Those past generations of people whose existence led to and strongly affected my own existence struggled to care for their families during times of strife, war, pestilence and loss, and were sufficiently successful to be the ancestors of thousands of people today. Many of them had very narrow choices: work hard to survive or give up and die.
Today the struggle in the United States has changed. Although there is certainly hunger, want and poverty, there are also many ways to address this and it would be embarrassing to equate the poverty of much of the world to our level of poverty here. So, even for the poorest of our poor there are choices and many, many temptations that do not exist in the hovels of the extremely poor.
I believe this twilight world of relative poverty is very hard on young people who have no sense of purpose or their place in the history of the world. I'm confused, but no longer surprised, when I see resentment on the face of a young person when I tell them the responsibility to buy formula and diapers and to pay rent and utilities trumps a perceived "right" to tattoos, alcohol and road trips.
For many incarcerated young people, homesick and frightened, the reality of jail or prison (where they are a number who is not allowed to open a door for themselves or decide when or what to eat or when to go to bed) is a wake-up call. Life suddenly has far fewer choices.
When they are released life will have changed for them dramatically. Many lacked scholastic and job-skills even before incarceration and that rarely improves while they are out of the workforce. They may have lost their place in their families, have health problems exacerbated by prison life, have special challenges in finding work and generally have not developed the self-discipline and life-skills to overcome these and many other challenges of life at the bottom of the economic system.
So if you are writing to or visiting someone in jail or prison, my suggestion is this: Don't waste time telling them again what a mess they are and how bad your life is because of what they have done. (They are never without that reality.) Instead, stand firmly on your faith, hope and experience to offer them the love God gives to us all, regardless of our errors, foolishness and brokenness. Encourage each to make healthy choices (and there are choices to make every minute of every day) and most importantly tell them they are precious in God's eyes and your own, not because of who they were when they were younger or who they might have become, but because today God loves them and offers them hope and a future if they are willing to pay the price for it.