From "Scarface" to Socrates to San Francisco State University, Michael Santos has been through a lifetime - or rather, half a lifetime - of change.
From "Scarface" to SF State: One Teacher's Remarkable Journey
By Garvin Thomas and Lisa Fernandez
It's only fitting that Michael Santo's story sounds like a movie, because it started with one. (Published Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013)
The 49-year-old Petaluma ex-con spent 26 years - more than half his life - in roughly 20 prisons stemming from a 1980's-era drug conviction, where he was labeled a cocaine kingpin, shipping drugs from Miami back to his upscale, suburban hometown in North Seattle.
Though he was sentenced to 45 years in prison, Santos was released to a halfway house in San Francisco in August 2012 for good behavior - he earned two degrees in prison and wrote seven books. And this August, he was released for good.
Last month, he began teaching at SF State. His class is called "The Architecture of Incarceration."
"I'm having a wonderful opportunity to influence the perspectives of young people," Santos said. "I've been giving them a perspective that differs from the classes that they took earlier and I'm thrilled to have this privilege. It's truly an amazing feeling, because academia played such an enormous influence on my life during the 26 years that I served."
Teaching follows a long journey, where a teenage Santos began running with a "fast crowd," people his parents wouldn't have been proud of. He saw the movie "Scarface" back then, and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Al Pacino's gangster character, "Tony Montana."
"I orchestrated a scheme to supply," he said. "I was driven by greed. I felt entitled, like nothing was going to happen to me."
But something did happen to him.
He was convicted on drug trafficking charges. Sometime before getting sentenced, Santos picked up a book written by Greek philosopher Socrates, who was also sent to prison and sentenced to death for failing to acknowledge the "proper" gods and for teaching new philosophies. As the story goes, Socrates had the chance to escape - but he didn't.
That struck Santos – even though their paths were different and although Santos acknowledged he grew up a privileged kid in Seattle who made "every bad decision you could make." And at that moment, Santos decided to "own" his mistakes, and make meaning of his long years ahead of him in prison.
"I had to find a way to reconcile what I had done," he said.
He wrote more than half a dozen books. He earned bachelors and masters degrees. He even got married to a woman he had known since he was 11 years old and who reconnected with him while trying to track down former classmates for a 20th high school reunion. Carole Santos said she doesn't think it's strange at all that she married a prisoner - she knows her husband's true soul.
She first wrote to him saying what he did "wasn't very cool," but their pen pal relationship grew and evolved and now, she's by his side, loving that he is on the outside as her daily partner.
"I love the way he loves me," she said.
While released to a halfway house last year, Santos was speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, sharing his life story and lessons learned. He has his own website, prison consulting business and a foundation dedicated to offer the "Straight-A Guide Re-Entry Program." He made headlines. People noticed him, and were moved by his story, which he also told at Stanford Law School and the University of San Francisco Law School. Professor Jeffrey Snipes was one of those people. Snipes was so moved, he helped land Santos a job in the criminal justice department at San Francisco State.
Now, Santos is a teacher, educating students on his life as a prisoner. He's hoping they'll avoid the same mistakes he did, and create a better criminal justice system that better serves those inside.
"My hope is to play a role in dismantling the practice of mass incarceration," he said, "which I consider a disgrace to our country and the greatest social injustice of our time."