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 Success Does Not Come By Accident 

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Michael Santos

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Don’t Let a Federal Prison Sentence Destroy Your Spirit

At Prison Professor, we teach our clients how to restore their sense of dignity and purpose while they advance through the prison. We understand how easily criminal proceedings can derail a person’s identity or sense of self. Prior to their problems with the law, our clients led businesses. They lived as pillars of their community and they enjoyed strong social ties. Yet once the government served them with an indictment, everything changed. For months or sometimes years, they felt as if they were relinquishing control to defense attorneys. Our work with those clients—and our personal experiences—gives everyone at Prison Professor a sense of empathy. We identify with the anxiety of every criminal defendant.

Proceedings through the judicial system feel like out-of-body experiences. Scheduling delays for hearings and pleadings leave defendants with a sense that they don’t have any control. Life may move along for others, but criminal defendants frequently feel as if time passes along without their active participation. They experience levels of angst and frustration that tend to erode confidence.

At Prison Professor we work closely with clients to reverse their sense of loss and disconnectedness. Some clients invest hundreds of hours to restore levels of energy and discipline that led to success in other areas of their life. They find value in personal coaching and the individualized exercises we offer at Prison Professor. Other defendants can motivate themselves by reading about the challenges of confinement and learning from strategies that empowered people who emerged successfully from an encounter with the criminal justice system.

Once an individual settles into prison, if not before, the individual should establish a solid plan to snap free from a discombobulated haze. The sooner an individual restores that “command presence” that led to previous successes in life, the sooner the individual will begin building a better life. At Prison Professor, when it comes to adjusting to prison, we teach a values-based, goal-oriented approach.

The Straight-A Guide:

The Straight-A Guide concept stems from the experience of Michael Santos. He frequently teaches others how they can use that same strategy that empowered him through a 45-year prison term. This strategy isn’t anything new. People from every era have used a values-based, goal-oriented approach to success from the dawn of time. Michael simply wrote the Straight-A Guide to use as a resource. With the Straight-A Guide, he teaches strategies that anyone can follow to navigate through challenges of confinement and emerge successfully. Anyone can use the Straight-A Guide as a tool to restore that command presence and a sense of self-efficacy.

Command Presence:

What is a command presence? It’s a term that the military uses to describe an individual who has the quality of leadership. We see it in individuals who have high levels of confidence. They stand tall, they look others in the eye, and they speak with authority. People listen. To guide our clients at Prison Professor, we encourage them to work through the exercise that follows:

  • Tell us what makes others look at you as if you’re in control.
  • Let us know why you have confidence in your ability to navigate your way through the challenges ahead.
  • In what ways do you feel in control of your and circumstances right now?
  • When others listen to you describe your predicament, how would you assess their assessment on whether you can triumph over the challenges ahead?

Individuals who work through these lessons independently may find value in responding to those same questions. Those who answer the above questions with total self-assuredness may find that they’re already masters of the Straight-A Guide. On the other hand, those who recognize that building command presence would prove useful through a prison journey will find enormous value in learning about the Straight-A Guide. It is an extremely useful tool that conditions masters to:

  • Develop plans with expectations of finding challenges and obstacles.
  • Make decisions that minimize exposure to problems.
  • Take appropriate, disciplined, deliberate action when inevitable problems surface.
  • Build resources and seize initiatives.
  • Live proactively, taking initiative and acting rather than reacting to events.
  • Ask appropriate questions that lead to better decisions.
  • Find credible information, and make adjustments when necessary to take advantage of opportunities.
  • Show confidence consistently when interacting with authorities and others in prison.
  • Maintain personal appearance and self-dignity.
  • Inspire others to consistently pursue their highest potential.
  • Consistently calculate the ancillary ramifications of all decisions.
  • Always use appropriate voice tone and volume.
  • Communicate not only with words, but also with actions.
  • Think clearly and logically in stressful situations.
  • Maintain self-control and a sense of deliberateness when provoked.

