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Old 09-10-2002, 01:02 AM
Luke Luke is offline
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Default Facing Long Term Imprisonment

Michael G. Santos
I turned twenty-four just before the judge sentenced me to forty-five years in federal prison. Although I had been held in various jails in the Seattle area for about a year as I waited for trial, this was my first trip to the penitentiary. I did not know what to expect. My mind was filled with tales of prison life. I heard many stories from the other prisoners I met during that year. And, of course, I remembered the stereotypes of prison life from such films as Brubaker and Stir Crazy. Would this be it? Would my life be reduced to a prison registration number, being counted periodically as I waited for paint to peel off prison walls and years to pass away? How can a person be left with nothing meaningful to do for forty-five years? I was thirsting for life at the same time as I was trying in my mind to untangle the web that led me to such a sentence. I would scream of injustice, but I was unsure of my ground. I read the pre-sentence report prepared by the government. It said mine was a victimless crime. Does a victimless crime really merit a forty-five year prison term? I did not know. Yet those were the questions tormenting me as I waited in the county jail.

Then, early one Saturday morning, the guards shouted at me, "Santos, pack up!" I knew neither where I was going nor how I would get there. I was expecting a visit from my parents that day, but the immediate transfer would prevent me from getting word to them. I asked another prisoner -- one with whom I had developed a friendship during my time in the county jail, and one whom I would never see again -- to call my father and let him know I was on my way to prison, though I knew not which one. Later I learned my destination was not Club Fed, or one of the college-campus like prisons for which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is becoming known. I was a long-term prisoner, and as such my destination was the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta (USP Atlanta), one of the two oldest penitentiaries in the federal system.

The trip from Seattle to Atlanta was long. A chain wrapped around my waist, which was connected to the manacles around my wrists, and the steel cuffs around my ankles, restricted my physical movement. There was nothing to restrict my thinking.

A flood of thoughts (none pleasant) collided in my mind; I felt as if I were drowning in my own brain. I thought of how far away I would be from my family. I felt the burden of realizing the shame and humiliation my actions had brought them. My parents and grandparents gave me every opportunity to bring pride and distinction to our family. I made some wrong decisions that hurt many people and society. Eventually I decided I could not afford to wallow in self-pity; I had to prepare myself for what lay ahead. Yet I did not knot what lay ahead. All I knew was that I must survive a sentence of four and one-half decades. I was on my way to a maximum-security penitentiary, and I tried to develop a strategy to help me endure the imminent prison experience.

A lengthy prison term seemed likely to rip apart my relationships. I was almost certain it would destroy my marriage. I had been married for only a few months before my arrest. Prison would offer no legitimate opportunities for me to contribute financially to my marriage. The intimacy in which marital and domestic problems ought to be discussed would be impossible to achieve. Furthermore, my wife would have needs that prison walls would preclude my fulfilling. I could not be there to hold her, to comfort her, or even to listen to her. The emptiness caused by realizing I would lose a relationship that I thought meant the world to me, and helplessness to do anything about it, brought forth a cold and dark loneliness in my soul which I did not know was possible, a loneliness made even greater because I assumed it would grow inside of me for the duration of my prison term. I counted the equivocal blessing of having no children. On one hand, I was relieved that I would not be abandoning children in addition to a wife I could not support. On the other hand, I felt the sadness in knowing I would be too old to enjoy the experience of having children upon my release.

I spoke with other prisoners at USP Atlanta facing long-term incarceration who did have children. One prisoner, whom I will call Chris, has a four-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. He was beginning a thirty-year term and felt helpless because he realized he would be unable to play a significant part in his children's education. He told them he was going away to school, and he worried about the time he would have to tell them he is serving a prison term. Chris recognizes his role as a father is to educate, discipline, and love his children. His prison term, however, will remove him from their entire childhood. The pain of his children being reared without their father's presence is much more difficult for Chris to bear than his prison sentence.

Another prisoner, Hector, is beginning a thirty-five year sentence. He has a six year-old son who can visit only once each year because of the geographic distance between them. Hector's parents care for his son. The only thing Hector can do is let the child know through phone calls and a weekly letter that he has a father and is loved. He cannot hold the boy when he falls off his bicycle or congratulate him on a fine play he makes during a baseball game; he will not be with his son until the boy is a grown man. Hector's prison term is much more difficult because he knows he has a child in the world yet cannot contribute to his welfare.

