If you interview inmates about their decision-making when they were younger, what can you learn?

That’s the idea behind a photo exhibit from Trent Bell (there’s an accompanying video embedded above). Only 12 men volunteered for Bell’s project, which came about when one of his good friends was sentenced to 36 years in jail — and not necessarily a bad guy, or an in-and-out-of-prison guy, but someone he had grown up with who had simply made a series of incrementally bad decisions. If you watch the entire video above, that’s mostly what you’ll find. A lot of the guys profiled in this exhibit are honestly like you or I might be; at one time they viewed jail as a completely distant, perhaps even impossible, potential outcome for their lives. But decisions built up that way — often times (in probably 25-50 percent of the examples), that involved drugs in some capacity. Bell, the photographer, said this of his project:

“In reading most of the letters I found myself feeling surprisingly similar to these men,” Bell says. “But I also realized that either their situations were different than mine or that they had made incremental decisions that led them to these situations. The whole experience really made me look at my own life and reflect on why I’m ‘me.’”

Kinda deep, but also kinda true: why are you who you are and not in jail right now? Basic question, right? But in the grand scheme of your day, you don’t often consider it. Is it your parents? Your friends? Your school? The amorphous blob that is “society?” What set you apart from these incrementally bad decisions?

There’s more here, including more portraits from the project, and including this:

Among the moving letters, another inmate says: ‘Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret […] but the positive value of these bad choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.’

Positive value of bad choices: a good message, especially in this context.

Not going to use this moving exhibit/project to pontificate on the U.S. incarceration rate — that can be for another post — but it should be noted that U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980, might account for 30 percent of the DOJ’s budget by 2020, and the highest charge associated with 51 percent of inmates is something related to drugs.

Should also be noted that there has been criticism of this project for showcasing that the inmates are sorry about being in prison, not sorry about the families/victims they affected. Regardless, it’s an interesting look at those who ended up in jail through the lens of an activity commonly done on Catholic school girl retreats. The shifting context makes it even more powerful. Good work, Mr. Bell.

Ted Bauer