May 5, 2022
Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, by Michael Santos
Running, getting ready for release. Transferring to Atwater and getting ready for release.
It’s Christmas, 2010, my 24th Christmas morning as a federal prisoner. I’ve now served eight thousand, five hundred, and thirty-nine days, but today is a very special day and I’m excited to call my wife. For the first time that I can remember, I’ll be giving her a magnificent surprise.
I’ve been awake since 2:17, writing her a letter while I wait for the phones to turn on. Now it’s nearly six and I expect to hear a dial tone soon. She received the envelope that I sent her, but we agreed that she would not open it until I called her this morning. While waiting for the phone to turn on, I’ve been writing a letter to her, describing the joy that I feel at crossing into 2011. We will begin making final plans for my release from prison, my return to society, and I am ready.
“Merry Christmas honey,” she answers my call at precisely 6:01 am.”
“Merry Christmas. Are you ready to leave?” Carole’s driving up to Taft for a visit this morning and I want to make sure that leaves on time so that she arrives as soon as the visiting room opens at 8:00 am.
“I’m ready. Can I open the envelope now?”
“Do you promise you haven’t opened it yet honey?”
“I told you I wouldn’t.”
“Okay precious. Merry Christmas. You can open it now.” I wait, listening to her slice open the envelope. “Be careful, my love, you won’t want to slice what’s inside.”
“What is it?” I hear her giggle. “Oh my God! It’s a check for $45,000.”
“That’s for us honey, to help start our life when I come home to you. I want you to set that aside so that we don’t have any financial stress when I walk out of here to you.”
“But we’ve already saved enough money. How did you do that?”
“I work hard for you, my love. You’re my inspiration and nothing fulfills me more than to think that I’m providing for you, making your life better. It’s the only way that I can feel like a man rather than a prisoner.”
Whenever I earn financial resources from prison, whether it’s through a writing fee or a stock trade, I derive an enormous sense of gratification. This environment is designed to crush the human spirit. Prisoners are supposed to go home broken, without financial resources, without a support network, destitute. Yet despite the quarter century that I’m serving, I’m going to walk out of here strong, stable. My wife has earned her credentials as a registered nurse. She has secured a job at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara and expects to earn $80,000 per year. Besides that income, men who know the value of work have paid me well, sufficiently to have supported my wife through what others would construe as incomprehensible struggle. After all of those expense, we’ve managed to build an after-tax savings account that now exceeds $100,000. Having achieved these goals from within prison boundaries magnifies the delight I feel.
It’s April 12 of 2011 and I have to make a decision. My release date is scheduled for August 12, 2013. I have 284 months behind me and a maximum of only 28 more months of prison ahead of me.
But I know that I won’t serve a full 28 months. Some complications surround my release date because I have that sliver of parole eligibility. It’s strange. My case is so old that I’m one of the few prisoners remaining in the federal system that qualifies for an initial parole hearing. By my calculations, members of the U.S. Parole Commission have the discretion to release me as soon as February of 2013, in only 22 more months.
That doesn’t tell the whole story. Besides the parole date, I qualify for up to 12 months of halfway house time. If I were to receive the February 2013 parole date, I could transfer to a halfway house as soon as February of 2012, in only 10 more months. But even in the unlikely event that the U.S. Parole Commission declined to grant me parole, I’m eligible to transfer to a halfway house 12 months before my scheduled release date, which would be in August of 2012. That means release should come for me somewhere between 10 and 16 months from today.
I need to decide where Carole and I are going to make our home. We don’t have roots anywhere. It feels as if we’re going to be hatched in society. Carole’s children, Michael and Nichole are grown and building lives of their own in Washington state. She has agreed to let me choose where we should start our life together. I’m thinking about what city would be best.
My sister Julie lives in Seattle, and that’s an obvious possibility. Both Carole and I grew up in Seattle, but after 25 years, we don’t have a home anywhere. My younger sister, Christina, lives in Miami, which is another possibility we’ve discussed as a potential starting point. My mother lives in Los Angeles with my grandmother, and in light of the foundation that my friend Justin established, we’re thinking about LA as well.
