I arrived at the San Bruno Jail at 11:30 on Thursday morning, February 6, 2014. When I walked into the lobby, I met a film crew from the PBS NewsHour. Several representatives from the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department were standing in the lobby when I walked in. My visit to the San Bruno Jail would be the first of four filming events that PBS NewsHour scheduled. Let me provide the backstory to explain how and why a national television network would have an interest in filming a man who had only recently finished serving 26 years in federal prison.
For readers who don’t know, DEA agents arrested me on August 11, 1987. A federal indictment charged me with leading a group that trafficked in cocaine. After a jury convicted me on all counts, I realized how bad decisions I’d made as a young man derailed my life. While awaiting the imposition of sentence, I visualized the best possible outcome.
After making a 100 percent commitment to transform my life, I thought about deliberate action steps I could take. Sentencing awaited me. I’d never been to prison before, but my crimes exposed me to a minimum sentence of 10 years and up to life in custody. Accepting the reality of at least a decade in prison, I aspired to reconcile with society. With a vision of returning as a law-abiding, contributing citizen, I contemplated how I could influence others to see me as something different from the bad decisions of my reckless youth.
Once I concluded that I had the power within to become more than the bad decisions of my past, I could plan. I thought about taxpayers and wondered what they would expect of a man who once sold cocaine and served many, many years in prison. Through introspection, I concluded that citizens would expect me to work toward:
- Advancing my education.
- Contributing to society.
- Building a support network.
That three-part plan guided me through my sentence. As I wrote in Earning Freedom, the plan led to my earning an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree. Those educational credentials allowed me to contribute to society by publishing literature that described America’s prisons and the people they held. Those publishing efforts led to my building an enormous support network that would help my transition into society after I served 9,500 consecutive days as a prisoner.
The Michael G. Santos Foundation:
A few years prior to my release, I began to position myself for a career. Our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration represented one of the greatest social injustices of our time. As a man who served 26 years in prison, I envisioned a role I could play in working to build a better criminal justice system. I shared this vision with Justin Paperny, a friend I’d met in prison. He agreed to work with me. Upon Justin’s release, he founded The Michael G. Santos Foundation and registered the organization with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit. We still needed funding to get off the ground.
The California Wellness Foundation:
Justin contacted Julio Marcial, a director of The California Wellness Foundation. Julio assessed the promise of innovative violence-prevention initiatives and invested resources from TCWF into promising community renewal ventures. Through a grant proposal, Justin and I articulated our vision to Julio. We explained the value we could provide to reduce recidivism and improve community safety. During my final years of imprisonment and upon my release, I would work on three fronts, our proposal explained:
- To help those in custody or from at-risk backgrounds understand how to visualize a life as contributing, law-abiding citizens. We would create programs that taught others how to visualize, plan, and execute their plan to success.
- To help the formerly incarcerated transition into the job market as productive, taxpaying citizens.
- To spread awareness about the greatest social injustice of our time, and to work toward improving the outcomes of our nation’s criminal justice system.
Julio Marcial saw and embraced the vision. He endorsed our grant proposal and TCWF funded Justin’s nonprofit organization; I became a contractor to the nonprofit. Justin and I then worked to execute our plan. When I concluded my prison sentence on August 12, 2013, after 9,500 days of imprisonment, I came back to society with the values, skills, and resources that would allow me to make a seamless transition into society. The University of San Francisco hired me as a lecturer. Sponsorship from TCWF and Golden State Lumber allowed me to develop our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program. We began bringing our program to market, selling it to law enforcement and educational agencies as a resource that would help others live in accordance with the values-based, goal-oriented strategies that transformed my life. Anyone could do it. Since a man who had served 26 years in prison used those strategies effectively, we expected that others would buy into the vision.
The 2013 Violence Prevention Conference:
Julio opened an extraordinary opportunity to bring more awareness to our work when he invited me to deliver the keynote speech at the 2013 Violence Prevention Conference. I took the stage in front of several hundred people at the Westin Hotel in San Diego just a couple of weeks after I concluded 26 years in prison. Following the keynote, I met Merrill Schwerin. She introduced herself as a producer of PBS NewsHour and told me that she had an interest in filming innovative violence-prevention programs. She invited me to contact her if I became successful at negotiating agreements with jails or prisons. Merrill said that PBS would have an interest in filming me as I taught others how to transform their lives while they served sentences inside jails or prison.
The Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program:
Justin and I began working to introduce our curriculum to jails, prisons, and schools that served populations that were at risk of troubles with the criminal justice system. As a condition of our funding, TCWF tasked us with the challenge of becoming self-sustaining. Although both Justin and I served terms in prison for felony convictions, we found innovative leaders in law enforcement and education. They were willing to listen to the value our program could add. They endorsed our program by issuing purchase orders for one-year, enterprise licensing agreements to use our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program. Their facilitators would use our curriculum to teach others how and why to reject criminal lifestyles and develop critical thinking skills.
A few months later, I contacted Merrill Schwerin to provide her with an update. I told her that we had succeeded in signing up several clients, including:
- The National Guard’s Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy
- Orange County Office of Education
- Los Angeles County Office of Education
- Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
- Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall
- San Jose Mayor’s Gang Task Force
I also told her about my role as a lecturer at San Francisco State University. Merrill expressed an interest in filming me as I executed my plan to teach people in custody how to reject the criminal lifestyle, to help the formerly incarcerated transition into the job market, and to spread awareness about innovative steps we could take to improve the outcomes of our nation’s criminal justice system. We began to put a plan in motion.
Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s 2014 State of the Valley Conference:
Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, contacted me after he heard a brief presentation I made at a Palo Alto fundraiser for the Reset Foundation. Reset is an amazing organization that has a vision of creating a better prison system, a system focused on teaching offenders rather than warehousing offenders. Russ told me about the 2014 State of the Valley Conference that his organization was hosting inside of the Santa Clara Convention Center. He offered an opportunity for me “to make a 15-minute TED style speech before an audience of 1,500 Silicon Valley movers and shakers.” With enthusiasm, I accepted.
San Francisco Sheriff’s Department:
Last fall, while on a quest to introduce our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program to law enforcement, Justin and I connected with Brant Choat. Brant oversaw the education division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He invited me to join him on a tour of one of the San Francisco County jails, and while there I met Sunny Schwartz and Steve Good. Like Brant, both Sunny and Steve take an innovative approach to incarceration. Rather than warehousing people, they think creative solutions to America’s problem with recidivism. They are leaders of the Five Keys Charter School that operate inside of the San Francisco County Jail. Merrill told me that PBS NewsHour would like to film me teaching inside of jail, teaching at San Francisco State University, and speaking at the 2014 State of the Valley event. I put her in touch with Sunny Schwartz and Steve Good, and they in turn connected PBS with Kathy Gorwood, the Chief Deputy of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.
Filming in the San Bruno Jail:
Chief Deputy Gorwood and her colleagues escorted us into Unit Five of the San Bruno Jail. We met Mick Gardner and Jaime Brewster, two of the leaders who worked to teach men inside valuable life skills. Through the Five Keys Charter School, they taught the people serving time how to accept that they could make changes within, and why those changes would lead to better outcomes during incarceration and upon release. Mick and Jaime let the men know that PBS would film as I discussed my journey through prison and the steps I took to prepare for law-abiding life upon release. The men, all in orange jail jumpsuits, were amazing. They asked numerous questions and engaged with me, each expressing a commitment to work toward becoming a law-abiding citizen. The PBS NewsHour film crew navigated the room to film my interaction with the men who courageously spoke about their commitment to transform their life. Then Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi addressed the audience, speaking extemporaneously about his commitment to support innovative programs like the Five Keys Charter School and anything else that would help more people in jail return to society as law-abiding citizens. Jeff Brown, the PBS NewsHour anchor, then sat with three of the men for an on camera interview that will become a part of the NewsHour segment.
Filming at San Francisco State University:
The film crew then traveled to San Francisco State University. While I taught the second class of the semester on my class The Architecture of Incarceration, the camera and soundman navigated around the room. That was not an easy task. More than 80 students participate in my class. The students who crowd the room are all seniors in the criminal justice program, and I’m grateful for an opportunity to present them with a different perspective on the criminal justice system.
Filming at the State of the Valley Conference:
I walked into the Santa Clara Convention Center at 8:00 am. The 2014 State of the Valley Conference was held in the Great American Ballroom, a magnificent forum. I saw three giant projector screens, a film crew, and more than 100 roundtables covered in white linen. The tables showed the names of the numerous Fortune 500 companies that sponsored the event. The PBS NewsHour cameraman filmed me as I networked by speaking to leaders like:
- San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed
- Joint Venture Silicon Valley CEO Russell Hancock
- Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall Principal, Dr. Angela Haick
After delivering my 15-minute presentation, I had to rush home. The PBS NewsHour crew wanted to film Carole and me in our home, but time was of the essence. Merrill, the segment’s producer had to catch a flight later that afternoon. The rush was unfortunate. If I had more time I would have networked with the many leaders who attended the conference. On our way out, Carole and I had brief conversations with a few people, including Neil M. Struthers, CEO of BuildingTrades in San Jose, and Steve Bestolarides and Bob Elliott, leaders from the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors. We spoke briefly about job creation for the formerly incarcerated and pledged to connect again soon.
Filming at our home:
Carole and I left the Convention Center in Santa Clara and we drove to our home in Petaluma, a beautiful community in the North San Francisco Bay. The film crew set up the lighting and cameras in our dining area. Then I sat for a one-on-one interview with the PBS NewsAnchor, Jim Brown. Following our brief on-camera discussion, the film crew took more footage of us in the living room, in the kitchen, and in the office where Carole and I worked side by side each day.
I don’t know precisely when the episode will broadcast. Despite the considerable amount of preparation and film footage, this episode will result in a news clip that will last about eight minutes. I’m enthusiastic, however, as it will present our organization’s work to a national audience. I anticipate that more opportunities will open because of the PBS NewsHour broadcast.
Vision, Plan, Execute:
I am grateful for all of the blessings and opportunities that come my way. Those blessings and opportunities open because of a commitment I made more than 26 years ago, while I was still locked inside of the Pierce County Jail, facing a life sentence. I knew that I wanted to reconcile with society and return as a law-abiding, contributing citizen. That vision led to my 100 percent rejection of the criminal lifestyle and my plan of working:
- To educate myself.
- To contribute to society.
- To build a support network.
I held myself accountable through each of the 9,500 days that I served in prisons of every security level. Because of that strategy, I returned to society ready strong, with a vision of making a contribution to resolve one of the greatest social injustices of our time. That vision led to a new plan:
- To create programs that teach people in custody how to prepare for law-abiding, contributing lives.
- To build bridges between the formerly incarcerated and labor markets.
- To spread more awareness on the need to think big when contemplating reforms to our nation’s criminal justice system.
My work with PBS will show others how I’m executing my plan. I’m becoming the change that I want to see in the world.
Visualize. Plan. Execute. We teach that strategy with our Straight-A Guide Cognitive Skills Development Program.