Life lessons from prison inmates

Prisoners reflect on regrets, write letters of advice to their younger selves

By Erick Rommel

Mass in prison
Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Ore., reads the opening prayer during a March 4 Mass at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. Archbishop Sample told the 55 inmates at the walled maximum security prison that they "are loved." (CNS photo/Jon DeBellis, Catholic Sentinel)

Regrets are part of life.

As a child, regrets are small. You regret watching a television show instead of painting a picture. You regret choosing a cookie instead of candy.

As you get older, the scale of regrets grows. You regret asking someone out. You regret not asking someone out. You regret staying out too late. You regret coming home too early.

Sometimes, you regret doing the right thing because you wish you weren't so responsible.

Looking back, you question where you'd be if your life took a different path. Some people document what they would have done differently. Others take a look at what someone else has written, especially if that person has traveled a less-than-ideal path.

Recently, inmates serving in Maine prisons wrote letters to their younger selves. The idea came from photographer Trent Bell, who shared them publicly on a website.

The idea came about when one of Bell's friends was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. "This friend was the same person as me," Bell said. "We had the same morals, the same interests, what happened?"

Bell spoke with inmates seeking an answer to that question. What they said was surprising. Instead of going into a lot of detail about their crimes, each shared a valuable life lesson.

"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," wrote Brandon, who has been in prison for four years. "No matter what happens, your family loves you unconditionally. They will be there when you need them most and when you least expect it."

Another wrote: "Be yourself and you will attract good people to you. When you try to be different, in order to fit in, you will lose more and more of your true identity. Always recognize that you need to be a friend to yourself first."

Others wrote: "You must be willing to forgive those that ask or deserve for forgiveness in order to be forgiven yourself," and "We let drinking and drugs shatter our dreams and our potential future."

What's clear is that they tell a young Brandon, a young William, a young Jamie, to be kinder to themselves, to not allow outside pressures get the better of them, to have more compassion toward themselves and others and not to think that at a young age they know it all. The letters show hurt, insecurities of a young person, a lack of forgiveness and lack of love for oneself.

We often think people in prison are different. The only difference is that they made different choices.

Maybe that's the point. In considering his incarcerated friend, Bell reflected and came to this conclusion: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

It's something to consider when we next face a choice that could send us down a different path. Are we prepared to take that journey? Is the cost of certain choices a price too high to pay?

Maybe it would help if we imagined writing a letter we would have written if we'd made a particular choice. What would it say? More importantly, is it something we'd want to read?

Catholic News Service - March 10, 2014