Why I Write About Prison

By · Monday, February 9th, 2009

I’ve written more than a million words about the prison experience. Through the pages of several books my publishers have brought to market, and countless articles, I describe prison from a long-term prisoner’s perspective. Administrators don’t like that I work so tirelessly to expose this creepy underbelly of society. Like the boundaries that separate prisoners from the broader world, prison administrators establish policies that keep taxpayers in the dark about how wardens manage these institutions that breed human failure so effectively.

I’m not bitter about my having been locked in prisons of every security level since 1987. My confinement results from the bad decisions I made as a young man in my early 20s. I sold cocaine to consenting adults. For those crimes a jury rightfully convicted me and a judge sentenced me to a term that assured I would serve more than a quarter century in confinement. Since the sentence began, I’ve worked to reconcile with society and to atone for the bad decisions I made during the recklessness of youth.

By writing about prisons and the people they hold, I strive to help Americans understand what goes on inside these institutions that require more than $60 billion in taxpayer expenditures each year. I write about what I have learned from the hundreds of prisoners I have interviewed. And I write about what I have seen, experienced, and lived.

My writings do not express anger or whining complaints about injustice. Instead, they offer readers a glimpse into communities and subcultures of America. The ethnographic work I have done, together with objective recidivism rates, convinces me that these institutions condition prisoners to adjust to confinement in ways that seemingly assure continuing failure upon release.

I have learned a lot through this odyssey that has kept me locked in prisons for longer than 21 years. The writings I publish document how I’ve been working to earn freedom through this long journey home. They date back to perceptions I had much earlier in my term, as I wrote in A Bus Ride to Prison. In articles like Growing Up in Prison, I describe how I work with others to help them adjust positively.

Through this work of writing, I hope to help Americans understand the need for prison reform. In times of slavery, activists wrote about the unjust laws that kept human beings in bondage. Those who had an inside glimpse of those deplorable policies that influenced lives for generations contributed both anecdotal and empirical evidence that helped make the case for President Lincoln to begin advancing our nation.

This is the moment in time for government leaders to begin reforms for the 21st century. Those reforms ought to include prison reform, and I feel confident that President Barack Obama will appoint leadership to make these advancements. The unique experiences that have come as a consequence of having served my entire adult life in prison compel to write. I must contribute to the public discourse. That is why I write about prison. I am nearly complete with the time I must serve in confinement, and I stand as ready as I will ever be to emerge as a law-abiding citizen. Through my work, I hope to influence changes in our nation’s laws and prison policies so that more offenders succeed upon their release. Such efforts will make society safer, and redeem some of the bad decisions of my early 20s.

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2 Responses to “Why I Write About Prison”

  1. Makeda says:

    Mr. Santos,
    In your article entitled “Why I Write About Prison” you stated, “I write about what I have learned from the hundreds of prisoners I have interviewed. And I write about what I have seen, experienced, and lived.”
    My questions to you are, do you, or have you ever, regretted committing the crime of selling cocaine to consenting adults? Because if you didn’t do what you did, you most likely would not know all the information you know now.
    Also, if you could, would you rather go back in time and change your ways, or would you rather be where you are with all the knowledge you have gained & the help you have given?
    I enjoyed reading your articles, and I will definitely be reading your books in the near future. Thank you for your time; I truly appreciate it.

  2. Hi Makeda,

    Michael responded to your questions here:


    Best wishes,
    Carole Santos