Earning Freedom: Chapter 6
It’s Thanksgiving, 1992, just before my sixth holiday season in prison. Despite the forbidden affair I’ve been carrying on with Sarah for the past six months, today she tells me that she needs to move on with her life. She understands the risks associated with our trysts and she’s come to the conclusion that the stress would be too much to bear for another 21 years.
I’ve hardened emotionally, as I’m now familiar with the concept of loss. I’ve been expecting this moment, anticipating her good-bye since our first kiss. Grateful that it has lasted this long, I’m prepared to move forward.
“What’s up? Did she finally dump you?” Windward asks, sensing my despondency when I return to the cell and drop to my rack without undressing.
“I told you she’s my lawyer. That’s it.”
“And I told my judge that I thought it was flour I was bringin’ in. What’s that got to do with anythin’?”
“Can’t you just be quiet?”
“Least you can do is tell me how it went down. No sense keep denyin’ it. Ain’t no hot young lawyer gonna keep visitin’ a man in the joint ’less somethin’s going on. ‘Sides that, I smell her all over ya.”
“She was trying to help with my case. That’s it. Enough, just drop it.”
Lying on my rack, ignoring Windward’s irritating interrogation, I silently acknowledge that I knew Sarah would eventually disappear from my life. She was a wonderful, delicious respite from my all-male world, but now she’s gone and despondency starts to settle in like a dense fog. Thoughts of women, family, and the normal life from which I’m separated rush in, squeezing me. I have to refocus, to push thoughts of Sarah out of my mind and block all hope of finding a woman to carry this burden with me. I’m going to focus on completing five years at a time, alone. I’ve got to reach 1997.
The people have elected William Jefferson Clinton the 42nd president of the United States. I closely followed the political coverage throughout the year. Julie even purchased a subscription to the Washington Post for me to keep abreast of politics. Now, on a sunny day in January 1993, I’m overwhelmed by my emotions, tears filling my eyes, as I watch Justice Rehnquist swear our new president into office.
“Why do you care so much who the president is when you can’t even vote?”
In my sister’s world the president doesn’t play much part in day-to-day life and she doesn’t grasp why I’m optimistic with this switch from Bush to Clinton. As a federal prisoner, I live under the restrictions of the Bureau of Prisons, an agency that needs major reform. I’m hoping that President Clinton or his attorney general will appoint a new director of this agency. I’m certain the change will bring more empathy, as the president’s younger brother, Roger, served a federal prison sentence for nonviolent cocaine trafficking. Reform and liberalization of prison could well come under Clinton’s leadership.
In preparation of a research report I’m working on for Hofstra I read about various progressive prison systems that President Clinton may consider. In Scandinavian countries citizens from local communities participate in panels designed to oversee and facilitate positive adjustments for offenders. Prisoners meet with “ombudsmen panels” at the beginning of their terms and together they work to establish clearly defined, individualized programs that prisoners may follow to reconcile with society and earn their freedom through merit. No similar program exists in our justice system, though under Clinton there’s hope for change. Hope has been a mantra of Clinton’s throughout the campaign, and if he wants to restore it for people in prison, he’ll need a different kind of system.
Instead of a system that encourages offenders to embrace societal values, studies combined with my experiences convince me that our system has a dramatically different mission with dramatically different outcomes. It began to deteriorate in 1973, after Robert Martinson, a criminologist, published “Nothing Works.” It was an influential study suggesting that regardless of what programs administrators initiated, people in prison were incapable of reform. Then Professor James Q. Wilson, a mentor of Dr. DiIulio’s, published his widely quoted book, Thinking About Crime. In that book, Professor Wilson suggested that society ought to limit the functions of prisons to two goals: isolate and punish. I’d like to see a different approach, and under President Clinton’s leadership, I’m hopeful for meaningful reforms.
Either way, I’m on my own, knowing that I must succeed in spite of external forces. The concepts of isolation, deterrence, and punishment don’t concern me. I’m making daily progress by staying physically fit and putting in long hours of study toward my master’s degree. Regardless of whether President Clinton appoints enlightened leadership to change the system or not, I’ll continue to learn and grow. Neither the system of punishment nor anything else will block me from achieving the goals that I set.
