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144. Earning Freedom, by Michael Santos

144. Earning Freedom, by Michael Santos

Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, by Michael Santos Chapter 13.1 Going to the SHU at Lompoc Federal Prison Camp   2007 Months 232-233   It’s Wednesday, April 18, 2007 and our family is making excellent progress.  While Carole studies for the final exams to complete her first semester of nursing school, I’m finishing the writing projects that I began with Lee Nobmann’s sponsorship.  Despite the six years of prison that I have ahead, I’m making progress, living a productive life, and that makes all of the difference in the world. While work at my desk, the door opens. I see Mr. Dorkin, a guard who joyfully equates harassing men in minimum-security camps with protecting the homeland. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon when he interrupts my typing.  Dorkin’s a guard I avoid, and I don’t like seeing him in this space that I consider my sanctuary. He has a reputation for annoying prisoners, and now he is annoying me with his glare. Mr. Brown, my supervisor, stands behind Dorkin, and I get the sense that something isn’t right. Dorkin is grinning. “Santos,” he commands. “Stand up, take your hands off the keyboard, and put them behind your head.” Not a stranger to these orders, I comply. Dorkin puts his big hands on me. He pats my chest, my waist, and then runs his fingers along the inside of my belt. He pats each of my legs, swiveling his two-handed grip down each leg to my sneakers, then he inserts his finger between my shoe and ankle. “Would you prefer that I take my shoes off?” I ask. “There’ll be plenty of time for that. Just keep lookin’ straight ahead.” Mr. Dorkin orders. “Okay, drop your hands. Put ̓em behind your back.” He unsnaps one of the leather pouches of his black belt and removes the cuffs. The familiar sound of clicking metal teeth follows cold steel closing around my wrists. I wonder when such intrusions into my life will end, if ever. “What kind ̓a contraband am I gonna find in here?” he asks. “I don’t have any contraband,” I state unequivocally, wondering what this moron wants with me. “Gee. I’ve never heard that before,” he says sarcastically. Then he spins me to the door, grabbing the chain between my handcuffs to steer me toward it. “Let’s go. Move it.” Dorkin marches me down the hallway and out into the sunshine where I see a white Dodge Intrepid waiting. He opens the car’s rear door and, with his palm on my head, he pushes me into the back seat. He straps the seatbelt over my waist and then slams the door shut. I look through the tinted window at Mr. Brown, relatively certain that this will be the last time I see him. Through the black metal mesh separating his seat from mine, Dorkin taunts me. “Got anything to say, Santos?” I continue staring out the window, immune to his heckling. “Take me wherever you’re taking me and do what you’ve got to do.” “That’s the way you wanna play it?” Dorkin uses his authority like a weapon and he’s accustomed to having an effect on prisoners. When I don’t respond, he scowls because I’ve spoiled his game. Silently, I watch as we pass through the eucalyptus and pine trees. Although I don’t know why I’m being harassed this time, I’m pretty sure I won’t be seeing Lompoc Camp again. At the double gates that lead to the Special Housing Unit, Dorkin pulls the radio from his belt, brings it to his mouth says: “Got one for SHU.” The gates open and he drives inside, parks in front of a second gate, and turns off the car. Another guard walks toward the car and opens the back door. “What we got here?” the new guard asks. “Another genius from the camp?” “Ten-four,” Dorkin says. “Lock ’im up. Captain’s order.” The guard orders me out of the car, gripping the handcuffs behind my back as I scoot off the backseat and exit the vehicle. He steers me through the gates and into the building, then deeper inside the windowless, concrete maze. Surveillance cameras are mounted in every corner. Someone is always watching, as shadowy guards sit in a distant control center.  They monitor our movements and control heavy deadbolts with electronic locks. I hear the click, and the doors open automatically. We pass through, and the doors lock behind us. This stark area of the prison reeks like a jail, like a law enforcement cavern that feels very, very sinister. The holding cell isn’t any bigger than a broom closet, and once I’m secured inside, I back up to the bars.  The guard inserts his key to unlock my handcuffs. I open my arms to stretch and it’s so narrow I can press against the opposing concrete walls at the same time. Another guard wheels a laundry bin to the gate. “What size?” he asks me. “Two X.”
