Lesson 9 

Need Answers to Your Questions?

San Francisco State University:

Improving the outcomes of America’s criminal justice system would require a significant investment in advocacy. In my view, those changes would require a multi-pronged approach to reach many people, including:

  • Citizens: The citizens in our country paid the taxes that supported all government agencies. Those citizens wanted community safety but didn’t fully understand what happened after a judge sentenced a person to prison. To improve outcomes of the prison system, we would need reforms. Those reforms would be more likely if citizens supported the initiative. With social media, I hoped to help taxpayers understand why it would be in society’s best interest to offer more mechanisms allowing people in prison to work toward earning freedom.
  • Legislators: Voters elected officials that would represent them in Congress. Those members of Congress would deliberate changes they could make to improve outcomes for all citizens. We needed changes that would incentivize people in prison to work toward earning freedom. Those incentives should lead people to work toward reconciling with society and making amends for the laws they broke. If the people in prison made progress, reforms would allow them to earn incrementally higher levels of liberty.
  • Practitioners: People who build careers working in the prison system influence whether programs succeed or fail. If people working in prisons define success on the job as protecting security of the institution, they strive to control every aspect of the prison. That would include what a person reads, who a person visits, and how a person lives. An overemphasis on security can translate to obstructing people who want to work toward reconciling with society, making amends, or preparing for success after prison. To change the culture of prisons, we need to influence how people who work in prisons think about the people serving sentences.
  • People: People serving sentences get bad messaging while they’re inside. Policies within the system suggest no path to redemption exists and that society does not welcome people convicted of breaking laws. Other people in prison adapt to that culture, sending a message that the best way to serve a sentence is to forget about the world outside and focus on getting through the sentence. This mindset leads people to adjust to the culture of confinement rather than preparing for success upon release.

To make a change within the system, I would need to build tools, tactics, and resources to reach each of those populations. With social media, I worked to reach citizens in the broader community. Yet effective advocacy meant I would also need to influence people working within the system and those who legislated laws that led to funding the system.

Knowing the influence of academia, I began writing unsolicited letters to university professors within driving distance of the San Francisco Bay, from Sacramento to Silicon Valley. I wanted them to know of my commitment to working toward making a change. By broadening my reach, I hoped to have a more significant influence on helping people understand how we could work toward improving outcomes for all stakeholders of the criminal justice system. Those stakeholders included every citizen in society, those who worked in prisons, and those who served prison sentences.

If the university professors thought it would be helpful, I offered to visit and provide students with the perspective of a person who served time. Many students who majored in criminal justice wanted to pursue careers in corrections, probation, or other law enforcement professions. I knew the students would’ve read many theoretical textbooks on corrections or different sociological theories. Listening to someone who could share first-hand experiences might contribute to their educational experience.

Dr. Jeffrey Snipes, from San Francisco State University (SFSU), responded to my letter. He led the criminal justice department at SFSU and invited me to visit the university. Jeff’s email encouraged me. As of 2013, I’d never stepped foot on a university campus. I looked forward to meeting Jeff and experiencing a university campus for the first time. My case manager at the halfway house authorized a pass for me to visit the campus.

When I visited SFSU for the first time, I could appreciate more fully how much the bad decisions of my youth had cost me. The crimes I committed led to my separation from society for multiple decades. Still, I believed it was never too early and never too late to begin contributing to making things right. The thousands of students walking around the campus had so much promise. Many of them would go on to do great things in society. I felt grateful to be in their midst.

I met Jeff and his colleagues in one of the university’s small conference rooms. They listened as I told them my story for about an hour. Following my presentation, Jeff surprised me. He asked if I would like to work at SFSU. I didn’t quite get his question. I went to the campus with thoughts about contributing as a guest speaker. Instead, he asked if I wanted a job.

During my presentation, I told Jeff about my entire journey, including my obligation to the halfway house. For that reason, when he asked if I wanted a job, I assumed he was trying to do me a solid, offering me a position in maintenance or something like that would allow me to accumulate hours. Jeff surprised me when he clarified the offer, saying he wanted me to become a part of the faculty.

Universities had a considerable influence on my adjustment while I served my sentence. Despite not experiencing life on campus, university professors gave me enormous hope ever since I enrolled in my first undergraduate course at the start of my term. When Jeff offered me the teaching position, I sensed an opportunity to expand my mission. When I asked what prompted him to offer the job, he told me he’d known of my work for over a decade. As a graduate student, he said, his professor assigned books I wrote as required reading.

I consider it essential to share that message with people in prison. The decisions they make every day can have an enormous influence on their prospects for success in the months, years, and decades to follow. I didn’t know Dr. Jeffrey Snipes while I served my sentence. Nor did I know anyone at San Francisco State University. Yet by writing books while I served my sentence, I sowed seeds for the future. They led to connections that I didn’t even know existed.

People in prison should always think about the relationship between today’s decisions and tomorrow’s opportunities.

After accepting Jeff’s offer, I began laying out the course I would teach. He authorized me to design any type of course that would relate to my journey. I created a course called The Architecture of Incarceration and agreed to begin teaching in August 2013. Less than three weeks after finishing my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons, SFSU students would address me as a professor.

I spent hundreds of hours preparing for the semester. Although my job only required me to teach 30 students, I accepted any student who wanted to enroll. Teaching opened opportunities to influence people who would devote their careers to criminal justice, and I wanted to serve them well.

