Daydreams of Saints

Talk about rehabilitation.

Michael Santos is extraordinary. If you haven’t heard of him, you should look him up. He’s 51 years old, but he’s got the vitality of someone half his age, or younger, which is surprising because he’s lived more than half his life in the federal prison system. In 2013, he completed a 26-year prison sentence, but he’s not only managed to emerge from prison whole, with his dignity intact; he’s emerged as a serious academic, published author, and well-respected, sought-after expert on sentencing policy and prison administration. He may be quick to tell you he’s not a saint, but he earned his redemption a long time ago, and his story serves as a striking example of indomitable human will and spirit.

Back in 1985, when he was 21 years old, brash and invincible, Santos agreed to participate in a friend’s cocaine deal. He had access to large sums of cash because he worked for his family’s successful construction business, so he agreed to finance the deal. The two made $40,000 together on that deal, and they were off to the races. They ended up moving a few million dollars’ worth of product, and Santos lived in the fast lane for about eighteen months before the show abruptly stopped. His friend, who was arrested much earlier than that, worked undercover against him for the last year, and in exchange for that cooperation and his testimony in court, the friend was sentenced to four years in prison, of which he served more than two. Santos was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Imagine that sentence at his age or any age: forty-five years. It should’ve broken Santos like it would most of us, but it didn’t.

With all the good-time credit in the world, Santos was required to serve 26 years of his sentence, and that’s what he did. By the time he was released in 2013, he not only had a clean prison record but had earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and the love of a woman who’d become his wife. He’d published fifteen books, read many multiples more, accumulated a savings account, and run marathons in circles around dingy prison tracks. Along the way, he’d moved through every security level of the federal system—from high to medium to low to minimum—and written extensively about prison and the dreams that helped him survive it and succeed.

Maybe we’re all saints, then, and maybe we’re all sinners.

Having followed Michael’s work online, I met him in person a couple months ago and have spent time with him since. Two weeks ago, he invited me onto his Earning Freedom podcast to talk about criminal justice and my practice. Here is our midmorning conversation from that day, and here are links to Michael’s TEDx talk and PBS NewsHour profile.

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