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 Earning Freedom Chapter 1-7 

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Michael Santos

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Earning Freedom

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Chapter One: 1987-1988
Months 1-12

Clip 7

Brett’s concern for my predicament seems genuine but I’m burned out with legal procedures. I don’t even care about the appeal. The philosophy books I read helped me accept my guilt. Thinking about an appeal might put me on an emotional roller coaster. I don’t want to live in denial anymore. My focus is on living the lessons I’ve learned from those great philosophers. I want to acknowledge that I’m responsible for what I did, and for what I am, and for where I am, and I want to begin to make decisions that will improve my character and my life.

“What about a Rule 35? Do you know anything about that?” I ask.

Brett laughs when I ask about a legal motion that I want to file for the judge to reconsider my sentence. I’ve read about the motion in the law books. Under the old law, defendants may file the motion after the conclusion of all appeals.

“Rule 35 is a joke,” Brett tells me. “With a sentence like yours you better have something more up your sleeve than a Hail Mary.”

“So you’re saying no one ever gets relief from the Rule 35?”

“Rule 35 motion goes before the same judge who just saddled you with 45 years, Bud. Think he’s going to reconsider the sentence? Better think again. If he wanted to give you less, he would have. That motion doesn’t carry any weight. This system’s about finality, and the only way to change a sentence is through the appeals court where three or more separate judges review the proceedings at trial.”

The meeting with Brett is discouraging but I walk away with my resolve intact. I’m okay. I’m going to live through decades in prison, I tell myself, so I better accept it’s reality and prepare my mind for what’s ahead. I’ve already made it through the first year since my arrest.

A Rule 35–the legal motion that will petition my judge to reconsider my sentence–may be a “Hail Mary,” as Brett mocked, but a prayer might be all I have. Before I can file the motion I must exhaust all my appeals. I’m not thinking about reversing my conviction. In fact, my experience through the judicial system has been misguided and I feel a little dirty because of it. I’m not going to contest my guilt any more. What I want is a do-over, an opportunity to accept responsibility and express remorse. Forget about winning on appeal, I tell myself. The only way to purge this overwhelming guilt is to atone.

Since procedure dictates that I can’t file the motion for the judge to reconsider my sentence until my attorney exhausts all appeals, I write a letter to Justin, the attorney assigned to my case by the public defender. I urge him to focus on stalling for as long as possible. The object for me is not to win through some legal loophole, I explain. Instead, I want time to distinguish myself in prison. I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but if Justin can succeed in delaying the process for a few years, I expect I’ll find opportunities to demonstrate my remorse and my worthiness for reconsideration.

From what I’ve read of the law, timing is a critical factor. The established procedure requires that I file the Rule 35 within 120 days of the time that the final appeal affirms my conviction and sentence. After 120 days, the law precludes the judge from modifying my sentence. Before that time limit expires I need to show significant progress toward redeeming my crimes. I don’t yet know how I’ll reconcile with society, but I know the clock is going to start ticking when the appeals court makes its decision. I’d better be ready by then.

Returning to my housing unit, I notice a schedule for college classes posted on a bulletin board. The signs announce courses in English, math, history, and other subjects that could lead to a university degree. Earning a university degree would provide the kind of clear, compelling proof of my commitment to change, and with the news of its possibility, I find hope.

Judge Tanner would probably resist a motion to reconsider my sentence if nothing changes. Earning a college degree, however, would provide tangible evidence, showing discipline, character, and commitment. The choices I made that led to my conviction suggest such virtues were absent in my life, but earning a college degree might alter and soften the system’s judgment against me. I don’t know whether the federal penitentiary in Atlanta provides opportunities for collegiate study but the possibility encourages me.

* * * * * * *

I have a lot on my mind, and sleep isn’t coming easily. The prison is a population of more than 1,500 men and I haven’t crossed paths with the predator who tested me in the gym. Still, I know that confrontations will be a constant in prison. How am I going to handle them? If I’m to invest myself fully in building a string of accomplishments that will persuade the judge I’m worthy of reconsideration then I can’t allow a single blemish on my prison record. Not one.