Another prisoner, Ron, has a fourteen-year-old daughter who has had severe difficulty since his incarceration began. After Ron received a lengthy sentence, his wife sold all of the family's assets, then abandoned him and his daughter. Up until Ron's arrest, he enjoyed a close relationship with his daughter. But since his confinement, the girl's life has been turned upside down. Her mother absconded with the family's assets, her father is beyond her reach, and she is without money or a home and is living with an aunt who does not want her. The girl indicates she is severely depressed and frequently writes about taking her own life. Ron took these letters to the prison psychologist. The psychologist tried to help Ron secure a transfer to a prison closer to his daughter. Excited at the prospect of a transfer, Ron called his daughter to relay the good news. The case manager controlling Ron's file, however, refused to process the transfer request until his next scheduled unit team meeting which was six months away. The news devastated Ron and shattered the girl, nearly driving her to suicide. Ron calls his daughter up to three times each day just to keep her calm. He is angry because of the obstacles placed before him by the BOP. He is far away from home, and his daughter's life is critically affected by the distance between them. Incarceration is more difficult for Ron and other parents in prison because they cannot give their children the comfort and support they need.

Besides not being able to have children, aging was another very real concern for me and the other prisoners facing long sentences. I began my term in confinement in my early twenties but would not breathe the fresh air of freedom until I was well into my sixties. At twenty years of age, it is difficult to imagine being thirty. It is much more difficult for a twenty-year-old prisoner to realize release from prison will not come until several decades pass.

Vincent, another prisoner with whom I spoke, began serving a thirty-year sentence when he was twenty-six-years-old. He says the reality of the sentence has not yet hit him. Five years is all Vincent can think about. For the first five years, Vincent will focus on the legal issues of his case. When five years have passed and if he remains incarcerated with no relief in sight, Vincent says he will be "hitting that wall every minute of the day." Escape will consume his every waking thought. Vincent absolutely refuses to leave prison as a decrepit old man without a life; he says his crime was not severe enough to warrant such a sentence. To Vincent, there is more honor in fighting for freedom, even if it means getting killed in the process, than to spend thirty years in prison waiting for death. There would be zero opportunity for Vincent to make up for time he lost in prison; he says he will give them five years, but he will not allow the prison system to take thirty years of his life. The thought of growing old in prison is anathema to both Vincent and me, but our long sentences eclipse all thoughts of waiting for release to come.

And what is release? By the time the prison doors open for me I expect to know no one well except other male prisoners who have served long prison terms. Even if someone were to come and tell me I could go home immediately, that they would return control of my life to me, the news would leave me weary. I am growing numb to my surroundings. It is a strange numbness because I never know what will happen. There is a monotonous and regular routine, yet I know it can change abruptly, on an administrator's whim. There is no spark, no passion in life. The feelings and emotions men develop by lining in a world with women and children are becoming more absent from my life. I will have neither a home nor a career. Being forced to live in close proximity with people I loathe will affect my life and my actions. And there will be violence. How can I escape it? I am young, and I will be living in a maximum-security prison. It is inevitable that I will be tried. And I will respond in the manner appropriate for prisons. Although I am not in fear of being robbed or beaten, the constant companionship of thieves, rapists, killers, aggressive homosexuals, and snitches who will say or do anything to save their own hide is far from relaxing. All of these factors exacerbate the tensions of beginning a long prison term. They will not prepare me for release. The coming of the Messiah seems closer than my release from prison.

These thoughts generate anxiety, apathy and depression. There was a pattern to those first years. I was nervous of what I would find in prison; then I did not care; and then an ocean of depression swallowed me. Such a long sentence did not seem real. How could it? The sentence was nearly twice as long as I had been alive on the planet. I was out of high school for only five years; then, suddenly I was staring down the long end of a forty-five year prison term. No violence was even alleged in my case, and it was my first commitment. I listened to numerous violent and repeat offenders around me complaining of sentences only a fraction as long as mine. My thoughts began to turn away from the wrong decisions I made during the recklessness of youth, and turn toward the perceived injustices our criminal justice system was perpetuating against me and the friends I was meeting in prison. I was not alone.

There were numerous other prisoners around me. The vast majority were beginning lengthy prison terms for their participation in the illicit drug industry. Their level of cynicism was taller than the skyscrapers in New York City. Corrupt law makers and savings and loan bandits escape the pains of long-term imprisonment altogether, they complained, while people striving to pull themselves out of poverty regularly receive sentences totally disproportionate to their crimes. They laughed at the so-called war on drugs, more accurately describing it as a war on people.

One of the consequences of long prison terms is a loss of the prisoner's sense of their own efficacy. Prisoners are told where to live and with whom. They are issued clothing, and an indifferent administration prepares their food. They are forced to work in jobs bearing no relationship to their levels of skill, to their release dates, or to the types of employment they will receive upon release. The prison staff members tend to feel superior and righteous, while the social structure inside the prison proper brings the prisoners feelings of guilt, inferiority, and powerlessness. Time fills the prisoners with resentment and boredom. They lie on their beds staring at the bunks above them and the walls surrounding them. The prison system has taken their identities; it has removed their abilities to distinguish themselves. It tells the prisoners they can neither be trusted, given responsibility, nor opportunities to contribute to the welfare of the general community. Physical resistance is met with a massive show of force. Intellectual resistance is met with zip code changes and more subtle ways of upsetting progress. For example, those who use brawn to solve their problems will quickly be restrained with a team of prison guards. No prison mutiny has ever been successful. Prisoners who strive to upset the system through organizational efforts will be transferred to another institution or given meaningless chores to replace their contemplative time.

