Avoiding the Prisoner Profile

By · Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Every man in federal prison is assigned to a particular job. At Taft Camp, where I was transferred in June of 2007, I was assigned to work in the food service department. As far as prison jobs are concerned, I consider my job at Taft one of the best work assignments that I’ve had during my 20 years of imprisonment.

I’m responsible for keeping the beverage bar clean during the lunch and dinner meals. The reason I like the job is that it is clearly defined, and once I complete my duties, I’m free to work on the independent personal growth projects that I create. Most of the other prison jobs where I have been assigned require that I spend entire seven-hour shifts working for the prison. Even when I completed those duties, supervisors would prohibit me from reading or writing while on the job. I appreciate the independence I have at Taft Camp.

Ever since my confinement began, in 1987, I have been working to develop skills and credentials. I reasoned that such an adjustment would position me to overcome the obstacles that I expect to follow this quarter century of confinement. During my first decade I focused on educating myself. Since then I’ve been working on my writing skills, hoping to reach beyond these fences to contribute to the lives of others. That strategy has helped open numerous opportunities that few long-term prisoners ever enjoy. Yet a few days ago, I was reminded how few of my fellow prisoners identify with my choices.

As I was waiting for the noon meal to conclude so that I could commence my job, I sat with my friend Juan Moore. I met Juan while I was confined at the Federal Prison Camp in Lompoc, but he transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island within a few weeks of my arrival at Lompoc, in 2005. From FCI Terminal Island, Juan transferred here, to Taft Camp.

Juan is from Watts, California, and grew up surrounded by criminal influences. He made some decisions that resulted in his receiving a prison sentence of nearly 16 years. Juan is now less than three months away from his release.

During his time inside, Juan worked hard to ensure that he would leave prison with skills. He attended college in prison and participated in numerous self-improvement programs. Juan’s friends, known as “homies” in prison, resented his efforts to change. They would taunt him with questions like, “What are you going to do when you get out? Are you going to have heart or are you going to lie in the park?” What they are really asking Juan is whether he is going to return to the life of gangbanging and “dope slanging.” Because to them, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” His peers, most of whom have numerous prison records, are pressuring him to stay “in the game.”

While we were chatting that early afternoon, one of Juan’s homies sat with us. Juan introduced me to his friend who said that he remembered the weeks when I first arrived at Taft Camp. “The homies was hating on him when he first pulled up,” Juan’s friend said of me. “They was saying that he ain’t really served no 20 years. Look at how he be walkin’ ’round here all smilin’ and happy. Ain’t nobody served no 20 years gonna be happy like that.”

The irony is that as Juan’s friend was telling his story to us, I was supposed to feel offended that my fellow prisoners did not recognize me as someone who had served 20 years. Yet according to the values by which I have lived, I feel as if my strategy is succeeding when others cannot identify me as a long-term prisoner. For me, the goal has always been to succeed upon my release, not to lift my social status within the abnormal society of prisons.

As I described in my book Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, prison infrastructures are complicitous in perpetuating these cycles of failure. By extinguishing hope for better lives, they simultaneously discourage prisoners from making efforts to grow or change or emerge successfully. Many prisoners stay committed to the underworld values by which they lived prior to confinement. Consequently, when they see someone like Juan, who is striving to make positive changes in his life, they discourage and taunt him; they doubt that a man can endure 20 years of imprisonment without the telltale scars of failure marking his every action.

It is not only prisoners who expect long-term offenders to show the signs of failure. When staff members meet me for the first time, or first become aware of how much time I have served, they frequently look at me with astonishment, as if to say “What happened?” They do not understand how it is that I can express my thoughts without profanity, or how I focus with such intensity on the self-empowerment projects to which I commit. They expect anyone who has been exposed to “corrections” for significant lengths of time to show clear signs of failure. The way our system operates today, the longer we expose an individual to corrections, the more likely that individual becomes to fail in society upon his release.

I expect to serve longer than three but less than five more years in prison. While I conclude this final portion of my sentence, I will continue working to prepare myself for release. I have very specific goals that I am striving to achieve. Those who are interested may follow my progress through the regular postings I make through MichaelSantos.net and PrisonSuccess.com.

I encourage readers to send comments or questions through e-mail, or directly to me at Taft Prison Camp.

Thank you for your interest and support.


Michael G. Santos

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