Michael G. Santos, #16377-004
Convicted for 45 years in federal prison at the age of 23, Santos turns to writing and scholarship, and refuses to become just another number
BY JOHN MCREYNOLDS
In person, Michael Santos is difficult to reconcile as a long-term convict. He is smaller than one might expect, 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, he says. And he is more spontaneous and cheerful than seems possible after 20 years in prison. He's positively boyish at times. He smiles frequently. He looks you in the eye except when he's gazing into space trying to formulate his thoughts. At 43, except for the gray beginning to pepper his hair, he could pass for 30.
He is wearing a white T-shirt and khaki pants. He was just called off the exercise track, he says. Though this interview has been in the making for two months, he just heard 10 minutes ago that it was today. "When they called me my heart thumped," he says, pounding a fist to his chest. "Am I in trouble? Did I write something? Then somebody said newspaper, and I knew it was OK."
Match made in prison:
Michael and Carole Santos were married in 2003 behind prison doors. His wife is his most ardent supporter. She visits him most weekend mornings and puts in overtime during the week as his publicist and advocate.
|PHOTO COURTESY CAROLE SANTOS|
The Sun met Santos at a minimum security prison in Taft, Calif., where he was recently transferred from the Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc, also a minimum security camp. The wife he married while incarcerated still lives on the Central Coast. Few journalists have been allowed to interview him in person.
It's easy enough to read Santos' story and imagine an amoral conman-turned-intellectual and reformer, a redemptive tale of transformation through hard work, perseverance, and the written word. But considering Santos' background, a certain amount of skepticism seems warranted.
Santos makes no excuses for his actions between 1985 and 1987. "Let me make clear from the beginning that I am a person who deserved a prison sentence and that I accept full responsibility for my actions," he writes on his website, which his wife Carole Santos maintains.
Santos, from suburban Seattle, was a drugs kingpin. By his early 20s, he had assembled a nationwide organization that purchased cocaine in Los Angeles and Miami and transported it
to the Northwest where his retail network distributed it.
"The illegal organization I was instrumental in forming was responsible for the distribution of approximately 150 kilograms of cocaine, worth somewhere in the vicinity of $4 million dollars. My best estimate is that I personally made about $1 million dollars in profits," he writes.
In 1988, Santos was convicted of conspiracy to deal drugs. The Seattle judge wanted to send a message. Santos, 23 at the time, received a sentence of 45 years. At United States Penitentiary Atlanta he decided not to acclimate to the viper pit he encountered, but rather to prepare himself for the outside world, a place that seemed a lifetime away.
Since then while serving time in six different prisons, Santos has managed to earn a bachelor's and master's degree. He has published six books on the U.S. penal system. They have two constant themes (1) prisoners must not sit idly but must strive toward rehabilitation, and (2) the prison system should begin to encourage their efforts. He is due for release in 2013.
Before he landed in jail, Santos lived the glitzy Miami Vice lifestyle. He lived in a penthouse condo in Key Biscayne, his offshore race boat, "The Outlaw," nearby. His gold Rolex watches bore diamonds. He drove Porsches and Ferraris and had choice real estate in Cancun and Spain.
His arrogance knew no bounds. Arrested in August of 1987, Santos discovered that he still had several kilos in storage, so he dealt them too, from jail. And he lied on the stand. His Hollywood smile, perfect teeth, and upscale manners did not charm the court.
Santos has had more success with his books, charming critics, academics, and hardened prisoners alike with his practical advice and realistic accounts of prison life. Those who've gotten to know him through correspondence and rare in-person meetings are convinced that the prisoner's transformation is genuine.
Dr. Sam Torres, professor of criminology at Long Beach State, and a former federal parole officer, told the Sun he was looking for accurate written descriptions of prison life for his students when he ran across Santos' first book.
"I know prisons but I can't give you the perspective of a person who can't walk out, so I looked at his book. I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty objective,'" Torres says. "Books written in prison usually whine and are not objective. Because of that objectivity, I wrote him. He wrote back. I was impressed.
Miami Vice biceps:
This is Michael Santos as a young man in prison. One can imagine the arrogance and vanity that landed him behind bars in this picture.
|PHOTO COURTESY CAROLE SANTOS|
"After dozens of letters, I got the impression he's pretty straight. By the time somebody gets a master's degree, they've committed to the normative structure of society. There are very few like him. Only 1 percent write a book."
