SAN FRANCISCO—The United States has the highest per capita rate of people serving time behind bars. Worse, once someone has been incarcerated, chances are high they’ll return. In fact, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States, about half of former inmates return to jail or prison within three years after their release.
The reasons for recidivism are complex. Many former convicts fail the tough probationary requirements; others are simply not prepared for life “on the outside” after so many years in institutions where they were told what to do, when to eat, and when to sleep.
One former prisoner is working to reverse this trend through an innovative program that urges inmates to develop a positive attitude, set goals, and work toward fulfilling them, all while still serving their sentences. Michael Santos, now 50, spent 26 years in federal prison after being convicted in 1987 of running a cocaine smuggling operation. Instead of getting angry at what he describes as an “unreasonably long” sentence, Santos decided to make his time count. He kept to a strict schedule, getting up at 6 a.m., working out, heading to work, and trying to keep himself isolated from other prisoners. He pursued degrees, volunteered in the prison hospital, and wrote seven books about what he was seeing inside America’s penitentiary system.
“An individual who wants to improve his quality of life inside an institution isn’t studying to advance his vocational skills or his educational program, he’s figuring out what gang he’s going to run with that’s going to increase his power base inside this environment,” Michael explains. “The person who gets the best job in prison or a single cell is the person who is most violent and that controls the most power in the underground economy. And that’s a flaw.”
Since he left prison in August 2013, Michael, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, has been touring the country giving talks about his experiences to universities, prisons, and community groups. He’s also created a life-skills program called “The Straight A Guide”, a video tutorial that urges inmates to think about ways they can contribute to society and use their sentences to prepare themselves for a life of purpose once they’re out.
“In prison, there are two different messages that occur in every institution: From the staff members, prisoners are going to hear, ‘You got nothing coming,’” Michael says. “From other prisoners, they’re going to hear, ‘The only thing you need to survive in this environment is a ball of hate in your stomach, and a knife.’ That message doesn’t prepare anybody for success.”
Michael’s message of discipline, focus, and positivity is resonating with several facilities, including the Los Angeles sheriff’s office and the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall, which recently purchased his program.
“People really like his optimistic and realistic message to motivating these kids and inspiring them to turn their lives around,” says Angela Haick, a principal at the Osborne School, a juvenile hall located in San Jose, California. There, Michael’s books are so popular, the facility has had to order more copies. “Our kids are products of their environment, and their decision-making is based upon their experiences. Our goal is to give them new experiences, new ideas, and new expectations to get them to change their thinking and open their minds to new possibilities.”
Michael knows it’s best to appeal to young convicts who are not yet hardened by years in prison. But he’s also bringing his message to future employees of the criminal justice system by teaching a class at San Francisco State University, beginning in the fall of 2013. In this class, called The Architecture of Imprisonment, he shares his experience of life behind bars. He also brings in guest speakers, such as parole officers, probationers, and others who work inside the criminal justice system.
Students hear Michael criticize the rigid system of risk assessments, such as mandatory drug tests for probationers who have never had a problem with drugs. That, he says, often forces people to choose between skipping work in order to be in compliance–or returning to prison.
“If I could make a case, I have a job waiting, I have a place to live, I have stability, it would seem that any probation office should say, ‘This is the path to success,’” he says. “But that’s not a message that’s getting through to most people in the Architecture of Imprisonment. All they’re hearing is ‘This is the policy.’”
For 26 years, Michael says the message he and his fellow inmates were received was that they could do nothing to redeem themselves. And this is a message he is determined to undo. With nearly two-and-a-half million people doing time in America’s prisons, the potential audience for his ideas is huge.
“I’ve been that person that people said you should have never been brought back to society, and now I’m here and teaching at a university and anybody can have that outcome,” he says. “And we as a society would be far better off if we sowed that message of hope rather than perpetuating this system of failure.”
Learn more about Michael’s Straight-A Guide Reentry Program by watching the video below.
Featured photo: Michael G Santos speaking at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall. Photo courtesy of Michael G. Santos
To learn more about Michael Santos and his work to reduce recidivism in U.S. prisons, visit michaelsantos.com