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 Earning Freedom 1-15 

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Michael Santos

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Chapter Four: 1990-1992

Months 37-57

Clip 15 takes us deeper into chapter 4 of Earning Freedom. This 20-minute clip describes challenges I face to find my first mentor.

When I conclude my shift on the suicide-watch tier in the hospital, I walk through the metal detectors. I pass through long corridors and many gates on my way back to the B-unit cellblock. When I get there, the guard unlocks the door to let me in. When I get to my room, and the deadbolt locks me inside, I hear Windward’s snoring, undisturbed.

I grab the pillow from my bunk and set it on the steel chair to use as a cushion while I sit. I stare at the concrete floor, thinking. Tomorrow’s a big day. I’m going to have a visit.

Distracted, I count the beige concrete blocks that form the walls of my cell. Before snapping out of my haze, I fantasize about bursting through these immutable walls. I’m going to do it with progress I make inside of here.

When I wake in the morning, I’m eager for the visit. I always look forward to seeing Bruce, my mentor. He’s a bear of a man, big in every way. Through our correspondence we’ve built a friendship that has deepened. I look forward to our weekly exchange of mail and quarterly visits. He left Chapel Hill, returning to his family in Chicago. As a recently retired professor, Bruce continues to use his immense talents. He gives of his wisdom generously, wanting nothing more than to make a contribution to the lives of others with his teachings.

Bruce introduced me to his wife, Carolyn. She sometimes joins him for our visits. Through correspondence I’ve met his daughter and sons. The bad decisions of my past don’t matter to him. My efforts to become a good citizen define me in his eyes.

Bruce strives to round out my cultural education by exposing me to art, to opera, and to theater. He stresses the importance of fully investing oneself in the community. Although Windward and other prisoners here don’t understand the motivations of a man like Bruce, I’m grateful. Bruce says that he’s happiest when he helps others reach their potential.

About 20 minutes after I enter the visiting area, the guards at the desk clear me. I walk down stairs and aisles toward where Bruce sits. He stands to embrace me. I notice his white hair is a little thinner than the last time we met. His eyes still shine a brilliant blue. Bruce played as an offensive lineman at a New York university when he was young. It’s easy to imagine how his size and strength would’ve opened gaps for running backs.

“How’ve you been?” I ask.

“I’m well,” he tells me.

We talk for a while about what’s going on. Bruce says that he heard from Mark, my friend that introduced us a couple years ago. Mark was released from prison through parole a while ago. With the restrictions that prohibit felons from communicating with each other, I’m losing touch with him except for periodic updates from Bruce.

“He told me to send you his regards,” Bruce says.

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s working for a friend who owns retail clothing stores, doing well. A guy with his moxie always has a place in sales.”

“Does he plan on finishing school?” I ask.

“I don’t think so. He’s putting his life back together. I don’t think his plans include much more classroom time.”

“That’s all I’m doing, putting in classroom time, and I’m grateful for every minute of it.”

Bruce reaches over the table to tap my arms. “You’re steady at the gym I see. How much you benching now?”

I beam with pride. “I’m hitting 315, triple reps, feeling stronger.” I tell Bruce about my schedule, how I’m now working out twice a day, once before breakfast and a second time during the lunch hour.

“When are you eating?”

“I eat at work.” I tell him. Avoiding the chow hall is still a priority for me. A lot of chaos begins at meal times. There’s racial segregation. Politics dictate where power groups sit. I’m grateful that my parents and sisters send me money for commissary. Instead of dealing with the chow hall, I buy packs of tuna, soups, and other foods that I eat at work. Besides that, I barter my writing or typing skills for sandwiches from guys who work in the kitchen.

“Great culinary experiences aren’t my priority now,” I tell Bruce.

Bruce nods his head and smiles. “What did you think of the Monet prints?”

To teach me about art, Bruce sends postcards and magazine articles. He describes the great museums of the world and writes that he looks forward to walking through the Prado with me in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, and the Art Institute of Chicago. To get me started, he sent me subscriptions to The New Yorker and Smithsonian.

“When you get out I’ve got a whole world to show you. You can visit the Stratford Festival with Carolyn and me in Canada. We’re there twice a year to watch Shakespeare plays.”

“That’s what I need to talk with you about. Getting out.” My time in the visiting room is limited so I feel compelled to turn our conversation to something of more immediate importance. “I’ve got to be thinking about what I’m going to do after I graduate next year.”

When I explain, Bruce asks how he can help.

