May 5, 2022
Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, by Michael Santos
Months 233-266: Life in Taft Federal Prison camp with Justin Paperny and teaching and writing for Joan Petersilia
It’s June 11, 2008. I stand in front of 30 other people who are serving time with me in Taft. We’re sitting sitting under dim lights on cushioned chairs in the corner of an industrial warehouse. It’s one of the few buildings at Taft Camp without air conditioning. The summer heat, together with swarms of flies, keeps us pulling at our shirts and swatting air. We’re here because it’s the only room large enough to facilitate a series of self-help classes that I enjoy teaching.
The warehouse has high ceilings with exposed pipes, wiring, and metal walls supported by thick steel beams. If it had a grass floor, the space would be sufficient for indoor football. But the floor is concrete. Except for the niche carved out for our class area, we see stacks of wheelchairs in various stages of repair. My roommate, David, is part of a crew that spends several hours each day refurbishing the wheelchairs for donation to Wheels of the World, a prison-sponsored program that serves needy communities.
Prisoners, even those in camp, struggle with their separation from society. Motivating men who worry about the challenges that await them, who wonder daily about their wives, about their children, about how they will find employment upon release, or about how to muster the strength to pass through years of imprisonment, requires preparation.
By this time, the summer of 2008, I’ve had 21 years of preparation. I get a sense of fulfillment by teaching strategies, tactics, and concepts that have helped my adjustment through the journey. I always start by asking questions, like asking the men to define what it means to live as a successful prisoner. Or their interpretation of the best possible outcome for someone serving a prison sentence.
One person tells me that a successful person in prison is someone who doesn’t receive any disciplinary infractions.
I use a blue felt pen to write his answer on the whiteboard.
Another person tells me it’s someone who can hold onto his family while in prison.
Other responses include a person who educates himself. Or a guy that manages to hang on to at least some resources in the world so that when he gets out, he has a shot at making a new star.
After writing answers on the board, I walk into the center of the crowd and face the board. I point out how prison administrators love to hear such responses, and I ask Mr. Moreland, the staff member sits in the back of the class, his thoughts.
He confirms that they’re good answers.
“Good answers, Mr. Moreland says,” I repeat loud enough so everyone will hear. “But I’d give each answer a C-minus at best, and I’m being generous,” I say.
Men shift silently in their chairs and the supervising staff member puts down his candy bar. I have their attention.
“Those answers reflect the common response of all prisoners across the nation. But they’re not enough. To be a successful prisoner requires you to do more.”
I walk toward the board and check off the class responses as I work through each.
—“Instead of focusing on avoiding disciplinary infractions, a successful person selects positive activities that will contribute to success upon release.
—“He doesn’t only hold on to his family, a successful person works daily to strengthen family bonds and to contribute in meaningful ways to his family.
—“He not only educates himself, but a successful person uses what he learns to enrich himself and society.
—“He not only hangs on to resources, but creates new resources that will assure he leaves prison strong, with absolute certainty that he will succeed upon release.
“The key to a successful prison experience is to envision clearly how you want to emerge. Don’t limit yourself to the minimum, but envision the best possible outcome, and use that vision as a beacon to make certain that every step leads you closer to the outcome you choose.”
“But prison blocks us from doing things like that,” Tim, one of the class participants objects. “How are we supposed to contribute to our families when we’re not allowed to earn an income?”
Over the next ten weeks I engage the class, drawing on my experiences to inspire them to create their own successful life plans.
“Success does not materialize by accident,” I emphasize, “but through deliberate actions.”
In each session I challenge the men to accept full responsibility for their lives and to focus on what they can accomplish rather than the obstacles that limit them.
Justin Paperny, a white-collar offender who reported to Taft Camp in the late spring of 2008, becomes the most enthusiastic participant in my class. Justin graduated from the University of Southern California, then he went on to build a career as a young stockbroker. Indiscretion with his oversight of a hedge fund led to Justin’s 18-month sentence for securities law violations.
“The thing is,” Justin comments from his seat in the center of the class, “some of us might have to start over completely when we leave here. Our convictions mean that we can’t return to the same professions. With this dismal economy, it’s tough to stay motivated when we know what we’re facing outside.”
“That’s a good start,” I respond. “It shows that you understand what’s ahead. Since you’ve thought about those issues, may I ask you a few questions?”