“The reality, honey,” I tell my wife during a visit, “is that we’re both going to be 48 years old when I walk out of here in the next 10 to 16 months. We’ll only have 12 years before we’re 60. Just as the decisions that I made early in my prison term played a pivotal, influential role in my journey, these decisions I make going forward are going to have an enormous influence on where we’re going to be when we’re 60.”
“That’s why I want you to choose, where we go.” Carole holds my hand during our visit. It’s the only physical contact we’ve ever had during our entire marriage, but that life of celibacy is coming to an end. “As long as I’m with you, I don’t care where we go.”
“What’s most important to me is that I go to the city where I have the best opportunity to earn an income and bring stability to our life.”
“As a registered nurse, I can get a job anywhere. And we have enough savings to give you that stability. You should arrange your release to wherever you want to go. How about Santa Barbara?”
“The market is too small, honey. As I see it, we have three choices. We can choose Los Angeles, we can choose San Francisco, or we can choose New York. I need to be in a big city.”
“But how will you start in New York or San Francisco? We don’t know anyone there.”
“Geoff is in New York and Lee is in San Francisco. Both of them would help us if I asked.” I remind her of my friend Geoff Richstone, the cardiologist from New York and my friend Lee Nobmann, the lumber baron of Northern California.
“You choose, honey. Wherever you want to go, I’m with you.”
I’m waiting on the track at Taft camp on Friday morning, April 22, 2011. My friend Lee Nobmann is flying in for a visit today and his pilot will land the private jet, a Cessna Citation, at Taft’s airport. I see the blinding spotlight as it approaches and then I hear the roar of the engines. It’s a magnificent airplane, a sign of Lee’s business brilliance and the successful company he built in Golden State Lumber. Carole is picking him up at the airport.
“It’s good to see,” I say when I walk into the visiting room. He is a great man and a great friend.
I tell Lee about the dilemma I’m facing with regard to which city I should choose to launch my life. While we dine on vending machine hamburgers, he listens to the different options I present and to the plans I have for building a career around all that I’ve learned as a federal prisoner.
“Do you really want to be talking about your experiences in federal prison for the rest of your life? I’ve got to tell you,” he says, “no one in the real world is really going to care anything about prison. Why don’t you come work with me? I could always use a man with your intensity and I’ve got the perfect spot for you in a real estate development company that my kids are running.”
I have enormous respect for Lee. He isn’t only an extraordinarily successful businessman, employing several hundred people, but he’s also genuinely happy, with a loving marriage that has spanned four decades and great relationships with his children. When he extends an offer for me to work with him, it’s an offer that I have to consider.
“If that’s what you think would be best for me,” I tell him, “then that’s what I’m going to do. But I’m passionate about this idea I have of building a business around all that I’ve learned. There aren’t many people who’ve sustained a high level of discipline and focus through a quarter century of adversity. I’m confident that I can find a market for products and services I intend to create around that journey.”
Lee leans back and looks at me. He has blue, penetrating eyes, white hair, and looks every bit the self-made man that he is. I admire him immensely and I aspire to earn his respect. It’s as if I’m always auditioning for him, trying to prove worthy of the trust he places in me with his friendship.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he settles it. “Tell your case manager here that you’re going to relocate to the Bay area. I’ve got a fully furnished guesthouse on my property. You won’t need anything at all. It has everything, including towels, silverware, even a coffee pot. Use that as your release address. You and Carole can stay there for a year without any cost. One of my companies will employ you for a year so that you can earn an income while you build your business. If it doesn’t work out, then you come work with me.”
With Lee’s generosity, my decision becomes easy. As he would say, it’s a no brainer. Our home is going to be in the city by the Bay, a city I’ve never visited before.
