Why do people go to prison?


Presenter: Our final TED speaker is Michael Santos.

He spent 26 years incarcerated in the federal prison system for cocaine trafficking.

He spent 26 years in jail.
He was in prison for 26 years.

While he was in prison, he earned an undergraduate degree then he earned a graduate degree.

He earned a degree.
He got a degree.
He got a university degree.
He did a degree in prison.

He became a published author, including books, numerous journal articles.

He wrote a book and he got it published.

Since leaving prison last year, he became an outspoken activist for penal reform and new approaches to the American scandal known as recidivism. Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Santos.

a recidivist is a repeat offendor
a recidivist is a person who offends again
a recidivist is a person who breaks the law again
a recidivist is a person whop breaks the law multiple times.
a recidivist is person who breaks the law more than once.


The Main Speaker

Michael Santos: Thank you very much, Russ. (I) appreciate it.Thank you.

Do I have the slides? Thank you guys so much for giving me this opportunity to share my story.

thank you for the chance to share
thank you for the opportunity to share

It may be a little bit unusual to be in an extraordinary audience like this of business leaders, community innovators, people who make society grow, to listen to a man who just got out of prison.

A Scale

a little bit unusual
quite unusual
very unusual
extremely unusual
downright weird

But today is an extraordinary day for me because it is actually six months to the day that I finished 26 years in federal prison.

an extraordinary day
a very special day
a very unusual day

And that is the reason that I have this huge commitment to working to end our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration.

Imprisonment – Being in Prison

mass incarceration
mass imprisonment
incarceration on a large scale
imprisonment on a large scale

The earlier speakers today gave some very profound insight into why we as a nation need to understand how those who live on the fringes, those who live on the margins, think.


the fringes of society
the edges of society
the margins of society
outside the mainstream

That is the reason that I care so much about mass incarceration.

I care so much about it.
I am so concerned about it.

I want to take you back to the beginning and let you know what led me into that system.

back to the start
back to the beginning

A Popular Movie

Back in the mid-nineteen eighties
, a popular movie came out. That movie influenced me much as popular culture influences people who do not respond well to traditional educational systems.

It influenced me
It had a big influence on me

For me in my life it was Tony Montana who influenced me and as a consequence of being influenced by those bad decisions, I made every bad decision a young man can make.

Tony Montana influenced me.
I was influenced by Tony Montana.

Bad Decisions

And as a consequence of those bad decisions, for trafficking in cocaine, I was arrested, I was indicted. I was sentenced to serve forty-five years in federal prison.

I was arrested.
I was taken in.

I was charged.
I was indicted.

I was sentenced to prison.
I was sent to prison.

Bad Influences

So bad influences started my life and my journey but it was later good influences that helped to change my life. Because while I was sitting inside of a jail cell during that awkward phase between the time that I was arrested and the time that I was convicted and the time that I was sentenced, I happened to recognise what a horrific decision I had made as a young man.

Link to Meanings of “Cell”

a terrible decision
a horrible decision
a horrific decision

Passive Voice and Active Voice

So I am sitting in jail feeling the walls closing in on me, the life being sucked out of me.

the life is being sucked out of me
prison is sucking the life out of me

I start turning anywhere for guidance and for prayer I am led to the work of Socrates.

The Work of Socrates – The Writings of Socrates

The work of Socrates inspires me because Socrates at that time is also facing the rest of his life in a prison cell before he is about to be executed.

It inspires me
I am inspired by it

And he is given this opportunity to leave that prison cell and to live in civilisation in exile.

He chooses instead to have his sentence carried out.

For the first time I am reading about philosophy. For the first time I am reading about Socrates.

And when he chooses to stay in a jail cell, he gives a reason.

The Law and Our Rights

He says that in a democracy we have the right to work towards changing laws but we do not have the right to break laws.

the right to break laws
the right to break the law

I remember putting that book on my chest and I started thinking: what can I do?