Historical perspective:

To teach this concept of a values-based, goal-oriented approach to overcoming adversity, we provide a historical context. As he wrote about in numerous books and articles during his confinement, Michael experienced a sense of disconnectedness from society after his arrest. Rather than being released on bond, authorities kept him locked inside various jails while he awaited the outcome of his case. Bad decisions he made during the recklessness of youth exposed him to a possible life sentence for his role in an enterprise that trafficked in cocaine. He’d never been confined before, and like many people in custody, he fantasized more about release than anything else, wanting nothing more than to return to society.

Michael’s perspective changed after a jury convicted him. Following the jury’s verdict, Michael wrote about returning to his cell and realizing the magnitude of his bad decisions. Prayers for guidance led Michael to a philosophy book and for the first time he read about Socrates. The story about Socrates caught Michael’s attention because, like Michael, Socrates was in jail. After convictions for breaking laws that prohibited Socrates from teaching people from lower classes, a judge sentenced Socrates to death. While waiting for his execution, an ally approached Socrates with an offer to break him out of jail and support him in exile. Yet rather than accepting the offer of liberty, Socrates affirmed his commitment to die with his dignity in tact. Rather than run away from his problems like a coward, Socrates stated that he would die with honor. He had taken all the good that society had to offer, he said, and he would also take the bad, including a bad judicial system.

Michael wrote that the story of Socrates inspired him to work toward reconciling with society. Unlike Socrates, who faced death because of an unjust judicial system, Michael accepted that he had made some very bad, criminal decisions as a young man. He wanted to make things right, to redeem himself. Those thoughts gave rise to a new commitment. Rather than whining about the challenges associated with his impending sentence, Michael affirmed that he would work every day of his life to restore his honor and dignity. Whenever he returned to society, Michael wrote that he wanted others to judge him based on how he responded to the lengthy sentence that he was certain to receive—not for the bad decisions that led to his imprisonment.

That commitment spawned Michael’s values-based approach to adjusting. In his book Earning Freedom, Michael wrote about lying back on his rack in the jail cell. Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he began to introspect. First he thought about the many bad decisions and motivations that led to his confinement. Then he began to project into the future, doing his best to visualize success. He asked himself many questions, including:

  • Would it be possible for him to adjust through prison in ways that would cause others to see him as something other than a convicted felon?
  • What steps can he take now to influence the possibility of opening better opportunities in the future?
  • What would be the best possible outcome from the lengthy sentence that his judge is certainly going to inflict?
  • What would other citizens expect him to achieve if they’re going to look beyond the bad decisions that led to his imprisonment?

Again, when our clients at Prison Professor teach this course on the Straight-A Guide, we encourage them to proceed through a similar exercise. Exercises in introspection evoke a self-awareness that empowers individuals to chart their course to success. Those who are working through this course independently may find value in writing responses to the following questions:

Introspection Exercise:

  • What drove you to succeed in other areas of your life?
  • Describe the influence decisions you made had on that success?
  • In what ways are you deploying those strategies today?
  • What relationship do the decisions you made yesterday relate to the outcome you want to experience in weeks, months, and years ahead?
  • What possibilities exist for you right now to influence the way that you will emerge from this experience?

When asking those questions, Michael wrote that he concluded the possibility existed for him to influence the way that citizens would perceive him in the future. Yet he would have to take measureable steps to earn their trust, or their support. If he didn’t work toward building a different narrative, he reasoned that others would always judge him for the crimes he committed as a young man. If he wanted a different outcome, he reasoned that he would have to begin sowing seeds for the future he wanted to create. With regard to his definition for success, Michael said that he had a clear vision of how he wanted to emerge:

I will walk out of prison with my held high, my dignity intact, knowing that I worked through every day of my journey to earn the respect of law-abiding citizens.

But how does an individual in prison move beyond the past? As described in earlier lessons, the system itself does not provide a mechanism for individuals to restore their sense of efficacy. People in prison will live in an environment where others will determine:

  • Where they sleep.
  • With whom they share confined spaces.
  • What they eat.
  • How much they eat.
  • When they eat.
  • What clothes they wear.
  • What they study.
  • When they shower.
  • Where they work.
  • What they read.
  • With whom they communicate.
  • Where they work.
  • When they use the bathroom.
  • How they respond to illness.

