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 Earning Freedom 1-18 

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Michael Santos

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Months 62-84

In Clip 18, we start chapter six. I show how I manipulate a transfer from high security to medium security. Stay tuned for a 20 minute clip.

It’s Thanksgiving, 1992. I’m about to move through my sixth holiday season as a prisoner. Only 21 more Christmas seasons inside.

Despite the forbidden affair I’ve been carrying on with Sarah, she brings me bad news today. It’s time for her to move on. We’ve been using the lawyer’s conference room as if it’s our lover’s cove for six months. We’ve met here for hours, two, sometimes three times a week. The risks are getting to her.

People suspect. When they’ve asked me why a lawyer would visit me so often, I have a simple answer. I’ve got a big case. She’s helping me. But that line is getting old, and guards have questioned her directly. She says that she can’t take the stress for another 21 years. I get it. This is my burden to carry.

I’ve hardened emotionally. Loss has become a part of my life. There’s always more to come. I’ve trained myself to expect obstacles and to move on. Her good-bye is an obstacle, but I’ve been expecting it since our first kiss.

I’m grateful for every memory. Still, I’ll miss her— I’ll miss her body. As I walk back to my cell, I wonder when I’ll touch a woman again.

The guard unlocks my door and I see my roommate, Windward. He’s lying on his rack, grinning.

“So. Did you get any?” He never stops fishing for details.

“I told you she’s my lawyer.”

He responds by saying that he told his judge that he thought he was smuggling flour, not cocaine.

I lie down, ignoring Windward’s taunts, his irritating interrogation. She was a delicious respite from my all-male world. Now she’s gone. Despondency starts to settle in like a dense fog. I’m thinking of women, family, and a normal life. Those thoughts squeeze me. I have to refocus. I’ve got to push Sarah out of my mind. A woman cannot carry this burden with me.

Five years be hind me. I’m going to focus on completing the next five. Five years at a time. That’s how I’ll get through this. I’ve got to reach 1997. What will be different in my life by then?

* * * * * * *

The people elected William Jefferson Clinton. He’s going to be the 42nd president of the United States. I closely followed the political coverage throughout the year. Julie purchased a subscription to the Washington Post so I could keep abreast of politics.

It’s a sunny day in January, 1993. I’m overwhelmed by emotions. Tears fill my eyes as I watch Justice Rehnquist swear our new president into office.

My sister asks me why I care so much who the president is.

In federal prison, the president has a huge influence, I tell her over the phone. He will appoint an attorney general, and the attorney general will appoint a director for the Bureau of Prisons. Those two leaders will bring in new rules and policies. Those rules and policies will reflect the president’s agenda. Many of those rules and policies will influence the lives of people in federal prison. They could even advance my liberty.

I’m optimistic. This switch from George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton is a good sign. As a federal prisoner, I live under many restrictions. I’m hoping that President Clinton or his attorney general will appoint a new director. I’m certain the new person will bring more empathy. After all, the president’s younger brother, Roger, served a federal prison sentence. He was convicted of selling cocaine and a federal judge sentenced him to serve 10 years.

With that family connection, Bill Clinton may be more receptive to calls for reform. We need prison reforms. And we need sentence reforms. I’m hopeful Clinton’s leadership will bring those reforms.

President Clinton may consider more progressive prison systems as a model for what we can do here. My studies exposed me to the system in Scandinavian countries. Citizens from local communities in Norway participate in ombudsman panels that serve the Norwegian criminal justice system. The ombudsman panels are designed to oversee and facilitate positive adjustments for offenders. Prisoners meet with the panels at the beginning of their terms. Together they work to establish clearly defined, individualized programs. Prisoners can work to reconcile with society. They can earn their freedom through merit.

In our justice system, we don’t have such policies. A judge imposes a sentence, and that’s it. We’re all about finality. The prisoner can get into trouble that can delay his release, but he can’t advance it through merit.

