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Chapter Three: 1988-1990
During my first weeks in the penitentiary, I meet hundreds of men. I listen but don’t talk too much. I’m convinced that it’s best to keep a low profile. I’ve got to stay to myself until I understand more about this place. The other men in my cell know that I’m assigned to sleep there, but not much else. It’s best that way, at least for now.
Just as Check told me on my first day, the men mind their own business. They don’t show any interest in building new friendships or small talk. They work together in a prison factory that repairs mailbags for the U.S. Postal Service.
I catch a vibe of apathy rather than hostility. These men have no interest in talking with a young prisoner. My enthusiasm about being hired to work in the library marks me in some way. These walls kill enthusiasm, and negativity fills the void. My enthusiasm likely reveals a naiveté, and I’m sure it could make me vulnerable. But I can’t suppress. A job in the library is like taking the first step on a long journey home. I know it’s going to lead to better outcomes.
In the evenings I lie on my rack. I’m thinking about how I’m going to build a better life in here. 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 cell block. Their activities don’t concern me as much as the thoughts about how I’ll walk out of prison when I’m released.
Sometimes I lose focus. The papers I’ve received from the administrators confirm that my 45-year sentence brings a possible release in 2013. If I don’t get in any trouble while I’m in prison, I won’t lose any “good time.” If I don’t lose any good time, the prison will release me after I serve 26 years.
It’s only 1988. I’ve lived as a prisoner for a year. I have 25 more years to go. What does that mean? I still can’t grasp the duration. How will the world change?
A group of administrators are supposed to monitor my progress. It’s the Unit Team, including a counselor, case manager, and unit manager. They tell me that I’m facing 25 more years in here, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If I am convicted of violating any disciplinary infractions, I’ll lose credits for good time. That means I’ll serve longer. Regardless of what I accomplish in here, nothing will advance my release date.
Still, I’ve got to keep hope. And I know that I can do it.
* * * * * * *
Although I don’t talk about religion, I read the Bible every night. My resistance to join the religious groups irritates the zealots, or “Bible thumpers,” as they’re known. But I’m not in here for anyone else. I read the Bible because it comforts me. It guides me. Whenever deep sorry grips me, I get a little relief by reading stories of others who made it through struggle with faith and hard work. I read the Bible while lying on my rack. Sometimes, when I tire of reading encyclopedias or other books I find in the library, I flip through pages of the Bible to read about people that overcame struggle.
Parables give me a message. I must prepare. The message comes from verses in both the Old and New Testaments. I get that message in the story of Noah’s Ark. I get the same message in the parables of the wise and foolish virgins. I get that message in the parables of the talents described in the Book of Matthew. I must prepare.
I learn from my daily Bible readings. Everyone has a responsibility to live God’s plan. That plan requires us to maximize the gifts we receive. Religious rituals don’t interest me. I’m not going to fast. I’m not going to wear specific clothing. I’m not going to use prayer oils and I’m not going to face the sun at specific hours. Nor am I going to tell everyone or ask anyone about being saved.
The message for me is that I need to live as a good man. I need to develop gifts I have. I need to work toward making a better world. I need to forget about my own problems. They’re problems that I created because of foolishness. I can’t allow my problems to sink my spirit. Instead, I need to build strength through preparation. I need to learn how I can use time in here to add value to the lives of others.
My belief strengthens my spirit. It improves my attitude. I have a more positive outlook. I don’t perceive my sentence as a burden. Instead, it’s a challenge, an opportunity to grow in ways I never would’ve without extreme adversity. I accept that my sentence has a purpose not yet revealed. Faith in God strengthens me. I’m confident that opportunities will open. I will open them. By trusting in God’s plan, I have a sense that I can go on.
I want to convey these thoughts to Lisa. She’s slipping away. With her sentencing date approaching, she is afraid. I understand her lack of enthusiasm when I express excitement about beginning correspondence studies at Ohio University. She mocks my faith in plans and opportunities. The time and space separates us. Despite my love for her, we’re growing apart.
