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Earning Freedom: Chapter 3
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Earning Freedom: Chapter 3

Chapter Three: 1988-1990

Months 14-36

I’m assigned to A cellblock.  It’s a long, rectangular, hollow shell of a building with high ceilings similar to the Oklahoma housing unit I just left at El Reno. Pigeons fly around in the open space above. It’s late summer and the oppressive heat, without air conditioning, makes me sweat. Burgundy tiles cover the floor. The beige, enamel-faced brick walls have been stained yellow from nicotine smoke that has accumulated over decades.

In the center of the shell, a freestanding metal and concrete structure reaches five stories high. Each tier supports a four-foot wide catwalk that wraps around the caged tower. Steel bars evenly spaced four inches apart enclose the side-by-side cells in the building’s core, and metal mesh screens the catwalk. From the looks of it I suspect administrators ordered the screens as an afterthought to keep prisoners from throwing bodies off the walkways.  This is going to be a tough place to live, but in my mind I’m getting ready for all the challenges that I expect to come.

As I climb the stairs I wonder how much blood has spilled on that tile floor below. I’m only carrying a bedroll–two sheets and a pillowcase wrapped inside a green woolen blanket–but apprehension weighs on me.

After reaching the top tier I walk toward my cell. Through the bars of the cells I see that four steel bunk bed racks accommodate eight prisoners in each cell. An open toilet is mounted against the wall at the back of the cell. There isn’t any privacy, just a commode. As I continue down the long tier I pass an open shower area.  It’s just a huge vacant space laid out the same as a cell, but instead of sleeping racks it has five spigots sprouting from the far wall. I catch sight of four men soaping themselves beneath spraying water.

“See somethin’ you like, young’un?” one of the prisoners jeers at me and I hear the others laugh. I keep walking, ignoring the taunt, eyes straight ahead with the bedroll in my arms as if it’s a bundle of firewood.

Near the tier’s end I find cell 517. I walk through the open gate and I notice a small table to my left.  One prisoner lies atop his rack with the newspaper’s sports section absorbing all of his attention. I stand motionless and look around, wondering which bunk I should claim. Three top racks are empty.

“What’s up?” The other prisoner finally notices me. He is in his 50’s, fit, baldheaded, and sporting a goatee.

I nod. “My name’s Michael Santos. I’m new, assigned here.”

“Oh yeah? Where you from?”  His interrogation begins.

“I grew up in Seattle, but I’ve been living in Miami for the past couple of years.”

“How much time you got?”

“Forty-five years.” The length of my sentence makes a statement. In here I don’t need to feel ashamed of it. “Old law,” I clarify.

The prisoner sits up from his rack, sets the newspaper aside. “How old’re you?”


He shakes his head. “Well, youngster, you got some trouble to pull. Welcome to the big house. Ever been locked up before?”

“I’ve been in jail for a year, been through transit. This is my first prison. How’s it measure up?”

“Suits me just fine, but one spot’s the same as another for me. Question is, and I gotta ask since you’re in my house, how’re you gonna get by? What’re you into?”

“I don’t know.” I shrug. “I’d like to go to college if possible, study, work out, that’s about it.”

“You a doper?”

“What do you mean? I’m in here on drug charges.”

“So is everyone else.  What I wanna know is whether you get high.”



“I don’t have any money for gambling.”

“That would only make things worse, but it don’t answer my question. What I asked was do you gamble?”

I shake my head.

“Not into punks, right?”

“I’m married. No punks.”

“Well that ain’t gonna last, the marriage part I mean.”

He stands, puts out his hand. “Name’s McFadden. They call me Check. Long as you ain’t with no dope, gamblin’, or punks, you can set your stuff here.” He taps the rack above his. “This here’ll be your locker, and this is your chair. Got four other men who live here and we all do our part to keep the house clean. This here’s the schedule.” He points to a hand-drawn calendar on the wall with names of people on scheduled cleaning days. “You either clean up on your day, or you pay to have someone sweep and mop; Pancho next door has a cleanin’ hustle. Most guys pay a pack ’a smokes a week. We keep it quiet here. You got visitors, take ’em outside the cell.  Don’t bring ye’r problems to the house, else you’ll have new problems.  With me.  Lights out at nine. Can you live with them rules?”

“Sure. They sound fine to me.”

“Okay. What else?” He scratches his chin while contemplating how much more he should tell me. “You lucked out as far as cells go. Everyone here knows what time it is. Ain’t no snitches here, no one up in anyone else’s business, and we like keepin’ quiet. We’ve all been around a while and don’t want none ’a that jitterbug foolishness ’round here. Got questions, ask. Got problems, like I said, don’t bring ’em back to the house.”

I set my bedroll on the rack and thank him for the welcome while I start tying the sheets around the mat. “Why do they call you Check?”

“Let me give you the first rule of prison.  Don’t ask no one ’bout his personal business, least not unless you got reason, like he’s movin’ into your house.”

“Got it.”

“You play chess?”

“A little. I learned in the county jail when I was waiting for trial.”

“Any good?”

“Like I said, I just play a little.”

“Well when you finish makin’ your rack, sit on down and give it your best shot. I’ll show you why they call me Check.”

As Check demonstrates his mastery of the chessboard he gives me more rundown on the penitentiary and his prison experiences. He’s been in since 1972, 16 years, and he looks forward to release on parole from a life sentence in another year. Check tells me the penitentiary is in transition. After the riot, administrators shipped all prisoners out in order to assess the damage and prepare for rebuilding. The first prisoners to repopulate the penitentiary transferred in from lower-security institutions as a clean-up crew. Those lower-security prisoners are now transferring out to make room for the high-security prisoners that penitentiaries are designed to hold. The men are coming in on buses each week from Lewisburg, Leavenworth, Lompoc, and other jails or prisons.

“This place is only halfway ̓live now, but give it a few months and it’ll be rockin’ just like any other pen.”

I’ve heard enough about the violence, the gangs, and all the nonsense of prison life. It doesn’t interest me.  I inquire about the routines, the day-to-day life inside. From Check I learn that all prisoners receive a job assignment for full-time work. I can either try to find my own job or the counselors will issue me a work assignment. Prisoners, I am learning, provide the labor to run the penitentiary. Some jobs, Check explains, don’t require much more than attendance while others require full-time duty and overtime for those who want to earn a few extra dollars.

“When I was in El Reno I heard about a college program. Do they offer any college courses here?”

“Haven’t heard nothin’ ’bout school, but that ain’t really my thing.  If school’s what y’er into, you need to go check things out for yerself. There might be somethin’ you can do.”


In an effort to control USP Atlanta’s 2,500 prisoners, guards enforce rules that only allow “movement” from one area of the penitentiary to another within a ten-minute window at the top of each hour. Check explains that if I want to inquire about educational opportunities I need to request a movement pass from the unit officer, then wait in line for the corridor guards to unlock the doors and gates of the housing unit. He draws a map directing me to the library and suggests I go explore.

I maneuver through the crowds easily enough and find the library, though in comparison to what I saw at El Reno, it’s disappointing. During the riot that erupted several months before, a number of buildings were destroyed. One of those was the penitentiary’s main library. A new education building is under construction but, for the time being, the library and entire education department occupy the basement in the prison’s old health-services building.

As I walk through I notice a man with a military haircut and wearing black, plastic-frame, government-issue glasses. He’s wearing the same prisoner’s khaki outfit as I wear, but he’s sitting at a desk positioned inside the entry to one of the rooms and I’m assuming that he holds some kind of authority. Bookshelves line the walls, but for all I know, they may be off limits. The prisoner at the desk reads his law book, indifferent to my curiosity. I’m reluctant to interrupt him but since I don’t want to appear disrespectful by ignoring his position and simply walking past, I introduce myself.

“Excuse me, Bud. My name’s Michael Santos. I just got here and don’t really know the layout. Is it okay if I walk in to see what kind of books are available?”

