Power In Prison
09.24.08, 6:00 PM ET
I remain in prison. It is chaotic world of violence, of hopelessness, of despair. It is an environment ripe for me to study power at a primal level.
Administrators control the infrastructure. Their rules rip away a prisoner's identity and replace it with a registration number. Staff members issue every prisoner identical coarse and threadbare clothing from bins. Rules dictate what, when and how much we eat. Guards tell us where to sleep and with whom.
We work jobs according to the needs of the institution rather than according to merit or aptitude. Different rules determine when and how we can communicate with family; meaningful interactions with members of society are blocked. Instead of encouraging men to earn freedom, prison policies are designed to make it clear that inmates have no control over their destinies. Only the turning of the calendar page matters.
In prison, preservation of the institution trumps the needs of the individual. Unlike any other place in America I know, prison administrators rely on the threat of punishment and coercion rather than the promise of incentives to manage inmates. People who seek power inside prison walls learn to manipulate this environment. Yet as recidivism rates show, those who learn to live in prison simultaneously learn to fail in society.
Without hope, men adjust in a myriad of ways to ease their time. They join gangs. They hustle contraband. They ceaselessly plot and scheme. They threaten. Most power in prison is based on fear, on the risk of bloodshed. Through intimidation and violence, some prisoners satisfy their lust for dominance and find immediate gratification.
Preparing for success upon release, on the other hand, requires a far different effort. Rewards do not come for years, even decades. Whereas administrators appease the gang leaders with single-man cells and work schedules, the inmate who focuses on preparing himself for life outside prison toils away quietly in obscurity, motivated completely from within and susceptible to predators and extortionists. As Lion, a gang leader I wrote about in my book, Inside, told me, all a man needed to thrive in prison is hatred and a knife.
Myopic prisoners think they can enhance their power by joining gangs or engaging in high-risk, low-reward behavior. And, indeed, in an institution founded upon skewed values, it is easy enough for prisoners to lift their stature--at least inside the penitentiary. Neither administrators nor the prison populace respect the man who educates himself or prepares for a law-abiding life upon release. But those who cultivate reputations of worthlessness, lethal violence and treachery build armies of sycophants.
Early in my term, a gang leader who called himself Gaspipe outlined the path to power. "It's simple," Gaspipe said. "I give respect and I demand respect. Any man who even thinks about testing me had better be ready to bleed. I'm ready to go. I know my brothers have my back."
To embrace Gaspipe's premise, prisoners have to believe that life offers nothing beyond the concrete blocks and steel that confine them. They are content with extortion, reaping windfall profits in the underground economy and dispensing their booty to a coterie of followers. They build an elusive, penitentiary power.
As a long-term prisoner with more than a quarter-century to serve, I rejected this penitentiary protocol, this institutionalized power. From the beginning, I strove to create something different. Real power, I was convinced, comes to those who build a deeper meaning in their lives; true power comes from self-mastery. As I learned from the ancient writings of Aristotle, even prisoners needed to put forth an effort to know themselves.
With plenty of time for introspection, I concluded that I didn't have the spiritual temperament of a monk. I knew I could endure the lengthy sentence imposed upon me, but I found that I could not enjoy fulfillment in a life of solitude. I had to connect with the wider community beyond the prison walls.
To triumph over the sentence, I knew I had to emerge successfully. As Stephen Covey's books taught, I had to begin serving my term with the end in mind.
Under the sentencing scheme in use when I was convicted, I knew that the possibility of good-time credit could mean my release in just over 26 years--in 2013. In 1987, that was longer than I had been alive. But instead of dwelling on the impossible amount of time until my release, I envisioned myself emerging from prison with dignity, a proud and virtuous man.
I had been a mediocre student through my school years. Mediocrity, I knew, would not be acceptable if I was going to excel in prison. By his very nature, a prisoner is inferior and a failure. To succeed, I would have to do far better than average. My goal was to have law-abiding citizens accept me as something more than a prisoner; I hoped they would consider me a peer. I hoped to learn and to create opportunities through mentors. Those opportunities would allow me to transition into society as a fully functioning and contributing citizen upon my release.
A gang leader would build his power base by orchestrating illicit schemes. I identified such behavior as offering high risks with low rewards. A lazy prisoner would sleep excessively and narcotize himself with television. That was low-risk, low-reward behavior.
I sought to empower myself with low-risk, high-reward behaviors. I educated myself, developed a network of support and strove to increase my mental, physical, spiritual and emotional fitness.
Occasionally, I took higher levels of risk, but only for commensurate rewards. For example, my writings have exposed me to the enmity of the system by revealing what I have observed and experienced.
Now I have more than 21 years of confinement behind me, and fewer than five years of prison ahead. My moral compass has guided me through prisons of every security level and has empowered me in ways that allowed me to transcend prison boundaries.
Over the last two decades, I have moved from high-security penitentiaries to minimum-security prison camps. I have earned an undergraduate degree from Mercer University and a graduate degree from Hofstra University. I have built a thriving network of support, and married an extraordinary woman whose beauty takes my breath away.
Publishers have brought books I have written to market and they educate readers across the world about America's prison system. Partners have built and continue to maintain MichaelSantos.net, a Web site that distributes my writings to help those struggling through the criminal justice system.
I have contributed to society while serving a 45-year prison sentence. That is empowering.
Michael Santos is the author of Inside: Life Behind Bars in America. He writes about the prison experience at www.MichaelSantos.net.