How Nelson Mandela Helped Get Me Through 26 Christmases In Prison

In 1986, I enjoyed the last holiday season with family before authorities locked me in prison. Never having been incarcerated before, I didn’t know what the holidays would bring. A jury convicted me for the role I played in selling cocaine and I knew that authorities wouldn’t release me for decades. I had to find a way to make it through.

To prepare for the journey ahead, I remember hunting through shelves of randomly stacked books in prison libraries. I looked for inspiration, something to lift my spirits. In one of those books, I found a story about Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela began serving a life sentence because of protests he led against the South African government’s segregation policies in 1962. When I first became aware of Mandela, he had already served 24 years. I hadn’t been alive that long and I was only beginning my journey, but all indications were that I would have as much prison time ahead of me as Mr. Mandela had behind him.

I remember lying on the steel top rack, enclosed by sterile cinderblock walls, staring at the concrete ceiling that was only an arm’s length above my head, and thinking. Forced air blew so hard through the ventilation system that I shivered, with only a single sheet and green Army blanket to cover me. Mr. Mandela must’ve had extraordinary mental discipline to make it through so much time, I thought. I’d only been incarcerated for a few months and I couldn’t shake those feelings that weighed me, as if they were heavy chains pulling me down into a sea of depression.

The holiday season aggravated the mental anguish. Prison authorities decorated the housing block with green and red ribbons or paper decorations, and even phony Christmas trees. Rather than making for a festive atmosphere of peace and love, those holiday decorations made me long for the comfort of home even more. I didn’t know whether I could muster the strength to break free and rise to better times ahead. Reading about Mandela helped.

I found that story about Mandela’s journey through prison at the best possible time. It was the perfect gift I could’ve received during my first of many Christmas seasons inside of a prison cell. By reading about Mandela’s strength of character, I began to think more about a role I could play in society. His message helped me to introspect and appreciate the human spirit’s power. By reading about him, I found the hope I needed to persevere.

Mr. Mandela had been languishing in various prison cells for decades, yet he served time for political reasons rather than for the type of selfish crimes that I committed. Instead of feeling sorry for himself or complaining about imprisonment, he described a great sense of peace. The story told of how he helped others who served time alongside him and how he coped with the cruelty of being separated from those he loved. Rather than expressing anger or allowing his unjust imprisonment to derail his inner balance, Mr. Mandela’s words conveyed beliefs that his time in prison served a greater purpose.

He inspired me to believe that I could create meaning out of my own journey, and I needed that hope. That hope set me on a path to work toward reconciling with society and atoning for the bad decisions of my youth. It led to my setting a principled path in place that would bring strength. Rather than feeling sorry for my predicament, I studied to educate myself; I wrote about the prison system and the people who served time in order to feel as if I were making contributions to society; and I found ways to prove worthy of all the blessings I received, including a growing support network.

The following year, 1988, Mr. Mandela served his last Christmas in prison. Although I would spend many more Christmas seasons locked inside of prison cells, I rejoiced with the rest of the world when I read of his release. Whenever the time ahead seemed too long, I could reflect on the inspiration I felt from Mr. Mandela and those thoughts empowered me to work through another season of holidays. Rather than lamenting the time I served away from family, I could create my own hope of the better world I would contribute to building.

Prison authorities finally released me on August 12, 2013. After 26 Christmas seasons as a prisoner, I’m celebrating my first Christmas with my wife at home. Nelson Mandela is no longer with us, but his life continues to inspire me and I’m grateful for the gift of his inspiring story.

Visit Michael Santos’s website at or follow him on Twitter at @MichaelGSantos.

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