Identifying Values:

In spite of those conditions, Michael came to accept that preparing for success would require him to create a deliberate course of action. He would need to sustain a high level of discipline and energy, regardless of what conditions the system imposed. Rather than dwelling on current circumstances, he envisioned what law-abiding citizens would expect of him if they were going to look beyond the bad decisions of his past. Three answers formed the basis of his values-based adjustment:

  • In order to judge him for more than past bad decisions, citizens would expect Michael to educate himself.
  • Citizens would want him to build a record of contributions that he made to the betterment of society.
  • Citizens would want him to build a support network of people who believed in him.

Those were not novel concepts. Steve Jobs wrote that good artists copied ideas but that great artists stole ideas. Michael wrote that he stole ideas from leaders who were all around him. He read that great businessmen understood that the path to success required discipline and a deliberate course of action. Leaders from time immemorial dispensed similar wisdom. As Gandhi advised: “we all must become the change that we want to see in the world.” Such leaders inspired Michael to find the “value categories” that would guide him through each of the 9,500 days that he served in prison. The included:

  • A commitment to education.
    • If he worked to educate himself, he reasoned, people would be more inclined to accept him.
  • A commitment to contribute to society.
    • If he made meaningful, measurable contributions to society, he reasoned, people would know that he wanted to make amends for the bad decisions of his youth.
  • A commitment to earning support from others.
    • By building a support network of law-abiding citizens, others would more readily believe in him.

At Prison Professor, we ask our clients to identify the values by which they profess to live. Those who proceed through this lesson independently may find the following questions useful in prompting them to define their value categories:

  • What would those who know me best say is important to me?
  • What do I say is most important to me?
  • In what ways do my self-assessments align or contrast with what I perceive others would say about me?
  • How do my actions over the past week support the values by which I profess to live?
  • What steps can I take over the next week to demonstrate my commitment to the values by which I profess to live?


It’s one thing for an individual to say that he is living a values-based life. It’s quite another to live a values-based life. Such reality is no less different in prison than it is in the broader society. Knowing the right thing to do differs in fundamental ways from doing the right things. At Prison Professor, we know that successful outcomes from prison require more than happy talk about values. Successful outcomes require passion, discipline, commitment, and energy. We build those virtues by defining our goals, within each value category, in clear ways.

Michael wrote that he established the following clearly defined goals within each of his three value categories:

  • Education: Making a commitment to education meant that he would have to define success within that value category. In his case, he defined success as earning a university degree within his first decade of confinement. While still in the county jail, he didn’t know how he would achieve such a goal. Yet he would either succeed in obtaining a university degree within his first 10 years of imprisonment, or he would fail.
  • Contribution: While still confined in jail awaiting sentencing, Michael wrote that he didn’t know what opportunities would exist for him to contribute to society while he was in prison. Yet setting a clear goal, with a clear timeline, would prove essential to restoring his sense of efficacy. He needed something that he could control through his actions. Otherwise, he would be succumbing to the prison system, allowing the number of calendar pages that turned to define him. Instead, he set a goal of writing for publication within his first 10 years of confinement. At the time that he set the goal, Michael didn’t anything about publishing. If after 10 years he still didn’t know anything about publishing, he accepted that he would have failed to achieve his goal. On the other hand, if he succeeded in publishing something within his first 10 years, he accepted that he would have made a contribution to society.
  • Support: Although his judge hadn’t imposed a sentence, Michael anticipated that his convictions would result in a sentence that required him to serve many years in prison. He didn’t know how he would meet community leaders while he was incarcerated. Still, he anticipated that building a support network would prove essential to forging new opportunities. If he could build a support network of at least 10 community leaders within 10 years, he reasoned that they could vouch for him upon his release—advancing prospects for success. Michael wrote that he would define success or failure on this value category by his ability to persuade 10 law-abiding citizens to believe in him, despite his felony conviction and confinement.