I strip naked, not waiting for an order from the guard who returns with faded boxers, white tube socks with worn elastic, the requisite orange jumpsuit with chrome snaps, a towel, and a bedroll. He searches my body and after he peers into my rectum I pass inspection. “Get dressed,” he says. In less than a minute I’m clothed in the bright orange SHU uniform and blue canvas deck shoes. A thousand prisoners have worn these same clothes before me, and a thousand more will wear them after I’m gone. I roll my shoulders in an attempt to shrug off my growing stress, then squat to the floor and hold my knees to my chest while resting my back against the concrete wall, waiting. I can only see the gray concrete walls of my cell, the bars, the narrow hallway and concrete wall outside the cell. I don’t have a sense of time but, in the distance, I hear the crackle of a radio and the electronic click of deadbolts locking or unlocking steel doors. I roll my head from side to side, trying to dissipate or ease off the tension. Footsteps approach my cell and a guard appears. It’s Velez, a guard from the camp. “What’re you doing here?” he stops in front of the gate. “I don’t know,” I respond, looking up from the floor. “Did you get a shot?” “If I did, I wouldn’t know it.” “Let me see what I can find out.” Velez walks away and I massage my forehead. Carole is going to take this hard. Yesterday she celebrated her 42nd birthday and now she’s going to have to confront this new drama in our life. I don’t know when I’ll be able to call her. I hope my friend Lee has heard about my misfortune and that he’ll relay a message to Carole soon. She needs to know that a guard took me away, even though she’ll worry. This disruption might be much harder on her than it is on me. She has semester finals in May and doesn’t need this stress. Footsteps accompanied by the sound of jingling keys announce Velez’s return. “You’re here under investigation,” he states, completely devoid of emotion. “For what?” “Captain’s order. Stand up. I’ve got to cuff you. I’ll take you to your cell.” I back against the bars and feel the metal bracelets click locked around my wrists. He unlocks the gates and leads me down the hall, past the raised control center. Inside the hub, I see blinking lights and movements of two guards through darkly tinted glass. Velez waits for one of them to release the electronic lock on the first gate. We walk through and it closes behind us. With his large key he unlocks the second gate and then locks it behind us. We’re in a tunnel, with cell doors on each side. I don’t recognize any of the prisoners who peer through the windows in their doors. These men probably come from the adjacent low- or medium-security prisons at Lompoc. We stop in front of a cell and Velez taps with his key on the small window within the door. “Move to the back of the cell,” he instructs as the prisoner inside begins to move. “Face the wall. Don’t turn around.” Velez unlocks the steel door and nudges me inside. The door closes behind me and I hear the deadbolt lock. I back up and push my hands to the open trap. He unlocks and removes my cuffs then slams the trap shut. The sound of his footsteps and jingling keys fade as he walks down the tier toward the gates. “How you doing, Bud?” I say to the large man who is still facing the far wall of the cell. He’s tall, with unruly brown hair. “Hi.” He greets me as he turns around.
