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 Earning Freedom 1-16 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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Months 58-62

In this 16th clip of about 20 minutes, we enter chapter five. I’m in my fifth year of prison, and with a woman for the first time in years.

Since Lisa sent me divorce papers, I haven’t had many interactions with women. I shared office space with Ms. Stephens. We spent out working hours together, but she was my supervisor. She also worked for the prison, so it wasn’t exactly a man-woman relationship. Ms. Stephens was kind to me, but she was staff, and I was a prisoner.

Susan, my friend from high school, wrote me occasionally. I appreciated the friendly correspondence. But as with Ms. Stephens, I didn’t have any hope or expectation for intimacy with Susan. Susan lives on the other side of the country, in California. She’s young and building her career. I’ve got about five years of prison behind me, and more than 20 years of prison ahead.

But I’m building a “thing” with Sarah. It feels different. She lives in Atlanta, within a few miles of the prison. Her proximity gives me hope. I fantasize about her every day. Even though I wouldn’t be able to touch her, there’s a chance I could seduce her with words, make her my woman.

This high-security prison has rules that obstruct every possibility for a relationship with a woman. They’ve forced me to spend my 20s in celibacy. Still, the rules don’t diminish my thirst for love. And like any young man, I’m burning for sex. Every prisoner thinks of a woman, and I know it’s going to be tough to connect.

I’ve fantasized about falling in love for several years. Another prisoner, Gene Fischer, fed those hopes. He told me a story about Orianna Fallaci. She was a famous journalist who loved a man in a Greek prison. He attempted to assassinate a political figure. They me when she was writing a story about him. When Gene told me the story, I convinced myself that somehow, I would find a woman to love me—even if I had decades to serve in prison.

Would it be Sarah? I wondered.

Could she be the woman to see me as a man and not a prisoner? Could she love me despite my imprisonment? I’m 28, and I won’t give up on the possibilities.

She received the invitation to attend my graduation. Instead of answering with a letter, Sarah surprised me. She drove over to the penitentiary. I was on my volunteer suicide-watch duty in the hospital when I heard the guard call my name. The guard yelled through the other side of locked gates.

“Santos!” he yelled. “Let’s go!”

I could see him standing outside the gate. He fumbled with the ring of keys hanging on a chain attached to his belt.

“What?” I answered him. I didn’t have any idea why he was calling me.

“We’ve been paging you for 30 minutes. You’re supposed to report to the visiting room.”

“I didn’t hear a page.” I said. Then I closed my books and walked toward the guard.

“Leave the books. You’re late.” He said. “I’ve got to take you straight to visiting.”


“Your attorney is here and she’s been waiting. Didn’t you know she was coming?”

I told him I didn’t know.

The 15-minute walk took me through a maze of gates. We walked through courtyards and metal detectors and corridors. With each step, I was thinking about Sarah.

She’s not on my list of approved visitors. So I wondered how she got in. If she felt this urgency to see me, perhaps it was to tell me face-to-face that my invitation went too far. Maybe she wanted to draw some boundaries, or to clarify where we stand. Or maybe she wanted something else. I could still hope.

* * * * * * *

Some prisoners’ families live near Atlanta. They’re fortunate. I hear the institutional loudspeaker page those men for visits regularly. Until this back and forth with Sarah began, I didn’t have any hope for visits. My sisters or parents would visit a couple of times a year. But I was far away from home. Visits were not a part of the routine for me. I focused on school, reading, and trying to prepare for a future that I didn’t quite know how to grasp.

Sarah’s surprise visit breaks my routine. The strip search by an inquisitive guard doesn’t even bother me.

After the full inspection I pull on my boxers and socks, step back into my khakis, tuck in my shirt, and lace my sneakers tightly before walking into the visiting room.

Since Sarah came as a lawyer, the guard directs me to a different area of the visiting room. I walk past the stairs leading down into the general visiting room. Hundreds of people sit beside each other. They’re in uncomfortable plastic chairs, trying to talk. The noise from all the other conversations makes it difficult to hear. It’s like trying to talk in a stadium. All the prisoners and visitors sit under the scrutiny of guards and surveillance cameras.

The guard instructs me to walk across the hall to a private conference rooms.

