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, michaelsantos.net. 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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