I look at The Last Mile logo and see the symbol of brighter days rather than a long road ahead. That logo speaks to me. I relate to the message of hope, just as I relate to all of the men who participate in The Last Mile program at San Quentin.
When I began serving my federal prison term in 1987, I didn’t know where the road would lead. I was confined in a high security federal prison, without mentors like Chris Redlitz, Beverly Parenti, or any of the leading citizens who support and contribute to The Last Mile. By working hard through the prison journey, I believed that I could will such mentors into my life.
A fierce determination to cross that road and reach sunnier days motivated me, as I aspired to work alongside leaders in society, to become something more than the bad decisions of my past. If I followed a principled path throughout my lengthy journey of imprisonment, striving every day to reconcile with society, I believed that I could leave prison differently from the ways that others would expect. Staying true to that vision required that I work:
- to educate myself,
- to contribute to society, and
- to build a support network.
That perspective of a better life strengthened me. It gave me a high level of energy and discipline through each of the 9,500 days that separated my official release date from the day that authorities first locked the steel gates of a high-security penitentiary behind me. As the weeks turned into months, the months turned into years, and the years turned into decades, I tuned out the negativity of my environment, choosing instead to focus on where I wanted to go rather than where I was.
Authorities officially released me on August 12, 2013, after 26 consecutive years of confinement. The deliberate adjustment through imprisonment opened my eyes to extraordinary opportunities that I could seize. By focusing on the possible, on what I could become, rather than the suffocating despair of imprisonment, I renewed my energy each day. That strategy allowed me to return to society differently from expectations that many in society would have for a long-term prisoner. When prison became a part of my past, I had values, skills, and resources in place to launch a new life, with my dignity intact.
Seventeen days after concluding my prison term, on August 29, 2013, I took on a new role in society. The Criminal Justice Department at San Francisco State University hired me to teach a course called The Architecture of Incarceration. I walked into the classroom and met a group of 70 students. They expected to graduate within the next six months and most aspired to careers in law enforcement. I looked forward to influencing their perspectives on the need to reform America’s prison system.
I will teach this course in a seminar format, beginning each class with a brief lecture to prompt what I hope will become a vibrant discussion. Participants should know that I was arrested on August 13, 1987. I lived as a federal prisoner for 26 years, until August 12, 2013. I will teach from literature as well as from personal experiences gleaned from being confined in prisons of every security level. Student discussion is an essential part of the course instruction. Accordingly, students may ask anything about my background, my experiences through prison, and my experiences upon release.
I wanted each of the students to see me as being authentic, as a man who finished serving a lengthy prison term less than three weeks before. Yet they saw me as something different. Their perspectives became clear when they kept calling me “professor,” rather than Michael. When I realized that my students were considering me for my new role rather than the bad decisions of my past, I realized that a transformation had begun. For decades I had learned to live as a prisoner. Others were now seeing me as a fellow citizen.
I share this story with hopes that others will focus on the light ahead rather than the seemingly long road they must walk to reach a better future. In time, The Last Mile will come. Each step along that road can lead to success. Strive to prove worthy, always preparing to seize opportunities along the way.
Michael Santos was arrested at the age of 23, on August 11, 1987. He served the next 9,500 days as a federal prisoner. During his quarter century of confinement, Michael earned a bachelor’s degree from Mercer University and a master’s degree from Hofstra University. He published numerous books to help readers understand prisons, and strategies to triumph over imprisonment. His book Inside: Life Behind Bars in America was released in 2006 to critical and academic acclaim, and is now a staple of penology curricula in universities around the country.