At the age of 21, Keila was raped by a childhood friend, according to her case. Two days later, she confronted him about what he had done and when he taunted her, she killed him. After the trial, Keila was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life. In prison, Keila learned how to operate heavy machinery and power tools. She worked for several years on maintenance crews and later in the prison kitchen where she learned culinary skills. In addition, she counseled teens whose mothers were in prison. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
People are more than their worst act. That’s the founding principle for an ongoing photography project by Sara Bennett, a former attorney documenting the stories of four convicted murderers working to rebuild their lives.
Bennett worked as a criminal defense attorney from 1986 to 2004 and continued to take on pro-bono cases after she left the practice. Seven years ago, she began defending Judith Clark, who was sentenced to a minimum of 75 years in prison after serving as a getaway driver for a group that killed three people, including two police officers, in 1981.
“People are way more than the worst act they ever did. People are complicated, and deep and rich and have a lot to offer.”
This project began with an effort to build her case by photographing women who had spent time with Clark at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, New York, she said. But as she met a number of former prisoners, she formed a close connection with four women in particular: Carol, Keila, Tracy and Evelyn, each of whom had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
When they were released and why varies, often for what Bennett called “arbitrary” reasons. “There’s not that much difference between the people who get let out and the people who don’t,” she said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to our criminal justice system.”
Keila, three and a half weeks after her release, on the New York City subway for the first time in more than 20 years. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
With 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, a number that has increased by 500 percent in the past three decades, the U.S. has more people in prison than any other country in the world. And recently, those numbers have come under increased scrutiny. In April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced federal punishments for future drug offenders, and in July, the commission voted to make that change retroactive, giving inmates the option to be re-sentenced. As a result, 6,000 inmates will be released from federal prison at the end of this month, the largest-ever one-time release from federal prisons, and thousands more could also be affected.
These changes came as President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people incarcerated for drug offenses in mid-July and visited the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahom, where he met with six inmates. But violent offenders, and what happens to them after they leave prison, are missing from this conversation, Bennett said.
“When somebody’s been convicted of murder and they spend 20 years in prison and get out, those are the people who have the lowest recidivism rate of anybody. But nobody’s talking to them. So I wanted to bring a face to people who have been convicted of murder, who have really lengthy sentences, and who have come out of prison and are rebuilding their lives,” she said.
After 20 years and two parole denials, Keila was released and went home to live with her cousin and her cousin’s family in Long Island. Five months later, she moved to transitional housing provided by Hour Children, an organization that provides services to formerly incarcerated women, where she also received job training in office skills. She currently lives in an apartment with her girlfriend Tiffany, right, and her girlfriend’s daughter in Long Island City, New York. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Once they leave prison, they face a number of barriers to re-entering society, Bennett said. Many ex-felons have trouble finding employment, although the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant on the basis of criminal history. Others also face limited access to housing. In New York City, where Bennett photographed the four women, being arrested at all can limit a person’s chances of being accepted into public housing, even if their families are living there when they leave prison.
The women who Bennett photographed were no exception to this pattern, she said. One night last November, she received a call from Tracy, who served 24 years in prison and was released in February at the age of 49. Tracy had lost her job with the Salvation Army after the group ran a background check on her, she said. But after she went back and asked them for another chance, she got the job back.
“My dad bought me this softball glove when I joined the prison team. He died while I was in there. Two officers transported me to the funeral home. They wanted me to go in without my family. I couldn’t. I didn’t care about their rules and regulations. It was my father. He was my everything. I was in cuffs for twenty hours. He was the man I loved the most in this whole world. It just went all wrong. They made it worse.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Bennett said the work raises questions about the purpose of incarceration and who is considered worthy of rehabilitation. “It’s actually a philosophical question that our society has to grapple with. Let’s just say somebody’s convicted of murder … do you believe, then, as a society, that we take that person, lock them up and throw away the key?” she said. “People are way more than the worst act they ever did. People are complicated, and deep and rich and have a lot to offer.”
Many of the people she has met are trying to survive while minimizing the harm they do to others, she said. “That doesn’t diminish either what they did or the harm they caused to the victims or their victim’s family. And they would be the first to express remorse or sorrow or wish that there was some way that they hadn’t done that,” she said. “But the most you can do is figure out how to live your life in a good, honorable way.”
