As I approach my 15-year anniversary of surrendering to federal prison, I find myself reflecting on the experience.

The truth is before I surrendered to federal prison, I had so many misconceptions about what federal prison life would be like and what kind of people I would meet on the inside.

Once I was there, however, I quickly realized that there was so much to learn and gain from this surreal and life-changing experience.

As described in Lessons From Prison and our videos, one of the most valuable things I learned in prison was perspective. Being separated from my normal life and normal routines gave me a chance to reflect on the bad choices that led me to prison. Initially, introspection was difficult because it felt so foreign to me–I had never really done it before. Yet, with the help of mentors, like Michael, I was able to understand the gravity of my mistakes and the impact they had on others. This gave me a newfound appreciation for the little things in life that I had previously taken for granted. I also learned to value relationships and the importance of building meaningful connections with others. Indeed, I learned to focus on what remained in my life rather than obsess over all I had lost.

Another significant benefit of my time in federal prison was learning to overcome adversity.

In prison, I faced numerous challenges, from the daily routines to the intense emotional toll of being separated from my loved ones. I learned, however, that with perseverance and a positive attitude, I could overcome even the toughest obstacles. This was an important lesson that I have carried with me outside of prison and has helped me navigate the ups and downs of my post-prison life.

While in prison, I also worked hard to create a new record. I wanted to show others that I was taking my rehabilitation seriously and committed to improving my life. As I described in a video I filmed earlier this week, I committed to writing every day. Only then, could I build, and grow. Indeed, my friend, Andrew Altchuk who died in prison shared this quote with me:

“The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty—John Steinbeck”

I knew if I could write and document my growth and progress, I would be believable, and authentic. But it required work on days I would have rather done something else.

Besides writing, I enrolled in programs and taught a real estate and stock market class that helped me both giveback and hone my public speaking skills. I was developing a sense of purpose that had been lacking prior to my surrender to prison.

Perhaps the most profound benefit of my time in prison was the opportunity to learn from others who had endured much worse and overcome incredible challenges. I met people from all walks of life who had faced unimaginable hardships, yet had still found a way to thrive. Their resilience and determination inspired me. While I may no longer speak to them, I think of them often. They still inspire me.

Too many people obsess about just wanting the sentence to end. Problems follow that shortsighted approach, including wasting opportunities that exist in prison. Then, without proper preparations life on the other side is just as painful as the prison term.

If you are reading this, I know you do not want to go to prison. But I am here to tell you the experience has the potential to be an opportunity for change and (at least in my case) much-needed growth.


Justin Paperny