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Chapter One: 1987-1988
The driver turns into an office complex and parks. The third agent, the one who searched me and cuffed me during the arrest, parks a separate, identical car beside us. I exit the car with one agent holding the chain of my handcuffs behind my back. I’m like a dog on a leash, being walked into what I presume is a field office.
Once inside, the agents begin to process me. They unlock my handcuffs so I can hold a nameplate beneath my chin while one of the agents photographs my head. Another leads me to a station for fingerprinting. They invite me to cooperate again, to talk with them in exchange for a reprieve from jail. Last chance. The ship is sailing, fading away on the horizon, but I’m not on board.
Disgusted with my refusal to spill the information they’re trying to coerce from me, an agent leads me to a room the size of a broom closet and locks me inside.
“Get used to it.” He warns, tossing the words over his shoulder as he walks away.
I’m alone in the tiny room. A bench extends the length of one wall. I sit, elbows on my knees, head in my hands. I’ve been immersed in a scheme of selling cocaine for nearly two years and now it’s come to this. Although I’m not ready now, I’ll soon have to answer to the world for the lies I’ve been living.
I knew my parents suspected something. My mother even accused me once, crying about how she didn’t want to lose her son to prison. I tried to console her while simultaneously stonewalling her questions about why I had moved to Miami, about why I wouldn’t provide her with a phone number or an address. My irresponsible choices broke her heart long ago.
With arms folded across my chest, I stare at the floor, leaning my back against the cold brick wall. I’d like to ask forgiveness, to take my lashes and start fresh, but instead, I cling to Raymond’s assurances that I’ll prevail if I simply tough it out.
With stress and the bright lights exhausting me, I lose track of time, though I’m sure that more than an hour has passed. My head aches and I’m dizzy.
Finally, an agent opens the door. “Cuff up!”
He slaps the cuffs around my wrists and locks them behind my back again. The agents take me outside to their car. They unlock and open the back door, then press me inside. I don’t know where I’m going but I presume I’m about to see the inside of a jail.
We drive a short distance and turn into the parking lot of a complex enclosed by double rows of chain-link fencing. Coils of glistening razor wire loop through the tops of the tall gates and many more coils of wire lie stacked atop each other on the ground in the wide space of no-man’s land between the fences. No one could escape without cutting himself to shreds.
It’s hot and humid outside. Sweat forms under my arms, across my chest and back as I step out of the air-conditioned car. The agents march me toward the entrance of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Miami. Prison guards from a control center press a button to unlock the heavy steel door electronically and I hear the click of the dead bolt. A guard from the Federal Bureau of Prisons wearing gray slacks, a white shirt, and maroon tie accepts manila folders handed over by the agents escorting me. They exchange words, though my mind goes blank and I can’t comprehend their conversation. When the guard searches me, looks in my mouth, inside my ears, and tugs on the handcuffs to ensure they’re secure, it’s clear that I no longer share a common humanity with them.
The guard leads me inside a series of gates that roll behind us, locking me deeper inside the prison. I spend interminable hours in holding cells, sometimes alone, sometimes with other prisoners. I complete forms declaring that I don’t suffer from health issues or require medication. Then I stand for photographs and more fingerprints–my life as a federal prisoner has begun
I exchange my brown alligator skin loafers and matching belt, linen slacks, and a silk dress shirt now reeking from sweat, for elastic-waist khaki trousers, a white t-shirt, and blue canvas slip-on deck shoes. Without my clothes I feel my identity slip away. It’s ten at night when I receive a roll of sheets, a blanket, and towel. Then I descend into my first housing unit.
The rectangular building is a two-tiered shell of concrete and steel with hundreds of sullen prisoners loitering in the common areas. Some of the men stare at me. While walking through the riffraff inside, I’m struck by the level of noise.
My thoughts wander. Who are these people? What did they do? Can I handle myself in a fight with them? I see a line for the telephones and make my way through the crowd. When my turn comes I call Lisa.
Prisoners crowd around on all sides as I press the phone against one ear while holding my finger inside the other to silence the noise. Lisa’s voice reminds me of all that I’m missing. I mask my emotions, trying to appear stoic. Between her sobs she tells me that Raymond told her I have a court date scheduled in the morning. “I’ll be there,” Lisa promises. “Your mom is coming with me.”