 I extend my hand. “My name’s Michael Santos.” “I’m Marty Frankl.” We shake hands. “Where’re you coming from?” “I was at Terminal Island,” he names a low-security prison in Los Angeles. “I’m on my way to the camp. A paperwork mix-up has me stuck in here.” “That happens. How long have you been in the SHU? “Since Monday.” “They’ll probably have it straightened out by Friday. You’ll like the camp once you get there.” “Are you from the camp?” He asks as he sits on the lower bunk. I throw my bedroll on the top rack and start tying my sheets around the mat. “I’ve been there for two years. It’s been the easiest time I ever served.” “Are you the writer?” “That’s me.” “My girlfriend’s been sending printouts from your website ever since I was charged. Part of the reason I pled guilty was because of what you wrote.” “What kind of case do you have?” “Money laundering. I’m serving eight years.” “It passes faster than you think. You’ll like the camp better than Terminal Island.” “Are you going back?” “I don’t even know why they locked me up, but it’s not a good sign. I’ve never served time in SHU for a shot, only for transfer to another prison.” “That sucks. I know you’ve been in a long time. How many years do you have left?” “Six, maybe a little more. I’m scheduled for release in August of 2013.” I describe the camp for Marty and answer his many questions. He gives me some paper, an envelope, and stamps. I fold the end of the mat on my rack to prop up my chest and I use the steel bunk as a surface to write Carole a long letter, explaining what I know. It’s the beginning of a journal she’ll post on my website at MichaelSantos.net describing my experience. In the evening, a guard slides a form under the cell door that officially informs me that I’m being investigated for running a business. ******* Marty’s paperwork clears the following morning and he transfers to the camp. I appreciate the single cell and I strip to my boxers to begin my solitary exercise routine: pushups, deep knee bends, running in place. I exercise until sweat puddles beneath me. Then I wash my boxers in the sink and hang them to dry from the top rack, ignoring the staff and administrators who periodically walk by and peer through the window in my door. On Saturday morning a guard I don’t recognize startles me by tapping his key on the small window, scowling. “Santos! What’re you here for?”
I step toward the doorframe and speak to him through the crack. “Investigation for running a business.”  He shakes his head. “Cuff up. You’ve got a visit.” Knowing that Carole is here, I tolerate the dehumanizing handcuffs and strip search when I leave the cell. I’ll go through anything to see my wife. After the guard from the visiting room unlocks my cuffs, strip searches me again, and advises me of the rules, I walk into the tightly controlled visiting area with surveillance cameras in the ceiling and uniformed guards patrolling the aisles. Prisoners are required to sit at tables across from their visitors, neither touching nor holding hands. I walk to Carole. Her smile warms me, but tears glisten in her eyes. We hold each other briefly, not saying anything. “We’d better sit, Honey. I don’t know how long we have,” I tell her. Carole takes in my orange jumpsuit and blue canvas shoes, my unshaven face, knowing what it means. “Don’t cry, Honey. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m okay.” She wipes her eyes. “I hate to see you like this. Are they transferring us again?” “I don’t know, but I’m fine. Come on. Don’t cry. You’ll make me sad.” “What do you want me to do?” she asks. “Regardless of what happens to me, you have to stay in school and finish the nursing program. It’s only two more semesters and we can’t let my problems interfere.” “Why are they doing this to you?” “All I know is that I’m being investigated for running a business. I don’t know whether it’s for Inside, our website, or the books that Lee sponsoredåå “Melodee told me that Lee heard that the guards took the compuåter from your office.” I’m glad to hear that Lee told his wife what he knows, and that Melodee called Carole. “She said they would help with whatever we need, even hire you a lawyer.” I tell Carole that we don’t need a lawyer and that she should bring attention to my situation by calling some of the influential people in our network. I can’t use the telephone while I’m in the SHU and guards monitor everything I write. So I suggest that she ask our friends to write reference letters to the warden at Lompoc and to ask professors who use my books to write letters describing the contributions my work makes to their students. She should contact journalists and other media representatives who have interviewed me or shown interest in my work, asking if they would make official inquiries. Also, she should ask Jon Axelrod, our lawyer friend in Washington D.C., to write a formal letter protesting my segregation and demanding an explanation. We have our support network in place and I urge Carole to mobilize it, including making calls to administrators in the BOP’s Western Regional Office to complain. “Someone is trying to bury me in the system, and from in here, all I can do is write about what’s going on,” I tell her. “The BOP operates behind closed doors and covers its actions with that ‘security-of-the-institution’ catchall. In order to force their hand to end the investigation, we have to expose their efforts to frame me. Let’s use all of our resources to spotlight what’s going on.” “What about the sponsorship funds that Lee gave? Can you get in trouble for that?” “I didn’t receive any funds. A private foundation sent checks to the publishing company that you own, not me. You paid taxes on the money. I wrote the manuscripts, but I wasn’t compensated. I’m completely within the letter of the law. And if they want to give me a shot for what I did, I don’t care. I’m proud of our work and I’m not hiding anything.”  

Duration: 21 min

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