He shrugs. “Go ahead.”
“You’ve been here for a month now,” I observe. “Tell the class how your life differs today from the day you surrendered.”
“What do you mean?”
“How is your life different?” I press. “That’s not such a tough question.”
He laughs. “Well, it’s obvious. I’m a prisoner and I’m serving the sentence my judge imposed.”
“Well, we’re all in prison. But what have you been doing with your time since you surrendered a month ago?”
“Oh, I’ve got you,” he says. “Mostly I’ve been exercising. I’ve dropped 10 pounds and I’m getting stronger with pull-ups. While I’m here I intend to exercise regularly, to get back into great physical shape.”
“Who in here is exercising?” I ask the class. Most hands shoot up. “Excellent. I get the importance of exercise and I run every day. But exercise only takes up a small part of the day. It’s only one part, like brushing my teeth. I exercise to stay fit, but one certainty I can count on is that no one is going to pay me for how many pushups I can do, or how many miles I can run when I get out of here. Unless you’re planning for a career as a fitness model or a personal trainer, I suggest you devote more time to preparing to conquer the obstacles that you know await you.”
“But what else can I do?” Justin asks.
That’s the question each man in prison must answer for himself every day. A successful person in prison would know how to answer. The answer for one person isn’t going to be the same response that another prisoner gives. If employment prospects await, if family relationships are important, or if we need to educate ourselves further, we should know how to answer the question:
When we live that way, we never stumble when someone asks a question such as ‘How is your life different?’ We don’t stumble because we’re on the course we charted for success, as we define success.
“What if we don’t know what we want to do?” Charles asks. He’s a middle-aged, disbarred lawyer from Newport Beach serving a two-year sentence for misappropriating funds from his client’s trust account.
“Are any of you familiar with Viktor Frankl?” I ask the class. No one raises a hand.
Viktor Frankl was a medical doctor in Germany. The Nazis threw him and his family into concentration camps. They murdered his family, but he survived. Dr. Frankl later wrote that as long as man could find meaning in life, he could overcome anything. He spent three years as a Nazi prisoner, never knowing from one day to the next whether he would be alive the following day.
Frankl drew strength by helping others. Like Frankl, any of us can build strength by helping others. We should be open to acknowledging what brings meaning, happiness, positive challenges, and stimulation to our life, regardless of where we are. By helping others, we open possibilities for finding our particular path through challenge.
I give examples describing how other prisoners I’ve known used their time inside to effectively launch new careers. I tell of one prisoner who studied science during his term, and left prison to launch a company that converts discarded cooking oil into fuel for heavy equipment. I talk about another prisoner who secured several offers of employment simply by writing unsolicited letters to prospective employers from his community, describing his work ethic, and asking for a chance. The point I try to make, and the example I try to set, is that we cannot wait until release. We have a responsibility now to anticipate the problems we’ll face after prison, and we must prepare every day to overcome them.
“Why do you write so much?” Justin, the former stockbroker, asks as he sits across from me at the round table where I work.
“Because I can’t sell stocks,” I answer him.
He laughs. “I’m serious.”
“I am too. I write every day because I want to become a better communicator. I plan to build a career around the experiences I’ve had in prison. The strategies that pulled me through can be applied to any kind of adversity. Since my prison record will make it difficult to support myself any other way, and since I need to support my family, I invest between 10 and 12 hours every day writing, reading, or preparing presentations.”
“I wish I had that kind of clarity about my future.”
“When do you get out?” I ask Justin.
“I finish my sentence in August of 2009.”
“Why don’t you do the same thing?” I ask.
“What do you mean? Write? Speak?”
“Sure. Why not? You’ve got a degree from USC. You were a registered investment advisor caught up in an ethics scandal. Don’t you think others have made the same bad decisions?”
“Of course they did. If you watch the news, or look at our prison system, you’ll see that millions of people lose their way. Figure out how you can help them, and you’ve got a new career. You can spend your time in Taft like I do, preparing for a career upon release.”
Justin locks his fingers behind his head and leans back. He pauses in thought while I write. “Do you think there’s a market for that?” he asks.
“Only if you prepare. You’ve got to create the market, and if that’s what you want to pursue, you’ve got to work as many hours as I do.”
