A business student from USC called me last week after reading my book, Ethics in Motion. He had one question, “What was the best part about going to federal prison?” Initially, this question might seem perplexing. How could there be a ‘best part’ in such a challenging experience? Yet, this inquiry led me to reflect deeply on my journey through the federal prison system and how it became a transformative period for my family ane me.

The Descent: Losing It All

Before going to federal prison, I had had a lot of success as an athlete and executive. The descent into the criminal justice system changed everything. I watched helplessly as my reputation, career, licenses, financial stability, and ultimately, my freedom slipped away. This loss was not just a personal tragedy but a public spectacle. The experience was akin to standing in the ruins of an empire, now reduced to ashes.

The Revelation in Federal Prison

Upon entering federal prison, my perspective was clouded by the enormity of what I had lost. Yet, this phase of my life unexpectedly became a crucible for profound personal growth. I met individuals, including my now business partner Michael Santos, who had endured decades in prison for non-violent crimes. These individuals, despite their circumstances, exhibited remarkable resilience and optimism. Most did not have the opportunities I had squandered, yet they never wallowed in self-pity.

Their strength and perspective were a revelation to me. Influential works like Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and the philosophical concept of John Locke’s tabula rasa (the clean slate) resonated deeply with me. These ideas, coupled with the inspiring attitudes of those around me, helped me to see my situation not as an end but as a new beginning.

The Transformation: Appreciating What Remains

This shift in perspective was pivotal. Instead of mourning my losses, I began to appreciate what remained or the “best part” of this experience. The unwavering support of my parents, the loyalty of friends, and the foundational elements of my life that remained intact became sources of immense gratitude. My 18-month sentence, which once felt like a life sentence, was now a period of intense personal development and reflection.

The Second Chance: A New Outlook on Life

Upon my release, the contrast in my outlook was stark. I was no longer the person who entered federal prison. The experience had transformed me, teaching me to value the essentials of life that I had previously taken for granted. I shifted from what I had lost to what I could build anew. This second chance was not just about rebuilding a career or restoring a reputation but also redefining my values and priorities–then living faithfully to them.

A Path Forward

Federal prison was an unexpected catalyst for personal growth and transformation. It taught me to appreciate life’s essentials and to embrace the opportunities that come with a second chance. This experience has been integral to my work at White Collar Advice, where I guide individuals through the complexities of government investigations and white-collar crime cases alongside Michael, Alec, and the rest of my team.

Discussion Questions for Those Facing Government Investigations or White-Collar Crime Cases:

  1. How can you shift your focus from what you have lost to what remains and can be built upon during and after your federal prison term?
  2. How can you find strength and inspiration from others’ experiences to navigate your current situation?
  3. Reflecting on the concept of a ‘clean slate,’ how can you redefine your values and priorities to emerge stronger from this experience?

If you need help, we are here. We would love to speak to you.

Justin Paperny

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Justin Paperny