My 18 Months in Prison – as told by Jeff Becker

Jeff: For 18 months I worked as a Juvenile Justice Specialist for the State of Illinois Juvenile Justice System at a maximum security prison for teenage girls. These girls were sentenced to prison for offenses including: assault, theft, drugs, arson, and murder. My job consisted of making sure the kids got from one place in the prison to another without fighting or arguing, and making sure they followed the rules.

Each day, for 18 months, was mind-numbingly the same. Arrive at 5:40 a.m., security checks, roll call, updates from the prior shift, then conduct management for eight hours. Staying motivated became increasingly difficult. I could feel myself changing for the worse. I felt more on edge, depressed, and definitely not the person that my family and friends knew me to be.

I was fortunate in that I had a mentors who saw me changing and encouraged me to develop a habit of starting and ending my days with a ritual that included reinforcing the many positive things in my life. One of them gave me quote that I still use today, “Bad day or bad attitude?” There’s no such thing as a bad day. The bad day is because of a bad attitude. Life is about choices.

I also learned that you can’t have two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time, so if I’m focused on what I’m grateful for, I can’t be stressed or frustrated. Gary Mack, author of Mind Gym – an Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence, provides an excellent road map for how our thoughts affect our ultimate outcomes. “Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. Character becomes your destiny!” Will you let your thoughts tell you how to live your life, or will you direct your thoughts in service of a life focused on your highest chosen values? Choices matter!

All of the teenage girls in the prison were there because of situations forced on them. Did they poor choices, of course, many of them told me stories about their childhood. The similarities were striking about the abandonment and abuse they endured, usually at the hands of their own relatives. These 18 months in prison revealed another crystal-clear example of how fatherlessness plays such a negative role in our society. Not one of these girls had a positive thing to say about their dads.

Some of them actually knew the “system” well enough to know that upon their release, they could commit another crime that would land them back in prison…precisely because their home life was so miserable, and prison was a better place for them.

This day I’m reminding you to be aware of the “prison” that can exist inside your own head. After 18 months I made a conscious decision to walk away from a good paying job with excellent benefits, and move across the country to a job that paid $500 a week with no benefits and I slept on a friend’s couch for six months to make ends meet.

Brian: Some of Jeff’s colleagues were in a “prison of their own making” because of the choices they made. Some chose not to make a better life for themselves or the inmates, and to consistently embrace the status quo. Some chose to work the night shift because they didn’t have to deal with the emotional teenagers, even though it made it impossible for them to have quality family time. Some chose not to speak up about the injustices that exist in the prison system. All of these are choices. Each time they didn’t stand up for what was right, they acquiesced their power or voice, thus taking one more step toward their own self-made mental prison. 

But…Jeff made choice after choice whereby his values, character and integrity were intact. That’s what a tender lion does. So this day, may your tender lion self be at its best. Make a difference today!

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