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 Earning Freedom, Chapter 1-5 

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Michael Santos

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Earning Freedom

Chapter One: 1987-1988
Months 1-12

Clip 5

The court paid my federal public defender, Justin, to represent me after I cut ties with Raymond. Now that I’ve been sentenced, however, I’m without much access to legal counsel. Justin will prepare a direct appeal, but he won’t be available to help me understand how to navigate my way through the 45-years I must serve. I don’t even know what that means and I wonder whether the judge really intends for me to languish in prison for longer than I’ve been alive.

Unlike the federal time that I’m serving, most of the other prisoners in my housing unit at the county jail face problems with the State of Washington’s criminal justice system. From those men I learn that all 50 states maintain their own criminal justice and prison systems, with different rules and legal codes. As a federal prisoner, I have little in common with them. Still, by listening to the more experienced prisoners around me I become familiar with concepts like “parole” and “good time.”

The federal prison system is in transition, abolishing parole and significantly reducing the amount of good time possible. Since my convictions stem from crimes I committed prior to the date of the new law’s enactment, I’m part of the old-law system where parole still exists. Still, the statute under which I stand convicted, “the kingpin statute,” is one of the few crimes under the old law that doesn’t qualify for parole eligibility. Of the 45-year sentence that my judge imposed, I’ve learned that I’m only eligible for parole consideration during the final two years of my sentence, the portion imposed as a consequence of my perjury conviction. Still, it’s all very confusing to me and I don’t know how many years I’ll actually serve in prison.

To pass time I read legal books in the jail’s law library. From those books I understand that a good-time provision under the old law authorizes prison administrators to reduce my sentence if I remain free of charges for disciplinary misconduct.

Still, according to calculations I make on a piece of lined writing paper, regardless of what I achieve in prison, I’ll serve more than 26 years. That doesn’t make much sense to me, as I didn’t have charges of violence or weapons, and only consenting adults were involved in my crime.

The length of my sentence doesn’t haunt me as much as Lisa’s legal issues. She’s now in Miami, where she receives more family support while her lawyer works through the best possible plea agreement. The entire situation is a mess I’ve created. I try to comfort her during our nightly telephone calls even though I’m powerless to protect her. Our only connection is on the phone, but the conversations we have don’t seem to be enough.

I ask her to pray with me, but she always snaps back “I don’t want to pray, Michael.” It stings as if she’s slapping me when she uses my name instead of a more endearing term. “You’re supposed to get me out of this mess,” she says.

“I’m trying, Lisa. I’m trying. No matter what happens though, we still have each other and with God’s help we’re going to get through this.” I’ve never been religious, but during these traumatic times I find strength through prayer and I want her to join me.

“How?” she wails. “How do you think we’re going to get through this if you’re in prison and I’m in prison? How is God or prayer going to help us through that?”

“You’re not going to prison, honey. God’s not going to let that happen. I can feel it. The judge sentenced me to far more time than everyone else, and I’m sure he slammed me with all the time he intends to hand out in this case. It’s over.”

“That’s not what my lawyer says,” she argues through tears. “He told me I could get five years. Five years, Michael! I can’t handle this. I can’t go to jail!”

“Don’t worry, Baby. It’s not going to happen. I know it’s not going to happen. At worst he’ll sentence you to probation. I need you to pray, to have faith in God.”

Lisa pauses on the phone, as if contemplating what she wants to say. “Raymond keeps calling me.”

“Why is he calling you?”

“He calls because he’s a pig, that’s why. Last night he asked me to come to his house for a soak in his hot tub. He said that a real man wouldn’t have put me in the position you did.”

The news sickens me. My former lawyer has taken everything I own and now he’s trying to seduce my wife. My losses continue. With only one place to decompress, I return to my cell, my haven from madness, and I lie on my bunk, realizing that the sentence is only the start. There is still more pain to come, farther to fall.

I want peace but I can’t escape the noise blasting through the cellblock. Rap songs blare from music television stations. There’s also a continuous chatter from the scores of prisoners roaming purposely and posturing in the common area, along with loud exclamations and expletives from each of the table games. From my bunk I can see a haze of tobacco smoke that lingers beneath the ceiling. I feel close to the edge, uncertain whether I’ll make it through without wrapping a noose around my neck or slicing an artery. Suicide seems so easy, so inviting.

My mom and Christina, my younger sister, are in Florida. The geographical distance that separates us is a relief. After all the lies I’ve told about innocence, I can’t bring myself to face my family, especially my mother.

Through a telephone call I learn that my trial has brought my mom and Lisa’s father together. His name is Hank. Although I’ve never met him I know that he shares a mutual grief with my mom, and that grief has led to a romance between them. My life has become an absurd soap opera.

