Blog Article 

 Son in Prison 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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Quora Response to the following question: My son got sentenced to 15 years in prison. He is 20 years old. I don’t want him to feel depressed and give up. Is there anything I can do for him while he is in prison?

In 1987, when I was 23, a federal judge sentenced me to serve 45 years in prison. I learned a great deal about not giving up. Leaders like Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, and Mahatma Gandhi taught many lessons about not giving up. From those lessons, I learned to persevere. Your son will also learn to persevere.

After 9,500 days in prison, in August of 2013, I completed my prison term. The strategies that I learned from leaders empowered me. They brought the feeling that I could use the time I served to open opportunities after my release. Decisions in prison resulted in a different outcome when I walked out. I spent my final year in a halfway house. While there, San Francisco State University hired me to teach as an adjunct professor. Simultaneously, I began building Prison Professors, a website to help people in jail and prison learn how to teach themselves—despite the hardship of confinement.

I am happy to share the strategies with you. I hope they will inspire your son—and you—through these challenging times.

Step 1: Define Success—I had to think about the best possible outcome. Although I wish I could have persuaded authorities to release me, that wasn’t a realistic goal. Instead, I thought about steps I could take within the environment where I served the sentence. The best possible outcome would be to leave prison with my dignity intact and with opportunities to thrive. In my case, I wanted to walk out of prison and earn a living. If I put on a suit and tie, I hoped that people would see me as a contributing citizen and not judge me for bad decisions I made during the recklessness of youth.

  • Task for your son: If your son starts by defining success, he can advance to the next step.

Step 2: Set Clear Goals—Since I knew that I wanted to emerge with income opportunities, I could think about the people that would open those income opportunities. Thinking about those people inspired questions. What steps could I take today to make me a better candidate for support? Those kinds of questions inspired me to work toward clear goals during my imprisonment:

Goal 1: I would earn a university degree within 10 years.

Goal 2: I would contribute to society by becoming a published author within 10 years.

Goal 3: I would bring 10 mentors into my life within 10 years.

Each specific goal had a timeline, and I could focus my energy on working toward the goals. Once I set those goals, I restore power. I didn’t only wait for calendar pages to turn. Instead, I worked toward completing the objectives—further, each of the goals aligned with how I defined success, in step 1.

  • Task 2 for your son: What goals can he set today that will deliver the incremental steps he needs to succeed, as he defined success?

Step 3: Attitude—To climb through multiple decades in prison, a person must have the right attitude. That attitude should reflect a 100% commitment to success. If a person wants opportunities to open for him through the journey, then the person must understand the environment—administrators design prisons to extinguish hope. Yet if a person has the right attitude, the external environment will have less influence over him. He’ll find or create opportunities. In doing so, he will empower himself. Some people define success as fitting in with the culture of confinement. Consequences follow as high recidivism rates show. If a person understands the purpose of the system, a person can thrive in the face of struggle

  • Task 3 for your son: Write a daily or weekly journal that includes perceptions about what he has seen and the steps he has taken to overcome the challenges.

Step 4: Aspiration—Climbing through decades in prison requires mental strength. To fortify our mental strength, we must train our minds to visualize success as we define success. What will be different in our life when we get to the other side? In my case, I wanted to earn an income. I visualized business opportunities that I could create. Then, I envisioned the life that would follow if I created those opportunities. Instead of asking for a job, I would create jobs for others. Instead of renting a place to live, I would own real estate. I could visualize myself as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen.

  • Task 4 for your son: Ask him to visualize and then write about the life he will lead upon his release.

Step 5: Action—People in prison can narcotize themselves with happy talk. They can talk about how successful they’re going to be. Yet they fail to take the incremental action steps necessary. In Step 1, identified above, I defined success. And in Step 2, I articulated the clear goals I would have to achieve. They required incremental action steps. I had to identify the names of universities. I had to write letters to universities and ask for an opportunity to study, even though I didn’t have any financial resources. Once I got into universities, I had to complete the coursework and earn the credits. I had to persuade publishers to work with me. I had to find people to come into my life. The little action steps led to new opportunities.

  • Task 5 for your son: Encourage him to think about the incremental action steps that align with his response to what he wrote in Task 1 and Task 2 above.

Step 6: Accountability—To stay on track while climbing through prison, we need to create our accountability metrics. If we know what we want to achieve in 10 years, we know what we must complete within the first five years. If we know what we want to accomplish in five years, we should have a good idea of our progress every 12 months. We can reverse engineer the tasks we must complete every month, every week, and day. This tactic helped me exceed the timelines that I set in Step 2.

  • Task 6 for your son: Ask him to create a journal that shows his progress each day. Rather than waiting for calendar pages to turn, he should work toward completing tasks that will lead him closer to success.

Step 7: Awareness—When we keep our head in the game, we always keep our definition of success at the forefront. This mindset allows us to see or create new opportunities. Simultaneously, others become aware of our commitment to excellence. When people know that we’re determined to overcome the challenges of confinement, they’re more inclined to support our efforts.

  • Task 7 for your son: Identify the person he deems to be the most successful in his environment. Question the daily decisions that person makes. Your son can compare the decisions that he is making with the person he defines as being successful. The exercise may help your son make better decisions.

Step 8: Authenticity—People demonstrate authenticity with their actions. If they visualize the best outcome, they can create a plan. The plan requires the person to set priorities. The person must develop tools, tactics, and resources that will help him execute the plan. The more a person works toward personal development, the more successful he will become at opening opportunities. Others may say he is “lucky,” but he’ll develop self-confidence, knowing that he engineered his pathway to success.

  • Task 8 for your son: Ask him to identify the tools, tactics, and resources he’s developing to demonstrate his commitment to success, as he defined in Task 1.

Step 9: Achievement—When climbing through decades in prison, a person can motivate himself by celebrating the small achievements. After receiving dozens of rejections, I could celebrate when a university allowed me to begin studying toward an undergraduate degree. We empower ourselves with those little achievements. They motivate us to take the next step. Each step brings us closer to the next opportunity and fortifies our commitment.

  • Task 9 for your son: Write down the little achievements he has made in the past week and project the achievements he will make this week. Ask him to reveal how those achievements relate to his response in Task 1.

Step 10: Appreciation—Show gratitude for the blessings that come his way. When we can see the gifts that we receive from others—including love and encouragement—we see our responsibility to reciprocate. That appreciation restores our strength and confidence. We know that we’re not only serving time, but we’re also working toward a better life and reconciliation with the people we love—and those who love us. 

  • Task 10 for your son: Ask him to think about the blessings in his life. Those blessings begin with life itself. With life, we have opportunities and responsibilities to make life better.

These ten steps helped me build confidence during the 9,500 days I served in prison. For more details, please feel free to read or listen to the full story, which you may access with the following link:

Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term

Thank You Earning Freedom

I wish you and your family peace through these challenging times.

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