Those who work through this lesson independently may find value in the same exercise of defining goals that determine whether their actions harmonize with the values by which they profess to live. This exercise will prove helpful throughout the prison adjustment. As time passes, values and goals may expand. Michael described how his values and goals evolved. The more progress he made, the more opportunities opened. By living in accordance with his disciplined plan, he restored a sense of efficacy in his life. Anyone who adheres to such a values-based, goal-oriented adjustment will feel the same. Changes should harmonize with the individual’s definition of a successful outcome from the prison experience.

At Prison Professor, we teach that successful prison adjustments begin when individuals define their values and goals as clearly as possible. Investing time and energy in that introspective exercise equates to creating a blueprint for success. Those who adjust in such a manner have fundamentally different prison experiences from those who simply serve time. Individuals who live proactively develop a command presence. They recognize the relationship between decisions, complications, and opportunities. To the extent that they adhere to this commitment of identifying values and clearly defining goals, they restore a sense of efficacy. Rather than waiting for life to happen, they create their own opportunities with each decision they make. They embark upon The Straight-A Guide, which we define as follows.


Sustaining the right attitude through confinement requires individuals to make a 100% commitment to success, as each individual defines success. Without that commitment, they flounder. Calendar pages will turn whether an individual is on the Straight-A Guide or not. Yet those who visualize success engineer plans that will deliver success. By executing those plans with a 100% commitment, they understand the monumental importance of each decision along the way.

Michael succeeded through 26 years of imprisonment, and upon his release, because he charted his own course. His commitment to earning academic credentials led to his earning an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree before he completed his eighth year in prison. His commitment to publishing led him to learn about the industry and to publish more than 5 books. His commitment to building a support network led to numerous income opportunities that allowed him to return to society with substantial financial savings and scores of career opportunities.

Deliberate adjustments empower anyone to conquer the adversity of confinement.


Conquering the adversity of confinement requires an individual to take a higher-level perspective. An old saying warns us not to become fools, incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. At Prison Professor, we attribute the saying to mean we must take a broader perspective. Although it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind of confinement, a successful prison adjustment requires us to look into the future and define the best possible outcome. Although many of us would like to change past decisions that put us in current predicaments, we have no power to do so. Yet if we can look into the future, we can define the best possible outcome. That vision, or aspiration, becomes the driving force for a successful prison adjustment.

Michael wrote that he powered through each of the 9,500 days he served as a federal prisoner with a high level of energy and discipline. He aspired to build a career around all that he learned through the journey, envisioning himself earning a living from speaking and writing. Those aspirations dictated every decision he made through his adjustment. Since he had a clear vision of success, and a 100% commitment to succeeding in accordance with his aspiration, he had a beacon toward which he could strive. That disciplined, deliberate adjustment made all of the difference with regard to opportunities that he opened in prison and opportunities that awaited him upon release.


Too many inmates make the mistake of accepting that time in prison is a kind of time out from the pressures of society. When individuals drop out, or allow their time in prison to tick away, they miss out on enormous opportunities. Instead of wasting time, proactive prisoners adjust with a deep sense of urgency. They take incremental action steps every single day. Knowing that they can never get back the time that passes, they make sure to move through each day with purpose, with passion, with a commitment of advancing toward the successful outcome that they’re 100% committed to achieving.

In his book Prison: My 8,344th Day, Michael wrote about a typical day for him during his 23rd year of confinement. Despite being in his third decade of confinement, he wrote about his extreme discipline. Every decision had a relationship to the value by which he professed to live and the clear goals that he was determined to achieve. By taking incremental actions steps, Michael simultaneously empowered his sense of self and took away some of the power the system had over him. That deliberate course of action restored his dignity and identity. Others may employ that same strategy of taking incremental action steps, each with the purpose of moving closer to success.


Living in prison can rob an individual of the joy that comes from self-driven resourcefulness. As human beings, we thrive on individual accomplishment. Yet in prison, the system is designed to crush that human spirit. Rather than recognizing our individual efforts, prisons condition us to wait. Those who adjust poorly find themselves waiting continuously. They wait for chowtime. They wait for mail. They wait for weekends. They wait for work details. They wait for team meetings. They wait for release dates. Then one day they wake and realize that they’ve been waiting for their entire sentence to pass and they return to society with nothing to show for the time they lost. It’s like the song “Time” by the classic-rock band Pink Floyd. The lyrics describe a scenario that too many prisoners live:

“And then one day you find, ten years have gone behind you. No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun.”