Telephone restrictions block us from talking regularly. It’s hard to sustain a relationship when rules stop us from talking 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. I have to wait in line to use the phone. When it’s my turn, I’m authorized to make one 10-minute phone call. A guard sits close by, listening.
To avoid the frustration of the brief phone calls I write long letters. I write to Lisa every day. By expressing my love for her and sending promises I don’t know how I’ll keep, I feel like I’m doing something. Whatever sentence she receives, I assure her that it’s part of God’s plan. Executing the plan will bring us closer together.
We schedule a visit just before her sentencing date. I’m counting the hours until she’ll visit me here in the Atlanta penitentiary.
* * * * * * *
Six months have passed since I last saw my wife. More than a year has gone by since we’ve held each other or even touched. I’m lonely for her, and I ache for the feel of her skin next to mine. Lisa strengthens me. She also weakens me. She inspires me and she depresses me.
Today I’m going to see her, to hold her, to kiss her. My heart beats fast with anticipation.
I iron my khaki pants and shirt. With sprays of water, I create creases as sharply pressed as a military officer’s uniform. To impress her with my growing biceps, I fold up the 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 want to know who I’m waiting for as I stare out the window into the visitor’s parking lot.
“My wife’s visiting me today.” I don’t like using the prison lingo, of referring to wives as “my ol’ lady.”
“Have a good one.” They wish me well.
Finally, I hear a guard page me over the loudspeaker. I walk to the front of the unit and wait for my escort.
We walk through the wide, quiet, empty corridor. The polished marble floors shine with reflections of the white walls. The guard doesn’t talk to me. Our footsteps and the swinging handcuffs that hang from the back of the guard’s thick leather belt are the only sounds along the dreary walk. I hear an occasional static blast from his walkie talkie. It’s a long walk.
We don’t enter the visiting room directly. Instead, the guard opens the door to an adjacent room. I see another guard waiting at a metal desk.
“Inmate Santos for a visit,” the escorting guard informs his colleague. Then he locks me in the closet-sized room.
I pass my ID to the guard at the desk. I watch while he writes in his log book: my name, registration number, and the time I arrived. He asks my visitor’s name and my relationship to her. After I answer his questions, I stand there watching, wondering what happens next.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks.
“Oh, can I go in?” I’m dehumanized, conditioned to ask permission for any movement, It’s 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. I follow without question, taking my clothes off. My main concern is getting to Lisa. I’m careful to keep my clothes looking crisp and 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. Sometimes guards let me stand in underwear while they inspect me. Not this one. He’s a stickler for detail. He insists on seeing me naked. He orders me to lift my privates, bend over and spread. I comply as he directs. I give him the full view. Then I dress.
Finally, he authorizes me to walk through the door and into the visiting room.
I walk down a few steps to a platform. Two more guards sit at a desk. The room is large, like a high school cafeteria. Bright lights.
I look around for Lisa. Vending machines line the walls. It’s packed with people and I hear hundreds of simultaneous, loud conversations. I don’t see her. One of the guards asks for my identification. He patronizes me, asking if I understand the rules. The rules are for security, I know. But they strip people of dignity. They lead to the loss of community ties. I remember the rules. When I first saw Lisa in the Miami prison more than a year ago, I got in trouble for violating them. The rules don’t permit us to embrace during the visit. They limit kissing to the start and finish.
The guard tells me where to sit. He points me in the direction.
* * * * * * *
Finally, I see her. She sits in a row of plastic chairs along the wall. I see her tears. She’s watching me as I walk toward her from across the brightly lit room. My eyes lock with hers. Memories flash of better times. I remember parting crowds 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. I remember her in a sequined string bikini, clinging to me. Those days are gone. They’ll never return. I’ve learned to repress thoughts of her seductiveness, her magnetic sex appeal. As I walk closer to her, those feelings re-emerge, inflaming all of my senses.
The year has taken its toll on me. I’ve missed her touch, her affection, and the warmth of her body. I’m oblivious to hundreds of other people in the visiting room. It’s as if I’m seeing Lisa in an airport terminal. We’re like two lovers, seeing each other for the first time of being apart. But she’s not here to welcome me home. When she stands I want to devour her. Since we only have this one opportunity, I savor a deliciously long and marvelous kiss.
