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Former inmate speaks out against U.S. ‘commitment’ to mass incarceration

April 2, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
During Michael Santos’ 26 years in federal prisons, he read books on history and law, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees and wrote seven books about the criminal justice system. Now, just six months after his release, Santos is imploring prisoners to follow his lead, and speaking out against the U.S. correctional system. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: one man’s effort to turn prisoners’ lives around, just as he did his own.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

MICHAEL SANTOS: You may see me wearing a blue suit — or blue pants and a blue shirt right now, but the reality is, is that my journey began inside of a jail cell just like this 26 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Santos is back behind bars.

MICHAEL SANTOS: I feel a real kinship with every guy in this room.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, this time, it’s his choice. Santos was just 23 when he was convicted of trafficking cocaine in 1987.

His operation was big enough to draw a 45-year sentence. And with credit given for good behavior, he served 26 years in federal prisons.

MICHAEL SANTOS: You can become the best in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now he’s telling inmates his personal story of transformation.

MICHAEL SANTOS: The vision that I always had, that I would be able to come back to society, put on a suit and tie, and have nobody know that I ever served a day in prison, and that’s the vision that I want to instill in every man in this room.

JEFFREY BROWN: Santos had support from his family. But he also had an inner drive that’s apparent to this day.

Here’s you as a very young man.

MICHAEL SANTOS: Yes, I’m 23 years old, locked inside of the Pierce County Jail.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the moment he arrived in prison, he began preparing himself for the day he’d be released, even if it was decades away. He read books on philosophy, history and law.

MICHAEL SANTOS: That’s George Cole from the University of Connecticut.

JEFFREY BROWN: He reached out to leading scholars of criminal justice at places like Stanford and Princeton, some of whom were impressed enough to become mentors.

And this is graduation day inside?

MICHAEL SANTOS: Yes, that was the day I earned…

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, Santos earned undergraduate and master’s degrees and wrote seven books about the criminal justice system, all from inside prison walls.

MICHAEL SANTOS: My main thing, my main message is, you have got to be able to say, I make 100 percent commitment to rejecting the criminal lifestyle. I make 100 percent commitment to preparing for success upon release.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, just six months after his release, Santos was imploring others to follow his lead to a life after prison.

I would think that, in one way, the last place you would want to go is back to prison, to back behind those doors.

MICHAEL SANTOS: I had opportunities to just completely walk away from this, my past, and take jobs with some sponsors who were — ran successful businesses. But I have a role and a duty to show others how to prepare, how to come back strong. I have a duty to work to help the formerly incarcerated transition into the labor market.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Santos has a larger message as well to the rest of us, that the criminal justice system is broken.

MICHAEL SANTOS: This is a national disgrace, our commitment to mass incarceration. I believe it’s the greatest social injustice of our time.

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.

JEFFREY BROWN: With the kind of energy that comes from a man making up for lost years, Santos is wasting no time. A Silicon Valley executive impressed by Santos’ work invited him to speak at an annual conference.

MICHAEL SANTOS: We may call it a system of corrections, but, in reality, it is a system that warehouses humanity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Santos told the group he believes prisons are filled with repeat offenders because jail time teaches inmates how to live on the inside, not the outside.

MICHAEL SANTOS: It is a fundamentally flawed system. It is a fundamentally flawed system because it is fundamentally different from what makes Silicon Valley great. You look at failure and you figure out a better way of doing it.

Rather than looking at how many calendar pages turn to measure justice, we should look at how hard an individual works to reconcile with society and to become one as a law-abiding citizen. We should take the same approach that’s led to success in so many other areas of our society, which is encouraging individuals to pursue excellence.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would that take?

MICHAEL SANTOS: Well, frankly, I would talk about the way that we measure justice. We should have a system that encourages and incentivizes people to work to earn the trust and the respect of their fellow citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but they’re there — I mean, part of the idea is punishment, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Take away some of the freedom.

MICHAEL SANTOS: So, yes, part — that’s part of the idea.

The question is, is how much punishment is necessary? There comes a time where there is a depreciated — depreciated value system of this punishment. And so the punishment wears off, because prison becomes home.

JEFFREY BROWN: We joined Michael Santos at the Five Keys Charter School, located inside San Francisco’s county jail.

Here, inmates have an opportunity to earn a high school degree, set-long term goals, and listen to inspirational guest speakers, like Michael Santos himself.

MAN: How do you conquer those feelings of being hopeless, and what can I — what can I do when people tell me I can’t?

MICHAEL SANTOS: I think the first step is to quit identifying yourself as a convict. You can start reverse-engineering. If I know where I have to be in 10 years, where do I have to be in five years? Where do I have to be in three years? Where do I have to be in one year?

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Good is the executive director of the Five Keys school.

STEVE GOOD, San Francisco Sheriff’s Department: Michael Santos is a great example of somebody who took advantage of an opportunity that he had while he was incarcerated. Those opportunities are few and far between. And programs like Five Keys in the San Francisco jail is really the exception, not the rule.

MICHAEL SANTOS: So, Junior, I need to see yourself working.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inmates like Junior Leapaga and Maurice Boyland, who’ve spent years off and on behind bars, told us they were inspired by Santos to turn their lives around. But their experiences also illustrate how hard it will be.

JUNIOR LEAPAGA: Usually, when I get out of jail or institutions, I have the best intentions to do good while I’m doing the time. And as soon as I hit the streets and put on my joe regular clothes, it’s a birthday for me. In other — I’m there to celebrate, and that’s what leads me the wrong path.

MAN: Yes, I have always been halfway in and halfway out. I have never been fully committed, which always stopped me from achieving my goals.

MICHAEL SANTOS: Who are these 53 different criminal justice systems?

JEFFREY BROWN: And Santos is getting his message out in other ways as well. He’s also a lecturer at San Francisco State University, teaching a course called “The Architecture of Incarceration.”  In just its second semester, it’s become hugely popular with criminal justice majors, some squeezing onto empty floor spaces.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read your life story, and you’re an impressive individual. But what about the thousands or even millions of others out there? What makes you think that they could do what you have done?

MICHAEL SANTOS: I think the biggest problem in our criminal justice system is that we don’t set goals high enough. In fact, when I was in prison and a guard would see me, and he’d say, it doesn’t look right, you don’t fit the profile, I said, isn’t that ironic? You’re a correctional officer, but when you see somebody who comes back whole, you wonder what went wrong, rather than saying, what are we doing right?

And we need to send a message that people in prison can come back whole. I believe absolutely that any individual can do it, if we can change the narrative.

JEFFREY BROWN: The San Francisco County inmates we talked to were certainly ready for that, even knowing the tough odds of changing institutions and themselves.