“Suit yourself,” he mutters, never looking up.

Browsing through the bookshelves I notice row upon row of westerns, romance novels, and science fiction, but I’m looking for nonfiction and there isn’t much. I’m encouraged to see two sets of encyclopedias. Although I never spent much time reading reference books I know there’s a wealth of information in these two sets. All I’m thinking about as I walk around the bookshelves is how and what I’m going to study while I serve my sentence.  I’m eager to start making progress in here.

The room I’m in is quiet though I hear people talking in adjacent rooms. “Wha’da ya like to read?” The clerk spins his chair around, all of a sudden interested in me.

“I’m just looking, trying to get a feel for the place.”

“Won’t be much here ’til the new library opens and that’s about a year away. You can check out anything from these shelves, or you can order books from the interlibrary loan program. Takes about two weeks for those books to come. ’Sides that, Chandler’s got a set ̓a bestsellers, but you’ve got to check them out directly from him.”

“Who’s Chandler?”

“Supervisor of Education. His office is in back, down the hall and to the left.”

“Is he the guy to talk to about getting a job in the library?”

“He’s the one, HMFIC.”

“What’s that?”

“Head motherfucker-in-charge. Where you from?”

“Seattle. I’m just comin’ in.”

“Long ways from home. What’s up? Why they got you way out here?”

“I was living in Miami when I got arrested. I guess that has me classified as being from the East Coast.

“How much time you got?”

“Forty-five years.”

“With that kind of time, only thing you should be readin’ is them law books. They’re down the hall. You need to get some ̓a that time off, bro.”

“I don’t know much about the law, but I know that I’m tired of fighting this case. I need something else besides appeals to carry me through.”

“What’re you a lame? Givin’ up? Just plan on serving all that time?”

I shrug my shoulders. “I know I’m going to serve some of it. I’m thinking about the Rule 35, asking the judge for reconsideration. Ever hear of anyone catching a break from it?”

“Only snitches. Ain’t no judge gonna reconsider the sentence he imposed less a dude starts rattin’ out motherfuckers. This system’s ’bout finality. You gotta fight if you want relief.”

“That what you’re doing?” I gesture to the open law books on his desk.

“Damn straight. Been fightin’ every day since I came in. I always got somethin’ goin’ in the courts.”

“Has it changed anything for you?”

“Look, Bro, that ain’t the way to look at it. This system’s dirty, fed by lies and corruption. Know what I’m sayin’? We’re in a war here, and it’s our job to keep filin’ paperwork, assailin’ this system ’til it changes. Can’t just give up. If everyone in the pen kept filin’ in the courts, we could expose this system. That’s the only way we’re gonna change it.”

“You’re probably right.” The tone of his voice and the way his fist clenches the pen reveal his passion. Although the argument doesn’t make much sense to me, the last thing I want is a confrontation. “Like I said, I’ve just come in and I’m trying to find my way around this place. You obviously know a lot more than I do.”

The clerk accepts my deference to his wisdom. “So you lookin’ for a job in the library?” He leans back in his chair.

“I think so. I like the quiet, the time to study. Do they have college here?”

“The only classes here are for the GED and they’re not much. Next year, when the new buildin’ opens, they might start offerin’ college courses, but there ain’t no room now. This’s kind of a self-service prison. You wanna find college courses, gonna have to look for them yerself. This might help,” he reaches for a reference book on correspondence courses from the shelf beside him and hands it to me.

“Thanks a lot, Bud,” I say in accepting the book. “This will help. Can I ask your name?”

“Keith, Bro.”

I sit on one of the hard chairs at a table and read through every page of the guide to correspondence programs. This research leads me to a description of Ohio University that sounds perfect. Although I’ve never studied at the university level before I’m motivated to invest as much energy as possible in educating myself. From the description I learn that even though I may never step foot on a university campus, I can earn a four-year degree from a nationally recognized school.

The book explains that Ohio University accepts Pell grants, and as a prisoner I qualify for financial assistance that will cover nearly all tuition costs. I’m confident that my parents will pay whatever the Pell grant doesn’t fund, as I know they want me to make the best use of my time and I can’t think of anything better than to educate myself. I’m a little humiliated, at 24, to need financial support from my parents, especially after the flamboyant life I led before prison and the ruin I brought to my family’s stability. Yet I know that I’ll need help, and I’m going to ask for it.

After writing down all of the information about how to enroll, I walk down the hall toward the area where Keith said the Supervisor of Education keeps his office. On the way I look inside one room with side-by-side shelves of legal books on case law, statutory codes, and procedure manuals for filing in court. I see several tough-looking men working at tables with law books open in front of them, just as Keith was doing, and I wonder what level of skill these men have with regard to judicial proceedings. With all those hateful designs inked on their skin they don’t impress me as being scholarly types.

I pass by another room where several men sit at tables typing on electric typewriters.  They may be obsolete in the real world, but typewriters are as close as we’re going to come to high-tech in here. In high school I excelled in typing class and I look forward to sharpening my skills. With books, a law library, typewriters, and pockets of silence, the library looks and feels like the right spot to begin my adjustment. I’m hopeful Mr. Chandler will hire me. The door’s open to his office so I knock on the metal frame.

The makeshift office where Mr. Chandler’s stationed suggests that he’s in transition. He’s got gray hair, bloodshot eyes, a rumpled brown suit, and an orange tie is knotted loosely around his fleshy neck. The lines etched in his face and the dot-sized pores that I can see from ten feet away suggest he might need a few drinks to make it through the day. Loose papers and boxes overflowing with files cover the floor, a couch, and even a windowsill. No clear pathway from the door to his metal desk exists, so I pause before stepping into the crowded work area. Non-matching binders stacked out of kilter dominate his disorganized desk. On the dirty-beige, concrete-block walls that surround him, Mr. Chandler has taped several papers, as if they’re reminders or references. They’re not the small post-it notes, but full-sized pages with either typing or handwriting in felt pen, and they flap against the wall because of the breeze from a desk fan. Mr. Chandler isn’t an administrator, apparently, who believes that the tidiness of his work area reflects the sharpness of his mind. Maybe he doesn’t care. When I knock he doesn’t look up.

Instead he waves me in with his hand. I stand in the doorway, apprehensive and uncomfortable, observing the surroundings while I wait for his signal to speak. A newspaper is spread across his desk. Mr. Chandler is absorbed with the comic strips.

I shift my weight from one leg to the other. Why did he gesture me in if he doesn’t want to be disturbed? Maybe he didn’t, I wonder as I continue standing. No, I distinctly saw him raise his arm and wave me in with his hand. After several minutes, I begin to feel very foolish, as if I’m an inanimate object standing there.

“Would it be better if I were to return later?” I finally muster the courage to ask.

He puts his hand up, a stop sign, though he still doesn’t look up. The phone on his desk rings and he answers. “Chandler,” he says. “Uh huh, uh huh, okay.” He hangs up, continues reading, and I continue standing.

“What is it?” he asks, finally, still looking down.

“Mr. Chandler, my name is Michael Santos and…”

“Okay Mr. Santiago,” he interrupts me, mistaking my name. “What is it?  Get to the point.”

“I’m new here and I’d like to work in the library, if you would consider hiring me.”

“Got a cop-out?” He asks for the standard inmate-request-to-staff form, one that I received from the clerk.

“Yes sir.” I maneuver my way around the piles of books and stacked boxes to hand him my form requesting employment.

Mr. Chandler writes that I’m approved to work in the library and signs his name. “Hand it back to your counselor,” he tells me, returning my cop-out. I’m evidently dismissed.

I return to the front desk in the library, grateful to have resolved the hurdle of a job search, knowing that I’ve settled a major issue of my adjustment. “Mr. Chandler hired me,” I tell Keith, trying to suppress my pride and satisfaction at having conquered one hurdle of prison life. “I’m going to be working here, in the library.”

“Don’t get too excited. You’re still in prison, Bro.”

