While locked inside a solitary cell, I awaited my sentencing date. After a year of trial proceedings, a jury found me guilty on every count. Anticipating a lengthy sentence, I needed to make sense of all the ways my life had gone wrong.
When DEA agents arrested me in 1987, I didn’t know how to think from the perspective of others. I’d never heard of Johari’s Window. All I knew was that I hated being in confinement and I wanted out. I had a natural inclination to think about myself and all I was losing. Everyone in law enforcement, on the other hand, thought about the crimes I committed and the victims of my crime.
In that early frame of mind, I had the wrong attitude. I argued that my crime didn’t have any victims. A group of consenting adults paid to purchase cocaine from a group of people that I influenced. I hoped for the lowest possible sentence, but I didn’t do the work to prepare for the lowest possible sentence.
While I languished in the solitary cell, a correctional officer began bringing books that he said would change my thoughts.
I knew him as “Officer Wilson,” one of the kindest officers in the detention center. He could see something in me that I could not see in myself. Besides passing me books on Frederick Douglass, he gave me an anthology on philosophy. I didn’t know the meaning of philosophy at the time. But he assured me that I could learn from reading the lessons in the books he brought.
To create meaning in my life from prison, I needed to learn how to think differently. Instead of perseverating on how I could get out early, I needed to change my attitude and aspiration. That books Officer Wilson provided opened my eyes to a different way of thinking.
I read about Socrates, a man who lived more than 2,500 years ago. Ordinarily, such a story wouldn’t have interested me. In reading the first paragraph of the story on Socrates, I learned that he was in a jail cell awaiting the day when authorities would carry out a death sentence for a crime he committed.
I wouldn’t have read the book, or the story about Socrates previously because I neither identified with the concept of philosophy nor did I have any interest in history. Sometimes, we get the message we need at the right time. The story spoke to me because I faced life in prison. Facing life in prison felt as if I faced a death sentence—because I could potentially die in prison. I needed a better attitude, and I needed to aspire to something bigger than my life. That story about Socrates helped me to learn that I had been living by a bad philosophy.
Fortunately, it’s never too early, and it’s never too late to begin making better decisions.
After reading that story, I began to contemplate the different ways that I could make sense of my journey. I realized that I could not change the past:
- I broke the law,
- A jury convicted me,
- A judge would sentence me,
- I would go to prison.
Like Halim Flowers, I would have to confront the challenges ahead. My attitude would influence whether I wasted time in prison, or whether I used that time to reconcile with society and make amends. In preparing before sentencing, I needed to convey a message. I wanted stakeholders to know that, going forward, I would make disparate decisions than I had made before my arrest. I intended to work toward something bigger than my own life.
The prosecutor responded to my proclamations of remorse, by telling the judge:
“If Michael Santos spends every day of his life in an all-consuming effort to repay society, and if he lives to be 300 years old, our society will still be at a significant net loss.”
The federal judge presiding over my case sentenced me to 45 years. Fortunately, reading the story about Socrates helped me to process the sentence imposed.
I’ll paraphrase an ancient fable that can help us come to terms with the challenges we face.
A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over the river. The frog initially refuses, claiming its fear of being stung. The scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, they both would die because the frog would sink, drowning the scorpion.
The frog then agrees.
Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both.
As they started to drown, the frog asked the scorpion why he stung him. The scorpion replied that it’s in its nature to sting.
The prosecutor’s nature is to ask for a lengthy sentence. The judge’s nature is to impose a term that will protect the interests of society—not to make things easier on the person who broke the law.
Like Halim, I could choose how to respond to the sentence. My attitude going forward would determine my aspirations.
In what ways does your attitude influence your aspirations?