by Michael G. Santos

126. When you access your environment, what opportunities for self-improvement can you create or seize?:

I’m currently confined inside the minimum-security federal prison camp in Taft, California. It’s the least volatile prison environment I’ve ever experienced. We do not have political pressures within the prison community, at least not to the extent that I’ve known in higher security prisons. I see numerous opportunities for self-improvement and I seize upon them all. In assessing the atmosphere at Taft camp, I surmise that many of the prisoners lack the level of discipline or commitment that characterizes my life. In order to minimize my exposure to altercations, I spend considerable amounts of time alone. I exercise alone. I write alone. I eat alone. I work early in the morning and sleep early in the afternoon so that I can make the most use of quiet time. We have access to three sessions on a quasi-email machine and I use it regularly to update my website, a tool that I deem essential to my opportunities for success upon release. I write more than one manuscript each year. I use the law library to gather information, and learn from the men with whom I serve time. When I read, I pay close attention to the writer’s skill in order to improve upon my own craft or writing style. I seize every opportunity and avoid behavior than threatens my success.

In Prison! My 8,344th Day Michael described the structure of a typical day during his 23rd year of imprisonment.

127. What is your interpretation on the value of self-imposed structure of free time?:

Experiences convince me that as prisoners, we must structure our free time in order to conquer the apathy perpetuated by prisons. It is easy to fall into a routine of monotony, with one day resembling all others. The prison system provides our food, our shelter, our clothing, and to a large extent, influences how we pass through each day. I’ve lived in high-security prisons that imposed obtrusive rules and regulations on all areas of life, and I’ve lived in minimum-security prisons where I’ve had a higher degree of relative liberty. Yet in both environments, I observed, the prisoners who imposed structure on their free time led more fulfilling and productive adjustments. I’m convinced that self-imposed structure of free time leads to deliberateness, and deliberateness leads to success.

128. What relationship do your daily activities have to the vision you have for your life upon release?:

All of my daily activities relate directly to the vision I have for my life upon release. I focus on writing content that helps others understand American prisons, the people they hold, and strategies for growing through confinement. That work I create will lead to my career as a speaker, consultant, and teacher. I exercise every day because I want others to see that we can transcend the prison environment by growing in myriad ways through confinement. I work to nurture my relationship with mentors and with my wife because I aspire to prove worthy of the support and love I receive from so many.

129. Imagine that you were to replicate your activities or use of time yesterday every day or your sentence. If you did, what level of preparation would have to triumph over the obstacles that await you upon your return to society?:

Yesterday I woke at 1:57 to begin my work. I know this because I keep a journal that records my activities. I began the morning by writing a letter to my wife, Carole, articulating plans I envisioned for our future and describing the steps I was taking to see them through. I wrote out content for the Straight-A Guide course that I intend to teach. I ran 10 miles and I followed my run with 400 pushups. I spent the afternoon typing content for the Straight-A Guide that I had written in the morning. I typed two blogs for my website and an email of commitment to my wife. I considered yesterday a productive day, but no different from the day before, today, or tomorro
A common business consultant visual is the acronym SWOT. The acronym represents the assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Those who commit to self-improvement may borrow the same SWOT theory when assessing their activities:

130. What activities within the prison environment can you pursue that will enhance your strengths? :

I pursue all activities within the prison to enhance my strengths. Ironically, one of my greatest strengths is the knowledge I’ve obtained while serving time in prisons of every security level. I’ve learned from thousands of other prisoners, and I’ve learned from my own experiences. I’ve learned from reading, studying, observing all that goes on around me. Then I’ve worked to develop skills that would help me communicate what I’ve learned to others. This strength, I’m convinced, will enable me to lead a life of meaning upon release. On one hand, I will help others understand the prison system, and on another I will work to improve it. In that way, I’m using my strengths. I can enhance them by using all of the resources around me. I find those resources by listening to the experiences of others or by researching in the law library.

131. What activities within the prison environment would your categorize as a weakness?:

The time we have to serve can become a valuable asset if we use it wisely. Any activities that cause us to waste time I categorize as a weakness. Such a perception minimizes my viewing of television, my reading for entertainment, my participation in table games, or my interactions with others when such interactions do not serve a purpose. That purpose may be to develop a friendship, but only if the individual embraces the same values by which I live.

