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 Earning Freedom Clip 17 

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Michael Santos

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Months 58-62

In this 17th clip of about 22 minutes, we finish chapter five. I’m finishing my fifth year in prison, publishing papers in graduate school and connecting with a woman.

Start of Clip 17

May 12, 1992 is a day I’ve been working toward ever since guards processed me into USP Atlanta. I’m so excited. I feel as if I’m being released. In a way, I am. I’m being lifted above a life of insignificance, distinguishing myself as a college graduate. It’s a credential I’ll carry for the rest of my life. A sense of liberty comes with this accomplishment. Regardless of how the prison system tries to direct me, I know where I’m going. I will leverage my degree to pry open new opportunities, and on this day, at least, I’m more than just a prisoner.

I wrote and rewrote a speech for the commencement ceremony, four single-spaced pages. For the past six-weeks I’ve practiced my delivery at every opportunity. After hundreds of rehearsals I’ve committed each word, pause, sentence, and paragraph to memory. I knew this day would have significance. Now that it’s here, I’m glad I took the time to prepare. When it’s my turn to speak, I will stand onstage with confidence that the penitentiary will be powerless to repress.

Immediately after the guards clear the afternoon census count, I walk with a hundred other prisoners to the education building, which is attached to the chapel. The carefully scripted ceremony begins at five, precisely. Mr. Chandler and his subordinates have prepared. Seats are carefully aligned on the stage. Banners decorate the walls. Dignitaries from Mercer University will share the stage with Warden Stock and members of his executive staff. I strive to impress community leaders. Every time I can leave a favorable impression on leadership, I have an opportunity to move the needle. They may see me differently. If they see me differently, I can influence them. If I can influence them, I can improve my quality of life, my access to new opportunities.

Those new opportunities bring me closer to home. These incremental action steps are what keep me going.

But today, I mostly want to impress Julie and Sarah. I want them to see me. I want them to know that I’ve used my time well and that prison will never define me.

The prisoners who’ve earned their GEDs are in good spirits, eager to receive their certificates. I wrote them into my speech. When I’m on the stage and it’s my turn to speak, I will encourage them to continue. If they earn higher credentials, more credentials, if they stay out of trouble, they will build a better life.

I will tell them my plans for the future, and I will ask them to join me. We must work together to influence leaders on the need for reform. We have a responsibility to change this system. The best way to bring change is to develop skills and credentials. We must persuade others that we can return to society successfully. We made bad decisions. But now we’re making good decisions. During the speech, I’ll encourage them to focus, to work hard, and to prepare. If they succeed, they’ll return to live as well-educated citizens, ready to contribute.

If I do well in my speech, I’ll influence the administrators from Mercer. I need them to open more educational opportunities for people in prison. With my speech, I want to inspire everyone in the auditorium, especially my sister and Sarah.

Julie is 29 now. She works as a sales executive with an international cosmetics company. We’ve only visited a few times since I arrived in Atlanta. Her professional responsibilities, an active social life, and the geographical distance between us make traveling to Atlanta difficult. For years she has accepted my collect phone calls, sent me money to buy food from the commissary. She and Tim, along with others, pay for my education. Julie is vested in every choice I make. I’m determined to show that her trust and support are well placed.

With Sarah, I have different motivations. I’m a man. I want a woman in my life, and at least for now, she is the one. I am glad that she will be here and I look forward to seeing her.

The music opens our graduation ceremony. We rehearsed all week, and everyone knows what to do. I walk at the head of the procession. As I am the only person in the prison to earn a degree from Mercer, I’m valedictorian. I lead scores of men who graduated with GED certificate s. Like me, they wear black gowns and caps with tassels.

In the audience I see a dozen people that I don’t know. Since they’re not staff, I presume they’re from Mercer. Julie and Sarah sit in the front row. Dr. Colin Harris, one of my favorite professors, is on the stage with Jean Owens, Mercer’s outreach program coordinator. Mr. Chandler sits beside them with the warden and several other staff members. I’m smiling, grateful for this opportunity. I walk to the front row to take my seat.

Mr. Chandler opens the ceremony with obligatory expressions of gratitude to the warden and other staff members. I exchange glances with Julie and Sarah. Then, we all bow our heads as Dr. Harris, Professor of Religion, gives the invocation. Next, Jean Owens delivers the keynote. She tells the audience about my work ethic and determination, saying how education can open a bright future for anyone. Using the catchy slogan to promote Michael Jordan’s basketball shoes, Ms. Owens says “be like Mike,” referring not to the basketball legend but to me. She urges the men that just received GED certificates to continue their studies.

When it’s my turn to speak, I walk to the stage, captain of my own ship, eager to deliver the valedictory address. I’m not a prisoner. I feel taller, smarter, and stronger. I see several hundred people in the audience, all prisoners except for my two guests. I turn to my left and thank the leadership from Mercer University. Then I turn to my right to thank the prison staff. I look into the crowd of graduates, staff, and guests in the cushioned seats. I’m grateful to everyone for attending.

