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Prison Professors

May 5, 2022

Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, by Michael Santos

Chapter 15.1

Podcast 148 / 25 minutes


Forming nonprofit, Carole becoming a registered nurse, meeting Greg Reyes, starting to write Undefeated.

Epilogue: 2009-2012

Months 260-300



     It’s May 20, 2009 and my friend Justin Paperny is being released from prison today.  We work well together and I’ll miss his companionship. For the past several months Justin has been joining me in a quiet room where I write each morning.  One early morning session began with an idea for launching a nonprofit organization.  Undertaking such a task would assist us in raising financial resources that we could rely upon to create products for the purpose of reducing recidivism.

Our reasoning is simple, just an assessment of the facts. High-recidivism rates challenge our society in numerous ways, influencing the lives of citizens who don’t grasp how America’s commitment to mass incarceration influences their everyday lives.  Whereas taxpayers want safer communities, better schools, and better health care, those who represent the prison machine want bigger budgets.  That mindset of locking people up and throwing away the key leads to more overtime, more jobs for prison guards, and more expenditures on barbed wire fences, but it doesn’t lead to safer communities.  Rather, it diverts resources that society could use to build better schools, better hospitals, and offer more social services.

People who serve time struggle to emerge with the types of values, skills, and resources that translate into success upon release.  Statistics illustrate the problem.  More than one out of every two people who serve time face continuing challenges from the criminal justice system after their release.  That rate of failure leads to enormous costs for taxpayers, depleting public resources that would be better spent on education, health care, or other social services.  I’m convinced that by working together, Justin and I can help reduce costs of recidivism and contribute to safer communities. Doing so will require financial teamwork and money for obvious reasons: neither Justin nor I can work for free.  We have to earn a living, and the nonprofit could raise resources for the purposes of paying us for services we can offer.

While Justin served time with me here in Taft it wasn’t possible to advance the idea of launching a nonprofit.  After all, forming a nonprofit organization isn’t easy, especially when the principals are incarcerated.

  One lesson I learned over the decades is that all worthwhile goals begin with vision, but achieving them requires persistence and commitment.  With Justin’s release, we can work together to advance this idea of launching a nonprofit.  He will do his part from outside fences, and I’ll do my part from in here.  Although I understand that we may face many challenges along the way, I’m confident that we have a unified vision with regard to what we’re trying to create, and we both will drive forward with persistence and commitment.  This work will further my goal of living a life of relevance while I serve what I expect to be my final three years.

Research we’ve done to inquire on what it takes to form a nonprofit organization has given us an understanding of how to proceed.  First of all, we must persuade the Internal Revenue Service that we can provide a benefit to people in society.  If we succeed in that endeavor, the IRS will authorize the organization to raise money from philanthropic organizations, corporations, and individuals who support charitable giving.  Raising financial resources in this dismal economic climate will prove challenging, especially when the people striving to raise the money have felony convictions.  But without valid credentials from the IRS, we may not be able to raise money at all.

I understand that some may question why we need to raise financial resources.  We need money because we’re working to build a sustainable operation, one that can help transform troubled lives.  Our target market will include at-risk youth and incarcerated individuals, people who cannot pay for the products we’ll create and distribute. I will undertake the responsibility of showing taxpayers the reasons why it’s in their best interest to support our cause.

If we receive authorization from the IRS, we’ll work together to transform at-risk lives, empowering them to live as contributing citizens.  I’m glad Justin joined me in formulating this plan of action.  Now we must execute the plan.




The fall of 2009 passes easily for me here in the Taft federal prison camp.  I’ve now served more than 22 years of my sentence.  Although I don’t know precisely when I’ll walk out, I’m feeling strong, expecting that release will come within the next three years.  I’m truly in the end game, and I’m fully aware of my responsibilities to have a plan in place for my return to society.

Carole is working as a licensed vocational nurse in Los Angeles and studying microbiology in preparation to resume nursing school in January.  Nichole, her daughter, is beginning studies at Washington State University, on her way to beginning a career in nursing as well.  As far as I’m concerned, our family has triumphed over prison.  Whereas the design of this system seems uniquely structured to lead individuals and families into perpetuating cycles of failure, the strategic, disciplined plan by which we’ve lived has brought us many blessings and strengthened us.  Continuous progress keeps my spirit strong.

Justin’s attorney has assured him that the nonprofit paperwork is in order, and we expect to receive authorization from the IRS to operate The Michael G. Santos Foundation by the end of this year.  Three people have accepted Justin’s invitation to serve as board members of the nonprofit, and although I don’t know those board members, their oversight provides me with a real job: working to write proposals in search of funding.

Although Justin has identified many potential philanthropic organizations, and I’m writing grant requests to each of them, The California Wellness Foundation impresses me as being the most promising.  It has a multi-billion dollar endowment that is reserved for programs that enhance public safety.

