May 5, 2022
Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, by Michael Santos
Arriving at the Taft Federal Camp and settling in
Early on the morning of June 21, I learn that I’m no longer designated to FCC Lompoc. Two guards from the Taft Correctional Institution arrive. They lock six of us in chains, and then they load us into a white van. We’re on our way to the Central Valley of California, leaving Lompoc behind for good.
Lompoc Camp was already a memory after 65 days locked in SHU, but I’m a little sad when the van exits the main gate and turns left toward the highway. I’ll miss running long distances in the shade of Lompoc’s majestic eucalyptus trees, enjoying the fragrances of the pines mixed with breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean. I’ll miss my friend Lee and the nearly private space I enjoyed in the powerhouse office.
The two-lane road climbs east through low mountains, drops into the San Joaquin Valley, and it finally whips through high desert. It’s a landscape of blowing dust, sagebrush, and unsightly steel pumps sucking oil from the arid soil. I lean involuntarily as the van turns right onto the long entry road leading to the prison, bouncing over yellow speed bumps.
At the parking lot of the double-fenced, low-security prison, manicured lawns and palm trees welcome us. Blooming gardens create the illusion of a lush oasis in this desert.
After the requisite intake processing, three of us designated to minimum-security take our bedrolls and board the white van, unrestrained, for a short ride to Taft Camp’s low, gray, concrete administration building. Located behind the low-security prison, the modern, single-story design features tinted windows and round pillars supporting an extended roof shading spacious walkways. The building looks more like the headquarters for a software engineering firm than a prison. Taft Camp appears to be well maintained.
In the administration building, the round schoolhouse clock in the glass-enclosed guard’s station reads just past five. I cross the tile floor and push open the glass door to the camp’s compound. After more than two months in Lompoc’s SHU I revel in this less-stressful environment.
Wide, clean, concrete walkways cut across pristine lawns in the center of the camp compound. Decorative, knee-high light posts illuminate the walks leading to the glass-enclosed chow hall and across the lawn to the two-storied housing unit with its horizontal rows of tall, unbarred, wide windows of tinted glass. In the distance, an oval track surrounds softball and soccer fields. Men in khakis, white t-shirts, and sneakers visit outside the housing units. They appear friendly, smiling and nodding as I climb the stairs to A4D, my assigned housing unit.
The air conditioning feels good, cooling me as I step inside the high-ceilinged dorm, one of four identical housing units. Six telephones hang across from each other on the two walls immediately inside the foyer, and I don’t see any guards.
Unlike the open dormitories at Lompoc, two and three-man cubicles divide the housing unit, creating a grid that provides a semblance of privacy for the 140 men in my unit. The bathroom facilities are much larger than Lompoc’s. They include 16 shower areas with doors and plenty of toilet stalls, urinals, and sinks. The unit reserves a room for four microwaves and an ice machine, rooms with six televisions and game tables, and a small study room that overlooks the lawns.
In cubicle 36, a three-man room, I meet my two roommates. “I’m Rick,” one man offers, extending his hand. Dan, a slender, blond man in his early 50s, introduces himself as well. I set my bedroll on the top rack. “Let me show you how to make up your bed,” Dan offers. “It can be a little tricky to keep your sheets in place. What you want to do is….”
“Thanks for the tip,” I raise my hand to stop his instruction. “I’d like to say I’m new, but I’ve been at this awhile.”
“Oh, I thought you were fresh off the streets. Did you come in from the county jail?”
I chuckle as I tie the corners of my sheets around the mat. “Not jail. I was at Lompoc Camp.”
“Really? Lompoc Camp! I’ve heard that’s the best place in the system.” Dan turns to Rick. “My lawyer tried to get me sent to Lompoc, but the schmuck got me sent to this dump filled with drug dealers and criminals.”
“Yeah,” Rick agrees. “I’ve heard about Lompoc. Forbes runs an article each year that ranks the best prisons for white-collar offenders and Lompoc Camp always comes out on top. Is it true that they’ve got a golf course?” Rick simulates a golf swing.
“I didn’t see a golf course,” I laugh. “But Lompoc does have its bright spots.”
“You’re not going to like the change,” Dan warns. “This place is a real prison.”
“No kidding? What’s not to like?” I ask.
Rick and Dan exchange a knowing glance. “You’ll find out soon enough,” Dan says.
“The food is awful, the staff is incompetent, and 95 percent of the men here are dim bulbs, borderline imbeciles,” Rick tells me.
“Well, I guess I lucked out then, being assigned to this cubicle. What do you guys do for a living?”
“I’m an accountant,” Rick says.
