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 Being a Doctor After Federal Prison 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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July 19, 2021 by Anil Sahijwani, MD

It was a Wednesday morning. I recall waking up just like any other morning, eating breakfast, and getting ready for my daily routine. The air was cold outside and there was a strong wind blowing this November morning. Something was different about this day though. There was a feeling of cautious optimism stirring inside me as I wondered if what might happen today really would come true. This would be my last day in Federal Prison.

I vividly remember entering the Receiving & Discharge unit of the prison. I crammed all of my belongings into a small duffle bag that I carried with me. I waited patiently for my wife’s arrival. We had not seen each other in quite some time and I refused to allow myself to experience the flood of emotions building up, not until I was able to see her with my very own eyes.

The Corrections Officer called me out of the holding room. He said my wife was here, and that I could leave. I stepped out into the parking lot and I saw her. The certainty of this moment instantly set in and my emotions began pouring out as I hugged the woman who stood by me through absolutely everything.

As we began driving out of the prison gates, I looked back at what had been my reality for so long and vowed never to return again. I had given away precious time to the justice system, a genuinely priceless commodity that no one could ever return. I left prison that day with two invaluable treasures—my family and my health—and I felt determined to rebuild my life.

We drove to the Halfway House that day where I would begin the next phase of my journey. I knew upon leaving prison that I would gradually have my freedoms returned to me. Any violation of the rules in this next phase of my journey could possibly send me back to the place I swore never to return.

Upon arriving at the Halfway House, the front desk employee told my wife she had to leave. As I watched her drive away from my new place of confinement, I felt a sense of loss—but I knew I was one step closer to putting my sanction in the past.

A staff member escorted me to a room. He pointed out my assigned bed and a locker to store my belongings. The staff member told me to wait for the intake process.

Rules in the halfway house were similar to prison. We could only walk within a clearly defined area, such as a common area, laundry section, and the front desk of the center. Procedures included frequent “count time” intervals every two hours when staff members had to count residents while they remained motionless, sitting on their cot or standing place. They waited in single-order lines when lining up for meals. Residents had to perform cleaning tasks of all common areas every two hours. We had many similar rules to follow.

A few hours later, I sat with the Intake Coordinator and  I shared my journey through the criminal justice system. The administrator informed me of the rules and regulations. During our initial session, she said I would need to obtain a job to transition to the next phase of supervision. If eligible, I would qualify for Home Confinement with an ankle monitor.

Since I researched the Halfway House rules while I served my term in prison, I was already familiar with all of the requirements. The faster I could secure employment, the earlier administrators would send me home. If I did not succeed in getting an approved job, I would not transition home until the following year.

I felt optimistic and definitely motivated to work.

Life Before Prison:

Prior to my incarceration, I had a professional career as an Emergency Department physician. I was Board Certified, achieved Fellowship status in multiple organizations, served on the Board of a political action group, and attained Directorship status in multiple hospitals.

As a result of my bad decisions, authorities revoked all of my professional licenses and certifications. My career of almost two decades ended the day that I plead guilty in Federal court.

I entered prison with my education, life experiences, and work ethic. I left with determination, hope and gratitude. While in prison, I began to prepare a resume aligned with the realistic expectation of acquiring an entry-level position upon my transition.

Prior to my imprisonment, I looked forward to job searches. Employers considered me an ideal candidate. My challenge would be deciding which offer to accept, not whether I would receive a job offer.

The situation changed. Entering the workforce with a felony charge on my record, I knew my journey ahead would be a difficult. I didn’t have any idea of the uphill battle I would face.

At the start, I felt confident that I would secure a job quickly. I had experience that ranged from various customer service industries to professional administrative settings. I had a strong work ethic and proficient communication skills. I felt ready and more than willing to start my road back to being a contributing, law-abiding citizen.

The halfway house offered two computers for residents to aid in their search for jobs. I began by signing up and posting my resume on multiple on-line job boards. Each day, I relentlessly applied for entry-level positions in different service sectors and administrative offices. I interviewed with two employment agencies and reached out to the other residents for advice. I believed my perseverance would overcome any obstacle and I would not let anything stop me from rebuilding my life.

I learned the real meaning of patience in prison, and the Halfway House put me to the test. Despite my unrelenting efforts, the job search returned either rejection after rejection or no response at all.

Feelings of worry and anxiety began setting in, but I was steadfast on my quest. I drew strength from my family as I thought about everything they endured and overcame during my imprisonment.

I reached out to previous acquaintances with hopes of finding work or leads they would share. Phone calls and emails went unreturned.

I relentlessly scoured the Internet, trying to search for paths taken by physicians in similar situations and any resource pointing to areas that could utilize my background. I revised my resume multiple times highlighting different assets and experiences based on specific sectors. Still, I met dead-ends.