Is there anything I can do while I move through this sentence, that could keep me in prison for the rest of my life?

the rest of my life
the remainder of my life

Is there anything I can do to reconcile with society?
And so I start thinking. I start thinking about many of you. The leaders in this room. I said: What would you expect?

Is there anything that a man can do to transform his life?

Is there anything that I can do that would help you the members of this audience to see me as something more than a coke dealer.

a coke dealer
a drug dealer
an amphetamine dealer
a heroin dealer

And I decided, yes, there probably is, but what is it? Because I don’t get that message inside the criminal justice system.

We may call it a system of correction but in reality it is a system that warehouses humanity.

An Analogy to Smoking Cigarettes and Cigarette Companies

And to believe that the system has an effort in preparing people inside to return to society as a law-abiding contributing citizen is equivalent to believing that Phillip Morris really wants people to stop smoking.

This is a system that measures justice by the turning of calendar pages.

It is a fundamentally flawed system. It is a fundamentally flawed system because it is fundamentally different from what makes Silicon Valley great.

a flawed system
a faulty system
an imperfect system
a system that does not work

A community of innovators. Disruptive thinkers. You look at failure and you figure out a better way of doing it.

a better way of doing it
a worse way of doing it
a faster way of doing it
a quicker way of doing it
a cheaper way of doing it
an easier way of doing it

That is what I learned from reading better influences in my life.

And so when I thought about each of you twenty-six years ago. I thought:

Great Expectations – Big Dreams

What would you expect me to do?
You would expect me to work to educate myself.

You would expect me to work for contributing to society in a meaningful, measurable way.
You would expect me to build a support network.

That was all. That’s what guided me through the journey.

I strove to become the change that I wanted to see in the world.

Link to The Big Dream


I was inspired by people like Ghandi and by people like Mandala.

By people who faced struggle whether it was prisoners of World War Two or prisoners of today.

Anybody who could overcome it. That became my inspiration. Because I had a vision. And that vision. I would like to say. Was my idea.

But like Steve Jobs says: “A good leader copies ideas. A great leader steals ideas.” And all i did was steal ideas from every individual who is sitting in this room tonight. You achieve high levels of success because you pursue excellence. And you reward others when they pursue excellence.

How do we measure justice?

But in America’s prison we measure justice in a fundamentally different way. We measure justice by enough calendar pages turned. And we have seen the result of that approach.

We need to change that approach.

Visualize! Plan! Execute!

We need that will people inside to pursue that same path

That is what makes Silicon Valley great but it doesn’t exist for 2.3 million people who are serving time.

I had a vision.

How did I want to be able to return to society? … to be able to put on a suit and tie and have nobody know that I have served a day in prison unless I told them?

What can we do for people who are living on the margin?

When you don’t feel you have a path, you are in trouble.

We all have a role in ending mass incarceration.

Mass incarceration is new.

It started in the sixites.

Link to videos about the sixties.

We lead the world not only in innovative technology and medicine but also in prison population.

Link to conversation about medicine and medical research


Can you get the rest of the text? practise listening. Can you get it? It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand a hundred per cent.

A Clip from the Movie that he Mentioned


Look at these questions:

What do you think about prison?
Is prison a place of punishment or a place of rehabilitation?
Is it a place to rehabilitate or a place to punish?
Can it be both?
Is it true that most people are in prison for drug offenses?
Is drug abuse a medical problem or a medical problem?
Is drug abuse a law enforcement problem?
Is prison failing?
Do you believe in punishment or forgiveness?

The Role of Christianity

Jesus taught forgiveness. Do you believe in forgiveness or punishment?


The Old Testament is about punishment
The New Testament is about forgiveness

People say they are christian but if you believe in punishment then you are old testament right?

These are complex and difficult questions. Do you have any suggestions? Do you have any ideas? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

Link to a conversation from a prison cell.

Power Words: Cell