Success After Prison

I’m Michael Santos and I’m typing this manuscript on an awesome Mac Pro computer. When I served my sentence, I had to write all of my manuscripts by hand. Now I’m addicted to Apple products and word processors. These tools allow me to write much more efficiently, but I no longer have the time that was available to me while I was in prison. Again, that’s why I won’t devote hundreds of hours to editing this manuscript. At least for this draft, what you see is what you get.

I started typing this manuscript on Saturday morning, December 4, 2015. I don’t know how long it will take for me to finish, but I’m going to do my best to finish a solid draft before the end of this year. Why? Well, it may seem strange, but I’m scheduled to visit the United States Penitentiary in Atwater on January 8, 2016.

After speaking at a judicial conference in Sacramento that I wrote about in the introduction, I had a conversation with Warden Andre Matevousian. He extended an open invitation for me to return to Atwater—the prison that released me in 2013—so I could meet his team and make an address to the prisoners inside. I welcomed the opportunity.

Twenty-eight months have passed since I concluded my 9,500-day journey as a federal prisoner. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, which I’ll explain in the chapters that follow. But in order to help readers understand more about how I opened opportunities that few would expect for a man who served so much time in prison, I need to provide some context—at least an abbreviated background.

If you’ve read my earlier books, particularly Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, you won’t be learning anything new in this chapter. I won’t take the time to provide the same level of detail as I wrote in that book. Those who want a more comprehensive glimpse of my prison journey will find value in Earning Freedom. After this initial chapter, the remainder will show how decisions in prison related to opportunities and success I’ve been building since my release. We’ll start with the backstory.


In 1982, I graduated from Shorecrest High School in Seattle as a mediocre student. Then I started working with my father in a contracting company he established when I was a young boy. My father escaped from Cuba and worked hard to build his company, hoping he would pass the business along to me after I matured. Unfortunately, I disappointed both my father and mother.

When I was 20, in 1984, I saw the movie Scarface, with Al Pacino. Pacino played the character Tony Montana, a super cool Cuban immigrant who built a fortune trafficking in cocaine. Rather than wanting to follow in my father’s footsteps, I made the bad decision to follow guidance from Tony Montana. “In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman.”

I admired Tony’s philosophy.

His outlook on life didn’t work out so well. After seeing the film, I coordinated a scheme to earn quick money by distributing cocaine. Foolishly, I believed that I could shield myself from prosecution. By limiting my role to negotiating transactions and hiring other people to transport the cocaine, or storing the cocaine, I convinced myself that I could avoid the criminal justice system.

On August 11, 1987, I learned how badly I had misinterpreted the criminal justice system. In the late afternoon, I saw three DEA agents pointing guns at my head. They told me I was under arrest. Soon I felt an officer pulling my wrists behind my back and locking them in steel cuffs. My journey began. Over subsequent decades, I’d go through:

  • Federal holding centers
  • Court proceedings
  • Pierce County Jail
  • Kent Jail
  • Puyallup Jail
  • USP Atlanta
  • FCI McKean
  • Federal correctional Institution, Fairton
  • United States Penitentiary Lewisburg
  • FCI Fort Dix
  • Federal Prison Camp in Florence
  • Federal prison camp in Lompoc
  • Federal prison camp
  • Taft, Federal Prison Camp
  • Atwater Federal Prison Camp
  • San Francisco Halfway house
  • Supervised Release
  • Parole, and
  • Special parole

The pages that follow will show how decisions I made inside influenced my life outside.

It’s my hope that this message will inspire you to begin preparing for your successful outcome.


Transformation after Trial:

Wanting nothing more than to get out of jail, I welcomed my attorney’s optimism. When he told me that a big difference existed between an indictment and a conviction, I put my future in his hands. Then I proceeded to make every bad decision a defendant could make.

I refused to accept responsibility.
I didn’t contemplate expressing remorse.
While in custody, I stayed involved with the criminal enterprise that I had begun.
I took the witness stand to testify during my trial and I lied to the jury.

Members of the jury saw through my perjury and convicted me of every count.