At Prison Professor, we advocate a more deliberate adjustment. Individuals who choose success grasp the importance of establishing accountability metrics. They set both short and long term goals. They know each incremental action step that they must take, and they hold themselves accountable for achieving every goal along the way.

Despite living more than 26 years as a federal prison, Michael wrote that he always lived with a sense of urgency. The accountability logs required him to measure success by the process he imposed upon himself. The strategy fueled his passion. Rather than allowing the system to define him, he defined himself through the actions he took day after day. Further, by living transparently, announcing the goals he set and the dates that he would achieve them, he invited the world to hold him accountable.

Each reader should ask what accountability metrics will keep him or her motivated as the days, weeks, months, and years of the sentence pass. To the extent that the individual can define such metrics, the individual restores confidence, meaning, and relevance.


In isolating inmates from the community, prisons do more than confine the individual’s body. Inmates who choose not to adjust in a proactive, disciplined, deliberate manner allow the prison to confine their entire spirit. Without their active participation, prisoners become less aware of what goes on in society. Simultaneously, those in society tend to forget about the inmate. Such adjustment patterns contribute to continuing problems after the sentence is served.

The Straight-A Guide approach to prison adjustment opens each individual’s awareness. They know precisely what is going on around them at all times. Their hyper awareness allows them to seize upon opportunities that are available to anyone. Few people in prison see those opportunities. Individuals who can see how they want to emerge develop more awareness every day. Simultaneously, the world outside becomes aware of the proactive inmate. It is not an accident that people who adhere to the Straight-A Guide leave prison with many opportunities awaiting them. Those who want employment have jobs waiting for them upon release. When an individual makes a 100% commitment to success, that individual grasps the importance of every decision through the process, from start to finish.

Michael wrote that his hyper awareness led to his creating and seizing opportunities in every prison where he served time. He didn’t only earn academic credentials, publish books, and build an extensive support network. He earned a substantial taxable income, allowing him to marry and support his wife. Anyone who chooses the proactive adjustment techniques we teach at Prison Professor will achieve similar levels of success.


Prison communities extinguish hope. They rob individuals of their power to make a difference in the world. Those who choose differently must train themselves to celebrate every achievement, no matter how small.

The adjustment pattern of defining values and setting clear goals restores an individual’s sense of efficacy. Suddenly, he isn’t only waiting for the sentence to expire. Instead, he takes deliberate steps every day that leads him closer to success as he defines it. He understands the power of celebrating achievements. Those achievements may be small, like reading a book that has a direction relationship toward the achievement of larger goals that he has set. When an individual engineers his path to success, he understands the opportunity costs associated with every decision. Consequently, he makes wiser decisions. This path of celebrating incremental achievements renders the system’s design of extinguishing hope for inmates ineffective.

How do you plan “to celebrate” achievement? When you can respond to this question, and create a unified vision with those in your support network, you advance your prospects for a successful adjustment.


The final “A” in the Straight-A Guide to conquering adversity may seem counter-intuitive to the entire prison experience. Yet at Prison Professor, we feel strongly that showing appreciation and expressing gratitude restores a sense of dignity and community. Showing appreciation is a human gesture. Since prisons tend to dehumanize individuals, when we express our appreciation for the blessings around us, we simultaneously boost our spirit, perhaps with an involuntary release of endorphins.

In closing our experts at Prison Professor are convinced that deliberate, proactive adjustments are the best way to conquer the adversity of confinement. Those who chose to embrace this path will find it possible to build that command presence that powered success in other areas of life. A bout with the criminal justice system can break an individual’s spirit if he allows it. Those who choose to overcome will find the Straight-A Guide a useful tool along the way.


  • Why will your friends and family stand beside you through this journey?
  • What plans do you have to prove worthy of their support?
  • How have you helped them visualize the best possible outcome for you?
  • In what ways have you persuaded them that you have the command presence to succeed in the way you defined?
  • What type of accountability metrics have you designed to gauge your progress?

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