Linda, 70, sentenced to 30 years to life. Incarcerated at age 43 in 1992.
Sara Bennett is a former criminal defense lawyer who began practicing photography as a way to bring a human face to women serving life sentences in prison.
While practicing law for 20 years, Bennett saw hundreds of women seemingly fully rehabilitated after serving a lengthy time behind bars. Most of these women were denied parole, not based on their progress, but rather the nature of their poor decisions some decades earlier. To help bring attention to these women’s stories, Bennett began collecting their portraits and having each of them share personal stories of incarceration.
Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences is the culmination of this work and offers a powerful portrait of the US criminal justice system today.
This emotional collection is currently on view at this year’s Photoville festival in New York City and will be staffed by a few of the women featured in the portraits who have since been released from prison. Here, Bennett shares with BuzzFeed News a selection of portraits from her series Looking Inside and discusses what it’s like for these women to be sentenced to life in prison.
Can you speak a bit on the sentences that these women are serving?
Sara Bennett: These women are serving lifetime sentences in New York state’s maximum security prison. When people are towards the end of their sentences, they get shipped out to a medium security prison. So some of the older women were photographed there.
Serving life sentences doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t get out of prison someday, either. In other words, if you have a sentence of 25 years to life, you would serve those 25 years and then start going to a parole board. But historically, most people are denied parole repeatedly.
Andrea, 64, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 46 in 2001.
So what I’m trying to do though my photography is show that after 25 years, I’d say even after 10 years in prison, people have changed a lot. But that change is never recognized. They go to parole board and they’re stepped back 25 years to their crime that they committed years ago and are denied parole based on that.
I’m trying to show who these women are becoming or have become.
What are the crimes that these women have committed?
SB: Homicide. They’re all homicide.
I was looking for serious crimes, but my project does not go into the details of the crime. That was a very conscious decision. This project isn’t about that. These people can’t change what they’ve done, and I want viewers to think about what it’s like to serve a lengthy sentence for a very serious crime.
Today, mass incarceration is a vital topic, with many believing that we’ve overincarcerated Americans. But the thing is, if we don’t look at the people serving lengthy sentences and talk about them, then the prisons are still going to be full. That’s why it was a very conscious choice to document lifers and to not talk about their crimes, except to say that it was homicide.
How does the US criminal justice system compare to the rest of the world?
SB: For most Western countries, 20 years is usually the high end of what people serve in prison. In the US, 20 years is usually the low end. In New York state, the minimum for a homicide is 15 years. The maximum in most countries is where our minimum is starting.
In my experience, after people serve a short amount of time, they start to grapple with what they’ve done. With most of the people I’ve met, it takes a couple of years for them to settle in. People go to prison and they’re angry and it’s overwhelming. They come from chaotic backgrounds, and they’re probably victims of trauma themselves. But in prison they’re forced into a life that’s more organized. After a few years, people start to settle in and work on themselves. They have therapy and get educated. They have jobs and they sort of become the people that they could have been had they had the proper mentors along the way or proper education.
By the time you’re 8, 9, 10 years in — many people are totally ready to reenter society. And I guess that’s what other countries have figured out.
Do you feel like the US criminal justice system is failing these women?
SB: Absolutely. Yeah.
What do you want people to take away from Looking Inside?
SB: I want them to grasp the humanity of people in prison. For most people, the prisoner is not the headline. The crime is what takes the attention. We see a mugshot. We hear the horrendous details, but we don’t think about them as real people. So I want to break that stereotype of what it means when someone commits a crime.
Who are they? Then if you see that and connect with that person, then our policies have to be challenged. That’s my hope. Then the next time somebody reads about somebody who’s been denied parole for the 10th time, because they killed somebody in the ’70s or the ’80s, you have to begin asking if that’s really what we want to do as a society.
I don’t know what people’s answers will be to that question, because I think it’s a very philosophical question. But I feel like at least providing a human face to people convicted of homicide is a step in the right direction
Assia, 35, sentenced to 18 years to life. Incarcerated at age 19 in 2003.
“Recently I spent the night caring for a 9 week-old baby girl whose mom was removed from the nursery unit. I fed her every 3 hours and changed her diaper after each feeding. As a nursery aide and doula, I am one of the very few women entrusted with caring for precious life and supporting new and experienced mothers. Despite the bad choices that landed me in prison and away from my own children whom have had to grow up without me, I can still make a difference.”
Cheyenne, 32, sentenced to 19 years to life. Incarcerated at age 29 in 2016.
“I am not a monster. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a auntie. I am a friend. I am a fighter. I am a strong Black woman. I am a child of God. I am a believer. I take full responsibility for my actions. I put my faith in God. I am a woman with long and short term goals. I have people out there who believes in me. I believe in myself. I see light at the end of my tunnel. I will stay proactive and do what’s needed to get from behind these walls. I will never give up.”
