While public awareness of the tragedy of mass incarceration may be growing, less attention has been paid to the experiences of female inmates. The prison population has ballooned over the past twenty years, skyrocketing to 2.1 million, making the United States the largest jailer of its citizens in the world. This explosion of the inmate population has not excluded women, and in fact while overall fewer women are incarcerated than men, as a demographic they are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.
A 2017 ACLU report found that women are disproportionately stuck languishing in jails, often because even more so than incarcerated men, they can't afford bail. Of the 219,000 women currently held by the correctional system, 113,000 were funneled to state and federal prisons, where inmates with longer sentences are sent. Though violent crime has been steadily dropping nationwide since its peak in 1991, the number of life sentences has nearly quintupled since 1984, and a recent report by the Sentencing Project shows that 3.5 percent of the overall life-sentenced population are female, which is half their representation in the general prison population.
So why do so many women end up incarcerated? Research tells us that between 23 and 37 percent of female state prisoners were physically abused before age 18 and one in four was sexually abused—higher than the national average. A study by the Department of Justice found that victims of most women convicted of murder were their intimate partner or a family member, and that nearly half of women in state prisons had experienced abuse at some time before their arrest. Drug sentencing laws, a lack of community resources, poverty, and disinterest in the public and policy levels in issues that affect women also contribute to a complex array of factors. But beyond statistics, inmates are people like anyone else, carrying with them into the justice system their histories, relationships, desires, fears, trauma and hopes for the future.
One of the most challenging times in an inmate's life can be their return to society. Photographer Sara Bennett, formerly a public defender specializing in battered women and the wrongly convicted, has spent years capturing intimate moments in the lives of women who were handed a life sentence but eventually received parole. Her series Life After Life in Prison and The Bedroom Project examine the experiences of women as they return to society following decades in prison. Following their transitions, Bennett introduces us to women whose lives have been impacted by the justice system more than anyone else, and who now have to contend with the joys and anxieties of newfound freedom.
PAPER spoke with Bennett to learn more about the work and the challenges women face upon returning to life outside prison walls:
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
"When I was released, I didn't feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it's like putting a kindergartener in college."
AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
How do you find your subjects and what's the process of bringing them into the project?
For many years, I was the pro bono attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. I was trying to get the governor to grant her clemency, something rarely granted, and I had to show that she was extraordinary and worthy of the governor's mercy. I photographed women who had been incarcerated with her and had them speak about her influence on their lives.
It was the reaction to that work—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—which sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison, where I followed four women as they went about re-entering society after decades in prison. Judy introduced me to my first subject, Keila. The first time I met Keila, she was on her way to a meeting of formerly incarcerated women, and I tagged along with my camera. There, I told all the women about my project, and they all wanted to be included. A lot of the women at that meeting already knew of me, either through my work on Judy's behalf or because I had represented some of their friends as a Legal Aid lawyer. Each woman I met, introduced me to another, and that's how I ended up with my Bedroom Project series, where, so far, I have photographed 18 women.
Why the designation, specifically, of life in prison?
It was really, really important to me. My only criteria for someone to be a part of this project, or any of my projects, is that they had to have a life sentence, because it means that they never know if they were going to get out of prison. If you have a sentence of 15 years to life, it means that in 15 years you are eligible for parole, but the parole board may deny you. I'm not a practicing lawyer anymore and I haven't been for almost 14 years, although I did have pro bono cases for a very long time. But I was really concerned about the long-termers in prison.
One of the other things I wanted to highlight was the parole system in general. Every state is different but in a place like New York the granting of parole is very slim and has been for a long time. You can have a sentence of 15 to life, and you go to the parole board and they don't care that you have done 15 years, they just care about what you did 15 years ago. The only time you ever hear about a parolee is when they commit some kind of high profile crime, and then the feeling is, 'We have to clamp down on parole again.' I wanted to show a different light—the majority of people who come out of prison and lead productive lives and who are just thriving.
TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Given that it's life sentences that you are dealing with, are the women you photograph mostly convicted of violent crimes? Or is it a lot of drug charges?
No, it's all violent crimes. In my Bedroom Project series, all but two women were convicted of homicide. In my first reentry series, all four women were convicted of homicide.
Did you get to know the women well while photographing them?
Some of the women I know really, really well—the four women who were my original re-entry subjects, for example. I spent hundreds of hours with them individually and spent time with them with their families, going to church, going to their jobs, social events, just hanging out. There are only a few women that I don't know very well and have only met once or twice.
What are some common threads with women that you see after they were incarcerated for a long time?
Really, resilience. It's just kind of incredible. There's this joy for life and how to get pleasure out of the simplest things. It helps you remember a lot of things that people take for granted—like a comfortable bed, a pillow, a choice in what you have to eat, the ability to just walk out on the street or go to the park. No matter what seems to come their way, including homelessness, doesn't seem to phase them that much. That's been really eye-opening.