132. What activities within the prison environment would you perceive as offering opportunities?:

At this stage in my imprisonment, time is extremely valuable to me. I’ve always valued my time, but when I contemplate the possibility that I will return to society within the next 13 to 19 months, I’m reminded of the immense challenges that await me. I describe the expectation as if I’m about to be hatched into the world. Such a hyper awareness leads me to conclude that the greatest opportunity prison can offer me is solitude—time to work on my projects alone. Earlier in my prison journey, I was much more active within the prison community. Now I need contemplative time.

133. What activities within the prison environment do you perceive as threatening your prospects for success upon release?:

When I contemplate threats to my potential for success upon release, I try to include all of the factors around me. The more detail I include in the calculus, the more effectively I can navigate my way through the struggle. With that need for caution in mind, I think about the activities in which I participate. If I consider an activity as one that may expose me to disciplinary problems, I assess the risk level. If I conclude minimum upside, the potential for downside generally compels me to avoid the activity. Such an example would include television viewing. Another would include eating in the chow hall. Another would include participating in team sports. Another might include table games. The problem with each of those activities, as I see it, is that they expose me to too much interaction with other prisoners. Although I can control my own behavior, I cannot control the behavior of others. That level of uncertainty translates as a risk to me. Someone in prison may not handle the stress so well, and the tension easily can escalate the simplest of matters into a potentially lethal confrontation. From my perspective, it makes much more sense to minimize my exposure to the possibility for problems. I have too much to lose. Numerous mentors and others who support my work trust in me to navigate my way through prison in ways that will not embarrass them or cause them problems. Because I place the highest possible value on those relationships, I do everything within my power to avoid anything and everything that could place those relationships at risk.

134. To what extent do the activities you pursue inside the prison environment contribute to your strengths and opportunities?:

My activities contribute to my strengths and open new opportunities. I invite anyone to look at my daily blog entries at MichaelSantos.net, or my week-at-a-glance documentation that shows how I pass through each week. Because I stay busy, always in pursuit of the goals that I set for myself, I enhance my skills. At this stage of my journey, more opportunities open than was the case in 1987, when I began serving my term. Back then all of my activities were in the incipient stage. I sowed seeds. As the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years, I nurtured those seeds. When the years turned into decades, those seeds that I planted and nurtured began to bear fruit. The writing that I do now reaches thousands of people, tens of thousands. Through the network that I’ve created, opportunities open in geometric proportion.

135. What steps do you deliberately take to minimize your exposure to weaknesses and threats?:

In order to minimize my exposure to weaknesses and threats, I adjust my work schedule in ways that provide me with the maximum possible time of solitude. I wake to begin my work before 3:00 each morning. That schedule allows me to write alone. My exercise consists of running and pushups and stair master, all of which I do alone. I do not eat in the chow hall, I do not watch television, and I minimize interactions with others. All of those decisions that I make consciously minimize my exposure to anything that can threaten or derail my progress.

136. Using the SWOT-assessment technique, how would your decision-making process prior to imprisonment?:

Prior to my imprisonment I was not living a values-based life. Instead, I lived a life in pursuit of immediate gratification. In fact, I describe that life prior to prison as being reckless. I had a bad transition from high school to the time that I was 23. Rather than investing in my future, or sowing seeds for long-term growth, I focused on steps I could take “to earn” money in the fastest way that I then saw as being possible. I did not consider the weakness of my decisions or all of the ways that it could threaten my potential. By the time I turned 23, DEA agents arrested me and a federal judge soon thereafter sentenced me to a 45-year prison term. I assess my decision-making process prior to imprisonment as being very bad.

137. In what ways can the SWAT-assessment technique guide your decisions as your prepare for success upon release?:

By using the SWOT technique, I remain vigilant about the threats within my environment. Although I understand opportunities do not exist within the federal prison system for me to advance my release date, I also understand that I have a responsibility to prepare myself for the challenges that I will confront when I return to society. I understand that job opportunities will not open so easily for me. I must open income opportunities through my own work and creativity. During the time that I serve, I strive to make progress every day, seven days each week. That progress is measurable. It results in manuscripts, contributions to my website, or information I can use to create value upon my release. Simultaneously, the technique ensures that I minimize exposure to activities or interactions that could derail or undermine my commitment to emerge from prison strong, with resources in place to ease my transition.

