Michael G. Santos

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Michael G. Santos
Michael G. Santos photo.jpg
Born (1964-01-15) January 15, 1964 (age 56)
EducationMercer University (B.A.)
Hofstra University (M.A.)
University of Connecticut (Ph.D. Candidate)
OccupationConsultant, Author, and Activist/Reformer
Notable work
Inside: Life Behind Bars in America (2007)
Spouse(s)Carole Santos

Michael Gerard Santos (born January 15, 1964) is an American prison consultant, author of several books about prison, a professor of criminal justice, and an advocate for criminal justice reform. Santos spent twenty-six years inside nineteen different United States federal prisons. During his decades inside federal prison, Santos committed to transforming his life, obtained an education, got married, wrote several books, blogged, and worked to prepare himself for a successful law-abiding life.[1] Santos served more than twenty-six years of a forty-five year sentence.

After release from prison, Santos taught a course for criminal justice students at San Francisco State University, works as a prison consultant, motivational speaker and life coach and continues to advocate for reforming America's criminal justice system.

Early life[edit]

Michael Santos grew up in Lake Forest Park, a suburb of North Seattle, Washington with two sisters and had a relatively stable family life.[2] Santos is the son of a Cuban immigrant father and a mother of Spanish descent.[3] His parents were small business owners.[2] While in high school, Santos received probation for receiving stolen property as part of a gambling debt owed to him, which was his only arrest and/or conviction before his conviction for distributing cocaine.[4] Santos graduated from Shorecrest High School in 1982 and was a mediocre student.[2] Santos played football and skied in high school.[3]

Drug trafficking, trial, and sentencing[edit]


After graduating from high school, Santos worked for a highway construction firm that his family had operated since 1970.[4] In 1985, Santos and a friend participated in a cocaine transaction involving several kilograms.[4] After this first big sale, Santos began buying and selling cocaine. Although he made thousands of dollars in Seattle, he wanted more, so he moved to Miami to work with suppliers.

Santos eventually relocated to Key Biscayne, South Florida in search of better prices for cocaine.[4] His lifestyle was influenced by the movies Scarface and Miami Vice.[3] Santos purchased cocaine from a source in Miami, a friend transported it from Miami to Seattle, and the friend from the original purchase would distribute it locally in Seattle.[4] In June 1986, Drug Enforcement Administration Agents arrested Santos' friend in Seattle.[4]

Arrest and trial[edit]

In 1987, at the age of 23, Santos was arrested by federal agents for leading a scheme to distribute cocaine. In exchange for his cooperation, Santos' friend received a four-year prison term, for which he served about 27 months.[4]

In contrast, Santos on the advice of retained counsel took his case to trial. Santos' partners testified against him at his trial.[3] Moreover, Santos testified on his own behalf in the trial stemming from the first indictment against him.[4] Santos was found guilty on all counts.[4] Although Santos was not initially charged with the distribution of cocaine that took place after his arrest, he made a statement to the U.S. attorney accepting full responsibility for distribution while incarcerated and admitted that he perjured himself during the trial. Santos separately agreed to plead guilty to charges of perjury and for helping others to distribute cocaine that was leftover from the previous indictment.[4]

Setting goals and sentencing[edit]

As Santos awaited sentencing, he picked up a copy of Treasury of Philosophy by Dagobert D. Runes and learned about Socrates.[3] Santos told Judge Jack Edward Tanner: "I have to find a way to reconcile with society."[3] Santos set three goals: to educate himself, to find a way to contribute to society, and to start building a support network of law-abiding citizens who could mentor him.[3]

Judge Tanner sentenced Santos to a 45-year sentence for "operating a continuing criminal enterprise".[5][3] Santos was tried and convicted during Ronald Reagan's heightened War on Drugs that included creating mandatory minimum sentencing. Once he was determined to be guilty, this resulted in the federal government using Santos' sentencing to make an example to deter other criminals.[3]


Michael served his sentence in many different prisons of every security level, from high-security United States Penitentiaries to minimum-security federal prison camps across the United States.[3] Santos began his sentence at the infamous United States Penitentiary, Atlanta.[3] Santos also was imprisoned at Federal Correctional Institution, McKean, Federal Correctional Institution, Fairton, Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix, and Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc, among others.[6]


When Santos arrived at the Atlanta penitentiary his then-wife divorced him. Santos' father lost his business; his parents separated.[3] Despite such adversity Santos remained disciplined and stuck to his goals. By 1992 Santos earned a bachelor's degree from Mercer University (with a degree in human resources management).[3] By 1995 Santos earned a master's degree from Hofstra University, and began work toward his doctorate at the University of Connecticut; however, a Bureau of Prisons warden blocked Santos from completing his studies to earn a doctorate.