Prisoners adopt individual methods of coping with and adjusting to the pressures of life in confinement. Once long term prisoners get situated in prison cells, and are assigned prison jobs, they develop strategies for making their stay as light as possible. Most will look for ways to keep themselves busy mentally and physically, while a few will retreat into their own worlds and avoid contact with the prison system's social network. Many gradually lose interest in the world outside of prison walls and focus only on their time inside. They learn how to survive in prison by making it their business to know what the administration will tolerate. They want to know which prisoners are troublemakers and which prisoners mind their own business. They want to know which areas of the prison are tightly secured and which areas of the prison are loose. Long term prisoners will develop daily routines that enable them to achieve their individual goals while sliding past trouble. Prison is a microcosm of the larger society; what occurs behind the walls is intensified, exaggerated, and immediate. One prisoner said it is where you meet shock, hopelessness, helplessness, fear, depression, hate, extreme sadness, coldness and loneliness all at once. It all hits one like a freight train, and no one can help.

Support from family, friends, and educational programs has helped me cope in this environment. Nearly seven years have passed since I started this prison odyssey. I began and completed my undergraduate studies and now am nearly finished with a masters program I began independently at Hofsta University. Where many long term prisoners lose interest in the outside world and become increasingly dependent on prison routines, other prisoners and I search for ways to contribute to and remain active with the world outside. Besides a demanding academic program, I also exercise regularly and keep an eye open for potential problems. Other active prisoners write prolifically, immerse themselves in the law library, or seek spiritual programs. I find a busy schedule keeps me away from trouble and focused on my academic goals; such goals are meaningless, I realize, to many other prisoners. The prison system is not designed to inspire progress. Although administrators have ample sanctions from which they can draw to punish prisoners who break prison regulation, they neither encourage nor reward those who make significant progress behind prison walls.

Prisoners notice that an incentive system is missing. My studies of prisoners in the BOP suggest it is the reason such a minute percentage put forth the energy to develop skills that will enhance their chances for success upon release. Prisoners see no relationship between hard work and better living conditions; there is no indication their behavior in prison can help them advance their release dates. All prisoners with whom I spoke said they would pursue zealously educational programs if some type of meaningful incentive system existed. But there is no quid pro quo, no tit for tat. Accordingly, prisoners spend their time learning to live as comfortable as possible during their stay in prison. They become hustlers, scammers, and artists of the con. They learns to break rules without getting caught and taking pride in beating the system. Their behavior is a natural response. They are compensating for a social structure that forces prisoners to live under a coercive system which tells them their efforts are worthless. A long term prisoner who aspires to accomplish goals during incarceration is offensive to the administration because such a prisoner is not truly a prisoner. His or her mind is free. The administration demands that prisoners limit themselves to their functions as prisoners; doing time without attracting attention or disrupting the system.

Those facing long prison terms recognize prison as the world in which they will spend long periods of their lives. They will live without the companionship of the opposite sex; ties to their families and communities will separate. Relatives will both come into their families through birth and marriage and some will pass on through death; these events will happen without the prisoner's participation. Prison is the least likely place for positive changes to occur in human beings. It is an environment where such seemingly effortless activities as holding onto one's identity and sanity take on a significance of paramount importance. Some prisoners say long prison terms are like drawn-out death sentences. I will just say they are futile and excessive acts of vengeance.
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Old 09-10-2002, 09:49 AM
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HOW VERY TRUE.... THEN, THEY COME HOME...


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Old 09-10-2002, 10:34 AM
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Wondferful post, if your wife needs any support, please tell her about us!
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Old 09-10-2002, 11:50 AM
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I applaud you Michael G Santos! Your words are so articulate and your story so compelling! Hopefully the organizations trying to change the mandatory minimums for drug infractions will have some success. Hopefully the organizations trying to improve prison conditions will have some success. Hopefully the laws will begin to change so that the punishment fits the crime. I continue to pray!
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Old 09-11-2002, 01:10 PM
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Greetings n209343-1,

I was wondering if I could recieve more information about your situation. Are you still in prison or are you out?

You mention getting a college ed. in prison--is this available to all Fed. prisoners? Do you know if it is available to state prisoners? How much did it cost you? If I understand your posts correctly you recieved both undergraduate and post graduate degrees? This is truely commendable! 1 of my roomates just finished her graduate work in speech therapy and has started working in the public school systems. Another of my roomies is just beginning graduate school also in speech therapy. I see how hard it is for them. The work load is TREMENDOUS. I would be interested in knowing what your degrees are in and what it was like doing this in prison.

