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Earning Freedom

Chapter One: 1987-1988
Months 1-12

Clip 6

The plane lands in Oklahoma. After stepping off I exchange my plane seat for a bus seat and a road journey to El Reno. I recognize the high fences, the coils of razor wire, the guards who drive in white vehicles continuously around the medium-security prison’s perimeter to discourage escapes. I passed through the same gates on the layover the year before when I was being transported from Miami to Seattle for the trial. This is not new and I know what’s coming: crowded bullpen cages, processing forms, fingerprinting, mug shots, and hours of standing before I get locked in a small cell with a stranger.

The cell house is an old design with long rows of sliding steel bars, the type from classic prison films, that clank when slammed into place. Midnight has long since passed by the time I climb onto the top rack. The prisoner on the steel bunk beneath me snores, oblivious to the putrid stench hanging in the cell or the oppressive late summer Oklahoma heat that suffocates me. Moonlight blends with the prison spotlight to cast a glow on the cracked concrete walls, just enough to illuminate the roaches that scatter along the edges of light.
Despite a restless night, I’m eager to explore the prison surroundings when I hear the guard crack the cell house gates open at six in the morning. I climb down and glance at the prisoner on the lower rack who sleeps with his pasty overweight belly and chest exposed, his hand in his shorts. Since I don’t know the protocol of this new environment, I deliberate but finally resist the urge to use the stainless steel toilet or tiny sink next to the bunk.

Despite a restless night, I’m eager to explore the prison surroundings when I hear the guard crack the cell house gates open at six in the morning. I climb down and glance at the prisoner on the lower rack who sleeps with his pasty overweight belly and chest exposed, his hand in his shorts. Since I don’t know the protocol of this new environment, I deliberate but finally resist the urge to use the stainless steel toilet or tiny sink next to the bunk.

Unwashed, I slide into blue slip-on canvas deck shoes. I follow the herd of prisoners walking toward the tier’s stairs. When I passed through this prison last year guards processed me. Then, hours later, in the middle of the night, they shackled and processed me out. I was on my way to continue the westward journey to stand trial. I didn’t have an opportunity to walk around.
During the year I spent locked in the county jail, my freedom of movement didn’t extend beyond the cramped quarters of the housing unit. Now that I’m convicted and sentenced, I can I take in everything: the grass, the flowers, and the design of the buildings. It feels good to walk around.

During the year I spent locked in the county jail, my freedom of movement didn’t extend beyond the cramped quarters of the housing unit. Now that I’m convicted and sentenced, I can I take in everything: the grass, the flowers, and the design of the buildings. It feels good to walk around.
The chow hall is a large, buffet-style cafeteria. While walking through the line, I accept a pastry that a prisoner worker in white clothing places on my tray. I fill a plastic cup with milk. It reminds me of high school, except we’re all guys. And we’re all under the scrutiny of suspicious guards rather than bored teachers. I eat alone, then I walk out to explore. It’s early on a Sunday morning but the burning sun and high humidity trigger a sticky sweat that instantly dampens my armpits. The sweat trickles down the front and back of my torso.

The chow hall is a large, buffet-style cafeteria. While walking through the line, I accept a pastry that a prisoner worker in white clothing places on my tray. I fill a plastic cup with milk. It reminds me of high school, except we’re all guys. And we’re all under the scrutiny of suspicious guards rather than bored teachers. I eat alone, then I walk out to explore. It’s early on a Sunday morning but the burning sun and high humidity trigger a sticky sweat that instantly dampens my armpits. The sweat trickles down the front and back of my torso.
I fall in behind a group of jive-talking prisoners. They’re carrying weight belts and exercise bags as they head to the prison yard. After passing through a few gates and an unguarded metal detector, I see the large track. Scores of prisoners are working out on a massive outdoor weight pile.

