In the early 2010s, Sara Bennett was in New York City, working as a pro bono clemency attorney for a woman named Judith Clark. In 1981, Clark had played the role of getaway driver in one of the state’s most infamous cases – an armed robbery known as the Brink’s robbery which resulted in three deaths – and was serving a sentence of 75 years to life. As part of her case, Bennett had collected letters, hundreds of them, written in support of Clark’s plea, many of them penned by women who had once been in prison alongside her. Time and again, the letters detailed a thoughtful, empathetic character – a person who had inspired those around her to live a better life. Over time, this got Bennett thinking. She had been trying to figure out how to humanise her client to outside eyes and eventually she turned to her camera and started taking pictures. This led to her first photo project, Spirit on the Inside, about the women who were incarcerated with Clark and her influence on their lives.
The images in that project became the first chapter in an ongoing series chronicling female incarceration in New York State. After that came Life After Life in Prison, documenting seven women at various stages of re-entry to society, and then The Bedroom Project, in which Bennett photographed women in their intimate spaces. Finally, she began her most recent instalment: Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences. "In reality, Looking Inside is the series that was swirling around in my mind for almost 15 years before I attempted it," Bennett explains. "Until 2004, I was a criminal defence attorney and when I left that practice, I had an idea that I wanted to tell the stories of some of the women I knew who had life sentences. My husband is a photographer and I wanted him to take portraits while I did a deep dive into the stories. That concept changed and evolved and it took me over a decade until I felt I had enough credibility to get started." Finally, she sent letters to a couple of the women she knew at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, as well as to some women unknown to her at Bedford and another prison, asking if they were interested in participating and would they spread the word. "It was a long process and many of my letters were deemed 'contraband' but eventually I had a list of 20+ women," she recalls.
Bennett’s pictures are quietly dignified portraits of her sitters. The women are photographed in surroundings that give clues to how they spend their days and what sort of opportunities are available to them in terms of work or advancing skills. We see them in gyms and libraries, offices and storerooms. Bennett explains how school is mandatory for anyone who does not have a high school diploma or equivalent, and says that some of the women she has photographed have ended up getting college degrees. "That’s no mean feat, considering how little access they have to books and no access at all to the internet," she says. As far as work goes, she adds, there is "every job imaginable", from being a porter and keeping the unit clean to plumbing, laundry and running the library, but "the pay is abysmal, anywhere from 12 to 25 cents an hour, and the price of personal supplies are the same, or even more expensive, than in the outside world." Accompanying the images are handwritten messages by the women. "I was very young and didn’t stand a chance but I fought for my freedom" writes Trinity, 23, beneath a photo of herself standing with hands clasped in front of her. "Will I die behind these walls?" writes Linda, 70. With the system how it is, she cannot know for sure.
Missing from Bennett’s presentation of the women are any details of the crimes they are accused of. This was a conscious choice because she wants viewers to look beyond that and "not do what the criminal legal system does – which is to keep people forever stuck in that moment where they committed their crime," she says. She does, however, let viewers know that all of the women in her photographs were convicted of murder. This was important to her; neither she nor the women are trying to hide that fact.
The most surprising thing for Bennett throughout this process is how she has formed lasting relationships with almost all the women she photographed inside. "That’s been an amazing experience, getting to know many of them so well through letter writing. Some of the women are among the deepest thinkers I’ve met in my life. We all could learn from them and the way they think about their crimes, as well as how they got to where they are, and who they have become." Everyone has a story worth listening to, says Bennett, recalling a particular conversation that has stayed with her. "One of the women told me, 'As I watch the news and hear of people who have committed a crime similar to mine, I wonder what was wrong with me and I become ashamed all over again. I often hear, 'You don’t belong here' and 'You’re such a good girl' and it really bothers me, because I know what I did, I know who I was, and who I am today. Every day I wake up, I make a conscious decision to be my best self. I hear people say, 'I am no longer that person' but frankly that person lives within me. I just choose to do what’s right and it’s a daily task.'"
Over 200,000 people are currently serving life sentences in the United States. The term 'serving life' is about as ambiguous as a statement can get, and it means different things for everyone. "A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it's life without parole," Bennett explains. "A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole. And when a judge sentences someone to 25 years to life, there’s supposed to be a presumption that she’ll be released after 25 years. But the parole system in New York State is so broken that people are repeatedly denied parole, not because of how they’ve spent their time in prison, but because of the 'nature of the crime'."
And so to the questions that linger after spending time with Bennett’s work. How can a person prove they are ready for, or worthy of, redemption? And what can be done if a redeemed life is hard to achieve? Bennett has long wished she could show more of the reality of long-term incarceration to the decision-makers in the US prison system and believes that if she could, a lot would be different. "Honestly, everything about the system needs to change," she concludes, adding: "We need to be asking, as a society, why do we incarcerate in the first place and, when we do, why do we treat human beings so inhumanely?" With her photographs Bennett takes an effective step in that direction, offering a rare window into the complex stories of resilience and remorse that are wrapped up in the lives unfolding inside prison walls. "All of these women strive to live a meaningful life and to be worthy of our compassion, and all of them are so much more than the one act that sent her to prison." The very least we on the outside can do, she says, is listen to their stories and give them that chance to be heard.