As I walk through the office, I yearn for my unrecoverable past. I ask a clerk where I should go. He points me in the right direction. I make my way toward the smaller offices in the back. I see the door marked “Transportation” and I knock.
A woman looks up from her desk. She greets me with a friendly smile.
“Good morning,” I say. “My name is Michael Santos.” I present her with my pass from Mr. Chandler. “I was told of a job opening for a clerk in the Transportation office. I’d like to apply.”
“How much time do you have? Thirty years I hope.” “I have 45 years, Ma’am.”
“Oh, wow.” She flinches. “You don’t look like you’re serving that much time. I asked because I want someone with a long time to serve. Training a clerk takes a lot of energy. I don’t want waste time training someone, and then see that he’s about to get released.”
“That’s okay. I’m enrolled in college. I’ll be here for a long time.”
She asks if I ever worked in an office before.
“Yes Ma’am,” I say. “My father owned a contracting company. I grew up working with my dad. I worked in his office and in the field.”
“So you can type?”
“I type really well, at least 50 words per minute.”
“Where do you work now?” She asks.
“I work in the library. Mr. Chandler is my supervisor.”
“How’s your disciplinary record? Do you have any shots? Ever go to the SHU?” “No Ma’am. I’ve been in for almost two years and my disciplinary record is clear. I keep to myself, stay out of trouble.”
“Why are you in prison?”
“I sold cocaine.” I say, knowing that I’ll be answering this question for the rest of my life.
“And you got 45 years for that?” “Yes Ma’am.”
“Have you ever been in prison before?”
“This is my first time. And it will be the only time,” I say
She nods her head. She’s genuinely compassionate. I’ve never felt empathy from a staff member before. She’s giving me a new perspective.
“My name is Lynn Stephens. Watch the call-out for the job change. You’ve got the job.”
She smiles, and for that instant I’m a person rather than a prisoner.
As I return to the library, I realize that I forgot something. I didn’t ask Ms. Stephens whether I’d have time to complete schoolwork. I didn’t ask if I could use the word processor to type my assignments. I didn’t have any doubt that I could learn how to complete my office duties quickly. Once I finished, I wanted to work on the goals I set.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll find a way to make things work.
Being in that office helped. It cleansed away the filth of imprisonment. I want to spend my time there, in the company of Ms. Stephens. I sense it’s the right place for me. At least while I’m there, I’d be away from gangs. I’d lessen my exposure to confrontations. I wouldn’t feel the pressures from the cellblock. I wouldn’t be around the continuous hustling and scheming that goes down in the library. This job could be like a sanctuary for me.
* * * * * * *
When the cell gates open at 6:00 a.m. I rush to the gym for my morning workout. A quick cross-training workout allows me to fit all my exercises in before 7:00. Then I return to the cellblock, shower, shave, and dress in my pressed khakis. Optimistic about my new job, I bring an envelope with photographs in case there’s an opportunity to share pictures of my family with Ms. Stephens.
I want her to know that I have a life outside of these walls.
“Good morning,” she greets me when I walk in. Strangely, I’m a bit uneasy being in close proximity to a woman. The office we share is small, the size of a bedroom in a suburban house. Her desk is positioned immediately to the right of the door in the office’s front corner. As her clerk I’ll sit inside a U-shaped workstation in the back, diagonally across from her. Five paces separate us. I’m conscious of her perfume. I try to keep my knees from bouncing beneath the desk. I feel out of place.
“We coordinate all the paperwork for shipments that leave the factory,” Ms. Stephens explains. She describes my duties. “Each day the factory manager will send us worksheets. They tell us how many mailbags we’re ready to process out for delivery. From that sheet you’ll type these forms. We call the forms “shippers.” Make five copies of each shipper. Distribute them through these folders. They go to billing, quality control, the postal service, the shipping company, and our factory records.
I handle the sample of documents that she provides. This is going to be easy. I can keep up without any problem.
“How many orders do we receive each day?” I ask.
“It’s more like 15 each week. On some days you’ll receive one or two orders; other days you may not receive any at all. Then you may receive four, five, or six all at once. It might take you a few weeks to get used to the system. You’ll get the hang of it. As long as you stay on top of it and don’t let the work pile up, you’ll be fine.”
“What am I supposed to do when I’m caught up? I’ll be able to finish my work in a couple hours, if that.”
“Let’s just see how it goes. We’ve always got files to organize, envelopes to stuff, and copies to make. If you’d like to listen to the radio, tune into any station you’d like.”
I catch on quickly to my duties: typing, copying, distributing, and filing. The small radio behind me only picks up the AM band. As I flip through the stations I settle in on talk radio, and I listen to an audacious political commentator named Rush Limbaugh. The show is gaining in popularity across the nation. I read about Limbaugh’s influence in news magazines. They describe him as a self-indulgent, obese, college dropout. He dumped several marriages. But he represents himself as a social conservative. His personal choices don’t match his public personae. Despite the hypocrisy, he makes me laugh.
