A challenge for any society, especially one that seeks to be just and compassionate, is how to deal with those who have committed crimes or pose a threat to others.
Punishment, confinement and efforts at rehabilitation are often uneasy partners in the process of incarceration.
Like all of our institutions, prison systems are imperfect structures. It is their nature to respond to extreme expressions of human failure, and it is not surprising that success in rehabilitation is often spotty.
In the midst of that reality, there are inspiring stories that, if we are willing to listen, can offer guidance as to how that might be improved.
Michael Santos is a long-term federal inmate, sentenced in 1987 at age 23 to a 45-year term for selling cocaine. This was during the season of extremely harsh sentences in the war on drugs.
Fully accepting responsibility for the choices that resulted in his conviction and with an excellent record during his confinement, he has the possibility of release in 2013, after more than a quarter-century behind bars.
The remarkable feature of his story is a decision made early in his term to devote every ounce of energy and time to developing himself intellectually, physically and spiritually toward the kind of citizen he can be upon release.
He enrolled in a college degree program provided by Mercer University in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and graduated with honors in 1992, delivering at his inside-the-walls ceremony one of the best graduation addresses I have heard in more than 40 years of listening to them.
After receiving a master’s degree from Hofstra University in 1995, and while attempting to begin a doctorate and facing increasing resistance from the system for his self-improvement efforts, he began to focus his energies on writing resources and developing programs to help fellow inmates and their families adjust to life in prison.
With the help of his wife, Carole, who types his long-hand manuscripts, he has developed an impressive volume of writing – several books, including the critically acclaimed “Inside: Life Behind Bars in America” in 2006 – and a website that is focused on the philosophy and strategies of creating freedom within bondage on the path toward freedom from bondage upon release.
He also writesregularly for The Huffington Post on the issue of prison reform, emphasizing the importance of providing incentives for rebuilding lives in a positive direction as opposed to the dominance of punitive responses. Carole writes and responds to family issues relating to imprisonment on their blog.
His work is widely used across the country as a resource for college and university courses that have to do with criminal justice and penology. I use his work in a philosophy course we call “The Search for Meaning.”
In a forthcoming book, “Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45 Year Prison Term,” he details the landmarks of a long journey of hope and self-discipline.
In a manner reminiscent of Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel and Nelson Mandela, he models and emphasizes the power of embracing one’s own freedom to choose one’s perspective and commitments in the face of a very restrictive environment.
To be sure, his long imprisonment is a consequence of his own bad choices, rather than of malevolent political forces, which he fully acknowledges.
But his choice of what kind of person he would be and what kind of future he would build is a testimony to the capacity of the human spirit to embrace the possibility of redemption even in the structures that more often than not reinforce failure and rejection and extinguish hope.
When Jesus chose Isaiah’s words to describe what his ministry would be – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to bring freedom to the captives ….” – he may have been pointing to the freedom that is possible within bondage, when one’s vision can be fixed on the liberating and redemptive work of God, whose last word of justice is never settling the score but restoring persons and communities.
Michael and Carole Santos are an inspiring example of what a marriage covenant can be in a unique set of extreme circumstances.
Their story deserves to be read, listened to and reflected upon by all who look for meaning in the face of life’s challenges. It also contains wisdom for any citizen concerned about what our prison systems do on our behalf.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).