A New Philosophy:

After the jury convicted me, the U.S. Marshals returned me to the Pierce County Jail. While in my cell, for the first time, I came to terms with the bad decisions that I had made. I began to pray for guidance. Those prayers led me to a book of philosophy and I came across the story of Socrates.

At that time, I didn’t know anything about philosophy or Socrates. He was a teacher in ancient Athens. Laws of that era made it a crime to teach people who were not from the ruling class. Socrates broke that law. He believed that every human being had value and a right to learn. Authorities convicted Socrates for breaking the law of teaching and judges sentenced him to death. While being held in jail until his execution date, Socrates received a visit from his friend Crito. Crito presented Socrates with an opportunity to escape. Instead of taking the easy way out of escape, Socrates chose to accept his punishment—accepting death before dishonor.

From Socrates, I learned a great deal. His wisdom came through asking brilliant questions—which spawned the term “Socratic questioning.” After reading several stories about his life, I stretched out on the concrete slab in one of Pierce County’s jail cells and I thought about the decisions I had made that put me in my predicament. While staring at the ceiling, I contemplated the many bad decisions of my youth.

I made a poor choice of friends
I lived a fast lifestyle, and
I lacked discipline.

As a consequence of my convictions for leading an enterprise that trafficked in cocaine, I faced a possible sentence of life in prison.

Even though my conviction carried the possibility of a life sentence without parole, I believed that I would return to society at some point. I began to question whether I could do anything while I served my sentence to prepare for a better life when my prison term ended.

As I learned from Socrates, the secret to success wasn’t to ask questions about my own life. Instead, I needed to ask questions about my relationship to the broader society. Later, I learned from many other masterminds that taught me the timeless value of asking the right questions. For example, a well known sales coach and motivational speaker, Zig Zigler, is famous for having said: If I can ask questions to help other people get what they want, I can get everything that I want.

Reading about Socrates taught me to ask questions that would help me understand the people I wanted in my life. I hated confinement and didn’t want to be a prisoner forever. Although I couldn’t undo the bad decisions of my past, I started thinking about the people I wanted to interact with in the future. Ironically, although I faced a life sentence, I didn’t want to think of myself as a criminal. In the future, I wanted others to judge me for the way that I responded to my problems—not for the bad decisions that resulted in my imprisonment.

Socratic Questioning and Avatars:

Who were the people I would want to interact with in the future?
What did they do for a living?
What influence would they have in my life?

Those kinds of questions led me to “humanize” my avatars. What’s an avatar? From my perspective, an avatar was the type of person I wanted to meet in the future. That person would influence aspects of my life. Although the avatar didn’t exist as a flesh-and-blood person, in my mind the avatar was real—even though I didn’t know who he or she would be.

  • I thought about my future probation officer because that person would have an influence on my life whenever my prison term ended.
  • I thought about my future employer.
  • I thought about future lenders.
  • I thought about the woman I would marry and the friends I would choose.

Who were those people? What characterized their lives? What level of education would they have? What could I do to earn their respect?

The more questions I asked of my avatars, the more insight I had as I contemplated the way that I would adjust through my prison journey. I began with questions about whether there would be anything that I could do from prison to influence the way those avatars would perceive me in the future.

The initial answer to my question was a resounding yes.

If I acted appropriately, I believed that I could influence the perceptions of my avatars. As Socrates taught, one question always led to another. What then could I do to influence the ways that those avatars would see me? What would they expect from me if they were going to see me as something more than the bad decisions I made when I was 20?

Those questions led to a three-part plan:

  1. My avatars would expect me to educate myself.
  2. My avatars would expect me to contribute to society.
  3. My avatars would expect me to build a support network.

If I kept the expectations of my avatars at the forefront of my mind, and if I turned to those thoughts with every decision, I believed that I would influence perceptions. Instead of judging me for my criminal conviction, being a prisoner, or an ex convict, my avatars would respect me. They would perceive me as a man of discipline and integrity, as someone who worked to earn his freedom.

Now I have a question for readers. If you could influence someone, who would you want to influence? What do you know about that person? In what ways would influencing that person change your life? What steps could you take today to influence that person?

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