The trouble isn’t with me. I can control my actions and behavior. Regardless of how I choose to serve my sentence, the real threat comes from how others choose to live in a high-security penitentiary. I won’t be able to control the ways that others serve time, but as I experienced in the gym, the decisions of others could have an immediate impact on my life. I’ll have to learn how to manage in this twisted environment.

But it isn’t only my early adjustment and assessment of my environment that bothers me, as Lisa’s predicament is still unresolved, troubling me. Her sentencing isn’t scheduled until the fall, but the possibility of her imprisonment isn’t something that I can totally dismiss. Everyone has a breaking point and her imprisonment could be mine. I’ve got to put this out of my mind, at least until her sentencing date comes closer. It’s just too much to worry about for now.

The gate to my cell rolls open. “Santos!”

“Yes,” I sit up from my rack instantly.

“Roll up!” the guard orders.

I’m on my way, with new anxieties. While locked in the county jail I read Homer’s epic The Odyssey, describing Odysseus’s 20-year journey home. My odyssey might take longer. I don’t know. Moving forward helps, even if my fear of the unknown accompanies each step.

It isn’t concern about conflicts with other prisoners that drive my anxieties. I’m 24 and I’m strong–confident that I can give as good as I get if it comes to fighting. But I don’t want an altercation. I want to turn this page of my life, to start writing a new chapter. I need to think about how others will judge me by what is written from now on. Every decision I make will have more than immediate consequences, but those decisions will also dictate where I stand in months, years, and decades to come.

After marshals yank on my chains and manacles, I fall into line with others and hobble up the stairs into the airplane. It’s already packed inside and by the time we take flight every seat is filled with hundreds of prisoners who deal with the crisis of imprisonment in his or her own way. Doubting whether any of them have a sentence as long as mine, I close my eyes and rest, wondering how many real killers are on board.

* * * * * * *

My ears pop as the plane descends and lands in New Orleans. We pass by hundreds of private jets and I realize that the airport is busy because the Republican National Convention is in town. President Reagan’s second term is approaching its end and the news reports I’ve read suggest that Vice President Bush will prevail over Michael Dukakis in the fall election.

A massive dark plane catches my attention. The words “Forbes Capitalist Tool” decorate the plane’s tail in large, bold letters, distinguishing the jet from smaller, white, sleeker models. The centers of corporate power and wealth have converged upon New Orleans to celebrate the anticipated new leadership of George H.W. Bush.

Only a few years ago I came of age and pulled a voting-booth lever for the first time. I considered myself an up and coming businessman, proud to vote Republican, for the party of business, for Ronald Reagan. That was before I considered selling cocaine, before the television series Miami Vice, or the big screen hit Scarface. Now I realize those glitzy shows influenced me. The fast boats, exotic sports cars, designer clothes, and incredibly seductive women presented an exciting image of cocaine trafficking.

As the marshals call names for prisoners to disembark I continue watching the fleet of corporate jets. Conservatives have won the marketing campaign of the 1980s, convincing me that they were the party of elites, the ruling class, and the group I wanted to join. Not understanding or caring about the broader implications of governance, I bought into the campaign propaganda painting “liberal” as a pejorative term, as a party of losers.

Although I’m not a scholar by any means, the concepts of liberalism and conservatism mean something different to me now that I’ve read essays by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Those essays convinced me that political parties and political thought dictate the direction of society. When I bought into the Republican theory of conservatism, without even knowing what it was, I rejected the liberal philosophy of John Locke that makes so much sense to me now. Yet as I stare out the window and look at those symbols of power, it’s clear that the conservative philosophy of Thomas Hobbes prevails in the 1980s. I’m an outsider, no longer a man or citizen. I’m a prisoner, stripped of the delusions and pretensions I had about taking a shortcut to a life of comfort.