Are you a spiritual person? Have you ever looked at the Buddha Dharma (aka Buddhism)? Buddha taught a path of discovering Unlimited Bliss, Fearlessness, and Actice Compassion within yourself--not relying on ANYTHING outside of your TRUE NATURE. Many, many Tibetan Buddhist spent years and years in Chinese prisons (many are still in prison) experiencing untold horrors and yet have found ultimate happiness regardless of their physical conditions. Many Tibetan, Indinan, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese Buddhist found Enlightenment within their own minds while living alone in caves or in monasteries-isolated from family, friends, loved ones or anyone else. I have always thought it would be so amazing if this tradition of solitary meditation was taken up by prisoners. It seems like it would be possible to somehow transform the prison cell into the hermits cave--transform the prison into the monastery--transform the long years into a chance to achieve unlimited Bliss, Happiness and Satisfaction.

Do you--or do any prisoners have internet access/

Anyway--I have found your posts amazing and powerful. I dont know if you were a writer before prison or not but one thing is crystal clear you ARE a writter now! And a damned good one at that!

I look forward to hearing from you.

--Jesse
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Old 09-13-2002, 10:47 PM
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Michael, your letter was powerful, thank-you for a look at the truth. i will keep praying too.
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Old 09-20-2002, 06:07 PM
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Michael, I found your letter both sad and heat warming. I am faced with the possibility that the man I love will like you have a very long sentence. I have been worried about how wwe will handle the time. I am curious to know if you and your wife are still together. I know I will stand by my man no matter how much time he is given. And to read your letter lifted my spirits. To see such a strong man stand up and take a positive role in his own life. When others are trying to hold him down. I commend you. My best to you and your family. I will keep you in my Prayers. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

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Old 09-20-2002, 07:38 PM
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Luke

Thank you for sharing the post by Michael G. Santos. I will agree with Freedom Angel. I applaude you for saying such elegant words after life slammed you against a wall of destitution. I hope that you will keep us posted and with your permission I would like to share this post.

Please Luke send him our words of encouragement and ask him to post again.

I for one anxiously await until the next thesis of life in prison by Michael G. Santos
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Old 09-23-2002, 09:28 PM
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This was an excellent post! Thank you for sharing it. He is a brilliant writer and I too comend him for standing up and refusing to allow this system to break him. BRAVO!
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Old 09-27-2002, 10:48 AM
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After reading the letters and responses posted on this site, I feel compelled to offer my response.
All the letters seem to have been positive in nature and thus, I cannot sympathize with them. First, how could possible incarceration not have enterred your thought process when you started with obvious illegal activity? Next, I see how people act sympathetic to your situation (Dragonflye25 in particular) and wonder how it is possible to have people waliking about in society as confused as they. Certainly, I hope you find some solace in your time, but am certain you will find the long days and lonely nights much more intolerable some times than others.
As for budwoman with the returning husband; i certainly hope you have given this plenty of thought, especially if children are present.
In closing, I'd like to offer Mr. Santos some advice. Keep your thoughts private, and compile an autobiography upon your return to society.
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Old 09-27-2002, 12:04 PM
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Cowboyfan,

I dont know if you noticed or not but the name of this website is prisontalk and this particular section of prisontalk is specifically for letters from inmates---a section where inmates can share their thoughts, feelings, or anything else.
No one forced you to come onto this website or enter this particular section.

--J
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Old 09-27-2002, 01:17 PM
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This is a very well written story. Unfortunately, this situation depicts countless faces and persons who have become prey for our judicial system instead of being protected by it. My prayers are with you.

Thanks,

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Old 09-27-2002, 01:20 PM
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CowboysFan is soon to be on his way out unless he is interested in support and starts showing it.
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Old 09-27-2002, 01:43 PM
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Everytime I see someone ,such as CowboysFan, I can only have pity on them. How is it that this day in time people are still so simple minded? If you don't agree with the posting or the message board......that is what the escape button is for.
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Old 09-27-2002, 05:31 PM
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I pray that Michael finds the strength he needs to take it one day at time. My best friend is serving a life sentence and has done 19 years and 3 months so far. His first appearance before the Parole Board is estimated for 16 months from now. He still does not have a date in writing. However he is positive , strong, loving, and continues to be the most caring man that I have ever met. There are so many men and women behind bars that shouldnt be, while the real criminals (Like the people running this country) are allowed to kill people in the name of justice! May God have mercy on us all.
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Old 10-16-2002, 05:15 PM
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everything he said was true. it brought tears to my eyes.
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Old 12-14-2002, 04:36 PM
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How could I have missed such a COMPELLING post when I first began reading this site??? Michael, not only was your post very real and candid, but it you and your story in my immediate thoughts, for hours and days .... You know its powerful, when it keeps you thinking.
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Old 12-14-2002, 05:47 PM
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If any one wants to read the whole story about Michael you can go to