I fall in behind a group of jive-talking prisoners. They’re carrying weight belts and exercise bags as they head to the prison yard. After passing through a few gates and an unguarded metal detector, I see the large track. Scores of prisoners are working out on a massive outdoor weight pile.
I see three tennis courts to the left. When I lived on Key Biscayne I played regularly. I walk around the large oval track that circles the soccer and softball fields. The prison feels like a park. Then I see the stark, grim reminders that it’s not a park at all. The tall, double fences with endless coils of glistening razor wire surround me in every direction.

I see three tennis courts to the left. When I lived on Key Biscayne I played regularly. I walk around the large oval track that circles the soccer and softball fields. The prison feels like a park. Then I see the stark, grim reminders that it’s not a park at all. The tall, double fences with endless coils of glistening razor wire surround me in every direction.
The recreation area includes a gymnasium with a full basketball court. Floor- to-ceiling mirrors cover the walls of an adjacent indoor weight room. I watch as a beefed-up prisoner pumps out reps on the bench with four plates on each end of the bar. He’s throwing up 405 pounds as if it’s a broom handle.

The recreation area includes a gymnasium with a full basketball court. Floor- to-ceiling mirrors cover the walls of an adjacent indoor weight room. I watch as a beefed-up prisoner pumps out reps on the bench with four plates on each end of the bar. He’s throwing up 405 pounds as if it’s a broom handle.
I’ve kept fit with thousands of pushups each week in the county jail. But this guy’s strength is on an entirely different level.

I’ve kept fit with thousands of pushups each week in the county jail. But this guy’s strength is on an entirely different level.

I wonder if I’ll build such a Herculean physique. I can do it. With decades of prison ahead, I certainly have enough time to serve. I want to start at once.
“You be likin’ them muscles, don’chu?” Another prisoner sneaks up next to me, flexing in his tank top and smiling with a lascivious grin exposing a mouthful of gold teeth. “Dat wha’chu need up in here, a real mans.”

“You be likin’ them muscles, don’chu?” Another prisoner sneaks up next to me, flexing in his tank top and smiling with a lascivious grin exposing a mouthful of gold teeth. “Dat wha’chu need up in here, a real mans.”
That’s my cue to leave. Outnumbered and out of place, I walk out, lacking the courage to confront him for the insinuation he made. I’m not ready to take a stand. “Don’t be actin’ like you don’t like it now,” he chuckles behind me. “Daddy goin’

That’s my cue to leave. Outnumbered and out of place, I walk out, lacking the courage to confront him for the insinuation he made. I’m not ready to take a stand. “Don’t be actin’ like you don’t like it now,” he chuckles behind me. “Daddy goin’
see you later, belie’ dat.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

I’m younger than most of the other men. As I walk through the gates toward the library I’m conscious that my absence of tattoos and whiskers stand out. The encounter in the gym puts me on high alert. I realize that to survive in here I may have to battle more than the long sentence. To hardened prisoners, I must look like the proverbial rabbit among wolves.

Stay vigilant, I remind myself, as I open the doors to the law library.

I don’t really know what I’m looking to find. I pick a random law book from a shelf and start flipping through the pages. I’m still bothered by the episode in the gym and I can’t concentrate. I pretend to read. In reality, I’m only staring at lines of words that I don’t absorb from the page.

These encounters will happen again. I’d better anticipate them, learn how to respond. I can’t leave a doubt that I know the score and that I’m capable of defending myself.

But am I? Is this what I’m going to become?

What options do I have when predators confront me? I haven’t been on a prison yard for two hours and someone has already mistaken me for a punk. Years have passed since the last time I was in a fistfight. I was in high school the last time I fought. This prison doesn’t seem like the kind of place where fistfights settle a conflict. But I can’t envision myself picking up a weapon.

It’s impossible to read with these worries muddying my concentration. I close the law book and walk out. Other prisoners in the corridor are carrying Bibles in their hands as they walk into a chapel. While in the jail I was comfortable praying alone, but now I need something to take my mind off the guy in the gym.