* * * * * * *

With the exchange of prisoners complete we leave the corporate jets behind and fly east. Eventually I deplane and board a bus with other prisoners. We ride through the busy streets of Atlanta and as I look at the glass-faced skyscrapers, the places of commerce, the people, I try to soak it all up, knowing I’m not going to see a big city for a long time.

My stomach churns as the bus speeds across a dip in the road. And then I see it. For the first time I stare through the window at the fortress that will hold me, a monster, with an intimidating façade and a 40-foot high concrete wall that encapsulates the penitentiary’s perimeter. Coils of razor wire top tall metal fences that surround the outer wall as added protection against escape. Gun towers are evenly spaced about every 50 yards, standing ominously around the wall. I see guards inside–alert, at attention, with automatic rifles in their hands, watching as if our approaching bus carries enemy combatants. Perhaps that is the guards’ perception of us.

We cross an intersection and turn into a semi-circular drive. The bus comes to a slow stop in front of the dramatically wide steps that ascend to a majestic entrance. The architects who designed this awesome edifice of granite blocks and steel intended to send a message of permanence, of finality. The penitentiary symbolizes something, but I don’t know what. It might be justice, it might be vengeance, or it might be power. I don’t know. As I sit on the bus looking at the penitentiary from the outside, I also perceive an absence of humanity. The guards wear matching outfits of gray slacks, white, long-sleeved, button-down shirts, and maroon ties. Those with an air of authority wear dark blue blazers and carry clipboards. Others surround the bus wearing navy blue windbreakers with large gold “BOP” initials on the back. Instead of clipboards they carry assault rifles.

When the guards complete their preparation one of them calls us to the front of the bus, individually. “Listen up! When you hear your name, stand and walk toward the front of the bus. Give me your registration number. Then step off and walk directly up the stairs and into the penitentiary. Look straight ahead and don’t even think about trying to run. We will shoot.”

Chains bind our ankles, more chains wrap around our waists, and handcuffs weave through the chains in the front to lock our wrists in place. Who could possibly run?

“Santos! Michael!”

When I hear my name, I stand and shuffle my way through the cramped aisle toward the front of the bus.

“Number!” The guard demands while comparing my face to the mug shot on his file folder.

“Number 16377-004.”

“Date of birth?”

“January 15, 1964.”


Passing inspection, I make my way off the bus and keep my eyes dead ahead. I don’t know how I’m going to climb all those steps but I begin, taking it slowly as I advance through a gauntlet of armed guards. They stare at me through mirrored sunglasses and I know I’m being assessed. I make it to the top and follow the procession of prisoners through a series of metal gates. I’m inside the walls, walking into the penitentiary’s main corridor, the belly of the beast, as another prisoner once famously called it. It’s a stretch, longer than a football field, 20 yards wide. The marble floor is highly polished and buffed beige, surrounded by white concrete walls and steel side doors. This place is solid and eerily quiet. Our lumbering steps with dragging chains are the only sounds I hear. Other than those of us moving through, I don’t see any prisoners.

We turn to the right and walk downstairs into a basement. The familiar series of cages await us. I march into the bullpen, part of the herd. Guards unlock our chains and we begin the interminable wait for the processing to begin. The gates finally lock with 42 of us inside. I sit on a fixed bench that runs along the wall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the cramped cage. Trying to understand these new surroundings, I feign indifference as I listen closely to the conversations around me.

“Yo, you’s up in Lewisburg, back in ’74?”

The large prisoner to my right isn’t talking to me, but initiating communication with another prisoner who stands in front of us. I’m calculating the years as I listen; he’s asking about another prison 14 years ago, when I was only 10.

“Dat’s right,” the man responds. He sounds suspicious, as if trying to figure out whether the man questioning him is friend or foe. Neither man looks as if he knows the concept of fear. The welts and scars on their skin tell me that prison, confrontation, and violence have become extensions of life for each.

“Used to run wit’ Big Smoke and ’em?”

“Smoke’s my dog, yo! Where you be knowin’ Smoke from?”

With a mutual acquaintance established, genuine enthusiasm seems to replace the suspicion.