“Maybe so. But at least I’ll have all the time I need to read, write, and study once I enroll in college. Have you ever heard of anyone completing the program at Ohio University?”

“Look, kid, like I said before, school ain’t my thing. Far as I’m concerned, all that schoolin’ does is make ‘the man’ look good. I ain’t interested in makin’ anything better in this system, or helpin’ hacks look like they’re educatin’ fools in here. I’m at war here, tryin’ to tear this system down. Only way I’m gonna do that is by beatin’ ’em at their own game, with these here,” he says as he points to the law books. “You’ll learn that soon enough.”


Podcast 117: Earning Freedom 3.2


During my first weeks in the penitentiary I meet hundreds of men.  Listening to them convinces me that it’s best to keep a low profile, at least until I understand more about my environment. I don’t even talk much with the other men assigned to my cell.

Just as Check told me on my first day, the men mind their own business and don’t show much interest in building new friendships. They work in the prison’s factory, manufacturing or repairing mailbags for the U.S. Postal Service. I catch the vibe–one of apathy rather than hostility. These men have no interest in talking with a young prisoner who shows enthusiasm about being hired to work in the library. Enthusiasm dies long before most men enter the inside of these walls, I suspect.  It might reveal naiveté, which exposes vulnerability.

In the evenings I lie on my rack thinking about how I’m going to make it and realize that I’m at the start of a long journey. I block out the noise that comes in endless waves from outside the cell. More than 600 of the 2,500 prisoners in the penitentiary live in A cellblock, though their activities don’t concern me as much as the thoughts about how I will walk out of prison when I’m released.

But I can’t seem to focus. The papers I’ve received from the administrators confirm that my 45-year sentence brings a possible release in 2013. It’s only 1988 and after one year as a prisoner I still can’t grasp what it means to live another 25 in here. According to the counselor, case manager, and unit managers, a group of administrators collectively known as the “unit team,” 25 more years is the best I can hope for, and that’s contingent on my not receiving any disciplinary infractions that could result in my loss of good time. No amount of effort or accomplishment, the unit team assures me, will advance my release date.

Although I don’t talk about my spiritual beliefs, I read the Bible every night. My resistance to religious services and organized prayer groups irritates the zealots, or “Bible thumpers,” as they’re known. That’s of little consequence in the long run because my relationship with the Bible brings me comfort, guides me, and provides occasional relief from the deep sorrow gripping me. I read it lying on my rack or while sitting on a wooden chair in a corner I’ve claimed for myself between bookshelves in the library.

Sometimes I find parables that seem as if written directly to me. I must prepare–that is the message I receive from my readings. The message comes to me from verses in both the Old and New Testaments. I find the message in the story of Noah and the Ark; I read it in the parables of the wise and foolish virgins, as well as the parables of the talents described in the Book of Matthew. I must prepare.

I learn from my daily Bible readings that everyone has a responsibility to live God’s plan, and that plan requires us to maximize the gifts we receive. I’m not convinced that I must fast, wear certain clothes, use prayer oils, face the sun at specific hours, or publicly claim that I’m saved, to come closer to God. The belief I begin to form is that I need to live as a good man, to develop the gifts God has blessed me with and to work toward the making of a better world.

My belief strengthens my spirit, improves my attitude, and gives me a positive outlook. Instead of looking at my sentence as a burden I begin to see it as a challenge, an opportunity to grow in ways I never would’ve without extreme adversity. To accept that my sentence may have a purpose not yet revealed requires that I have faith that God has a plan, one that will open opportunities, and trusting in God’s plan gives me a sense that I can go on.

I want to convey these thoughts to Lisa, but she’s slipping away. Her sentencing date approaches so I understand her lack of enthusiasm when I express my excitement about beginning correspondence studies at Ohio University. When she mocks my growing faith in God, I realize how the time and space of my sentence separates us.  Despite my love for her, we’re growing apart.

Telephone restrictions preclude me from talking with her more than once every few days. I can only use the telephone on the days that A cellblock is scheduled for access.  On telephone days, a guard leads 15 of us at a time to a room with rotary-dial, wall-mounted phones, and I wait in line to use one of them. When it’s my turn, I’m authorized to make one 10-minute phone call.

To avoid the frustration of the brief phone calls I write long letters to Lisa every day, expressing my love for her and sending promises I don’t know how I’ll keep. Whatever sentence she receives, I assure her that it’s part of God’s plan, one that will bring us closer together. Just before her sentencing date she travels to Atlanta to visit with me.

I’m in my second month in Atlanta and it’s been six months since I’ve seen my wife, more than a year since we’ve held each other or even touched. I’m lonely for her, aching for her. Thoughts of Lisa have, at various times, strengthened and weakened me, inspired and depressed me. Now I’m going to see her, to hold her, to kiss her.

I iron my khaki pants and shirt with creases as sharply pressed as a military officer’s uniform and, in order to show how much larger my biceps have grown through exercise, I fold up the short sleeves of my shirt. I’m ready and I’m eager. Today Lisa will fall in love with me again, just as she loved me before.

“Yo, young’un, who’s comin’ to see you?” Other prisoners inquire as they watch me peering through the window to see who’s walking down the prison corridor.

“My wife’s visiting me today.” I’m enthusiastic, refusing to use the standard prison reference of “my ol’ lady.”

“Have a good one.”

Soon after I hear my name paged a guard arrives to escort me from the housing unit. We walk through the wide, quiet, empty corridor on polished marble floors surrounded by high, white walls. The guard doesn’t talk to me. The only sounds along the dreary walk are our footsteps, the sound of swinging handcuffs that hang from the back of the guard’s thick leather belt, and the occasional static blasts from his radio. It’s a long walk.

Instead of entering the visiting room the guard opens the door to an adjacent room, where another guard waits at a desk.

“Inmate Santos for a visit,” the escorting guard informs his colleague before locking me in the closet-sized room.

The guard seated at the desk asks for my ID and begins writing the information in his logbook: my name, registration number, the time I arrived, and my visitor’s name. “What are you waiting for?” he asks as I stand there, watching.

“Oh, can I go in?” I’m dehumanized, conditioned to ask permission for any movement as if I’ve been a prisoner all my life.

“You know the drill.”

“What drill? This is my first visit.”


The order surprises me but I follow it without question. My main concern is getting to Lisa, though I’m careful to keep my clothes looking crisp and so I take extra time to fold my pants and shirt before I set them on the dingy floor.

“Everything,” the guard says as I stand in my boxers and socks.

I’ve been through hundreds of strip searches but guards sometimes let me stand in underwear while they inspect me. Not this one. He’s a stickler for detail and insists on seeing me naked.  He orders me to lift my privates, bend over and spread. I comply as he directs, giving him the full view he wants, and then I dress. Finally, he authorizes me to enter the visiting room.

I walk down a few steps to a platform where two guards sit at a desk. The room is large, like a high school cafeteria with bright lights. Vending machines line the walls. It’s packed with people engaged in hundreds of simultaneous, loud conversations. I don’t see Lisa. One of the guards asks for my identification.  He then patronizes me with questions on whether I understand the rules. Those rules may be designed for security reasons, but they strip people of dignity and contribute to the loss of community ties. I remember the rules from when I first saw Lisa in the Miami prison more than a year ago. They don’t permit us to embrace during the visit, and limit kissing to the start and finish. The guard tells me where to sit and points me in the direction.

Finally, I see her. She sits in a row of plastic chairs along the wall and watches as I walk toward her from across the brightly lit room. My eyes lock with hers and memories flash of better times. I remember crowds parting as she held my arm while we walked through Las Vegas casinos; I remember drinking champagne and eating chocolate truffles with her at a dessert bar overlooking Central Park; I remember powering through deep blue, rolling waves of the Atlantic on my ocean racer, with her in a sequined string bikini, clinging to me. Those days are gone, never to return. I have repressed thoughts of Lisa’s seductiveness, her magnetic sex appeal, but as I walk closer to her those feelings surge, inflaming all of my senses.