Writing and activism[edit]

After the warden ended his education opportunities Santos shifted focus to develop programs and resources to help fellow inmates and their families.[5] Additionally, while incarcerated Santos authored seven books and had published a number of articles, including for The Huffington Post and Forbes.[5][3][7] Since prisons did not offer access to computers, Santos in longhand manually wrote all books and articles. Santos' wife Carole would then transcribe his work into computer format. Carole also served as a liaison with publishers.

With help from his wife and family, from within prison Santos nevertheless built a significant presence on the Internet. Through the website MichaelSantos.com chronicled his long arduous journey. Moreover, the appeal of his writing resulted in Santos receiving widespread popularity. Media publications cite Santos saying his published writings are his way of contributing to society. His wife maintained his contributions to a blog. Those writings resulted in his receiving significant recognition[5][8] and universities use his work in courses that teach criminal justice.[5]


The Bureau of Prisons released Michael Santos to community confinement in August 2012, when he was 48. At that time he had served more than 25 years in federal prison, a (total of 9,135 days in federal custody).[3][9] Michael remained in federal custody for another year within the confines of the halfway house. He concluded his obligation to the Bureau of Prisons after more than 26 years on August 12, 2013. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article describing Michael Santos' lengthy odyssey. Michael claimed that he could maintain a high level of discipline and energy because he kept his focus on reconciling with society and emerging with his dignity intact. The Chronicle quoted Distinguished Stanford Professor Joan Petersilia as saying that Michael was a "Messiah" to other prisoners.

After his release Michael continued to work toward ending mass incarceration and toward helping others who were being prosecuted by the criminal justice system. Along with Justin Paperny of The Michael G. Santos Foundation, Michael developed programs to help people emerge from the prison experience successfully; he worked to help the formerly incarcerated transition into the labor market; and he worked to bring more awareness to social breakdowns which he believes are spawned by "America's commitment to mass incarceration". He is also a public speaker on overcoming adversity, using the context of his journey as evidence that anyone can become more than external circumstances. Michael has also lectured at numerous universities, including Stanford Law School, the University of San Francisco, and UC Berkeley.[3]

In 2014, PBS's Newshour did video feature story on Santos' efforts to help empower people incarcerated in America and Santos' criticism of America's commitment to mass incarceration.[10]

In 2015, Santos teamed with the Maine Department of Corrections to improve the outcomes of the state's prison system through programs designed by Santos.[11]


  • Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-year Prison Term (2011)
  • Triumph!: Straight-A Guide to Preparing Offenders for Reentry (2011)
  • Prison! My 8,344th Day (2010)
  • Step Up and Don't Look Back (2007)
  • Gangsters and Thugs: Consequences That Hustlers Pay (2007)
  • Inside: Life Behind Bars in America (2007)
  • What If I Go to Prison? (2004)


  1. ^ Thomas, Garvin. "From "Scarface" to SF State: One Teacher's Remarkable Journey". NBC Bay Area. Retrieved 9 June 2015.
  2. ^ a b c "An introduction: Michael G. Santos returns to society". cafwd.org. Retrieved 9 June 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Sam Whiting (2012-11-24). "Inmate shares prison survival strategies". SFGate. Retrieved 2013-01-20.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Michael Santos". November Coalition. Retrieved 9 June 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Michael Santos – Rare Success in Prison Rehabilitation on". Ethicsdaily.com. 2011-07-26. Retrieved 2013-01-20.
  6. ^ Santos, Michael. "FORT DIX: A LONG-TERM PRISONER'S DESCRIPTION". Retrieved 9 June 2015.
  7. ^ "Power In Prison". Forbes.com. 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2013-01-20.
  8. ^ Xeni Jardin at 2:15 pm Wed, Jan 9. "What is it like to be exposed to new technology after 20+ years in prison?". Boing Boing. Retrieved 2013-01-20.
  9. ^ "While in prison, Michael Santos reconciles with society | California Forward". Cafwd.org. 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2013-01-20.
  10. ^ Woodruff, Judy. "Former inmate speaks out against U.S. 'commitment' to mass incarceration". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  11. ^ Santos, Michael. "Prison Reform in Maine State Prison". Retrieved 10 June 2015.

External links[edit]