http://www.prisonerlife.com/
And you will see him on the front page.
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Old 12-26-2002, 05:57 PM
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LUKE, YOUR FRIEND MICHAEL G. SANTOS IS VERY YOUNG TO BE ABLE TO WRITE SUCH STRONG WORDS ABOUT A LIFE HE IS ABOUT TO ENTER FOR THE FIRST TIME. WHILE READING HIS POST I THOUGHT THIS MUST BE A VERY WISE YOUNG MAN, AND HOW DID HE GET INTO SO MUCH TROUBLE TO GET SO MANY YEARS FOR IT. HE WRITES LIKE HE KNOWS WHAT HE IS TALKING ABOUT, BUT GOT OFF ON THE WRONG ROAD IN HIS VERY YOUNG LIFE AND NOW THAT WRONG STEP HE TOOK HAS COST HIM A LONG PRISON TERM AND TAKEN AWAY HIS WHOLE LIFE. BUT HE SEEMS VERY STRONG AND SEEMS LIKE HE UNDERSTANDS WHAT PUT HIM IN PRISON, BUT MOST LIKELY HE GOT MORE YEARS THAN HE SHOULD HAVE, YES THE JUSTICE SYSTEM CAN BE A VERY UNFAIR SYSTEM TO SOME OF US. I THINK HE WILL MAKE IT BECAUSE OF THE WORDS HE WRITES AND HIS STRENGTH AND THE WORRY AND PAIN HE HAS PUT HIS FAMILY THRU, BUT THEY WILL HELP HIM THRU THIS.
MICHAEL YOU MUST NEVER GIVE UP ON LIFE AND NEVER GIVE UP ON HOPE OF GETTING OUT EARLY, HOPE IS WHAT KEEPS US ALL GOING DAY TO DAY, WITHOUT HOPE IN OUR LIVES WHERE WOULD WE ALL BE? WRITE YOUR LETTERS ON A DAILY BASIS, KEEP A DAIRY OF YOUR EVERYDAY LIVING IN PRISON, DON'T LET THEM TAKE AWAY YOUR MIND FOR WRITING, MANY PEOPLE CAN NOT PUT WORDS ON PAPER AS YOU HAVE IN THIS POST. KEEP UP WRITING DAILY AND YOU WILL NEVER GET LOST IN YOUR PRISON LIFE, KEEP IN TOUCH WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD, KEEP UP WITH WHAT IS HAPPENING IN OUR WORLD (FREE WORLD) IT WILL BE YOUR WORLD AGAIN SOME DAY. I HAVE A SON IN TDC IN TEXAS, HE GOT 5 YEARS FOR A DWI HE HAS BEEN IN TDC FOR 2YRS AND A HALF, JUNE OF 2003 WILL BE 3 YEARS FLAT. I AM SURE HE FEELS LIKE IT HAS BEEN A LIFETIME TO HIM, BUT I JUST CAN NOT IMAGINE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT 45 YEARS OF LIFE, THEY SAY WE NEVER KNOW UNTIL WE WALK IN SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOES WHAT THEY ARE FEELING. SO I HOPE THE BEST FOR YOU AND KEEP THE WRITING UP AND KEEP YOUR HOPE HIGH AND WHEN YOU GET DOWN AND OUT, JUST ASK GOD TO HELP YOU THRU THE DOWN AND OUTS, HE WILL ALWAYS BE THERE FOR YOU. SO I WILL ASK GOD TO PUT HIS ARMS AROUND YOU AND KEEP YOU STRONG AND SAFE AND KEEP THAT PEN IN YOUR HAND. LET THE WORLD KNOW WHAT GOES ON IN PRISON WITH A LONG TERM SENTENCE AND MAYBE YOU CAN HELP SOME OTHER YOUNG PERSON NOT TAKE THAT WRONG STEP. SO MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. LOOKING FORWARD TO READ ANOTHER LETTER FROM YOU. IRIST TEXAS
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Old 12-26-2002, 08:45 PM
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This story was a very powerful truth that makes one look at the realities of prison not seen on television. Television shows you what they want you to see. Tim would be both happy and sad about me reading that post. He would be happy because finally the REAL truth of what goes on in the mind of a prisoner would give me a bit of a glimpse as to what goes on in his mind. On the other hand, he would not want me to know because he feels that this would make me sad. And truthfully, his feelings are exactly how I feel. He always says it is not my fault of his incarceration and therefore I should not suffer along with him in this. Maybe a part of what he is saying is true, but I tell him I am suffering right along with you. In a sense, my freedom is very limited because I have someone that I truly love that I am going to wait on. So I tell him, we are both in prison until this time is done and overwith. I chose to wait, and I am happy in my choice even though it is very very hard sometimes. Sure, I can do what I want, when I want at any given time. But when you find someone who has an identical heart to your own, when you discover the love you have always searched for and thought you'd never find makes all the waiting more than worthy!! That is why I always say, love is the most powerful thing on this earth. I honestly cannot think of anything else that is as strong as love can be. And my love is strong enough to handle time itself, and the pain that time behind bars puts on Tim. He is strong and I must demonstrate the same strength if we're truly going to go through this time successfully. And this is especially true since Tim has no other family whatsoever!!!!! NONE!! It is hard to picture such a thing as that---but for Tim, it is reality. So reading that post by Michael makes me feel so good that I am in Tim's corner every step of the way. Thank you for that post.