“Well, a lot’s been on my mind,” I tell him. “I’ve got to overcome some hurdles. You can help me succeed.”

I explain to Bruce why I need to build a coalition of support.

“Do you want to raise money to hire a lawyer?”

Bruce misses my point. Money isn’t going to get me to the next level. I need more people to join my support network.

“They’ve got to believe me in like you believe in me,” I say. “Lawyers or paid advocates can’t help me through this. I need to earn support from people through merit. Relationships with people who support efforts I’m making to earn freedom can help me in big ways later. I’m not trying to get out now. I’m trying to position myself for 1997, when I’ll have 10 years in. I’ve got to be looking to the future,” I explain.

“How should we start?”

“Well, to start, I need support from someone inside the Bureau of Prisons.”

I explain my relationship with Ms. Stephens. She intervenes for me on a local level. Her influence can smooth out complications with other staff members. If a guard in the mailroom blocks me from receiving library books or other resources, I can count on her to help.

I tell Bruce that I need the same kind of help from people who have national influence. The BOP is a huge bureaucracy, and I need someone that can help me influence the system.

“As a prisoner,” I explain, “I don’t have direct contact with any leaders in the BOP. They’re all in DC. To them I’m just another prisoner, a number. Ms. Stephens cares because she sees how hard I work. She goes the extra mile to help me succeed. She believes in me, just as you do,” I tell Bruce.

Bruce leans back in his chair, listening closely to everything I explain about living as a cog in the machine.

“I’m not going to be able to make the progress I need from this prison,” I go on. “There’s way too much violence here. I’ve been here for almost four years. I can see that the violence is getting worse. We’re on lockdown at least once a week. I want to stay here until I earn my degree from Mercer. After I graduate, I need to transfer. I’ve got to get to the best spot in the BOP for continuing my education. I need your help to find that place. Then, when the time is right, I need help to coordinate the transfer.”

“So what’s your plan?” Bruce asks how he can help.

I tell him about an article I read in an academic journal. The author was Sylvia McCollum. As Director of Education for the entire Bureau of Prisons, she creates policies. Ms. McCollum’s article described how she created a new policy that mandates participation in GED classes for any federal prisoner that doesn’t have a diploma.

“I want to build a relationship with her,” I tell Bruce. “I need to get her support. But I can’t just write her a letter. If I do, she’ll likely perceive me as just another drug dealer in prison.”

“I doubt that,” Bruce counters. He sees the good in everyone and dislikes my cynicism. “She’s going to see the record you’ve been building, your progress in college.”

I shake my head, disagreeing. “It’s not enough. The culture in this organization is different. This place is obsessed with security. Staff members learn to see prisoners differently. In the eyes of many, we’re all bad. We’re all manipulators and we’re all liars. I live with resistance, and I need to anticipate how I can overcome. To overcome in here, I need to be creative.”

Bruce asks what I have in mind.

“I was thinking that we could write an article together,” I say. “We could respond to the article she published, offering two perspective. She writes about the importance of a GED. Let’s elaborate, from the perspective of a prisoner and his professor.”

Bruce lights up at the idea and we discuss it further. We could describe how the GED is one step toward preparing for release. But a GED isn’t enough. People should leave prison with values, skills, and resources that truly translate into success. We could write how the Bureau of Prisons could use incentives. Those incentives would encourage prisoners to continue beyond the GED. They could pursue college or vocational training. Like she did with the GED, Ms. McCollum could create policies that would incentivize higher learning.

“Once we write it, what would you like to do with it,” Bruce asks. “Should we send it to her?”

“That’s how I need your help,” I tell Bruce. We need to do more than write the article. “I need you to arrange publication. It would be one thing for me to write an article and send it to her. Big deal. On the other hand, if I coauthored an article with you, and we published it, that would carry more weight. Not many prisoners publish articles with distinguished professors. That’s one way I would stand out. She would remember my name. The article would show her that I’m different. Little by little, I might be able to earn her trust.”

Bruce nods his head and agrees to help. Then he asks if there is anything else.

“There is one more thing,” I say. “I need a list of all the law schools in the United States. I’m going to graduate soon, so I need to start taking steps for the next part of my plan. I want to write letters to law schools. I’ve got to find a school that will allow me to earn a law degree through correspondence.”

“So you’re still set on law school?”

“I’m set on earning an advanced degree. It doesn’t matter what kind. I just need to earn more than a bachelor’s. To overcome my past, I need unimpeachable credentials that people respect. Credentials will open opportunities.”

