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In Clip 19, we finish chapter six. I earn my master’s degree and I teach a group of Princeton undergrads. Stay tuned for a 20 minute clip.
The air breaks sigh as the bus stops in a circular driveway, right in front of the administration building. We’re here, FCI McKean, a prison where I expect to spend the next several years of my life.
As I look through chain-link fences separated by razor wire, I remember my first close look at a prison. That was back in 1987. Three DEA agents escorted me through gates of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Miami. The buildings in McKean look similar. It’s like an office park inside cages and razor wire. Without the impenetrably high concrete walls and gun towers that surround the penitentiary in Atlanta, McKean looks almost welcoming, at least from the outside. The years are institutionalizing me.
The guard stands at the front of the bus and starts calling names. When I hear him call me, I hobble off. Fragrance from evergreen trees is potent. McKean is set in the midst of Northwestern Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Forest. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in such a natural setting, double, razor wire topped fences notwithstanding. The cool mountain air makes me shiver. I soak up the sight of trees, spring flowers, and distant rolling hills. Once everyone is off the bus, 22 other prisoners join me in taking shuffle steps with our chains dragging. We make our way toward the processing area.
The guards herd us into holding cells and we wait through the admissions process. By early afternoon, guards have snapped my photograph for a mug shot. They’ve fingerprinted me. They’ve issued my bedroll and ID card. They let me out of the receiving area and I walk into the prison.
Rather than following the wide concrete walkways through manicured lawns toward my housing unit, I take a detour, looking for the Education Department. I’m looking for Ms. Barto, the supervisor of education. She is the woman who hosted Bruce when he visited here on my reconnaissance mission.
I find her office and I ask to speak with her.
She looks at me up and down. I’m wearing blue canvas shoes, elastic-waist khaki pants, and a dingy white t-shirt with 2XL written in black felt-tip marker on the upper left chest. I look like a hobo, carrying a bedroll under my arm.
“Looks like you just pulled in,” she says.
Ms. Barto wasn’t anything like Mr. Chandler. She seemed kind. She’s in her mid-30s, slender, with chestnut hair, gleaming white teeth, and clear blue eyes. She has a welcoming smile that would be easy for a prisoner to confuse with an invitation to flirt.
She asks if I’ve reported to the officer in the housing unit yet.
“Before going there, I wanted to introduce myself,” I say. “I’m looking for a job. My name is Michael Santos. I’ve been in USP Atlanta for the past six years. You may remember my mentor, Dr. Bruce McPherson. He visited you about a month ago and you introduced him to a few inmates who were active in education.”
When I mentioned Bruce, she made the connection. She expressed surprise that I was able to transfer so quickly.
I didn’t reveal that I had help from Norval Morris. Staff members do not like inmates that manipulate the system or go outside of regular channels. I tell her about my program at Hofstra and ask her to approve special accommodations I’ll need to continue studying.”
“You’re in correspondence school, right?” She remembers Bruce talking about me.
“I’m nearly finished with a program at Hofstra University,” I say. To complete it I’ll need to make arrangements here so Hofstra’s library can send books I need for my coursework. Besides those arrangements, I’m hoping you might have a job available. Once I finish my duties, I’d like to use a word processor for my schoolwork.”
Since Bruce paved the way before I arrived, Ms. Barto extends all the support I need. I don’t have any delays settling in at McKean. She assigns me to tutor other prisoners who are enrolled in a class to learn word processing skills. When I’m not working with them, she authorizes me to use the computer for schoolwork. She also lets the mailroom staff know that I’ll be receiving packages from Hofstra’s library, and asks them to give them to her so she can pass them along to me. With Bruce’s advance preparations and my clearly documented record of achievement, I have a seamless transition into Dream McKean.
* * * * * * *
Compared to the penitentiary, McKean is a dream. I can see myself staying her for ten years. Although a handful of prisoners on the compound serve life sentences, the tension at McKean isn’t pervasive. In USP Atlanta, the tension was palpable. McKean is a medium-security prison, and it’s way more laid back.