Under Clinton, I’m hoping for a change. Hope has been a mantra of Clinton’s throughout the campaign. If he wants to restore hope for people in prison, he’ll need to disrupt the current system.

We should look to the Scandinavian systems as a model. They want people to return to their communities as law-abiding, contributing citizens. As such, they design a system that brings the outcome they want. We want to punish. And we punish well. But our recidivism rates suggest that we’re failing. The longer we expose people to corrections, the less likely those people are to function in society.

How did our system start? How did it get to be this way?

Well, my studies show that it all began to deteriorate in 1973. Robert Martinson, a criminologist, published an article titled “Nothing Works.” The article suggested that regardless of what programs administrators start in prison, people in prison were a lost cause. They don’t change.

Then Professor James Q. Wilson, a mentor of Dr. DiIulio’s, published his widely quoted book, Thinking About Crime. In that book, Professor Wilson suggested that society ought to limit the functions of prisons to two goals. Prisons should isolate and prisons should punish. I’d like to see a different approach. Under President Clinton’s leadership, I’m hopeful for meaningful reforms.

Regardless of what Clinton or any politician does, I know that I’m on my own. I’ve got to succeed in spite of external forces. The concepts of isolation, deterrence, and punishment don’t concern me. I’m making daily progress by staying physically fit. I’m putting in long hours of study. It won’t be too long before I earn a master’s degree. President Clinton may or may not appoint enlightened leadership. He may change the system, or he may not. I’ll continue to learn and grow, regardless of what anybody else does. Neither the system of punishment nor anything else will block me from achieving the goals I set.

Despite the rigid, punishment-based policies that Martinson, DiIulio and other academics endorse, I will succeed. I will return to society as a contributing citizen. And I will find ways to succeed from in here.

My studies for a research paper exposed me to a 1985 commencement speech. Former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court delivered his speech to the graduating students of Pace University. He titled his speech “Factories With Fences.”

In his speech, Justice Burger called for reforms to America’s growing prison system. Instead of a system that isolates and punishes, Justice Burger urged changes. He recommended a system that would encourage prisoners to work toward “earning and learning their way to freedom.”

Eight years passed since Justice Burger delivered his speech. But leaders haven’t done much to implement his vision. Our system doesn’t encourage people to earn freedom. Our system is about finality. It is designed to extinguish hope and repress the spirit. People learn the skills to serve time, but those skills lead to failure upon release.

I’m going to do better. I am determined to do better.

* * * * * * *

My studies expose me to other scholars. I’m inspired by what I’ve learned from The Future of Imprisonment, a book by Dr. Norval Morris published in the 1970s. Dr. Morris wrote that in an enlightened society, we should create policies that encourage people in prison. They should be able to rise to their highest levels of competence.

His thoughts inspire me and I write him a letter. I want Professor Morris to know that I admired his book, and I ask for his guidance going forward. In the prison environment, it’s important to ask for help.

Several months pass before I receive a response. He was a distinguished professor at The University of Chicago law school. Despite his impressive position, Professor Morris offered to advise me with my studies at Hofstra. He said that he could be a friend to me throughout my term. In fact, he wrote, “I may be of particular help to you at times. I’ve known every director of the Bureau of Prisons and the past three directors are close friends of mine. Count on my support.”

Dr. Morris’s support boosts my spirits. I’ve been in prison for less than six years. But distinguished professors that include Bruce McPherson, John DiIulio, and Norval Morris mentor me. They want to prepare me for release. They express a willingness to advocate for me if I need help.

Through our letters and phone calls, Dr. Morris and I become friends. He introduces me to other leading American penologists. I begin to correspond with professors from across the United States. Many invite me to contribute to their work.

I’m a prisoner. I study prisons from the inside. I share what I learn with scholars. This strategy helps me build friendships. Dr. George Cole, an author and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Connecticut, pledges his support. He begins to visit me. And we begin to build a close friendship.

With these new friendships, I’m filled with hope. My optimism contrasts with the hopelessness that anchors men around me.