“And what brings you to Taft Camp?” I stuff my pillow into the pillowcase.
“Overzealous prosecutors,” he answers. “Saddled me with three years for advising clients on offshore accounts. It was totally above board. I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Did you take the case to trial?”
“Oh no. If I’d lost at trial I would’ve been facing ten years. Better to plead guilty, take the three years and move on with my life.”
“What about you?” I ask Dan.
“I’m in investments.”
“Oh? What kind?”
“All kinds,” he says. “My company purchases real estate, financial instruments, businesses. Private equity.”
“And how long are you with us?” I ask.
“Serving 46 months,” Dan says. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. We’ve got drug dealers and other real criminals running around here serving half the sentence I’m serving.”
“What did they charge you with?” I ask.
“You’re not going to believe it,” he says.
“Try me,” I smile.
“Fraud. Said I was running a Ponzi. I offered investors a legitimate 10 percent annual return on their money. I got a little behind the eight ball when markets started going sideways on me, and before you know it, boom, I got the FBI breathing down my neck.”
“How much was the amount of loss?”
“A lousy four million. If the investors would’ve just been patient, the deals would’ve worked out. Totally legit. Now it’s all gone.” He waves his hand dismissively.
“What’re you, a lawyer?” Rick asks as he sits on his lower rack.
“No. I’m serving a 45 year sentence for selling cocaine.”
Silence. Don and Rick look at each other. Then Rick explodes with laughter.
“No way! You wouldn’t be in camp with a sentence like that.”
“I’m totally serious. Of course, I’ve been in a long time.”
“But you said you came from Lompoc Camp. That’s a spot for white-collar offenders.”
“Not only white-collar offenders, and I did come from Lompoc Camp. But I was in several prisons before Lompoc Camp.”
“Like where?” Rick asks, still skeptical, unable to hide his curiosity and incredulity.
“I started in USP Atlanta,” I toss out, humoring myself with my new roommates.
Rick scoots to the edge of his rack, leans in. “No way. You were in a penitentiary?”
“I spent six Christmases inside those walls. Then I transferred to McKean, in Pennsylvania. From there I transferred to Fairton, in New Jersey. I spent almost eight years at Fort Dix. Then I was in Florence Camp, Lompoc Camp, and now I’m here.”
They stare at me for a moment in silence.
“How long have you been in prison?” Rick finally blurts out.
“Twenty years?” Don whistles. “I’ve never met anyone who’s been in longer than five. Listen, I hope I didn’t offend you with anything I said. I didn’t know.”
“After 20 years in prison, do you really think I could be offended by something you’d say?”
“So no hard feelings then?” Dan puts out his hand.
“Think nothing of it.” We shake hands again.
I meet my counselor and my case manager. Both women speak to me kindly, taken aback that I’ve been in prison for so long.
“Where are all your tattoos?” My counselor teases. She grants my request for a phone call to Carole and immediately approves a visiting list authorizing Carole to visit over the weekend.
“You could put a different set of clothes on and I wouldn’t know you’ve been in prison at all.” My case manager says.
“Does that surprise you?” I ask with a laugh.
“Totally. I was a little girl when you came to prison. I would’ve expected you to be angry and bitter. But you’re all smiles, normal, like you haven’t ever served time in prison.”
“Isn’t that ironic?” I ask.
“That I’m unscathed after 20 years of imprisonment, with all my teeth and no tattoos, yet you wonder what went wrong. You expect two decades in prison should turn me angry and bitter. When you see that it hasn’t, you wonder why.”
“Oh! I didn’t think of it that way.”
When Carole and I were in Fort Dix we were able to visit five days a week. Those ample visits allowed us to deepen our relationship and allowed me to play an influential role in Nichole’s life. In Florence Camp, rules allowed us to visit every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and federal holiday. At Lompoc, restrictions were tighter. Authorized visits were only Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Still, we appreciated the time together.
In Taft Camp, I learn, a point structure penalizes families who visit on weekends or holidays. Because Carole is in school on Fridays, we’ll only be able to visit on weekends, limiting us to a maximum of two or three visits each month, depending on whether we visit on Saturdays or Sundays. The visiting restrictions will complicate our life, but we’ll make it through. Carole arrives early on Sunday for our first visit at Taft.
“Tell me all about it. How do you like it here?” Carole smiles, eager to hear about this newest transition.
“Without a doubt, this is the easiest prison in the world.”
“How are the people?”
“Do you mean the other prisoners or the staff?”