“You told my parents?” My question comes across more like an accusation. I’ve lost control over the moment of truth, and it bothers me that I’ll have to confront them.
“I had to. Raymond said he wanted to show that you have family support. Your mom wants to talk to you.”
During my 18 months as a drug dealer in Miami, the family business collapsed, devastating my parents financially and emotionally. I’ve repressed the guilt that my reckless ambition caused the business to fail, but it surfaces again with my confinement, and it’s heavy. My parents salvaged the assets they could and relocated to Miami, where my father’s family lived. Their marriage didn’t survive the disruption and my mother now lives with my younger sister in a Miami Beach condo. The stable family and household where my two sisters and I had grown up were in shambles, only a memory.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I say in an attempt to ease her distress after Lisa connects us. “I didn’t do anything and I’ve got the best lawyer in Miami. You’ll see. He’s going to clear me of all this nonsense.”
“Oh, Michael…your father and I are so worried.” My mother sobs between her whispered words. “What have you done?”
“Nothing, Mom. I swear. I didn’t do anything. You’ll see. My attorney is going to clear all this up. Give it time. We just have to trust him.”
“What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to say? I can’t believe this is happening!”
My time on the phone ends, not with a goodbye, but when a guard presses a switch to disconnect the call. He marches me to my room and locks me inside
* * * * * * *
“¿Que Onda?” Another man is locked in the same cell. Cuban, I presume from his accent. He stands by a waist-high metal locker in boxer shorts, staring at me. He looks like a thug. We’re the same height, though he is heavier, with more fat than muscle. Crudely drawn tattoos look like chicken scratches across his arms and torso.
“¿De donde eres?” He wants to engage me.
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
“What is you, white?” He speaks in English this time.
The man’s question bothers me. I think of myself as an American, un-hyphenated by ethnicity. “I am what I am.”
“I thought you was Cuban.”
“My dad’s Cuban.”
“So why the fuck you don’t speak Spanish?”
“I speak English.” I’m ready for this guy’s challenge if that’s what he wants.
“Where you from?”
“I’m from Seattle.”
“You a cop?”
I stare at him, wondering why he would ask such a ridiculous question when I’m locked in a prison cell, wearing prisoner’s clothing. “Hey dude, what is it you want?”
“I’m sayin’, muthafucka come up in my house, lookin’ Cuban but think he white, gotta ask if you’s a cop.”
“I’m not a cop. I was arrested today. I’m going to court tomorrow.”
“You’s arrested?” He mocks me. “Where’d they bust you?”
“Oh, so you got paper.”
“Paper? What are you talking about?”
“Money, muthafucka, you got money!”
“Why are you so interested in who I am? Who are you?”
“You up in my cell, bitch. Don’t be axin’ me no muthafuckin’ questions.”
“What are we doing here? Are you looking for a fight or what? It’s late, I’m tired, and I’ve got to go to court tomorrow. But I’ve got all you can handle if that’s what you want.”
He sizes me up. “You ain’t no snitch is you?”
“I’m done talking to you.”
“Okay. That’s good. Don’t talk. That’s you bunk, white boy.”
The hostility in the cell surprises me. What’s this about? I walk to the steel rack against the wall, unroll the mat, and stretch the sheet across it. I climb up without using the sink or the toilet, too exhausted for more confrontation. I turn on my side and stare out of a narrow vertical window. It’s no more than six inches wide, but I can see outside. Spotlights shine on crabgrass, steel fences, and razor wire. I watch as a guard drives a white pickup slowly around the prison’s perimeter and I fade into sleep.
It’s an anxious sleep, and when I wake, I stare out the window, with tears filling my eyes. The man below me stinks. I miss Lisa’s perfumed skin, her hair, her body. This is going to destroy us. My only hope is Raymond. He has to free me from this nightmare. I wipe my watering eyes and drift back into sleep.
A guard unlocks the door and yells my name into the cell. His voice bounces off the concrete walls and startles me from a dead sleep. I jump down from the rack and he orders me to dress for court. I’m still wearing my khakis and the t-shirt. Feeling beaten and exhausted, I slide into the canvas shoes and accompany the guard out of the cell. He slams the steel door behind us and uses a formidable key to lock the dead bolt.
