Blog Article 

 32—Making a Difference 

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Michael Santos

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A professor from Columbia University spoke about three segments of the population. Some try to make things happen, while others lead more passive lives. To restore self-confidence in times of struggle, strive to make things happen.

While serving 26 years in prison, I used to read about people who taught lessons on how to overcome challenges. Some people—like Nelson Mandela or Viktor Frankl—advanced their lives and contributed to society while they endured enormous and incomprehensible challenges. Other leaders led scholarly lives, teaching lessons on leadership that they read about from others; people like Stephen Covey or Robert Maxwell fall into this category.

Both groups taught me many lessons. For that reason, I’m confident that people with experience and theoretical knowledge can also lead those in our community.

For example, scholars and university professors taught me a great deal about overcoming tough times.

One person, Professor Nicholas Murray Butler, served as the president of Columbia University. In March 1931, he delivered a speech discussing three population segments. The information in quotation marks below comes from his address to an audience at Columbia University:

“The vast population of this earth, and indeed nations themselves, may readily be divided into three groups as follows:

  1. There are the few who make things happen,
  2. The many more who watch things happen, and,
  3. The overwhelming majority who do not have any notion of what happens.

Every human being is born into the third and largest group. Each person can only count on himself, how he responds to his environment, and his education to determine whether he shall rise to the second or even the first group.”

I didn’t know Professor Nicholas Murray Butler when I started serving my sentence. But after I read the story of Socrates, I felt inspired to want to lift myself from the third group to the first group.

Until the day of my arrest, I didn’t know what was going on in the world or how my daily decisions put me on the pathway to success or cycles of failure.

Leaders taught me how to focus on preparing for success.

This past week, I visited two federal prisons to make presentations. In visiting prisons, I always strive to help people understand how to prepare for success. We have a course we’ve been distributing called Preparing for Success after Prison. In time, we hope to bring that course to every person in prison.

As of today, I presented to the people at the federal prison in Greenville and the people at the federal prisons in Terre Haute. This past week I visited the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. In Minnesota, I spoke with several hundred people serving sentences and the leaders from the prison’s executive staff.

Following presentations in Rochester, I drove from Minnesota to the federal prison in Oxford, Wisconsin. In Oxford, I first spoke with leaders from the executive staff, and then I spoke with different groups of people serving time in the minimum-security camp. 

Following the presentation at the camp in Oxford, I made a presentation in the adjacent higher-security prison. 

Finally, administrators in Oxford made it possible for me to speak with a group of people who would teach the Preparing for Success after Prison course in that institution. 

Those people inspired me.

One of the men in Oxford, Mr. Powers, has already served longer than 20 years of a life sentence. Rather than having any animosity, ill will, or complaints, he lived a life of service—eager to help people around him reach their highest potential. 

People like Mr. Powers will go a long way toward improving the culture of all people in prison. Rather than complaining about what he is not getting, he builds strength and confidence by helping others get through their challenges. In time, I trust this strategy will lead to his liberty.

At Rochester, I met a man with a similar story, though his name escapes me. Sadly, he struggled with addiction as a younger man. Both he and his fiancée overdosed on drugs. The man I spoke with recovered from the overdose, but his fiancée died. The federal government charged him with her death. He has been incarcerated for longer than 20 years. 

Despite that lengthy sentence, the man maintains a positive attitude and devotes his time to helping others. I hope he will join our group when he completes his sentence.

Before I describe the presentations or messaging I gave to the people in Oxford and Rochester, let me provide some backstory. 

As an aside, it’s important to note that I refer to everyone in the audience as “people,” and not as “inmates” or “convicts.” To change the culture of any prison, we’ve got to work toward changing how we define ourselves. Sometimes, when we live in an institution, it’s easy to allow the institution’s rules to define us. Or, we make excuses for what we don’t do because of what the institution does or does not do.

Leaders taught me that to overcome struggle, we must always exercise discipline. We may not be able to change an institution or a bureaucracy, but we can always work to change ourselves.

I still remember being locked in a Special Housing Unit of the Pierce County Jail. A jury had convicted me of crimes that exposed me to life in prison. I didn’t know what sentence my judge would impose, but after reading about Socrates, I got inspired to learn how I could work to make things happen.

Thankfully, that book helped me to create a plan. The plan became a compass, allowing me to cross through the 45-year sentence that my judge imposed.

I wish I had received that message from Socrates—or Professor Nicholas Murray Butler—before I broke the law. But I didn’t. Had I known how to “make things happen” earlier in my life, I may have made decisions that kept me out of prison.

Fortunately, those messages from Socrates and Professor Butler—and many others—helped me realize that although we cannot change the past, we can start making decisions to influence the future. Those leaders helped me begin sowing seeds to influence something better. They helped me realize that I could not control what institutions or other people in power do. 

I could only control my decisions.

If I want to strengthen my mind, I’ve got to make intentional decisions. Each choice should move me closer to becoming the person I want to become. Each choice should help me become one of the few who make things happen.

Gandhi, another mentor from whom I learned, taught that rather than complaining about what’s happening around us, we should work to be the change we want to see. Each time I get an opportunity to visit a federal prison, I get to work toward being the change.

Besides telling people in the audience about my journey, I spoke about other people who inspired me. 

For example, I told them about Adam Clausen. A federal judge sentenced Adam to serve 213 years in federal prison. The First-Step Act opened a mechanism for a federal judge to release Adam. He built a record of being extraordinary and compelling through the 20 years that he served. 

Because of Adam’s adjustment in prison before the First Step Act, when the law passed, his judge agreed that prison wasn’t the right place for him any longer. The judge released Adam. He is now living his dream life with his wife Ro. Together, they inspire others, build businesses, show people what it means to have “gritability,” and celebrate life with their infant son.

Adam should serve as a role model for people in prison. He is the epitome of success—striving to make a difference and make things happen. While crossing through 20 years in prison, Adam didn’t complain. He focused on helping himself, helping his community, and showing how he created value in the world. When opportunities opened, Adam’s work while serving his sentence—before the First-Step Act existed—made him an excellent candidate to get rewards.

For example, Adam found a woman to believe in him while he served his sentence. She became his most prominent advocate. Together, they persuaded a lawyer to believe in him, and the lawyer represented Adam pro bono. The lawyer would not have represented Adam had he not built the body of work and record of accomplishments that showed his extraordinary and compelling adjustment.

In other words, had Adam not been the change he wanted to see in the world, others would not have persuaded a federal judge to release him from prison.

Our courses feature scores of people who once served life sentences. Now they’re free. They used their time in prison to prepare for success.

Our team will continue working to advance the First Step Act. We’re striving to help all stakeholders understand why it’s important to open more opportunities that will allow people to transition to home confinement. We also want leaders to understand why every person in federal prison should have access to Earned Time Credits.

We need help from people in our community. We need to show that people follow the examples we offer through our courses. Instead of complaining about what the institution is not doing or what the system is not doing, we need to show that people are following examples like Adam Clausen, Mr. Powers, and so many other leaders teaching us.

We like to offer questions for people in our community, and I’ll leave some questions for you:

  • In what ways does your record show an extraordinary and compelling adjustment?
  • How are you serving your community?
  • In what ways did luck relate to Adam’s release from a 213-year sentence?
  • In what ways did Adam work to create his luck?
  • In what ways are you working to create your pathway to success after prison?

We will continue doing our part to help stakeholders understand the importance of Earned Time Credits. It’s a heavy lift. We hope you’ll join in these efforts by improving the culture in your institution. It’s one way that you can make a difference.

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