Without notes I deliver the speech that I’ve carefully rehearsed hundreds of times. Julie beams with pride in the front row, and I see Sarah grasp her hand. They’ve only just met, but in their support they’ve come together. Those 12 minutes on stage feel as if they’re the most positively energizing of my entire life.

The audience stands, encouraging one of their own. Even Warden Stock stands and gives me an affirmative nod. Some day I’ll need him, and I hope he’ll remember this day. I return to my seat, squeezing my sister’s hand as I pass in front of her. The other prisoners and I then receive our diplomas. Mr. Chandler gives closing remarks. He closes the ceremony right on schedule. We don’t have time for a reception. After all, this is a penitentiary. Staff do not give me any time to visit with Sarah and Julie. Still, I’m so grateful. For the first time in five years, Julie saw me outside of a visiting room. And I had an opportunity to impress Sarah. For a prisoner, this is as good as it gets.

As I walk between my sister and Sarah through the corridor, an involuntary smile stretches across my face. I stop at the entrance to B cellblock. Under the watchful eyes of the warden, I hug each of my guests and say good-bye.

I only have 21 more years to go. Then I’ll be able to walk out with them.

* * * * * * *

It’s only been a few days after the graduation ceremony and I’m eager to move forward with Hofstra. The professor overseeing my program told me that I’d receive my syllabus and books within a month. I hear my name over the loudspeaker. Someone is paging me to go to the mailroom. As I knock on the mailroom door, I’m hopeful that Hofstra sent the books early.

Mr. Chandler lets me in. “Boy, all the years you done been locked up and you still ain’t learned nothin’?”

I know this routine. I’m silent, waiting for the head of the education department to continue his reprimand. I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about or why he paged me to the mailroom.

“I done tol’ you befo’ ’bout havin’ yo folk’ send boxes to my depar’ment without axin’ me ‘forehand.”

“Yes, I remember. I haven’t had anyone send me any boxes.”

“If you ain’t had no one send ya no boxes, then why I gotta go through this mess. I ain’t the one to be playin’ wit. Who be sending all these books that done come from Princeton University?”

A month has passed since my correspondence with Professor DiIulio. When I wrote that I would welcome the books, I wasn’t thinking about the mailroom rules. If books come from a publisher or a bookstore in an envelope, we’re allowed to receive them. For a prisoner to receive boxes, a staff member must provide advance authorization.

“Don’t be standin’ there with your mouth all hangin’ open. You done knows this was comin’. Letter’s addressed to you.”

I tell Mr. Chandler that I thought the books would come from the university bookstore in an envelope. I didn’t know there would be so many.

“Who this Professa D’oolioo? You know ’im?”

I explain that I don’t know him, but we’ve been corresponding. “He teaches at Princeton and writes books. He wrote that he would send me some books but I didn’t know they would come like this,” I tell him.

“Boy you a real piece a work.” He handles the books one by one and squints while reading the titles and flipping through the pages. “Guv’nin’ Prisons, No ‘xcape. This professa be writin’ these books?”

“I guess so.”

“What business you got readin’ all these books ’bout prison. Ain’t you know ’nough ’bout prisons yet?”

“I’m still learning, sir.”

“I hope you done learnt ’nough to stay out.” Mr. Chandler likes me. My graduation from Mercer and the speech I gave during commencement put a positive spotlight on his department. His gruff demeanor doesn’t intimidate me anymore because I know it’s just his way.

“Well go ’head on then. Next time make sure you see me ’bout auth’rization.”

Jubilant, I carry the box of books back to the business office where I work. Dr. DiIulio sent 17 books. He authored two of them, and others are classics in penology. I sit at my desk and clear a space on the bookshelf behind me. Reading the books will help me build a relationship with him. I intend to write about what I learn from each. I especially look forward to reading the books that he wrote. My small personal library will provide ample research material as I begin my studies at Hofstra.

* * * * * * *

Since I can’t earn an accredited law degree from prison I’ve had to think about what I can study. I’ve enjoyed reading the Wall Street Journal. I really enjoy learning about the stock market. Finance interests me. But an MBA isn’t really an option, because Hofstra didn’t allow me into the business school. I need to focus on a graduate degree in the liberal arts.

After consulting with Bruce, I come up with a plan. I propose to Hofstra that I study prisons and the people they hold. My Hofstra advisor is Dr. Al Cohn, Professor of Psychology. He grills me on why I want to study prisons when I’m in prison. I have a lot of reasons, so I lay them out in a lengthy letter.

Our prison system is growing into a monstrosity. It confines more than 1 million people. It generates intergenerational cycles of poverty. In the prison where I’m held, I see grandfathers serving time with their sons and grandsons. I see people finish lengthy sentences. They go home for a few months. Then they return. The longer we expose people to corrections, it seems, the less likely those people are to function in society.