One of the women I know really well lives in the homeless shelter and she loves it there. She has a little room, and there's no door, but it's hers. There is no one coming in and telling her she can't have something in there. Even though the shelter has rules, she can put things out if she wants to and she can sit in there with the lights on or the lights off; she can look out the window. She doesn't have to worry that someone is going to come in there at any moment and go through all of her things. There is just a certain peace and autonomy that hasn't existed in these women's lives for so long.
I can imagine the ability to come and go as they please is a great thing for them.
It really is. Not that many people know what it's like to live in prison. They get their ideas from movies. But in prison, people are constantly being counted, so you are woken up really early every day and you have to stand and be counted and you go through that five or six times each day. You eat your meals at a time that is designated to you, you take a shower at a time that is designated to you—with a little bar a soap that is given to you and that little bar of soap may have to last you a month. Just the very basic necessities of life have been stripped away, so to be able to get some of those things back, they are just very grateful and I've seen that across the board. They are so content with very little.
NIKI, 55, in transitional housing four months after her release. Corona, NY (2017)
Do you see much anger?
Not very much, which is surprising to me. I just heard from someone who has just been given parole after 47 years in prison. He went to prison when he was 17, and is now 64 years old. He was denied parole something like 16 times. I got a card from him that he's so grateful, and I was wondering why he'd be grateful? I believe that the person is just so grateful for being able to come home. I don't see a lot of anger and I don't know why.
Have any of the women you worked with went back to prison?
Nope. I don't think any of them will.
What are the biggest challenges you see them face upon re-entry?
The number one challenge is finding a place to live. The second is finding a job and a way to support themselves. There are reentry programs, but very few in general and even fewer for women. If you manage to get a place in a reentry program, then you will have a place to live; otherwise you may end up in a shelter. If you have been in prison for a long, long time, it's very rare that you are going to have a family member to go home to, just because everyone has aged or you have been forgotten. Even if you haven't been forgotten, but you come home and you're 45 and still have a living parent, they may not be able to take you in any more.
Finding a job is really, really hard. All of the women I know have a lot of skills, because when you are in prison you do work. So they may have plumbing skills, electrical skills, painting skills or culinary skills or maybe got a college degree or were running some kind of program in there. Everyone finds work and does some kind of meaningful work in prison, but that doesn't mean when you come home that an employer wants that experience. You have a huge gap on your resume. I know people who say that they were a chef for 25 years for a large institution and hope that the boss doesn't ask you what the name of the large institution was.
ROSALIE, 70, on her couch bed in her studio apartment five months after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2015)
Even though it's a positive event, emotionally it must be very trying.
A lot of people have a lot of anxiety. It's a little scary to come home after all that time away. Little things like walking across the street are hard. Some people get car sick because they haven't been in a vehicle for 25 years. Then there are the technology changes—but they seem to adapt pretty quickly. Reuniting with children which can be difficult. I haven't actually seen any of the people that I have been photographing reunite with children. There may be a couple who have them, but usually, the children are lost to the system or have family members who have turned the children against them. I feel like that's a really deep sadness.
What's the age range of the people you photograph?
The age range is from 38-70. The minimum amount of time that any of my photographed subjects had was 14 years, and that was only because that person received clemency from the governor. The next shortest sentence was 17 years and after that, anywhere up to 35 years, which two of my portrait subjects served.
KEILA, 40, in transitional housing six months after her release. Astoria, NY (2014)
What do you think about the way women who are incarcerated are portrayed in the media?
I used to watch Orange is the New Black and I have to say that I loved the second season where they showed the back stories of the women. It was the only time where I felt that they showed the women in an un-stereotypical fashion.
Have any stereotypes come up for you that have been confronted? How has the project changed you on this?
I think I've really gotten to know the women in a way that I've never gotten to know my clients, which has been really great for me. I was an appellate lawyer, which means my clients had already been convicted by the time I met them, so I never got to know their home settings. When you are in and out of someone's home, you really get to know them. You get to see how they deal with their problems and who they are. I feel really honored that people allow me to come into their homes and be a part of their lives now. I did form close relationships with some of my clients and kept in touch with them after they came home from prison, so, this wasn't completely new to me. But the women I photograph have shared a lot of their lives with me and whenever someone allows you to do that, you really grow as a person.
LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
What would you hope the biggest take away for someone viewing this project is? And how do you hope that translates to change in society or the system?
One, I just want people to think about why we lock people up, why we lock them up for as long as we do and why we treat them so inhumanely. When you start to think about all that, the rest follows. Like: why don't we let people out when they have been completely rehabilitated? Why do we put up so many hurdles and requirements and barriers to getting a job when they come home? That was really eye-opening for me, that when they first come home they have to go to a lot of programs, which makes it really hard to have a job. I would love to see policy changes in the whole sentencing structure across the country, so we don't have sentences like life without parole or 25 years to life, like other countries. On a very basic level, we should be asking things like what kind of food do we feed people, and why do we send people to solitary, and why do we treat our pets better than we treat human beings?