Santos looks off into space as he measures his words. "I can't undo my bad decisions in my early 20s," he says. "I can only try to reconcile with society and make sure I leave prison as a better person and to bring meaning to my life. I didn't want the prison to define me."
First he sought to define himself through academics. It was there that he found Victor Frankl's book "Search for Meaning."
"The Holocaust authors inspire me," he says.
"If they could endure Buchenwald and Auschwitz I can do anything," he smiles again.
Santos survived seven years in maximum security USP Atlanta with a strategy of keeping to himself, occasionally using his high-school level writing skills to help other inmates with their appeals and letters, and by studying.
In 1992 he received his first college degree in Human Resources Management from Mercer University in Atlanta.
In 1995 he received a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies via correspondence from Hofstra University while at McKean, a medium-security lock-up in Pennsylvania. He was even accepted into a doctoral program in political science at the University of Connecticut and began course work.
But transfer to low-security FCI Fort Dix in New Jersey meant an end to formal education. That institution would not agree to receive textbooks for Santos, he explains in his most recent book.
Santos turned his energies to the stock market, earning income for family members, before the prison barred use of telephones for stock transfers. It is illegal for any inmate to run a business, or turn a profit, from prison.
No longer able to pursue a life in academics or stocks, he turned his attention to writing. With his books, he avoids this legality by ensuring all the proceeds go to his sister and wife.
Santos doesn't deny that he has a lot to gain from his burgeoning notoriety a viable career awaits him on the other side of the prison walls but there's also something of a higher calling behind his writing.
"In a democracy we all have a responsibility. This is the hand I've been dealt. If I can help change the system my life will have meaning," he says. "So everything I've done is to put me in the strongest possible position to create change."
Michael Santos' most recent book, Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, has earned critical acclaim from major newspapers and academics alike.
|IMAGE COURTESY CAROLE SANTOS|
Santos' books, faulted by some critics for their repetition, pound away at his twin themes of inmate self-help and appeals for prisons to become more than warehouses. He accuses the system of failing its mission of rehabilitation because it doesn't encourage, and sometimes prohibits, prisoners' efforts to better themselves.
"Instead of using people who succeed as role models, they block that person," he says without emotion. "The advantages of education don't pay off for many years and the prisoner can't see off into the future. The successful student is treated no differently from the person watching "Jerry Springer". The longer a person stays in prison the longer he learns how to live in prison. Simultaneously he's learning how to fail in society. It's the institution's lack of incentives that is directly responsible for 70-percent recidivism."
Santos estimates that he has received a thousand letters from readers, and his ideas on prison reform have even won supporters among academics while his books have been assigned in college classes on criminology.
"I believe Michael's publications make an important contribution to our understanding of the American correction system and will surely influence a generation of criminal justice students and professors," wrote George Cole, a retired professor of criminology at University of Connecticut, in an e-mail interview.
Whatever the legitimacy of Santos' claims about the prison system, one thing is clear: the author has succeeded thanks to his ability to take advantage of what the system does have to offer, and get around its limitations by seeking allies outside the system.
Upon reading a book that described Dennis Luther, a warden at FCI McKean, as a progressive thinker who encourages the rehabilitation of prisoners, Santos sought and received a transfer to that prison in Pennsylvania. While there, he developed an informal student-mentor relationship with Professor Cole, which has lasted 15 years.
His friends have become advocates for his ideas to the outside world, but no one has done this as steadfastly and effectively as his wife, Carole Santos.
When asked to name his proudest accomplishment, Santos replies with his eyes reflecting tears.
"I built a family," he says as he twists his silver wedding ring. "Most people lose their family, especially after 20 years. I have a fantastic wife and my family support. Tears come to my eyes. Even though I'm in prison I feel the love of a family relationship and that makes me human."
Santos attended high school with Carole Goodwin, but they were never close then. During her 20-year high school reunion in 2002, Carole, divorced with two kids, learned of Santos' website, and Googled it.
She was blown away.
"I saw his picture and the earth moved. I thought, 'I need to write him.' I didn't even read what his website said," she says. "So I wrote him and shook my finger at him. I had two young kids. I voiced my opinion about drugs and went on to tell him about our friends and about what I was doing with the reunion." The letter ran 18 pages.
"I mailed it without an address, just an e-mail. Five days later I received an e-mail from his sister asking for my address. Then he sent me a letter, handwritten, almost 20 pages. I knew right away I had no business shaking my finger at him. I couldn't wait to write him back. Our letters were 15 to 20 pages, sometimes three a day."