Despite the rigid, punishment-based policies espoused by theorists like Martinson and DiIulio and endorsed by the BOP–policies that thwart my struggle to emerge as a capable and contributing citizen–I’m heartened to learn of leaders who embrace what I consider an enlightened system of justice. Some come from surprising places, like the United States Supreme Court.
In a 1985 commencement speech entitled “Factories With Fences,” Former Chief Justice Warren Burger called for the graduating students from Pace University to reform America’s growing prison system. Instead of perpetuating a system that simply isolates and punishes, Justice Burger urged changes within the system that would encourage prisoners to work toward “earning and learning their way to freedom.”
Although eight years have passed since Justice Burger delivered his speech, the Bureau of Prisons has done little to implement his vision. I don’t see any way to earn freedom. Through my work and achievements I want to become an example and a catalyst for change. I may not advance my release date, but I will contribute, and I will lead a life of relevance. I will show by example that self-discipline and education can lead a prisoner to emerge as a contributing citizen, and I will urge reforms that encourage others to do the same.
I’m inspired by what I’ve learned from The Future of Imprisonment, a book Dr. Norval Morris published in the 1970s. Dr. Morris wrote that prisons in an enlightened society should enable prisoners to rise to their highest levels of competence. His thoughts resonate with me so I write him. Thinking that he’s still a law professor at Harvard, I send my letter of introduction to Cambridge. I want him to know that his work has touched my life, and I ask for his guidance going forward.
Several months pass before I receive his response. Administrators at Harvard forwarded my letter, as Dr. Morris moved to become the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law at The University of Chicago. He responded graciously to my letter, offering to advise me with my studies at Hofstra and throughout the remainder of my term. “I may be of particular help to you at times,” he writes, “as I’ve known every director of the Bureau of Prisons, and the past three directors are close friends of mine. Count on my support if you run into any obstacles with your pursuit of education.”
Dr. Morris’s support boosts my spirits. To have distinguished academics like Professors McPherson, DiIulio, and Morris as mentors means that I’ll have guidance from the same professionals who offer expert opinions to legislators and to the highest levels of prison administrators. The professors will have an interest in preparing me for release; I can trust in them to advocate for me if I need help.
Through our letters and phone calls, Dr. Morris and I become friends. He encourages me to call him Norval and introduces me to other leading American penologists. I begin to correspond with professors from across the United States, including scholars such as Leo Carroll, Todd Clear, Francis Cullen, Timothy Flanagan, Tara Gray, and Marilyn McShane. They all support my efforts and invite me to contribute to their work. As a prisoner who studies prisons from the inside and shares what he knows with the world of academia, I’m evidently unique. Dr. George Cole, an author and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Connecticut, pledges his support. We begin to build a close friendship.
Liberation seeps incrementally into my psyche with each of these relationships. I’m less susceptible to the hopelessness that pervades the lives around me. The woman I loved left me and I serve a sentence that is still measured in decades, but I’ve created a sense of meaning and I feel as though I’m making progress, which is the key to growth.
Bruce and I have completed our collaboration on “Transcending the Wall” about the importance of education in transforming prisoners’ lives. He generously gives me credit as the first author but it is Bruce who coordinates publication in the scholarly, peer-reviewed Journal of Criminal Justice Education. As I told Bruce during our summer visit in 1993, our publication serves a pragmatic purpose.
“I need to start thinking about transferring from this penitentiary,” I tell him during one of our visits.
“Are you feeling threatened?” he asks, on alert.
Bruce read about the violence at USP Atlanta in a New York Times article that cited it as one of the nation’s most dangerous high security prisons. He’s always concerned about my safety.
“My schedule keeps me away from trouble, but gang activity is more intense every day. It’s violent, bloodshed every week. I think it’s time to request a transfer.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“I need more information. The thing is, when a prisoner asks for a transfer there’s no telling where the BOP will send him. It’s like playing roulette. I need to transfer to the most education-friendly prison possible.”
“Can Norval help you?”
“He can help, and he said he would. The problem is that I don’t know where to go. If I ask for a transfer the BOP will probably send me closer to Seattle, but being closer to home isn’t as important as the preparations I need to make for when I get out.”
“What do we need to do?” I always love Bruce’s steadfast support, and I especially appreciate his use of the “we,” meaning he’s always on board to help.
“I need to find the best prison for educational programming, but not according to what staff members say. I need inside information from actual prisoners who serve time in the institutions.”