The year has taken its toll on me. With the total absence of a woman’s touch, of affection, of physical warmth and release, an enormous urge rises in me. I’m oblivious to the hundreds of other people visiting in the room. It’s as if I’m seeing Lisa in an airport terminal for the first time after a long trip abroad. Only she’s not here to welcome me home. When she stands I want to devour her. Since we have just this one opportunity, I manage with a deliciously long, marvelous kiss.

“I still love you, Michael,” Lisa says, holding me before we sit.

“And I love you,” I respond while pulling her close. “We’re made to love each other. I’ve told you that from the beginning.  Our love is strong enough to carry us through anything, even imprisonment.” I’m eager to say anything and everything that comes to mind with desperate hopes of holding on to her.

We sit side-by-side, as close as the stationary, hard plastic chairs will allow.  We’re close enough that I feel the soft skin of her arms touching mine, close enough that I can breathe in her perfume. The romantic euphoria of our first hour together doesn’t last, however, as we can’t avoid discussing the ugliness that has become our lives.

“How is it in here, really? Are you safe?”

“I told you, you don’t have to worry about me. As long as we’re together, I’m okay. My dad sent the money to the university, so I should receive my books and lesson plans soon. I’ve got a great job in the library. I’m exercising every day. I’ve got plenty of books to read. You’re going to see how I turn this mess around. I’m going to leave here so much better than I am now, stronger and wiser.  I’m going to make you proud.”

“But what about me? What do you think is going to happen at my sentencing–and after? I can’t live in a place like this!”

“Honey, nothing’s going to happen.” I comb my fingers through her blonde hair. “You didn’t do anything that bad. You told a little lie about money. What’s the big deal? The judge isn’t going to put you in prison for that. People lie all the time. Every time someone gets pulled over for speeding, he lies about driving the speed limit. They don’t put people in prison for that.”

“But what if they do? What’s going to happen then?” She grips her fingers into my hands. “I don’t want to live in a place like this.”

“It’s not going to happen,” I soothe. “Why don’t you pray with me? When I pray, God gives me strength.”

“Come on, don’t start with that! What are you doing? Becoming a priest in here? Prayer isn’t going to help me!” Lisa abruptly lets go of me and folds her arms across her chest in frustration.

“Yes it will, it helps me through every day.”

“You got 45 years! Did prayers help with that?”

“Baby, don’t talk like that. You have to trust in me, trust in God. It’s going to get better.”

“Sometimes I don’t think I know you anymore. All you talk about is school, God, about how it’s going to be better when you get out. Don’t you get it? We’re going to be old by then!”

“It’s not going to be that long.” I sit back in my chair, swallowing the harshness of her assessment.

“What about me? How am I supposed to live? Our money is running out.”

“Why don’t you get a job?”

“Doing what? What can I do? You want me to wait tables or something?”

“Don’t worry, Baby. Let’s get through your sentencing next week and put this mess behind us. I’ll think of something.”

Our visit may have begun with passion, but it ends with the cold reality that we don’t have enough of anything to sustain us. We don’t have enough money, enough maturity, or enough commitment.  When visiting hours end she stands and we hold each other, but I know she’s not coming back. Our parting kiss tastes like good-bye. As she walks away I’m more alone than I’ve ever been.

The following week Lisa is sentenced. After the scheduled time of her hearing I call my father, who accompanied her to lend support. He tells me that the judge sentenced her to serve five years on probation for her felony conviction of lying to a federal officer. I’m relieved. Thinking of Lisa enduring the handcuffs, the chains, the regular strip searches, orders, and daily indignities of confinement would have crushed me. I can handle prison, but I wasn’t sure she could have, and if she were put inside my level of stress would’ve risen exponentially.  At least I have that complication behind me.  Now it’s on to new challenges and complications that I expect to flow over the next 10,000 days.


Since the library is an open space where all prisoners can congregate freely, it serves as a kind of marketplace for hustlers and prisoners use it for more than checking out books or typing. They exploit it to hide weapons, drugs, and other contraband that they conceal in the drop ceiling or inside books they hollow out. Guards seize contraband they find, but since the library is a common area they can’t punish an individual without further information, like a tip from a snitch.

I’ll never become a source of such information, as I won’t try to make my life easier at the expense of making someone else’s life harder. Blood spills inside these walls. I’ll survive by making decisions that ensure I don’t have to hide from anybody and that no one has to hide from me. I want to live invisibly, to be “in” the penitentiary, but not “of” the penitentiary. I focus intensely on steps I can take that will lead me closer to home, that will prepare me for a productive life outside.

My own research and the inquiries I make of other prisoners convince me that only two mechanisms exist through which I can earn my way out. One is to ask my judge to reconsider my sentence using the formal legal proceeding known as the Rule 35 motion, but the strict time parameters of that rule limit me. Once the appeals court affirms my conviction and sentence–as I’m sure it will–the 120-day clock starts ticking. After that time elapses, my sentence becomes etched in stone. The only other mechanism, barring future legislative reform, is asking the president to grant relief through executive clemency.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm my conviction and sentence within a year. What can I possibly accomplish in another year of imprisonment to persuade my sentencing judge that I’m a worthy candidate for relief, that I’ve earned freedom? It’s not enough time and yet I’ve got to make something happen. Every minute that passes without my having a plan or making progress means that I’m losing ground. I feel like I’m a cartoon character, lying on a table with a swinging, spinning saw blade gradually dropping from the ceiling toward my exposed and extended neck.

Improving my situation will require support from people outside. Yet 40-foot walls hinder my ability to connect with society, frustrating me. I stare at library walls wondering how to distinguish myself from every other prisoner who wants a sentence reduction. I can’t simply express sorrow or regret. I am deeply remorseful, though I understand the cynicism of the system. When I file my Rule 35, I’m expecting prosecutors to argue persuasively that I’m not at all remorseful but only want out.

I wrestle with the opposition I expect to face. Why do others think it so wrong that I want to advance my release date? I want out, but I also want to atone, to somehow reconcile with society. I aspire to show others that I’m earning my freedom. As I stare blankly at the books all around me I suddenly see the solution that will help me pierce these walls and connect with society: I’ll write a book!

I may not know what I’m doing but the fact that I’m doing something, making progress, empowers me. For the first time I’m not sitting around waiting for outside forces to dictate my fate. Instead, I have a plan and that brings new energy, motivation, and inspiration. I’ll write about how the romantic, swashbuckling images I had of coke traffickers seduced me into the trade. Reading my story will provide compelling reasons for others to avoid making the same choices. I’ll express remorse openly and perhaps other young people will be dissuaded from breaking the law. The book should assist law enforcement by helping stop crime before it starts.

I’ve never taken a writing course or even written anything more substantial than short letters, but if I begin now and work on it every day, I can finish a book in time to generate support for my Rule 35. This project becomes my Hail Mary effort to begin a record of atonement.

Julie and her fiancé, Tim, are my strongest supporters. I write her and they agree to launch a nonprofit corporation to publish the book, which I title Drugs and Money. That way instead of selling the book we can donate it. A funding arm from the State of Washington offers financial resources for programs designed to improve community safety, and I write a grant proposal to fund our project.  Julie submits the grant proposal through the nonprofit, and then she persuades those on the board of the grant committee to fund production of Drugs and Money with $20,000.  It’s a sufficient amount of funds to produce and distribute 2,000 books to schools, jails, and other organizations for at-risk adolescents. This community-service effort helps me reach beyond the penitentiary, build support, and begin making a contribution to society.


I hear my name being paged over the loudspeaker with an order to report to the Education building.  I sit down at the desk where I write each day, and Mr. Chandler, the Supervisor of Education, approaches.

“Sanchez, why am I getting a package from Ohio University with your name all over it?” He is not happy.

I look up, surprised that he’s upset and wondering what I did wrong. “I enrolled in a correspondence program, sir,” I respond, not wanting to aggravate him further by correcting his mispronunciation of my name. “I wanted to study toward a college degree.”

