The factors that make up the horror that is the American prison system includes the ineptitude of the poorly underfunded public defenders. It is estimated that public defenders take on 1000 clients per year (more than 3 per day, every day), when they should have no more than 150 per year. This leads to underprepared lawyers, which leads to the accused being forced to take a plea deal. This means that many impoverished Americans are not getting a fair trial because they cannot afford a lawyer.
Mandatory minimums also contribute to the unfair nature of the American prison system. Most anti-drug sentencing was passed in 1980s when America was in the throes of a war on drugs. This lead to the creation of minimum sentences that have kept non-violent drug offenders in jail for decades or even indefinitely. The effects of jail time, especially extended sentences, can have detrimental effects on a prisoner. Most employers require that ex-prisoners disclose their history of incarceration before the employer even meets with them. Without context or a first impression this makes it incredibly difficult for ex-cons to get a job, which they require to remain out on parole. On top of balancing their parole requirements (which they sometimes have to pay for), familial obligations and finding housing that will accept an ex-con as a tenant, its no wonder half of all parolees end up back in jail.
The re-entry into society can be particularly harrowing for former prisoners because of the stigma and prejudice that is set up around them. Their experiences are incredibly difficult because of outdated laws that create a system that purposely works against former prisoners.
Photographer Trent Bell had prisoners write letters to their past selves and took their portraits with the letters imposed on top. The result is an incredibly moving piece on the prison system, and an eye-opening look at the struggles and feelings of people we so often neglect to treat like humans.
“If you were to take anything from this letter, I hope this is it, never lose the person you really are because it may be too late by the time you find yourself again.”
“Much more will be expected of you from these so called friends you’ve picked up along the way. However impressing them won’t be worth it because in the end when it’s you sitting in a cold cell, they’ll be long gone.”
“You were not smart enough to appreciate all the good things you had in life ’til it was too late. You lived for tomorrow not for today.”
“There is always another choice and you must find it. I have spent most of my life behind bars and you are worth more than that.”
“Always recognize that you need to be a friend to yourself first. Also know that your family loves you and will always love you. Don’t over-analyze their love to compare it with the love of other families. They do the best they can with the tools that they have.”
“You need to get yourself together. There is still os much life to live. I stand in front of my mirror and drift off to the days when we played Little League Baseball. We had so much fun, or when we cuddled our kids.”
“A lot of the things you’re going to do are good, a few of them are really stupid – if you think something might be a bad idea, believe it! Don’t do it.”
“What if I had stayed in school. What if I had of chose better friends. What if I had of said no to booze and drugs. What if I had of listened to my parents.”
“Things are going to happen that will make you bitter with those closest to you; you have to be the bigger person and confront your problems, talk them out – express yourself.”
“You killed your future (and life) Ken! Do yourself a favour, listen to those who love you, get their wisdom and understanding. They want to save you from yourself!”
Check out more of Trent Bells work and the Reflect project here.