Earning Freedom: From Prison to Professor

Michael Santos, the Prison Professor, writing through tough times

Can Socrates reveal the meaning of life for a prisoner? After making a series of bad decisions, including selling cocaine, Michael Santos was convicted to 45 years in prison. There he discovered a book on the prison library cart that changed his life. Now Michael is a free man, a writer, an adjunct professor and a speaker on social injustice. He has reconciled with society and teaches tens of thousands of prisoners to be great citizens. While in prison, he wrote his life story, multiple nonfiction and criminal justice textbooks, and ghost wrote the stories of many incarcerated individuals.  Listen to discover how he served his sentence with dignity, his 3 steps to surviving prison, the key moment that turned his life around, and his latest prison project.

Michael Santos encountered Socrates in prison

…and it changed his life.

Michael Santos is known as the “Prison Professor.” As a young man, he made a series of bad decisions, including selling cocaine, and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Santos eventually decided to “reconcile with society and become a better citizen.”

After spending 26 years in the Federal Penitentiary System, Santos was released in 2013 and hired by San Francisco State University as an adjunct professor, teaching criminal justice students and others wanting to improve the outcomes of the nation’s criminal justice system.

prison professor, citizen, write from prisonMichael credits an anthology discovered on the prison library cart, The Treasury of Philosophy, with changing his life. It included the story of Greek philosopher, Socrates, who had been imprisoned, awaiting execution. Having been given the opportunity to live the rest of his life in exile, Socrates refused the opportunity to escape. Michael recalls Socrates’ response to those trying to help him:

“Socrates said, ‘We live in a democracy, and in a democracy, we have to take the good with the bad. I don’t agree with this law, but I have taken all of the good that society has to offer: it’s clothed me and fed me and protected me from foreign enemies, and I took all of that. So, I have the right to work to change laws I don’t agree with, but I don’t have the right to break laws… and because I broke the law, I would rather take the punishment with my dignity intact than run away like a coward.’”

Michael credits that powerful statement with changing his attitude while in prison. Asking himself if there was anything to help him serve his sentence with his dignity intact, he set out to accomplish goals for himself. Michael says he couldn’t comprehend a 45 year sentence, so he started working toward accomplishing his goals in the first ten years.

I said, ‘in ten years, I am going to earn a university degree, I am going to publish something, and I’m going to find ten people who believe in me,” he recalls. Those goals provided him the motivation he needed to survive prison and led him into a writing career. He credits men such as Socrates, Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl for keeping him inspired to accomplish those goals.

Motivation For The Future

Michael hopes that his struggles, pain and success will help people find something of value that may change their own lives. His life changed because of writing his story, and essentially re-writing his future.

It gave me an opportunity to try and create a new narrative of my life. I really wanted to demonstrate a sense of remorse for the bad decisions I had made as a young man and I wanted to show that prison maybe the context of my story but the reality is that it’s a human story. We all face struggle and adversity at some point in our life and the strategies that empowered me, as those days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and months turned into years and years turned into decades, could be universal, and I really believe that other people could find value in that message.

I really felt as though I was living my dream of wanting to reconcile with society by showing other people that we all face struggle, we can all go through struggle and we can all emerge from it with our dignity intact and opportunities for fulfilment and meaning, and that was very empowering for me.

Since that time, Santos has written seven books under his own name, fifteen as a ghostwriter, and several journal articles.

Michael Santos, prison professor, writing from prisonBecoming A Prison Author

Around the time of his 14th year in prison, Santos had been writing journal articles, and even writing chapters of books for several of his mentors by that time. Then, a professor in his PhD program at University of Connecticut invited him to write about the prison system for college students as a supplemental text book.

His first book, About Prison, was written in 2003 while still a federal prisoner. “I had to do all my writing by hand because I didn’t have access to a computer or keyboard,” he says of the 100,000 word manuscript. His book became a companion book to the professor’s text, American Corrections, which was sold to universities across the United States.

Following that experience, he continued to pair up with college professors, proposing new books, including Inside: Life Behind Bars in AmericaProfiles From Prison, Earning Freedom and several others to both the education market and the mainstream market.

I think that writing is an essential component of any individual’s path on a pursuit of excellence,” says Santos. The act of writing helps those seeking a value-based, goal-oriented, driven approach to life to think in terms of words, sentences and paragraphs, and to learn effective communication skills, he explains.


Take Home Message:

  • Project yourself into the future and work towards that
  • Find 10 people who will believe in you and mentor you
  • Create a new narrative for your life by writing about your life


Lifestory Toolkit: Hemingway App

(Brought to you by Lifestorytelling.com – Discover YOUR life stories!)

In this episode’s Lifestory Toolkit we’re going to take a peek at the Hemingway App. This is a really cool app that actually improves your writing for you. It makes writing bold and clear – and that’s what we all want, right? Once you introduce your writing to Hemingway, it’ll never be the same. Why is it called Hemingway? Because writer Ernest Hemingway is famous for his short, declarative writing. That gives the reader a more enjoyable experience. Here’s what the Hemingway app does…It breaks up long, complex sentences into short, crisp ones. It fixes common writing errors. It tells you if a word or a phrase has a simpler alternative. It points out those pesky adverbs! It shows you if you are using passive voice…because we all know that passive writing is lazy writing!

It also tells you whether your writing is hard for someone to read, recommends shorter words for clarity, gives you a word count, and (oh yeah) it’s also a spell checker too. You can type directly into the app on your phone, tablet, or desktop, or cut and paste your work into the app and let it fix your writing that way. I love this tool! Consider adding the Hemingway app to your Lifestory Toolkit. Did I mention it’s free? You can find it at Hemingwayapp.com. You can use it when writing your own life story at Lifestorytelling.com


Free Download: 5 Myths About Life Story Writing

5 Myths About Life Story Writing


About: Michael Santos

While serving 26 years in federal prison—in facilities of every security level—Michael Santos developed an unmatched depth of experience. As a Prison Consultant he will teach you how to make the most of your journey, preparing you for the best possible experience and outcome. Your due diligence will show why he and his team are better qualified to give valuable prison advice than anyone.


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