“Boy, don’t you know I got half a mind to lock you up? Ain’t no courses get ordered ’round here less they go through me. Who authorized you to enroll in college?”

“I didn’t know I needed to have authorization.”

“Don’t you knows you’s in the peniten’try! You better axe somebody! Can’t be havin’ no packages sent in here without auth’rization. Interferes with security of the institution.”

“Sorry, sir. I didn’t know that a package from a university could interfere with security.  But I won’t make that mistake again.”

Mr. Chandler softens some with my contrite response. “What you doin’ in here all day anyway boy?” He spreads the pages of longhand on my desk.

“Writing, sir, just trying to stay out of trouble.”

“Well you ’bout found trouble, and you’re lookin’ at it. Now come on back to my office and get these here books ’fore I send ’em back and lock yo ass in da hole.”

I stand and follow him down the center corridor, giddy as a boy on Christmas morning, ecstatic that my course work has arrived. I don’t know why he was so angry, but it doesn’t really matter now that he’s agreed to allow me to proceed. When we enter his office I see the box from Ohio University open on his desk.

“This ain’t nothin’ but a lot ’a extra work for me.”

“Thanks for helping, sir. I apologize for causing so much trouble.”

He opens each book, inspects the binding, fans through the pages, then he passes the book over to me. I have courses in English, philosophy, algebra, and psychology. I thank Mr. Chandler again and return to the desk where I can begin to work with a new sense of purpose.

In my mind I’m no longer a prisoner. I’m 24 years old, about to endure my second holiday season in confinement, but I’m also on track for making real, measurable progress. I’m now a university student and an aspiring author.  Others will soon have tangible results to gauge my commitment to atone.


Podcast 118: Earning Freedom 3.3


It’s 1988 and Vice-President George H.W. Bush is about to become America’s 41st president. He talks about a thousand points of light and inspires me with his call for a kinder, gentler America. Yes!  More compassion and understanding is exactly what I need, and I’m working feverishly to prove worthy of reconsideration.

With each passing month I feel the pressure. But I like having a reason to push through each day. My studies and writing goals necessitate a strict schedule and I train myself to function on less sleep. The cellblock rocks with constant noise and ceaseless disturbances, but with clearly defined goals I block out all distractions and become more skillful at carving out niches of time and space to study.

The tight schedule helps immensely, especially as my connection to Lisa becomes more and more tenuous. I’m proud of what I’m producing and for Christmas I send her copies of the assignments I’m completing. I also share the progress with my manuscript and I include photographs of the physique I’m building through strenuous weightlifting.

She’s not interested.

When I write her to announce news of the grant Julie received to produce and distribute Drugs and Money, she asks how much money I’ll be able to send her from those proceeds.

“Baby, I’m not writing this book for money,” I try to explain over the telephone. “I’ve told you the plan. I’m working to come home. I have to build a record that shows I can contribute to the world, and that’s what this book is for. We’re using the money to produce it and distribute it so I can build support, so I can come home.”

“I’m your wife, Michael. It costs money to live, and you didn’t leave me with enough to be giving books away.”

“I know, Honey. Listen, I thought you were going to find a job. Why don’t you sell clothes? There’s got to be some way for you to earn an income. You’ve got to support yourself until I come home.”

“When? In 25 years? Michael, this isn’t working.”

“Don’t say that! We’re married. Of course we can make it work. And it isn’t going to be 25 years. That’s ridiculous. The judge isn’t going to let this sentence stand, not with all I’m doing. I’ll be home in like eight years, maybe less.” I feel her slipping away. “When are you coming to see me?”

“I told you already.  My probation officer won’t let me visit you.”

“But for how long? How long until she lets you come visit me?”

“Five years, Michael! She told me that I’d never be able to visit you while I’m on probation and that I should divorce you.”

“That’s going to change. They can’t keep us apart like this. We’re married. You still love me, don’t you?”

This is ending badly. I sense where it’s heading, even though I’m trying to pull affection that should flow freely. To cope, I work harder.


It’s early 1989 and I’ve turned 25. The time pressure intensifies every day, requiring that I deny myself sleep and activities that others rely upon as distractions from the pains of imprisonment.  Table games won’t carry me through.

When I read that President Bush is going to deliver his first prime-time news conference from the Oval Office I walk to a television room and watch the broadcast from the back of the auditorium.

The president looks dour. While seated in his high-backed chair behind his executive desk, President Bush holds up a clear plastic bag filled with cocaine. My spirits sink when I hear him tell millions of viewers that the War on Drugs is of paramount importance. Illicit drug abuse, he warns, threatens America as we know it.

Apparently the kinder, gentler America the president spoke about doesn’t include compassion for prisoners–especially those who sold drugs. His message suggests Americans need an object to hate. The object of that hatred is drugs and everyone who has anything to do with them. He calls for vigilance, urges children to turn in their parents and announces that under his administration American law enforcement will have zero tolerance for drugs.  He appoints William Bennett as a “drug czar,” whatever that means.

As I lie on my rack, blocking out the noise that ricochets through the concrete and steel cellblock, I consider what our new president said. He actually clarifies the enormity of my challenge. I’m a convicted drug offender with a long sentence. As much as I want to earn support from my fellow citizens, from the prosecutor, and from my judge–the president has just told people in society that I’m not worthy of consideration.  They shouldn’t look beyond my conviction and sentence.  I have to face the truth that others may never accept the efforts I’m making to atone. Zero tolerance. That’s what President Bush calls for.


I wake with determination to work harder. Another prisoner tells me about a job in the prison factory’s business office that may make it easier to write.

“It’s a clerical job,” the prisoner says. “If you get it, you’d have your own desk and access to a computer.”

“Would they let me type my school assignments on the computer?”

“How the fuck should I know? Go fuckin’ check it out for yourself.”

Mr. Chandler signs my pass and I walk across the compound toward the business office. A morning controlled movement is in progress and a line of men wait their turn to pass through a metal detector. A prisoner in front of me walks through and the machine starts beeping.

“Take ’em off,” the guard orders.

“Come on boss, you knows I done got steel-toe boots on. That’s all that’s settin’ your joint off.”

“Then it shouldn’t be a problem. Now take ’em off and walk through again. Else you can strip down. Makes no difference to me.”

The guard won’t allow anyone to go through until he clears the man in front of me. I rarely leave the library because of this obsession with security. But the prospect of a new job that would provide access to a word processor and my own desk makes the inconvenience bearable today.

When it’s my turn I clear the metal detector without interference. I walk through two more sets of gates and I ride the elevator to the business office. The atmosphere differs from any other place I’ve been in the penitentiary. Instead of concrete and steel there are plasterboard walls, wooden doors with moldings, and carpeted floors soften the large, open room. Desks align neatly in aisles and rows. Prisoners wearing crisply pressed khakis sit behind them, absorbed in their work. Each desk has its own computer monitor and keyboard. I hear the buzzing of business machines, copiers, printers, and adding machines.

Yearning for my unrecoverable past, I walk through the open area toward the smaller offices in the back. I see the door marked “Transportation” and I knock. A woman looks up from her desk and greets me with a friendly smile.

“Good morning. My name is Michael Santos.” I present her with my pass from Mr. Chandler. “I was told of a job opening for a clerk in the Transportation office. I’d like to apply.”

“How much time do you have? Thirty years I hope.”

“I have 45 years, Ma’am.”

“Oh,” she flinches. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I was only asking because training a clerk takes a lot of time and I didn’t want one of these short timers about to transfer out.”

“That’s okay. I’m enrolled in college and I expect that I’ll be here for a long time.”

“Have you ever worked in an office before?”

“Yes Ma’am. My father owned a contracting company and I worked in his offices.”

“So you can type?”

“I type very well, at least 50 words per minute.”

“Where do you work now?”

“I work in the library. Mr. Chandler is my supervisor.”