“The prisoners are the same as in every other camp, but the guards are different. It’s only been a few days, but the staff I’ve spoken to seem a much friendlier group than the standard-issue BOP brand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rather than the BOP, a private company manages this place. I don’t know why, but it’s different from other prisons. The guards don’t give the impression that they’re out to harass me, and the unit team members, meaning the counselors and case managers, treat me like a person, not a prisoner.”
“My contact at the Regional Office said Taft was the best spot for you. That’s why I want you to make me a promise.”
“What’s that?” I ask warily. “What kind of promise do you want me to make?”
“Just listen. Thanks to Lee, we have enough in the bank to pay for everything we need until I finish nursing school. Nichole’s going to graduate next June, and by then I’ll have my nursing license. I don’t want you to do anything that might send you to the hole or get you transferred. Don’t write anything about prison, and don’t tell me to make any stock trades. Nothing. I don’t want any problems that might waken the beast.”
“I don’t want problems either,” I say, wanting to reassure her.
“You know what I mean. No more writing until I graduate. After that, I can get a job anywhere if they decide to transfer you for publishing or for some other ridiculous reason.”
“I have to prepare for my release and the only way I know how to do that is by writing. We can’t allow the system to keep me from working.”
“The system isn’t stopping you,” Carole says. “I’m asking you to stop. It’s just for one year, until I graduate.”
“You want me to give up a year of work?”
“Please, Michael. No writing about prison or prisoners.”
I shake my head. “Nothing?”
“Nothing.” I pause. Writing enables me to transcend the boundaries, allowing me to connect with the society I long to join. By writing about what I’ve learned from others, observed, and experienced, I take meaningful steps to reform this system, showing taxpayers what those within the prison industrial complex don’t want citizens to see. As a writer, I’m relevant, more than a prisoner, part of something bigger than me. But I won’t deny Carole and so I agree to suspend my work until she graduates. I don’t want to give prison administrators cause to uproot our lives again.
“Okay. I promise.”
Tavo may not have much of an education, but he maneuvers his way around Taft Camp just fine, providing for himself with a hustle here and a hustle there. He’s five foot-six and doesn’t weigh more than130 pounds. He wears his straight black hair parted down the middle and feathered back. His eyes are a startling green and, despite his 40 years, there’s not a whisker on his face. Tavo has a trace of an accent even though he was born and reared in Los Angeles. He keeps up with who’s being released from the camp, negotiating a price for each departing prisoner’s sneakers, sweats, radios, and other belongings. He tacks on a markup and sells the goods to newcomers, even providing a payment plan when necessary. He has a commissary squeeze where he charges a fee for providing candy, soda, chips, or other items on days when the prisoners aren’t authorized to shop. For his most lucrative gig, Tavo provides the service of doubling mattresses.
Bed frames at Taft Camp consist of metal slabs welded to four metal posts. The narrow slabs have lips that rise an inch around the edges to hold the sleeping mats in place. Tavo understands that some prisoners in camp are sensitive to the harshness of institutional living. He charges $40 to cut through the seam, stuff a second mat into the casing and sew it shut, thus converting the mat to a mattress.
“You’ve got to meet Tavo,” Rick, my roommate nudges. “For 40 bucks he’ll hook up the mattress in a way that makes sleeping almost bearable.”
“Appreciate the tip. I’m good,” I say.
“Can’t pay enough for a good night’s sleep,” Dan seconds the suggestion. “Sit on mine.”
“I’m sure it’s comfortable,” I shrug. “But I’ve known hundreds of Tavos. The double mattress is great until guards come through on a shakedown and issue shots for destruction of government property. I don’t need the headache.”
“They can’t do that,” Rick says. “I’d just say the mattress was issued to me this way. Check it out. You can’t even tell.”
“I’ll be okay. Thanks.”
Rick and Dan serve their time as a team. They eat meals together, walk the track together, and they partner in card tournaments. But in the afternoon, when rules require us all to stand in the cube for the daily census count, we sometimes discuss our lives and thoughts. They question me about other prisons and what it’s been like to serve so many years.
“I’ll tell you one thing. Serving time in other prisons has made it easy for me to appreciate Taft.”
“You see, that’s not normal,” Dan tells me. “You’ve been in too long, so long that prison doesn’t bother you anymore. Truth is, this is inhumane. The lengths of the sentences don’t make any sense at all.”
“What he’s saying,” Rick jumps in, “is that some people might belong in prison. But guys like us shouldn’t be in here at all.”
“What do you mean, ‘like us’? I’m in here for selling cocaine. The first day I came into the cube you were saying that people who sold drugs were the real criminals who belong in prison.”
