How to Avoid Problems and Violence in Prison

By · Sunday, November 9th, 2008

During the more than 21 years that I have served in prisons so far, I’ve never had a single altercation with another prisoner.

I’ve been in minimum-security prison camps since 2003. Prior to that year, however, from 1987 I served time in prisons of higher security. I walked through many puddles of blood, lived amidst men who thrived on extortion, gang activities, and chaos. Yet the activities of others did not interfere with the progress I was determined to make toward the goals I set. Goals were essential to my strategy of avoiding problems and violence in prison.

In the Topical Report Series titled Thriving Through Prison that is available on, I outline my specific steps. Essentially, I began serving my sentence with a clear vision of how I wanted to emerge from confinement. I was 23-years-old when I began serving the sentence, and I understood that I would be approaching 50 when my term expired. I understood that I would not have any clothes; I would not have any financial resources; I would not have a work history; I would not have a home; I would not have any savings to prepare for retirement. If I did not take proactive steps to prepare for the challenges that I would face upon release, I knew that I would leave the prison of walls and fences for a new prison of poverty.

During the first decade, I focused on educating myself. That goal was crucial to achieve. I saw it as a matter of survival. Without an education, I knew that I would never find the means to support myself upon release. I had to work toward that goal. In 1992 I earned an undergraduate degree from Mercer University, and in 1995, I earned a graduate degree from Hofstra University. Once I had earned educational credentials, I could focus on creating more opportunities that would help me emerge successfully.

Without goals, I could have fallen susceptible to the hopelessness and despair that contaminates the lives of most prisoners. Too many men in prison sense that regardless of what they do with their time, they will not succeed in enhancing their prospects for life after release. They cannot envision years or decades into the future. Consequently, instead of preparing for success upon release, they focus on living in prison. That means, for many, engaging in disruptive behavior and enhancing their prison reputations. As they learn how to live in prison, they simultaneously condition themselves for further failure upon release.

My focus has always been on release. Those who want to avoid problems and violence in prison may find some value in the articles I write about thriving through prison. Through clearly defined goals, individuals in prison can power through the struggle and work toward better lives.

Be Sociable, Share!
Topics: Adjusting to Prison · Tags:

2 Responses to “How to Avoid Problems and Violence in Prison”

  1. Melissa Rosario says:

    Mr. Santos:
    I am a Criminal Justice Major at CSULB and currently enrolled in DR. Torres’ Corrections class. Class requirements include reading your book, “Inside,” and also selecting one of your articles from “” Our assignment is to present ot you a question or questions that revovle prison reform.
    In your article entitled “How to Avoid Problems and Violence in Prison” you indicated that you avoided confrontations with other prisoner because of the goals you set for yourself and the having high expectations for yourself.
    My question for you is what makes your prison time easier than another inmate that also has high hopes/expectation for themself.Do prisoners know what you do and do they feel that you try to make yourself better than them by educating yourself and plan to leave prison with a possible career in line. This question is a question out of curiousity, how did you attain a degree from college, while in prison and do you help other prisoner by helping them get an education, have goals for outside of prison, or helping them have a positive outlook at life after prison, like you have?
    Thank you for your time and I enjoyed reading your article and helping me in my Criminal Justice Career. Thank you and God bless
    M. Rosario

    • Dear Melissa,

      Thank you for giving me this opportunity to respond to your questions. My prison adjustment began soon after I was locked in confinement. I was only 23. The crimes of drug trafficking carried long sentences, and I came to grips with the reality that I would serve a lengthy time in prison. The sentence itself would be too long for me to understand, as I knew I could serve more time in prison than I had yet to live.

      Because my sentence was so long, and because I felt remorseful for the humiliation I had caused my family, I had to redeem myself. That was the message I received through prayer. My focus became education, and I set goals in place to work toward earning academic credentials.

      When I began serving my term, a program was in place that allowed prisoners to qualify for Pell Grants. That funding enabled me to participate in an undergraduate program and earn a degree. I wrote to graduate schools and persuaded Hofstra University to admit me on a probationary basis. In 1995, Hofstra awarded my master’s degree. Those educational credentials opened other opportunities to live a meaningful life.

      I strive to live as an example for my fellow prisoners and to inspire them to live goal-centered lives. In every prison where I’ve been held I’ve taught classes that described the strategies that have guided me through prison. I don’t think those strategies have made my time in prison easier, though they have made me feel more productive.

      I hope you find my answers responsive to your questions, and I wish you success with your career.

      Michael Santos