Professional, intelligent leadership is the reason behind the tranquility. Warden Dennis Luther doesn’t cling to the simplistic notion that prisons should exist solely to isolate and punish. Instead of relying on policies that crush hope, and managing by threat of further punishment, he offers positive incentives. They give the men a reason to avoid violence and disruption.
For more than six years, I lived in a cauldron that could boil over at any time. To leave my cell in Atlanta I had to wait for specific times and pass through eight separate checkpoints, metal detectors, and searches just to get to the weight pile. By contrast, guards don’t lock doors to the rooms in McKean. We’re free to walk around. I don’t feel any tension.
McKean has a token economy. By keeping rooms and housing units clean, prisoners earn many privileges. They get more access to television and the telephones. Those who accumulate enough points earn the privilege of having a portable television and VCR in their rooms for the week. By minimizing disciplinary infractions, prisoners can participate in family picnics, order food and goods from local businesses, and wear personal rather than institutional clothing.
No one wants problems that can lead to the loss of privileges or lockdowns. The system works exceptionally well, minimizing disruptions by gangs. The rigid bureaucracy of Atlanta contrasts with the well-run operations at McKean.
Warden Luther’s management style spawns ideas for my master’s thesis. If he doesn’t object, I’ll base my thesis on what I’m learning and experiencing first hand at McKean. I want to contrast the pragmatic style he uses to keep operations running smoothly at McKean with the more punitive style that exists in the other prisons I’ve read about. Warden Luther supports my proposal. He invites me to his office and makes himself available as an interview subject.
* * * * * * *
The guard eyes me suspiciously when I present myself to the control area of the administration building. He’s stationed in a locked booth, surrounded by thick glass and vertical steel bars. It’s off limits to prisoners and he seems surprised when I say that the warden asked to see me.
The guard makes a call. When he receives confirmation that I’m authorized to visit the warden in his office, he still seems wary. But buzzes the door open and I walk in.
Tall indoor plants with heavy green leaves fill the atrium-like lobby. I look up and see several skylights. Brightly colored fish swim in a large aquarium adjacent to a secretary’s desk. She tells me to walk up the stairs.
“The warden’s office will be to the left.”
When I walk into the office the warden’s secretary greets me. She tells me the warden will see me soon and asks me to sit in a lobby area. I’m blown away when she offers me a cup of coffee, as if I’m making a business call. I thank her but decline the coffee.
On the table beside my seat, I see a stack of magazines. I pick up a trade magazine that covers the growing prison industry. While scanning the table of contents, I spot an article that Warden Luther coauthored with Professor John DiIulio, my mentor. I can’t believe it.
The phone on the secretary’s desk rings. She answers and then tells me I can walk into the warden’s office. Warden Dennis Luther sits in a high-backed leather chair, at a desk of cherry wood. Behind him a large window overlooks the center of McKean’s compound. An American flag and another flag bearing the Department of Justice insignia hang from poles in the corner. Bookshelves line the wall. I see photographs of him with the director and others at the BOP headquarters in DC.
Warden Luther gestures to a couch adjacent to his desk. It’s the first couch I’ve sat on since my term began, and this is the first time I’ve been in an office, alone with a warden. He encourages with questions about my plans to write the thesis and his offer to help.
I tell him that I’m at a stage where I have to propose my thesis subject to the graduate committee at Hofstra. I’d like to write about the incentive system and the token economy he authorizes in McKean. If he would spend time talking about the influences that shaped his management philosophy, I explain that I could make a stronger case.”
“Okay,” he nods his head as he leans back in his chair. “We can start right now. What questions can I answer for you?”
“Awesome. I wasn’t expecting to start today, but since you’re offering, I’d like to hear about your relationship with Professor John DiIulio.”
From the look on his face, I can see that my question surprises him. “John DiIulio? Why would you ask about him?”
