Barney’s On the Beat

Author Doing 45 Years: I wasn’t optimistic about being allowed to interview Lompoc federal prisoner Michael G. Santos, but I tried anyway. Result: denial.

This, I was told by Lompoc prison’s Public Information Officer Erwin Meinberg, was “due to safety and security concerns.” Concerns for my safety? I asked. “Of the institution,” Meinberg replied.

Santos is not a terrorist or a violent prisoner doing hard time. He’s doing clerical work in the minimum-security prison camp at Lompoc, where he’s been for the past year or so. The main problem the federal penitentiary system seems to have with Santos is that he writes books about prison life, the lack of rehabilitation programs, and his calls for reform.

While serving 20 years so far of a 45-year sentence for drug dealing, he has an exemplary record, I am told. In fact, Santos, now 42, has written four books and earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree while in the slammer. But he’s being prevented from working on a doctorate, according to Dr. Sam Torres, Cal State Long Beach criminal justice professor.

Not only is Santos being kept safe from reporters who want to interview him, but also from academics like Dr. Torres, his mentor. “I’ve appealed all the way to Washington,” but only received generic refusals, no specific reasons why he’s denied, Dr. Santos told me.

The University of Connecticut accepted Santos into its online doctoral program, but this was blocked because it was seen as a security risk, he wrote. The only risk one can imagine is that it might affect the job security of those at the top of this gulag, who prefer punishment to rehabilitation and resent Santos.

“We don’t want you writing,” a unit manager once told him, as recounted in his new book, Inside: Life Behind Bars in America (St. Martin’s Press).

When Santos was in a minimum-security federal prison camp in Colorado, Torres asked to meet with him. “I expected no problem. It never occurred to me that I would be denied.” But he was. “They said, ‘security.’ And never gave me the reason.” Same thing at Lompoc, Torres said. “It’s crazy, it’s laughable” that he can’t see Santos, the professor told me. Look, Torres said, “I was a federal probation and parole officer and have been in prisons hundreds of times.”

Santos was a “kingpin drug dealer, with fancy cars and fancy women,” Torres said. “He deserves a severe penalty. I would have recommended 15 to 20 years.” But not the 45-year jolt for a 23-year-old non-gang member in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

Santos has to wait six more years even to get a parole hearing, Torres told me. In the meantime, Torres’s criminal justice students send him questions and he responds: about 100 letters so far. Torres wanted to bring his class to the Lompoc prison, which the warden approved, but he refused to allow them to see Santos.

A reporting team from a Seattle newspaper was allowed to interview Santos a few months ago and the story is due to be published late this month, Torres said. But he’s been told that the prison is not allowing any more interviews.

When Santos was accepted into the doctoral program, he said a prison official told him that he might as well tear up the college’s papers. He wasn’t going to be allowed to take part. Although the program would have cost the prison nothing, officials refused, claiming that the books shipped in might contain contraband.

Santos wrote that he barely got Inside finished and in the mailbox before he was thrown into solitary and shipped to Lompoc. If you’re interested in community safety, give prisoners all the education they want, Torres argued. Research shows that as inmates become more educated, the level of recidivism — return to prison for new crimes — drops drastically, he said. Those earning a bachelor’s degree have only a 20-25 percent recidivism rate, and those with a master’s, “zero recidivism.”

Santos contends that he’s targeted due to his writings about the reality of life in prison, where inmates who try to reform are looked on as weak by other prisoners and treated with hostility by many prison officials.“The corrections complex does not exist to prepare people for law-abiding lives,” Santos wrote in Inside. Inmates emerge back out on our streets, poorly prepared and educated only by these schools of crime behind high walls.

As for Santos, the world would be far more secure if it would free him to write the truth about life behind bars in America and open our eyes to the dire need for reform. Santos’s articles are posted on his Web site, His wife maintains it but he’s apparently never seen it, Torres said.

Still, it’s odd that I was refused an interview, not with a sociopath mass murderer but a nonviolent doctoral candidate — a denial for the “safety and security” of the Lompoc prison. I’m sure the Lompoc prison would have survived my visit. Keep the man behind bars if you must, but let the man study and let the man write.

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