Clip 8

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Earning Freedom

Chapter Three: 1988-1990
Months 14-36

Clip 8


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 chess board 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 releasing 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 entrance 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 non-fiction 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 best sellers, 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.”



You’ve just listened to a free audio clip from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. I’m Michael Santos. Visit Prison We help people prepare for success through prosecution, sentencing, and prison. Our digital products bring value to prison systems, schools, and corporate training. Visit Prison to learn more, or find us on YouTube. Learn how my partner Shon Hopwood and I can help you. Stay tuned for the next free audio clip. We invite you to subscribe to our podcast. Please share and leave an honest review, wherever possible. If you’d like to engage in the discussion, please leave a comment.



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