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 8344th Day—Section 15 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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Section 15 of Prison: My 8,344th Day shows how reflecting on progress each day helps us to stay on track to prepare for success after release from prison. This strategy empowered me through the 26 years I served. Others can use the same strategy.

Prison! My 8,344th Day—Section 15—Reflecting

It’s now 3:35 in the afternoon, close to the end of the day for me. I stack all the email messages I received neatly, then stuff them into my folder. Every ten days or so, I review the notes once again. They prompt ideas for new topics I can write about on my blog.

Since it’s the end of the day for me, I gather my dictionary, black notebook, papers, water bottle, and mail I received. I walk out, passing all the men that stand around talking at the front of the dorm. As I get toward the rear of the unit, I look forward to winding down in my cubicle.

Kenny stands by the entrance to my cubicle, watching me as I walk down the corridor. He’s wearing the prison-issue khaki pants and shirt, dusty black boots, and he’s holding a white plastic mug. Kenny is in his early 60s, and he reminds me of an old-style convict. His hair is snow-white, and although thinning on top, he pulls it back in a tight ponytail. He has a white beard, and his voice sounds as if he once drank a lot of bourbon. When I get closer, he asks if I can spare some coffee for him.

We turn into my cube, and I set my writing gear on my rack. From the second shelf of my locker, on the left side, I pull out a plastic jar and unscrew the red cap. I give Kenny what he wants.

Kenny has been in this camp longer than I have, but I’ve never asked why he’s in prison, how long he’s been a prisoner, or how much time he has remaining to serve. He doesn’t talk to many people. I’ve noticed that he spends every day working in the garden at the back of the camp, minding his own business. He doesn’t watch television but reads voraciously. A casual observer might guess that authorities picked him up for making moonshine in the hills of Appalachia. Still, the literature he reads is of the highest order: Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce. I’ve never seen Kenny reading a popular, contemporary novel.

It seems that only classics interest him. As he scoops his coffee from the jar, I want to ask whether he, too, has spent decades in prison, with only literature to keep him company. But I check my curiosity, respecting the dignity of his silence. I nod to acknowledge him when he thanks me before walking out of my cubicle.

After replacing the coffee in my locker, I grab my new issue of The New Yorker, admiring the cover art. I read the authors who contributed to this issue from the table of contents. I turn each page, stopping at every cartoon, hoping that I’ll find one that makes me laugh.

David strolls into the cube, flops down on his lower bunk, and starts to unlace his boots. He asks if I want him to make us anything for dinner.

Como estas?” I answer him by speaking in my broken Spanish, always making him laugh with my inappropriate verb conjugations and the poor word choices I use to converse. It’s a shame that I never learned how to speak Spanish properly in all the years I’ve served, especially since my dad immigrated to the US from Cuba.

The guards will begin the next census count at 4:00 p.m., in only 15 minutes, and David will have to reserve a microwave if he is going to cook. I tell him to prepare anything he wants. 

David is always considerate. He knows the small ways that I can make his life easier, and he works with me to ease mine. When he tells me that he’s not going to eat until after he plays softball, I tell him not to worry about me. I’ll eat a bowl of cereal. 

David lies down on his rack. With radio headphones on, he pulls the pillow over his eyes to block the light and rests for a few minutes while we wait for the guards to start the census count. 

I lean back in my chair, propping my feet on the steel post of the bunk bed. I exchange the magazine for the daytimer I use to record my activities. While balancing the small planner on my lap, I write about my progress today.

I’ve been recording daily activities in these booklets for at least 20 years, and I look forward to reviewing them all with Carole when I’m home. They have been my compass, my tool for staying on course as the days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years, and decades.

I hear the guard bellow from the front of the dorm, yelling count time and ordering everyone in the dorm to stand.

The four-o-clock afternoon census count is the second of our regularly scheduled stand-up counts. I put on my earbuds and tune into the NPR news broadcast, listening to headlines while waiting for both officers to walk past the cubicle. 

The count only lasts for two to three minutes. When they flip the switch to flicker the overhead lights of the dorm, everyone has the signal that the count is clear. Men leave their cubicles, speeding up the walkways toward the bathroom, television rooms, microwaves, or telephones. While David laces his sneakers to go, I replace my radio earbuds with the foam earplugs and sit with my black notebook, propping my legs on the steel post.


4:04 p.m.

