Prisoner's Long Journey from Bondage to Liberation


Prisoner's Long Journey from Bondage to Liberation | Colin Harris, Prison, Rehabilitation, Michael Santos

Early in the jolting reality of what he was facing, Michael Santos accepted the responsibility for the decisions that led to his sentence. (Photo: MichaelSantos.com)
If all goes according to schedule today, Michael Santos will walk out of a federal prison in California after serving more than 25 years of a 45-year sentence for distributing and selling cocaine.

A column a year ago outlined the remarkable story of his inordinately long sentence and his resolute commitment to serve his time preparing for his eventual release by using every ounce of energy and every moment of opportunity to make a positive difference in his own life and that of others.

His website offers details of his transitional release and the many dimensions of his work.

His journey through the valley of long incarceration – with its many invitations to despair and resignation that wait at every turn to claim body, mind and spirit of those who travel its way – is a profound testimony to the power of human possibility in the face of extreme challenges.

Early in the jolting reality of what he was facing, he accepted the responsibility for the decisions that led to his sentence.

He resolved not to let his surroundings or the many negative features of prison culture define him, but focused instead on the distant horizon of his release and to use each day as a preparation for the life that liberation would bring.

Now that day has finally come, and the fruit of his quarter century of education, writing and insight into the "prison experience" is about to cross a threshold to more public benefit.

Friends and supporters celebrate this day with both thanksgiving and hope that the work forged during this long payment of his debt to society will continue to refine what we as a society do in response to those who make decisions that lead to prison.

Invitations await him for formal involvement in academic settings as a teacher and consultant in the field of penology.

The resources he has developed to help inmates and their families adjust to and deal with the realities of prison life will continue to serve those who travel the road behind him.

His books emphasizing the importance of self-determination and the need for help rather than hindrance for those who seek to improve themselves from the place where their decisions and deeds have brought them will continue to be part of the growing conversation on systemic prison reform.

Throughout the years, the observation of Viktor Frankl (whom Michael identifies as an early influence on his perspective) that the only freedom that cannot be taken from a person is the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances has been reflected in his commitment and his work.

His resolve not to let his past mistakes or his present circumstances tell him who he is seems to be the key ingredient of his successful pilgrimage to liberation.

He has served his time, but he has also made the time serve him and his goals for life beyond his sentence.

He knows that he has not done this by himself. To be sure, his intellect, his winsome personality, his relational skills and his hard work have opened avenues that he has followed and benefitted from in ways less available to others.

But he has also been blessed with a strong support system of family and friends, most notably his wife, Carole, who have provided an alternative community to the more immediate one of the institution, which has helped him "keep the windows clean" through which he has maintained his vision of the world beyond the bars.

Beyond the appropriate and heartfelt celebration that today calls forth, it is here that the larger lesson of the day connects with everyday life.

We understand easily that the journey of faith consists of a holistic commitment to use each day's opportunities to serve a greater good, but it also requires a community of support and encouragement to fuel that commitment and to keep that vision clear.

We all have an opportunity to be part of that kind of community.

Michael and his companions on the journey have modeled both these truths for us. Do I hear a "Go thou and do likewise" coming from somewhere?

"I was in prison, and you visited me ..."

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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Tags: Colin Harris, Michael Santos, Prison, Rehabilitation