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Lawyer, Photographer, and Activist Sara Bennett Talks Prison System and Life after Parole

“…after you’ve been away for 25 or 30 years, the likelihood of your having a family is pretty slim. A lot of people’s parents die while they’re in prison. Women don’t have the same support network as men do in prison which I think people find surprising.”

Life After Life in Prison, a photography project by activist Sara Bennett, follows four women rebuilding their lives after a long prison sentence for murder. In these black-and-white photos, Ms. Bennett captures the women going about their day-to-day activities and spending time with their families after being paroled for some of the most severe of all crimes. Prior to her work as a photographer, Ms. Bennett was a public defender and served as the first Chair of the Wrongful Convictions project. As a lawyer, she took on many female clients and worked largely on appeals cases. On June 20th, Sara Bennett joined Merion West‘s Henri Mattila to discuss her thoughts on the American prison system and her experiences working with women in the criminal justice system.

So let’s get started here. Before becoming a photographer, you were a public defender—maybe most well-known for your pro-bono client Judith Clark, whose life was documented in your first photo essay. How much has Ms. Clark influenced your work in both presentation and subject matter? Have you ever shown her your work?

Yes, I have shown her my work. She helped me find the original clients for my second project which was called, “Life After Life in Prison,” and it was about re-entry. I followed women as they went about their re-entry after spending decades in prison, and she introduced me to the first person whom I photographed. 

Can you get a little bit deeper into the differences between client relationships as a lawyer and as a photographer? 

Yes, that’s a good question—and something I actually struggled with a lot. Even when you’re a lawyer, sometimes, you don’t get to know your clients that well. I was an appellate lawyer, so I had different relationships with different clients over the years. It wasn’t like I knew their family or their friends, or I was in their homes. My clients were all incarcerated by the time I first was assigned to represent them because I was an appeals lawyer, so they had been convicted, and they were in prison. Sometimes I didn’t even meet my clients. Sometimes, I knew them through letters, or maybe I talked to them on the phone.

So that’s a very different thing than when you’re photographing somebody and, in a way, your subjects almost become part of your life—or you’re a fly on the wall of their lives. So when I first started photographing—you know, I’m an untrained photographer.  I had never taken any classes on ethics or anything like that. Because the women I was photographing had only been recently released from prison, there was a part of me that wanted to have a social worker aspect. I really wanted to help people find jobs or find their way around, or if they were having trouble with their parole officers or just so many different aspects of their lives.

I have a tendency or temptation to get involved, and so I actually sort of started reading a little bit about documentary photography—just to see how other people handled it. I ultimately decided that as long as I never staged a photo, which I never would, I could just be myself and help the women, if they needed help with certain things. It’s very natural to get close to your subjects.

You often said that the goal of your photo essays is to humanize the subject matter. Are there any particular moments you have found that best accomplishes this effort at humanization? 

Not really because I think just providing a face does that. But people have a stereotype, I think, of what people in prison look like, if they even think about them. A lot of times when we lock people up, we don’t think anymore [about them]. Or we perceive them as the person who comes out on parole and commits some big, high profile crime—a person that most people in society think is scary. 

So I hope my photos make the formerly incarcerated women relatable, and then your empathy for them sort of kicks in. That’s what I was trying to do in the re-entry project. I show people at work or socializing or with grandchildren or just interacting. I mean you can’t just help but feel the humanity in the women, and that’s what I was going for. I mean, even if they have struggles in their lives, which they do, there’s a lot of poverty and homelessness. But even with all of that, you can still feel their inner strength or their ability to overcome whatever is put in their way. I think those are the kinds of things that humanizes my subjects. It’s just like that saying that a photo is worth a thousand words; it’s really true.

You’ve made it a goal of yours to document the post-prison lives of women, who were convicted of violent crimes. This means that re-entry into society comes after over 15 years in prison. So what particularly drew you to these women for your photo essays?

Most of the talk around mass incarceration in the last several years has been focused on the non-violent felony offender. People were talking about how prisons get filled up by “low-level, drug offenders,” and we have to let out people who had committed drug crimes. To me, that was making a distinction that I really dislike because the people who are serving lengthy sentences are not the low-level drug offenders. They’re the people who were convicted of committing murder. That’s who is filling up our prisons. Those are the people who are going to stay, if we don’t talk about them. And people who’ve served long sentences like that are almost always completely rehabilitated.

