LOOKING INSIDE: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences

Sara Bennett //

More than 200,000 people in the United States are serving life sentences, a punishment that barely exists in other Western countries. I’ve long believed that if judges, prosecutors, and legislators could see people convicted of serious crimes as individual human beings, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever.

Before I photographed 20 women in New York state prisons in 2018 and 2019—all convicted of homicide—I visited them to learn about their lives. I asked them about themselves, and each woman responded to a question I posed, “What do you want to say to the outside world?” (You can see the entire series and the women’s handwritten statements at lifeafterlifeinprison.com.) 

Each woman was so much more than the one act that sent her to prison for life. They are all hard-working, resilient, dignified, introspective, and remorseful. They strive to live a meaningful life, to be worthy of our compassion. I wanted viewers to ask themselves, “What do we do with a redeemed life?”

Recently, I reached out to five of those same women and asked how the pandemic affected them. What follows are their responses.

TRINITY, 23, outside one of the housing units at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019)

Sentence: 25 years to life

Incarcerated at the age of 17 in 2012

Social distancing in prison is nearly impossible, so the solution has been to keep us locked in a cell 22 hours a day. That’s the same as being ‘keeplocked,’ something I never had experienced before because I’ve never been in trouble. The sudden, extreme restriction caused an immediate, severely negative impact on my emotional and psychological health. I feel helpless and, frankly, traumatized…”

TAYLOR, 36, in the fire and safety office at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018)

Sentence: 22-1/3 years to life

Incarcerated at the age of 24 in 2006

I have seen news reports and commercials urging people not to neglect their health out of fear of Covid, and so I have been asking the medical staff to allow me to go out for a procedure recommended by the urologist—a procedure that will treat health complications I’ve been experiencing for way over a year. Unfortunately, the prison is not deeming the procedure an emergency, and [they] are only allowing emergency procedures to go out. Therefore, due to the pandemic, I must suffer in pain and pray my health problems do not worsen. On top of that I cannot seek solace from my friends because we are confined to our units and isolated from each other.”

ASSIA, 35, in the storeroom for baby clothes at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018)

Sentence: 18 years to life

Incarcerated at the age of 19 in 2003

The uncertainty of prison life has been exacerbated by the crippling effects of Covid-19. Not only were jobs, academic classes, vocational programs, and recreational activities minimized or cancelled, but visits—our main connection to the world around us—were terminated. 

“For the last 15 years, I have relied on the four-times-a-year two days and two nights afforded by the Family Reunion Visiting Program to see and parent my children. This program was shut down in March of 2020. In an environment where closeness and human touch are prohibited, losing the physicality of face-to-face interactions with our children, loved ones, and friends has further driven us into a state of isolation and despair.”

SAHIAH, 23, in the college library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019)

Sentence: 20 years to life

Incarcerated at the age of 16 in 2011

“Being in this predicament while fighting this pandemic makes me feel like I’m running out of time. It’s so scary because it’s like no matter how much you wash your hands, keep your mask on, and social distance yourself, some way some how you still become positive. I see my peers die from this virus, some who I just had classes with and now they’re gone. It’s so sad. I can’t see my family, I can barely talk to them because my time is limited. I just feel so alone. I see people being released early to go home, but because I was convicted of a violent crime, it looks like they think I deserve to die in prison.”

TIANA, 25, in the library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019)

Sentence: 15 years to life

Incarcerated at the age of 15 in 2008

“Covid-19 has affected my life in such a profound way. The major effect for me is that I’m not able to embrace my family or any of my loved ones. I’ve already been taken from them, and they’re my sanity. They took away our visits, the commissary is always out of stock on items, supplies are low. Masks aren’t given out regularly, and they won’t even allow out family to send us some. There have been times when the phones and the kiosk (where we receive email) have been down for days, and we’re disconnected from our family. It’s terrible how we are treated during this period of time.”

Author bio: After spending 18 years as a public defender, Sara Bennett turned her attention to documenting women with life sentences, both inside and outside prison. Her work has been widely exhibited and featured in such publications as The New York Times, The New Yorker Photo Booth, and Variety & Rolling Stone’s “American (In)Justice.”

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