Former prisoner talks problems of mass incarceration before UC Berkeley class

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Just 66 days ago, Michael Santos was in prison, serving his 45-year sentence for selling cocaine. Wednesday evening, he found himself in front of an auditorium full of students, giving a lecture on the issue of mass incarceration.

Speaking to students in Wheeler Auditorium, Santos outlined his plan to fight mass incarceration and urged students to join his effort. This was the second time he served as a lecturer for Political Science 179, a speaker series facilitated by Alan Ross, a lecturer in the Haas School of Business.

“I thought that he was really inspiring,” said Chelsea Dole, UC Berkeley freshman. “I was a little skeptical during his presentation about some of his points, but when he was answering questions, I think he definitely cleared up his points.”

Prisons are a huge cost to taxpayers and negatively impact spending on higher education and health care, Santos argued.

He also told the audience about his own experience. Santos was arrested in 1987, at the age of 23, and spent 26 years in prison. He has been free for 65 days, he said in the lecture.

Santos said he wanted to break the cycle of failure generated by the penitentiary system through activism, and he encouraged students to take action by volunteering as teachers for people who have left prison and are looking for employment.

“I love Berkeley,” Santos said. “This is the bedrock of activism, and if I’m going to try and change the world, I’m going to try at Berkeley.”

Santos pursued higher education during his time in prison. He earned his undergraduate degree from Mercer University in 1992 and his master’s degree from Hofstra University in 1995. He said he was prevented from obtaining a doctorate when prison wardens withheld books.

Santos said that he was not an exception and that other prisoners could change as he did.

“I don’t believe I’m an anomaly. I was a C student in high school driven by greed and the pursuit of hot chicks,” Santos said during the lecture. “It was while I was in prison that I recognized that I had to change, and if we send that message to people in prison, we would have more people in prison trying to change.”

Ross said there was “no question” that he would invite Santos to lecture again.

“It was phenomenal. You could see the quality of the questions, no one sleeping, the enthusiasm.” Ross said. “I mean, that’s what this is supposed to be about. This is why I started this class: because I wanted days like this. This is exactly what I was hoping for.”

Many have spoken at PS 179 lectures, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In a spring 2013 lecture, Newsom spoke about technology affecting everyday life.

Somin Park covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].