Part I: A powerful message of hope from two men who walked the walk

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Michael Santos and Shon Hopwood recently visited MTC’s Kyle, Lockhart, and Sanders Estes facilities in Texas. The wardens, along with MTC President Scott Marquardt, Senior Vice President Bernie Warner, and Vice President Mike Bell led the tours.

“I feel very privileged,” said Shon, “to be able to come back into prison and talk to guys like you about things you can do today to make your life better when you get out of here.”

Michael is a successful business owner and entrepreneur. Shon is a law professor and attorney. Their advice to these incarcerated men and women—learn something new every day and prepare yourself for success. And Michael says, start today!

“Anybody know when the best time to plant an oak tree? Anybody know? An oak tree, when’s the best time to plant one? Spring, winter, summer, fall? It’s 20 years ago. That’s the best time to plant an oak tree—20 years ago. When’s the second best time? It’s today. It’s today.”

Marcile Richardson, who’s incarcerated at the Lockhart facility, said their visit was just what they needed.

“I think some people do get hopeless on the inside. So, I think it’s awesome what they’re doing.”

Michael and Shon travel around the country speaking to incarcerated men and women. Why do they do it? Michael says it’s simple,

“To help people see themselves not as to where they are but what they can potentially become.”

And that’s something Michael and Shon know all too well. You see, they had to overcome incredible challenges after being convicted of serious crimes.

“When I went to prison, Michael explained to a group of men, “the only thing I wanted to do was to get out of jail. I had never been locked up before. I was 23. I was facing life without parole.”

Michael was in prison for 26 years for drug crimes.

And for Shon.

“I did 11 years and got out; had a lot of anxiety. And it was 2008, 2009, at the height of the recession. No one was finding work let alone a former bank robber. But I had done the work in prison. So, when I got out, I ran into some hurdles, but they weren’t anything I couldn’t overcome.”

Shon robbed five banks. So they know what these men and women struggle with, and they came with a powerful message that change is possible…if they’re willing to work hard.

“You’re going to face resistance in the job market,” emphasizes Michael.  “You’re going to face resistance when you go to get credit. You’re going to face resistance when people are looking at you because of your felony. Never give up!”

Michael’s accomplishments in prison are unbelievable. He earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, wrote several books, got married, and made business connections on the outside that led to tremendous employment opportunities after release.

“There’s nothing you can’t do. There’s nothing you can’t do. Do not allow these walls to constrict your mind or your spirit, because God has blessed you with that.”

Shon’s story is equally impressive. His truing point came working in the prison law library where he began reading every law book he could get his hands on. He would sit and read in his cell for hours.

“I’ve had so many people that I served time with now contact me and say, ‘You know what? All those days I was out watching TV and playing spades with the guys, and you were in your cell. And we all thought you were crazy because you were reading law books all day.’ Wow, that paid off!”

It paid off because Shon is now a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., an attorney, a motivational speaker, and a prison consultant. He’s been featured on 60 minutes, in the New York Times, and he recently signed a deal with Sony to tell his story to the world.

“What I have found is that the time that I invested in prison rehabilitating myself and making life changes and educating myself, people saw that when I got out.”

Michael and Shon are partners in a company called Prison Professors. Their goal is to help incarcerated men and women realize that despite significant challenges, they can live successful lives.

“You see,” says Michael, “you can become anything you want to become—anything! There’s no limit to what you can do, only what’s in your mind.”

Their message of hope and hard work left its mark on these men and women.

“It’s always intimidated me to go after my dreams,” says Rochel Castilla.  “And I always limited myself because I thought well I’m a felon. I’m never going to be able to amount to what I should have, and now that I’ve heard them—the sky is the limit.”

Matthew Voyles, who’s incarcerated at the Kyle Correctional Center, says,

“I think that just them coming, it means a lot. It shows that someone getting out of prison can change their life. And it’s an inspiration to everybody in here.”

“We are already statistically challenged due to the fact that people think since we’re already incarcerated that we’re limited to possibilities. And now I’m hopeful and thinking that maybe I can go out and be a lawyer, because that was my initial dream. And so, now I think it’s possible,” adds Shermain Johnson.

Koryne Rodriguez says Michael and Shon were terrific.

“Those men inspired me, because I have been locked up for almost eight years. And I have times where I wonder where I could go with my life and how I can get there.”

Shon knows firsthand that these men and women can succeed in life.

“So, I’m telling you: the power of making changes in here and getting out. It’s changed my life. It really has. And I really encourage you to take advantage of whatever you’ve got inside prison.”

“But what carried me through the day: I always had hope,” adds Michael. “I always had a belief that if I apply myself while I am in here—I can write a new chapter of my life; just like everybody in here can do.”

In addition to helping incarcerated men and women, Shon and Michael also want to improve the criminal justice system so that society focuses more on rehabilitation and less on punishment.

“What’s the best possible outcome that we can get out of our prison system, out of our staff? And what are our programs in place today that are going to help us realize the objectives that we’re after,” says Michael.

Check back here in a couple of weeks for part II of Michael and Shon’s story. They talk about what they observed during their tours of these three MTC facilities and whether they believe the men and women in these facilities are receiving quality programming.

And for a more in-depth look into their visit, click here.