A Colorado teen sentenced to forty years gets a second chance

Also read: Josh Beckius was sentenced to prison at sixteen -- but sixteen years later, he has a second chance

Experts say that prolonged solitary confinement can cause the disintegration of personality, even full-blown psychosis. Those who visited Beckius during those years remember him as withdrawn and looking haggard and grim. But Beckius says he believes in mind over matter, and he refused to give up: "They'd bring people out of their cells and they'd look like a walking dead man. I didn't want to be that person. Regardless of if I had to do the full forty years in solitary, I wasn't going to be broken."

But the ordeal did change him.

"Being in solitary gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life," he explains. "It was like my rock bottom. I was so ashamed, I was so disgusted. I'd done nothing with the majority of my life, caused havoc and agony and hurt to other people. If I had not had my family and one friend who never gave up on me, who continuously and instantaneously would forgive me for anything when I wouldn't forgive myself...

"That was my breaking point. I made a conscious decision to do everything in my power to change my life, and not to hurt people who cared about me."     Released into the general population at Fremont Correctional Facility in 2001 — a difficult and nerve-racking transition in itself — Beckius began availing himself of every opportunity the prison offered. He had already received his GED in 1998, and now he signed up for courses taught through Naropa University, Northeastern Junior College and Adams State: English, algebra, psychology, public speaking, principles of advertising, financial mathematics, basic anatomy. He ended up halfway to an associate's degree, with a GPA of 3.81. And when he was sent to the Sterling Correctional Facility in 2008, he joined the Therapeutic Community, a group-based rehabilitation program, and worked in it for two years, eventually serving as a mentor for other prisoners.

"He put himself in a position to begin his lifestyle change," says Ken Gaipa, director of Peer 1. "That's hard to do in prison: You're regarded as a traitor."

Nothing in Beckius's early life would seem to have equipped him to survive his time in solitary confinement mentally intact, much less to emerge and rebuild a life for himself. His mother, Patricia Joyce Beckius, was an alcoholic whose family was involved with drug dealing. "My father gave her an ultimatum: 'Look, we have a son. You need to choose between partying and being a mom,'" Beckius says. "My mom chose the party scene and the drinking in bars, and they separated." Patricia Beckius was killed by a motorist on North Federal Boulevard one night after leaving a bar. It was two days before Beckius's fifth birthday.

He has only hazy memories of her: a faint image of dark hair, a sense of her presence. Even looking at photographs brings up nothing more specific. "I used to be angry with her in my young years, into my teens, bitter and upset," he says. "Now I don't blame her just because of the things I've been through, the addiction and wanting to party. Now I can almost empathize with the way she was living her life."     After Patricia's death, Tim Beckius took his son to live with him and his then-girlfriend, Melanie Tope, in Jamestown. Josh Beckius remembers the next three or four years as idyllic, and wrote about their home together for a prison creative-writing class in an essay he called "Home Sweet Home."     "Surrounded by aspens, pines, and huge cottonwood trees, it was like my own little fortress," he wrote. He described sitting on the porch for hours on end listening to the creek and watching "raccoons, squirrels, and a great variety of different birds." Summers were spent fishing and adventuring in the mountains, winter "was more about being with family — sitting inside where a fire kept the place warm and looking outside to enjoy the mystical whiteness of winter...loved ones pulling together to get through the tough times winter can cause, such as cutting wood for the fireplace, hauling wood up to the house, and making sure everything was in place to make it a safe and warm winter." He concluded by wishing he could "step up to that front porch...once again."     But then Tim Beckius and Melanie split up. It was only when he was nine and living with his father in Gunbarrel that Beckius learned what had happened to the woman he considered a second mother. He was flipping through a photo album and he came across several newspaper articles: Tope had been murdered by the man she was living with. "I was home after school," he says. "Dad wasn't around. I broke down in tears. It was a gruesome, gruesome scene."     Beckius began running wild, and Tim lost control of him. At ten or eleven, he was hanging out with cousins on his mother's side, drinking and smoking pot. Although he was athletic and played with the North Boulder Little League, he was rarely at school. He attacked a classmate who'd insulted his mother. He stole a stereo from his family.

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