In June 2003 Michael and Carole Santos were married in the visiting room at a prison in Fort Dix, N.J., with four other couples. No flowers were allowed nor was a conjugal visit.
With Carole as office manager, intermediary, and publisher, Santos' writing production mushroomed. She personally types stacks of her husband's handwritten pages, operates his website, and holds legal title to his work.
Santos' website, www.michaelsantos.net, includes a 56-entry Santos article index, Santos' personal progress reports, which he has assembled each quarter since 2003, his biography, his academic endorsements, his petition for clemency, 15 strategies for inmate success, and background on the federal prison system.
Not included are his six books which began coming forth in 2003. Four are aimed at readers facing incarceration and have been used by counselors and criminology professors. One is a children's book.
Santos' most recent book, his first directed to a general audience, is entitled Inside, Life Behind Bars in America. It was released last August by prestigious St. Martin's Press after Carole mailed Michael's query letter to 100 literary agents.
Inside describes in bloody four-letter detail what goes on in prison, from regimentation to rape, homicide, and prostitution, as portrayed in the stories of prisoners Crip Tank, Lunatic, Gangsta Pimp, Paulie, and others. As Professor Torres writes on the cover, "Inside is not recommended for the faint of heart." Amidst the gore and violence, Santos notes this country's high rates of recidivism and again appeals for prison reform.
Partly because of its release by a well-respected publisher, Inside drew attention from newspapers across the nation. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Post printed favorable reviews, as did the Catholic monthly America. Sony Pictures even inquired about TV and movie rights.
Santos will have served 25 of his 45 years when he walks out of prison in 2013, his expected release date. On that day, he says his biggest fear is that even with the academic degrees, even with the books, he will be seen as just another ex-con in the eyes of the outside world.
"I have this fear that when I get out there will be this stigma of a quarter century in prison. So the more credentials I can have the better." He has enrolled in two computer courses at Taft College, a community college. He's excited about the possiblity of earning an associate's, even though he already has two higher degrees.
"It's like I've been building this ladder." He reaches to his left and mimes a climb on invisible rungs. "Now I feel so close."
He imagines he can build a career as a motivational speaker, author, and consultant on penology when he exits in six years. "I'm going to have to do a lot," he grins. "I'll be 48, and I have nothing."
The 10-year-old Taft facility in Kern County, the first contracted out to private enterprise by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, seems to embody many of the reforms Santos has advocated.
"I'm more hopeful than I've been in 15 years that I can live a fulfilling life here. They have educational programs that didn't exist at Lompoc, Florence, or Fort Dix. They authorized this interview. And I'm excited about the projects I'm doing."
Santos' latest undertaking is prisonsuccess.com, a "Facebook for Prisoners" in which an inmate can communicate to the world outside.
After two hours, the allotted interview time is over. In the hallway there is no guard waiting for him. Still, Santos shrinks away toward the wall, turning into another piece of furniture, into camouflage. His energy switches to passivity. The alert eye contact and smile vanish. He becomes invisible.
The words he used two hours ago to describe the way he lived in prison seem somehow appropriate now "I developed an aptitude for avoiding confrontation." But then keeping quiet was only part of his method of survival.
"I am so at peace with where I am," he said in the interview. "I fully expect to serve 25 years. That's OK. I feel like I'm in the place I'm supposed to be. I can make a difference. And I think I can turn this into a life when I go home."
INFO BOX: Your book may have saved my life
This is an excerpt a letter written to Michael Santos from a juvenile offender about to finish a drug sentence at a boys camp in Redding, Calif. He'd just finished Gangsters & Thugs: Consequences That Hustlers Pay, a self-help book Santos wrote for other prisoners.
Personally your book was like a big reality check wall that I ran into face first, telling me how life is going to be if I continue my stupid, childish, selfish ways. Truthfully, I never cared before. However, thanks to your book I know if I do not change my path, I'll end up in prison or dead. Your book finally got that through my head. I related to it in many ways, and that is not good.
Honestly, I am scared, scared to get out. However, I have to be smart and strong. I can't promise anybody that I'll never get into trouble again, but I can promise thanks to your book and this program, I have enough knowledge to face the upcoming challenges in life. I am sure others can say the same.
So pretty much what I am trying to say is you got your message across, and I sincerely thank you. You never know, you might have just saved my life and many others in my situation. So once again, I would like to say with honor, thank you.
Contact freelance writer John McReynolds through editor Kirsten Flagg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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