Julio Marcial serves as Justin’s contact at The California Wellness Foundation.  We’ve learned that Julio has a real passion for helping at-risk youth.  He knows that many of them grow up without resources or support systems in place, and few understand what steps they must take to leave the gangs and negative influences behind.

As executive director of the Michael G. Santos Foundation, Justin told Julio about my journey.  He made a strong case that we could create a program to show others how to embrace the same types of strategic, deliberate paths that empowered me to tune out the noise of external influences and prepare for success. Julio wants to see more.

Despite the boldness of the request, I’m writing a proposal that shows why The California Wellness Foundation should fund The Michael G. Santos Foundation with a $150,000 grant. In this economic environment, resources are scarce and we face a huge challenge because many established nonprofit organizations will compete for the same limited funds.  Still, despite my imprisonment and Justin’s recent release from imprisonment, I’m confident we can craft a winning plan.

As someone who has spent more than half of his life in prison, I have strong opinions on why so many people struggle to adjust upon release.  From my perspective, although the system is very good at warehousing human beings, the system fails in preparing offenders for law-abiding, contributing lives.  Instead of encouraging offenders to work toward developing values, skills, and resources that will assist them upon release, it extinguishes hope and strives to suppress the human spirit.  I’m asking the California Wellness Foundation to provide funding so that Justin’s foundation can craft a self-directed program that shows others how to transform their lives regardless of external influences or the noise of imprisonment.  We can make a difference, but doing so will require us to confront headwinds from a system with a strong self-interest in perpetuating failure.


I pass through Christmas of 2009, my 23rd holiday season in prison, and into January of 2010, another new year.  I’m still counting, not quite sure how many days of prison I have ahead of me, but I know that I have 8,180 days of imprisonment behind me.  At this stage, prison doesn’t bother me in the least.  I feel focused and driven, eager to seize every opportunity that comes my way.

Carole has begun studies that will last throughout the year and conclude with her board-certified credentials as a registered nurse.  It’s a big step for our family, but one that will provide Carole with a more fulfilling career, one that brings her more respect from her peers, colleagues, and community.  I’m so happy for her, so proud of her, and so grateful that I’ve had income opportunities to support her through the journey.  She is my center and I look forward to encouraging her through this year.

It isn’t easy to live as the wife of a prisoner.  For Carole, the challenge was particularly difficult because she came into my life when I had more than 15 years of prison behind me and more than a decade to go.  Despite others always questioning her judgment, over the past seven years we’ve worked alongside each other, confronting repeated transfers and interferences from prison administrators to build a life of our own.  Things are much better now, and they promise to improve as we cross through year 2010.

Julio Marcial has told Justin that he intends to recommend a $150,000 grant for The Michael G. Santos Foundation.  The premise is quite simple.  Through the proposal I wrote, we argued that the system does not invest resources in preparing individuals for success upon release.  It’s stated focus is to preserve security of the institution, and it doesn’t offer reentry programs until it’s too late, frequently only weeks or months before the scheduled release date.  By that time, the prisoner is lost, without resources or a support network to assist his reentry.

With funding, I suggested that I could write a program that would encourage prisoners and at-risk youth to pursue a self-directed path.  I would do so by writing a series of books and workbooks that would show the precise steps I took to educate myself, contribute to society, and build a support network that would assist my transition upon release.  It was what I said I would do very early on in my term, during that uncomfortable transition between my conviction and sentencing, during that time that I fell under the tutelage of Socrates.

Recipients of the literature and coursework that I intend to write will see that they have the power within to change their lives.  My job is to inspire hope, and together with Justin’s work, we’ve persuaded Julio to recommend that The California Wellness Foundation fund the vision.  That funding provides resources to pay for my work, enough to ensure that I’ll have an easier transition upon my release.  If all goes well, I’ll have $40,000 in savings to meet all of my financial expenses associated with my reentry, and another $40,000 in savings that I can draw upon to carry me through my first year of liberty.  Through my work, I’ll show other prisoners how to empower themselves in the same measurable ways.


It’s Saturday morning, September 11, 2010, and as I’m returning from an early morning run, I approach a new face as I return to the housing unit from the track.  More than 500 people serve time inside these boundaries, and although I don’t communicate or interact with many on a personal level, I recognize the men around me.  This new guy and I don’t exchange words, but the way he nods at me in acknowledgement communicates volumes.  That simple gesture is enough to let me know that he leads, that he’s capable of whatever he sets his mind to do, and that he is someone from whom I can learn.