And the opinions he expresses are the ones I’m going to have to understand. He is influencing people to uphold laws of intolerance.
* * * * * * *
Lisa isn’t responding to the daily letters I’ve been writing. When I wait in long lines to access the phone, I walk away frustrated. She doesn’t answer. It’s been more than two weeks since I’ve heard from her. Premonitions chip away at me. I hurt from the emptiness. Loneliness makes me ache. It disturbs my sleep.
The prison’s automated phone system only allows collect calls. A major drawback is that once I dial, I can’t hear what’s happening on the other end of the line. I don’t hear anything until someone pushes a digit to accept the call. When I dial Lisa’s number I don’t know whether the line is busy, no one is home or the call simply doesn’t go through.
I wonder what’s going on. Why doesn’t she write? Where is she? I ache to connect with her. I want to tell her about my new job, about my progress with school, and about the manuscript I’m writing. Mostly, I want to tell her how much I miss her. I want to know about her life, how her job search is going. She must’ve found a job.
I try to ease my pain with delusions. I say that she’s found a job. She’s probably working at the times that I call. But I wonder why she doesn’t respond to my letters. I dream of her soft lips. Nightmares haunt me with images of her kissing someone else.
* * * * * * *
“Hey! How come you haven’t been calling me? I’ve been worried about you.” It’s Julie, cheering me up with her loving enthusiasm when she accepts my call.
“I’m sorry. It’s not so easy to use the phone here. I have to wait in long lines and I’m only able to dial one number once my turn comes up. Have you been getting the letters I’ve sent?”
“I’m so proud of you! You’re doing great in there, with your schoolwork and the writing. I’m glad you’ve got a job you like.”
“Then why do you sound so sad,” Julie asks. “Cheer up! You’re doing great.”
“I haven’t been able to talk with Lisa,” I say. “I’m worried about her.
Has she called you?”
“She wouldn’t call me,” Julie says. “You know that. Do you want me to patch you through on a three-way?”
“Would you? When I call her number I’m not getting through at all. I can’t leave a message or anything.”
“What’s her phone number?”
I give Julie Lisa’s number and wait for her to dial. She patches into the call when Lisa’s phone starts ringing.
“I’m just going to wait until she answers. Then I’ll put the phone down and you can talk as long as you want.”
“Thanks, Julie. I appreciate your help.”
My heart pounds. I excited to hear my wife’s voice. But I’m also apprehensive. What is she going to say? But it’s not Lisa who answers. It’s a man’s voice that picks up.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I must’ve dialed the wrong number.”
“What’s the number again?” Julie asks, after disconnecting the unknown party. I give her Lisa’s number a second time. “That’s the number I thought I dialed.
Let me try again.”
The phone rings and I hear the same male voice. “Who’s this?” I ask. “Who’s this?” The man doesn’t answer my question.
“This is Michael Santos. I’m calling for my wife, Lisa.”
“Oh. Well, Lisa’s not here. I’m Lisa’s boyfriend. I live here now. Sorry to tell you, but it will be best if you don’t call back. She isn’t ready to talk with you.”
I’m humiliated. This is the way I learn my marriage is over. My sister heard everything. Speechless, I hang up. I don’t have the strength to deal with this new complication. I can’t even thank Julie for making the call. I just hang up and walk away.
Blindly, I press through crowds of prisoners. I find my way to the stairs. I don’t care about anything. I just push my way through the grief. I would prefer a knife in the gut to what I’m feeling. A knife wound would be a welcome reprieve from the pain twisting through my heart.
Somehow I find my cell. I fall onto my rack, smothering my face in my pillow. With the spirit of perseverance abandoning me, I squeeze my eyes shut. I have to keep tears from falling. Everything inside of me feels broken. My pulse pounds in my ears. The pain throbs, hurting my head. I’m having a hard time. I don’t know how to acknowledge that she’s gone. I’ve lost her. It’s like a painful vise. It’s squeezing tighter and tighter. The pain suffocates me. For the first time, I feel doubts. I don’t know whether I want to climb through 24 more years. Not with this pain.
Sleep doesn’t restore my confidence. I crawl off my rack. While sitting on a metal chair, I lace my dirty sneakers. Consumed with sadness, I walk down the stairs. I pace, wondering why I should go on. I can’t summon the will or reason to live. Lisa and I may’ve been growing apart. At least I had the illusion of love. That’s been shattered. I don’t know what I’ll do in here for decades.
I walk to the library, numb to everything but my pain. I am looking for solace. The only place I know how to find it is from reading. I turn to stories of others who suffered. I search for books about Viktor Frankl, Elie Weisel, and other innocent people. They confronted horrific adversity in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I need to immerse myself in their stories. Maybe I’ve hit bottom. The inspiring literature of survival and courage give me hope. It gives me a light. The light shines down my psychological well. The tightness in my chest begins to ease.