I explain that I flipped through the magazine on the table in his lobby. I didn’t have time to read the article, but I tell him that I was surprised to see that he coauthored an article with Dr. DiIulio. I describe the ongoing correspondence Professor DiIulio and I have had over the past few years, and that I’ve read several books that he authored. Since Dr. DiIulio wrote about the need for more punitive prisons, I didn’t see how he and Warden Luther could share views on prison leadership.
Warden Luther smiled. “The truth is, John and I share more in common than you might think.”
* * * * * * *
After an hour with Warden Luther, I return to my room. I write to John DiIulio, describing my meeting with Warden Luther. In the letter, I let him know that I’m going to center my thesis on Warden Luther’s management style. I will compare and contrast the token economy with the goals of isolation and punishment that many academics promote.
John surprises me with his quick response. He writes that he’s glad I’ve settled in so well at FCI McKean and that I’ve had an opportunity to learn from his friend, Warden Luther. Then he makes an extraordinary offer. John says that he would like to bring a class of Princeton undergrads on a field trip to McKean. They could tour the prison and meet with both Warden Luther and me.
I accept the offer with enthusiasm and leave the details to him and Warden Luther.
* * * * * * *
It’s a Saturday morning, in the fall of 1994. I’m in my eighth year of the sentence, working toward my goals with military-like discipline. I wake at three o’clock as a guard shines his flashlight into my cell for the census count. When he passes, I get up, wash my face, then sit at my desk to read through the notes I’ve taken from Dr. DiIulio’s books. I want to be ready for our visit.
In a few hours he’ll be here with a bus load of students. It’s a big deal for me, one that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I’m looking forward to speaking with a group of Ivy League students, contributing to their education and to their understanding of America’s prison system. Few people in prison get such an opportunity. I think back to the incremental action steps that made this visit possible.
First, I made a decision to change my life.
Second, I looked for guidance.
Third, I read a book that introduced me to Socrates.
Fourth, I made a decision to focus on educating myself, on contributing to society, and on building a support network while serving my time.
Fifth, I created opportunities to earn an undergraduate degree.
Sixth, I created an opportunity to get into graduate school.
Seventh, I built a wide network of mentors.
I may be in prison, but I’m charting my own course, making progress every day.
At nine o’clock I walk to Warden Luther’s office, ready. I’m intent on making a favorable impression for Professor DiIulio and his students. I want to give them a different perspective on the need for prison reform. Warden Luther, Associate Warden Craig Apker, and I sit in a conference room.
Warden Luther points to the buffet table and asks if I’d like some coffee, hot chocolate, or a pastry.
I walk over and pour hot chocolate from a thermos. While admiring the array of pastries on the oak table I realize it’s the first time I’ve sipped from a ceramic mug since I’ve been incarcerated. I’m used to plastic. The heavy mug dings my teeth. I’m grinning, grateful for the experience.
The warden is dressed casually, in brown corduroys and a tan sweater over a shirt with a button-down Oxford collar. He looks preppy, which I guess is appropriate for a meeting with the undergrads.
Through the conference room window, the three of us watch the charter bus come to a stop in front of the administration building. I’ve seen photographs of John DiIulio before. The national media has profiled him, and he frequently speaks as an expert commentator on matters related to the prison system. I recognize him as he steps off the bus. I’ve read a lot of his work, and what others have written about him. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard, and he was one of the youngest professors at Princeton to receive tenure.
I count fourteen students stepping off the bus. They’re all well dressed, with brilliant futures ahead. These young people are being groomed for leadership, and they’re studying in one of the world’s finest universities. Some may be offspring of legislators and judges. They may have influence. I’m grateful that they made the long trip. It’s an awesome opportunity to share observations and experiences, while simultaneously advancing my argument on the need for reforms.
After introductions, we sit in cushioned chairs around the highly polished wooden conference table. The students take notes as Warden Luther provides the group with details on the prison. It is a medium-security Federal Correctional Institution with a population that ranges between 1,400 and 1,800 men. He describes how he governs the prison. From his perspective, judges send people to prison as punishment for their crimes. He does not have the duty to punish them further by creating an oppressive atmosphere.