“Shee-it, Dog! I’s up in da ’burg wit’ you, D-block, Dog. I’s da one split Tone Loke open, left his guts fallin’ out all up in his hands outside da gym an shit.” This guy’s obviously proud of his reputation.

“Oh yeah, yeah, right. Used to be runnin’ wit Big-O and shit.” There is recognition between them.

“Dat’s what’s up, Dog.” The two muscular men, both bald with goatees, bump fists.

“Where’s you comin’ from, Cuz?”

“Man I been on tour Dawg. Lockdown at Marion, few at Leavenworth, I’m comin’ out ‘a Terry Haute right now. How ’bout you? Where you been at, where you be comin’ from?”

“Shee-it, I been out Lompoc, yo, kickin’ it and shit.” Then he turns to me. “Yo young’un, why on’t you step off for a minute? Let the Big Dogs kick it.”

It’s not really a question. He’s telling me to move, telling me that I’m irrelevant in this world. I’m an insect, a nonentity unless I choose, at a moment like this, to define myself as something different.

The prisoner would not have considered challenging a man he respected in such a way. But in my face, and in my eyes, and in my movements, he reads that I haven’t yet earned respect in this world that is so unfamiliar to me.

In a split second I have to decide whether to stand my ground and follow consequences to their end, wherever they take me. I’m calculating at the speed of light, certain that my response can influence where I am in 10 seconds and in 10 years. The penitentiary requires aggressive force–instantly and without hesitation–for respect. But I don’t aspire to have the penitentiary define me. It’s much more important for me to earn respect outside of prison walls. So I stand to surrender the space I had on the bench. This isn’t the time to assert myself. I’m my own general in my war and I need to choose which battles are worth fighting.

I’m learning, absorbing everything going on in this cage. Survival means more than fitting in to the penitentiary. I want out, but every step counts. Instinctively, I’m taking the first steps, but I’m walking across a high wire, a tightrope. Every decision I make determines whether the privilege of another step will come, or whether I’ll begin a free fall to my demise. Deliberate, careful, calculated steps will lead to the other side.

I berate myself for having sat in the first place. This is not a game, this is life, and I can’t allow my senses to dull. I must stay alert. Like an antelope crossing the plains of the Serengeti, I must use all of my innate intelligence to avoid succumbing to the perils that lurk here. And there are many. I can’t forget that every movement, every choice, every word will influence what happens next. Had I not taken space on the bench the other prisoner would not have spoken to me, challenged me. I have to think, to ensure that every move has a purpose. I have to remind myself that I don’t want to be “the man” in the penitentiary. I want to go home, and when I do go home, I want to go home ready to succeed.

I stand in the crowd, using peripheral vision, listening. The other prisoners are sturdier. I don’t know whether the skulls and demons and gang signs indelibly inked on their arms, necks, and faces cloud my judgment, but these prisoners seem as if carved from material more calloused than flesh. Some, I gather from the chatter, serve sentences of life without parole. They accept the federal penitentiary as the last stop.

* * * * * * *

I move through the admissions process. Guards pass out administrative forms with question after question that I must answer. When it’s my turn, I sit with various staff members who evaluate my responses.

I sit across a desk from a psychologist. “You’ve never been incarcerated before?” he asks. He’s skeptical about the veracity of my response given the length of my sentence.

“I’ve been in jail for the past year but I’ve never been incarcerated before this arrest.”

“And you don’t have any history of violence?”


“No weapons, guns, knives, gang affiliations?”

I shake my head and tell him no.

He rests his elbow on the desk, using the back of his hand to prop up his chin as he evaluates me. He seems confused that I’m serving 45 years for a first offense without a history of violence or weapons. After a minute, he offers some advice. “Perhaps you should consider growing some facial hair.”

The psychologist may mean well. Still, I consider his unsolicited advice an insult. Knowing that I’m out of my element, I acknowledge with a nod, swallowing my pride. My efforts at projecting a stern, no-nonsense disposition have failed. I take his comment as it was intended, an insinuation that my clean-shaven face could lead to unwanted attention from prison predators.