“This is crazy,” I tell Christina over the phone. “How can Mom get together with this guy? She’s only been divorced from Dad for a year.”

“Give her a break, Michael. She’s lonely and sad. I’m glad she’s found love. No one wants to be alone and you’re no one to judge.”

Christina’s right. I shouldn’t judge my mom, or anyone. I’m in jail and I don’t even know my own family, just as the choices I made over the past three years resulted in my family not knowing me.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I want Mom to be happy too. The news just surprised me, that’s all.”

“That’s okay. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. I mean, for one thing, Hank isn’t anything like Dad. Besides that, when Mom and Hank marry, that means you’ll be married to your own stepsister and Hank will be both your father-in-law and your stepfather. Just like you don’t know Hank, none of us really know Lisa.”

* * * * * * *

My father and my sister, Julie, wait through slowly moving lines to visit me in the jail. Julie is a year older than I am. She’s totally independent and strong, holding our shattered family together as my conviction and sentence loom. Each weekend we visit through glass partitions, clutching telephone handsets as we cry in the booth.

“Tell me again, son. Why did you feel that you had to do this?”

The jail officers only allow me to spend 15 minutes in the booth, and when my father asks me these questions I press my hand against the glass to match his and cry.

“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Son. Don’t cry. We’re here for you.” He’s crying too, as is Julie. The sadness is hard to take, and at this stage, I don’t know how it will end.

“We’re here for you,” Julie repeats. “Whatever you need, we’re here for you. We just need you to be strong in there and to know it’s going to get better.”

“Santos!” The jailer yells in the booth. “Let’s go! Time’s up! I’m not telling you again. Move out!”

I pull my hand from the glass. Not wanting others to see my weakness, I rub tears from my eyes as I walk away. I’m going to ask my family not to visit anymore. Whenever I walk away from the visiting booth the devastation I’ve caused plays out in my mind. Those images come with pangs of guilt that linger like a dark cloud.

When I left the family my father was such a force. He was rough, a hard-working man who came to this country with nothing but ambitions to build a better life. While on a construction site, surrounded by heavy equipment, I could always find him as he yelled out orders to the men who worked for him. He and my mother wanted so much for me. I’m besieged by thoughts of what my conviction and long sentence has done to my parents. My father steered a small boat across 90 miles of the Atlantic, braving Caribbean waters and the unknown to escape Castro’s communism.

But when I look in his tearing hazel eyes, see the new worry lines etched in his brow, or the way that his once black hair is turning white, I know he fears that I won’t survive prison. In the night, he has told me, he wakes in a panic and suffocates with anxieties that news will come informing him that I’ve taken my life.

“Promise me you’ll be strong enough to see this through,” he pleads with me frequently over the telephone.

“Yes, Dad. I’m going to make it. I promise.”

“Say it again!” He insists.

“I promise.” My father has lost his life’s work and his marriage and now his son. He’s only 53-years old, yet he’s tormented, blaming himself for the prison term I face. The guilt of it crushes me.

* * * * * * *

I struggle to understand the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Existentialism centers on personal responsibility and I espouse the concept even though these writers reject the concept of God. I’m living hour-by-hour, and they sometimes feel interminable. Through prayers I find comfort, leaving me conflicted by the existentialists. I’m torn between embracing and rejecting them. Although I oppose their godlessness, I find their message about personal will empowering. Regardless of what social exposures influenced my judgments, values, and actions, my ego, greed and shortsightedness caused my problems. Neither prayer nor religion is going to fix my problems, but I feel a spiritual force moving me. Both prayer and the teachings of the existentialists convince me I can grow into the man I aspire to become.

* * * * * * *

It’s late summer of 1988 when a jailer opens my cell door early on a Saturday morning. “Santos! Roll up!” He throws two plastic bags on the concrete floor. “Dump your personal belongings in one bag, pile your sheets and blankets in the other. Move out! Now!”

With my hands and legs in shackles I carry the bag filled with letters from Lisa, her photographs, and a few books as I follow the jailer through a maze of corridors. He locks me in a holding cell with others. We don’t wait long before the U.S. marshals take control and herd us like chattel into a transport van parked in the jail’s basement garage.

My time in the county jail has come to an end.

“Can you tell me where I’m going?” I ask the driver of the van.

“You don’t know?”

I shake my head while shrugging my shoulders.

“You’ll find out when you get there.”

We drive south on Interstate 5 and don’t stop for several hours until we reach a landing strip at the Portland airport. After another hour in the van I see the plane’s tires hit the tarmac and the landing precipitates movement. The marshals and other law enforcement officers emerge from separate vehicles donning black armor vests and gripping their assault rifles firmly while taking positions to guard the plane.