I serve a sentence that will require decades inside. But I’ve created a sense of meaning. I’m making progress. I have found the key to growth.

* * * * * * *

Bruce and I complete our collaboration on “Transcending the Wall.” Our paper reveals how education can transform people in prison. We publish our paper in the scholarly, peer-reviewed Journal of Criminal Justice Education. As I told Bruce during our summer visit in 1993, our publication serves a pragmatic purpose. It’s a step toward a better outcome.

When Bruce visits me, I tell him that it’s time for me to start laying the groundwork for a transfer. I need to get out of the high-security penitentiary.

He asks if I’m feeling threatened. Bruce read about the violence at USP Atlanta in a New York Times article. The article cited the pen as one of the nation’s most dangerous high-security prisons. He’s always concerned about my safety.

My schedule keeps me away from trouble, I tell him. But gang activity is more intense every day. It’s violent. There’s bloodshed every week. And it’s time for me to request a transfer.

Since I’m so eager to get out, Bruce asks why I haven’t already started the process of requesting my transfer.

As a prisoner, I explain, I need to be methodical when making requests. When a prisoner asks for a transfer, there’s no telling where the BOP will send him. It’s like playing roulette. Since I’m obsessed with continuing progress toward my master’s degree, I tell him that I want to transfer to the most educational -friendly prison possible.

Bruce asks if some of my mentors that work with the prison system can help me. They can and they will, I say. But first, I need to know where I should request to go. If I ask for a transfer, the BOP will probably send me closer to Seattle. Being closer to home isn’t a priority for me. With the length of my sentence, I need to be in the place where I can make the most progress. That’s what my family would expect from me.

Bruce is on board to help, and I lay out a plan.

I need to find the best prison for educational programming. But I’m not concerned with what staff members say. I need inside information. I need to hear what prisoners in other institutions have to say about where they’re serving time.

Bruce doesn’t understand why the prisoners’ perspective is so valuable.

I try to explain. “If someone were to inquire about educational opportunities here at USP Atlanta, the staff would discuss the basic programs. They would say that teachers, classrooms, and even college programs are available. But I’m the only prisoner out of 2,500 men who’ve earned a degree here. There’s a reason. It’s because, despite what staff members say, the atmosphere in here is oppressive. It’s toxic. The policies discourage people from pursuing an education.

Bruce points out that I get around the obstacles. He says I’ll get around the obstacles wherever I go.

He’s correct. I will make progress wherever I go. But it will take me time to get moving. And now that I’m so close co completing my degree, I don’t want disruption. I want to continue the same progress that I’ve been making here.

But I’m under no illusions. I make progress here because I have help. I have support from Ms. Stephens, Mr. Chandler, and a few others. They let me create a schedule. My schedule allows me to avoid problems. Because of the help they give me, I have access to computers. They intervene when policies or staff members try to block me.

When I get to the next prison, I explain, all that help will be a memory. I’ll be new and I won’t know anyone. I’ll face new obstacles, like everyone else. BOP staff members may resent me for striving to become something more than a prisoner. Those kinds of staff members throw up insurmountable barriers. I see them every day. I’m as familiar with this penitentiary as the back of my hand. I know how to get around in here. I need details and the up-to-date truth from prisoners about what goes on in other prisons. With that information, I can decide where to request a transfer. We’ve got to approach the transfer request carefully, with incremental action steps.

Our conversation evolves into a plan. When he returns to Chicago, Bruce writes a letter of introduction to Sylvia McCollum. She’s the Director of Education for the entire Bureau of Prisons. He lists his credentials as a retired professor of education from Chicago. Then Bruce explains that for the past several years he has been mentoring me. He includes a copy of the article we co-authored. Bruce offers to travel to Washington to meet with Ms. McCollum and discuss contributions he might make to the Bureau of Prisons as a volunteer.

Had I written to Sylvia McCollum directly, I may faced a reprimand. Staff members would call such a move as going outside the chain of command. Yet with Bruce as my emissary, I increased chances of receiving the data I was looking to find.

