Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 7, 2009


Michael Santos, Change - As a long-term prisoner, visiting has had different meanings for me at various stages of my confinement. In the beginning, after my initial arrest, I spent my first year locked inside a large county jail. I was only 23, and never having been confined before, I didn't know much of anything about living in an institution. Visits gave me a break from the monotony.

Those initial weeks in jail, beginning in the summer of 1987, passed slowly. I had been charged with leading an "enterprise" that trafficked in cocaine. Although neither violence nor weapons were a part of our group, my leadership role in the crime exposed me to a possible sentence of life without parole and thus persuaded my judge to deny my release on bond. After pacing from wall to wall in my jail cell day after day, I looked forward to Saturday visits.

My ritual to prepare for the Saturday morning visit began the night before, when I would lay my pants and shirt carefully beneath my sleeping mat on the concrete platform that served as my bed. The weight of my body through the night would press creases into the drab clothing, and I hoped the effort would make me look sharp. I'd wake early. By knocking out several hundred pushups on the floor of my cell, I could get my blood pumping, swell my muscles, hopefully giving the illusion of strength. I'd take a bird-type bath in my sink, shave closely, then pull on my jail outfit, methodically folding up my sleeves to flaunt what I thought were impressive biceps. Then I sat on the corner of my bed, minimizing movement so as not to wrinkle my clothes, and waited for jailers to escort me to the visiting booth.

The procedure was not so easy for family members. Living far away from the jail, my parents and sisters had to wake early, drive for an hour, search for parking, then stand in a lengthy line. When our visiting time came, we weren't able to comfort each other with an embrace. Instead, we sat across from each other on stationary steel stools. A thick glass window separated us, and while wiping away our watering eyes, we spoke through telephone handsets, all the while knowing that jailers were listening to our conversations. After 30 minutes in the visiting booth, our time expired until the following Saturday.. . .

Once a jury convicted me and my judge imposed sentence, marshals transferred me to a high-security penitentiary more than 2,000 miles away from my family. That distance brought an end to our weekly visits.

Visiting less frequently suited my early adjustment. I had decades to serve and I needed to toughen my spirits. The penitentiary environment differed from the jail, as lengthy sentences extinguished hope for thousands of men locked inside the walls. They adjusted, but in setting into the culture, many purged thoughts about returning to the outside world. They learned to live inside, and for some, that adjustment became easier by forgetting about the outside. With such attitudes, visits were dead weights, burdens to carry, painful reminders of all that prisoners missed.

Instead of visiting through glass, those in the prisons where I've been held had the privilege of "contact" visits. Once visitors passed through a series of security precautions that began with confirmation of their authorization to visit, and followed with metal detectors, drug detection scans, possible pat searches, waiting in lines, ultraviolet hand stamps, and escorts through numerous sliding gates, an officer would assign them seats in the brightly lit visiting room. . .



Anonymous Mairead said...

There's someone who should be considered for release. Twenty-two years inside? Those who have killed someone have done less time than that.

July 8, 2009 4:33 AM  

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