In designing the course, I set a goal of helping the students understand the influences that led to our nation’s massive prison system. We incarcerated more people per capita than any nation on earth. I wanted those students to understand that the US didn’t always have the world’s largest prison population. Our commitment to mass incarceration didn’t begin until the early 1970s, accelerating around the time that I began serving time—when President Reagan launched the War on Drugs. I wanted students in my class to understand how we “architected” the pathway to mass incarceration and to know what we could do better.

To begin the class, I told the students about my history of selling cocaine as a young man and about my transformation while serving 26 years. They were somewhat shocked when I revealed my past. As part of the course, I assigned two books I authored during my confinement, including Inside: Life Behind Bars in America and Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term.

Although students referred to me as “professor,” I urged them to call me Michael, reminding them that I’d finished serving a prison term only a few weeks before the semester began. We spent our first class going over my complete history. I encouraged them to ask anything about my past, prison experience, or my expectations about life upon release. Each class lasted nearly three hours, and I pledged to be 100% authentic with them.

During the second class, we discussed the evolution of punishment in Western civilization. Before the 18th century, I pointed out, we didn’t use prisons or confinement as a punishment. Instead, we only used confinement as a kind of placeholder until after the trial that would determine guilt.

After determining guilt, judges would punish the offender with mutilation or death. The justice administrators would behead convicted felons or rip apart their bodies in grotesque ways, including “drawing and quartering.” Such punishment would send four horses running in different directions while strong ropes ripped limbs off the torso of the offenders.

I designed the third class to teach students about evolutions in criminal justice during the 18th century. Scholars referred to that era as “The Enlightenment,” a time when people had more hope. Two philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke presented different theories on human behavior.

According to Thomas Hobbes’ view, people were beasts by nature. Hobbes’ theory held that people would only refrain from breaking laws if the state maintained a severe penal system that would punish wrongdoing. On the other hand, John Locke believed that all people came into the world with a blank slate—meaning they were neither good nor bad. According to Locke, we all learn behavior through our observations and experiences. People may have learned behaviors that led to criminal actions, but they could also “unlearn” those behaviors and become good.

Those types of philosophical questions, I explained to the students, led other philosophers to question the way we responded to criminal behavior. Instead of responding to every offense with corporal punishment, many people began to propose different ideas.

During the Enlightenment Era, the prison movement began. Instead of using jails as placeholders for people until after the conviction, when authorities could carry out corporal punishment, we began to use confinement as a form of punishment. Rather than punishing the body, we would extract time from people by forcing them to stay locked in a cell for the duration of the sentence.

In the following class, I invited the students to assess the evolution of justice using a scale of one to ten:

  • How much did society improve justice by switching to confinement from punishing people by cutting off their heads?

Each student agreed that confinement represented a significant improvement—a ten on the scale.

Then I opened discussions about how our system has evolved since the birth of the prison. We spent the remainder of our course discussing how prison systems changed from the 1800s to the modern day.

To help students understand more, I brought many guest speakers into the classroom, including:

  • A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy,
  • The San Francisco Sheriff,
  • A federal magistrate judge,
  • Probation officers,
  • Community activists, and
  • Formerly incarcerated people.

Since I couldn’t bring my students into the criminal justice system, I did my best to bring the system to them.

I didn’t limit my teaching to San Francisco State University. During my first year of liberty, I spoke at universities from New York to Washington state and regularly at universities in the Bay area, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the University of San Francisco. I felt passionate about working to help more people understand our nation’s criminal justice system and about working to improve the system for all.

As much as I enjoyed teaching, I knew I wouldn’t spend my career in the classroom. I couldn’t afford it. As an adjunct professor who taught only one class on campus, my pay capped out at less than $12,000 per year. Teaching a few more courses would increase my income, but without a Ph.D., I wouldn’t become a full professor or earn a livable wage.

Returning to school to complete my Ph.D. didn’t strike me as a viable option. After all, I’d been out of the workforce for longer than 25 years, and I couldn’t afford to take another hiatus to study for three to five years to complete a program.

Since I’d committed to Carole, I needed to achieve dual objectives. On the one hand, I wanted to pursue projects that would improve the outcomes of our nation’s prison system and resolve one of our time’s most significant social injustices. On the other, I wanted to create income opportunities that would allow Carole and me to enjoy financial stability.

While teaching, I simultaneously worked to develop my Straight-A Guide, a framework for using time in prison to prepare for success. It all began under the theory that people in prison would be more receptive to learning from individuals who had transformed their lives while they experienced the prison system.

People serving time could become cynical. They might reject a message from people who don’t know the pain of being separated from society. I wanted to reach people serving sentences because they would play an integral role in advancing any prospect for prison reform. If people weren’t ready to succeed upon release, then voters would reject any efforts toward the reforms I felt would be necessary to improve the outcomes of the system.

The many books I wrote during my imprisonment shared the lessons I learned from people I called masterminds. In truth, we all face struggles during our life. Many people overcame significant struggles, and I learned from their stories. Other people could learn from those lessons as well. I simply had to put the lessons into a package, and I called that package The Straight-A Guide.

Self-Directed Questions:

  • In what ways does the behavior of people in prison influence possibilities for prison reform?
  • In what ways has your personal story advanced prospects for prison reform?
  • What tools, tactics, and resources are you creating to prepare for your success upon release?

Need Answers to Your Questions?

We Have Updated Our Terms And Conditions

We have updated our Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, and Terms of Service page. To review the latest version, please click on Terms of Use. If at any time you choose not to accept these terms, please do not use this site.