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Michael Santos

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If we learn from those who reach the highest level of success, we understand that they take incremental action steps. What actions are you taking to prepare for success?

Straight-A Guide: SAG-5-Action

In February of 2022, I had an opportunity to interview Halim Flowers, an artist. When he was only a teenager, a judge sentenced Halim to serve a double life sentence. He could have given up hope. Instead, he began taking a series of incremental action steps to prepare for a life of meaning, relevance, and contribution.

After 22 years, authorities released Halim from prison. Then, a series of opportunities opened. To summarize:

  • He received a grant for $40,000 within one month of being released from prison.
  • He received a second grant that provided him with housing for a year, plus another $10,000.
  • He secured a five-figure purchase order and an offer of friendship from the owner of the Golden State Warriors.
  • He received another grant for $45,000.
  • He secured relationships with galleries that agreed to sell his paintings.
  • He sold more than $1 million worth of paintings.

Some people would say that Halim was lucky. Those who want to listen and learn from his story would know that Halim took action. Check out the following link for the story:

  • Halim Flowers:

What action steps can a man take if he is serving a double life sentence in prison? Halim told us that a person could:

  • Develop strong communication skills,
  • Become a better writer,
  • Learn to understand the law,
  • Learn to advocate for others,
  • Learn to think differently.

If a person thinks about the incremental actions he or she can take today, that person will open more opportunities tomorrow.

We use this lesson to help people realize how they can start taking action steps today to influence a better outcome. It’s especially useful for a person losing hope while going through the criminal justice system.

Below we show how Wayne, one of our team members, responded to the lesson on Action.

Action Lesson with Wayne: 5-Action

5-ACTION-WAYNE-2-25-22 1,532 98th 9th Grade

You can have the best attitude and aspire to be great, but none of it happens without action. It’s an essential question for anybody who’s going into this system.

  • First, I’ve got to define success in one area of my life, and it might be fundamentally different from another area of my life. In this section, we want to prepare for sentencing and the journey through prison. If you want a prayer to get out of prison early, then…
  • Second, you have to set the goals that you will have to take. In Earning Freedom, we give a lot of those examples. We never ask anybody to do anything that we didn’t do.
  • Third, have an attitude to make a 100 percent commitment to what you’re going to do to accomplish the best possible outcome I choose. For Santos, he wanted to get to a specific prison that would align with getting the educational credentials he wanted.

No matter your goals, nothing is possible without taking action.

If you’re going into the system, you want to be challenging yourself, or if you’re counseling somebody else, you want to be challenging them about the action steps they are taking.

What should I be doing based on how I’m defining success based on how the people are going to see me in the future.

Something Santos learned in prison where he earned a master’s degree, in this concept of really understanding mass incarceration, we had to start from the stakeholders’ perspective.

What is the purpose of imprisonment and the criminal justice system (CJS)?

  • Rehabilitation
  • Incapacitation
  • Deterrence
  • Punishment

When preparing for a sentencing hearing, you should be thinking in the context of a judge who sentences people every week. Every defendant says that they want a lower sentence. Very few of them say, “I’ve really done a lot of work to figure out how I got here and what can I do to make things right.” Here is what I wish I had said to my judge:

I’ve learned about the four goals of the criminal justice system. I learned one of the top goals is to punish people who broke the law. I understand that if my child does something wrong, I’m going to punish that child.

Two, it’s to incapacitate people so that theoretically, they’re not breaking the law again when they are serving a sentence. Three, it is to deter other people in the broader community from breaking the law. If they can see what punishment I got, maybe they won’t do it.

Your Honor, when I looked at those three realized there’s nothing I can really do to influence those three. They are the purview of this court to decide how much punishment I need and for how long. Whether this punishment will deter others, I don’t have any influence over that, your Honor.

As to the fourth, rehabilitation, I had to really process. For the longest time, I didn’t see myself as a criminal. But I broke the law, and I learned some more research that being a criminal is effectively anybody who violates the code. I came to terms with what I was and considered how to rehabilitate that image. For me, I’ve got a bachelor’s degree, or I’ve got a master’s degree, or I’ve got a business to run, or I’ve got a family, I am a law-abiding citizen, etc.

