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 Personal Narratives 

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Michael Santos

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According to the Department of Justice, grand juries or prosecutors bring charges against more than 80,000 people every year. Statements made from our current Attorney General, suggest that those numbers will rise during the Trump administration. Documentation published on the Department of Justice website lead us to this conclusion. For example, consider the Memorandum that Jeff Sessions published on May 10, 2017:

In the second paragraph, the Attorney General says:

“First, it is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”

Judge advises on how to prepare before sentencing

The Memorandum goes on to rescind previous policy decisions that gave more discretion to prosecutors. As a result, prosecutors will bring charges against more people. In light of the Sessions Memorandum, we anticipate prosecutors will initiate more grand jury proceedings. Those proceedings will lead to more criminal indictments.

Prosecutors will also initiate charges through a process known as Rule 7 (b), a Criminal Information. With a Criminal Information, a person may waive indictment and simply agree to plead guilty to the charges a prosecutor brings.

Whether through an Indictment or a Criminal Information, at Prison Professors, we believe more people go to prison. That’s why our team publishes so much free information to help. Subscribe to our Prison Professors podcast to learn while you drive, while you exercise, or whenever it suits you.

According to easily verifiable statistics, prison follows for the vast majority of people who face charges in federal court. Yet a federal prison term doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road.

Staring down a lengthy prison term can bring a disheartening feeling, as if you’re looking into an abyss. We’ve encountered many people who faced criminal charges. Many went to prison. Some of those people prospered in prison. Others fell into a deep hole. In segments that we published previously, we’ve given some initial insights about how to master prison quickly.

We could offer instructions for days. To break it down simply, we recommend adhering to the same principles to succeed or overcome any other challenge. There are specific steps, as follows:

  1. Visualize success. What’s the best possible outcome?
  2. Create a plan. What steps will take you from where you are today, to the success that you envision?
  3. Set priorities. As we’ve mentioned before, it’s crucial that you set incremental goals. Know and understand that achieving one goal will put you on a pathway to achieving higher goals. More to come on this subject in future installments of our podcast episodes and chapters.
  4. Execute the plan. Although a plan is essential, without execution, it’s nothing more than happy talk. Leaders take action every day. If you’re following the Prison Professors pathway, you’ll take action. You’ll climb from where you are today, to the success you’re determined to become tomorrow.

Still, we recognize that it isn’t easy. Statistics show that the vast majority of people face many struggles upon release. Others return to society and thrive. As examples, I frequently cite my partners.

We like to cite the example of our friend Shon Hopwood. I first heard about Shon when I read a story in the New York Times that Adam Liptak published about him. Millions of other people read that story. Several months later, I received a letter from a publisher at Random House.

I was in prison when a guard passed me the envelope. The editor wrote that Shon had written a manuscript. He wanted me to read the manuscript and write a blurb to endorse the work. After reading the manuscript, I enthusiastically agreed to endorse Shon’s book.

Shon is a portrait of success after prison. He didn’t give up after a struggle. Instead, he studied, going on to earn a law degree from the University of Washington. Then he clerked for a U.S. Circuit Court. Then Georgetown University invited Shon to become a tenure-track professor.

Personal experiences convince us that if we prepare early, we enhance prospects for success. We don’t mean success on a marginal level. We mean success on multiple levels. Success is a mindset. The sooner we can adopt that mindset of success, the sooner we can advance prospects for success.

Surrendering to Federal Prison:

When prosecutors choose to bring charges against a defendant, life changes. We never know when the time will come for us to surrender. For example, in my partner Justin Paperny’s case, prosecutors brought charges against him. Yet the judge did not order U.S. Marshals to take Justin into custody. Justin remained free on bond while his judicial proceedings played out. His judge allowed him to surrender to federal prison voluntarily several weeks after the sentence.

In my case, authorities took me into custody on the day of my arrest. I’ll always remember that day. It was August 11, 1987. I was 23. I had never been to prison before. Yet the bad decisions I began making when I was 20 caught up with me. I faced a sentence of multiple decades in prison. I remained in custody until I concluded my sentence in a federal halfway house more than 26 years later, on August 12, 2013.

Take another case, like that of Paul Manafort. A federal grand jury charged Mr. Manafort with several charges, including conspiracy against the United States and money laundering. After he surrendered to face the charges, the court placed Manafort under “house arrest,” which is a form of imprisonment. After a month on house arrest, he pledged assets that allowed him to go free on bond until the charges were resolved.