She tells me that she still loves me, and she holds me before we sit.
“And I love you baby,” I say as I pull her close. I tell her that our love is strong enough to carry us through anything, even prison terms.
I’m eager to say anything and everything. I’m desperate to hold onto her.
We sit side-by-side, as close as the stationary, hard plastic chairs will allow. It’s too far, but close enough that I feel the soft skin of her arms touching mine. We’re close enough that I can breathe the fragrance of her perfume.
The euphoria of our first hour doesn’t last. We can’t avoid discussing the ugliness that has become our lives.
“How is it in here, really?” She wants to know if I’m safe.
“You don’t have to worry about me. As long as we’re together, I’m okay.”
I tell her that my dad sent my tuition payment to the university. Soon I’ll receive my books and lesson plans. Once I get those, I tell her, I can start building a new record. I describe the great job I got in the library. I tell her that 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 say. “I’m going to leave here so much better than I am now, stronger and smarter. 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 have no idea what’s going to happen, but I try to preserve the moment with positive thoughts. I comb my fingers through her long hair. A guard sneers at me from the desk. He’s warning me to keep my hands to myself.
“You didn’t do anything that bad,” I tell her. “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.”
She asks what will happen if the judge sees it differently. Lisa grips her fingers into my hands. “I don’t want to live in a place like this.” She’s crying.
“It’s not going to happen,” I soothe. “Pray with me. When I pray, God gives me strength.”
“Stop that!,” She says, disgusted. “Don’t start with prayers again! Are you trying to become a priest in here? Prayer isn’t going to help me!” She abruptly let go of me and folds her arms across her chest.
“Yes it will, it helps me through every day.” “You got 45 years! Did prayers help with that?”
“Baby, you have to trust in me, trust in God. It’s going to get better.”
“I don’t 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, not knowing what else I can say. We’re communicating in two different languages.
“What about me? How am I supposed to live? Our money’s running out.” “Why don’t you get a job?
“Doing what? What can I do? Do you think I should wait tables or something?”
I don’t know how to respond. She’s never worked.
“Let’s get through your sentencing next week. That’s the priority. Let’s put this mess behind us. I’ll think of something.”
Our visit may have begun with passion. It ends with the cold reality that we don’t have enough of anything to sustain us. We don’t have enough money. We’re not mature. She doesn’t have the commitment to see this through.
When visiting hours end she stands. We hold each other. I know she’s not coming back. As we kiss, I taste a goodbye. As she walks away I’m more alone than I’ve ever been. This is worse than my sentence.
The following week the judge sentences Lisa. I call my dad to hear what happened. He went to the hearing as a source of support. The judge sentenced her to serve five years probation because she lied to a federal officer. I’m relieved.
I wouldn’t have been able to stand the thought of Lisa in handcuffs. The chains, the regular strip searches, the orders and the daily indignities would have crushed her. I can handle prison, but not with her inside. If she went to prison, my stress would’ve risen exponentially. At least I that complication is now behind me.
Now it’s on to new challenges and complications. Much more will come with 10,000 days of prison ahead. One by one, I’ll persevere.
* * * * * * *
The library is an open space. All prisoners can congregate freely here. I notice that it’s a kind of marketplace for hustlers. Prisoners use it for more than checking out books or typing. Prisoners conceal contraband like drugs or weapons in the drop ceiling or inside books they hollow out. Guards seize contraband they find. Yet since the library is a common area, they can’t punish anyone without further information, like a tip from an informant.
I’ll never inform on anyone in here. I’m not going 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 good decisions. I don’t want to hide from anyone, and I don’t want anyone to hide from me. I want to live invisibly, to be “in” the penitentiary, but not “of” the penitentiary. I keep my head in the game. What steps can I today that will lead me closer to home? How can I prepare for a productive life outside while I’m inside these walls, and beyond?
These are the types of questions that drive my thoughts, my actions, and my commitment.
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.