My next stop on the circuit of staff interviews is the office of a case manager. The gray metal desk looks as heavy as a tank and crowds the room. As he flips through pages of a file on his desk, I sense that the case manager isn’t particularly concerned with my anxiety during these first hours in the penitentiary.

“Sit!” he orders, without looking up. “Which one are you? Santos?” He fingers the file in his hand.

“Yes sir.”

“Habla Ingles?”

He emphasizes his American accent. The sneer in his tone suggests that he’s trying to establish an air of superiority. The question annoys me because he is reading from a page of responses that I wrote in English. I don’t like the insinuation that we’re different, that just because of my name I’m not an American. But when he looks at me I only nod in response.

“Never been locked up before. Forty-five years. Out date 2013.” He whistles after reading through personal identifiers from my file. “See ya, feel ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” he chants. “Any reason I can’t put you in gen pop?”

“What?” I don’t know what he’s asking.

“Can you make it in general population?”

“What do you mean? Why couldn’t I?”

“I’m asking you! Ever work for law enforcement?”


“Ever testify against anyone in a court of law?”


He flips through more pages in my file, considering my responses. “Why’d you leave this blank? Don’t got no one who wants you?”

He asks why I didn’t respond to a question about whom the prison should notify in the event of my death.

“I’m only 24. I’m not going to die in here.”

“Fact is, no one walks into the pen thinkin’ he’s gonna die. Few months ago we had us a major disturbance inside these walls. Inmates took 90 officers hostage. No one s’pected that either. Shit happens. Now who you want me to call if something happens to you?”

The animosity in the interaction shakes me. His use of the word “inmate” sounds contemptuous, as if he suspects that I may have been in allegiance with those who rocked the penitentiary with violence during the disturbance. The tension differs from the transient nature of the jail and detention centers. A line exists between us and I’m on the wrong side of it. I give him Lisa’s name but I’m too shaken at the moment to recall her address and phone number. I’ll give him those details later, I say.

After finishing the admissions process I grab my roll of bed sheets, blankets, and a pillow, then I walk with six prisoners toward the housing units. We wait behind a locked gate that separates us from the main corridor. From the aggressive, hostile tone two of the other prisoners use toward staff members, I can tell that neither authority nor the threat of punishment faze them. One curses out an officer on the other side of the gate so thoroughly that the roles of power seem reversed, as the officer simply ignores the enraged prisoner who grabs and shakes the gate, screaming to be let out. I’m intimidated and I doubt the front I’m making at being cool convince anyone.

When an institutional loudspeaker blasts out an announcement for a scheduled “controlled movement,” the guard finally unlocks the gate. With shaking legs and growing rings of perspiration beneath my arms, I walk with my bedroll toward A-cellblock just as the other guards unlock doors from all the housing units in the penitentiary. Hundreds of prisoners converge into the corridor at once. The frenetic movement reminds me of the Kingdome after a Seahawks game, with all the fans rushing toward the stadium gates at once.

The announcement may have called the movement “controlled,” but the madness doesn’t resemble control at all. Hundreds of prisoners charge in both directions, hastening through, shoulders bumping shoulders. I feel like a pinball as I bounce forward with the forceful momentum. While I’m trying to get to my housing unit for the first time, everyone else uses the main corridor to move to or from the recreational areas of the penitentiary.

“Man down, man down!” I hear guards yelling ahead of me. “Make a hole.”

“Let da muthafucka die!” yells a voice from the crowd.

“Put ’im out his mis’ry.”

Just before I reach the entrance of the A-cellblock I see the cause of the commotion. Two guards lean over to assist a prisoner bleeding on the floor. They clearly try to help him while fellow prisoners, apparently unmoved by compassion, keep walking toward their destinations. Suppressing a natural human instinct to look and to help I, too, step over the pooling blood and turn right into the housing block.

The housing unit guard sits at his station to the left. I pass him my identification card.

“Santos,” he drones as he leans back in his chair. “I’ve got you in cell 517.”

I’m on my own as I climb the stairs to the fifth tier.

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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