“How’s your disciplinary record? Do you have any shots? Ever go to the SHU?”

“No Ma’am, my disciplinary record is clear. I keep to myself, stay out of trouble.”

“Why are you in prison?”

“I sold cocaine.” I say, knowing that I’ll be answering this question for the rest of my life.

“And you got 45 years for that?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Have you ever been in prison before?”

“This is my first time, and my last.”

She nods her head, and for the first time since I’ve been in prison I feel genuine compassion from a staff member. “My name is Lynn Stephens. Watch the call-out for the job change. You’ve got the job.” She smiles, and for that instant I’m a person rather than a prisoner.

As I return to the library I realize that I forgot to ask Ms. Stephens about time for schoolwork and whether I could use the word processor to type my assignments once I completed my office responsibilities. It doesn’t matter. I’ll find a way to make things work. The office environment cleansed away the filth of imprisonment and I want to spend my time there, in the company of Ms. Stephens. I sense it’s the right place for me, away from gangs, confrontations, and cellblock pressures; away from the continuous hustling and scheming that take place in the library and other common spaces.


When the cell gates open at 6:00 a.m. I rush to the gym for my morning workout. A quick cross-training workout allows me to fit all my exercises in before 7:00. Then I return to the cellblock, shower, shave, and dress in my pressed khakis. Optimistic about my new job, I bring an envelope with photographs in case there’s an opportunity to share pictures of my family with Ms. Stephens–I want her to know that I have a life outside of these walls.

“Good morning,” she greets me when I walk in. Strangely, I’m a bit uneasy being in close proximity to a woman. The office we share is small, the size of a bedroom in a suburban house. Her desk sits immediately to the right of the door in the office’s front corner. As her clerk I’ll sit inside a U-shaped workstation in the back, diagonally across from her. Five paces separate us. I’m conscious of her perfume and try to keep my knees from bouncing beneath the desk.

“What we do here is coordinate all the paperwork for shipments that leave the factory,” Ms. Stephens explains, describing my duties. “Each day the factory manager will send us a sheet with the number and type of mailbags that are ready for processing out. From that sheet you’ll type these forms we call the shippers and make five copies of the documents for distribution to billing, quality control, the postal service, the shipping company, the factory, and our records.

I handle the sample of documents that she provides and know that I’m capable of keeping this busywork in order. “How many orders do we receive each day?”

“It’s more like 15 each week. On some days you’ll receive one or two orders; other days you may not receive any at all. Then you may receive four, five, or six all at once. It might take you a few weeks to get used to the system but you’ll get the hang of it. As long as you stay on top of it and don’t let the work pile up, you’ll be fine.”

“What am I supposed to do when I’m caught up? It doesn’t sound like these duties will require more than a couple hours a day, if that.”

“Let’s just see how it goes. We’ve always got files to organize, envelopes to stuff, and copies to make. If you’d like to listen to the radio, tune into any station you’d like.”

I catch on quickly to my duties: typing, copying, distributing, and filing. The small radio behind me only picks up the AM band. As I flip through the stations I settle in on talk radio, and I listen to an audacious political commentator named Rush Limbaugh. The show is gaining national popularity, I’ve read. Magazine articles describe Limbaugh as a self-indulgent, obese, college dropout who dumped his marriage but represents himself as a social conservative.  Despite the hypocrisy between his personal life and his public life, he makes me laugh.


Lisa isn’t responding to the daily letters I’ve been writing, and every time I’m finally able to call her, I walk away frustrated because she doesn’t answer. It’s been more than two weeks since I’ve heard from her. Premonitions chip away at me. I hurt from the emptiness and loneliness disturbs my sleep.

The prison’s automated phone system only allows collect calls. A major drawback is that once I dial I can’t hear what’s happening on the other end of the line until someone pushes a digit to accept. When I dial Lisa’s number I don’t know whether the line is busy, no one is home, or the call simply doesn’t go through.

I wonder what’s going on, why she doesn’t write, and where she is. I ache to tell her about my new job, about my progress with school, about the manuscript I’m writing, and about how much I miss her. I want to know about her life, how her job search is going. She must’ve found a job. She’s probably working at the times that I call, but I wonder why she doesn’t respond to my letters. I dream of the softness of her lips, but nightmares haunt me with images of her kissing someone else.


“Hey! How come you haven’t been calling me? I’ve been worried about you.” It’s Julie, cheering me up with her loving enthusiasm when she accepts my call.

“I’m sorry. It’s not so easy to use the phone here. I have to wait in long lines and I’m only able to dial one number once my turn comes up. Have you been getting the letters I’ve sent?”

“I’m so proud of you! You’re doing great in there, with your schoolwork and the writing. I’m glad you’ve got a job you like.”

“Everything’s okay, but I haven’t been able to talk with Lisa and I’m worried. Has she called you?”

“She wouldn’t call me, you know that. Do you want me to patch you through on a three-way?”

“Would you? When I call her number I’m not getting through at all. I can’t leave a message or anything.”

“What’s her phone number?”

I give Julie the number and wait for her to dial. She patches into the call when Lisa’s phone starts ringing.

“I’m just going to wait until she answers. Then I’ll put the phone down and you can talk as long as you want.”

“Thanks, Julie. I appreciate your help.”

My heart pounds and I bounce between excitement to hear my wife’s voice and apprehension over what she might tell me. But it’s not Lisa who answers. It’s a man’s voice that picks up.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I must’ve dialed the wrong number.”

“What’s the number again?” Julie asks, after disconnecting the unknown party.

I give her Lisa’s number a second time. “That’s the number I thought I dialed. Let me try again.”

The phone rings and I hear the same voice answer. “Who’s this?” I ask.

“Who’s this?” The man doesn’t answer my question.

“This is Michael Santos. I’m calling for my wife, Lisa.”

“Oh. Well, Lisa’s not here. I’m Lisa’s boyfriend and I live here now. Sorry to tell you this, but it’s probably best if you don’t call back. She isn’t ready to talk with you.”

I’m humiliated that this is the way I learn my marriage is over, and that my sister hears it along with me. Speechless, I hang up the phone, not even taking the time to thank Julie for making the call.

Blindly, I press through crowds of prisoners and find my way to the stairs, not caring who I push aside in my grief–a knife in the gut would be a welcome reprieve from the pain twisting through my heart.

Somehow I find my cell and fall onto my rack, smothering my face in my pillow. With the spirit of perseverance abandoning me, I squeeze my eyes shut to keep tears from falling. Everything inside of me feels broken. I hear my pulse pounding in my ears, feel it throbbing in my head. I’m having a hard time acknowledging that she’s gone, that I’ve lost her.  It’s like a painful vise squeezing tighter and tighter, suffocating me and bringing doubts on whether I can climb through 24 more years of this pain.

Sleep doesn’t restore my confidence. I crawl off my rack and sit on the metal chair to lace my dirty sneakers. Consumed with sadness, I walk down the stairs and pace, wondering why I should go on.  I’m not able to summon the will or a reason to live.  Lisa and I may’ve been growing apart, but at least I had the illusion of love.  That’s been shattered and I don’t know what I’ll do in here for decades.

I walk to the library, numb to everything but my pain, seeking solace from the stories of others who suffered. I search for books about Viktor Frankl, Elie Weisel, and other innocent people who confronted horrific adversity in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I need to immerse myself in their stories. Although I’ve hit bottom, the inspiring literature of Jewish survival and courage shines a light down my psychological well, beginning to ease the tightness in my chest.


Podcast 119: Earning Freedom 3.4


When I call home on May 27, 1989, I hear the news from Julie that Christina has given birth to a daughter, Isabella. I’ve known of Christina’s pregnancy for some time, but I’ve been too wrapped up in dealing with the loss of Lisa and the challenges of my prison adjustment to grasp what that means. It’s surreal to think of my younger sister as a mother, and to think of myself as an uncle.