Is church the answer? Probably not for me. But I sit in the back row and observe several prisoners. They’re working together to lead the service. Their level of preparation impresses me. It’s clear that religion plays a central role in their lives. I can see how the congregation respects them. They address each other as Brother Tom and Brother Frank. When it’s time to sing the men don’t show any awkwardness or embarrassment. Some surprise me with the way they sing. They close their eyes. They raise their arms with open hands as if they’re stretching to heaven. With all their tattoos and goatees they strike me as being a bit over the top, both dramatic and comical.

I’m way too self-conscious to involve myself in this hypocrisy. Although I embrace God’s presence when I’m alone, I’m not into this scene. It’s clear that group prayer isn’t going to work for me. When the service concludes, several leaders approach me. Their warmth is genuine. They invite me to participate in Bible study programs. I thank them but decline and request a Bible to read on my own.

Following the chapel service, I return to my cell. Inside, I catch the guy assigned to the rack below me. He’s in his 40s and not particularly intimidating. I pause before entering. He’s standing barefoot in boxer shorts, splashing water under his arms, taking a birdbath in the tiny sink. I feel awkward as I stand outside the open gates of the cell, wondering what I should do.

“You the new guy?” he asks, sensing my apprehension about walking in on his personal routine.

“Yeah. I got in last night.”

“Well, you’d better come in. Count’s about to start and you don’t want to be out on the tier when those gates roll closed.”

“Michael,” I offer and stretch out my hand to shake.

“Buck,” he responds and closes his hand into a fist. I realize he prefers to knock knuckles in greeting. “Where you headed?”

“What do you mean?”

“Next stop? Where you going?”

“Don’t know, here I guess. I’m just starting out.”

“You might be starting out. But you won’t be stayin’ here. This here’s Oklahoma unit. Every swingin’ dick in here’s in transit. We’re all on the way to the next prison. If you were stayin’ here, you’d ‘a been in one ‘a the permanent blocks.”

I take this information in. “Well I don’t know where I’m going then.”

I set my Bible on the top rack. The cell gate rolls closed and locks us in. We hardly have any floor space to share. Buck sits on the lower rack.

“Have a seat,” he gestures to the toilet. “Count won’t be for a while. Where’d you come from?”

“Seattle.” The quivers in my stomach settle when I realize that he’s friendly. “I’ve been in jail going through trial for the past year,” I add.

“Yeah I can see that you’ve got that jail skin color. No sunlight.” “This’s been my first time walking outside since last summer.”

“You might ‘a liked it this mornin’. By afternoon you’ll be wishin’ you was still in Seattle. Gets to be over a hun’erd degrees here, humid as a swamp.”

“I felt it last night.”

“The nights ain’t bad. It’s the late afternoons that’ll bake you.”

Buck and I pass the day together exchanging stories. He’s serving a 20-year sentence for bank robbery. The crime surprises me. I associate bank robberies with old westerns rather than crimes that people do today. He spent the past four years at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth. The parole board took his good behavior into account. They agreed to release him in two more years. Buck is transferring to a medium-security prison in Memphis. He expects to finish out his term.

“You can find out where you’re going tomorrow,” Buck tells me. “There’ll be a counselor holdin’ open house in the office downstairs. Tell him you’re new and you want to know where you’ve been designated.”

“Designated? What does that mean exactly?

“It’s where you’re going to serve time, at least to start,” He says.

“Where’s the best prison to serve time?” I ask.

“The best spot is them prison camps. But with 45 years, you ain’t going to no camp. Forget about that. You might go to an FCI since you ain’t never been locked up before. But there’s a good chance, with a sentence like yours, you’re headin’ to a USP.”

As I lie on the top rack, I listen to Buck talk through the night. I feel like a kid listening to ghost stories by the camp fire. The lights are out. A large fan at the end of the tier makes a rickety noise while it stirs the air. “What’s the difference between an FCI and a USP?”