We never know when authorities will require a defendant to surrender to prison. Yet we know that the sooner a person establishes a deliberate course of action, the sooner a person can stop the free fall that derails peace for so many defendants.

In the previous installment, we encouraged people to define success. We encourage people to remember the pathway to overcome challenges. For some people, challenges define the rest of their lives. For others, the way that they responded to challenges defines the rest of their lives.

Make a decision. Will prison define what you become? Or will you make decisions to overcome?

Personal Narrative Before Surrendering to Federal Prison:

We encourage people to write out a personal narrative, or a life story prior to surrendering to prison. Let us explain why.

When authorities allege that someone has committed a crime, that crime can have a tendency to consume the individual. Newspapers or media outlets may report the crime. A Google search will reveal that criminal charge. The statement from prosecutors or other authorities will begin to take on a life of their own. If an individual doesn’t do something about it, that story will become an immutable part of his character. A personal narrative can help to counter those allegations.

We are all more than decisions we made at the worst moment of our lives. And the sooner we begin to write out our personal narrative, the sooner we can begin to write the next chapter.

I learned this lesson of writing new chapters at the very start of my journey. I was locked inside the Pierce County Jail back in 1987. Authorities arrested me for leading a group that trafficked in cocaine. When caught, the only thing I wanted was to get out of jail. As a result, I listened to every word my lawyer had to offer. He told me that there was a big difference between an indictment and a conviction. Anyone who knows how to research could find data that would undermine such a statement. When the federal government indicts someone, a conviction follows in more than nine out of every ten cases.

My lawyer told me what I wanted to hear rather than what I needed to hear.

After a jury convicted me, I realized that I made a horrific decision.

  • At 20 I sold cocaine.
  • At 23, I was arrested.
  • Once in jail, I made the decision to change.
  • I made a decision to prepare myself in ways that would lead to my success upon release.

I’ll write extensively about those transformations. The question you must ask yourself is whether you’re ready to make changes. If you’ve been targeted for criminal prosecution in federal court, then decide how you want to emerge from the struggle of imprisonment.

In my case, let me say that transformation began with introspection. By thinking about my past, I could begin to connect the dots. Authorities locked me in prison because a jury convicted me of crimes related to selling cocaine. Introspection gave me a broader perspective. By reflecting on my past, I could see that I had begun to go astray long before the conviction. My life went off course long before authorities arrested me for selling cocaine. Decisions I made much earlier put me on a course for a bad outcome. No one could change that outcome but me.

I started to change that outcome with my personal narrative. I had to write out the person that I aspired to become.

You can do the same.

Similarly, when Justin Paperny joined me inside the Taft Federal Prison Camp, I had more than 20 years of prison behind me. Like many people, he felt lost the day he surrendered. Justin had been a stockbroker and an asset manager. He defined himself by his degree from USC, his prior baseball career, and his profession as a financial-services professional. But authorities gave Justin a different narrative. He pleaded guilty to securities fraud. When he joined me in federal prison, he felt the weight of his past crushing his spirit. Justin didn’t know what he would do with the rest of his life. I gave him the secret that worked so well for me.

He had to write his narrative.

Justin didn’t understand what I meant. We sat together each morning and I showed Justin how introspection could lead anyone through a difficult situation and into prosperity. It’s a lesson that leaders have taught for thousands of years. Scholars attribute the following saying to Socrates:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

All lives are worth living. Yet I found enormous strength in the power of reflection. I showed Justin how lessons from Socrates and other philosophers empowered me through multiple decades in federal prison. He agreed that introspection could put him on a path to a better life, too. We worked together, side by side, to write his narrative. That commitment to writing resulted in his book Lessons From Prison. It launched an entirely new life for him.

Success Through Federal Prison:

We encourage anyone who faces a prison journey to use this same recipe to prepare for success. Introspect. Then begin writing a narrative that will become the new chapter of your life.

Again, at Prison Professors, we do not ask anyone to do or say anything that we didn’t do or that we’re not doing. Shon’s book reveals how much thought he put into his future. Justin’s book shows what he learned through introspection. During the 26 years that I served, I wrote extensively. I published several books under my name. Besides writing my own books, I interviewed other prisoners. Then I worked side by side with them to help publish books about their life stories.

