Today we have a special guest, Michael Santos. You’re used to usually hearing from somebody who’s some corporate executive, or outstanding entrepreneur, and that is one nice story that we hear a lot. But this is somebody who has come over what I would like to say insurmountable, but he overcame the odds, and has really been an inspiration and works to be an inspiration for others. He had been in prison for I believe it was 26 years, Michael?
Michael: That is correct, 26 calendar years.
Thomas: Wow. The way you say that, I’m sure it made a striking impression. He’s taken that, what he learned, and what he did during that time, and is using that to try to help other people who are in similar situations. You’ve heard me talk often about overcoming or breaking through the odds, etc. This is probably one of the most unique circumstances. One, when listening to this, should be thinking: “Dang, I know I can do what I plan on doing.”
Michael, tell us a little bit more about that story.
Michael: I was a young man who was misdirected. Made a lot of bad decisions, following a really reckless transition from adolescence into adulthood. I think it was around 1985, I saw this movie Scarface and was influenced in the worst possible way, thinking it would be a really exciting way to live. I moved from my home in North Seattle to South Florida in Miami, and began trafficking and cocaine. Really a lack of understanding of the criminal justice system resulted in me deluding myself into believing that if I didn’t actually handle the cocaine, I wouldn’t be breaking the law, so I coopted a group of friends from high school. We were all in our early 20s. I think we were 20. I coopted them into the scheme, and they began transporting the cocaine back to Seattle; from Miami to Seattle.
That lasted for about 18 months until my friends started getting caught, and rather than wanting to face the lengthy sentences that were awaiting them during that dawn on the war on drugs, they began cooperating with authorities. And, as a consequence, I was arrested. Although there wasn’t any weapons involved or violence in our particular case, the charge that I face exposed me to a very long sentence because I was considered a leader. I was a leader, but at that time in my life, I wasn’t quite ready to accept responsibility and was just willing to accept the advice of counsel that I could beat this at trial.
I went to trial, and subsequently, I was convicted on every count. My judge sentenced me to 45 years in federal prison. That is the short version of the story.
Thomas: That is quite a story. What is interesting also about it is that you say—I’ve detected almost tongue-in-cheek—you were a leader, which of course the thing that hurt you a lot, but it’s so easily to be led. You were led by things that you saw, etc., Scarface, and other things, and how it romanticized life. It makes me wonder about a lot of the TV and stuff that goes on today. Then also, how friendships influence one another, that is your environment. Your environment, to some extent, my environment—I’m not talking about the sunshine and stuff like this—but the people around you, the social, the collective ideas and thoughts that you had as a bunch of kids talking to each other, and each confirming each other’s great idea.
Michael: Yeah, we were just young and eager to have a good time, and not really appreciating the role we had in society by engaging in the type of behavior that we were doing. We were just 20 years old, thinking that we were having fun. The reality was the law… When I said “leader,” I meant it in a legal term. What that means is the particular crime for which I was convicted was called the “Continuing Criminal Enterprise,” and there were some really strict elements that the prosecutors had to prove, and that was that the individual had to have led, or manage, or oversaw five or more people, the individual would have had to have engaged in three or more overt acts like renting a car or renting an apartment to store the drugs or making a phone call, and the third is that the crime had to involve substantial amounts of money – that’s not defined; that would be in the eyes of a jury. It could be, for some people, $500; for others, it could be $500,000. Any way you cut it, by that definition, I was a leader of that crime and I was convicted of it. Certainly many influences made an impression upon me, and I just lacked the good character to make good decisions.
Thomas: Sometimes that character, particularly when you’re younger, comes very fleeting. It’s basically impressions you get from each other, or parents, or other things. I look at so much of people in society. One of the things that we’ve talked about that I say often is the distribution of IQs is the same whether you’re in a ghetto, a small southern town in the middle of nowhere, or a major city. It’s all the same. The difference is what you’re exposed to, what you see, and how you’re influenced. There’s always somebody out there with a great idea that may turn out to be nothing more than a scheme.
Michael: It certainly was, in my case, a bad idea. I have deep remorse for it. I can tell you and your listeners that it turned out to be a pivotal, pivotal time in my life that really led to a transformation, a life of fulfillment, meaning, and relevance even though I did serve 26 calendar years in federal prison.
Thomas: It’s interesting. Actually, that’s part of what I want to get into that I find interesting. You had to overcome a combination of things. I don’t know, but I would imagine inside prison that it’s not the greatest atmosphere to develop great ideas and thoughts about what to do in the future, but somehow you overcame whatever influences… Because those were not better influences than you could have gotten outside, but you did overcome it. How did you do that?
