Grace notes

Powerful portraits capture life after decades in prison

Determined to convey their humanity, lawyer Sara Bennett photographed four women rebuilding their lives after long-term incarceration for murder

When Sara Bennett photographs women convicted of murder, she shoots only in black and white. “There’s less distraction,” she said, although Bennett’s utterly unsentimental photos also reflect her desire, after spending 30 years as a criminal defense lawyer, to challenge the common assumption that these women are dangerous, unredeemed or unforgiveable.

“People who have gone down so far and come out the other side, they’re really amazing people,” Bennett said of her subjects, who, unlike most of those whom she represented in court over the years, were paroled after receiving life sentences. “We’re missing an opportunity as a society by locking them up for life. That’s what I was trying to show with my photography.”

An exhibition of Bennett’s photographs, “Life After Life Inside,” is on at The Passage Gallery at SUNY-Purchase until October 18 (and, in November, at CUNY Law School in New York City, on display in the student lounge). The pictures tracked four women — Carol, Evelyn, Keila and Tracy — as they went about reconstructing their lives last year, after serving between 17 and 35 years in New York State prison.

Keila in the garden. (Sara Bennett)

The photos portray the women in simple acts of daily life — at work, in modest apartments, at prayer — in unblinking verité. Like the personal narratives of the women they portray, the images neither excuse nor attenuate the pain the women have caused or endured over the years.

Carol served 35 years without having more than one outside person visit her, Bennett said; Keila was imprisoned for 20 years for killing the man who had raped her two days earlier. All four women, like most people who have served long prison terms, are statistically the least likely to return to prison. “I love all these women,” Bennett said in an interview last month. “I spent a lot of time and have really gotten to know them.”

She decided to photograph former lifers who had been granted parole, rather than current inmates, she said, because of the difficulty capturing a prisoners’ humanity as she sits in a charmless visitors’ room, illuminated by gray-green prison lights, wearing formless prison clothes, watched by pitiless prison guards.

“I started to see photography as advocacy,” Bennett, who will turn 60 this month, told me. “You meet people who have done the worst things ever. But then you see this other side of them. It makes you wonder how they got to that point.”

Sara Bennett

Sara Bennett … sensitive enough to detect the grace notes most prisoners have learned to bury.

Actually, such things do not make most people wonder, and that’s the interesting thing about people like Bennett: they are sensitive enough to detect the grace notes and coping mechanisms that damaged individuals, including most prisoners, have learned to bury, and they are curious enough to genuinely react to it. Sara Bennett spends a lot of time wondering.

During high school in Toronto, her home town, she wondered to the director of the school band why the girls weren’t allowed to wear pants like the boys. (There was no good answer, she said.) After completing one year at York University, she wondered what Mexico and Guatemala were like and took off for six months to find out. “It wasn’t like I was a hippie exactly,” Bennett said. “I was sort of wandering.”

She took a photography course in Mexico. While in Guatemala, she hopped a chicken bus to Lake Atitlán, where she wondered how women in the indigenous communities that populate the lake’s shore weave their colorful fabrics using traditional looms. She stayed in San Lucas Tolimán a few weeks to find out, while throngs of other young travelers settled into Panajachel, a backpacker’s ghetto at the opposite end of the vast lake, to party.

Tracy six months after her release. East Harlem, NY.

Tracy six months after her release. East Harlem, NY. (Sara Bennett)

Back in Toronto, Bennett found herself wondering what California was like — she had no experience with or connection to the state — and hitchhiked to Oakland. After moving to Santa Cruz to restart her college career, she majored in Latin American studies until she wondered what a new field called Women’s Studies was like and became, in 1978, among the first graduates to earn a bachelor’s degree in the field.

After college, Bennett joined the Liberation News Service, which she had become familiar with in college working at what she called a “radio collective.” At LNS, Bennett learned typesetting, her first career job. One day, she saw a want ad for a typesetter at The New York Review of Books and applied. “It was a really grueling interview for a typesetting job, I have to say,” Bennett said. “I was interviewed by two editors and the publisher.”

She got the job and worked alongside young writers and critics who would make names for themselves, including Luc Santé, Prudence Crowther, Darrell Pinckney and April Bernard. “It was another time in my life when things were really opened up to me,” Bennett recalled, admitting she rarely thinks back to the early years of her career. “I felt so uneducated compared to everyone else. There was a lot of interesting conversation going on.” She went on, “I was just really lucky; sometimes I would just fall into something and I would gain some kind of skill, and then I would meet these really interesting people and that would make you want to learn more things.”

Carol, one year after her release, with Cecil and Darjay, both almost three years old. Long Island City, NY.

Carol, one year after her release, with Cecil and Darjay, both almost three years old. Long Island City, NY. (Sara Bennett)

Eventually, Bennett wondered what it would be like to run “some type of small women’s organization,” she said. “But every time I applied for a job, it would always go to someone who was a lawyer. So I decided to go to law school.” Here is where Sara Bennett’s career path comes full circle.

After her first year at Rutgers Law School, she took a summer position at Prisoners’ Legal Services at a time when the organization had sued the state women’s prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., for providing inadequate medical services; Bennett spent her summer interviewing female prisoners for the case. In her second summer, she split her internships between the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU’s Reproductive Rights Project.

After law school, Bennett joined the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau, and stayed for 18 years, eventually becoming the chair of the society’s Wrongful Convictions project. She took a lot of battered women clients, winning many cases on appeal, she said, after finding judicial or other legal errors during her investigations. “Don’t forget, I come from a journalism background,” Bennett said. “I was really interested in the backstory of my clients.”

Most criminal appeals lawyers never bothered to interview their clients in prison, Bennett said. “I always thought that was the weirdest thing.”

Evelyn with Sister Elaine Roulet, a nun who worked in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. (Sara Bennett)

But after 18 years, Bennett realized she was burned out. So she wrote a book – not about lawyering but about, to quote the book’s title, “The Case Against Homework.” Bennett had started wondering why her six-year-old son was assigned reading homework that required him to log the book’s title, author and number of pages read, even though he didn’t know how to write.

The book, published in 2006, eventually led her to create a nonprofit organization called Stop Homework. “It was pretty personal,” she said, “but it was the same advocacy skills that I had from being a lawyer.”

Writing gave Bennett a creative alternative to her criminal defense work, and she pursued the idea of publishing more books. But rather than more nonfiction advocacy, her ideas evolved into photography essays based on her personal interests. In 2013, Bennett, who had begun teaching yoga to homeless women, published Yoga After 50: A Photo Essay, followed by another photo essay titled, Spirit On The Inside, about her pro-bono client, Judith Clark.

Bennett no longer practices law regularly. When I asked about her next professional move, she said she wasn’t sure. She seemed to be wondering again: what would her next enchantment be? She was about to spend two weeks in Morocco with her husband, the photographer Joseph O. Holmes, and maybe, she said, the next big idea would come to her there.

Paul von Zielbauer spent 11 years as a reporter for The New York Times, where he was nominated in 2006 for a Pulitzer Prize for his series on the privatization of prison medical care. He is the CEO of Roadmonkey.

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