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Old 01-17-2004, 10:52 AM
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michael good story stay strong, let me ask you can you use a computer where you are now, or or you writing this thru someone else ?
and softheart i went to that website which one is he? thanks
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Old 09-05-2004, 02:10 AM
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Your post was very interesting and I know it must be really hard being in prison at a age where you should be having fun, spending time with your wife. I know you regret the mistakes you have made in life, but I commend you on a well written page. May God be with you and keep you safe...















































QUOTE=Luke]Michael G. Santos
I turned twenty-four just before the judge sentenced me to forty-five years in federal prison. Although I had been held in various jails in the Seattle area for about a year as I waited for trial, this was my first trip to the penitentiary. I did not know what to expect. My mind was filled with tales of prison life. I heard many stories from the other prisoners I met during that year. And, of course, I remembered the stereotypes of prison life from such films as Brubaker and Stir Crazy. Would this be it? Would my life be reduced to a prison registration number, being counted periodically as I waited for paint to peel off prison walls and years to pass away? How can a person be left with nothing meaningful to do for forty-five years? I was thirsting for life at the same time as I was trying in my mind to untangle the web that led me to such a sentence. I would scream of injustice, but I was unsure of my ground. I read the pre-sentence report prepared by the government. It said mine was a victimless crime. Does a victimless crime really merit a forty-five year prison term? I did not know. Yet those were the questions tormenting me as I waited in the county jail.

Then, early one Saturday morning, the guards shouted at me, "Santos, pack up!" I knew neither where I was going nor how I would get there. I was expecting a visit from my parents that day, but the immediate transfer would prevent me from getting word to them. I asked another prisoner -- one with whom I had developed a friendship during my time in the county jail, and one whom I would never see again -- to call my father and let him know I was on my way to prison, though I knew not which one. Later I learned my destination was not Club Fed, or one of the college-campus like prisons for which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is becoming known. I was a long-term prisoner, and as such my destination was the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta (USP Atlanta), one of the two oldest penitentiaries in the federal system.

The trip from Seattle to Atlanta was long. A chain wrapped around my waist, which was connected to the manacles around my wrists, and the steel cuffs around my ankles, restricted my physical movement. There was nothing to restrict my thinking.

A flood of thoughts (none pleasant) collided in my mind; I felt as if I were drowning in my own brain. I thought of how far away I would be from my family. I felt the burden of realizing the shame and humiliation my actions had brought them. My parents and grandparents gave me every opportunity to bring pride and distinction to our family. I made some wrong decisions that hurt many people and society. Eventually I decided I could not afford to wallow in self-pity; I had to prepare myself for what lay ahead. Yet I did not knot what lay ahead. All I knew was that I must survive a sentence of four and one-half decades. I was on my way to a maximum-security penitentiary, and I tried to develop a strategy to help me endure the imminent prison experience.

A lengthy prison term seemed likely to rip apart my relationships. I was almost certain it would destroy my marriage. I had been married for only a few months before my arrest. Prison would offer no legitimate opportunities for me to contribute financially to my marriage. The intimacy in which marital and domestic problems ought to be discussed would be impossible to achieve. Furthermore, my wife would have needs that prison walls would preclude my fulfilling. I could not be there to hold her, to comfort her, or even to listen to her. The emptiness caused by realizing I would lose a relationship that I thought meant the world to me, and helplessness to do anything about it, brought forth a cold and dark loneliness in my soul which I did not know was possible, a loneliness made even greater because I assumed it would grow inside of me for the duration of my prison term. I counted the equivocal blessing of having no children. On one hand, I was relieved that I would not be abandoning children in addition to a wife I could not support. On the other hand, I felt the sadness in knowing I would be too old to enjoy the experience of having children upon my release.

I spoke with other prisoners at USP Atlanta facing long-term incarceration who did have children. One prisoner, whom I will call Chris, has a four-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. He was beginning a thirty-year term and felt helpless because he realized he would be unable to play a significant part in his children's education. He told them he was going away to school, and he worried about the time he would have to tell them he is serving a prison term. Chris recognizes his role as a father is to educate, discipline, and love his children. His prison term, however, will remove him from their entire childhood. The pain of his children being reared without their father's presence is much more difficult for Chris to bear than his prison sentence.