Michael: I can tell you about it. I was inspired. It happened at a really awkward moment. Had it happened a little bit sooner, I would have had a different outcome, but we’ve got to take the world as it exists, and not as we want it to be. Here’s the story: I was arrested on August the 11th of 1987. When I was arrested, all I thought about was wanting to get out of prison. It wasn’t until I went through the judicial process and I was convicted of every count that I recognized: “Wow, I am in big trouble and I made some bad decisions.” Up until that time, all I cared about was getting out of jail. After the jury convicted me and I was sitting in my jail cell, I began to think: “What can I do to change my life?” You begin to pray. You begin to ask God for guidance. You begin to just think: “Is there anything that I can do?” I think that that led me to—as crazy as it may sound—to a philosophy book.
I’d never read philosophy before, but I found a philosophy book in the jail’s book cart, and I started flipping through those pages. I came across a story of Socrates, who was in jail awaiting his execution. Not for selling cocaine, but for breaking a law of his day. I was reading his story. He had this opportunity to escape his sentence, but instead of taking the easy way out, Socrates said: “No. I’m going to stay here.” When he was questioned on why he would do that, Socrates said: “Because I live in a democracy, and in a democracy, we have the right to work toward changing the laws we don’t agree with; we don’t have the right to break laws. I’ve taken all the good that society has to offer, I’ve got to take the bad. Although this is a bad law and a bad sentence, I’d rather die with my dignity intact than run away.”
That had a really transformative effect on my life, because while I was in that jail cell, I remember sitting the book on my chest and just thinking: “Is there anything I can do while I’m in here to be a good citizen again, or am I always going to be viewed for the bad decisions I made when I was 20?” It was those questions that led me into really this deep introspection that lasted for quite some time where I started to think about all of the influences of my life that led me to where I was. Then I started to think: “What measurable steps can I start to take to change this outcome?” I simply knew that I was going to serve a lengthy period of time in prison. I didn’t know how much, because I hadn’t been sentenced yet, but I started projecting myself into the future to some day when I’d get out of here.
To put it in a perspective, if somebody were going to go into prison today at 20 years old and serve the length of time that I served, that person wouldn’t be getting out until 2041. Because I had this vision of how I wanted to emerge, I could come up with a strategy by thinking about somebody like you, Dr. O’Grady, just thinking: “Is there anything I could do that would make a leader like Thomas O’Grady and the listeners of his amazing podcast, is there anything that I could do that would cause them to see me as something other than a coke dealer?” The answer that I came away with was: “Yes, there probably is.” The follow-up question was: “Well, what is it?”
I came up with this three-pronged approach and it was: 1 – to educate myself, 2 – to contribute to society in some kind of meaningful and measureable way, and 3 – to build a support network. If I could get people to believe in me, people like Thomas O’Grady, maybe it’s possible that his listeners would believe in me as well. That was the path that allowed me to maintain a high level of energy and discipline as those days turned into weeks, those weeks turned into months, those months turned into years, and those years turned into decades. That was the strategy: always projecting into the future, putting myself on a plan, and then executing the plan.
Thomas: It’s interesting. One of the things I love about your story is the fact that you not only overcame this, but the fact of your age. So many people are thinking: “Oh well…” For example, right now, people are being laid off and replaced by cheaper workers. They’re 50-some-odd years of age, and all of a sudden… Or they’re seeing people around them, or their income is extremely chopped because Obama Care right now has where it’s most likely that a company is going to want to try or prefer to have a part-time worker. Even if you work two part-time jobs, it doesn’t add up to one full-time job. That leaves a lot of people in a very difficult situation, and it’s: what are they going to do? So many of them are saying: “Oh my god, I’m 50 years of age,” or: “I’m 55 years age,” or something. You’re almost 50.
That says a lot that you can come out, take what you did in the past, I’m not talking about the prison thing, but you prepared yourself, you did studying, etc. and are now starting, in a sense, a new life. People can have a new start, a new life. Heck, if you can do it with your background because that’s something that you have to wear on the back of your shirt wherever you go, in a sense, people will know it. You’ve turned around and said: “Okay, these are the things that I can do,” and you’re working towards those.
Michael: I began working, as I said, at the start of the journey. My experience was fundamentally different. I frequently hear an overnight success is 20 years in the making. My journey began at that earliest stage. Yeah, while I was incarcerated, I got my undergraduate degree and a master’s degree, I published more than 20 books while I was incarcerated. I had a massive support network by the time I emerged. In fact, I married the love of my life while I was incarcerated and served my last 10 years teaching this strategy to my wife, who went back to school when she was 36 years old, had to study algebra and chemistry and anatomy and physiology, and she became a nurse. In fact, next week, she’ll be graduating from the University of San Francisco with her master’s in nursing.