Ms. McCollum invited Bruce to her office in DC, at BOP headquarters. She welcomed his offer to mentor other prisoners. When he told her that he wanted to help others, Ms. McCollum encouraged him. She cleared Bruce to visit any federal prison he wanted. And she instructed staff members in education to introduce him to prisoners who actively participated in education programs.

* * * * * * *

The research work pays off, big time. Bruce visits several prisons and he connects with many prisoners. From the information they relayed to him, I learn that the best prison for me would be the Federal Correctional Institution in McKean. It’s in Northwestern Pennsylvania. I contact another mentor, Norval Morris. He made some phone calls. A few days later, my case manager tells me that I’m being transferred out of the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. I’m on my way to McKean.

“Santos,” I say. “16377-004.” I respond to the guard who processes me in for transfer as he calls me forward.

He shakes my wrists to ensure the handcuffs are secure. Then he yanks on the chain around my waist.

“Whadda we got goin’ on down here?” The guard pulls my pant legs out from between my skin and the steel bracelets locked around my ankles.

I didn’t get any socks. Since the chains were digging into my shins, I wove the pant legs inside the shackles as protection.

“Gonna have to live with it. Security first.” He tightens the cuffs to ensure I don’t pull the pant legs through again. The steel presses into my skin when I walk toward the bus.

I once read a novel by Wilbur Smith describing the horrific experiences of people who were locked in chains after slave traders captured them. The slaves were forced to walk across rough terrain to the ships taking them out of Africa. I’m reminded of that slave shuffle as I walk my way onto the bus. By shortening my steps, I lessen the pain.

My stomach churns despite three earlier trips to the bathroom. My body hasn’t moved faster than my legs could carry it since 1988, the last time I was in a vehicle. Now, in the spring of 1994, I’m sitting on an uncomfortable seat in the prison bus. It’s about to transport me out of USP Atlanta. Diesel fumes from the engines make me nauseous. Beads of sweat form on my forehead

It’s been seven years since my arrest. I’m now 30, certainly a different man. Still, I’m a prisoner. I’ve got steep walls to climb to get out of this darkness. But today, I smile as I settle into the black vinyl seat, recalling how I engineered this transfer. With Norval’s help, the administrative obstacles to the transfer were insignificant. From Bruce’s interviews with other prisoners, I learn that the men refer to the prison where I’m going as “Dream McKean.” It’s got a progressive warden, Dennis Luther, and he supports education programs.

My case manager, Ms. Forbes, had attended my graduation in 1992. She coordinated arrangements with the mailroom in Atlanta so I could receive books I needed from the Hofstra library. She supported my efforts, but said that since I was from Seattle, the region would not approve me to transfer to Pennsylvania. She said they would transfer me closer to the west coast. But with intervention from Norval, I was able to overcome the problem. When I asked for his help, he called the regional director. That was two days ago. Now I’m on my way to the Dream McKean.

When the bus engine begins to roar, I feel ready to leave. I’ve lived through six holiday seasons. I walked through puddles of blood and lived with men serving multiple life sentences in high security. Transitioning to a medium-security prison means encountering less volatility. I’ll find more optimism, I hope.

As I wait for the bus to roll along, my thoughts, curiously, turn to my eventual release. I submitted a petition for clemency about six months ago. It wasn’t my intention to submit the petition until 1997, when I would’ve completed my first decade in prison. But after discussing my plan with Norval, he convinced me to go for it.

With Norval’s letter of support, I sent my petition to the U.S. pardon attorney in Washington DC. That was more than six months ago. Whenever I make inquiries on the progress, I receive form letters from the US Pardon Attorney’s Office. They say my petition is under review. I have no idea what will happen, if anything will happen. I’m grasping the concept of 20 more years in prison. But I’m transferring from a high-security penitentiary to a medium-security today. And I’m enthusiastic about the change, even if I’ll be immersed in a population of more than 1,500 felons.

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