Using the grid, investments in quadrant one would have low risk with high reward probability. In quadrant two investments would have higher risk, but also a potential for high reward. The investments in quadrant three would offer low risk, but also a low potential for reward. Likewise, investments in quadrant four would offer a low potential for reward, but they would come with a high risk factor.

138. What types of activities in prison fall into quadrant one: low-risk/high-reward?:

The activities that I place in the low-risk/high-reward quadrant include reading, writing, solitary exercise, thinking, sleeping, and planning. All of those activities do not expose an individual to problems with other prisoners or disciplinary problems with staff members. The risk level is therefore minimal. Individuals who devote time to reading, writing, solitary exercise, thinking, sleeping, and planning, on the other hand, prepare themselves in measurable ways for success upon release.

139. What types of activities in prison fall into quadrant two: high-risk/high-risk?:

I consider income-generating projects that can lead to an easier transition into society as possibly falling into the high-risk/high-reward category. Prison bureaucrats sometimes launch investigations, lock people in The Hole, or issue disciplinary infractions to individuals who strive to generate resources that may ease their transition into society. I’ve always considered the possible upside, evaluating whether the potential reward justifies the risk. By writing for publication, I open opportunities that will help me upon release. But the risk has never been lost upon me. It has frequently led to time in segregation and the uprooting of my family with transfers across state lines.

140. What types of activities in prison fall into quadrant three: low-risk/low-reward?:

I would categorize activities like watching television, participating in table games, playing on team sports, and engaging in some types of work activities as being in the category of low-risk, low-reward. Each of those activities may remove a man from the pressures of imprisonment or help him waste time, but they do not strike me as being very useful in preparing a prisoner for success upon release. An individual in prison, from my perspective, should consider his time an asset. Anything that detracts or threatens to derail progress should raise a red flag.

141. What types of activities in prison fall into quadrant four: high-risk/low-reward?:

The types of activities that expose an individual to either disciplinary infractions or potentially new problems with the criminal justice system strike me as being high-risk. Regardless of what type of monetary reward that is possible, if the level of risk compromises an individual’s integrity or dignity, it presents a high risk, too high for me to justify. Even if the potential reward does not threaten problems with the criminal justice system, if it brings opportunity costs such as the loss of key support in the community, then I’m of the opinion that prisoners should avoid it.

142. To what extent do your consider risk-reward analysis when assessing activities, interactions, or time allocation in prison?:

I am hyper aware of my environment. At all times I am assessing whether an activity or interaction presents an opportunity for further progress or a threat to the progress I’ve made. With more than 8,600 days of continuous imprisonment behind me, I have a lot of experience to draw from. I’ve seen individuals serve decades in prison but leave without anything to show for their time but anger and bitterness. I’ve seen others who have emerged from prison with skills and resources that translated into success upon release. Since I am committed to emerging with skills and resources in place, and because of that commitment, I always consider risk-reward analysis when assessing activities, interactions, or time allocation in prison.

143. What type of self-improvement programs would enhance an individual’s prospects for success upon release?:

From my perspective, an individual should focus on programs that will enhance his chances. By striving to grow in ways that lead to intellectual enhancement, skill development that will improve vocational options, emotional stability, physical fitness, and spiritual peace, he thrives. Regardless of the programs administrators make available within an individual prison, the prisoner can always find or create ways to improve. I know this first hand. An individual can improve his mind by studying math problems. All he needs is paper and pen to improve his writing skills. He can exercise even while he is locked in The Hole. Through prayer and contemplation, an individual can enrich himself spiritually and emotionally. All of those activities will help him upon release.

144. What thoughts have you given to the type of employment you want to pursue upon release?:

From the beginning of my term I thought about the type of employment I wanted to pursue upon release. I would have liked to have prepared for a career as a surgeon, but the bad decisions I made as a young man minimized such possibilities. Striving for a career in law, professional sports, politics, and many other fields also seemed a far reach. What I had to think about was what I could do. I understood that my sentence would likely keep me in prison for decades. Prisons would not offer much in the way of encouragement or resources. Yet if I applied myself, I understood that I could develop math and English skills. I could increase my knowledge of business. I could use those skills to create my own opportunities. Such thoughts led to my commitment to earn academic credentials, writing skills, and business acumen so that I would not have to rely upon a fickle job market that would forever judge me for the bad decisions I made in my early 20s.