This is a strategy that I don’t feel is mine. It is just a strategy of success. I would love to say it was my strategy, but I learned it from great leaders, like I suspect the people who listen to your podcast. As a consequence of that approach, within two weeks of completing my prison sentence, I was hired as an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University where I taught for a year, I’ve spoken all across the country, I’ve been self-employed, and I’m a home owner and own investment property, and I’ve only been out of prison for 20 months now. This is an approach that I learnt from leaders. It’s one that I live. I’m authentic. I aspire to teach other people. As you said, if I can do it while serving 26 years in prison, just think what you can do.
Thomas: Exactly, because most people have some background, they’ve already had college or they’ve had some kind of schooling to prepare them for whatever career they’re in. All of a sudden they’re seeing some change occur in the society, their industry, or whatever. They do have that resume. They can do something similar. It’s not going to be the same thing you do, obviously, but they can take that and apply it to something else, but they have to change their perspective and realize that they can. That’s the key thing. Then they have to put in the hard work to do it. It’s not just a matter of doing it. Take your experiences, that is your history upon which you build your future. Don’t bother with the past that’s noncontributory. The things that you did that are not relevant, you don’t worry about, but you build on your past and take that.
Michael: Here’s the very simple lesson that I always try to share: prison may be the context of my story, but the reality is this is a human story. We all, as human beings, face struggle and challenge and adversity. In my case, it was 26 years in federal prison. In somebody else’s case, it may be the loss of a job, it may be the loss of a marriage, it may be financial reversals. Either way, that can feel incredibly imprisoning, confining, it can extinguish hope, it can stop a person from figuring out how to get out of bed in the morning and get back on the horse and ride. The reality is that there’s always a way through. That’s what I strive to show through all of my work, is that if this can work for me… It doesn’t happen by accident, it doesn’t happen by happy talk. It happens by work.
Thomas: Right, exactly. That’s what you put a lot of effort in. One could say you certainly afforded the time to do that; however, it still requires you to take the action. Also, not to let any of the distractions around you to have a negative influence or to slow you down. That’s what I’m hearing.
What are your plans? As you say, you’ve only been out only a short term and you’ve already established yourself. What are your plans now?
Michael: Right now I am working to inspire people so that they can find the passion in their life so they can move forward. I do a number of things. I am working right now. My real job is I work in corporate development for a phenomenal international property developer in Newport Beach, California.
My passion is working to inspire people who are facing challenge and struggle. I do that in a number of ways. I host my own podcast called Earning Freedom. I maintain a website at www.PrisonProfessor.com where I teach people who are facing challenges with the criminal justice system strategies that will help them or position them for the lowest possible sentence, and the best possible environment, and most importantly, help them prepare for success upon release. I do a lot of public speaking on what I consider to be the greatest social injustice of our time, which is a wrongheaded commitment to mass incarceration, and that’s really what I’m doing. Also, I’m just very grateful to be spending more time with my wife, and just building a great life as a contributing citizen.
Thomas: There’s something I’ve always wondered, because the whole incarceration and some things I really don’t really know very much about it. I hear things, cable TV and all that sort of stuff, you hear. I’ve always wonder. I wonder whether it would be so much better if conditions were, in a sense, worse (I don’t mean cruel, but worse) where there weren’t the amenities or something, and somebody could get a three-month or a six-month sentence instead of five or seven years, and they just say: “I don’t care. I don’t really want to go back there.”
Michael: No, I don’t think that would be better. I think that we need to change the way that we measure justice in the United States, from my perspective. It shouldn’t be measured in terms of time, but rather an individual’s efforts to reconcile with society, an individual’s efforts to become a good citizen. That’s the problem. That’s the fundamental problem with our system is we like to point our accusatory fingers at other countries that violate human rights. We would talk about Russia and communism, but the prison system is really very close to communism where everybody’s treated according to his needs, where the only thing that matters is the state, where there is no private property, where there is no opportunity to pursue a path to excellence. That’s fundamentally at odds with what we embrace in the United States, which is that any individual through merit, through hard work, through discipline can become more than his past.
In prison, the only thing that matters is the turning of calendar pages. Whether we make those calendar pages three months or 30 years – it’s the wrong way to measure justice. Instead, we should be measuring justice by an individual that says: “I want to be a good citizen. I want to work hard toward becoming a law-abiding, contributing citizen. I want to be a good father. I want to be a good son. I want to be a good neighbor. I want to be a good American.” If we were to design a system that encouraged people to pursue a path to excellence, we would then eliminate recidivism, we would then ensure that more people who emerged from prison are not on this cycle of failure or intergenerational cycle of failure; but instead, would be ready to move forward as a good person. I think that’s ultimately what we want.
Thomas: I’d like to use that as a leaping off point, because what you’re saying there is how to create the right place/environment, etc. and get a person to want to do something, which of course, means that they must have the understanding that they really can do it and the desire to do it. A lot of that is talking again about who you are associated with, in a sense of that famous quote about you’re the combination of your five closest friends. When someone tends to get out of prison or they’re in society, who they are associated with—the person who lives in that small poor town in the middle of nowhere where maybe the factory closed down years ago and people are making it but they’re just living there, or a ghetto someplace that people around you and along with you—are trying to figure out how to make it. Unfortunately, what they have open to them or what they see, and what they each contribute or think of is not going to be something that either you or I would term as success.