Christina and I grew up very close as children. I have fond memories from our grade school years, and of bringing her fishing with me in a neighborhood stream. But I haven’t seen her since my imprisonment. Now she’s a mother, and trying to imagine her as a grown woman with a family of her own feels almost incomprehensible.  Life is changing without my being a part of it. I hang up in tears, unable to suppress my mix of emotions.  I’m happy for Christina, but also filled with sadness because I’ve missed Isabella’s birth.

I need to walk around the track but that means waiting in line for a pass, then waiting in the crowd for the next scheduled movement to leave the housing unit. Instead, I head for my cell. There isn’t anywhere I can console the ache I feel inside privately. As I lie on my rack with my head pressed into the pillow I can still hear Check and his buddy playing chess at the table. Dropping into self-pity, all I can think about is the isolation from my family. I’m a stranger, isolated from the family bonds that make life worth living.

How will society view me? If I were a free citizen today and encountered a man who had served more than a quarter of a century in prison, I’d have major preconceptions about him. I’d feel reluctant to accept him as a neighbor, a colleague, and certainly as a peer. Women, I expect, will think twice before dating a man who served time in prison. And if I’m not released until my late 40s, without a work history, savings, and a home, there’s a strong likelihood that I’ll never become a father and have children of my own.  How could I?

It’s too much. I have to break this up in my mind, take it in smaller increments, one chunk at a time. Otherwise it overwhelms and defeats me.

Where will I be in 10 years? That’s what I should think about. What is the best I can become during the first decade of my imprisonment? My studies are going well and I’ve nearly completed the manuscript for Drugs and Money. I don’t know what will happen with the Rule 35 motion once the time comes to submit the request for reconsideration of my sentence. But in 1997, after a decade in prison, if I stick to this plan I’ll be an educated man. If I keep my focus I’ll have a university degree and possibly a law degree. Those credentials will distinguish me from prisoners who thrive on hate and who rely upon weapons and gangs to empower themselves.

Still, I live amidst the weapons, the gangs, and the power struggles within my community of felons. With two years behind me I understand the politics of race, geographical origin, and anarchy. On the surface it looks as if whites mix with whites, blacks with blacks, and Hispanics with Hispanics.  But that isn’t the real story, as this culture is driven by influences that are far more complex.

I live in a society of deprivation, where policies extinguish hope. With years to serve, abandoned by their families, and severed of their previous identities, most prisoners give up trying to improve themselves. Instead, they ripen for rebellion. They form an anti-society culture with its own underground economy, values, and social structure. Mafia dons and gang leaders hold the top spots with snitches and child molesters at the bottom. Disruptive factions form and either scheme together or battle each other for power. In this society, where prisoners kill without remorse in an effort to increase their share of prison wealth and to protect their territory, my efforts to avoid ‘prisonization’ make me vulnerable. I can’t outrun them but, by existing under their radar, I can evade them. I’m captain of my own metaphorical submarine, gliding stealthily beneath the waves and currents. My periscope is up but my strategy is to remain invisible, deep below the turmoil.  It’s working.

By waking at 5:00 a.m., when the other men in my cell are still asleep, I can use the toilet and wash in privacy. I use a small book light to read until 6:00, when a guard walks down the tier unlocking the gates. I’m first out of the cell and one of the few avoiding the chow hall to take advantage of early exercise. By 7:30 I’m at work, which is a reprieve from the tensions of the cellblock and yard.

My supervisor, Ms. Stephens encourages my academic pursuits. She authorizes me to study and type my assignments once I complete my daily work.  When I leave the business office I report to the prison’s hospital as a volunteer.  Prisoners deemed at risk for harming themselves are kept under 24-hour surveillance, and I’m one of those on watch. This schedule allows me to avoid the other prisoners and to study. When I return to the cellblock at midnight the prison is quiet. I shower, climb to my rack above Check, and I sleep soundly for five hours. It’s a routine I want to keep for the incomprehensible 24 years that I’ve still got to serve.

The pockets of solitude I’ve carved out give me peace, and I’ve become extremely productive. I’m on a tight schedule, always racing to exceed my expectations. I’ve completed my first quarter with Ohio University and I’ve enrolled in another full load of courses for the second quarter.

Besides taking correspondence classes through Ohio University, Mercer University has begun offering courses inside USP Atlanta, and I’m now enrolled as a full-time student in its program.  One of the professors from Mercer, Colin Harris, takes time to mentor me. I’m busy, working hard to prove worthy of the trust placed in me. According to the timeline I’ve laid out, I should earn my undergraduate degree in 1992, and I intend to earn it with honors.


“Guess who I ran into at Safeway?” Julie, my sister, asks in a carefully measured tone.


“Judy Murphy.” She mentions the mother of one of my high school friends.

“Oh, how’s Sean?”

Julie hesitates and then tells me that Sean died of leukemia.

It’s tough news for me to take, as I liked and admired Sean.  I ask my sister when he died.

“Just a few months ago. It struck him suddenly. He was studying engineering at the University of Washington. He died during surgery.”

When Julie hangs up I return to my cell and think about Sean. He was a friend of mine since junior high school. With the news of his death, I sit and think more about what I’m doing here.  I face the wall in my cell, unable to muffle the hollering, laughing, and slamming of dominos on steel cellblock tables. Bad news from beyond prison walls keeps coming, and it will keep coming, and I must learn to accept it alone.

Sean and I hadn’t spoken since high school graduation. He lived responsibly, a student-athlete, disciplined and respectful of others while I was living recklessly. I remember our friendship as kids and as teammates in football and baseball.  It’s hard for me to believe that I’m now in prison and his life has ended.  Many more lives will end while I serve this sentence, maybe even my own.

I rest a pad on my knee so I can write to his parents, expressing my sympathy. Then I pledge that memories of Sean will inspire me to make better use of my life, to use every day working to become a better person. I don’t know how Sean’s parents will respond to my letter but I feel compelled to write it. For some reason, news of his death piles on more guilt.  It brings feelings of nostalgia for high school, those earlier days before I thought of selling cocaine.  I regret decisions I made and feel a colossal disappointment in what I’ve made of my life.


I want to reach beyond these walls and my chance arrives when Julie receives the grant money for printing 2,000 copies of Drugs and Money. She makes the trip from Seattle to visit me so we can plan our strategy to distribute the books.

“You’ve grown so much,” Julie cries as we hug for the first time since my arrest, almost three years before.

“I told you I’ve been exercising every morning since I got here. Check this out.” I flex my arms, showing off.

She admires my fitness but then looks around, disoriented with the prison experience. “What did that guy do to get in here?”

“Come on, let’s not waste our time talking about anyone else. He probably sold drugs, like everyone else. I told you I’m a loner in here, I keep to myself.”

“I can’t believe you don’t have any friends. How can you spend all your time alone?”

“I’m okay. I talk to a few guys from class, but life is different for me. I’m so busy with school that I can’t take time for television, movies, or any of the craziness that goes on around here.” I tell my sister about the hustle of brewing alcohol with fruit, sugar, and yeast, and how some prisoners pass through the monotony of confinement in a drunken stupor. “Others are into gangs, gambling, and drugs. I feel safest and most productive by sticking to myself.”

“How do prisoners get drugs in here?” Despite my efforts to talk about the book, my sister persists in asking me about prison life.

“Through visits I guess, and some corrupt guards mule them in. I stay away from everything. That’s one of the reasons I keep such a busy schedule, to avoid trouble.”

While sitting across the table from my sister, I don’t feel any shame at all. It isn’t the same when my mother or father visits me. With them I feel empty inside and embarrassed that they see me in a place like this. Both my mom and dad want to hold my hand, pat my head, or assure me with words that things are going to turn out fine. But they’re afraid for me. Their nervous gestures bring out my guilt from having put them through such misery. I’ve asked them to leave visits early, feigning exhaustion. In truth, sadness overwhelms me and all I want to do is disappear.