“Not for 20 years,” Dan amends. “Besides, you’re different now. You’ve educated yourself and you’ve got things going on in the world. Prison should be for the criminal types, the guys who keep selling drugs or committing crimes.”
“You mean guys like Tavo?” I ask.
Rick shifts uncomfortably. “Well, Tavo’s a nice enough guy, but what’s he going to do in the world? No one’s going to hire him. He’s not doing anything to change his ways. Chances are, he’s probably going to leave here and hustle drugs again.”
“Chances are,” I say, “that he came from a poor family, quit school before 10th grade, can’t read well, and had to hustle for survival. How about you? Where did you go to school?”
“Cal State Northridge,” Rick says.
“You went to USC right?” I nod at Dan.
“Go Trojans,” Dan waves two fingers in the air.
“Should society hold people who come from poverty to the same standard as people who come from privilege?”
“You break the law, you break the law,” Dan explains smugly.
“We all make our choices.”
“But you guys whine in here every day about your discomfort and the living conditions. Guys like Tavo are getting by the only way they know how. This might be as good as he’s ever had it.” I argue.
“He’s a criminal. He sold drugs,” Dan counters.
“I don’t know what Tavo did, but he probably sold drugs to consenting adults and he probably serves at least twice as long as you. Who would the investors in your scam think is the worse criminal, Tavo or you?” I ask.
“You don’t know anything about my case,” Dan hisses. “I didn’t set out to lose anyone’s money. Markets just went against me. I couldn’t control it. It’s not my fault.”
“That may be,” I shrug. “But you pled guilty. That means you had to stand in court, and while under oath, admit to committing fraud.”
“I only pled guilty because I would’ve gotten a longer sentence if I went to trial.”
“Either way, you’re not in a position to be judging anyone else in here.”
That argument serves me well, as neither Rick nor Dan speak to me again. We pass each other silently for three months before a staff member grants my request to move into a two-man cube further back in the housing unit with David Muniz, a married father of two. Since I’m keeping my promise to Carole that I won’t write, I devote my time to exercising and spending several hours each week tutoring and coaching David on steps he can take to prepare for release.
We laugh as guards wheel a cart through the unit one day, confiscating all double mattresses. When one of the guards threatens Dan with a shot, Dan doesn’t hesitate to snitch on Tavo.
Rick, however, argues with the guard “You can’t take my mattress! I’ve got a bad back.”
“This mattress isn’t standard issue, it’s been altered. It’s contraband.” The guard doesn’t have any concern about the condition of Rick’s back.
“If you don’t provide me with a double mattress, my lawyer will slap a lawsuit on this prison so fast it’ll make the warden’s head spin.”
“Really,” the guard says in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Let’s see you launch that lawsuit from the SHU.”
Carole and I celebrate Christmas day sitting beside each other in the visiting room. Wreathes, blinking lights, a Christmas tree, and a full-sized red, wooden sleigh decorate the room. A prisoner in a Santa outfit walks around the crowded room handing out candy canes, but my gift is sitting beside me.
“This is your 21st Christmas in prison,” Carole says. “Our sixth together since we’ve been married.”
“We only have six more to go.”
“Five,” she corrects me.
“But you’ll be home in August. We’ll spend Christmas together that year.”
The years blend together for me now, but Carole helps me visualize our life ahead. It’s not easy to imagine being free. Strange. “Time will move so much faster starting in 2008,” I say.
“We’ve got all these events to mark the time. They’ll come like milestones, passing quickly, giving us real markers to look toward.”
“What do you mean ‘like what’?” I hold up my fingers to count. “In January the political season kicks off with the primaries. We’ll follow all the races, starting in Iowa. After the primaries roll around, we’ll have a better idea who our next president is going to be.”
Carole squeezes my hand. “I’m so sick of politics. It doesn’t matter who wins, nothing changes.”
“Then in March the $500,000 fine that my judge imposed expires. We can open a joint bank account as husband and wife. In May, you graduate from nursing school. In June, Nichole graduates from high school. Sometime during the summer the political conventions will name the candidates. The fall will make politics really exciting. Then it will be Christmas again.”
“The years take much longer to pass than you make it sound,” Carole says.
“Remember what we were doing five years ago?” I ask her.
“I had just moved to Fort Dix.”
“Remember what I told you on New Year’s Day, when you and Nichole came to visit?”
“Tell me again.”
“I put up my hand and opened five fingers like this,” I repeat the action. “I said that in five years, if you stayed with me, your life would be completely different. And look at you now, five years later.”
She smiles and brushes her cheek against mine. “Do you think I’m so different?”
“You’re a magnificent wife. No matter what happens in my life, nothing will bring me more happiness than my marriage to you.”