While Michael Santos was waiting to be sentenced to a 45-year term for dealing drugs, he picked up a copy of Treasury of Philosophy and started learning about Socrates. He then realized the limitations of his knowledge and began taking steps in turning his life around.
Santos decided to serve his prison term with dignity and honor. He recalls telling the judge, “I have to find a way to reconcile with society.”
Santos, 48, has been in community confinement since August. Nevertheless, he’s still federal prisoner No. 16377004.
While incarcerated, Santos wrote seven books. His best-known book, Inside, was published in 2006.
He is the son of Cuban immigrants, grew up in a five-bedroom house on five acres in Lake Forest Park, a Seattle suburb. His older sister, Julie, described their family, “We were a clean-cut, athletic family. Nothing about our upbringing would lead us to deal drugs.”
After graduating from high school, Santos for his father’s business and helped the company grow. He began using company funds to finance cocaine distribution. He made $100,000 in a day, but his greediness needed millions, so he moved to Miami to work directly with suppliers.
The movies “Scarface” and “Miami Vice” influenced his behavior. As an enterprising businessman/trafficker in Miami, he drove a Porsche with a diamond-faced Rolex on one arm, and a South American wife in tight designer clothes on the other.
Santos was 23 when the Drug Enforcement Administration caught up with him in 1987. He was charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise. His partners testified against him, and the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts.
As soon as he got to the penitentiary, his wife divorced him.
During his term Santos kept three goals stating, “One was to educate myself, one was to find a way to contribute to society, and the third was to start building a support network of law-abiding citizens who could mentor me.”
He got his bachelor’s degree from Mercer University, majoring in human resources management, got his master’s degree and was working on his doctorate when a warden put a stop to it by dropping his access to library books sent by the university.
No warden could stop him from writing, though Santos said some tried, through disciplinary actions and transfers as evidenced by being placed in 19 different federal prisons.
Santos set up an internet website.
When his 20th high school reunion rolled around, Carole Goodwin, who organized the event and had known Santos since the fifth grade, tracked him down through his website. Goodwin, a divorcee with two children, wrote a letter that led to a correspondence and then a romance. The couple got married in a prison visiting room and their honeymoon was at the vending machines.
Santos new wife relocated each time there was a transfer for Santos and she helped with publishing Santos’ books. He has published more than a million words, and made between $300,000 and $400,000 in royalties and fees.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Santos stated, “The entire journey for me has been hyper-deliberate… It has all been in preparation for this period of time when I can emerge into society with opportunities to live as a contributing citizen. Nothing distracts me from what I need to do.”
Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersillia stated, “For people who are lacking in hope, he has become a messiah… There is a dearth of hope in prison, and Michael is trying to give it to them. Through his books, he created this movement, this kind of, ‘You can do it too.’”
“My strategy was to minimize my contact with the prison population to avoid violence,” says Santos, and it helped that he didn’t snitch against his partners in crime.
Santos went from 10 minutes a day on a prison pay phone to having an iPhone in his hands. He’d never seen one before, he hadn’t touched a steering wheel since 1987 or eaten with a metal fork or taken a shower without shower shoes.
After 9,135 days in federal custody, his wife, Carol, was waiting with a pizza from a local restaurant. “I’ll never forget the minute that we crossed over from the prison boundaries into the civilian world,” said Carol, “It was… I’m going to cry.”
The reunion with his wife was short because Santos had three hours to report to a halfway house. While in his room, he is either sleeping or exercising. He goes to bed at 8:15 in order to be up at 3 a.m., answering e-mails before he leaves to work at 6, six days a week.
If Santos follows all the rules of the halfway house, he will transition to home confinement in Petaluma, before transitioning to several years of probation. There are plans to publish more books, “Three a year,” is the quota he’s set.
Professor Petersilia has invited Santos to lecture her Stanford law school class and he’s been invited to lecture out of state. But he is not allowed to leave California for a year. Regrettably, he is unable to attend the 30th reunion of his high school, but he says with a laugh, “Maybe we’ll hit the 50-year reunion.”
This story is attributed to the reporting of Sam Whiting, SF Chronicle.
Santos website is www.michaelsantos.net.