I remember going through this drill before, when some of these same marshals transported me from Miami to Seattle for my initial court appearances. I shrink into my seat, watching the drama unfold and waiting for the requisite but dehumanizing inspections before I board the plane to some unknown destination.

I look through the tinted window of the transport van and watch prisoners leave the plane, hobbling down stairs in chains, with marshals inspecting them as if they are a lower species. I think how differently events might have unfolded if only I had made better decisions after I stepped off that plane last year.

I can’t blame anyone but myself for where I sit. My friends didn’t testify against me out of malice and I don’t begrudge them the evidence they provided against me. I miss them. We grew up as brothers and although we haven’t spoken, I sense that they empathize with my plight. Without delusions of acquittal I too could’ve accepted responsibility for my crimes. I knew I was guilty, but rather than accepting responsibility and putting the past behind me, I fooled myself into believing that since I didn’t touch the cocaine, prosecutors wouldn’t be able to prove anything and a jury wouldn’t convict me. Within days of stepping off that plane last year, I even orchestrated a cocaine deal from inside the jail.

The chains on my wrists, around my waist, and on my ankles feel heavy, but not as heavy as my guilt. From my understanding, I’ll wear them for at least 26 years. Since I haven’t been alive that long, it feels like an eternity.

“Where you headed?” A prisoner addresses me as I settle into the seat beside him on the airplane. He’s older, about 35, but I’m guessing. He wears a goatee and I notice the flame tattoos on his forearms.

“To prison.” I shrug.

“Which one?”

“They wouldn’t tell me. Marshal said I’d find out once I got there.”

“Prick. I’m sick of livin’ like this, hate all these motherfuckers.”

“Where’re you going?”


“What’s that?”


“Lompoc, what’s that?”

“Whud’ya mean, ‘what’s that?’ Motherfuckin’ joint, that’s what it is. You green, just comin’ in or something?”

“I’ve been in jail for a year. Now I’m on my way to prison.”

“Go to trial?” His eyes suggest that he’s testing me.

I nod. “Guilty on all counts.”


“Cocaine,” I answer.

“What’d they hit you with?”

“My sentence you mean? Forty-five years.”

He whistled. “That’s some heavy shit. You old law or new law?”

“I’m old law.”

“At least you’ve got that goin’ for ya. You’ll be able to see the board after 10 years.”

“No I can’t. I’ve got a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, no parole.”

My neighbor whistles again. “That’s a bitch, young’n. Been down before?”

I shake my head.

He whistles again. “Least they’ll know you ain’t no snitch. How old’re ya?”

“I’m 24.”

“You got an ol’ lady?”

“I’m married.”

“Cut that bitch loose. Can’t be hangin’ on to no woman when you’re pullin’ a 45 piece. Gotta be ready to do time, and can’t do that with no woman on your mind.”

“How long have you been in prison?”

“Eight motherfuckin’ years. Got two more to pull ‘fore the board’s gonna cut me loose.”

“What are you going to do when you get out?”

“Fuck if I know. I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout no streets. One thing you’re gonna learn in prison, ain’t no one out ’til they’re out. Anything can happen. Best forget about them streets.”

This guy paints a somber picture for me. We haven’t even exchanged names and he has already advised me to give up on the world I once took for granted. He sounds so bitter, devoid of hope.

“What’s it like to serve eight years in prison?”

“A motherfuckin’ bitch,” he admits as his head presses into the headrest and he closes his eyes. “Got the man breathin’ down yer neck ever’ day. Fuckin’ family and friends from the streets desert ya. Parole board shittin’ on ya. Board could’a let me out a year ago. Said I wasn’t ready. Like they know what it’s like to live in the pen. They gave me a date, got me walkin’ on egg shells tryin’ not to catch a shot ‘til then.”

“You mean a ticket?” I ask if he’s referring to disciplinary infractions.

“You’re in the feds, young’n. Better learn the lingo. Tickets is in the state joints. In the feds we call ’em shots and you can catch ’em for just ’bout any motherfuckin’ thing.”

“Like what?”

“Anything. Look at a bitch’s ass, catch a shot for reckless eyeballin’ and lose your parole date. Show up late for work, catch a shot for bein’ outta bounds. Lose your date. Get caught with food from the kitchen in your locker, catch a shot for stealin’. It’s all bullshit. Motherfuckers’ll give you a shot for jackin’ off. They don’t want no one gettin’ out.”

I just process that.

He sleeps while I digest what he’s told me.

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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