A magical process unfolds through these exercises in introspection and writing. We feel empowered. We begin to see the patterns that led to where we are today. By documenting our journeys, we can take control of our destiny. We can set our lives on a new course. This process can show the how and why of our lives. We are who we are today because of the decisions we made yesterday. And at any time, we can begin making new decisions that will redefine our lives. Personal narratives can start.

Those who choose not to write their own narratives should understand what transpires. Prosecutorial statements will have a longer life. From directives in Session’s Memorandum, we know that prosecutors will bring the worst possible charges that they can prove. But we also know that there is much more to every individual’s life. The question is whether an individual will write a narrative that begins to show the next chapter of life, or whether the individual will allow statements from prosecutors to influence the future.

Prepare personal narratives at the soonest possible time. Some defendants feel so disoriented from the criminal charge that they cannot muster the concentration to write their own narratives. Our videos, books, and courses show people how to start.

The personal narrative can serve several purposes. By writing the personal narrative early, the defendant can provide stakeholders in the system with a different perspective. Some defense attorneys use those personal narratives as tools to influence the prosecutorial process. They may use the narrative to show why the individual may be worthy of lower charges.

Presentence Investigation Report:

Defendants can also use the personal narrative as a tool to influence the presentence investigation. After a defendant pleads guilty, or after a jury convicts a defendant, the next step will be for the defendant to meet with a probation officer. That probation officer will conduct an investigation that will culminate with a report known as the Presentence Investigation Report, or PSR.

During the investigation, the probation officer will ask the defendant whether he has anything to say about the offense. A well written narrative will show that the defendant has given a great deal of thought to why he is going to prison. That narrative can have an enormous influence on the journey ahead. Don’t take our word for it. We encourage our clients to listen to what federal judges have said about the personal narrative. If a defendant succeeds in weaving his personal narrative into the PSR, he can influence his prison journey.

It’s never too late and it’s never too early to prepare for success. A person may write the personal narrative before surrendering to prison. Or a person may write the narrative once he or she is in prison. Either way, we’re confident it will help. A personal narrative will clarify thoughts. It will lead a person to define a success. It will help the individual craft a plan. The personal narrative will help an individual establish priorities. And the personal narrative will motivate an individual to perform, or execute the plan.

Although a criminal indictment or conviction can feel like the end of the world, a personal narrative can set a person on a path to recalibration. It can lead to change. It can set a person on the pathway to success.

We encourage people to recognize that the process doesn’t end with a sentencing hearing. The person will surrender to prison. Then, a series of authorities will judge the individual at different intervals. Those authorities will always look to the PSR—and the prosecutor’s statements—when assessing the person. If an individual writes out his narrative, he can influence those eventual assessments.

That strategy of writing out a personal narrative had an enormous influence on my journey. If I had undergone the exercise of introspection, and writing a personal narrative early, I would have made different decisions. Better decisions would have meant that I would not have been sentenced to a term that required 26 years in prison.

But again, it’s never too early and it’s never too late to begin sowing new seeds. I wrote my narrative before surrendering to prison. Because of that narrative, I could influence the way that case managers in prison assessed me. I could influence where I would serve my sentence and what programs I could complete in prison. I could influence my level of liberty in prison, and I could influence when authorities would release me to a halfway house.

Once I concluded my sentence, my personal narrative influenced the level of liberty I had on Supervised Release. It influenced the career I launched. And it persuaded authorities to advocate for my early termination of Supervised Release.

In conclusion, expect prosecutors to paint the worst possible picture of any defendant. As Jeff Sessions wrote in his Memorandum, they have a job of proving serious charges. Justice—in the eyes of many prosecutors—equates with convictions and long sentences. For defendants who want a better outcome, we encourage them to write personal narratives. We encourage them to use those personal narratives as blueprints. They lead to the next phase in the journey. They are essential to getting the outcome we want from a prison experience.

If you’re an individual who wants to redefine his life, then start with a personal narrative. Do it soon. The sooner you start on a personal narrative, the more time you can invest to craft it well. Do not write the narrative to sell to readers. Rather, use your personal narrative to sell you.

We want all of our readers, viewers, and listeners to begin preparing for success. Always remember: it’s one thing to know the way to success. It’s another thing to walk the way. Stay with us at Prison Professors to learn more.

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