* * * * * * *
When I call home on May 27, 1989, I hear news from Julie. Our younger Christina has given birth. Her daughter, my niece, is named Isabella. I’ve known of Christina’s pregnancy for some time. She’s married to Christian, my brother in law. They’ve been building a life together. But I’ve been too wrapped up in dealing with the loss of Lisa. Those complications took all my energy and I was separated from family. It’s surreal to think of my younger sister as a mother, and to think of myself as an uncle.
Christina and I grew up very close as children. Some of my best memories are from our grade school years. I remember bringing her fishing with me in a neighborhood stream. But I haven’t seen her since my imprisonment. Now she’s a mother. I’m trying to imagine her as a grown woman. She has a family of her own. This reality is hard for me to comprehend. Life is changing for the people I love and for the people who love me. I’m not a part of their lives. I hang up from my call with Julie in tears. I’m not able to suppress my mix of emotions. I’m happy for Christina and Christian. But I’m filled with sadness because I’ve missed Isabella’s birth. She’s a niece that I may never really know.
I need to walk around the track. To leave my housing unit, I need to wait in line for a pass. Then I have to wait in a crowd for the next scheduled movement. It’s too much trouble.
Instead, I head for my cell. There isn’t anywhere I can go to escape the pain. I have to ache alone, to the extent possible. As I lie on my rack, I pull the pillow tightly over my head. Check and his buddy move chess pieces across the table a few feet away. I’m sinking into self-pity. All I can think about is the isolation from my family. I’m a stranger. I’m isolated from bonds that make life worth living.
I start to introspect with questions.
How will society view me?
If I were free, what would I think of a man like me? If I encountered a man who served more than a quarter of a century in prison, I’d have major preconceptions about him. I’d feel reluctant to accept him as a neighbor. I wouldn’t want him as a colleague. I wouldn’t consider him a peer.
When I get out, I’m going to have some real problems. Many women will not want to date a man who served time in prison. If I’m not released until my late 40s, I’ll have even more problems. I won’t have a work history. I won’t have savings. I won’t have a home. There’s a good possibility that I’ll never have a child. How could I?
It’s too much to think about all at once.
I have to break this up in my mind. I’ve got to take the problems in smaller increments. I’ve got to figure out how to get through this mess. I’ll take it one step at a time. Otherwise it overwhelms and defeats me.
Create my plan.
Execute the plan.
Visualize, Plan, Prioritize, Execute. That is the way that I’m going to get through this.
Where will I be in 10 years? That’s what I should think about. What is the best I can become during the first decade of my imprisonment? My studies are going well. I’ve nearly completed the manuscript for Drugs and Money. I don’t know what will happen with the Rule 35 motion. But once the time comes to submit the request for reconsideration of my sentence, I’ll have something to show.
Whether I get out or not, this strategy is going to change my life. If I focus on the first 10 years, I know that I can make some real progress. By 1997 I’ll finish my first decade. If I stay true to this plan, I’ll be different. I’ll have a university degree. That credentials will distinguish me from others. I won’t be like the prisoners that thrive on hate. I won’t rely upon weapons and gangs. Every step I take is going to help me become stronger, smarter, and more capable of contributing in positive ways to society.
Still, I live in an ocean of negativity. I’m around people that manufacture weapons. I’m around gangs. I’m around constant power struggles for trivial matters, like control of a television. I’m immersed in a community of felons. With two years behind me I understand the politics of race, geographical origin, and anarchy. On the surface it looks as if whites mix with whites, blacks with blacks, and Hispanics with Hispanics. But that isn’t the real story. Influences that are far more complex drive this culture of failure.
I live in a society of deprivation. Policies extinguish hope. People serve years, or decades. They feel abandoned. They don’t have connections to their families. Their ties to previous any previous identifies have been severed. Most prisoners give up on trying to improve themselves.
Many prisoners ripen for rebellion. They form an anti-society culture. They create an underground economy with values and a social structure that differs from the world beyond prison walls. Mafia dons and gang leaders hold the top spots. People who cooperated against others, and people convicted of sex offenses are at the bottom of the social order.
Disruptive factions form. They scheme together or battle each other for power. In this society, prisoners rely upon violence and negativity as differentiators. They don’t have the rule of law. My efforts to avoid ‘prisonization’ make me vulnerable.
I have to think, because I have to succeed even though I’ve living in chaos. I can’t outrun anyone. But by existing under the radar, I can evade others. I’m captain of my own metaphorical submarine. I glide stealthily beneath the waves and currents. My periscope is up. But I take efforts to stay invisible, deep below the turmoil. This strategy works for me.
I avoid the politics of prison culture. Instead, I’m preparing for success outside.
* * * * * * *
You’ve just listened to a free audio clip from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. I’m Michael Santos. Visit Prison Professors.com. We help people prepare for success through prosecution, sentencing, and prison. Our digital products bring value to prison systems, schools, and corporate training. Visit Prison Professors.com to learn more, or find us on YouTube. Learn how my partner Shon Hopwood and I can help you. Stay tuned for the next free audio clip. We invite you to subscribe to our podcast. Please share and leave an honest review, wherever possible. If you’d like to engage in the discussion, please leave a comment.