I made a bad decision. How do I make things better?

I decided that one thing I could do is consider my environment. Where am I going?

I know I’m going to prison, your Honor, but I didn’t know what that meant; therefore, I started to research prison, and I learned how many people who are in prison have a really hard time transitioning into society.

I’ve read about recidivism rates of 60, 70, 80 percent, and I know that’s got to be a problem. I realized that the whole country was my victim. So, I’ve got to make amends with the country. That’s what led me to pursue this rehabilitation path. I realized it was not about me and helping me; it’s about helping the community.

I’m going to be in the prison community, so I figured out steps that I could do to help others and solve my own problems. I learned by helping other people around me solve their problems. My rehabilitation process began a long while ago when I decided to accept responsibility, cooperate fully, and say what more I could do. If I could help other people, I might be able to restore some sense of confidence, dignity, and purpose in my life.

Santo knows everyone on the PP team reached out for two reasons. First, they had an outstanding PP experience preparing and wanted to give back and build a career around it; second, they didn’t know any of this existed but wanted to help. We know all of your motives are good, and for those of you watching this who have yet to be sentenced or if you’re home and want to have a better experience on supervised release, PP is giving you the tools, but you need to act on them.

For example, here is what a PP team member could do at each stage of the CJS journey. If someone has a sentencing hearing in a month and has the right attitude, they aspire to get the best possible outcome; then what’s one action step they could take before that sentencing hearing?

They should be thinking about how I will convince the judge that I’m something more than what the prosecution says about the crime I committed. Your action job is to say that’s not who I am. My crime is a product of something I did at the worst possible time in my life. I’ve got to create a believable story that I understand the harm that I have caused, and I’ve done everything within my power to make amends and reconcile. Then I can augment that story with good works.

Yes, you can do something that is transformative for society; but at the very least, do something that makes it self-evident your efforts to contribute to your community. Don’t talk about what you want to do. Don’t talk about what you’re going to do. Create irrefutable data that shows what you’ve done.

Here at PP, we have many examples; however, they are going to be context-specific. So Santos gives one:

They are about to surrender to the court for a three-year sentence. They have the right attitude and aspire to be productive. I want to talk about being in prison and hearing about the FirstStep Act and mechanisms to get out early, good-time credits, etc. Even in prison, there are some specific actions that they can take to potentially advance their release date, avoid prison drama, etc.

I felt fortunate to get off the right start because I had luckily got some guidance. Without it, I’d have probably slept and exercised my whole prison term away, and I’d have been home selling hammers.

To help someone understand the initial actions they can take once they surrender to what can seem a hopeless environment, I’m going to use the great teachings of Stephen Covey. He really gave some excellent advice in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s been many years since I’ve read it, but as I remember them:

Seek first to understand before you seek to be understood

First, try to understand the CJS/prison environment. It is fundamentally different from any other environment in America. Ironically, it’s as close to communism as we get in America. The state owns everything, your clothes, your food, the job that the state tells you to do. There’s no private property; everything can be taken from you.

The better I can understand it and how the other people in prison have learned to adjust there. Remember, most of them have adapted in ways to help function in prison. Those adjustment patterns are in conflict with what it takes to succeed outside. The longer we expose somebody to corrections or prison, the more they learn to live in prison, and the less likely they are to function and succeed outside.

Once I understand how people are institutionalized, then I can go through that whole process of defining success for one such person. Maybe they want to learn a new skill when they get out of prison, but jobs will not be so freely available. PP wishes to show that a criminal record is not going to stop someone.

For PP team members, it’s your CJS experience and the work that you’ve done to overcome it that makes you a qualified expert. Our team gives tools to participants so they can put themselves in a better position to seize First Step Act initiatives or compassionate release, or any other opportunity.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Habit 1: Be Proactive® …

Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind® …

Habit 3: Put First Things First® …

Habit 4: Think Win-Win® …

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood® …

Habit 6: Synergize® …

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw®

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