In essence, they have to get out of there. They have to leave that spot or that place and try to get someplace where they can find a new environment, new friendships. I’m not saying necessarily that the people that they were associated with were bad people. In many cases, they may not be. In order to see opportunities and in order to have them open to them, they have to change their environment. Some of that can be done today through the internet until somebody becomes more comfortable or so, but in many cases, it literally means packing up and moving yourself to someplace where you can get a job and you can start over.
Michael: Without a doubt. It all begins with a vision of how you would define success, and then creating a plan that will deliver that success, and executing that plan every day to the extent that you can micro-plan. From my perspective, micro-plan: how are the words that I use, the way that I dress, the way that I walk, the way that I present myself – how do all of these factors influence the opportunities that are going to open for me? It all begins with attitude. You’ve got to have this attitude that says: “I am bigger than my current challenges, and I am determined to overcome those challenges.” That is essential. It’s all about having hope, having a vision, a plan, and executing that plan.
Thomas: Right, exactly. Actually, it gets to something we’ve discussed, and it’s also a chapter in my book, having to do with weaknesses. Know your weaknesses, and go on a diet. As you mentioned the things of how to talk, how to walk, etc., when I realized that I needed to do certain things in order to get myself so that I would be presentable or more presentable to the world, I realized at that point that I had to learn how to speak better, I had to learn how to write better, I had to learn how to dress better. I went and bought the book John Molloy’s Dress for Success, the whole thing. There are lots of things that you do in order to improve yourself so that you are presentable, so that you know what to do, so that you know enough to stand up straight, look people in the eye, etc., how you walk, how you talk. All those make a difference, but it’s all part of the pieces of your plan. Sound about right?
Michael: Yeah, without a doubt. That’s what made the differences. I started my journey, after I had read that story of Socrates and then so many other inspiring figures that persuaded me: the onus is on me to prepare for success. I was just fortunate in that I could see myself, how I was going to emerge. For me, there was always this vision that said: “Someday I’m going to walk out of here, I’m going to put on a suit and a tie, and no one will know that I served a day in prison unless I told them.” I tell people every day. In fact, my career is built on the fact that I served a 45-year sentence that I was incarcerated for 26 calendar years or 9,500 days, but despite that challenge, every day I lived with a high level of energy and discipline. I continue that path since I have returned to society. It has made all the difference in my life.
Thomas: That’s interesting because that’s what people need to know and see and hear, that wherever they are, whatever they are doing, you emulate what you want to be until you get there or learn how to be there. Such as, yes, you went through the process, said: “Gee, I’m not presentable. I’ve got to learn all the things that make me presentable, so that when I step out of here, I can step into something that I can respect and will respect me.” That’s an amazing and very nice story from a very different perspective than we’re normally hearing.
Michael: Thank you very much for those kind words. The reality is serving time with dignity is no different than living with dignity. Having a vision of wanting to be a good American citizen applies wherever you are, and it’s never too late, it’s never too early to begin preparing for a better life.
Thomas: Yes. With that, I’d like to also project for people. I mentioned the 50 year old, in a sense, at that time where now very much as you look around, based on medical miracles, etc. today that have carried over the last 15-20 years, it’s very likely that most of us are going to live past 90. If you’re 50, you’re just barely past halfway, the halfway mark. You really need to think, turn around, and say: “Gee, I’ve got a lot of time to do a lot of things.” Aim for what I want to become and want to do that I can be proud of and pass on. That’s quite a nice thing. You had 26 years to think and work on it. Mostly everybody has a lot of time to do the same.
Michael: Everybody has a lot of time. Everybody can choose what he wants to become. To the extent that he begins sowing those seeds for a better life, that individual will begin bearing fruit for all eternity. I found it to be an incredibly empowering way to live, and I continue to live that way today.
Thomas: Thank you, and congratulations on that. Please go over again every way people can get ahold of you, and I’ll have it in the show notes.
Michael: Of course, I’m on the iTunes podcast with Earning Freedom. I’m really the easiest person to find on the planet. If you Google my name, every 10 slots on Google. I’ve written a number of books about the journey. I’m just thrilled that I had this opportunity to share my story with you and your audience.
Thomas: I think you serve as a great example for a lot of people for a multitude of reasons; not just what you’ve done, but the thoughts and the process that you went through, and the aim you have for the future. That’s what people really can get and should appreciate from this episode.
Michael, thank you very much. I appreciate it. What a great episode.
Michael: Thank you very much, Dr. O’Grady. I appreciate it.