You mentioned Keila, for example. After her first subway ride in 20 years, she was panicking, I believe, in Penn Station? 

The whole world has changed, and you’ve been left behind. It’s really kind of hard to imagine that. If you think back 25 years in your life and wherever you were 25 years ago. You may have been a child 25 years ago, or you may have lived in a world where there were subway tokens and there were phones that were still connected to the wall and the Internet didn’t exist yet.

Everything is challenging. The women [while in prison] did not have access to the Internet. Most of them had never seen a computer, unless they worked in an office in prison that had a computer. If they have a law library, they’re still looking in old books. So everything is different. I think that crossing the street is a very frightening experience. I’ve been through that experience with more than one person for the first time. There’s so much traffic. Getting into the car when you’re leaving prison, a lot of people get carsick because they haven’t been in a car for 25 years.

There are choices that you have when you’re out in the world. If they have somebody pick them up—and many don’t—it’s pretty traditional for somebody to take you out to eat. I once met a client who got out, and I met her and we went out [to eat]. There were just too many choices for what she wanted to drink, whether she wanted Coke or Seltzer or Dr. Pepper or Fanta. It was just a lot of choices, and they’re not used to having any choice about when they get up in the morning, when they eat their meals, when they go to work and when they take a shower. Everything is regulated. They adapt pretty quickly to a lot of things, but technology, in particular, can be a little challenging.

In your experience, how does our nation do in re-integrating former prisoners? 

We fall short in the same way that we fall short in helping anybody who’s poor or the like; the kind of services [they need] are almost non-existent.

What sort of programs do we have? 

Well, there are privately run programs. But you could leave prison—if you weren’t part of a re-entry program and you didn’t have a family—and you would be given, I think, these days, about forty dollars. I think you could be given a ticket to New York City, if you’re say coming from a maximum security prison in New York. You can be given a bus ticket and forty dollars and land at the Port Authority. You would have to find your way within 24 hours because you see your parole officer and maybe check in at a homeless shelter. I mean, all our homeless assessment centers can be pretty brutal, right?

Or maybe if you’re lucky, if you’re really lucky, you have family, in which case your family picks you up and brings you home. But after you’ve been away for 25 or 30 years, the likelihood of you having family is pretty slim. You know a lot of people’s parents die while they’re in prison. Women don’t have the same support network as men do in prison which I think people find surprising.

Why is that?

I think because women tend to be the glue that holds the family together. So men often have outside girlfriends. But very few women have guys from the outside who are coming to visit them. If you have kids, your kids may have gone to a foster care system and grown up; you may never see them ever again. It’s just a very difficult situation. If you do have family, then you might go home to your family, and they’re probably going to help you a little bit but so much time has passed that it’s very difficult.

And if you manage to go to a program—there’s very few, but if you get to go to one of the re-entry programs that exist—then they’re going to provide your housing and job training. They’ll help you get food stamps and help you get your benefits. There aren’t that many beds in re-entry programs, and I assume that most states are similar to New York. Then, there are barriers too.

If you have a felony conviction, it can be really hard to get a job. New York State has something called “Ban the Box,” which passed a couple of years ago. So originally employers could ask you, “Do you have a felony conviction?” Once you checked that off, usually you wouldn’t get past that first interview. Now they’re not allowed to ask you that at your interview. So that box doesn’t exist [anymore], but they can still do a background check on it.

So if they want to hire you and then decide to do a background check, they’re going to find out that you have a felony conviction. They may not hire you, and they’re allowed to not do that. You don’t have a job history, you don’t have a resume, you don’t have former employers to call. But [many former prisoners] have plenty of skills, whether it’s electrical skills—the things they take care of while in prison. So they may know plastering or plumbing or painting or those kinds of things. They may have office skills or they may have participated in programs. They may have gone to college. There are a lot of different things they may have done, and they probably have skills that a good employer might want. But they don’t have something on their resume that says they worked at such and such for 20 years.

Thank you, Ms. Bennett. 

Thank you.

Ms. Bennett’s photos are currently on display as part of the FENCE 2018, and you can see more of her work here.