Below, see more of Bennett’s work, and read the stories of Carol, Tracy and Evelyn.
At the age of 29, Carol was convicted of being complicit in her ex-husband’s murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Incarcerated in 1978, she received a GED, an Associates Degree and a Bachelors of Science. She worked in facility maintenance doing carpentry, plumbing and masonry. In 1982, Carol was among the first inmates allowed to live in a two-family house on prison grounds, set up for the 26 most honored and trusted prisoners. After her second heart attack, she was sent to a prison hospital ward, where she lived for the next three years. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Carol, one year after her release, with her “honorary” grandchild Cecil, right, and Darjay, middle, both almost three years old, in Long Island City, New York. “I’ve always loved kids. They’re so innocent and full of joy. In prison, I wasn’t allowed to work on the nursery because I had a violent crime. Now it’s my chance. For 35 years I’ve been away from my own children. You can’t blame them for being angry and disappointed and hurt. I hope one day they’ll forgive me.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Carol on her way to her cardiologist’s office in Long Island City, New York. “I don’t go out much. I work across the street from where I live. I go to the doctor or do a little shopping. Sometimes I go out with a friend. It might not sound like much, but I’m free.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Carol with her friends Kelly, left, and Tina, right, after being admitted for treatment for heart disease at Mount Sinai Hospital, Long Island City, New York. “My last three years in prison I spent on the RMU [Regional Medical Unit]. It’s like a mini hospital, but it’s really isolating. It’s worse than solitary. No one can visit you because everyone’s in their programs during scheduled visiting hours and you can’t get permission to leave your program. I could see my friends from the screened-in porch but I couldn’t talk to them because you’re not allowed to holler.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
At the age of 19, Tracy became addicted to alcohol and cocaine and joined a group that robbed and killed drug dealers. At the age of 24, she was convicted of three counts of murder and sentenced to 22 years to life. Two years into her prison term, Tracy received a cosmetology certificate from the New York State Department of Labor, and then worked as a barber, hairstylist, nail technician and supervisor. She also started a utility crew and, for seven years, she tiled floors and spackled and painted walls. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Tracy six months after her release in East Harlem, New York. “This is my third home in six months. I was at Providence House [a halfway house in Brooklyn] for four months. That felt like a home. … But my time was up after four months and after I got scammed out of a down payment on an apartment, I ended up at a three-quarter house. It was horrible, unsafe, and a drug-violation environment. I was able to leave after 24 hours. Then the uncle of my grandchildren, not related to me, took me in. I have lots of things that I got back from my teenage home.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Tracy with her grandson Jo-shia in Bergenfield, New Jersey. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Tracy working as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army in New York City. “First, Salvation Army told me I could have this job. Then they called me and told me they did a background check and said I couldn’t have it after all. So I asked them when will I get my second chance. I did my time. Parole granted me my freedom. If they won’t give me a job, who will? So then they said I could have the job.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
As a 16-year-old high-school student, Evelyn came to New York City from Puerto Rico on summer vacation with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s brother. They didn’t return home and ended up working for a drug dealer, counting money. Two years later, the three were charged with murder for the shooting death of a man in the apartment where they worked. Evelyn pleaded guilty and went to prison at the age of 19. There she received her GED, took several college courses and gained culinary skills, working as a cook and ultimately a supervisor. She was denied parole once. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Evelyn with the son of her domestic partner in Long Island City, New York. “I met my partner when I’d only been home for a few days. She has three kids and me not having kids, I became close to the kids and that was an extra.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett.
Evelyn moving to her second home in four months after she and her domestic partner broke up, in Astoria, New York. Photo and caption by Sara Bennett
Evelyn with Sister Elaine Roulet, a nun who worked in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Brooklyn, New York. “I met Sister Elaine in Bedford. I was in facility maintenance and if she needed something done, I was there. I was always happy to do it. She was always encouraging me. She’d say, ‘you’re so beautiful, such a happy angel.’ She always had a joke. She was like a mother figure to a lot of us in prison.” Photo and caption by Sara Bennett