“Gonna see a lot more blood in the USP. Lot ̓a the guys inside them walls ain’t never gettin’ out. So there’s pressure, somethin’s always cookin’. Ain’t a week gonna pass without some’n gettin’ stuck, or some head bein’ busted open with a pipe. Bloods always flowin’ in a USP. FCI’s is more laid back, like here.”

“This place doesn’t seem so laid back to me.”

“What do you mean? What’s not to like about this spot?”

I tell Buck about the morning encounter with the guy in the gym. Although I walked away, the remembrance of what was implied still unsettles me. I’m consumed with trying to figure out what to do if a predator approaches me again. A violent altercation isn’t what I want. But circumstances may force my hand.

“I wouldn’t worry about anything here.” Buck yawns and rolls over on the bunk beneath. “You probably won’t be here but a minute. When you get to your next stop, that’s when you need to act.”

“How so?”

“Can’t be lettin’ the bulls come at you. Not less you want to start suckin’ ever’ dick in the pen.” He laughs as if such a thing could be a joke. “Gotta take a stand. First thing you’re gonna wanna get is a piece. Someone comes at you wrong, put holes in him. Send him away leakin’. Do that once an’ fellas’ll get the message that you ain’t no punk.”

I know that I’ll do what it takes to survive. But the penitentiary wisdom Buck dispenses doesn’t sit well with me. “Did you have to stab people when you were at Leavenworth?”

“I had to get my respect. But things is different ‘tween me and you. You ain’t barely 20. I’m just sayin’. That ain’t but a baby in the pen. Guys is gonna try you more readily than they gonna try an older dude. Bulls is gonna try to get over on anyone that’ll let ’em. But the younger guys who ain’t got no backup gotta make ’emselves known quick. The gangs is getting real fierce in these parts.”

“How’d they try to get over on you?”

“Couple ̓a young dudes came at me thinkin’ they’s gonna get me to pay rent for livin’ on the tier. I wasn’t havin’ it. I didn’t have my piece with me at the time. So I just slow played like I was gonna pay. When they come to collect on store day I was ready. After I laid one out by smashin’ him in the face with a mop ringer, they both got the message. Everyone knew that they’d better find someone else to play wit. Didn’t have no more trouble after that.”

“Weren’t you thinking about your parole date or what would happen if you got caught?”

“Shit. When you’s in the penitentiary it’s livin’ day by day. Better not be thinkin’ ’bout no release date or parole board. Stop thinkin’ ‘bout what the man’s gonna think. All I’m thinkin’ ’bout is one day at a time. Even now I’m jus’ thinkin’ ‘bout gettin’ through. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. You’ll see.”

 

* * * * * * *

 

Before drifting into sleep I think about Buck’s advice. I’m hoping the counselor will tell me that I’ll begin my term in a Federal Correctional Institution, an FCI. But my intuition tells me that I’m on my way to a USP, a high-security United States Penitentiary.

A few hours later I wake when a guard rolls the cell gate open. I’m hoping that he has come to take me on the next phase of this prison journey. No such luck. The guard calls for Buck.

We wish each other luck. Then he walks out. I’m alone. After the guard slams and locks the gate I lie awake for a while longer. The roaches racing across the wall capture my attention and I stare. They don’t seem to have any purpose.

They don’t seem to have any purpose.

Buck’s advice troubles me. I can’t see myself serving this sentence day-by-day. Living for the moment may be the conventional adjustment pattern. But I don’t want to forget about the world outside. There’s got to be a way for me to make it through my sentence without violence.

I could join a church group. That may help with loneliness, and it may make me less vulnerable. I hate being this weak. I’ve got to do something about it. But what? How am I going to make it through decades in prison? I can’t think about anything else.

Instead of getting up when the gates open in the morning, I doze on my rack. The solitude of the cell gives me space to think. I read the Bible while I wait for the counselor to arrive.

