111. Earning Freedom with Michael Santos
Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term (1.2)
I’m reading from chapter 1 of my book, Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term
For more information, visit PrisonProfessors.com
“¿Que Onda?” Another man is locked in the same cell. Cuban, I presume from his accent. He stands by a waist-high metal locker in boxer shorts, staring at me. He looks like a thug. We’re the same height, though he is heavier, with more fat than muscle. Crudely drawn tattoos look like chicken scratches across his arms and torso.
“¿De donde eres?” He wants to engage me.
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
“What is you, white?” He speaks in English this time.
The man’s question bothers me. I think of myself as an American, un-hyphenated by ethnicity. “I am what I am.”
“I thought you was Cuban.”
“My dad’s Cuban.”
“So why the f**k you don’t speak Spanish?”
“I speak English.” I’m ready for this guy’s challenge, if that’s what he wants.
“Where you from?”
“I’m from Seattle.”
“You a cop?”
I stare at him, wondering why he would ask such a ridiculous question when I’m locked in a prison cell, wearing prisoner’s clothing. “Hey dude, what is it you want?”
“I’m sayin’, muthafucka come up in my house, lookin’ Cuban but think he white, gotta ask if you’s a cop.”
“I’m not a cop. I was arrested today. I’m going to court tomorrow.”
“You’s arrested?” He mocks me. “Where’d they bust you?”
“Oh, so you got paper.”
“Paper? What are you talking about?”
“Money, muthafucka, you got money!”
“Why are you so interested in who I am? Who are you?”
“You up in my cell, bitch. Don’t be axin’ me no muthafuckin’ questions.”
“What are we doing here? Are you looking for a fight or what? It’s late, I’m tired, and I’ve got to go to court tomorrow. But I’ve got all you can handle if that’s what you want.”
He sizes me up. “You ain’t no snitch is you?”
“I’m done talking to you.”
“Okay. That’s good. Don’t talk. That’s you bunk, white boy.”
The hostility in the cell surprises me. What’s this about? I walk to the steel rack against the wall, unroll the mat, and stretch the sheet across it. I climb up without using the sink or the toilet, too exhausted for more confrontation. I turn on my side and stare out of a narrow vertical window. It’s no more than six inches wide, but I can see outside. Spotlights shine on crabgrass, steel fences, and razor wire. I watch as a guard drives a white pickup slowly around the prison’s perimeter and I fade into sleep.
It’s an anxious sleep, and when I wake, I stare out the window, with tears filling my eyes. The man below me smells. I miss Lisa’s perfumed skin, her hair, her body. This is going to destroy us. My only hope is Raymond. He has to free me from this nightmare. I wipe my watering eyes and drift back into sleep.
A guard unlocks the door and yells my name into the cell. His voice bounces off the concrete walls and startles me from a dead sleep. I jump down from the rack and he orders me to dress for court. I’m still wearing my khakis and the t-shirt. Feeling beaten and exhausted, I slide into the canvas shoes and accompany the guard out of the cell. He slams the steel door behind us and uses a formidable key to lock the dead bolt.
I walk with other prisoners through the same door I entered last night. We join a throng of more than 100 men and the guards herd us into caged bullpens. The noise makes my head throb as I stand shoulder to shoulder with scores of angry prisoners. A clock on the wall shows that it isn’t yet three, which explains why I feel exhausted. I can’t believe court begins this early.
One by one, the guards call us out of the cag