the importance of being heard.

But I also know the importance of earning your trust. It is one of the reasons that I am writing this message today. While I’m away, I will not be able to be as responsive to individual questions. Each person should understand that my work is in the best interest of bringing change to the entire system.

When caught amid an intractable bureaucracy, it’s difficult for some people to understand why the system maltreats them. I know what that’s like. But I also understand that complaining about the system or arguing it’s wrong will not bring about the changes we want to see. To influence change, we need a multi-pronged approach. 

I am committed to working on that front. And I need people in our community to understand the effort. To help members understand, each person needs a historical perspective.


When I began serving my sentence in 1987, the US Parole Commission still existed. People received higher amounts of a good time than exists today. Pell grants existed, making college programs available. The system back then was the reason I could satisfy a 45-year sentence in 26 years. I served every day of my sentence.

Then, in November of 1987, the “New Law” began. The New Law limited the amount of good time available. It eliminated access to parole. A series of other reforms that lessened access to consideration for relief came into play. For example, the Prison Litigation Reform Act made it much harder for people in federal prison to seek relief from federal courts. The AEDPA law put limitations on habeas corpus procedures. Other rules made it more challenging, too.

During that era, people fought to persuade the BOP to grant the complete 15% of Good Conduct Time that Congress authorized—54 days each year. The conservative way that the BOP viewed that law led to them granting only 47 days per year. It took more than 30 years of advocacy and litigation to get the BOP to change.

Back then, it was incomprehensible to people in federal prison to think that the US would incentivize them to participate in positive programming with Earned Time Credits. Back then, administrators would openly say they did not care anything about a person’s life after release. They only wanted to maintain the security of the institution. 

Any person in federal prison would have welcomed an opportunity to receive ten days of ETC each month, which would be in addition to GCT. Further, to get an additional five days would be incomprehensible. 

None of that would have happened without extensive advocacy. It’s a campaign I began while serving my sentence. The early decisions put me in a position to build more influence over time. The newest workbook I’m creating, which will focus on building effective Release Plans and Self-Advocacy, will show the roadmap I used through prison and that I’m still using today. 

The Roadmap to Advocacy

It began with a commitment to overcome the weaknesses. I had to create a body of work that would allow me to become a more influential spokesperson. After all, I had convictions for being a greatest-severity cocaine trafficker, I pleaded guilty to perjury, and a judge sentenced me to a 45-year sentence. The BOP placed me in a high-security penitentiary, and I was only 23. 

Those credentials didn’t make me a viable voice for reform.

If I wanted to change the system, I needed a long-term strategy. That strategy would require me to put priorities in place. Then I had to build tools, tactics, and resources that would make me more influential. And I had to execute the strategy as days turned into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and years into decades.

Many people in prison have to use that same strategy. Nelson Mandela and other leaders inspired me to work toward these changes. Sometimes, we must accept that the system is terrible. We must work to change it. To change it, we need to become more influential.

To overcome my weaknesses, I adhere to a three-part plan I described extensively in Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term.

  1. I focused on earned academic credentials. I knew that I would need those credentials to persuade others. Further, had I not taken the time to learn, I would not have known how to turn words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. The work I did in prison would lead to more influence.
  2. I focused on contributing to society in meaningful, measurable ways. By becoming a published author, I believed I would have a better chance of reaching people at scale. That reach would make me a more effective advocate.
  3. I tried to build a more influential group of mentors. The more influential people I could meet, the more opportunities would open to change the way people think about people in prison.

None of those efforts would get me out of prison early. Yet I believed they would help me live the change I wanted to see.

By executing that strategy, I met some of the most influential penologists in the nation. They would visit me in prison, and they invited me to contribute chapters to books they wrote. Those efforts indirectly led to me getting married inside a federal prison’s visiting room. They also laid the foundation for the advocacy career I wanted to build after I got out.

A few years before finishing my time in prison, Professor Joan Petersilia wrote me. Joan, a professor at Stanford Law School, was authoring The Oxford Book of Sentencing and Corrections. She invited many of the nation’s leading scholars to contribute their wisdom on what changes we could make. 

I began writing unsolicited letters to Joan decades previously when she was at Harvard. It surprised me to receive an invitation to contribute to her book. She told me that she had been using my books in classes she taught and wanted my voice on what we could do to improve the outcomes of the system.

After writing the chapter, I decided to expand upon the concept. I wrote about Earning Freedom and the need to create incentives that would induce more people to work toward earning higher levels of liberty at the soonest possible time. The culmination of that work became Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term.

This was long before anyone thought of the First Step Act.

Yet because of that work, opportunities opened when I got out. Within weeks of finishing my term, San Francisco State University invited me to become a professor. In that role, I got to build upon my influence. 

While teaching, I began to build digital programs to teach people in prison. 


Those digital programs would help me build influence. They would open opportunities to influence wardens. If I could influence wardens, they could influence higher-level administrators on the need for reforms that would incentivize a pursuit of excellence. Those higher-level administrators could influence legislators on Capital Hill.

Through that work, other invitations opened. The UC Hastings Law School invited me to contribute an article on these ideas about using incentives in prison. That led to an article that the UC Hastings Law Review published in 2015. That publication opened opportunities to influence judges and other leaders as I spoke in symposiums.

Then, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals invited me to keynote a speech on the need to improve programs that would improve outcomes for people in prison. While speaking to an audience that included more than 1,000 people, including the governor of California, I could plant seeds on the changes I wanted to see. It led to invitations and purchase orders from federal judges, US Attorneys’ office, US Probation, and state and federal prison leaders.

Then, the Robina Institute at the University of Minnesota Law School invited me to participate in an advisory panel addressing improved reentry systems. Many leaders served on that panel, including Patricia Smoot, the chair of the US Parole Commission. I participated in that panel for three years, building influence along the way.

All those efforts represent the long-tail advocacy that led to changes such as the First Step Act. 

To me, it’s a great success. To people in federal prison, it’s not enough. I understand that people in prison only see how difficult the rollout has been. But I see hope. I see changes that will benefit more than 1 million people. Those changes did not exist while I served my sentence. 

To make improvements, I must continue the effort. And I need help from members of our community.

My Request:

I ask for patience over the next quarter. To bring about change, I must continue to build influence. That requires me to travel. It requires that I meet with leaders in every segment of this system. It requires that I create a body of work that will lead to better outcomes in the system. 

No one cares about individuals. We have to show how systemic change will improve America. That is the bigger job. 

While traveling, I intend to help leaders understand more about what’s going on in the system. I also hope to learn from them about changes that are coming. 

For people serving time, I know it’s a slow-moving ship. But I also know that the ship moves in a different direction from when I served my sentence. I’ll keep trying to nudge it along to:

  1. Expand the use of the First Step Act, so it applies to all people in federal prison,
  2. Expand the use of the commutation process or compassionate release, and
  3. Reinstate the US Parole Commission.

These are heavy lifts and will require years of advocacy. I hope that you’ll support the effort. As a community member, I hope you’ll be patient with me.


Michael Santos

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