The schedule I keep doesn’t lend itself to building friendships. Also, I search for privacy wherever I can find it, nurturing my need for solace by writing, reading, and exercising. When I spend time with others it’s usually related to my work. I interview other people for a story I want to write, or I practice my speaking skills by teaching a class. Sometimes I’ll work one-on-one with another prisoner, like David, helping him prepare for the GED exam. “Write short sentences using words that you’re certain you can spell correctly” is the advice I drill into him during our lessons. He passes the essay portion of his exam and continues to study as a college student.
Justin, however, isn’t studying for a GED. He has a university degree and a history of earning a high income. When people mistake me for a man who recently surrendered, or when their jaws drop as they learn I’ve been a prisoner since 1987, I feel a sense of validation, as if the plan I set decades earlier worked out. I want others to see me as a citizen with something to contribute. That validation comes when men like Justin seek my counsel.
Justin takes my advice and begins working closely with me. He gives up television and table games. He devotes himself wholeheartedly to exercise and preparation for life after prison. We become close friends. I suggest steps he can take to position himself for a new career as a speaker and consultant upon his release.
I show him how I reach beyond prison boundaries to connect with the world by writing for my website. He launches his own website at JustinPaperny.com. I urge him to write a manuscript. Since he has never written for publication before, I work with him to outline chapters for a new book that we call, Lessons From Prison. Our friendship grows when he introduces Carole and me to his family and friends who visit each week.
“I’ve told Brad about your work ethic, about all you’ve done in here and your plans for when you get out,” Justin tells me after Carole and I meet some of his friends in the visiting room. His friend, Brad Fullmer, had a superstar career in professional baseball. He’s one of the few major leaguers to hit a homerun in his first at bat for a professional team. He capped his long career in professional baseball by stealing home during the World Series for the California Angels. “What do you think about letting Brad and me make an investment in your career?” Justin asks.
“Have you told him that I’m scheduled to serve five more years?”
“He knows,” Justin tells me, “and I know. Some investments take years to pay off. We think you’re a winner and we’d like to participate.”
“Let me think about it.”
In weighing the possibility of selling a piece of my future earnings, I sit alone in my cubicle. I’m on a plastic chair, leaning back against a concrete wall, propping my feet against the steel post that supports the rack I call my bed. My steel locker has two shelves on the left that hold my folded gray sweats and underwear; it’s above the shelf where I store my dictionary, papers, and dusty running shoes.
Over the past 21 years I’ve had to store my possessions inside these types of lockers. But from these lockers with only pens, discipline, and work, I’ve created a life for myself. I look at the pictures of Carole that I’ve taped to the inside of my locker’s doors. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world to me, not only because of her sparkling eyes and smile, but because of the way she has believed in me, given herself so completely to me, strengthening me in ways that no one else could as she served this sentence with me. I look forward to making her life better, just as she has made my life better.
I pull Carole’s picture down and hold it in my hands. The image is a poor substitute for holding my wife. On non-visiting days, I sometimes need this tangible feeling of her in my hands.
During the five years we’ve been married, my writing has generated more than $200,000 in after-tax earnings for Carole. That’s not much by the standards of society. Still, I’m immensely proud to have earned those resources from prison. I created those resources with pens, paper, and perseverance. Those funds supported her and Nichole, allowing them to move from state to state following my “prison trail.” They allowed Carole to return to college. Despite tremendous hardships and obstacles, she graduated first in her nursing class and now earns her own income. I don’t need to sell a piece of what I’ve worked so hard to create, yet I want to give my wife the security that savings in the bank can provide.
I stare at the concrete walls and block out the buzz from the fluorescent light to calculate a fair, present-day value for earnings that will not begin to flow until my release from prison, in five years. What a ridiculous concept. I’m a prisoner, and after more than a quarter century inside, conventional wisdom would question whether I could earn minimum wage, if I could find employment at all. Whatever earnings come, I’ll have to create them. And who can judge the market or anticipate earnings for a man with five years remaining to serve?
My experience as a speculator in the stock market convinced me that an investment is only worth what the next investor is willing to pay for it. I’m encouraged that Brad and Justin want to invest in my potential. Yet I’m also aware that I don’t have a line of investors waiting to hand me a check for the right to a percentage of my future earnings, if I ever have any earnings.