The Bible is encouraging me. But I don’t understand everything that I’m reading. It doesn’t make sense with what I’ve come to believe about a forgiving God. The concept of eternal damnation and one path to God aren’t beliefs I can embrace. So I pray for guidance. I accept that neither Bible groups nor religious programs are going to carry me through this term, at least not for now.

I see the counselor. He gives me the confirmation I’ve been expecting. I’m on my way to the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. I’ll deal with it. I don’t have a choice, so I’ll have to deal with it.

“Can I make a phone call?” I ask the counselor.

“Three minutes,” the counselor says without looking at me. “What’s the number?”

The counselor dials the number I give for Lisa. When she answers, the counselor introduces himself. He tells her that she has a phone call from a federal inmate. Then he passes me the handset and fixes his eyes on me.

I want to wipe the phone clean, as if I can wash off the filth of prison.

“Hi, Baby.”

I feel awkward talking to her. The counselor is staring at me as he sits across the desk. I sense that to him, I’m not a human being.

“Michael! I’ve been so worried. Why haven’t you called. Are you okay? Where are
you?”

I tell her that I’m on my way to a prison in Atlanta and that I’ll be able to use the
phone once I’m there. We talk for a while longer. When the counselor taps his watch, I tell Lisa I love her. I promise to call her again when I’m able.

Sadness makes me sluggish as I walk aimlessly from the counselor’s office. I’m thinking of Lisa’s voice. I’m remembering how warm she felt when I held her slender body in my arms. Will I ever feel that warmth again? Will someone else?

I’m lost, without a clue of how I’m going to keep our marriage together. Not wanting to dwell on home, I head toward the law library. Feeling sorry for myself makes me vulnerable in a predatory population. This isn’t good. I need a toehold and the strength to climb out from this hole.

 

* * * * * * *

 

The law books serve a purpose. Although I want relief from my sentence, the reality that I’ll spend a long time in prison has begun to settle in. A year has already gone by since my arrest. I’m not a beginner. I accept that many more years will pass before anything changes. I need a plan to make it through. The law books begin to help. By reading, I am starting to understand more about the system that traps me. Like an endless riddle or puzzle, each paragraph I read steers me to other books for clarification.

Studying the law distracts me from misery. Like the philosophy books that helped me through the months in the county jail, I’m finding strength by reading the law. The main lesson I learn is the depth of my ignorance. I berate myself for not having continued my education after high school.

I see a guy approach me. “Looking for anything in particular?” He asks.

I don’t know whether he is a prisoner or a staff member. He’s in his thirties, trim, with thinning blond hair. I notice that he missed a spot shaving. He wears the khaki pants and white t-shirt of all prisoners. But he has an authority about him, and it confuses me. I can’t tell decipher his position or status.

“Just reading,” I answer.

“You designated here? Or are you in transit?” “I’m in transit, on my way to USP Atlanta.”

“My name’s Brett.” He extends his arm with a clenched fist.

I introduce myself and tell Brett about my sentence. I’m trying to learn more about the system and about the Continuing Criminal Enterprise charge.

“Have you filed your appeal yet?”

“I have a public defender in Seattle. He’s putting the appeal together.”

“If you’ve got a 45-year sentence you’d better get more than a public defender to write your appeal.”

“Why? What’s wrong with the public defender?”

Brett shrugs his shoulders. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong. It’s just that they’re overworked. They’ve got too many clients to worry about. They can’t give too much attention to one appeal.

You need someone who specializes in convictions like yours.”

I wonder if he’s trying to sell his services. “What I need and what I have are two different things,” I tell him. “I don’t have any money to hire specialists. Besides, the last specialist I hired took me through the trials that got me my sentence.”

“I’ve got a guy you should contact,” Brett says. “He’s a law professor in Indiana and he writes appeals for these kinds of cases. Once you settle in Atlanta you ought to write him. Tell him about your case and that you’re on appeal. He might be able to help.”

 

You’ve just listened to a free audio clip from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. I’m Michael Santos. Visit Prison Professors.com. 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 Professors.com 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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