It’s Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 and I’m sitting on a bench with my friend Greg Reyes. We’re reviewing edits I’ve been making to the manuscript that describes his life and he turns to me with a peculiar question. “Do you think you could run a marathon?”
I’ve run every day without a single day of rest since Saturday, December 13, 2008. During the 866 days that have passed since then, I’ve run 7,795 miles. The strict accountability logs that I keep give me a clear indication of where I am. I’ve averaged more than nine miles every day, but I’ve never been inclined to run a marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The longest distance I’ve ever run has been 20 miles, and I’ve done that about a half dozen times. I’m not a natural athlete, but running is an exercise of will, and these 8,661 days of imprisonment have given me a strong determination.
“Anyone can run a marathon, I tell Greg. But what’s the point?”
“I’d like to run one before I get out.”
Like my friend Lee, Greg is the type of man who clearly defines goals, and then he puts a deliberate course of action in place to achieve them. As I do with Lee, I feel as if I’m always auditioning for Greg’s respect. Since prison consumed more of my life than I lived outside, I need these tests to feel as I can carry my own around guys who’ve truly succeeded.
“Then let’s run one this weekend,” I say.
Greg laughs. “You’re too much. We’ve got to train for running a marathon. Every book I’ve read talks about a strict training regimen, increasing distances in incremental levels.”
Greg walked into prison weighing 252 pounds. Besides working together on writing his life story, we set a disciplined exercise regimen in place. He wasn’t a runner before, but he has run alongside me on several occasions and he’s lost more than 60 pounds during the eight months that he’s served. He now has a chiseled physique.
“That’s ridiculous, Greg. We can do it. Those books aren’t for people like you. Running is all in your mind. Let’s just do it.”
“You’re nuts.” He laughs. “I’ve got four months left to serve. Let’s just set a training plan in place and get to one marathon distance before I go.”
“Look we can do this,” I tell him. “But let’s start by running 20 miles on Saturday.”
“I’ve never run longer than 10 miles in my life,” he says. “I’m not running 20 miles on Saturday.”
“You may not have run more than 10 miles,” I tell him. “But you can run that routinely now and you run much faster than I do. Without a doubt, you can run 15 miles. Let’s set our mind to that. You’ll see. It’s no big deal. Then we’ll run 20 miles on the next Saturday.”
He agrees and on Saturday, April 30th, we run through 15 miles as if it isn’t anything. On Saturday May 7th, we meet on the track with a joint commitment of running 20 miles.
Greg may not have run before he surrendered to serve his sentence but he has developed into a strong runner. We run around a dusty dirt track, and since he goes at faster pace, he laps me numerous times. He paces alongside me at the 18-mile mark and asks how I’m feeling.
“I feel great. How ‘bout you?”
“You know,” I remind him, “we’re in May now. Every day going forward will bring hotter temperatures here in Taft. If you feel up to it, I think we should just knock out the full marathon distance today and be done with it. What do you think?”
“Let’s get through the 20 and see how we feel.”
At 20 miles he is still lapping me. He finishes his first marathon distance in four hours and 14 minutes; it takes me 15 minutes longer to complete the 26.2-mile distance.
We celebrate with a good meal that my roommate prepares for us. He’s elated at the accomplishment, as he should be.
“I’ve got to tell you, what you’ve done today is really impressive,” I tell him.
“We both did it,” he says.
“Well, it’s not quite the same,” I say.
“What do you mean? We ran the same distance.”
“True, but you’ve only been running for a few months and you knocked out a marathon. I’ve been running for longer than 20 years. I don’t even feel tired.”
“Then run another one.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I said. “I’m going to.”
“Are you nuts? I was only kidding,” he tells me. “You’ve got to let your body heal.”
I shrug. “Yeah, I don’t think so. I don’t even feel as if I’ve done anything. Next time, I’m going to run a double marathon.”
“Seriously, I can do it. I could totally do it.”
“I was thinking that I’ll run it on Wednesday.”
“On Wednesday of this week? That’s ridiculous.”