“She’s in two,” he tells me.

Through the narrow vertical window cut into the wooden door, I see Sarah. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in three months, since that day she handed me her business card. For a second I pause to watch her. She’s seated at a small table, absorbed with a stack of papers. Black designer sunglasses hold her long, honey-colored hair away from her face while she works. She’s prettier than I remember. I knock, startling her. She looks over at me, smiles, and waves me in.

As I open the door she stands and quickly straightens her navy skirt. Suddenly we’re face to face in a room half the size of my cell.

“Surprise!” she greets me as I close the door. Her perfume lingers in the air. I inhale the subtle, sweet fragrance.

Wow! This is a surprise. I ask how she was able to visit since she wasn’t on my approved list.

Lawyer privileges, she answers. As a lawyer, she tells me, she only has to flash her bar card. “What took you so long to get here?” She asks.

I smile, then explain the protocol. Guards made the announcement that I had a visit, but since I didn’t know she was coming, I wasn’t paying attention.

“How about a hug,” she says, opening her arms.

I move closer and feel her arms around me. It’s a friendly gesture. But I’ve been deprived of a woman’s touch for almost 3 years, since Lisa’s visit . The gesture has a lot more meaning to me. I’m awkward, unsure if I should hold her slender waist, or keep my hands high on her back. The embrace lasts a second. But in that second, through her silk blouse, I feel the warmth of her back. I feel her firm breasts pressing into my chest.

I hold on a bit too long.

“It’s cozy,” she says, looking around the small room. Some designer of prisons splurged by using two shades to paint the concrete walls. They’re dark beige to shoulder height, and lighter beige up to the matching ceiling above. The room’s dreariness contrasts with Sarah’s radiance. She moves the suit jacket she’s folded over the back of the extra chair and we sit.

She asks whether I’ve ever been in this part of the visiting room. I tell her that I hardly ever come to the visiting room. When my family visits, we sit with everyone else. This is like a VIP room.

She smiles. “So you’re graduating next month. Congratulations!” Her eyes shine as she leans back, pushing her fingers through her hair.

“I’m looking forward to the commencement ceremony. Did you get my letter inviting you to be my guest?”

“Yes, I got your letter,” she tells me. “But are you sure you want me here? If they only allow two visitors for your graduation, wouldn’t you rather have your sister and Bruce? I can visit. I can visit you any time.”

I tell her that I want her to come. Our eyes lock. She smiles and tells me she’ll come.

“Good, I want you to meet my sister, Julie. I’ve written to her about you.”

“Really? What about?”

“Just that I’ve made a new friend and that we’ve been writing. My sister and I are close. She worries about me, wants me to be happy.”

“I understand. Sounds like you’ve got a great sister.”

“Two great sisters,” I say. “I’m very lucky.”

Sarah and I sit in that tiny room talking for three hours. We discuss challenges I’ve faced, plans I’m making, and steps she’s taking to open her own practice. I’m feeling electricity between us. The connection has been missing for years. When I stand to leave, we hold each other. She promises to come back for another visit before I graduate.

I’m holding the memory of her breasts pressing into my chest. Today has been the best day since the day of my arrest. Things are looking up.

* * * * * * *

I return to my cell and read. Last year, my brother-in-law, Tim, sent me a subscription to The Wall Street Journal. It was a gift, but also an investment. He tells me to invest in my future, not only by earning university degrees, but also by learning about business. Tim advises that I should read articles aloud, learn new words, and learn how business people communicate. That investment of time, he tells me, will pay off once I come home.

Tim is building his career as an investment real estate broker. I appreciate his advice and I read each issue. The more I read, the more familiar I become with how the stock market operates. I learn techniques that investors use to value public companies. When I’m reading the Journal, I broaden my business education. Even though I’m in here, I devote time to commerce every day. Like Tim says, this type of self-learning is just as important as a university degree. It will make me more capable of contributing to any business that will employ me once I’m released. I wish that I’d made better decisions when I was younger, because I’d sure like to be building a career now. But I’ve got to move on, got to live with the world as it exists for me right now.

I read an editorial in the Journal that upsets me. John DiIulio, a professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote a scathing article about criminal justice. He urged leaders in society to build more prisons. He urged administrators to manage them with tighter controls. Prisoners, he said, should not have so many privileges.

