After decades in federal prison, former cocaine dealer tries to help other offenders

Sitting in the Pierce County Jail and facing decades in federal prison for dealing cocaine across the country, 24-year-old Michael Santos wrote The News Tribune in 1988 saying that he wanted to talk.

“My only hope now is to try to persuade others from getting into this business,” he told a reporter who visited and wrote a story about the young man’s plan to get on the straight and narrow.

Nearly 30 years later and on the other side of the bars, that’s still his message.

“It’s never too early and it’s never too late to be working to be a good, law-abiding citizen,” Santos said Oct. 7 at the University of Washington Tacoma.

After speaking in Tacoma, he flew to Washington, D.C., to address a gathering of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Santos grew up in Lake Forest Park, graduated high school there and worked for his father (an electrical contractor). Eventually he started dealing cocaine in the Seattle area.

He moved to Florida, where he lived lavishly with fast cars and fancy apartments. He eventually was busted and sentenced in federal court in Tacoma.

He served 26 years in prison for the years he spent living the high life as a drug kingpin.

Santos, 51, now lives in Irvine, California.

He focuses on helping other offenders reform their lives, and speaks about reforms he thinks need to happen to the nation’s prison system. Some of his work is for a nonprofit foundation that carries his name.

He also works for a real estate developer, and some inmates hire him as a consultant to help them through prison.

One of his clients at the nonprofit is the state Department of Corrections, which is on the second year of licensing one of his programs, “The Straight-A Guide.”

“I find him to be very genuine,” said Michael Colwell, assistant director of Washington State Correctional Industries, the Corrections Department division that oversees work training programs.

“He wants to give back. He feels very strongly that whatever he can do to help offenders change their lives and become successful, he would like to do. It’s a very compelling story.”

Almost 100 offenders have taken Santos’ 10-week course, which the state pays $5,000 for annually. The curriculum aims to teach offenders accountability and helps them set goals and prepare for life after incarceration.

Many offenders appreciate what Santos is trying to talk to them about, Colwell said.

“It’s a very disciplined approach to: ‘If you want to change your life, these are things you need to do.’ 

One wrote on an evaluation after the Straight-A course:

“The entire class impacted me. It made me think of when I get out of prison. Now I’m working towards when I get out of prison, I’m working on a business plan and actually getting everything started.”

Santos has been to a couple of graduation ceremonies for the course and spoken at a few of the classes. A well-dressed and articulate speaker, he said some offenders don’t believe he served time.

That was his goal — he wanted to finish his prison sentence and have a life in which no one would know he had been in prison unless he told them.

Santos said reading in the Pierce County Jail about Socrates was what drove his plan and his focus on accountability.

“He’s an interesting guy,” Colwell said of Santos. “I always say Mike’s got more energy than six people. He tells me he’s trying to make up for lost time. And a lot of it lost; 26 years of it.”

Santos told the UW Tacoma crowd he thinks the current prison system extinguishes hope. It lacks incentives for other offenders to follow in his footsteps and prepare for life after release, he said.

“I worked every day to prepare for a law-abiding life, but the system didn’t have a mechanism to measure how hard I worked,” he said to The News Tribune. “It made no difference than if I were just watching television the entire time.”

While incarcerated, Santos said, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but the warden said no to pursuing a doctorate. He also wrote several books, which sometimes are assigned in UW classes.

Once, a Princeton professor he corresponded with brought a class to visit him in prison.

“I am in school, engaging in academic debate, from a jail cell,” he told the UW audience.

It’s not unusual for a released offender to try to find a way to give back, though Santos’ efforts are more of an anomaly, Colwell said.

“The prison system is full of people who do nothing,” he said. “Then there are people like Michael and others who really do something with their time and their lives. I wish I knew the secret.”

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