Bruce doesn’t understand why the prisoners’ perspective is so valuable to me when I actively avoid close interactions with the penitentiary population.
I try to explain. “If someone were to inquire about educational opportunities here at USP Atlanta, the staff would discuss the basic programs. They would say that teachers, classrooms, and even college programs are available. But I’m the only prisoner out of 2,500 who’s earned a degree here, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because, despite what staff members say, the atmosphere in here is oppressive and the policies in practice discourage us from pursuing an education.”
“Yes, but you’ve gotten around the obstacles here. What makes you think that you won’t get around them wherever you go?”
“The reason I make progress here is because I have support from Ms. Stephens, Mr. Chandler, and a few others. They let me create a schedule that allows me to avoid problems and gives me access to computers; they intervene when policies or staff members try to block me. When I get to the next prison I’m just another prisoner, and I’ll be facing obstacles there like everyone else, including from BOP staff members that may resent me for striving to become something more. Those kinds of staff members throw up insurmountable barriers. I see them every day here, but this penitentiary has become as familiar to me as the back of my hand and I know how to get around in here. I need details and the up-to-date truth from prisoners about what goes on in other prisons. With that information I can decide where to request a transfer.”
Our conversation evolves into a plan. Bruce writes a letter of introduction to Sylvia McCollum, the Director of Education for the entire Bureau of Prisons. He lists his credentials as a retired professor of education from Chicago and explains that for the past several years he has been mentoring me. He includes a copy of the article we co-authored, offering to travel to Washington to meet with Ms. McCollum and discuss contributions he might make to the Bureau of Prisons as a volunteer.
Had I written to Sylvia McCollum directly, it’s unlikely that my letter would’ve reached her, or that I would’ve received a response. With Bruce as my emissary, on the other hand, I knew that I would have a better chance of receiving the data I was looking to find.
Bruce visited Ms. McCollum at her office in DC, at the Bureau of Prisons headquarters. She welcomed his offer to mentor other prisoners and even congratulated me through Bruce on the progress I’ve made. When he told her that he wanted to help others, Ms. McCollum encouraged him. She gave him clearance to visit any federal prison he wanted and instructed those who presided over education departments to accommodate him by arranging private meetings with the prisoners who were most active in education programs.
“I’m ready to begin my journey,” Bruce tells me over the phone after describing his successful meeting with Ms. McCollum. “Where should I go?”
The research work pays off. With Bruce and Norval’s assistance, I successfully coordinate my transfer after learning that the best prison for education is FCI McKean. It’s wonderful news when guards inform me that I’m being transferred out of the United States Penitentiary and that I’m on my way to McKean.
“Santos. 16377-004.” I respond to the guard who processes me in for transfer as he calls me forward.
He shakes my wrists to ensure the handcuffs are secure and then yanks on the chain around my waist.
“Whadda we got goin’ on down here?” The guard pulls my pant legs out from between my skin and the steel bracelets locked around my ankles.
“I didn’t get any socks, sir. The chains were digging into my shins.”
“Gonna have to live with it. Security first.” He tightens the cuffs to ensure I don’t pull the pant legs through again. Then he clears me.
I once read a novel by Wilbur Smith describing the horrific experiences of people who were locked in chains after slave traders captured them. The slaves were forced to walk across rough terrain to the ships stealing them from Africa. The descriptions sickened me when I read the novel and I’m reminded of them as I shuffle my way onto the bus. The steel rings once again cut into my skin, but by shortening my steps I lessen the pain.
My stomach churns despite three earlier trips to the bathroom. My body hasn’t moved faster than my legs could carry it since 1988, the last time I was in a vehicle. Now, in the spring of 1994, I’m sitting on an uncomfortable seat in the prison bus that is about to transport me out of USP Atlanta. Diesel fumes from the engines make me nauseous and beads of sweat form on my forehead
It’s been seven years since my arrest. I’m now 30-years-old, certainly a different man, though still a prisoner with a long, steep climb into more darkness.
I smile as I settle into the black vinyl seat, recalling how I engineered this transfer. With Norval’s help the administrative obstacles to the transfer were insignificant. Bruce visited five prisons and spoke with several prisoners in each. Clearly, the news about the Federal Correctional Institution in Bradford, Pennsylvania, known as FCI McKean, suggested that it would be my best choice. The prisoners at McKean refer to it as “Dream McKean,” with a progressive warden, Dennis Luther, who wholeheartedly supports educational programs.