I’ve been reading a lot about this tough-on-crime movement. When I was arrested, in 1987, voices were getting louder for tough-on-crime legislation. Almost five full years have passed since then. The tough-on-crime voices have grown louder and louder. Every day, there is something new in the media. John DiIulio is like a leader of the movement. People quote him in Time Magazine, and in every other article. He wants taxpayers to believe that longer sentences and more prisons represent a good investment for a safer society.

I don’t agree with him. He needs a different perspective. So, I do what I do. I pick up a pen and I write John a letter. Since I don’t know his address, I use the same technique that I’ve used to connect with so many others in academia. I send the letter to his university, Princeton.

In my letter to John, I introduce myself as a long-term prisoner. Then I explain why I disagree with his premise. We don’t need more prisons in America. And we don’t need to run prisons with tighter controls. Rather, we need strong leadership. We need taxpayers to learn how we can make better use of the prison resources we have. Instead of locking so many nonviolent people up—and eradicating hope—we need to shift policies. We should incentivize prisoners. We should be innovative and create new mechanisms that will bring better outcomes.

Our prison system is a failure because it warehouses human beings. We need to incentivize a pursuit of excellence. As a professor of Princeton, I suggest, that John should lead the charge for changes in sentencing laws. He should argue for prison reforms that result in hope. With hope, more prisoners will work toward earning freedom. We should show the reasons for people in prison to learn, to reconcile, and to live as contributing citizens. That message doesn’t come through easily to people in prison, and it’s worse when we repress the spirit.

I explain to Professor DiIulio what I’ve seen during the five years I’ve served. Most prisoners give up while they serve time. Many join gangs. Others hustle drugs and weapons or incite disturbances. Oppressive policies cause negative adjustments.

We need policies similar to those in business. Those types of policies show people what steps they can take to become a part of the team. They incentivize people with rewards of higher pay, or higher positions. Policy shifts might incentivize people in prison with hope. We could create ways to measure progress, create assessments that will show an individual’s likelihood to function in society. If we created such policy shifts, more people would use their time wisely. We would lower recidivism rates, and lower expenditures on building more prisons that perpetuate cycles of failure.

I explain to the Princeton scholar that I strive to live as a model for such reforms. I send documentation to show that I’m about to graduate from Mercer University. I also share a letter of acceptance from Hofstra University, showing that I’ll start graduate school in the fall. I conclude the lengthy handwritten letter by inviting him to correspond.

I know that for every 100 unsolicited letters that I send out, I get at least one response. I keep track.

Dr. DiIulio bolsters my hope when he writes back. Even though I’ve never stepped foot on a campus, universities have become a big part of my life. Holding the heavy stock of the envelope and letterhead gives me a charge. Wow! Princeton University. I run finger along the embossed stamp. It’s quite a feeling to get a response to letters I write. Through his letter he validates and honors me as a contributing citizen. In moments like these, I feel like a man, not a prisoner. People like John inspire me to keep up the work of building my support network. I’m on the right path.

Dr. DiIulio agrees with all I expressed in my letter. He offers an excuse, explaining how an op-ed limits his space. John wrote that he has published extensively on prison management. He offers to send books I can read and he invites me to send him my comments. It is the beginning of another fascinating correspondence.

* * * * * * *

Professor Bruce McPherson has been mentoring me for several years already. We’ve become very close friends. To broaden my education, he insists that I read classic literature, especially the plays of William Shakespeare. He sent me a complete anthology. Although I don’t know how to appreciate poetry, I’ve read every play. And I enjoyed many. From Julius Caesar, a line stays with me:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in the shallows and in miseries.

Dr. DiIulio’s offer to correspond is a victory. It brings an opportunity. I can read critically and challenge his opinions. This dialogue allows me to contribute in a small way to the debate of public policy. He influences Congress. Through letters, perhaps I can influence him.

It’s as if my tide has come in and the flood is leading to fortune. I feel it. If an Ivy League professor finds me worthy of his mentoring energies I’ll have an incredible resource, another strong academic reference that will distinguish me from other prisoners.

End of Clip 16

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