Sara Bennett has been a criminal defense lawyer in New York for 30 years. She has represented men and women who have committed terrible acts; many have spent decades in prison, some have died there.
“The longer you’re an attorney the more serious your cases are,” she said, recalling a 16-year-old client who was sentenced to life without parole for murder. “I never forgot him.”
“When you send people away for life,’’ she says, “you’re saying there’s no hope. That they’ll never be rehabilitated.” And yet, she adds, “People are more than their worst act. People are complicated.”
It was after completing a photography project a couple of years ago that Bennett, now 59, realized that her images could reveal what years before judges and juries could not: a more complete picture of ordinary lives upended by extraordinary circumstances.
Each of her subjects was convicted of murder, she said, and “I want people to think, ‘So this is what a murderer looks like’.”
For a continuing project she calls “Life After Life Inside,” Bennett photographed four women— Carol, Evelyn, Keila and Tracy—who re-entered society after serving sentences of between 17 to 35 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s maximum security prison for women.
All had been sentenced to terms of up to life in prison, and all had been denied parole at least once, sometimes repeatedly. “There’s a different quality to the way you serve your time,” said Bennett, speaking about a potential life sentence. “You’re hoping [to get out] but you don’t know if you’re ever going to get out.”
But the women did get out, and in New York in 2014 Bennett followed them through the new routines of their lives—on the subway, at their jobs, in counseling sessions, at home.
Bennett spent 18 years at The Legal Aid Society in New York, then, in 2004, began representing individual clients pro bono. For the past eight years she has been the sole legal representative for Judith Clark, an inmate at Bedford Hills serving 75 years-to-life for her role in the 1981 Brinks robbery that left three people dead.
It was Clark who put Bennett in touch with the women who eventually became the subjects of her photographs. But it was her work as a litigator that made introductions even easier. In a meeting with Keila and other former prisoners in 2014, Bennett said, “I explained my project and somebody was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute you were so-and-so’s attorney.’
“Every photographer figures out their own way of getting access and gaining trust, Bennett says. “I think I already came with a reputation.”