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Portraits from prison: convicts write letters to their younger selves

Photographer Trent Bell asked prisoners at the Maine State Prison to sit for portraits and write letters to their younger selves.
“I’m 55 years old now, and living in prison for the past six years. Let me tell ya kid, it’s no way to live.”
“I’m 55 years old now, and living in prison for the past six years. Let me tell ya kid, it’s no way to live.”

When architectural photographer Trent Bell found out in early 2013 that a friend had been sentenced to 36 years in prison, he was shocked.

This friend was an educated professional, husband and father, someone Bell saw as “being very similar to myself.”

“To have the benefit of going home every night, playing with my kids…he’s lost that,” Bell said. “It just kept weighing on me in the back of my mind.”

Bell prefers to respect his friend’s privacy and not name him or his crime, but the finality of the sentence made Bell reevaluate his own life.

Looking to bring positive value to bad choices, Bell developed the idea for the REFLECT Project, which would combine portraits of prisoners at the Maine State Prison with handwritten letters of advice to their younger selves.

Bell sent a mockup of the project to Scott Fish, director of special projects for the Maine Department of Corrections. Fish was excited about the idea.

“I approached the commissioner, Joseph Ponte about it and he was receptive to the idea, he asked that I bounce it off the warden at Maine State Prison… and he was receptive to the idea,” Fish said. “So we just gave Trent the green light.”

Of the approximately 800 Maine State Prison inmates contacted, only a dozen agreed to participate. Correctional care and treatment worker Martha Boynton, who helped coordinate the project, said it can be overwhelming for inmates to consider talking to their younger selves. Many also distrust administration—one reason why so few came forward. 

Bell found most letters mentioned drugs, alcohol or the negative influence of friends, but varied in their levels of introspection.

“For the guys who did it, it was a very difficult process for them to soften themselves,” he said.

One inmate, Robert, writes, “I want to reach out to you and hopefully help save you from becoming me—a veteran of the prison system for over 20 years.”

William, another inmate, explains his parents divorced when he was a teenager. He says, “The thought will come through your mind for an opportunity to come up with another way to make money. Please think twice before you turn to stealing…there is always another choice and you must find it.”

“Some of them you can tell that they’ve really processed what they’ve done, and accepted whose decision it was, whose choice it was to end up there,” Bell said. “And others seem to be writing from a place to really explain themselves to [the person] who is reading it.”

Bell said he now realizes decisions made in a moment can lead people down very different paths. He hopes the photographs cause people to be less judgmental of others—and more critical of themselves. 

“If there’s anything I understand from this now is that we all have it within us to be one of those convicts, it’s just that through other people’s influence on our lives we’ve avoided the situations…or the situations haven’t produced themselves to test us,” he said. “It really made me realize I don’t have a lot of room to judge.”

He said the project is the best thing he has ever done with photography. 

“We learn from our mistakes,” he said. “And these prisoners have made incredible mistakes. And to not take these guys and engage them in a positive manner is to throw away such a wealth of knowledge.” 

Watch the behind-the-scenes video of how the project came together: