Blog Article 

 Earning Freedom 1-12 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

Need Answers to Your Questions?

Listen on iTunes

Chapter Three: 1988-1990

Months 14-36

Clip 12

* * * * * * *

I’ve got a plan to make it through. I wake early.

By waking at 5:00 a.m., when the other men in my cell are still asleep, I can use the toilet and wash in privacy. I use a small book light to read until 6:00, when a guard walks down the tier unlocking the gates. I’m routinely first out of the cell. I walk with a few others who also skip the chow hall to exercise early.

By 7:30 I’m at work. My job in the office is my reprieve from tensions in the cellblock and on the yard.

My supervisor, Ms. Stephones, encourages my academic pursuits. She authorizes me to study. She allows me to type assignments once I complete my daily work. When my shift ends, in the late afternoon at the business office, I report to the prison’s hospital. I serve as a volunteer in the hospital on the “suicide watch team.” Guards keep prisoners who are at risk of harming themselves under 24-hour surveillance. I volunteer to serve on the watch for these people.

This schedule works for me. It lessens my exposure to other prisoners. By limiting my exposure to other prisoners, I simultaneously limit my exposure to problems. I’m also able to study more.

When my shift on suicide watch ends, at midnight, I return to the cellblock. It’s quiet then. All the other prisoners are locked in their cells. I shower. Then the guard locks me in my cell. I climb to my rack above Check. And I sleep soundly for five hours. It’s a routine I intend to keep for the incomprehensible 24 years that I’ve still got to serve.

The pockets of solitude I’ve carved out give me peace. By being alone, I’m extremely productive. I’m on a tight schedule, always racing to exceed my expectations. I’ve completed my first quarter with Ohio University. And I’ve enrolled in another full load of courses for the second quarter.

Besides taking correspondence classes through Ohio University, I found other opportunities. Mercer University began offering courses inside USP Atlanta. I’m now enrolled as a full-time student in both the Mercer program and at Ohio University. One of the professors from Mercer, Colin Harris, mentors me. He encourages me to stick with my studies, to learn. I’m busy, working hard to prove worthy of the trust he places in me. According to the timeline I’m laying out, I should earn my undergraduate degree in 1992. I intend to earn my degree with honors.

* * * * * * *

I call my sister, Julie. With Lisa out of my life, Julie and Tim are my primary links to the world.

“Guess who I ran into at Safeway?” Julie asks in a carefully measured tone.

“Who?” I ask.

She tells me that she saw Judy Murphy, the mother of one of my high school friends, Sean.

Julie tells me that Sean died of leukemia.

It’s tough news. I liked and admired Sean. Julie told me that the cancer struck Sean without warning and that he died a few months ago. He was studying engineering at the University of Washington. He died during surgery.

When Julie hangs up I return to my cell, thinking about Sean. He was a friend of mine since junior high school. With the news of his death, I sit and think more about what I’m doing here. I face the wall in my cell. I’m not able to muffle the hollering, laughing, and slamming of dominos on steel cellblock tables. Bad news from beyond prison walls keeps coming. I know that it’s going to keep coming. I’ve got to learn how to accept it alone and move on.

Sean and I hadn’t spoken since we graduated from high school, six years ago, back in 1982. He lived responsibly. Sean was a student-athlete. He was always disciplined and respectful of others. Unlike him, I lived recklessly. I remember our friendship. As kids, we were teammates in football and baseball. It’s hard to believe that I’m in prison and his life has ended. I expect that while I serve this term, I’ll know others who die. Maybe I’ll die in here.

I rest a yellow writing pad on my knee. I write to his parents, expressing my sympathy. In the letter, I pledge that memories of Sean will inspire me. I’m going to make better use of my life, to use every day working to become a better person. I don’t know how Sean’s parents will respond. But I feel compelled to write. For some reason, news of Sean’s death piles on more guilt. It brings feelings of nostalgia for high school. I miss those earlier days before I thought of selling cocaine. I regret decisions I made. I’m ashamed, and I feel a colossal disappointment for what I’ve made of my life.

* * * * * * *

I want to reach beyond these walls. My chance arrives when Julie receives the grant money for printing 2,000 copies of Drugs and Money. She makes the trip from Seattle to visit me so we can plan our strategy to distribute the books.

“You’ve grown so much,” Julie cries as we hug for the first time since my arrest, almost three years before.

“I told you I’ve been exercising every morning since I got here. Check this out.” I flex my arms, showing off.

She laughs, surprised at my obsession with fitness. Then she looks around, disoriented with the prison experience. “What did all these people do to get in here?”

“Come on, let’s not waste our time talking about anyone else. Most people are in for a drug crime,” I say. “I told you I’m a loner in here, I keep to myself.”

“I can’t believe you don’t have any friends. Why would you spend all your time alone?”

“I’m okay. I talk to a few guys from class, but life is different for me. I’m so busy with school that I don’t want to waste time on television, movies, or any of the craziness that goes on around here.” I tell my sister about the hustle of brewing alcohol with fruit, sugar, and yeast. I describe how some prisoners pass through the monotony of confinement in a drunken stupor. “Others are into gangs, gambling, and drugs. I feel safest and most productive by sticking to myself.”

“How do prisoners get drugs in here?” Despite my efforts to talk about the book, my sister is curious. She persists with questions about prison life.

I tell her that drugs come into the penitentiary in different ways. People smuggle the drugs in through visits. Guards are sometimes corrupted, too. They mule the drugs in. I tell her that I stay away from anything that can bring me more trouble. “That’s one of the reasons I keep such a busy schedule, to avoid trouble.”

While sitting across the table from my sister, I don’t feel any shame at all. It isn’t the same when my mother or father visits. With them I feel empty inside. I’m embarrassed that they see me in a place like this. Both my mom and dad want to hold my hand. They want to pat my head. They want to assure me with words that things are going to turn out fine. But they’re afraid. Their nervous gestures bring out my guilt. I hate that I put them through such misery. I’ve asked them to leave visits early, feigning exhaustion. In truth, sadness from the visits overwhelms me. All I want to do is disappear.

With Julie, on the other hand, I grin and laugh . I’m happy to listen as she tells me about our younger sister, Christina. She talks about our parents, our niece, and her engagement to Tim. Life continues regardless of my ordeal. I look at the clock, conscious that the minutes move so quickly. I wish the visit wouldn’t end. With hundreds of visitors with other prisoners, it’s loud in the room. We’re eating sandwiches from vending machines. We’re drinking sodas. Life feels as normal as possible, even though she periodically breaks into tears. I’m not in prison when I’m with Julie. She’s sweet, telling me that she’d switch places with me if she could.

We turn our attention to the book. We’re talking about the many ways we’re going to leverage all of the relationships we have in Seattle to attract media attention. Drugs are becoming a bigger issue in society. With President Bush’s zero-tolerance programs, I feel strongly that Drugs and Money could contribute to the solution. Through a story describing what happened to my friends and me, the book sends a message. It shows the tragic consequences that follow drug trafficking. We create a workbook to go along with the book.

Although I face considerable restrictions in promoting the book, Julie is free to speak on my behalf. She returns to Seattle and begins contacting jails, schools, and other institutions where our message can add value. With books to donate, Julie contacts local talk radio programs to promote the book. She secures invitations for me to participate in telephone interviews.

I’m still conscious of the reprimand Mr. Chandler gave me for enrolling in college without first seeking his permission. To avoid further problems, I ask advice from my supervisor, Ms. Stephens. I want to know which staff member can authorize me to interact with the media. She directs me to Ms. Sheffer, the Warden’s Executive Assistant. Ms. Sheffer tells me that if representatives of the media want to speak with me over the phone, then I’m within my rights to converse.

Cool. Julie sets up the interviews.

* * * * * * *

“I’m locking you up,” a lieutenant chastises me after paging me to his office. “Why? What did I do?”

“Listen to this.” The lieutenant plays a tape recording of a portion from an interview I gave to a Seattle radio station over the telephone. “You can’t be giving no interviews on the radio from my institution. Where do you think you are? This is a federal prison! You’re supposed to be serving time, not writing books and talking to the media.”

“But I was only talking about the reasons people shouldn’t get involved with selling drugs. I’m trying to send a positive message.”

“Well I’m sending you to the hole. You can think about your positive message while in solitary. Next time you’ll think twice ‘bout what you’re saying over my phone system and who you’re talking to.”

“But I asked permission from Ms. Sheffer before I made the call. She said I could talk with the media over the phone.”

The lieutenant looks at me skeptically. “What? Ms. Sheffer said that? When?”

“Three weeks ago. My work supervisor told me she was the person that could authorize me to speak with the media over the phone. When I asked her, Ms. Sheffer said it would be fine.”

The lieutenant studies me for a moment to gauge my veracity. “Go back to your job,” he orders. “I’ll get to the bottom of this. If you’re lying to me, you’re gonna be sorry.”

I walk back to the business office, intimidated by the encounter with the lieutenant. Since I had permission, I don’t think I’m in trouble. But the lieutenant’s threat about the hole shakes me. It’s not that I’m afraid of going to the hole. I’m more concerned about how I’ll be able to attend classes with Mercer University. If I can’t complete my classes, the timeline I’m working toward to graduate in 1992 falls apart. I’m frustrated. Others have massive influence over my life.

Ms. Sheffer is waiting for me when I get back to my desk. With her shoulder- length blonde hair and form fitting designer clothes, she looks more like a babe than a prison official. Despite her attractiveness and the fragrance of her perfume, she talks tough, at least to me.

“From now on, if you’re going to talk with the media, coordinate it through my office.” Ms. Sheffer scolds me while pointing her finger at me. She’s ruining fantasies I’ve had about her, the kind that keep a young man alive. My confusion quickly leads to embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. I thought you said it was okay for me to talk over the phone.”

“I only said that because I didn’t think a member of the media would accept your phone calls. It was my mistake. That’s why you’re not in the hole. But let’s be clear going forward. From now, coordinate all media communications through my office.”