We’re assigned to the same housing unit.  I look forward to introducing myself and I seize the opportunity a few hours later when I see him outside on the track.  He’s taller than I am, with silver hair and olive skin.  I guess that we’re about the same age, but I suspect we’ve had very different experiences.  I know this world and I can help him understand it, but I sense that he’s from a different world that I’d like to learn more about.

“Good morning,” I walk towards him.  “Care to join me for a few laps around the track?”

He agrees and we begin circling the dirt oval that surrounds ball fields and tennis courts.

“Believe me,” I tell him, “it gets easier than it feels right now.”

He looks at me, as if trying to figure out what I’m after.

“My name is Michael Santos.  I’ve been here for a while and can help you understand what you’re up against if you’re interested in a guide.”

“Thanks,” he says.  “I know a little about you because my family has been reading your website.”

“That’s good to hear.  I’ve been writing for the web for more than a decade but I’ve never actually seen a real webpage.  I look forward to using the Internet for the first time, but that will have to wait for a couple more years at least.”

“How do you publish your stuff online from in here?”

“I write everything by hand and send it to my wife.  She coordinates everything for me, typing it and then posting the content on my website.  The work gets me through the time and helps build awareness about this wretched system we’re in.  How long are you going to be with us?”

“I’ve got 18 months.”

“Well take a breath.  You won’t serve that long.  You’ll receive some good-time credits that will reduce the term by about three months, taking it down to about 15 months.  Depending on your personal circumstances, you may serve the final months of your term in a halfway house or home confinement.”

“How do I arrange that?”

“You’ll go through some administrative processing over the next couple of weeks.  Don’t push these people, the staff I mean.  Just let it evolve.  There isn’t much of anything you can do to influence events in here.  But if you let things take their course, and you don’t bother the staff with too many requests, you’ll probably be living in a halfway house a year from now.  The secret to serving that time is to make progress every day that you’re here, to work toward something that will improve your life some.”

He snarls.  “Like what?  What can a guy do from inside this hellhole?”

I laugh.  “It’s not that bad.  Where’re you from?”

“Silicon Valley.”

“What’re you, a banker or a broker?” From his diction and mannerisms, I know that he’s in here for a white-collar crime, but I don’t know what type of work he did.  He doesn’t strike me as engineer.

“I was the CEO of a technology company.”

“Which one?”

“Brocade Communications.”

I stop on the track and look at him.  “You’re Greg Reyes.”

He stares back at me and I see his brow wrinkle, a cross between curiosity and ferocity, guarded, as if he doesn’t know what to make of my intentions.

“I don’t mean to be intrusive, dude,” I say, “but I’ve admired your courage and strength for many years.  I read the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of your case.  When it reported on your conviction, I told my wife about you and that I hoped to meet you, to learn from you.  In fact, in some twisted way, I feel as if I willed you here.  As the years passed and you didn’t show up, I assumed that you must’ve won on appeal.”

Greg relaxes with my explanation of why I’m familiar with his background.  Not only did I read the Forbes profile of him being one of America’s youngest billionaires, but I also watched his stewardship of Brocade, taking it public and steering it to a peak market valuation that once exceeded $20 billion.

“I did win on appeal,” he tells me. “The appeals court reversed my conviction because the prosecution lied repeatedly through my first trial.  But the government tried me a second time.  Prosecutors told new lies that brought a second conviction.  I’m on appeal for that case as well.  Rather than wait it out, I turned myself in because I didn’t want to live with the horror of this prison sentence hanging over my head.”

The national business news reports on Greg’s case frequently.  Although more than 200 CEOs in Silicon Valley authorized the practice of backdating stock options for rank-and-file employees, no one authorized those practices with any criminal intent or with a goal of self-enrichment.  There isn’t another CEO in America who serves time for the offense, and Greg expresses considerable anger at having his name dragged through the mud because of these accusations.

“Why don’t you use this time to write your story,” I suggest.  “Set the record straight, explaining in your own words exactly what happened.  If you don’t do it, the only record out there is going to be the government allegations.”

“Writing isn’t my strong suit.”

“I’ll help you,” I urge him on.  “This is an important project.  You have to tell your story.  If you can talk about it, I can help you write it in your own words.  It would be a great project, carrying both of us through the next year.”

I see him churning over the idea.  “How would you see the project unfolding?”

“It’s simple.  I’ll ask you questions.  Some of the questions may seem foolish and irrelevant, but I’ll ask because I want to understand as much as you’ll share.  We’ll talk each day for several hours.  Early each morning, I’ll write out notes of what I learned.  After you’ve told me everything, I’ll outline the story, try to put some structure around it.  If I can tell it back to you, then we’ll move forward with a more formal, chapter-by-chapter interview.  I’ll write a chapter, then read it to you.  If you approve it, we’ll move on to the next one and repeat the sequence until we’ve told the entire story.”

He reaches over and shakes my hand.  “Let’s do it.”