I consider our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration as one of the greatest social injustices of our time. And it’s getting worse. I tell Professor Cohn that I want to study prisons because I want to improve the outcomes of our prison system. I don’t know how I can do it. But if he allows me to earn a graduate degree by focusing on America’s prison system, I’ll be better equipped to offer a solution.

Dr. Cohn approves of my plan. We establish an interdisciplinary curriculum. I will study sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology. To complete the program, Dr. Cohn and other Hofstra professors will evaluate my research reports and the lengthy thesis I must write to earn a Master of Arts degree.

The books from Dr. DiIulio give me a theoretical understanding of the functions prisons should serve in society:

  1. Prisons should deter citizens from engaging in criminal behavior.
  2. They should punish those convicted of crimes.
  3. Prison terms should incapacitate criminals, stopping them from committing additional crimes, at least during the term of confinement.
  4. And prisons should rehabilitate offenders in an effort to help them return to society as law-abiding citizens.

After reading Governing Prisons, Dr. DiIulio’s comparative study of management in three separate prison systems, I begin collecting information to write my first term paper on prisoner adjustments. The book provides a thread, leading me to order several other books. The books inspire me to develop a questionnaire. As part of my cultural anthropology course, I conduct original, ethnographic research. I ask hundreds of fellow prisoners to participate in the questionnaire. Then I write a paper to describe my findings.

The resulting term paper, which I entitle “The Crusonian Prisoner,” earns high marks from my professors at Hofstra. I submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal, and it’s accepted for publication. They agree to present the paper at an annual conference of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. When I receive the news that scholars will present my paper to professionals in criminal justice, I get a boost. I’m not only a prisoner anymore. I’m contributing to society through my work.

My research led to findings that differed from the distinguished Princeton professor. He calls for tighter controls in American prisons. My observations and experience convince me that administrators should run prisons like leaders run businesses. They should govern through the use of incentives rather than threat of further punishments. In a letter to Dr. DiIulio, I offer reasons to support my conclusions. With the letter, I include a copy of my academic paper describing the Crusonian prisoner.

* * * * * * *

Sarah has come to visit five times since my graduation ceremony last month. Our letters have become much more personal. In her last letter, she wrote that she wanted to kiss me, and there is so much more I want from her.

Her lawyer privileges allow Sarah to visit whenever she chooses. The regularly visiting hours are irrelevant to her, and we visit in the private room reserved for lawyers.

Today is Tuesday, not a visiting day. It’s early evening as I sit with her, alone. Surveillance cameras do not monitor us. The guard sits at his desk, fifteen yards away on a platform. He’s down a flight of stairs. The intensity of our gaze says what we haven’t expressed in words. I lean across the table kiss her.

The sweet taste of Sarah’s lips, the moist warmth of her tongue, the heat of the moment makes me feel alive.

She asks me to send her a visitor’s form. Sarah wants to visit regularly. Being alone in a room with me could lead to problems, she says. We kiss again, and I touch her, showing why it’s so much better to visit alone, privately.

Between kisses, she tells me how much trouble she could get in for abusing privileges. The prison could deny her access if they found out that we were having an affair in the lawyer’s conference room.

I stand and take her hand. We walk two steps toward the door to peer through the narrow window. She’s in front of me, and I’m behind. We look through the narrow window and see the guard at the desk. He’s to our right, down a flight of stairs. He sits back in his squeaky metal chair, feet on the desk. Even if he looked, the angle of the narrow window would block him from seeing us. But we can see him. If he moves, we can both hear and see. She stands in front of me, looking at him.

The only other entry to the room is in the opposite direction. Two locked doors separate us from the corridor. If anyone unlocks the first door, we can see before they unlock the second door. We’re alone. We both know it. This is as close to privacy as I’ll ever have.

I’m directly behind her with both of my hands on her hips. With my face I push her hair to the side and I kiss her neck.

“Stop,” she whispers while pressing her body back into mine. I continue kissing her, touching her, feeling her, moving with her.

In this moment, right now, I’m not a prisoner. I’m a man, 28 and virile. I’m with a woman for the first time in five years. Right now, my prison record doesn’t matter. My goals don’t matter. My freedom doesn’t matter. We don’t think about her professional standing, or the possible consequences of our actions. The decades I must serve seem too far away. I need release. Sarah gives it to me.

We return to our seats, perspiration gluing my shirt to my skin. Sarah is disheveled, but glowing.

Her smile is a mixture of nervousness and exhilaration.

As far as anyone is concerned, we’re just a lawyer and a client having a conference.

“How do I look? Can you tell?” Her hands shake as she pulls a compact from her purse. She looks into the tiny mirror.

She smiles and applies makeup. “You’re going to get me in trouble,” she says.

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