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Willette Benford was incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections after being sentenced to 50 years for a survival crime. After she served 23 1/2 years and wrote her own motion pertaining to a new law, Cabrini Green Legal Aid partnered with a large law firm that fought for her freedom. Willette was sent to the Cook County Department of Corrections, where she became the first woman in the State of Illinois to benefit from the new law. In February 2019, she was granted an immediate release because of the new law in Illinois, which made domestic violence a mitigating factor. During the 23.5 years she was incarcerated, she served time in three different facilities within the State of Illinois: Dwight, Logan, and Lincoln.
Here’s her story, in her own words.
Tell us about the most difficult time in your life and how you got there.
At an early age, I began experimenting with drugs. This led me to juvenile detention, and I was in and out of jail for many years afterward. That was the start of many abusive relationships, which caused me to look for love in all the wrong places and set the tone for my future relationships. All of my relationships included some form of abuse. I led a lifestyle of drug use, violence, and bad relationships, which was a result of me not realizing my worth or knowing who I was as an individual.
What was the turning point when you realized you needed to make a change?
I was sentenced to 50 years in prison and still didn’t realize I needed to make significant changes in my life in order for things to change. I finally realized that if I continued to do the same things, I would keep getting the same results. After being inside for seven years, I ended up in segregation for fighting. It was at that moment that I realized the way I was living wasn’t working for me. I went to church after I was released from segregation. I cried out to God to change me and to take away the pain I was feeling, and He did. I was very blunt with God. My exact words were: “Lord, if you don’t change me, I am going to die like this.”
What were some of the challenges you faced as you tried to change and then later return to society?
Being in the same environment and making the decision to change was challenging. Many people had heard the same story from others who said they were done with certain lifestyles, only to see those same individuals return to them. However, God allowed me to become an example of His power to change someone, no matter how long they had been involved in a certain lifestyle.