Another prisoner, Hector, is beginning a thirty-five year sentence. He has a six year-old son who can visit only once each year because of the geographic distance between them. Hector's parents care for his son. The only thing Hector can do is let the child know through phone calls and a weekly letter that he has a father and is loved. He cannot hold the boy when he falls off his bicycle or congratulate him on a fine play he makes during a baseball game; he will not be with his son until the boy is a grown man. Hector's prison term is much more difficult because he knows he has a child in the world yet cannot contribute to his welfare.

Another prisoner, Ron, has a fourteen-year-old daughter who has had severe difficulty since his incarceration began. After Ron received a lengthy sentence, his wife sold all of the family's assets, then abandoned him and his daughter. Up until Ron's arrest, he enjoyed a close relationship with his daughter. But since his confinement, the girl's life has been turned upside down. Her mother absconded with the family's assets, her father is beyond her reach, and she is without money or a home and is living with an aunt who does not want her. The girl indicates she is severely depressed and frequently writes about taking her own life. Ron took these letters to the prison psychologist. The psychologist tried to help Ron secure a transfer to a prison closer to his daughter. Excited at the prospect of a transfer, Ron called his daughter to relay the good news. The case manager controlling Ron's file, however, refused to process the transfer request until his next scheduled unit team meeting which was six months away. The news devastated Ron and shattered the girl, nearly driving her to suicide. Ron calls his daughter up to three times each day just to keep her calm. He is angry because of the obstacles placed before him by the BOP. He is far away from home, and his daughter's life is critically affected by the distance between them. Incarceration is more difficult for Ron and other parents in prison because they cannot give their children the comfort and support they need.

Besides not being able to have children, aging was another very real concern for me and the other prisoners facing long sentences. I began my term in confinement in my early twenties but would not breathe the fresh air of freedom until I was well into my sixties. At twenty years of age, it is difficult to imagine being thirty. It is much more difficult for a twenty-year-old prisoner to realize release from prison will not come until several decades pass.

Vincent, another prisoner with whom I spoke, began serving a thirty-year sentence when he was twenty-six-years-old. He says the reality of the sentence has not yet hit him. Five years is all Vincent can think about. For the first five years, Vincent will focus on the legal issues of his case. When five years have passed and if he remains incarcerated with no relief in sight, Vincent says he will be "hitting that wall every minute of the day." Escape will consume his every waking thought. Vincent absolutely refuses to leave prison as a decrepit old man without a life; he says his crime was not severe enough to warrant such a sentence. To Vincent, there is more honor in fighting for freedom, even if it means getting killed in the process, than to spend thirty years in prison waiting for death. There would be zero opportunity for Vincent to make up for time he lost in prison; he says he will give them five years, but he will not allow the prison system to take thirty years of his life. The thought of growing old in prison is anathema to both Vincent and me, but our long sentences eclipse all thoughts of waiting for release to come.

And what is release? By the time the prison doors open for me I expect to know no one well except other male prisoners who have served long prison terms. Even if someone were to come and tell me I could go home immediately, that they would return control of my life to me, the news would leave me weary. I am growing numb to my surroundings. It is a strange numbness because I never know what will happen. There is a monotonous and regular routine, yet I know it can change abruptly, on an administrator's whim. There is no spark, no passion in life. The feelings and emotions men develop by lining in a world with women and children are becoming more absent from my life. I will have neither a home nor a career. Being forced to live in close proximity with people I loathe will affect my life and my actions. And there will be violence. How can I escape it? I am young, and I will be living in a maximum-security prison. It is inevitable that I will be tried. And I will respond in the manner appropriate for prisons. Although I am not in fear of being robbed or beaten, the constant companionship of thieves, rapists, killers, aggressive homosexuals, and snitches who will say or do anything to save their own hide is far from relaxing. All of these factors exacerbate the tensions of beginning a long prison term. They will not prepare me for release. The coming of the Messiah seems closer than my release from prison.

These thoughts generate anxiety, apathy and depression. There was a pattern to those first years. I was nervous of what I would find in prison; then I did not care; and then an ocean of depression swallowed me. Such a long sentence did not seem real. How could it? The sentence was nearly twice as long as I had been alive on the planet. I was out of high school for only five years; then, suddenly I was staring down the long end of a forty-five year prison term. No violence was even alleged in my case, and it was my first commitment. I listened to numerous violent and repeat offenders around me complaining of sentences only a fraction as long as mine. My thoughts began to turn away from the wrong decisions I made during the recklessness of youth, and turn toward the perceived injustices our criminal justice system was perpetuating against me and the friends I was meeting in prison. I was not alone.

