BIDDEFORD — Wesley Knight has some advice for his younger self: “You have choices in life and if you reach out to the people that really love and care about you I promise you won’t be a failure as I was.”
A near life-size portrait of Knight, who was convicted of murder, stares out at the reader from the midst of his handwritten words, his eyes a flat blue that matches his prison shirt.
Knight is one of a dozen inmates at the Maine State Prison who participated in an exercise in which they wrote letters to their younger selves. The letters, filled with self-recrimination, were then superimposed over photographic portraits of each inmate.
The portraits are part of an exhibit now on display at the Engine gallery at 265 Main St. in Biddeford.
“Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves” was created by Trent Bell, a commercial photographer based in Biddeford who specializes in architectural photography.
Bell, 37, said he wanted to do a project that would have more of a social component than his commercial work.
He said the exhibit does not seek to glorify the convicts or minimize their crimes, but may offer viewers lessons that could prevent some future victims’ suffering.
“These guys have done really bad things. … These guys aren’t doing time they don’t deserve,” Bell said. “If you don’t learn from it, it truly is a failure. If you can learn from it, there are some redeeming features.”
The Department of Corrections alerted the convicts’ victims – those who have signed up for information about their case – to the exhibit, so they could be prepared.
“It can be very traumatic for victims,” said Tessa Mosher, the department’s director of victim services, saying people could be surprised by images or stories about the person who hurt them. “It does bring up the case for them and sometimes they are reliving it because of this.”
MIXED REACTIONS EXPECTED
Robert Schwartz, director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and the former police chief in South Portland, said the exhibit is likely to generate mixed reactions.
“You like to think lessons can be learned from it, particularly if younger people are learning from it and they’re promoting it for the young people,” Schwartz said. “If you were the victim of one of the crimes of one of these people, that’s the other side. You might take offense. Hopefully, they can take a positive look at it.”
Bell says it is productive to hear what lessons convicts say might have made a difference in their lives.
“No matter how sticky and difficult the situation is, it’s still something that has to be looked at. You can’t just lock these guys up and let them rot,” Bell said. “These guys are part of our family … part of the same social fabric. At the same time, it isn’t an isolated incident that led them here.
“That kid was a 2-year-old at some point and totally harmless,” he said, gesturing at the face of a 26-year-old who is spending the next 13 years in prison for attempted murder.
Bell said that in the failures that led them to prison, the prisoners have something to offer.
“They have a sharpened perspective on life, of what’s valuable, because they’ve lost everything,” Bell said. Insights into their lives could help others make better choices, even if it’s just cherishing the opportunity to play with their children or help their elderly father with chores.
Bell had a personal motivation for wanting to explore the lives and impressions of prisoners. He learned that a good friend, much like himself in many ways – a well-educated professional with a wife and children – had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to 36 years in prison.
“I considered him to be morally at the same place I am,” Bell said. “He basically lost it all through a series of small decisions he made, lost the ability to raise his kids.”
Over the course of their correspondence, his friend expressed frustration at not having anticipated the exorbitant consequences of his actions.
That led Bell to wonder what led some people to end up wearing the light blue shirts and jeans of a prison inmate, to endure the day-to-day tedium of years of incarceration, while others move on to creative and productive lives. What did the men perceive as the things they did or didn’t do that made the difference?
RAILING AGAINST FORMER SELVES
Bell sent an open invitation to 900 inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren, asking if they would agree to write a letter to their “pre-incarcerated” selves and sit for a portrait. Only a dozen agreed to participate.
The rest of the prisoners “just want to keep their head down and do their time,” he said.
Those who did participate invariably railed against their former selves for the choices they had made, the people they sought to impress or emulate, the pain they caused.
In the exhibit space, an audio track with sounds from the prison plays in the background. The metallic clank of doors shutting is amplified by the hard blank walls of secured rooms and hallways. At times, a somber soundtrack of bagpipes plays softly.
“It’s to convey where these guys are at, to experience the emotion of the letters in the moment these guys are in,” Bell said.
Some of the convicts’ advice to their younger selves is philosophical, some practical and specific.
“The weakest people can fight. Anyone can act or react with violence, but a real man can turn the other cheek and walk away,” Brandon Brown advised his younger self. In a black-and-white short film produced by videographer Joe Carter that accompanies the exhibit, Brown laments his choice. Brown was sentenced to 17 years for attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault after he shot a former Marine during a fight in Portland’s Old Port in 2008, paralyzing him from the waist down.
“Never when I went upstairs to get my gun … (did I think) I would shoot somebody,” he wrote.
Many of the prisoners tied their descent into prison to alcohol and drugs.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Everyone needs help at some point in their life,” Robert Forrest, 67, said in the video. He is serving 55 years for murdering his wife and 3-year-old son. “I always thought I was strong enough and I don’t need help … and here I sit.”
Most of all they reflect sadness.
“You killed your future Ken!” writes Ken Joondeph, who was convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor and unlawful sexual contact and has two years left in his eight-year sentence. “So many people you hurt along the way.” He adds that as a convicted sex offender, he will never teach again.
“Do yourself a favor. Listen to those who love you … get their wisdom and understanding. They want to save you from yourself,” Joondeph writes.
Knight, convicted of murdering a man in 1990 whom he suspected of being a police informant, recalled how his young daughter asked him, “ ‘Dad, if you love me, why did you go to prison?’ ”
“Spending your life in prison is no fun at all,” he wrote. “You lose your freedom and people in time forget where you are. It becomes a very lonely world in a very short time.”
‘IT COULD BE ANY ONE OF US’
When the exhibit opened Jan. 10, the room was full but nearly silent, said Scott Fish, director of special projects for the Maine Department of Corrections, who helped facilitate the project.
“I was just bowled over,” he said of the final project, which had the blessing of Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard and Corrections Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte.
The exhibit also includes a series of portraits of corrections officers and prison welfare workers taken by Guy Desrochers. Bell said it complements the prisoners’ portraits, showing the strain and fatigue officers can experience.
Mark Dubois of Biddeford visited the gallery recently and stood silently in front of each portrait in turn.
“The overriding emotion emanating from the portraits is remorse,” he said. “I imagine you get a lot of insight on mistakes after nine years, 10 years, 20 years.”
He also was struck by how easy it could be to follow the same path as the prisoners.
“It could be any one of us, any face that you look at up there,” he said. “That could have been me writing one of these letters.”
Bell said he hopes that beyond being an insight into the thoughts and appearance of prisoners, the exhibit can be instructional for young people who might be facing the same choices these men did.
Fish said the department has considered asking to have the portraits – which are on exhibit at the Engine until Feb. 22 – to be installed temporarily at Long Creek or Mountain View youth development centers, where the state’s juvenile offenders are housed.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
Correction: This story was revised at 12:32 p.m., Feb. 3, 2014, to reflect that Ken Joondeph was convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor (not gross sexual assault).