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America Incarcerated

How I Held Onto Hope After Being Sentenced to Prison for Cocaine Trafficking

During my 26 years in federal lockups of all kinds, I earned a bachelor's and master's degree, published several books, and found the love of my life.
Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos

VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

On August 11, 1987, I stepped out of the elevator and began walking toward my condo on Key Biscayne. I saw three unfamiliar men loitering near the front door. They wore dark blue jackets and baseball caps, their eyes boring into me as I approached.


"What's your name?" one of the men barked; he spoke like someone who got answers to his questions.

"I'm Michael Santos."

On cue, the three men pulled handguns and pointed them at my head. "You're under arrest! Hands up. Face the wall." One of the guys quickly stepped behind me to lock my wrists in cuffs and frisk me.

I knew my time had come. I was 23 years old, and for the past two years I'd been leading a scheme to distribute cocaine. I co-opted friends from high school in Seattle. They flew to Miami to retrieve multiple-kilogram quantities that I'd purchased. In rented cars, they drove the cocaine back to Seattle and distributed it to clients at my direction. Foolishly, I deluded myself into believing that as long as I didn't handle the cocaine directly, I'd never be caught.

I was wrong.

"You know we'll let you out and go home if you cooperate with us, introduce us to your supplier," one DEA agent told me.

I sat silently, ignoring the agents' efforts to flip me. It wasn't that I considered myself a hardened criminal. I was simply foolish, not understanding the magnitude of problems that I was confronting.

"You've been indicted for leading a continuing criminal enterprise."

I'd never been incarcerated before. When we drove off the island paradise of Key Biscayne and into the seedier parts of downtown Miami, I wondered what was coming my way. Trying to remain stoic, I waited to see how the process would unfold.


"You're facing life in prison, without parole. Think you can handle it?"

The threat didn't make sense to me. Everyone involved in my case was a consenting adult and no one had used weapons or violence. As the agents spoke, I looked out the window, convincing myself that they were simply trying to frighten me. At the time, all I cared about was being released. The criminal defense lawyer I had hired several months previously advised that if authorities should ever arrest me, I should keep silent. I hoped he could get me out, but inside I knew I was in deep trouble.

Turns out I made really bad decisions after my arrest. Instead of accepting responsibility and pleading guilty, I put the government to the test, forcing prosecutors to convict me after a jury trial. During the trial, I took the witness stand in my defense. A court official presented a Bible and instructed me to place my hand on it. Then, after she said, "Do you swear to tell the truth so help you God?" I lied. Essentially, I asked the jurors to ignore evidence from scores of people who testified against me. Instead, I wanted them to believe me and set me free. The jurors saw through my ruse. They agreed unanimously with the prosecutor, convicting me on every count.

In the chains that had become familiar to me, I returned to the Pierce County Jail. The gates opened and swallowed me inside and I retreated to my assigned cell, thoughts weighing heavily and anchoring my spirit. The mandatory-minimum sentence was ten years. Yet as a consequence of the perjured testimony I gave under oath, there wasn't any way my judge would sentence me to the minimum. Life without the possibility of parole seemed surreal, but I braced myself for the possibility. Once I realized that I could potentially spend the rest of my life in prison, the gravity of my predicament became clear.


While waiting for my judge to impose sentence, I prayed. They weren't prayers to get me out—that ship had sailed. Instead, I prayed for strength, for guidance to cross through the labyrinth that separated me from freedom. Those prayers led me to a philosophy anthology where I found the story of Socrates, the philosopher who lived more than 2,500 years ago. He'd been sentenced to death and was waiting in his cell for his execution date when he received a visitor who revealed an escape plot. Since I wanted freedom more than anything, I expected Socrates wanted the same. Surely he would seize the moment and escape. But he didn't. When asked why he declined the offer to escape and spare himself from execution, Socrates revealed his reasons. That story led to my transformation inside the Pierce County Jail. In a democracy, Socrates said, he had the right to work toward changing laws that didn't sit right with him. He didn't have the right to break laws.

Decades have passed since that day, but I still can feel the weight of that book on my chest as I stared at the concrete ceiling of my cell and the graffiti on the wall. I clasped my hands behind my head and began to project years into the future. Although I didn't know what sentence my judge would impose, I knew that I wanted to serve the sentence with my dignity intact. I needed to create an adjustment plan that would help me emerge successfully—whenever my term would end.


But what could I do?

Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

The jail didn't provide any guidance. Guards told people in prison they didn't have "nothin' comin'!" Other prisoners advised that the best way to serve time was to forget about the world outside and focus on the prison culture. But I tried to tune this out and started to project into the future. Regardless of what sentence my judge imposed, I anticipated being released someday. I believed that a time would come when I'd return to society.

That hope led to thoughts about what citizens would expect from a man who sold cocaine during his early 20s. Could he accomplish anything that would influence others to see him as something different from a coke dealer?

Those thoughts led to my three-pronged plan. If I were to focus on 1) educating myself, 2) contributing to society, and 3) building a support network, others would judge me differently. Rather than rejecting me because of the serious felony crimes I committed as a young man, I would influence them to accept me because of progress I made while locked away.

That adjustment strategy carried me through 26 years in federal prisons of every security level. While inside I earned a bachelor's and a master's degree. Then, I contributed to society by publishing several books to help others understand prisons, the people they hold, and strategies to overcome struggle. Through those efforts, I built a massive support system, including finding the love of my life and marrying her inside of a prison visiting room.

I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons in August of 2013. Despite the 9,500 days that I served, my return to society passed much more seamlessly than anyone would've expected. In fact, 17 days after finishing my term, I became an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University. During my first two years of liberty, I've been building a career around my journey, working to resolve one of the greatest social injustices of our times: Our nation's commitment to mass incarceration. It's a wretched system that perpetuates intergenerational cycles of recidivism. In the series of essays that follow this one, I'll introduce you to others who served time in prison. Those individuals will describe challenges they faced upon their return to society after losing years to America's failure factories.

As it turns out, the longer we expose someone to "corrections," the more obstacles we create for individuals who want to function in society as law-abiding, contributing Americans.

Follow Michael Santos on Twitter and check out his website here.