Many job applications asked about criminal charges and permission to perform background checks. I quickly realized that employers were not willing to engage in conversation with a felony charge on my record.

Weeks passed until one day, I saw the Employment Coordinator. I asked if he had any news. His response floored me: “You are just over qualified.”

I reminded him that I would accept any position. He looked at me with hesitation and began to tell me about a position available at a local 7-Eleven store. He mentioned this employer was willing to hire ex-offenders. Then he gave me an ominous suggestion:  “This probably is the only work you can get.”

I implored him to contact the employer and secure an interview as soon as possible. The very next day, I walked into the 7-Eleven after taking three different buses. I interviewed with the owner and he hired me immediately.

The 7-eleven provided my first job out of prison. It paid the minimum wage. Candidly, it wasn’t exactly where I hoped I would land. Yet I knew I had to start somewhere. I felt extremely grateful to have an opportunity to move forward in my life.

I had to follow protocols every time I left the Halfway House. For example:

  • I had to sign myself out of the center.
  • I had to call in upon my arrival at work.
  • I had to have my manager confirm my whereabouts with random phone calls to work.
  • I had to call in when I left work, and finally,
  • I had to sign back in upon my return followed by a search and pat-down procedure by the staff.

All residents under the jurisdiction of the Halfway House had to establish a checking account with a banking institution. Theoretically, this rule would teach residents how to budget and be accountable for finances. Another rule required residents to pay a subsistence with a money order from each pay period to the center. Failure to pay would violate the rules and could adversely impact a resident’s progression through the system.

Two banks refused to open new accounts for me because I could not provide them with a utility bill or document that established my home address other than my driver’s license. We lost our home because of my bad decisions and my home address was my in-law’s house. I did not have any bills with my name on them.

With determination to succeed, eventually I convinced a bank that I had accounts with over a decade ago to open a checking account for me.

Through my time at work, I proved myself to be dependable, hard working and punctual. I also became quite adept at utilizing the public transportation system. I have always believed in taking pride in my work, which I believe to be a reflection of myself, and my efforts in this position were no different. Every day after returning from work to the Halfway House, I continued to consistently apply for jobs and did not slow down on my pursuit of future employment.

The job reminded me of the phrase “Fate has a twisted sense of humor.” The 7-Eleven that employed me was located directly across the street from the Emergency Department where I served as the Medical Director for many years. While I at work, I would have an uneasiness lurking inside me as I anticipated the day where a hospital employee would walk into the 7-Eleven and recognize me.

After about one week at my new job fate reared its head. A nurse, who I used to work with, stepped in line while I was at the register. He looked at me with surprise and I felt an instant wave of embarrassment and shame wash over me. I thought I had been able to accept and control these emotions with my time in prison, but they bubbled up to the surface.

My initial instinct was to cower and hide as if this was not really happening to me, but I had a choice to continue to accept responsibility and not allow my bad decisions to define who I am today. He stepped forward to the register, we greeted each other, and asked how the other was doing. He paid for his items and said goodbye.

The interaction I feared would become a reality was over and I survived. There were many more instances with different hospital employees that occurred in my time at this convenience store. Each time I saw a familiar face, the same feelings emerged, but to lesser degrees and I grew in my resolve to stay focused on rebuilding my life with my family.

I settled into a routine of working and obeying all the rules. I remained optimistic and respectful of the authority figures at the Halfway House. By staying focused on my goals and avoiding any disciplinary actions, I quickly progressed through the different resident classification levels. Each step provided more liberties than the last.

After I reached a certain level, the Probation Office and Case Manager had to start the vetting process of my in-law’s home. Eventually, administrators authorized my very first 12-hour home visit. I remember having mixed emotions on this day. I felt joy and excitement. Staff members allowed me to go home for the first time in years, but I felt sadness because would be going to house that did not belong to us.

We lost our home amidst my involvement with the criminal justice system. We also lost property, personal belongings, finances, and material objects. I thought about all that my wife had to deal with from the ripple effects of my criminal activity. My wife and our sons suffered major consequences as a result of my bad decisions.

Guilt and regret felt palpable on the day we pulled up to my in-law’s home. It was a familiar and welcome sight, but still a bittersweet feeling stirred inside me. My wife and our sons didn’t have a choice but to move into her parent’s home shortly after I was incarcerated. They’d been been living there since.

I felt grateful that they had a roof over their heads and family to support them in their time of need. Our sons and members of our families were all there to welcome me home. It was an emotional time as their love and support confirmed how blessed I was to have such a powerful support network through this entire journey.

I had a choice that day to wallow in guilt and continue looking backwards, or release the heavy emotional anchor, enjoy being in the moment, and excited about our future together.

After a few months at the Halfway House, my Case Manager called to tell me I could transition to Home Confinement on an ankle monitoring device. I had never seen one before. When she took out the monitor, I saw a devise about the size of a cigarette box. She secured the monitor around my ankle with a thick plastic strap to hold it in place and confirmed its activation on her computer. She told me to call the Halfway House each and every time it alarmed, no matter the time of day.