I walk with other prisoners through the same door I entered last night. We join a throng of more than 100 men and the guards herd us into caged bullpens. The noise makes my head throb as I stand shoulder to shoulder with scores of angry prisoners. A clock on the wall shows that it isn’t yet three, which explains why I feel exhausted. I can’t believe court begins this early.
One by one, the guards call us out of the cage to change into our clothes. When I receive the mesh bag with my name on it, I see my clothes balled together at the bottom of the bag, ruined, my shoes on top of the shirt.
“The belt is missing,” I tell the guard.
“What?” He growls.
“My belt is missing,” I repeat.
“Let’s see here.” The guard grabs a processing form from the bag and scans down the boxes. “Don’t show that you was wearin’ no belt when you checked in.”
“What do you mean? Of course I was wearing a belt. It was brown, alligator skin, matching my shoes.”
“Form don’t say nothin’ ’bout no belt. Now get the fuck dressed and quit pussyfootin’ around. Next thing you’re gonna tell me is that you ain’t got no panties.”
I know that I stink, and my clothes are damp, which will add to the disaster of this day, my first as a prisoner.
As soon as I dress, a guard leads me back to the bullpen. My legs ache from standing. Hours pass. At six, the guards begin calling us out in groups of two. They shackle my ankles, wrap a chain around my waist, weave handcuffs through the front of the chain and then lock my wrists in place. The chains are heavy on my body. Secured, we march awkwardly out toward waiting transport buses.
“You don’t like the chains,” one guard taunts while sucking on a cigarette, “quit selling drugs.”
I have a window seat on one of the three packed buses that maneuver through morning rush hour in Miami. I peer through the spaces between vertical steel bars and a tinted window, looking at the faces of other drivers–people leading responsible lives. Legitimate work is something I haven’t done since turning my back on responsibilities at my father’s company.
We drive past the toll booths that lead across the bay to Key Biscayne. I see the sign touting Key Biscayne as “The Island Paradise” and I’m overcome with sadness. My neck cramps as I try to wipe the tears on my shoulder. I may have a court date, but my gut tells me I won’t be sleeping in my bed tonight.
The driver maneuvers our bus into an underground garage beneath the Federal Building. Guards march us through doors that lead to a series of adjacent bullpen cages. Still chained, we squeeze in like animals in a chute heading for slaughter. I don’t understand this system, and I hate all that is happening. I’m trapped. Worse yet, I’m strangely uneasy about surrendering my fate to Raymond.
Paco, one of my cocaine suppliers, introduced me to Raymond. Paco praised him as one of the best lawyers in Miami, and when I visited his office, I was influenced by its opulence. I admired the photographs of Raymond smiling in victory with well-known organized crime figures. They stood victoriously outside a courthouse after beating federal racketeering charges. The press clippings convinced me I had to have Raymond on my team. Even though I wasn’t expecting any legal problems, having a top-notch attorney on retainer made sense. I agreed to pay him tens of thousands in cash just in case.
* * * * * * *
“Santos. Santos. I need Michael Santos.” I hear a guard yelling my name.
“I’m in here.” I press my way through the crowd to the front of the cage.
“Let’s go.” He unlocks the gate for me to step out. After locking the cage behind us, he walks me to a tiny cubbyhole of a conference room for defendants to meet with their attorneys. I see Raymond sitting on a stool waiting for me. I notice immediately that he wears my Rolex.
“How’re you holding up, Sport?” He greets me as if we’re partners in a tennis match.
“I’m okay. A little tired.” I’m embarrassed that Raymond sees me unshaven and in wrinkled, sweat-stained clothes.
“Did they treat you okay in there?”
“I don’t know. It’s loud, crowded. I haven’t been able to think about anything but getting out of this nightmare.”
“Have you eaten?”
“I can’t eat.” I shrug my shoulders. “They passed out bologna and white bread. Mine’s still in the bag.”
“You’ve got to eat,” he says, trying to encourage me. “I need you strong through this.”
“I need you strong,” I counter, feeling weaker than I hope I show. “How long am I going to be in here?”