Bruce is one of my role models. I’m eager to follow his leadership, to emulate his commitment to society. Before our visit ended, he told me how he and Carolyn were volunteering their time on weekends. They help homeless people in a Chicago shelter write résumés. They’re doing their part to put homeless people on a path to employment. Bruce and Carolyn give of themselves, without expectation for return or desire for recognition. Success for Bruce comes when his efforts lead to another person’s independence or happiness.

For me, I sense a deep need to prove worthy of his generosity. He places a lot of trust in me by giving his friendship, and I won’t let him down.

Bruce leaves our visit with a clear plan of action.


Soon after our visit ended, I received a letter from Bruce. He made inquiries at various peer-reviewed academic journals. In his letter, he let me know next steps. Before we submit our article for publishing consideration, we’ve got a lot to do. The process will take several months. That suits my schedule fine. First I need to graduate. Then I need to write the article. Then we’ll be ready to submit for publishing.

* * * * * * *

This hard plank of steel I’m lying on influences my thoughts. I’m locked in this small room with Windward. He uses the toilet and flushes a few feet to the right of my head. What Bruce and Carolyn do to make life better for so many people gives me a different perspective.

My motivations lack the purity of Bruce’s. I’m much more pragmatic. I want out. There’s always a selfish component to my actions. Somehow, that cheapens them in my mind.

I contemplate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I learned this concept in sociology. Until a man satisfies his most basic needs, he can’t evolve. My primary need is liberty. Decades will pass before I leave these walls. Everything I do until then must prepare me for freedom. Perhaps when I’m free from concrete and steel, I’ll be able to live up to Bruce’s good citizenship. I would like to become the good, kind man that I see in him. I don’t know how to reconcile my thoughts. I want to live with the kindness and generosity of spirit that I see in Bruce. But I’ve also got to navigate the challenges of this predatory world I live in.

Philosophy courses broadened my perceptions. Those books discuss man’s purpose, his relationship to society, his quest for personal fulfillment and enlightenment. I’ve embraced lessons from Aristotle and Sun Tzu among others. Aristotle advises those who follow him “to know thyself,” while Sun Tzu emphasizes that it is equally important “to know thy enemy.”

Know thyself and know thy enemy. I wrestle with these thoughts. I must thoroughly understand my strengths and weaknesses. I must use every resource God has given me to become stronger and to grow. Likewise, I must understand my enemies. My enemy is a corrupt environment. My enemy is a demeaning perception. My enemy is the prejudice I will encounter in the decades ahead. I may face that prejudice for the rest of my life. People will always judge me for the bad decisions I started made when I was 20. I have a responsibility to succeed anyway. I must triumph over a system that is designed to extinguish hope. I will not become part of this cycle of failure. Responsibility to overcome rests with me. Every decision will influence my future.

* * * * * * *

Bruce visited the American Bar Association in Chicago. He sent me a package that included addresses to every ABA accredited law school in the nation. I wrote letters to each school, asking if I could apply to enroll.

All the law schools responded. They shared disappointing news that the ABA prohibits law schools from allowing students to earn law degrees through correspondence. Then I received a sliver of hope. It came in a letter from Dr. Al Cohn, a professor at Hofstra University’s graduate school.

Dr. Cohn wrote that my letter impressed the Dean of Hofstra’s law school. The dean forwarded the letter I wrote inquiring about law school to Dr. Cohn.

Although ABA rules prohibit Hofstra Law School from allowing me to study through correspondence, I can take another course of action. Dr. Cohn’s letter says that as a leader of the graduate school, he has more discretion. He said he would consider waiving the residency requirement if I pursue a graduate degree.

Hofstra hasn’t admitted a prisoner before, he admits. But he admires my determination to educate myself. If I earn my undergraduate degree with an acceptable grade point average, he said that I could apply. I could get a conditional admittance, he said. Hofstra would waive requirements for the Graduate Records Examination and on-campus residency if I could pass a probationary period. Wow! Dr. Cohn tells me that Hofstra will award a master’s degree if I complete the program.

I’m thrilled.

I’ve been researching ways to stand out. I learned that roughly 30 percent of Americans have university degrees. Fewer than 15 percent have graduate or professional degrees. I would like to have a law degree. But to differentiate myself, I simply need something more than a bachelor’s. I need credentials that others respect. The higher my level of achievement, the more support I’ll receive. With a strong support network, I’ll transition from prisoner to citizen.

