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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.