145. Define the qualifications necessary for the type of job you want to pursue?:

I want to create a career that will allow me to support myself by helping others who want to learn more about prisons, the people they hold, or strategies for growing through confinement. The qualifications for such a career are immense. In order to match my credentials, an individual would have to serve decades in prisons of every security level. He would have had to have educated himself and earned marketable credentials. He would have had to have published literature that authenticates him in the marketplace as a man who has mastered the prison experience, emerging from it stronger than when he went in. He will have had to have nurtured a loving relationship with his wife, built a strong support network, and earned a substantial income all while wrapped up inside of prison boundaries. Those are the qualifications that I bring to the table and they are the reason that I’m confident I can provide a valuable service to others.

146. How do your self-improvement programs prepare you for the type of job you want to pursue?:

Every day I devote between six and twelve hours to the preparations I deem necessary to triumph over the obstacles wrought by long-term imprisonment. I write extensively. I interview other prisoners or research cases in the law library. I exercise every day. I create content that others bring to market and monetize. I read from the genre of self-help, personal empowerment, spirituality, psychology, law, and other nonfiction disciplines. I keep current with the news and world events. My self-improvement programs do not merit any certificates from prison administrators and I do not receive any goody bags. But I stand ready to confront and overcome the challenges that I will face upon release.

147. What types of self-improvement programs can you pursue independently that will enhance your prospects as a candidate for employment upon release?:

I am a huge believer in the value of mastering basic education. I am not referring to the importance of earning a GED or even a college degree. I know numerous people who have high-school equivalency or college degrees but lack a basic understanding of business math. Some freeze in fear when confronted with the challenge of writing an essay, a book report, or even a business letter. I’m certain that the individual who improves his skills in basic math to the extent that he can solve business problems with ease enhances his chances for success upon release. Similarly, the individual who improves upon his communications skills opens opportunities that otherwise would remain closed. Although I perceive value in academic credentials, I’m even more certain that value comes through skill development. Another area where individuals can enhance their prospects for fulfillment upon release includes physical fitness. Exercise provides outstanding opportunities for an individual to conquer stress. Stress is a killer. When an individual learns how to cope with it effectively, he improves his life in measurable ways. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m also a big believer that an individual should work to invite emotional stability and spiritual growth into his life. Those strategies have guided me through more than 8,600 days of imprisonment. I will continue to rely upon them and recommend them to others.

148. In what ways do academic credentials influence an individual’s candidacy for employment?:

I have been incarcerated for my entire adult life. That means my exposure to the employment market has been indirect. I read about it but I do not participate directly. Nevertheless, my reading has provided me some data. Today’s unemployment rate is high by historical standards, I have read. Yet those who lack academic credentials suffer disproportionately. Indeed, the highest unemployment rate has traditionally fallen hardest upon those who do not have a high school diploma. Those who have high school diplomas or community college degrees find more opportunities in the employment market. But in today’s competitive and challenging economic conditions, employers prefer higher academic credentials like undergraduate or graduate degrees.

149. How do prospective employers gauge the value of academic credentials?:

By reading about the employment landscape across the United States, I’ve become convinced that employers place a high value upon academic credentials. Obviously, some types of employment require not only academic credentials but also board or state licenses. But even jobs that do not require academic credentials or licenses seem to offer higher levels of compensation to those with higher academic credentials. Such evidence convinces me that employers place a high value on credentials.

150. What types of self-improvement steps trump academic credentials?:

From my perspective, a verifiable record of values-based living trumps academic credentials. An individual may hold academic credentials from the most distinguished universities. Yet if he lacks honesty, integrity, or a history of transparency, he will encounter resistance in all areas of life. The individual who can show that he is a man who knows how to overcome adversity with dignity, however, enhances his value in the marketplace. To the extent that he can communicate such commitment and integrity, he trumps academic credentials.

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