I devote this time to Carole every day. Nurturing our marriage through the limitations imposed by prison requires constant effort. As we move closer to our eighth anniversary, I think of all the times Carole has had to move. Every time administrators transferred me, she relocated. I’ll never take her commitment or her devotion for granted. I know that my imprisonment is much more brutal on her than it is on me.

Prison has become the only life I know. On the other hand, Carole must live in the real world, where distractions continuously compete for her attention. Holding on to her love challenges me as if it’s essential to my life but always threatened. She considers my anxieties about our marriage’s stability ridiculous, but I live with different perspectives.

In the world where I live, women routinely leave their men. Just last week, my friend Tom told me that his wife of 20 years couldn’t take the separation of imprisonment any longer and that she filed for divorce. He had only served the first year of his five-year term. I’ve heard stories of similar family breakups repeatedly, and I understand.

To underestimate the threat that imprisonment inflicts on marriage is like living in the eye of a hurricane and believing the calm skies will always prevail.

I know that my wife lives in society. She cannot cloister herself in a cubicle as I do, adjusting hours to begin the day before two o’clock each morning, ending it before most people watch the late afternoon news. I adapt to limit my exposure to problems, including mental-health complications. Watching television shows that broadcast images of families together would disturb my peace, showing me what I’ve been missing for so many years. 

I create my artificial world in make-shift solitude, always striving to prepare for a life that is beyond my reach for the next two to three years. No one can tell me precisely when I’ll finish my sentence because, with the old law, administrators have some discretion. I will finish serving the sentence in August of 2013, but administrators may allow me to spend a year in a halfway house. I’ll have to wait and see when they issue my date, but I know I’m getting closer.

Carole cannot block constant reminders of the companionship she’s missing. I’ll never take the blessing of her love for granted. Too many people have shared their heartache by describing how their wives have given the crushing news: “I’ve found someone,” or “I can’t do this anymore.”

Working to hold on to Carole’s love is what humanizes me. Despite her assurances that she will be there to pick me up when my prison term ends, I still feel threatened. It’s as if I’m underwater, and her love is the reed through which I breathe to inhale oxygen. We’ve been weathering the storms of imprisonment successfully for many years. Still, I am intimately familiar with the power of those storms, and I must take precautions that may stop them from killing what I cherish, what I need to feel whole.


4:43 p.m.

I finish writing my daily letter to Carole. Then I fold it together with other pages I’ve written today and put it in an envelope for her. I eat a small bowl of Raisin Bran cereal that I’ve wet with room-temperature water from my plastic bottle. I’ve been eating my cereal with water rather than milk ever since my term began for obvious reasons: prison cells don’t come equipped with refrigerators. I’ve come to like eating it with water.

I cherish this quiet time that I have alone, eating with the comfort of Carole’s photograph taped to the inside door of my locker. The less time I spend amid the mix of other prisoners, the more peace I enjoy, and the more time I have for thinking.

At 4:51, I reach into my locker and grab the clear bag that hangs with my toiletries. I leave my cubicle, walking up the corridor of the empty housing unit toward the bathroom. Most other people have left for the chow hall, while some have gone out to the recreation fields for exercise.

I stand in front of the stainless-steel mirror to brush and floss my teeth, then wash my hands and face. The day is over for me, one day like any other in a string of thousands. I walk out of the bathroom to call Carole, and for three minutes, we connect. I drop my letter for her into the mail slot and return to my cubicle alone, one day closer to home.

When I climb onto my rack and stretch out, my body feels tired. The fluorescent lights burn from the steel ceiling above, and the California sun still shines through all the windows. It’s just before five o’clock in the afternoon. 

I reach over for my Bible from the top of David’s locker. I conclude every day by reading a few passages as I work my way—once again—from Genesis to Revelation. Tonight, I’m reading from the Book of 2 Kings and the reign of Hezekiah. Just as God answered Hezekiah’s prayers, I feel God answering mine. 

After setting the Bible aside, I renew my prayers for strength and the power to endure whatever comes along on this journey. I thank God for the many blessings in my life before pulling my wool stocking cap over my eyes to block the light. 

It’s 5:20 in the afternoon. Only 87 more hours until my next visit with Carole.


What efforts are you making to stay fluent with current events?

What process helps you track your progress through each day?

In what ways does the progress you made yesterday influence the progress you want to make in the months ahead?

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