Defense Attorney Turned Photographer Captures ‘Life After Life in Prison’
Sara Bennett uses photography as advocacy
Images: Sara Bennett
The frankness of the photo makes you lean in. This is what a second chance looks like. Sara Bennett’s photo series Life After Life in Prison bears witness to four women—Tracy, Carol, Evelyn and Keila—as they navigate the process of reconstructing their lives, after serving anywhere from 17 to 35 years in New York State maximum security prison. They are lifers granted parole; lifers returning to life.
The images are unblinking in their gaze. They are without judgement. Or excuse. They are of the moment, in service as intimate eyewitness to the mundanities, struggles and milestones that fill the every day of a person returning to life on the outside.
Barriers to reentry—regarding employment, housing, after-care or family reunification—are high and difficult to scale. Bennett’s series of 32 black-and-white, large-format prints brings the unique needs of women who have been incarcerated to the forefront of the conversation. It’s essential that the voices of women, the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the country, are “at the table” as we seek solutions to end mass incarceration.
It may sound like a contradiction, but Life After Life in Prison offers viewers the opportunity to listen. Tracy, Carol, Evelyn and Keila—indeed any of the countless individuals currently behind bars—have worthy stories to tell. Just lean in.
Sara Bennett, who also has a background as a former public defender specializing in battered women and the wrongly convicted, sat down with MASS APPEAL so we could learn more.
What drew you to this aspect of the incarceration puzzle?
I’m a former criminal appeals attorney. For many years, I represented people who had been convicted of crimes and were in prisons for really long times, and sometimes their whole lives. I haven’t been a practicing criminal lawyer for maybe 13 or 14 years, but I always was just thinking about people who are still in prison and thinking about my former clients, and how they were just sort of stuck in time. They had committed their crime, but they had changed into somebody else, something different. They had grown, let’s put it that way.
For about the past eight years, I had a pro-bono client named Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-years-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Her only way out was clemency from the governor of state of New York. As part of my advocacy for her, I was trying to figure out how to bring her more to life. I mean, she’s an amazing person, but when we just talk about people on paper, sometimes you don’t totally convey who they are. I don’t know how I came to the idea, but I ended up photographing 15 women who had been incarcerated with her, and had been released. I interviewed them about Judith’s influence on them. I put together a little book that was portraits of incarcerated women, talking about the amazing effect Judith had on their lives. And, I sent it around to state legislators, to the governor. I sent it, basically, to anybody I could think of. People would look at those images, and go, “Oh, she was in prison?” … “These women looked so normal,” and I’d said, “Well, what do you think? … Who do you think is in our prisons? That’s the genesis of this project. After that, I thought, “Okay, I want to do something really to shed a light on our prison system.”
For the project, I wanted people convicted of murder. I wanted people who had been convicted of super serious crimes. I would have done people that were still incarcerated, but I was never going to get that kind of access. So, the women I ended up following, to me, are a little bit of a stand-in for the people they left behind. And of course, it is a reentry project, too. But, through the photos you also get a lot of stories about what it’s like to be incarcerated, to lose a loved one in prison, to not be granted parole, to age in prison. All those things come out through the stories they tell, even though the photos are on the outside.
Who have Carol, Evelyn, Keila and Tracy become to you?
I have relationships with each of them. They shared their lives with me, but I also shared my life with them. I’ve opened myself up to them in a way that I rarely would have opened myself up to a client. I’m really interested in them as people, and their struggles, and sometimes I try to help them with their struggles. I definitely got involved. And, at first I really struggled with it. You know … what’s your role as a documentary photographer? But then, I was really inspired by it. Then, it was OK. I had to feel my way.
There is often this hierarchy given to those who received life sentences for non-violent, first-time drug offenses versus those with violent convictions. Why was it important for you to amplify those with serious crimes, and not to make it “easier” for the viewer?
I started this project about four years ago. Even back then, people were always talking about the non-violent, felony offenders—which is a really arbitrary classification, as far as I’m concerned. And you would see too, when governors did grant clemency, even in New York, the only people that were getting it were the non-violent, drug felony offenders. I just wanted people to not forget about the people who were convicted of violent felonies. Those are the long-termers. And those are the people who are least likely to commit another crime when they do come out. There’s also so much arbitrariness in the system. There’s almost no difference between people who have 25-to-life and life without parole. It’s just a matter of whoever their sentencing judge was.
How has the conversation surrounding incarceration shifted over the course of your legal career?
I don’t think there was a conversation around incarceration until Michelle Alexander wrote her book, The New Jim Crow in 2010. I think that was the beginning of the naming of the problem. At least, for me it was. To me, that was a changing moment, where all of a sudden people were like, “Oh, OK.” And then, there were a lot of reentry groups started, and the Marshall Project started in 2013. I think all of those things started to contribute to it. And, then there were some of the more conservative and liberal groups coming together to talk around incarceration.
Even from when I started this project until now, it’s different. The way that the public is looking at this has changed. There have been a few films recently, 13th among them that are helping. We’re paying more attention now.
In the series, you juxtapose the smaller moments in the women’s lives—the moments that make a life a life—with the “bigger” milestone moments.
The whole point was to just “normalize.” To normalize. To humanize. You know, what makes a life? I guess that’s the question. I spent a lot of time with these women and just photographing whatever they were doing. The day to day. Mostly, I was just around. You know what I mean? I selected a visual of somebody who’s convicted of murder. And then you see these beautiful women I’ve photographed in sometimes very tender moments with their children or their grandchildren or adopted children or caring for other people on their jobs.
How did you come to know Carol, Evelyn, Keila and Tracy?
I didn’t know any of them beforehand. I was introduced to Keila by a former client. Keila was coming home, so I called her right when she got home. Probably two weeks after she came home. I met her in Grand Central Station. It was her first time on the Long Island Railroad in 20-something years, and then I went on the subway with her. She was going to a meeting of formerly incarcerated women and I went with her. And, when I came in, and I asked her permission to take photos. I found a couple of women that day, who I started to follow, but the only one I ended up continuing with from that day was Tracy. And, then Carol, I had met a little earlier. She was emblematic of the issues of growing old in prison. She also had something to say too about how people don’t get parole, because she was denied parole five times. Evelyn entered a little bit later. She had already been out of prison for nearly two years when I met her. So, they were people in different stages of reentry.
What are some of the systematic barriers to reintegration for women?
There are so many barriers. It’s everything.There’s barriers to getting jobs, employment. There’s barriers to housing – most public housing. You don’t have a resume. You may have a lot of job skills … and I have to say, the women I know have a lot of job skills. But, you know, what do you put on your resume? And, you’re 45 or 50 years old. It’s really tough.
A lot of people come back to New York City, where the housing is just impossible. It’s way too expensive. They don’t have any money. When you’ve been in prison for that long, you many not have any family to come home to. Like the older woman, Carol. Her parents had died before she went to prison. You don’t have a lot of contact up there so there’s no safety net. I would say to somebody: Imagine that you were dropped down in New York City after you’ve been gone for 25 years. With $40. What do you do?
LIFE AFTER LIFE IN PRISON is on view now at The Heyman Center at Columbia University through April 26, 2017. There will be a closing night reception and a panel conversation with Tracy, Carol, Evelyn and Keila on the 26th at 6:15 pm.