Ordinarily the documented address of release residence in my case file would’ve prohibited my transfer to McKean. The BOP confined me in the Southeast region because of my arrest in South Florida, but my release address is Seattle.
“I can submit a transfer for you to FCI McKean,” my case manager told me when I asked, “but I know the Region isn’t going to approve it. You don’t have a release address for that part of the country, and I know you’ll either be sent to a prison in the West or another prison here in the Southeast.”
“I don’t care about being close to home. I’ve got too much time left to serve and McKean’s the best spot to finish my education.” I persisted with the request, knowing she wanted to help.
“Look, I support you and I’m going to submit you for McKean. I’m just telling you what’s going to happen. Once I send the file to the regional office it’s out of my hands, and no one in that office knows anything about you.”
My case manager, Ms. Forbes, had attended my graduation in 1992 and helped me make arrangements with the mailroom to receive the books I needed from the Hofstra library. She supported my efforts but was honest in telling me what she thought would happen once she put forth my file for transfer. I existed only as a number in the system, and I understood that all consideration from staff at USP Atlanta would end with my transfer request.
After that conversation with my case manager I called Norval and explained the advantages that FCI McKean offered along with the challenges I would have in transferring. Norval said he knew the regional director and promised to call him on my behalf. That was two days ago.
When the bus engine begins to roar, I feel ready to leave. I’ve lived through six holiday seasons amidst prisoners serving multiple life sentences in the penitentiary. Transitioning to a medium-security prison means encountering less volatility and more optimism, I hope.
As I wait for the bus to roll along, my thoughts, curiously, turn to my eventual release. I submitted a petition for clemency about six months ago. It wasn’t my intention to submit the petition until 1997, when I would’ve completed my first decade. But after discussing my plan with Norval, he convinced me on the merits of submitting the petition at once.
“These efforts take time and work,” Norval explained, “and clemency is extremely rare, especially in this political climate. I don’t see any advantage in waiting until 1997. You’ve earned one university degree and you’re well on your way to earning a second. Draft a petition now and send it to me for review. I think you should get the process started.”
With Norval’s letter of support, I proudly sent my petition to the U.S. pardon attorney in Washington. That was more than six months ago. Whenever I’ve made an inquiry on the progress, I received form letters that say my petition is under review. I have no idea what will happen, if anything. I can’t grasp the concept of 19 more years in prison. But I’m transferring from a high-security penitentiary to a medium-security FCI now, and I’m excited about the change of scenery, even if I’m still immersed in a population of more than 1,500 felons.
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Podcast 125: Earning Freedom 6.2
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The air brakes sigh as the bus stops in front of the administration building of FCI McKean. As I look through chain-link fences separated by razor wire, I remember my first close look at a prison, back in 1987, when the DEA escorted me through the gates of MCC Miami. McKean has that same non-threatening feel of an office park. Without the impenetrably high concrete walls and gun towers of Atlanta, McKean looks almost welcoming, at least from the outside. I suppose the years have institutionalized me.
While hobbling off the bus I inhale the scent of evergreen trees. McKean is set in the midst of northwestern Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Forest. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in such a natural setting, double, razor-wire topped fences notwithstanding. The cool mountain air makes me shiver, but I soak up the sight of trees, spring flowers, and distant rolling hills as I shuffle along in line with 22 other prisoners toward the processing area.
It’s early afternoon by the time guards snap my photograph, fingerprint me, issue my bedroll and ID card. Rather than following the wide concrete walkways through manicured lawns toward my housing unit, I detour into the education department for a look and to introduce myself to the supervisor of education. I find Ms. Barto’s office and knock.
“May I speak with you for a minute?”
She looks at my blue canvas shoes, my elastic-waist khaki pants, my dingy white t-shirt with 2XL written in black felt-tip marker on the upper left chest, and the bed roll I carry under my arm.
“Looks like you just pulled in.”
“Yes. I just got here.” From Bruce’s description of her I knew to expect a sight different from Mr. Chandler. Ms. Barto is in her mid-30s, slender, with chestnut hair, gleaming white teeth, and blue eyes that sparkle. She has a welcoming smile that many prisoners, I’m sure, confuse with an invitation to flirt.
“Haven’t you reported to your housing unit yet?”
“Before going there, I wanted to introduce myself and ask if you might have a job for me. My name is Michael Santos. I’m just transferring from USP Atlanta. You may remember my mentor, Dr. Bruce McPherson, who visited you and a few inmates here about a month ago?”
“Oh, you’re Dr. McPherson’s friend. He mentioned that you were going to try transferring here. I’m surprised you made it, and so quickly.”
“I was lucky, I guess. I wanted to talk with you about an educational program I’m involved in, and I hope you’ll help me with some special requirements.”
“You’re in correspondence school, right?” She remembers Bruce talking about me.
“I’m nearly finished with a program at Hofstra University. To complete it I’ll need to make arrangements here so Hofstra’s library can send the books I need to read. Besides those arrangements, I’m hoping you might have a job available that will provide access to a word processor.”
With Bruce having paved the way before I arrived, Ms. Barto extends all the support I need, and there are no delays settling in at McKean. She assigns me to a job of tutoring other prisoners on their self-paced studies to learn word processing skills. She authorizes my use of the computer for school and coordinates with the mailroom to accept packages from Hofstra’s library. With Bruce’s advance preparations and my clearly documented record of achievement, I have a seamless transition into Dream McKean.
Compared to the penitentiary, McKean is a dream. Although a handful of prisoners on the compound serve life sentences, the tension at McKean isn’t as pervasive or palpable as it was at USP Atlanta. Professional, intelligent leadership is the reason behind the tranquility. Warden Dennis Luther doesn’t cling to the simplistic notion that prisons should exist solely to isolate and punish. Instead of relying on policies that crush hope, and managing by threat of further punishment, Warden Luther uses a highly effective system of positive incentives.
I no longer live in a cauldron ready to boil over. To leave my cell in Atlanta I had to wait for specific times and pass through eight separate checkpoints, metal detectors, and searches just to get to the weight pile. By contrast, the doors don’t lock at McKean and our liberty to walk freely encourages a responsible independence, thus lessening the tension all the way around.
McKean has a token economy where prisoners can earn points individually and collectively. We redeem the points for privileges and rewards that ease our time. The progressive system vests the population with incentives to exercise self-control. By keeping rooms and housing units clean, prisoners earn the privilege of more access to television and the phones. Those who accumulate enough points earn the privilege of having a portable television and VCR in their rooms. By minimizing disciplinary infractions, prisoners can participate in family picnics, order food and goods from local businesses, and wear personal rather than institutional clothing.
No one wants problems that can lead to the loss of privileges or lockdowns. The system works exceptionally well, eliminating problems like gangs and violence. The rigid bureaucracy of Atlanta stands in stark opposition to McKean. Ideas for my master’s thesis begin to form as I study Luther’s management style. Eagerly, I write a letter explaining my intentions to him. He’s not only supportive but invites me to his office and makes himself available as an interview subject.
“I’m here to see Warden Luther,” I explain to the guard who eyes me suspiciously when I present myself to the control area. The guard is stationed in a locked booth, an area that is off limits to prisoners. After he makes a call and confirms that I’m authorized to visit the warden in his office, the guard–still wary–buzzes the door open and I walk in.
Tall indoor plants with heavy green leaves fill the atrium-like lobby. I look up and see several skylights. Brightly colored fish swim in a large aquarium adjacent to the receptionist’s desk. She tells me to walk up the stairs.
“The warden’s office will be to the left.”
When I walk into the office the warden’s secretary greets me from her desk. “Have a seat Mr. Santos. Warden Luther will see you momentarily.”
She smiles at me and offers to pour me a cup of coffee, as if I’m a colleague calling on a business acquaintance. I thank her but decline the coffee while picking up a magazine on the wooden table beside the chair. The trade magazine serves the prison industry and those who work in prison management. In perusing the table of contents I quickly spot an article that Warden Luther coauthored with one of my mentors, Professor John DiIulio.
The phone on the secretary’s desk rings and she tells me I can walk into the warden’s office. My legs shake a little as I walk on the plush carpet. Warden Dennis Luther sits in a high-backed leather chair, at a desk of cherry wood. Behind him a large window overlooks the center of McKean’s compound. An American flag and another flag bearing the Department of Justice insignia hang from poles in the corner. Bookshelves line the wall and I see photographs of him with other Bureau of Prisons officials, including Director Kathy Hawk.