Deborah, 49, sentenced to 25 years to life. Incarcerated at age 27 in 1997.
“In my bedroom, I close my eyes and I am free. I’m not locked in a cell the size of a closet, pieces of my mind and soul stolen with every knock on the door, privacy non-existent. With my eyes closed, I open the front door and go for a drive and laugh as loud as I want. Then I open my eyes, still praying for a chance. Thinking of the past, present and future. One I can’t change no matter how desperately I want to, the other one I survive on hopes and wishes, and yet another I can’t begin to know. I close my eyes as often as possible!”
Elizabeth, 52, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 22 in 1989 and released on parole in 2019 after serving 30 years.
“I look at others who have been to multiple parole boards like me and they’ve lost hope and don’t see the light. I wonder when I will lose hope. When will I stop seeing that light? That’s my biggest fear. My dream is to feed people with food made with love. I will give back to my society and will never stop growing.”
Gloria, 53, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 35 in 2000.
“I am a casualty of domestic violence. I had been brought up as a princess and now I have turned into Cinderella. My life as a woman and mother ended at the age of 35. I am painfully aware that my family has their own lives in which I no longer have a place. I am still a normal person. I haven’t yet developed the mentality of a prisoner. And yet this is how I am treated and I will continue to be treated until I am set free.”
Haydee, 52, sentenced to 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 26 in 1993 and released on parole in 2019 after serving 26 years.
“When I was able to move around without a cane, I was able to work, doing floors, stripping, buffing, polishing. Because of my health, now I’m just sitting in my room doing nothing. Spending taxpayer’s money. I’ve been denied parole six times, either because of the nature of the crime or my disciplinary, like smoking in the wrong place. We came here when we were young. I was 26. And we’re leaving here like old ladies to begin the process of turning back into a baby.”
Jennifer, 21, sentenced to 19 years to life. Incarcerated at age 17 in 2014.
“Every time I put the pen to the paper when I’m supposed to, or someone is depending on me to do so... nothing comes out. Nothing that I feel like I should say comes out. Am I too negative? Too optimistic? Too deep? Too much? I feel like there are so many eyes on me and yet there is no one looking over my shoulder. It’s been 5 years since I’ve been incarcerated and I still feel like that. As if there are so many people waiting on me to do something. But I’m scared. That’s probably the most honest thing I could say to you. I’m scared.”
Kat, 43, sentenced to life without parole. Incarcerated at age 34 in 2009.
“Society’s outlook of those serving life without parole tend to be negative even more so if you are a woman. Regardless, people can change. My choices of the past do not define me today. Although I wear a ‘scarlet letter’ I am so much more. Rehabilitation is within. It’s the desire & ability to change. I choose to change, to grow and to better myself. Mentally, emotionally, and physically. This journey gives me the strength to survive my past and be someone who is more than a number or statistic.”
Leah, 44, sentenced to 21 years to life. Incarcerated at age 23 in 1997 and released on parole in 2019 after serving 21 years.
“As much as I desire to, I will never be able to change my past, but I have allowed my past to change me. Today I realize that it will never be about me, but in my endeavors to do better and be better, I know it starts with me. Today, I make better choices and I have better ways to cope in any situation without resorting to violence. I have become a respectable, responsible, selfless, compassionate, humbled and mature woman who is always conscious of the people I have hurt and the damage I have done.”
Patrice, 36, sentenced to 25 years to life. Incarcerated at age 16 in 1998.
“Just because we ask for a second chance at life doesn’t mean we have forgotten what we have done; it means we were once part of the problem and to heal those we have hurt we must be part of the solution, part of the conversation. You’ve held the state accountable by our punishment. Now let us show you how we’ve held ourselves accountable to your pain.”
Sahiah, 23, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 16 in 2011.
“Being incarcerated at such a young age, in the beginning I felt as if my life was over. But as the days and the time went by I knew that God had a special plan and purpose for me. There is light at the end of my tunnel. I will be free.”
Stacy, 45, sentenced to 30 years to life. Incarcerated at age 30 in 2004.
“There are days I wake up in a fog. I think I am home. After all this time, it feels good and it hurts all at the same time.”
Taylor, 36, sentenced to 22 1/3 years to life. Incarcerated at age 24 in 2006.
“Do not judge me by my crime. One incident should never define an individual. Majority of the time, inmates are characterized by their crime. However, our crimes are not who we are as people. They do not define us. Some of us chose the wrong lifestyle, were brought up in dysfunctional homes, suffered domestic violence, or suffer from drug addiction or mental illness. Most of the time, all we needed was someone to intervene and get us the help we desperately needed. Incarceration and excessive prison time is not always the answer. We have redeemable qualities and deserve a second chance.”