With Julie, on the other hand, I grin and laugh, happy to listen as she tells me about our younger sister, Christina, our parents, our niece, and her own engagement to Tim. Life continues regardless of my ordeal. I look at the clock, conscious that the minutes move so quickly, and wish the visit wouldn’t end. With hundreds of other prisoners’ family members visiting, it’s loud in the room. We’re eating sandwiches from vending machines and drinking sodas. Life feels almost normal. Even though she periodically breaks into tears, I’m not in prison when I’m with Julie.  She’s so sweet, telling me that she’d switch places with me if she could.

We talk about the many ways we’re going to leverage all of the relationships we have in Seattle to attract media attention for the book. Drugs are becoming a bigger issue in society with President Bush’s zero-tolerance programs and I feel strongly that the book I wrote could contribute to the solution. Through a story describing what happened to my friends and me, the book sends a message regarding the tragic consequences that follow drug trafficking.

Although I face considerable restrictions in promoting the book, Julie is free to speak on my behalf. She returns to Seattle and begins contacting jails, schools, and other institutions where the message in Drugs and Money can add value. With books to donate, Julie contacts local talk radio programs to promote the book and to secure invitations for me to participate in telephone interviews.

Conscious of the reprimand Mr. Chandler gave me for enrolling in college without first seeking his permission, I ask advice from my supervisor, Ms. Stephens. I want to know which staff member can authorize me to interact with the media. She directs me to Ms. Sheffer, the Warden’s Executive Assistant, and Ms. Sheffer tells me that if representatives of the media want to speak with me over the phone, then I’m within my rights to converse.


“I’m locking you up,” a lieutenant chastises me after paging me to his office.

“Why? What did I do?”

“Listen to this.” The lieutenant plays a tape recording of a portion from an interview I gave to a Seattle radio station over the telephone. “You can’t be giving no interviews on the radio from my institution. Where do you think you are? This is a federal prison! You’re supposed to be serving time, not writing books and talking to the media.”

“But I was only talking about the reasons people shouldn’t get involved with selling drugs. I’m trying to send a positive message.”

“Well I’m sending you to the hole to think about your positive message. Next time you’ll think twice about what you’re saying over my phone system and who you’re talking to.”

“But I asked permission from Ms. Sheffer before I made the call. She said I could talk with the media over the phone.”

The lieutenant looks at me skeptically. “What? Ms. Sheffer said that? When?”

“Three weeks ago. My work supervisor told me she was the person I needed to speak to for permission, and she said it would be fine.”

“Go back to your job,” the lieutenant orders. “I’ll get to the bottom of this. If you’re lying to me, you’re gonna be sorry.”

I walk back to the business office, intimidated by my encounter with the lieutenant. Since I had permission, I don’t think I’m in trouble, but the lieutenant’s threat about the hole shakes me. From an isolation cell I won’t be able to attend my classes with Mercer University, and if I can’t complete my classes, the timeline I’m working toward to graduate in 1992 falls apart.  I’m frustrated that the decisions of others have so much influence on my life.

Ms. Sheffer is waiting for me when I get back to my desk. With her shoulder-length blonde hair and form fitting designer clothes, she looks more like a babe than a prison official. Despite her attractiveness and the fragrance of her perfume, she talks tough, at least to me.

“From now on, if you’re going to talk with the media, you coordinate it through my office.” Ms. Sheffer scolds me while pointing her finger at me, ruining fantasies I’ve had about her, the kind that keep a young man alive. My confusion quickly leads to embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. I thought you said it was okay for me to talk over the phone.”

“I only said that because I didn’t think a member of the media would accept your phone calls. It was my mistake, that’s why you’re not in the hole. But let’s be clear, from now on you need to coordinate all media communications through my office.”

When Ms. Sheffer walks out I’m left alone in the office with my supervisor. “You’re really rocking the boat around here.”

“I don’t mean to. I’m just trying to build support outside.”

Ms. Stephens shakes her head in doubt. “When you started here you said you wanted to keep a low profile, to stay out of trouble. Writing books and talking on the radio puts you on the front line, not exactly low profile.”

“I meant I wanted to keep a low profile in prison. I still have to try and build support outside. I can’t just give up, you know, I’ve got to try to make something more of my life than this.”

“I just hope you know what you’re doing. Most inmates want to avoid attention, but you’re bringing the spotlight right to you. If you do anything wrong, all this attention is going to backfire.”

Ms. Stephens makes clear that she thinks it would be best to focus on school and forget about media contacts. “Just remember,” she chills me with an admonishment, “I can’t protect you if the lieutenant decides to lock you up for an investigation.”

Ms. Stephens means well. I know she cares for me, but she is a part of the system, and she knows a lieutenant can easily lock a prisoner away in a disciplinary cell for months at a time. If that should happen to me I wouldn’t have access to school, to telephone calls, to exercise. She doesn’t want me locked in a box.

What Ms. Stephens doesn’t understand is that I am locked in a box.


When a guard passes an envelope through the bars of my cell I’m surprised to see a woman’s penmanship. The letter is from Susan, a girl I know from high school. She dated my close friend Rich, and her letter expresses support, telling me that she heard me speaking on a local radio interview.

I read Susan’s letter a hundred times. The letter isn’t suggestive, or with any romantic innuendo, but it’s the only letter I’ve received from a woman since Lisa dumped me six months ago. I like holding the paper that left Susan’s hands, wanting this connection to last.  It makes me wonder how many years will pass before I kiss a woman again.

I write Susan a lengthy letter, telling her all about my schoolwork, my routine in prison, and the challenges I face in promoting my book. Although a romance is probably too much to hope for, I make it clear to her that I value her correspondence. I’m lonely, longing for ties to anyone beyond prison walls, especially a woman.


The next letter I receive isn’t from Susan and it isn’t nearly as pleasant. It is from my attorney, Justin, who informs me that the Court of Appeals has affirmed my conviction. The court’s decision doesn’t surprise me, but I’ve been hoping that the court wouldn’t issue its ruling for another year, or better yet, not until I expected to earn my degree in 1992. Yet my hopes don’t matter. It’s 1990 and I know what this appellate decision means. The clock on the 120-day time limit for the Rule 35 has begun to tick.

I write the judicial motion for the Rule 35 from my desk at work. Through the request for my judge to reconsider the sentence he imposed I express remorse for the crimes I committed and accept that I will serve several years in prison as a consequence of my convictions. Yet I implore the judge to reserve his final judgment of me, explaining that I’m working to educate myself, to contribute to society, and to build a record that will demonstrate my commitment to atone and to prepare for a law-abiding life. As an offer of proof I include copies of my university transcripts, my stellar progress reports from prison administrators, copies of Drugs and Money, press clippings, and letters of appreciation that my work has already generated. The entire package fits in a large envelope and I submit it to the court without assistance from counsel.

I don’t have to wait long before I receive the government’s response to my motion. When I open the envelope my heart sinks as I read the prosecutor’s passionate argument for the judge to let my sentence stand. He closes the three-page rebuttal with a sentiment so powerful in its denunciation of me as an individual, a fellow human being, that it takes all the wind out of me.

If Michael Santos served every day of his life in an all-consuming effort to repay society, and if he lived to be 300 years old, our community would still be at a significant net loss.

I read the prosecutor’s response over and over. It eats at me, wakes me from sleep at night. He prepared the case against me for trial. He knows that I’ve never had a weapon and that I don’t have a history or proclivity for violence. Here, in the prison, I live in the midst of dangerous men who truly threaten society, yet they serve sentences that are a fraction in length compared to mine. I don’t understand why the prosecutor is so vehement in opposing my relief, or why his response drips with such venom. I’m sinking again, needing to tap into some type of inner strength before I sink back down into the abyss.

When the guard slides the next envelope–from the district court, my judge’s chambers–through the bars of my cell, I need to lie down. It comes on Friday. Judge Tanner didn’t require much time to dismiss my motion. He agrees with the prosecutor, and with his ruling, the sentence I serve is now final.

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