Erwin James on a remarkable book written from behind bars
Despite the differences between the US and British prison systems, reading Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael Santos took me back inside to my own incarcerated years many times.
Yet the British prison system, almost bursting at the seams at present with a record population of more than 77,500, pales into insignificance when compared with the breathtaking scale of the American prison archipelago that holds almost two and a quarter million souls. American prisoners now make up a quarter of the world's prisoners, with close to one in every hundred citizens experiencing prison custody at one time or another. The cost in financial terms is an eye-watering $40 billion per annum, and as Santos reveals in his book, in human terms it is no less phenomenal. Yet I could relate to the description of the natural dynamics that occur among prisoners arbitrarily thrown together in transit. "It is like filling a tank with rattlesnakes and rabbits, wolves and sheep." I could relate to the distrust that he tells us exists between prisoners and between prisoners and prison staff, the false relationships that abound, the deceit and the dishonesty, all embraced in the cause of survival. But it takes serious time inside before a real understanding of prison life can be gained.
When we meet Michael Santos, convicted in 1987 of large-scale cocaine distribution, he has just made it to a minimum security 'facility'. But, after serving 18 years of his 45-year term in some of America's toughest high-security prisons, he retains the voice of the experienced convict. The book draws the reader into the bowels of the long term-prisoner's existence with a writing style of such crispness and clarity it could only have been produced by someone living constantly on the edge of hope.
Santos reports that in spite of the opportunities for education and other means of personal growth available in the US prison system, the social structure, "seems to suck people in, cultivating failure. Rather than encouraging people to grow, it pulls everyone down." The animalistic nature of prison life reverberates throughout the riveting chapters of Inside, the predators and the prey co-existing in a dangerous and uncertain world, all the time vying for position in the atavistic hierarchy. One big difference between British prison life and that in the US is the level of violence. While in Britain prisoner on prisoner assaults are not uncommon, killings are rare. In the States, it seems a serious assault by a prisoner on a fellow is more likely to result in a death, and the chances of a perpetrator being apprehended are very low.
For example Santos gives us Shamrock, who has no qualms at all about laying a length of pipe over the head of his perceived enemy. In one attack he leaves a man permanently disabled. In another he leaves a man dead. Each time he gets away with it, his 'respect' quota among the rest of the population enhanced beyond measure.
Others might use a 'shank', a home made stabbing tool, to inflict damage on their enemies. They do so with almost mundane repetitiveness. Sexual violence, too, is rife in the US system it seems. Santos tells us about Todd, "of average height and build" who ends up sharing a cell with Stump, who at 6' 4" " towers over Todd. His arms bulge from years of lifting heavy weights. Along with his long, ragged, and unkempt hair, he sports a goatee, the devils' beard that accentuates Stump's fierce look of hatred. Tattoos of skulls and swastikas and demons sleeve his arms. The words FUCK THE WORLD are inked boldly in capital letters across the front of Stump's neck." Stump intends to glut his sexual hunger on Todd's body. Being vulnerable and locked in a cell with Stump has to be one of the worst visions of hell imaginable. Thankfully Todd somehow survives. Others are not so lucky.
It was in prison that I learned that the survival of the fittest, that is those who are most fitted for the environment, meant the survival of the meanest, the most devious, the most corrupt and the most treacherous. After 20 years I came to the conclusion that the potential for these satanic qualities exist in us all and could manifest in any one of us depending on the circumstances. Prison, I found, is the ideal breeding place for such human baseness, yet while prison life can bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best. I think that is what has happened in the case of Michael Santos. In order for this to happen however he has had to learn to walk the middle path to be neither a stooge of the authorities, nor a confederate of his fellow prisoners. It is perhaps the most difficult path a prisoner can tread.
Though he only cooperates with prison officials to ensure a smooth a passage as possible through his confined years, his deeper motives for his good conduct and his self-improvement using study and writing are convincingly noble. He has his own agenda and apparently the moral strength to carry it through. He wants to be released a better man than the man he was at 23, when he went away. The strength of this book, written in a forensically detailed yet utterly compelling narrative, is that it is written by a man who in another life could have been an academic (Santos dropped out of school, but has gained a clutch of higher education qualifications during his time inside), or indeed could have reached the highest echelons of any other chosen profession, had he not embarked on the criminal path when he was barely out of adolescence. Santos is an unusual prisoner in that he comes from the white middle-class, business-owning community in North Seattle. With his social credentials in prison he would fit the bill of the 'white-collar' criminal, an embezzler or a fraudster, instead of a big- time dealer of hard drugs. His earliest year of release is 2013, yet he is at pains, as he writes, to emphasise that he seeks no sympathy, and he makes no attempts to minimise the seriousness of his crimes.
The American prison system has produced some outstanding writing in the past, in particular the letters of Jack Henry Abbott to Norman Mailer (later published as In the Belly of the Beast), George Jackson's letters published as Soledad Brother and Edward Bunker's No Beast so Fierce, which secured him a post-prison berth as an Oscar nominated Hollywood scriptwriter, and a role as Mr Blue in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. To these illustriously literate products of the American prison way we should add the name of Michael Santos. I hope he makes it to the end and beyond.