Dr. Cohn’s letter leads me to think of lyrics from a Rolling Stones song. In Satisfaction, Mick Jagger said you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. I may not earn a law degree. The opportunity Hofstra University is opening will be just what I need. Nothing will stop me from earning a master’s degree.

* * * * * * *

I pass my fifth Christmas in prison. It’s 1992. I’m 28. In only a few months Mercer University will award my undergraduate degree. This is a big deal for me. Out of more than 2,500 men locked inside USP Atlanta’s walls, I’m the only one to receive a degree. Mercer hasn’t awarded a degree to any prisoner since I’ve been in Atlanta.

Other men who used their knowledge and prison experience to make significant contributions inspire me. I learned from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He served eight years in a Russian prison, then he spent three years in exile. Through hardship, he wrote. His writing in prison brought classics like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He wrote The Gulag Archipelago, exposing readers from around the world to Russia’s oppressive prison life.

Eight years in prison is a long time. He served his in the notoriously harsh Siberian camps. Through his literature, Solzhenitsyn made monumental contributions to society. He earned a Nobel Prize.

As crazy as it sounds, a seed is taking root. Maybe through hard work I can make a difference, like Solzhenitsyn did. I can transform the decades I’ll serve in here into something positive. Knowing that I may serve my entire sentence, I look for more role models like Solzhenitsyn. I’ve got to be productive in here for 21 more years, and I continue looking for inspiration by reading about other men who served long sentences.

Nelson Mandela inspires me. Authorities locked him in a South African prison for 27 years, between 1962 and 1990. I’ll serve a comparable length of time. Multiple decades didn’t destroy him. On the contrary, it strengthened his resolve. I’m going to learn from him. He is a world leader, working to end the oppressive policies of Apartheid. People from around the world revere his contributions.

* * * * * * *

I don’t know what it means to be an intellectual like Solzhenitsyn, or a leader like Mandela. But I know what it means to face decades in prison. I also know what it means to be a man. And recently I’ve met a woman. She has reminded me of all I’ve been living without.

Her name is Sarah, and she’s a lawyer. We met by chance two months ago when we were in the visiting room at the same time. My father had flown in just before Christmas to spend a weekend with me. Sarah was visiting another prisoner I knew. I approached her under the pretense that I might need some legal advice. I asked Sarah for her business card. With five years in, I’ve lived too long in an abnormal community of only men. I’m thirsting for a woman in my life.

The dance of seduction begins when I write to her, initiating an exchange of letters. She writes back. At first the correspondence is bland, tame, harmless. Soon the letters between us grow in frequency and in complexity. They’re handwritten now, not typed. I learn that she earned her degrees from NYU. She contemplates breaking away to start her own law firm. She’s 30. She has shared details about her life. Sarah named her cat Snuggles, she rollerblades, loves aerobics, and she is recovering from a broken heart. She’s vulnerable. Through our exchange of letters, I’m coming to know Sarah the woman. In my world, any connection with a woman is a gift.

Desire creeps into me, threatens me. I’ve been successful in repressing or ignoring these urges that have been dormant for so long. Now they keep me awake. I remind myself where I am, what I went through with Lisa, and the goals I’m working so feverishly to complete.

But another fever takes hold. Every day I ache for a letter from her. I want something, any kind of sign that lets me know where this is going. I’m turning up the heat.

I don’t remember what I wrote in the letter she should’ve received today. Like a teenager, I wonder whether I went too far. Did I reveal too much? She must know what’s going on with this exchange of letters, that I want her.

It’s mail call. The guard flicked her letter beneath my door. I see her stationary, her handwriting, and I pick up the envelope. She wrote her words yesterday, making it an exchange of three letters this week. I’m on her mind. In the words she chooses I catch some suggestive double meanings. My confidence grows. We’re flirting and we both know it. I want to see her again. I’m a man in the desert. She’s my oasis.

I graduate next month. Mercer University is honoring me with a ceremony. I can’t travel to the campus. The campus is coming to me. Mercer and USP Atlanta will hold a commencement ceremony in the chapel. A hundred other prisoners will celebrate completion of their GED certificates. I’m a class of one, and I get to speak as valedictorian. Mr. Chandler authorized me to invite two visitors. I’m choosing my sister Julie and Sarah. If Sarah accepts my invitation, I’ll have the sign need. I want that confirmation that the desire I’m feeling is mutual.

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.

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