How Is Life Outside After Being in Prison for Over 20 Years?

What is like life after leaving prison after 25 years?

Photo by Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Michael Santos, author/speaker, michaelsantos.com:

On Aug. 11, 1987, DEA agents arrested me. I served the next 9,135 days in various prison settings. I wrote all about the journey in my book Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, but that book concludes with the morning that my wife picked me up from the federal prison in Atwater, Calif., on Aug. 13, 2012. Some people want to know what it was like to see the outside world for the first time after a quarter-century of confinement. I’m doing my best to respond to those questions now.
How does it feel?
In order to prepare for my life upon release from prison, I used to wake very early. On the morning of Aug. 13, I remember waking before 3 am. I was confined inside of an open dormitory at the federal prison camp in Atwater. I sat at an empty table, amazed with the realization that my day had finally come. For decades I’d been waiting for my release date, but it always seemed so far away that I couldn’t really grasp it. On that Monday morning, however, I woke with certainty that I was scheduled to walk out of prison gates.
A commitment to exercise carried me through the entire journey, and I did not waver on the morning that I was going to be released. I did my strength training inside with pushups, and I then walked outside to run. I finished my run at 6:15, then I returned to the housing unit for my shower and shave. Those activities felt different for me that morning because I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the reality that in a few hours, authorities were going to release me. After dressing, I went outside to sit. I needed some alone time to gather my thoughts. I looked around at the track and wondered what it would feel like to walk out, and I also wondered how it was going to happen.
At 7:15, I heard an announcement over the institutional loudspeaker. It paged me to the rear gate of the prison. Many prisoners sent me good wishes as I walked over toward that gate, my bag in hand with the books that I was carrying out with me. A guard eventually stepped out to meet me at the gate, and he escorted me inside one of the penitentiary buildings. My legs felt rubbery for some reason, perhaps because I was walking in an area of the prison that had previously been forbidden to me. The administrative process took about 30 minutes, and that was it. The guard then escorted me through a series of gates and I saw my loving wife. She was standing there looking radiant, tears flowing down her cheeks and holding prayer hands to her mouth, watching, as if in disbelief that I’d finally be coming home to her.
That was it. I was in her arms, and suddenly I was authorized to walk outside into the California sunshine. We held each other and kissed, then we stepped inside of her car and began the long drive away from the Central Valley of California toward the great city of San Francisco.
Sitting in the car beside her felt amazing. We’d been a couple for longer than a decade but during our entire marriage we had only been together in the presence of guards. Suddenly we were in a private vehicle, alone. I felt giddy, in disbelief, wondering how long the joy would last, afraid that somehow it would end.
My wife, Carole, handed me an iPhone. I’d never held a modern cellphone, and I didn’t understand how to use it. Carole showed me how to access a code that would unlock the phone and taught me how to place a call. While she drove, I used the phone to call my extended family. Everyone was in tears of joy, in disbelief that my time in prison had truly come to an end. Every second felt surreal, better than I could’ve ever imagined. I ate a pizza while Carole drove. I still feel the chills running through my body as I think about that moment.
What are the experiences?
As I write this response, nearly five full months have passed since I returned to society. In earlier Quora posts, I’ve written a lot about the journey. For example, I wrote about my need to learn how to drive again. I didn’t know that I’d forgotten how to drive, but when I sat behind the wheel of a car for the first time, I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. I passed the driver’s license exam, but my confidence as a driver did not return until I had driven several thousand miles. That was a problem, because I needed to drive from the halfway house in San Francisco to my job in Petaluma, about 40 miles north from the city. Every time I had to cross the Golden Gate bridge, my sphincter tightened with fear.
I’ve also had some challenges getting used to eating with silverware and real plates. During the entire time that I served in prison, I ate with plastic. Metal now tastes strange in my mouth, and it still feels strange for me to drink out of a glass.