I negotiate a number. It’s enough to ensure that I can live a full year upon release without earning a single dime, enough to provide Carole with security while I finish serving this sentence. In exchange for money in the bank today, I sell the right to ten cents of every dollar parts of the Michael Santos brand will earn. Time will tell whether I sold too cheaply, but the agreement is fair to me today. When I tell my wife about the check Brad is going to hand her in the prison’s parking lot after our visit concludes, her smile makes the deal worthwhile. I’m easing Carole’s life during the worst economic recession of our lifetime, and I’m coordinating the deal from prison. That’s priceless.
In the fall of 2008, I sit beside Justin as we watch election results. Voters just elected Barack Obama as America’s 44th President. I began serving my term under Ronald Reagan. When the first George Bush spoke about a kinder, gentler America, I thought change might come. Bill Clinton encouraged me to hope. With George W. Bush, I shook my head and accepted that his call for second chances and compassion would never extend to those in prison. President-elect Obama calls for a bottom-up government that values all American citizens. I’m filled with hope because it seems America has elected a leader who understands the needs of our society, all of our society, maybe even those in prison.
Carole and I enjoy a wonderful visit on Friday, March 27, 2009. I call her in the late afternoon to ensure that she arrived home safely. She gives me great news when she answers. I learn that Joan Petersilia, a distinguished professor from the Stanford law school, sent a message through our website. Early in my term I began sending out unsolicited letters to academics I admired. I remember writing to Joan on two separate occasions.
I always felt like a fisherman at sea, casting lines, hoping to make a connection. I understand that, sometimes, those connections would take years to materialize. Sometimes people respond, other times they don’t. For every 100 letters I send out, I expect to receive a single reply. I consider that ratio a wonderful success, even when the reply doesn’t come for years, as it has with this message from Joan.
Dr. Petersilia wrote that she’s been using my work for years as a resource for teaching her classes, which is wonderful news. She astounds me with an invitation to contribute a chapter for The Oxford Handbook on Sentencing and Corrections, a new book she is co-authoring with Kevin Reitz, a law professor from the University of Minnesota. Professor Petersilia is one of the nation’s most distinguished penologists, serving as an advisor to the governor on matters concerning the state of California’s prison system. Legislators and other government leaders from across the nation seek her counsel. As one of one out of 2.3 million prisoners in the United States, I feel honored that even knows who I am. Her invitation to publish alongside her leaves me amazed and deeply honored. I set to work at once, eager to finish the chapter long before the due date.
I consider these types of writing projects as enormous opportunities. For decades I’ve worked hard to earn credentials and develop skills that would allow me to make meaningful contributions to society, but I’m in a different phase of the journey now. Every day it becomes more apparent to me that I must make a shift in strategy. I’m in the final months of my imprisonment now, and I have to think about deliberate steps I can take that will help ease my transition into society upon release. It’s coming.
Writing for Professor Petersilia is a wonderful opportunity. The investment of time will introduce my work to thousands of scholars who have an interest in improving our nation’s prison system. When I emerge from prison, I’ll need to earn a living, and doing so will require that I surmount some enormous hurdles. Since I intend to build a career around all that I learned as a long-term prisoner, I’ll need the types of professional relationships that distinguished scholars like Joan Petersilia can open. She is the type of role model I need, and as I’ve done with all of my mentors, I intend to prove worthy of her support.
Besides building contacts, however, I also need to focus on steps I can take to build an income stream. It’s going to cost me an enormous amount of financial resources to settle in society. I don’t know where Carole and I will make our home, but wherever we go, I’ll need to have a substantial savings account in place to cover the costs of my reentry.
I calculate how much I’ll need to spend once I walk out of prison. During those first few weeks of liberty, I’ll need to purchase items that most people accumulate over decades. With the cost of clothes, computers, and housing, those expenses, I’ll drop a minimum of $40,000. Fortunately, as a result of decisions I’ve made along the way, I expect that I’ll have more than twice that amount in a savings account that I’ve been building. I’m determined to succeed. By sowing seeds along the way, I’ll walk out of prison after 26 years with sufficient resources to ensure that nothing is going to block my pathway to success.
I’m determined to leave prison ready, without external influences like economic challenges to block me. I’ll have values, skills, and resources in place to make it.