The phone call would reveal instructions about whether or not to proceed directly to the center. I had to call from a pre-authorized landline at the house, not from a cell phone or any other phone number. If I failed to call, then my actions would violate the conditions of my release.

The monitor would also signal if I had a low battery or if the computer detected any unauthorized movement out of the house. If I wished to leave the house at any point, then I would need to secure an advance pass that a staff member logged into the computer system. A resident would need to submit a pass at least one week in advance. Further, a resident could only request a pass from the computers at the center.

Since we would have to adjust to this new device in my life, my wife and I began to refer to it as my “jewelry.”

I had the pleasure of meeting my Probation Officer when I transitioned home. She had already met and spoken with all the family members who resided there. We had a professional and friendly conversation. She created an opportunity to get to know me personally, beyond what the justice system defined me as on paper.

I spoke with the probation officer about my efforts and determination to reintegrate back into society as a law-abiding, contributing citizen. I would have to comply with monthly on-line reporting, answer all phone calls from my Probation Officer, submit to random urine drug screens, have an open-door policy for random home visits, report any contact with law enforcement authorities, and quite simply to work and stay out of trouble.

I had to learn many rules and regulations during this phase of the criminal justice system. Some of the most difficult aspects for me in this journey were learning how I would fit in to a new, unfamiliar family dynamic. Further, I had to begin rebuilding a severely damaged trust in my marriage.

For years now, my wife has had to shoulder the tremendous role of being a loving mother to our sons. She also had to take on the responsibilities of patriarch, be the emotional anchor of our entire family, and juggle all financial, legal, and real estate matters.

It would have been extremely detrimental to our relationship and disrespectful to all of my wife’s accomplishments, if I had assumed I could simply step right into the role I had when I left my wife and our sons to fend for themselves years ago. We spoke at length about her concerns of how I would transition into our family without undermining her and what I considered to be all of her herculean efforts.

I had to hone life skills such as respectful communication, active listening, honesty, mindfulness, empathy, patience, gratitude, and humility. Such skills helped me to keep a proper perspective and successfully navigate into my new role within our family. It took daily practice and consistent effort on my part to show change through my actions. I broke almost every fiber of trust with my wife. I had hope, faith, and determination that my resolve would succeed in proving to my family that I was capable of being unselfish, prioritizing my family, learning from my mistakes, and living an honest life aligned with my moral compass.

As my time under the jurisdiction of the Halfway House ended, I began my transition to Supervised Release. A manager from Lowe’s Home Improvement responded to an application I completed. Since being released, I applied to more than 300 job applications. I felt enthusiastic about the possibility of starting in a new career.

My interview at Lowe’s went very well and the company brought me on as a fulltime employee with benefits. I have since received multiple awards and recognitions in my time with Lowe’s. To this day, I continue to work to the best of my abilities, take pride in my job, and always remember how this company took a chance on me.

Life now for my family and me differs from our life before my involvement with the criminal justice system. I am humbled, my values have changed and I’ve reorganized my priorities. I spend much more quality time with my family now than I ever did before.

I appreciate the many blessings I have that I simply took for granted before. I am rebuilding trust, adjusting to new family dynamics, living as harmoniously as possible under my in-laws’ roof, budgeting within my income, and being present in the moment.

I often remember how I would look to the sky each day during my incarceration and wonder how my wife and our family were doing. As I continue to make progress in my life, I am grateful for being able to rebuild so many aspects of my life, be with my family again and spend quality time making amazing memories.

My journey through the criminal justice system has been both a horrible and amazing experience at the same time. I understand how life is about choices and realize prison has forever changed me. It is my choice on whether or not to grow from these experiences, overcome obstacles, recalibrate my life, and succeed in achieving happiness. From this experience, I have chosen to align my values and moral compass, keep my priorities in order, and set my sights on rebuilding my life with hope and determination.

My wife and I often say to each other that everything happens for a reason and while we may never know the reason why, we both optimistically believe all of this was necessary to achieve a greater good. I trust wholeheartedly that this process had to happen for me to be empowered into being the better husband, father, son, and man that I am today. My future along with the rest of my story lies ahead of me and I will be the one to write a happy ending.

With the help of a close friend, I am very excited to have an opportunity to pursue my passion of helping people by joining the team at Prison Professors. I will be able to work along side others who all have experienced their own journeys through the criminal justice system and are working diligently to make a difference in people’s lives.

I will be able to share my knowledge, provide guidance, and lend support to others who are in similar situations. I can draw on my own experiences in giving hope to people about their futures and finding ways to recalibrate after prison. I believe this opportunity is happening at this moment for a reason and I have a chance to give back to society. I can help people create their own success through determination, perseverance and optimism.

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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