“We’re trying to get you out on bond this morning. Lisa and your mother will meet me here at nine. I brought your watch for Lisa. If you were wearing it when they arrested you, they’d have seized it.”
“Why does my mom have to be here?”
“This is a first appearance. We’re going to enter a plea of not guilty to the charges. Then I’ll ask the judge to let you out on bond. I need your mother and Lisa here to show that you’ve got community ties.”
“You mean they’re going to let me out?” For the first time, a sense of hope begins to surface through my despair.
“I’m sure going to try.”
Raymond can see that I need something to pick up my spirits. He’s like the baseball coach trying to encourage a little leaguer in a slump. “You need to toughen up. We’ll make a good case. You don’t have an arrest record. There aren’t any allegations of violence or weapons. You’ve got family support.”
“How much will it cost?”
“We need to talk about that, Sport,” Raymond says as he leans back against the wall. “You’ve been charged with operating a Continuing Criminal Enterprise. It carries a possible life sentence. If the judge agrees to bond, it’s going to be high. What can we offer the court?”
“What do you mean, a life sentence?” Fear overtakes me. “For what? What’s that mean?”
Raymond holds my wrist, trying to steady my nerves. “Don’t worry. We talked about this. It’s only the beginning. The government always overcharges.” He dismisses the concern with a wave of his hand. “You’ve got to trust me, leave this to me. For now we’ve got to have a plan for the bond request so we can get you out of here. What kind of assets can you pledge?”
“I don’t have anything.” I’m embarrassed to admit that my whole life is a charade. “I told Lisa to get everything we have for you.”
“What do you mean?” Raymond squints at me, disbelieving. “You didn’t put anything away?”
I scratch my head, and then I rub my face in shame. “I bought some property in Spain from Paco. He hasn’t given me the title yet. Lisa was supposed to talk with him yesterday about getting the money back so we could finish paying you. That’s all I have.”
I sense Raymond’s incredulity and sinking respect as he scratches his head.
“How about your parents? What can they put up?”
“I don’t have anything, Raymond. Let’s just think about beating these charges, not the bond.”
“How much is Lisa bringing me today? We need money to beat this thing, Sport.”
“She has about a hundred grand. Paco will give her the rest and she’ll pay you off.”
“Tell me about this property. What’s it worth?”
“A couple hundred thousand. Paco owes it to me from a deal we made that never went through. We’ve been waiting for him to transfer the title, but after we left your office yesterday, I told Lisa to get a hold of him and pull together whatever cash he could return immediately.”
Raymond shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you don’t have anything set aside. How do you own a watch like this with no money?”
I feel like I’m eight-years-old. Totally deflated, I sink deeper into my chair.
“Don’t worry.” Raymond begins to recover. He can see that his questions about my finances are pushing me into a dark hole. “We’ll be okay. I’ll talk with Paco about this property. I’ve got to get into the courtroom.”
The guard lets Raymond out and leads me back to the cage. I don’t understand the talk about a life sentence. Why a life sentence? Also, Raymond’s slightly veiled disdain for my financial situation troubles me. I’m not prepared for any of this, not emotionally, not physically, and certainly not intellectually. I’m totally in Raymond’s hands. I feel nauseous, unsettled, but I dismiss the instinct that I should plead guilty and cut my losses. I’ve got to trust Raymond.
* * * * * * *
When the guard leads me into the courtroom I see Lisa and my mom. They hardly know each other and my mom has never accepted Lisa as a part of my life. Yet in that courtroom they hold each other, one supporting the other as I sit at the defendant’s table beside Raymond. We can’t talk, but I nod before turning away to face the court.
To steady myself I study the ornate courtroom–the elaborate paneling, the carvings in heavy wood, the high ceiling and podium. The room invokes a sense of majesty and ceremony. Prosecutors sit at a table to my left. To them I’m a nonentity, just another criminal. The judge considers arguments that I can’t comprehend. I feel foolish, ill equipped to grasp the significance of all that is happening. The only words that register with me are possible life sentence. They resonate through my mind. Why? I see the judge’s forehead crease when he stares down at me.
“There will be no bail for this defendant.” The judge slams the wooden gavel on the podium after he rules.
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.