NYT: ‘Our Crimes Are Not Who We Are’

Jennifer, 21, sentenced in 2014 to 19 years to life, in the infant center of Bedford Hills.

Jennifer, 21, sentenced in 2014 to 19 years to life, in the infant center of Bedford Hills.

By John Leland
June 6, 2019

The women in these photographs are all serving prison sentences of 18 years or more to life for homicide. For Sara Bennett, the photographer, this fact is just the beginning of their stories, not the end.

Ms. Bennett, 63, began working with incarcerated women when she was a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, specializing in appeals for women who said they had been abused. The work never took her past the visiting rooms at the prisons, she said.

For this series of portraits, taken at Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities, she wanted to go deeper inside of the prison. After some negotiation, she got permission to shoot the women at their workplaces, though not their cells.

It gave her a view of prison as a small community. “The lifers all know each other,” Ms. Bennett said. “They call someone ‘my grandmother’ or ‘my auntie.’ Everyone has a job they go to every day. They have co-workers. It’s a society. Sometimes it feels like a secluded community.”

Most said they had been victims of abuse, she said. Beyond that, she did not ask how the women landed in prison. She was more interested in their lives now, with a possibility of never leaving prison.

“How do you find meaning in a life where you may never see the outside world?” she asked. “It’s kind of the core of someone.”

The women she photographed — sometimes just for five minutes, sometimes for half an hour — were “some of the deepest-thinking people I’ve ever met in my life,” she said. “They’ve come from poverty, often drug abuse, physical abuse. They come to prison, and it’s sometimes the first safe environment they’ve had, and you see how people just blossom. It’s such a loss to society. That’s the thing I feel the most.”

Ms. Bennett plans to publish the photos as a book and through her website as part of her ongoing advocacy for women in prison.

She quotes a woman named Gloria, 53, who was sentenced in 2000 to 20 years to life: “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 will continue to be treated until I am set free.

Gloria, 53, sentenced in 2000 to 20 years to life, in an office near the mess hall at Taconic Correctional Facilities.

Gloria, 53, sentenced in 2000 to 20 years to life, in an office near the mess hall at Taconic Correctional Facilities. “How can anyone appear normal after such suffering?”

As a prisoner named Taylor said, “Our crimes are not who we are.”