That's the question asked by the photographer Trent Bell, whose childhood friend was sentenced to 30-plus years in the cage, as described in Joe Berkowitz's piece for Fast Company. Cast as advice convicts would give their younger selves, Berkowitz's post and Bell's photographs illuminate the state of mind of one who may never have imagined getting locked up for a crime.
Berkowitz describes Bell's project, which was a collaboration between the photographer and the convicts, who were asked to write letters to their younger selves. The content of these letters were then set as backgrounds to the convicts' portraits.
Twelve convicts agreed to participate.
The crimes for which they were locked up include murder, burglary, theft, probation violations, selling drugs, assault, addictions to drugs and alcohol, robbery, etc.
"There is nothing in your life you can compare it to - your first days in prison..." says one convict. "It's the little stuff," says another, referring to how he listens to his dad on the phone say his back hurts from raking leaves, and he wishes he could help rake those leaves. "That's the big one: You just wish you could be there for the little things."
Ultimately, it appears as though what separates the average person from the convict is not much. Berkowitz concludes that it's a difference in the incremental choices we make on a daily basis - some of those choices are good, some bad - and in that, he's very probably right.
If we are to learn anything from Bell's project, it's that what separates those inside from those outside is the fact that they are inside and we are outside, and for that we owe convicts and those who have been accused of crimes our compassion.