Biography Entry: Michael Santos Biography

At the age of 20, I made a regrettable decision to sell cocaine. Authorities arrested me when I was 23.  A jury convicted me, and a judge sentenced me to serve 45 years in prison. Early in my sentence, I made a commitment to reconcile with society and work toward building credentials that would empower me to live as a law-abiding, contributing citizen.

I created a detailed release plan that carried me through 9,500 days in prison. That release plan would allow me to return to society strong, with my dignity intact and opportunities to prosper. I’ve built a career around that journey, advocating for reforms that I believed would improve outcomes for all justice-impacted people. The biography, and the validating links below, show that I never ask anyone to do anything that I did not do to work toward the best possible outcome.

None of us can change the past, but we can all work to make amends and create a better future. Justice-impacted people should engineer an effective release plan, use that plan to build a better future, and memorialize the measurable, incremental progress they make.

All the courses I create provide guidance on how to prepare for success upon release:

  • Step 1: Start by defining success as the best possible outcome,
  • Step 2: Create a release plan that will lead from crisis to prosperity,
  • Step 3: Set priorities, to accomplish first things first,
  • Step 4: Build tools, tactics, and resources that will advance the plan,
  • Step 5: Create accountability tools to measure progress,
  • Step 6: Open supportive networks and relationships, and
  • Step 7: Adjust the plan as necessary, but execute the plan every day.

I used those seven steps above to prepare for success upon release from prison. I strive to teach others how to navigate the crisis of a criminal conviction and work toward building lives of meaning, contribution, and relevance.


Since the crime of leading an enterprise that sold cocaine carried a potentially lengthy sentence, administrators in the detention center locked me in solitary confinement. In the beginning, all I wanted was to get out of prison. Misguided, I proceeded through a trial despite being guilty of the crime.

The jury convicted me of all counts.

Following the conviction, a kind officer in the detention center brought me books. Those biographies introduced me to the transformative stories of Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, Socrates, and Viktor Frankl. Inspired by these figures, I crafted a three-pronged release plan to guide me through prison. I would focus on the following:

  1. Educating myself,
  2. Contributing to society, and
  3. Building a positive support network.

Rather than allow the sentence or prison walls to define me, I used all my time inside to prepare for success upon release.

Through that commitment, I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree during my imprisonment. Then I authored books. Those books helped me to build a solid and influential support network. I even married the love of my life during my 16th year of confinement, and we’ve built a life together.

Teaching and Advocacy

Upon my release, San Francisco State University hired me to work as an adjunct professor. I created a unique course, “The Architecture of Incarceration,” to foster a deeper understanding of prison systems and how we could improve them by incentivizing excellence among prisoners. I used my book, “Earning Freedom,” to illustrate my vision for a system where prisoners could work toward earning their freedom.

The release plan that led me through prison opened opportunities for me to begin advocating for reforms that would incentivize a pursuit of excellence. Anyone can read the historical efforts that began early in my journey:

Teaching and advocacy require a long-term commitment. A plan keeps a person on course, even in the face of adversity.

Prison Professors: A Beacon of Hope

Following my belief in the power of rehabilitation, I founded Prison Professors. I designed courses that would prepare individuals in prison for a successful life upon release. Over 300,000 people have accessed our flagship course, “Preparing for Success after Prison,” which helps participants define success, set clear goals, and cultivate attitudes and behaviors conducive to personal and professional development.

Impactful Success Stories

I am particularly proud of our success stories, especially Halim Flowers’s. Halim was serving a double life sentence. Halim managed to secure his release through his commitment to preparing for success upon release and has since flourished as a successful artist and activist.

Advocacy and Future Goals

I began advocating for incentives decades ago, as shown through my published writings, my work as a professor, and my work helping influential people understand the importance of incentivizing excellence. You can see the history of that advocacy with the following links:

  • Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, 2006
    • St. Martin’s Press published this book that I wrote as I approached my 20th year of imprisonment. The book would teach readers about the system, and build a case for legislative changes that would empower staff members to incentivize people to work toward gradual increases in liberty.
  • Earning Freedom, 2012
    • As I worked through my final year in prison, I wrote Earning Freedom. I intended to use this book to build a career around all I learned while growing through 26 years in prison and to advocate for reforms that would bring more incentives into the system.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 2012
    • The release plan that guided me through 8,500 days in prison opened many opportunities. By memorializing my journey, other influential people learned how hard I worked to prepare for success upon release. The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle reached out to inquire about writing an interview.
  • San Francisco State University, 2012
    • As a result of a front-page story that the San Francisco Chronicle published upon my release, San Francisco State University offered me a position to teach as an adjunct professor. In that role, I could help criminal justice students learn why incentives would increase productivity and lower recidivism rates in our nation’s criminal justice system.
  • UC Berkeley, 2012
    • When Dr. Alan Ross, at UC Berkeley, learned of the release plan that guided me through prison, and the advocacy work I was doing to improve outcomes, he invited me to make a presentation at UC Berkeley. I hired a videographer to memorialize the event.
  • Stanford University Law School, 2013
    • While I served my sentence, many mentors came into my life. Joan Petersilia, for example, of Stanford Law School, invited me to publish a chapter for her scholarly book: The Oxford Handbook of Sentencing and Corrections. I contributed a chapter to her book, arguing for the need of incentives. Professor Robert Weisberg, Co-Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center published the following testimonial in his commencement speech to the Stanford Law, on June 15, 2013:
      • “Closer to home, a few months ago some of our students met Michael Santos. Michael is one of our leading commentators on sentencing and correctional policy in the U.S. He has written great scholarly articles on criminal justice and will play a major role in criminal law reform in the coming years. But Michael invented his self by an act of arduous, muscular imagination when, at the age of 23, he was sitting in a federal prison for drug crimes he has never denied. He imagined a self that he could be at the end of a certain 25 years of federal incarceration, and it was only because he had that new self in mind that he could persevere through the self-education and character rebuilding that made him what he is.
        • Robert Weisberg, Stanford Law Graduation, June 15, 2013, Page 4
  • UC Hastings Law School, 2015
    • The law school at UC Hastings invited me to make a presentation at a symposium for changes to sentencing laws. The presentation included an article in the UC Hastings Law Review, titled Incentivizing Excellence.
  • Ninth Circuit Correctional Summit, 2015
    • Through my work at Stanford, UC Berkeley, SFSU, and UC Hastings Law School, I got to interact with many members of law enforcement, including US Attorneys and federal judges. Judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals invited me to keynote a presentation at a correctional summit.
  • Department of Justice, 2016
    • Our work with federal judges led to work with the Department of Justice, including an invitation to visit Guam and Saipan to introduce our course, Preparing for Success after Prison, to the correctional system in Micronesia.
  • Bureau of Prisons, 2017
    • We began working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons at USP Atwater, then FCC Florence. After successful implementation of our program, Preparing for Success after Prison in high-security penitentiaries, we broadened our relationship. We now offer our course in every federal prison in the North Central Region,
  • California Department of Corrections, 2017
    • We now work in every state prison in the state of California, and thousands of people earn milestone credits when the complete Preparing for Success after Prison.

The signing of the First Step Act in 2018 marked a significant victory. This law enables individuals to earn higher levels of liberty through merit and preparations for success. I continue to fight for further reforms to reduce recidivism rates and empower incarcerated individuals to transition successfully into society.

We’re working to improve outcomes for all justice-impacted people through Prison Professors. We can build safer communities by teaching hundreds of thousands of people how to create effective release plans. Through the data we collect, we hope to influence legislation that further incentivizes prisoners to work toward earning increased levels of liberty.

Some of those advocacy efforts include:

  1. Work release programs for people in federal prison,
  2. Expanded access to compassionate release,
  3. Meaningful access to clemency,
  4. Furloughs for people who qualify,
  5. Reinstatement of US Parole

Personal Life

Despite the challenging circumstances, I built a fulfilling personal life during my incarceration. I married Carole Santos during my 16th year of imprisonment in 2003. We nurtured our marriage during my final decade in prison. Revenues generated by my work in prison allowed Carole to return to school and become a master’s educated registered nurse. She now works closely with me as an integral partner in our shared mission to improve the outcomes of America’s prison system.

Besides working on our family businesses, Carole and I enjoy working on our investment projects that bring value to society.

A Message of Hope

I want my journey to serve as a reminder that regardless of past mistakes, everyone can work toward becoming a better version of themselves. We, as a society, should create mechanisms to encourage this progress.

A Journey of Resilience

Thanks to leaders like Frederick Douglass, Socrates, Nelson Mandela, and others, I learned the power of resilience. Any of us can transform our lives, despite past mistakes.