One of the students asks Warden Luther if he faces resistance from his colleagues, or others who could construe his philosophy as coddling prisoners.
Warden Luther turns to me. “What do you think, Michael? Are you being coddled?”
I’m happy to respond. I tell the students about my journey. I served the first several years of my sentence in a high-security prison. That environment dehumanizes everyone. Although I was able to create a routine and focus on educating myself, most of the other prisoners abandoned hope. Those perceptions and attitudes fed into their hostility. That level of anger doesn’t exist at McKean, I tell the students. From that perspective, it’s better.
People could construe the atmosphere as coddling prisoners. But McKean has many advantages that should interest taxpayers. The prison doesn’t have problems with gangs. There isn’t any bloodshed. And the prisoners work together to keep privileges in place. We’re still in prison. We live without family, without liberty. When I’m lying on a steel rack in a locked room at night, with an aching to see my mother again, or to hug my sisters, or when I’m suffering from the estrangement I feel from society, from women, I’m aware of my punishment. I’ve been living that way for more than 2,500 days already. To me it doesn’t feel like I’m being coddled.”
Professor DiIulio asks Warden Luther about what type of changes he would like to see Congress make, changes that would improve the prison system.
Warden Luther said he’d recommend that we close all minimum-security prison camps. The camps don’t serve a useful purpose. Fences don’t confine the camp prisoners, and the men aren’t a threat to society. Camp prisoners should serve their sanctions in home-confinement or under some other form of community-based sanction. The camps require a budget of more than $10,000 per year for each person. It’s wasteful spending.
A student then asks what type of changes I would like Congress to make.
“As a long-term prisoner, I’d like to see citizens and members of Congress rethink the concept of justice. We shouldn’t measure justice by the number of calendar years a person serves in prison. It would be far better to measure justice by the efforts an offender makes to redeem his crimes and reconcile with society. Such reforms would encourage offenders to work toward earning freedom through merit. Society would be better off.
“How about violent offenders?” Another student interjects. “Should offenders who violently prey on society have opportunities to earn freedom?”
“I’m a big believer in a person’s capacity to change. Anyone can learn how to lead a productive and contributing life. An enlightened society such as ours ought to allow its criminal justice system to evolve. I don’t know what challenges an individual ought to overcome to earn freedom. But we can come up with a system that serves society better than locking a human being in a cage for decades. Some offenders will never express remorse. Some will never work to atone, or do enough to earn freedom. But many will. And such a system would serve the interests of society better than one limiting itself to isolating and punishing.
* * * * * * *
The time together in Warden Luther’s conference room raise my spirit. When we leave I’m the tour guide, responding to student questions as we walk through the housing units, recreation areas, and prison compound. After our tour we return for a second conference that lasts another few hours. I’m energized as I finally walk them out to their bus. When the guard at the gate orders me against the wall so he can pat me down, I don’t mind at all. I’m indifferent to the degradation. It’s all part of the journey.
“Who’re they?” the guard asks, curious about why I’m with the group.
“College students,” I say.
He’s giving me a thorough search, perhaps because the group is looking on. I’m a spectacle, on display, with the guard’s hands working their way along my arms as if he’s squeezing meat into a sausage casing.
He clears me to walk through the gate and into the prison yard.
* * * * * * *
My meeting with Dr. DiIulio and his students inspires my thesis. It becomes a project that succeeds in making me feel luckier still, opening new opportunities. Warden Luther authorizes me to record a video for presentation at the 1994 Annual Conference of the American Society of Criminology. In May of 1995, Hofstra awards my Master of Arts degree.
With those credentials, and letters of endorsement from my growing support network, the University of Connecticut admits me into a Ph.D. program. Eight years into my sentence and I’m on my way to becoming a scholar of distinction. Or so I think.