“Do you want to run it with me?” I ask him.
“No, I don’t. I’m not running 52 miles. Don’t you think that’s a little excessive?”
“I can do it.”
“Then go for it.”
On Wednesday, May 11th, I wake early and I’m eager to set out for the run. I have a plan. I’ll start at 6:00, when the track opens, and I’ll run for four hours. By 10:00 I’ll knock out the first 24 miles. Then I’ll return to the housing unit for the census count. After that clears, I’ll return to the track and run another 16 miles, bringing me to 40 miles. At the slow pace I intend to run, I expect that stretch will last about three hours. Then I’ll return to the housing unit for the afternoon census and a shower. I’ll go back to the track after the count and knock out the final 12.4 miles.
“You’re a maniac.” Greg meets me on the track when I’m on the final stretch. Temperatures are still in the 90s and he passes me a bottle of Gatorade.
“I’ve got this,” I tell him. “Only one more mile.”
It takes me nine hours and 40 minutes, but I finish, reaching my goal.
“What’re you going to do next?” Greg asks.
“I thought about that during the run,” I tell him. “I’ve got three marathons in now. By the end of this year, I’ll run 50 marathons.”
He laughs. “There’s something wrong with you,” he says. “You’re crazy.”
“I’m going to do it.”
It’s December 31st, 2011 and I’m now in the Atwater federal prison camp, with 8,909 days of prison behind me. As far as exercise goals are concerned, it’s been an extraordinary year. My fitness log shows that it’s been 1,114 days since I’ve taken a day off from running. During that stretch, I’ve logged 10,773 miles. Over the course of 2011, the log shows that I ran 4,073 miles, including 55 marathon distances, 98,500 pushups, with 857.3 total hours of exercise. I intend to push myself harder in 2012.
Carole and I transferred to Atwater on October 3, knowing that it would be our last prison town as I prepare for my release to the San Francisco Bay area. As a privately run facility, the Taft camp could not handle the complicated issues of parole and extended halfway house possibilities. When authorities determined that a Bureau of Prisons facility should oversee my return to society, I asked for Atwater. Carole settled a few miles away in Merced and she has a job as a registered nurse at Mercy Medical Center, her second job in a major hospital. We’re counting down the days, expecting that my case manager will provide some guidance with regard to my release date soon.
I expect this system to release me before Halloween, but to keep my mind from dwelling on that which is beyond my ability to control, I work toward some clearly defined goals. The first is helping my friend Andris Pukke (pronounced ‘On-dris Puck-y’). Like Lee and Greg, Andris built an awesome business. He launched a credit counseling and debt consolidation company from his living room while advancing through his senior year at the University of Maryland. Under Andris’ leadership, that company, branded as Ameridebt, grew to more than 250,000 customers. It became so profitable that Bear Sterns offered to purchase it for more than $100,000,000 before Andris celebrated his 35th birthday. I spend several hours each day with Andris, asking questions that help me write his biography.
Andris’ story strengthens my resolve to write about lessons I’ve learned from exceptional businessmen. Many business leaders served time alongside me despite their never having had any inclination that decisions they were making could expose them to troubles with the law. Speaking and writing about what I’ve learned could bring more awareness to the dangers of doing business in America today. Indeed, people I’ve met in prison convince me that business decisions can lead to imprisonment, even when there isn’t any criminal intent or efforts to self-enrich at the expense of others. Prosecution of white-collar crime is the new frontier of America’s criminal justice system, and I have some unique insight that can help others understand the subject.
Andris is the fourth man I met in prison who has built a hugely successful business. In working with him to write his story, I’m able to push out thoughts about my imminent release. It’s important now, during these final months, to focus on work. Otherwise, the combination of excitement and anticipation could derail me. As it always has, work and focus on goals carries me through.
Andris is released on March 30, 2012. That’s it. He is the last friend I expect to make in prison. I’ll serve the rest of this time alone, expecting that I’ll walk out of here before October.