“Have a seat.” Warden Luther gestures to a couch adjacent to his desk. It’s the first couch I’ve sat on since my term began. “Tell me about your thesis and how I can help,” he encourages me.
“I’m at a stage where I have to propose my thesis subject to the graduate committee. I’d like to write about the incentive system and the token economy you’ve initiated here. I could make a more persuasive case if I could learn about the influences that shaped your management philosophy.”
“Okay. We can start right now. What are your questions?”
“Wow. I wasn’t expecting to start today, but since you’re offering, I’d like to hear about your relationship with Professor John DiIulio.”
My question surprises him, and I’m sure he wonders how I know about the Princeton professor. “John DiIulio? Why would you ask about him?”
“Well, while I was waiting in your outer office, I flipped through the magazine on the table. I didn’t have time to read it, but I saw that you coauthored an article with Dr. DiIulio. For the past few years I’ve had an ongoing correspondence with him and I’ve read all of his books. From what I’ve learned through our correspondence and from his books, Governing Prisons and No Escape, I’m surprised that you two would collaborate as colleagues.”
He chuckles. “The truth is, John and I share more in common than you might think.”
After an hour with the warden I return to my room and immediately write a letter to Dr. DiIulio. I explain that I’m proposing to center my thesis on Warden Luther’s management style, contrasting his token economy with the goals of isolation and punishment that Professor James Q. Wilson promotes, and even with the strict control model that DiIulio himself extols.
Dr. DiIulio surprises me with his quick response to my letter. He writes that he’s glad I’ve settled in so well at FCI McKean and that I’ve had an opportunity to learn from his friend, Warden Luther. “What if I could arrange to bring a class of Princeton students on a field trip to McKean? That way they could tour the prison and perhaps spend some time listening to you and Warden Luther describe your perspectives on confinement.”
It’s an incredible offer for me, and I accept with enthusiasm.
On a Saturday morning, in the fall of 1994, I wake at three o’clock as a guard shines his flashlight into my single-man cell for the census count. After climbing out from under the covers and flipping on the light, I sit at my desk to read through the notes I’ve taken from Dr. DiIulio’s books.
In a few hours I’ll receive an honor that I know will have meaning for the rest of my life. Although not quite equivalent to lecturing at Princeton, I’m looking forward to speaking with a group of Ivy League students, contributing to their education and to their understanding of America’s prison system. Few prisoners will ever enjoy such an honor and I bask, momentarily, in my good fortune. I feel as if I’m charting my own course, making progress.
At nine o’clock I walk to Warden Luther’s office, ready, intent on making a favorable impression while giving Dr. DiIulio and his students a different perspective on the need for prison reform. Three of us, including Warden Luther, Associate Warden Craig Apker, and I sit in a conference room.
“Care for coffee or hot chocolate?” Warden Luther points to the buffet table.
I walk over and pour hot chocolate from a thermos. While admiring the array of pastries on the oak table I suddenly realize it’s the first time I’ve sipped from a ceramic mug since I’ve been incarcerated. I’m used to plastic and this heavy mug dings against my teeth. The whole experience makes me grin.
“Did you sleep well?” the warden asks.
He’s dressed casually, in brown corduroys and a tan sweater over a shirt with a button-down Oxford collar. He looks preppy, which I guess is appropriate for a meeting with the undergrads.
“I’ve been awake since three,” I admit. “This is a big day for me and I wanted to study the notes I’ve taken on Dr. DiIulio’s books.”
Through the conference room window the three of us watch the charter bus come to a stop in front of the administration building. I’ve seen photographs of Dr. DiIulio before and recognize him as he steps off the bus. I’ve read everything I could about him. I know that he earned his Ph.D. from Harvard, and also that he was one of the youngest professors at Princeton to receive tenure.
I count fourteen students, all well dressed, and I contemplate the brilliant futures that await them. These are future leaders being groomed in one of the world’s finest universities. Some may be offspring of legislators and judges. I’m thinking of the influence they represent and I’m grateful for the privilege of speaking with them while I’m wearing the khaki uniform of a prisoner.
After introductions, we sit in cushioned chairs around the highly polished wooden conference table. The students take notes as Warden Luther provides the group with details on the prison. It is a medium-security Federal Correctional Institution with a population that ranges between 1,400 and 1,800 men. He describes how he governs the prison from the perspective that prisoners are sent to prison as punishment for their crimes, rejecting the notion that he has a duty to punish them further by creating an oppressive atmosphere.