There were numerous other prisoners around me. The vast majority were beginning lengthy prison terms for their participation in the illicit drug industry. Their level of cynicism was taller than the skyscrapers in New York City. Corrupt law makers and savings and loan bandits escape the pains of long-term imprisonment altogether, they complained, while people striving to pull themselves out of poverty regularly receive sentences totally disproportionate to their crimes. They laughed at the so-called war on drugs, more accurately describing it as a war on people.

One of the consequences of long prison terms is a loss of the prisoner's sense of their own efficacy. Prisoners are told where to live and with whom. They are issued clothing, and an indifferent administration prepares their food. They are forced to work in jobs bearing no relationship to their levels of skill, to their release dates, or to the types of employment they will receive upon release. The prison staff members tend to feel superior and righteous, while the social structure inside the prison proper brings the prisoners feelings of guilt, inferiority, and powerlessness. Time fills the prisoners with resentment and boredom. They lie on their beds staring at the bunks above them and the walls surrounding them. The prison system has taken their identities; it has removed their abilities to distinguish themselves. It tells the prisoners they can neither be trusted, given responsibility, nor opportunities to contribute to the welfare of the general community. Physical resistance is met with a massive show of force. Intellectual resistance is met with zip code changes and more subtle ways of upsetting progress. For example, those who use brawn to solve their problems will quickly be restrained with a team of prison guards. No prison mutiny has ever been successful. Prisoners who strive to upset the system through organizational efforts will be transferred to another institution or given meaningless chores to replace their contemplative time.

Prisoners adopt individual methods of coping with and adjusting to the pressures of life in confinement. Once long term prisoners get situated in prison cells, and are assigned prison jobs, they develop strategies for making their stay as light as possible. Most will look for ways to keep themselves busy mentally and physically, while a few will retreat into their own worlds and avoid contact with the prison system's social network. Many gradually lose interest in the world outside of prison walls and focus only on their time inside. They learn how to survive in prison by making it their business to know what the administration will tolerate. They want to know which prisoners are troublemakers and which prisoners mind their own business. They want to know which areas of the prison are tightly secured and which areas of the prison are loose. Long term prisoners will develop daily routines that enable them to achieve their individual goals while sliding past trouble. Prison is a microcosm of the larger society; what occurs behind the walls is intensified, exaggerated, and immediate. One prisoner said it is where you meet shock, hopelessness, helplessness, fear, depression, hate, extreme sadness, coldness and loneliness all at once. It all hits one like a freight train, and no one can help.

Support from family, friends, and educational programs has helped me cope in this environment. Nearly seven years have passed since I started this prison odyssey. I began and completed my undergraduate studies and now am nearly finished with a masters program I began independently at Hofsta University. Where many long term prisoners lose interest in the outside world and become increasingly dependent on prison routines, other prisoners and I search for ways to contribute to and remain active with the world outside. Besides a demanding academic program, I also exercise regularly and keep an eye open for potential problems. Other active prisoners write prolifically, immerse themselves in the law library, or seek spiritual programs. I find a busy schedule keeps me away from trouble and focused on my academic goals; such goals are meaningless, I realize, to many other prisoners. The prison system is not designed to inspire progress. Although administrators have ample sanctions from which they can draw to punish prisoners who break prison regulation, they neither encourage nor reward those who make significant progress behind prison walls.

Prisoners notice that an incentive system is missing. My studies of prisoners in the BOP suggest it is the reason such a minute percentage put forth the energy to develop skills that will enhance their chances for success upon release. Prisoners see no relationship between hard work and better living conditions; there is no indication their behavior in prison can help them advance their release dates. All prisoners with whom I spoke said they would pursue zealously educational programs if some type of meaningful incentive system existed. But there is no quid pro quo, no tit for tat. Accordingly, prisoners spend their time learning to live as comfortable as possible during their stay in prison. They become hustlers, scammers, and artists of the con. They learns to break rules without getting caught and taking pride in beating the system. Their behavior is a natural response. They are compensating for a social structure that forces prisoners to live under a coercive system which tells them their efforts are worthless. A long term prisoner who aspires to accomplish goals during incarceration is offensive to the administration because such a prisoner is not truly a prisoner. His or her mind is free. The administration demands that prisoners limit themselves to their functions as prisoners; doing time without attracting attention or disrupting the system.

Those facing long prison terms recognize prison as the world in which they will spend long periods of their lives. They will live without the companionship of the opposite sex; ties to their families and communities will separate. Relatives will both come into their families through birth and marriage and some will pass on through death; these events will happen without the prisoner's participation. Prison is the least likely place for positive changes to occur in human beings. It is an environment where such seemingly effortless activities as holding onto one's identity and sanity take on a significance of paramount importance. Some prisoners say long prison terms are like drawn-out death sentences. I will just say they are futile and excessive acts of vengeance.[/quote]
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