When Ms. Sheffer walks out I’m left alone in the office with my supervisor. “You’re really rocking the boat around here.”

“I don’t mean to. I’m just trying to build support outside.”

Ms. Stephens shakes her head in doubt. “When you started here you said you wanted to keep a low profile. You said you wanted to stay out of trouble. Writing books and talking on the radio puts you on the front line. It’s not exactly a low profile.”

“I meant I wanted to keep a low profile in prison. I still have to try and build support outside. I can’t just give up. I’ve got to try to make something more of my life than this.”

“I just hope you know what you’re doing. Most inmates want to forget about the world outside. They want to avoid attention. You’re bringing the spotlight right to you. If you do anything wrong, all this attention is going to backfire.”

Ms. Stephens makes clear that she thinks it would be best to focus on school and forget about media contacts. “Just remember,” she chills me with an admonishment, “I can’t protect you if the lieutenant decides to lock you up for an investigation.”

Ms. Stephens means well. I know she cares for me, but she is a part of the system, and she knows a lieutenant can easily lock a prisoner away in a disciplinary cell for months at a time. If that should happen to me I wouldn’t have access to school. I wouldn’t be able to make phone calls. I would be able to lift weights. She doesn’t want me locked in a box.

What Ms. Stephens doesn’t understand is that I am always locked in a box. And I’m trying to break free.

* * * * * * *

When a guard passes an envelope through the bars of my cell I’m surprised to see a woman’s penmanship. The letter is from Susan, a girl I know from high school. She dated my close friend Rich. Her letter expresses support, telling me that she heard me speaking on a local radio interview.

I read Susan’s letter a hundred times. The letter isn’t suggestive, or with any romantic innuendo. But it’s the only letter I’ve received from a woman since Lisa dumped me six months ago. I hold the paper that left Susan’s hands, wanting this connection to last. It makes me wonder how many years will pass before I kiss a woman again.

I write Susan a lengthy letter. I tell her all about my schoolwork, my routine in prison, and the challenges I face in promoting my book. Although a romance is the last thing on her mind, and too much to hope for, I make it clear that I value her correspondence. I’m lonely, longing for ties to anyone beyond prison walls, especially a woman.

* * * * * * *

The next letter I receive isn’t from Susan and it isn’t nearly as pleasant. It is from my attorney, Justin, who informs me that the Court of Appeals has affirmed my conviction. The court’s decision doesn’t surprise me. But I’ve been hoping that the court wouldn’t issue its ruling for another year. Better still, it would have been great if the Court didn’t rule until I earned my degree, in 1992. Yet my hopes don’t matter. It’s 1990. I know what this appellate decision means: the clock on the 120-day time limit for the Rule 35 has begun to tick.

I write the judicial motion for the Rule 35 from my desk at work. Through the request for my judge to reconsider the sentence he imposed, I express remorse. I describe how sorry I am for the crimes I committed. I accept that I will serve several years in prison as a consequence of my convictions.

Yet I implore the judge to reserve his final judgment of me. I explain that I’m working to educate myself. I write how I want to contribute to society. I am building a record to demonstrate my commitment to atone and to prepare for a law-abiding life. As an offer of proof I include copies of my university transcripts. I show the stellar progress reports prison administrators wrote for me. I include a copy of Drugs and Money, press clippings, and letters of appreciation with my package to him. I want him to see how hard I’ve worked since starting my sentence. The entire package fits in a large envelope and I submit it to the court without assistance from counsel.

I don’t have to wait long before I receive the government’s response to my motion. When I open the envelope my heart sinks. I read the prosecutor’s passionate argument for the judge to let my sentence stand. He closes the three-page rebuttal with a powerful sentiment. It condemns me as an individual, as a fellow human being. It takes all the wind out of me.

If Michael Santos served every day of his life in an all-consuming effort to repay society, and if he lived to be 300 years old, our community would still be at a significant net loss.

I read the prosecutor’s response over and over. It eats at me, wakes me from sleep at night. He prepared the case against me for trial. He knows that I’ve never had a weapon. He knows that I don’t have a history or proclivity for violence. Here, in the prison, I live in the midst of dangerous men who truly threaten society, yet they serve sentences that are a fraction in length compared to mine. I don’t understand. Why is the prosecutor is so vehement in opposing my relief? Why does his response drip with such venom?

I’m sinking again. I need to tap into some type of inner strength before I drop further down into the abyss.

When the guard slides the next envelope, I see the return address. It’s from the district court, my judge’s chambers. I lie down. It comes on Friday. Judge Tanner didn’t require much time to dismiss my motion. He agrees with the prosecutor. His ruling makes my sentence final.


You’ve just listened to a free audio clip from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. I’m Michael Santos. Visit Prison 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 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.

In clip 12, I learn how publishing leads to problems in prison. And I learn that my 45-year sentence is final. Stay tuned for a 20-minute clip.

Need Answers to Your Questions?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We Have Updated Our Terms And Conditions

We have updated our Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, and Terms of Service page. To review the latest version, please click on Terms of Use. If at any time you choose not to accept these terms, please do not use this site.