“So do you think others might construe your prison as one that coddles prisoners?” one of the students asks.
“What do you think, Michael? Are you being coddled?” Warden Luther deflects the student’s question to me and I’m happy to respond.
“I served the first several years of my sentence in a high-security prison, an environment that really dehumanizes everyone. Although I was able to create a routine and focus on educating myself, most of the other prisoners abandoned hope. Those perceptions and attitudes stoked their hostility. That level of anger doesn’t exist here, and from that perspective, it’s better, at least for me.
“Some people might believe this atmosphere coddles prisoners, but it has many advantages that should interest taxpayers. I don’t sense a strong gang presence, I haven’t seen any bloodshed, and the prisoners work together to sustain the availability of privileges we can work toward. We’re still in prison, still living without family, without liberty. When I’m lying on a steel rack in a locked room at night, with an aching to see my mother again, or to hug my sisters, or when I’m suffering from the estrangement I feel from society, from women, I’m aware of my punishment. I’ve been living that way for more than 2,500 days already. To me it doesn’t feel like I’m being coddled.”
“What kind of changes do you think Congress could make that would serve the interests of taxpayers?” Dr. DiIulio asks Warden Luther.
“One change I’d recommend would be to close all minimum-security prison camps. The camps don’t serve a useful purpose. Fences don’t confine the camp prisoners, and the men aren’t a threat to society. Camp prisoners should serve their sanctions in home-confinement or under some other form of community-based sanction that would not require taxpayers to spend more than $10,000 a year to support each man we confine in a camp.”
“How about you, Michael? What kind of changes would you like to see Congress make?”
“Well, as a long-term prisoner, I’d like to see citizens and members of Congress rethink the concept of justice. Instead of measuring justice by the number of calendar years a person serves in prison, I’d like to see changes that would measure justice by the efforts an offender makes to redeem his crimes and reconcile with society. Reforms should encourage offenders to work toward earning freedom through merit and redemptive acts.”
“How about violent offenders?” Another student interjects. “Should offenders who violently prey on society have opportunities to earn freedom?”
“I’m a big believer in a person’s capacity to change, to lead a productive and contributing life. An enlightened society such as ours ought to allow its criminal justice system to evolve. I don’t know the mechanisms citizens or leaders ought to put in place, or what challenges an individual ought to overcome to earn freedom, but I think we can come up with a system that serves society better than locking a human being in a cage for decades. Perhaps some offenders won’t express remorse, or work to atone, or do enough to earn freedom. But many will. And such a system, I’m sure, would serve the interests of society better than one limiting itself to isolating and punishing.”
The hours we spend together in Warden Luther’s conference room raise my spirit. When we leave I’m the tour guide, responding to student questions as we walk through the housing units, recreation areas, and prison compound. After our tour we return for a second conference that lasts another few hours. I’m energized as I finally walk them out to their bus, and I don’t mind at all when the guard at the gate leading back into the prison orders me against the wall so he can pat me down. Indifferent to the degradation and assault on my human dignity, I smile back at the group of students who watch the search.
“Who’re they?” the guard asks, curious about why I’m with the group.
“They’re students from Princeton.”
He’s giving me a thorough search, perhaps because the group is looking on. I’m a spectacle, on display, with the guard’s hands working their way along my arms as if he’s squeezing meat into a sausage casing.
“So why they coming to see you? You go to Princeton?”
“No. I correspond with their professor, who has a relationship with Warden Luther. The students came on a field trip and I was invited to participate.”
“Lucky you,” he says as he clears me to walk through the gate and into the prison yard.
My meeting with Dr. DiIulio and his students inspires my thesis. It becomes a project that succeeds in making me feel luckier still, opening new avenues few long-term prisoners enjoy. Warden Luther authorizes me to record a video for presentation at the 1994 Annual Conference of the American Society of Criminology, and in May of 1995, Hofstra awards my Master of Arts degree. With those credentials and letters of endorsement from my growing support network, Dr. George Cole convinces his colleagues to admit me into a program at the University of Connecticut that will lead to my Ph.D. Eight years into my sentence and I’m on my way toward becoming a scholar of distinction. Or so I think.