Awareness and Authenticity: Part 2 

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4-2-Awareness and Authenticity

The U-Shaped Curve:

As people go through the prison system, perspectives change. Like Tina, anyone who faces a criminal charge instantly becomes a “justice-impacted” person. That means the person should become aware of opportunities to seize or create. When a person shows commitment to learning, growing, and making things right, others become aware of the individual’s character and integrity. People may try to fake authenticity, like the person who defrauded Tina. Yet as the Bible tells us, castles built on sand cannot stand.

Knowing that in time, I wanted to advocate for reforms that would improve outcomes for all stakeholders in the prison system, I began reading. I had to become more aware of how the system operated to change the system. I wanted to learn more about different theories. One of those theories used the metaphor of the U-Shaped curve.

Regardless of sentence length, or phase, the theory held people’s adjustment would follow through three phases that would trace the pattern of a U. At the top of the U, in the first phase, we could imagine the culture of the broader society. At the bottom of the U, we had the middle phase, the prison culture. And on the upside of the U, we moved into the third phase.

In the first phase, when authorities first bring people into the system, they experience a high degree of separation from family, friends, and everything they take for granted. As time passes, they move into the middle phase. They develop routines and grow more accustomed to the prison experience. By the time a person gets to the mid-way point of the sentence, the person knows prison well. He is more at ease with the circumstances. Then, the person begins climbing toward the other side of the U, the third phase. As release dates get closer and they know they’re getting back to the broader community, the anxiety comes back. They wonder how they will adjust.

 Similarly, Tina went through phases. Once she realized that she had signed her name to documents that included fraudulent information, she suffered from anxiety and unbearable guilt, expecting that she would need to answer for her crime in time. Wanting to make things right, she took action by first becoming more aware of steps she could take to recalibrate. As she anticipated various stages of the criminal justice system, she began to restore confidence. Authenticity meant going through the pains of a U-shaped curve that would likely bring her into the judicial and prison experience.

As a young man, I didn’t have the same good-character traits as Tina. I never considered turning myself in or admitting that I had broken the law. It wasn’t until Officer Wilson began passing me books about Socrates and others that I began to see the world differently. I had already made a series of very bad decisions, including:

  • Organizing a group that would sell cocaine,
  • Denying my culpability after my arrest,
  • Going through trial and perjuring myself with lies about not being guilty.

Those decisions would have consequences, including a sentence requiring me to serve 26 years. While going through the first phase of my U, reading about Socrates, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X, I developed more insight into what authenticity would mean. They inspired me to want to learn more so that, in time, I could build credibility so that people I admired me would see my commitment and authenticity.

I needed to go through a long adjustment. I wouldn’t reach the midway point until I served 13 years. Yet I knew precisely how I wanted to emerge once I exited prison. Like Frederick Douglass, I tried to use my time inside to make a difference or improve system outcomes. The SWOT analysis helped me realize the importance of making intentional decisions.

While working through the down leg of my U, I intended to strengthen my weaknesses. To become an effective advocate for reform, I would first need to develop skills and earn credentials.

As Tina’s example shows us, a person shouldn’t simply talk about wanting to succeed. A person must become aware of opportunities and be authentic in pursuing those growth opportunities.

Preparations for success after prison resembles preparations for success everywhere. We must be aware of what it takes and be authentic with our commitment to preparations. For example, when Tina aspired to become the best caregiver for her grandmother and others, she sought information on becoming a nurse. Making herself aware of nursing school led to her earning such credentials.

Knowing that I wanted to learn, I began writing to universities. Not knowing the names of people to write, I created a template letter that I could send to any university. In essence, the letter said:

Dear Admissions Officer,

My name is Michael Santos. I am in prison. I write with a request to attend your university so that I can earn academic credentials. I am serving a lengthy term in federal prison. While incarcerated, I hope to learn. By learning, I believe that I can prepare to live as a contributing citizen upon release.

If opportunities open for me to study with your university, please advise.

By sending a version of that letter to scores of universities, I made administrators aware of me. Although some of those administrators may have dismissed a letter from a person in prison, I found others who offered to help. Through those efforts, I became a university student. Once the university sent books and courses that I could complete through correspondence, I felt as if my life had changed. In an instant, I wasn’t only a person in prison. I was a student.

Before prison, as a teenager, I hadn’t prepared well to matriculate through university studies. That lack of earlier preparation meant that I had to complete some remedial studies and work extra hard to grasp basic concepts. 

I found an example of excellence by reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Although the first part of that biography profiled the influences that led to his life as a criminal, the second part showed how he used time in solitary cells to become a better student. Knowing he wanted to become a better communicator, Malcolm became autodidactic, studying the dictionary. By learning new words, he realized that he could empower himself.

In the example of Malcolm X, we learn the importance of being aware of opportunities. If we don’t open our eyes, we cannot see. But if we open our eyes, we may see pathways that will take us from where we are today to all we want to experience. Leaders leave us clues on how they prepare for success. We must choose whether we want to be authentic in that pursuit.


Write responses to the following questions in approximately ten minutes. If participating in a class setting, discuss verbally.

4-4: In what ways do you anticipate your adjustment changing as you move through the U-shaped curve?

4-5: In what way would expanding your vocabulary, or fluency with language, influence how others perceive you?

4-6: In what way would the accumulation of credentials help or hinder authenticity?

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