But those are minor issues, of course. There have been many great blessings associated with my release. I’m now able to eat any food that I want to eat, including food that wasforbidden while I served my sentence. I’m able to wear different kinds of clothes from the type that were available to me in prison. Most importantly, I’m able to navigate the streets of a magnificent city and take in all of the wonders of being in society. It amazes me that as I walk down the street or enter into a business, no one knows that I was recently released from prison.
The best experience, of course, is that I’m able to spend time with Carole. We married in a prison visiting room 10 years ago, and now we’re able to see each other several times each week. On weekends, I’m able to spend the night with her. In February, I’m scheduled to transition from the halfway house to home confinement, and we’ll begin living together for the first time. This blessing means more to me than anything else, and I’m immensely grateful.
Do you consider the world has gone mad?
Politically, there seems to be a lot more divisiveness in the country. We did not have the “fair-and-balanced” services of Fox nNws when I began serving my sentence, and back then, the invective of AM hate radio had not yet begun. The political fights in the media sound somewhat crazy. Even though I realize those fights cater to fanatics and they’re in the business of selling advertising, it surprises me that citizens don’t see how a reluctance to work together tears our country apart. From that perspective, aspects of the world do indeed seem a bit out of sorts.
But even though the world is different from the time before my troubles with the criminal justice system, I wouldn’t characterize the world as having gone mad. It’s just different. I was born in 1964, and I grew up during a time when we were in a Cold War but celebrating peace, for the most part. Soon after my imprisonment began, the Cold War ended and a hot war began in the Middle East. That violence brought a lot of change. Suddenly the military was very active, and now our country pays a new price for that activity. Thousands of young men and women have gone off to fight, and when they returned, many veterans found that they didn’t have as much support as it would seem that they needed. That’s kind of sad, but an inevitable result of so much divisiveness that presides over our country.
The political divisiveness doesn’t make much sense to me. I am biased of course, because I served so much time in prison. But I see the criminal justice system as a national disgrace. It costs citizens billions to support, but it perpetuates cycles of failure. Even though scientific evidence shows that investment in education does far more to lower recidivism rates than warehousing human beings, the system keeps growing, locking more people in cages under harsher conditions. No one seems to care that prison budgets grow at unprecedented rates while funds for social services like education, social services, and health care suffer. So yes, from that perspective, that does seem as if the world has gone mad.
What about the clothes people wear now?
Styles of clothing are certainly different now from when the time before my prison term began. It seems much more acceptable for people to wear very revealing clothing. This past weekend as I was returning to my halfway house, for example, I passed by the Warfield Theater while a line was forming for a concert by a group called “Ded Zed.” Despite the temperatures being in the 40s, girls who were probably around 15 or 16 stood in line wearing extremely revealing bikinis and fishnet stockings. That seemed somewhat peculiar to me. I knew that I lived in a tolerant city, but it struck me as strange that parents would allow their daughters to attend a concert wearing such clothing—or lack of clothing—on a cold night in December.
More than the clothing, I’m surprised at how mainstream tattoos and piercings have become in society. I saw a lot of tattoos in prison, of course. But I did not expect such a prominence of body art in society.
How about all the technology?
Technology is a big change, of course. I wrote a post recently that describes the type of technology that was available to me back in 1987. During the time I served, I read extensively about technology, but I didn’t have opportunities to use it. While in prison, I dreamed about accessing the Internet directly. Now I have an iPhone, a MacBook Pro, and an iMac. I have a website that I’m trying to learn how to use effectively to promote my work. I’m contributing to Quora regularly, to LinkedIn, to Facebook, and to Twitter. But I don’t really understand the best practices for social media, and so I’m frequently being reprimanded for being an “advert.” I didn’t even know what that meant until my wife told me that I wasn’t supposed to use social media to advertise my work. That didn’t make sense to me. But there is a lot that doesn’t make sense to me. I’m eager to learn more. Perhaps I’ll have new perspectives in a few months.
Every day brings me a greater sense of gratitude.

More questions on Crime: