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.
I sat on a curb beside a steel gate inside of the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California on the morning of August 13, 2012. It was my 9,135th day of incarceration, and it was going to be my last. DEA agents had arrested me for leading a scheme to distribute cocaine more than 25 years earlier, on August 11, 1987.
But I wasn't yet free. I'd have to serve my final year inside of a skid row halfway house on the corner of Taylor and Turk in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. My case manager had told me to report to the rear gate by 7:30. The guard didn't show up until 8:30.
"Are you Santos?"
"Let him pass." he said into his walkie-talkie before the gate opened. "Let's go."
That was it. Thirty minutes later, the guard finished his administrative paperwork and processed me out. I walked—without chains!—through long corridors in which I could smell the institutional-strength cleaning solvents from freshly polished floors that I'd never crossed before. We passed steel bars that opened electronically. Finally, I reached the last steel door, heard an electronic buzz, and the door cracked open. I pushed my way through into the lobby, closer to freedom than I could remember being before.
Even the air felt different.
As I stepped toward the penitentiary's lobby, I saw Carole. She married me inside of a different prison's visiting room on June 24, 2003. Other than those hours we were allowed to sit beside each other, with bright fluorescent lights shining above—and obtrusive guards eyeballing us—we'd never been together before. As I saw her, lyrics from an old song by Tony Orlando played in my head: "Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree, if you still love me..." She wore a dress, with a yellow belt cinched around her waist. For the first time, I could kiss my wife without worrying about a guard reprimanding me.
"Let's get out of here," she said.
Carole had been visiting me in prisons for more than a decade and couldn't wait to leave them behind. We didn't have much time together. Guards only authorized three hours for her to drive me to the halfway house in San Francisco.
"This is yours," she said, handing me an iPhone as I strapped my seatbelt on in her SUV.
I'd never held a modern cell phone, never used the internet, never sent an email. That type of technology didn't exist when I'd been locked away.
"It's really small," I said. I'd seen pictures of an iPhone in magazines, but this one looked tiny and felt light. When I pressed the phone to my ear, I thought it didn't work because there wasn't a dial tone.
Carole giggled as she showed me how to make calls and use the various apps. While she drove, I talked to family members and friends, admiring the scenery of liberty.
Check out the moment President Obama meets with federal prison inmates as part of our upcoming HBO special on the criminal justice system.
"I'm Michael Santos."
The guard on the other side of the glass cage told me to speak louder. "I just got released from the prison in Atwater. I was supposed to be here an hour ago but traffic was bad."
I held Carole and kissed her goodbye when the guard buzzed me inside. Rules permitted me to carry the iPhone and a care package Carole prepared into the new institution. The halfway house was supposed to be my residence for the next year.
The guard who processed me inside told me his name was Fidelis. By his accent, I could tell he was from Nigeria (several of my fellow inmates in Fort Dix, New Jersey, had come from there). He seemed cool. When I answered his question about how long I'd been locked up, he seemed to give me a pass and spare me the bureaucratic interferences that I'd been anticipating.
"Welcome home," Fidelis said, giving me a key and telling me that I'd been assigned to room 217.
Decades had passed since the last time I'd held a key.
Armed robbers served time alongside pregnant women who were in for forging checks.
The halfway house was a whole new world. For one thing, it was co-ed. Hundreds of people loitered in the lobby, men and women. Instead of uniforms, they wore their own clothing. They were eating food from restaurants. I'd served my final decade inside of various minimum-security prisons; higher-security prisons confined me during my first 15 years of incarceration. Each prison had its own vibe because the prisoners shared the same custody and security classification. The halfway house, on the other hand, confined people from every security level. Armed robbers served time alongside pregnant women who were in for forging checks. I wondered how long it would take before rules would allow me to buy food from the community.
After introducing myself to Tom, my new roommate, I learned a lot more.
"This place sucks," he said.
Tom told me about his experiences. From his perspective, the case manager didn't appreciate the challenges convicted felons faced in the job market. For example, after Tom persuaded a mechanic to hire him as a janitor, he hoped for a pass that would allow him to spend weekends at home. Rather than encouraging Tom by issuing the pass, the case manager refused. He cited policies that prohibited home passes until he completed classes that the halfway house offered during his work hours. Attending the classes would authorize Tom for the home pass, but time away from work would threaten his job. Those types of obstructions, to Tom, felt worse than the interference he received while in prison.
If I didn't have a job, Tom told me that I wouldn't be able to get much time outside of the halfway house. Once I found a job, he said, I'd be able to get home passes on weekends. To qualify for the passes, however, he said that I'd need to complete ten classes. My case manager would explain everything the next day.
Frank Sinatra sang about making it in New York—if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. I made it through over 25 years of prison, and didn't have any doubt that I could make it through a year in a halfway house—regardless of what complications the case manager presented. Without a doubt, I thought, succeeding through a quarter-century in prison prepared me for any and all halfway house challenges.
The following day, I sat across the table from Charles, my case manager. His cologne overpowered the room. With pomade slicking down his hair, Charles bore a striking resemblance to the actor Billy Dee Williams. He looked at me with amazement when I told him that I had secured a job before being released from prison. "I'm ready to go to work as soon as you allow," I said.
"How were you able to persuade an employer to hire you while you were still locked up?"
"I began preparing for my release the day I got convicted," I replied. "It made all the difference. Despite interference from the system, I educated myself, published books, and built a support network."
"In order to work," he said, "you'll need to pay subsistence. That's 25 percent of your gross earnings."
"Not a problem. I've got sufficient savings to cover my expenses for more than a year right now. I'll pay whatever is required if you let me work."
Charles looked at me curiously, as if I were an ape who had learned how to talk. Since I could present myself from a position of strength, my relationship with the case manager began differently than Tom's. Instead of requiring that I attend the classes, Charles said I could simply write an essay. He gave me a pass to walk out into the city so that I could purchase clothing for work. The next day, I was off, ready to begin building my life. With a job waiting, I was authorized to leave the halfway house at six each morning, six days a week. I didn't have to return until nine in the evening. Basically, I just slept there. Soon after arriving, I received weekend passes to stay at home with Carole.
Preparations inside made for an easy adjustment through the San Francisco Halfway House. Not every prisoner has it so easy.