Michael Santos continues his long road of redemption.
Santos is a former student and friend of mine whose personal journey I’ve described on EthicsDaily.com in two previous columns.
The first, written as he was beginning the last of his 26 years of confinement in federal prison, portrayed the beginning of his liberation over 20 years earlier in a decision not to let his bad decisions and his prison circumstances define who he was.
The second, posted on the day of his release a year later, marked the threshold of the next stage of his journey toward freedom.
Now that Michael is almost two years into this new stage, I thought readers might enjoy a word on how he is using his perspective and experience to make a difference in the complex world of incarceration.
Michael left prison with a repertoire of several published books on various aspects of the experience of confinement and an array of web resources designed to help inmates and their families cope with the challenges of incarceration, from sentencing, into prison and beyond prison life.
Seventeen days after his release, he was hired by San Francisco State University to teach a course on the effects of incarceration.
His work there and the response he received earned him a place at the table of the national conversation on prison reform.
He is now keeping a busy schedule speaking and participating in seminars across the country, addressing ways to make the justice system more rehabilitative and consistent with its purpose.
Most notable of his accomplishments is a program he has developed, now in its early stages of implementation, called the “Prison Professor.”
This is a structured and formalized version of the work he did less formally while still in prison, helping those facing prison, those in prison and their families embrace a perspective and its consequent behavior that can transform one of life’s most devastating challenges into a positive foundation for life both within and beyond the walls.
Readers who may know persons and families who are dealing with this challenge directly would find this resource helpful, hopeful and encouraging.
It offers, very effectively, a practical and philosophically sound perspective for dealing with the realities of the prison experience.
Michael’s experience and work illustrate in a profound way what we in the faith community speak of with the concept of “redemption.”
“Liberation” comes when one embraces the freedom that is possible in spite of one’s past choices and present circumstances. His liberation occurred when he made that choice early in his sentence.
Redemption begins when that embrace is lived out with a vision for what can be beyond what is.
This redemption is a stewardship of whatever opportunities for service present themselves in response to freedom’s vision. It is more a process than a destination.
Like education, it does not stop with graduation, but “commences” into a new stage of responsibility for accepting the challenge of learning.
Michael could have rested on his laurels and enjoyed a life of comfort with the rewards of successful royalties and investments, having “paid his debt to society.”
Instead, he has poured himself into a rigorous effort to make the lessons of his own experience available to others who are behind him on the path.
He is seeking to “change the system one person at a time” while also addressing the more systemic features of its problems through the connections and access that his work has provided him.
Redemption seems to be neither winning a spiritual lottery nor earning a new spiritual rank with merit badges of righteousness.
Rather, it is a faithful and disciplined life-long embrace of the opportunity to use one’s freedom to enable others to find and embrace it for themselves.
My friend, Michael, helps me think of a life of faith as a road of redemption rather than a road to it. We all participate in each other’s travel along that road.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Editor’s note: Harris’ previous columns about Santos’ journey of redemption are available here and here. EthicsDaily.com’s latest documentary, “Through the Door,” focuses on how faith makes a difference in prisons and upon release. Details are available here.
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).