Sara Bennett doesn't just defend women convicted of murder — she photographs them.
"The women I’ve been following have been in prison for a long time, any where from 17 to 35 years," Bennett told Revelist. "They’re basically starting from scratch for everything — finding housing, finding a job, reconnecting with family — It’s hard to imagine because you’ve been in a different bubble where now you come back out and everything has changed."
Bennett started taking photos for her series "Life After Life in Prison" a couple of years ago. Her subjects are women convicted of serious crimes — usually murder — and Bennett documents their lives when they're released to see how they're doing and what their lives look like outside prison walls.
Bennett shared the photos and stories of four of these women to show that, just as her series says, there really is life after life in prison.
"I wanted to talk about the people convicted of violent crimes who were serving life sentences… those are the ones who we don’t think about or talk about."
Keila living in her cousin’s home after her release from prison. Long Island, New York (2014)
"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. 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." —Keila
Take Keila, for example. Keila was raped by a childhood friend when she was 21. When she confronted him about it later, he taunted her, and she killed him.
During her 20 years in prison, Keila learned how to operate heavy machinery and power tools; she learned culinary skills and counseled teens whose mothers were in prison.
Keila lived with her family in Long Island, New York when she was first released in April 2014 and moved into transitional housing five months later. She now works sporadically as a caterer, while recovering from injuries after being hit by a car.
Keila was Bennett's first subject. "She took me to a meeting of formerly incarcerated women," Bennett said, "and they all wanted to be part of the project, every single one of them.
Keila on a temporary job working for a caterer. Brooklyn, NY (2016)
“After I was hit by a car, I’ve been limited in what I can do. When my disability payments got stopped, I felt bad because I couldn’t go back to my job. Now I’m cooking [for a start-up home-cooking service] and also catering for myself and helping other friends. I feel productive and better about myself. It gives me that independence I felt when I was working.” —Keila
“They liked having someone who was interested in their lives and interested in them enough to find out more about them.”
Tracy waiting for a meeting with her counselor. Brooklyn, NY (2014)
“I have to go to three state-mandated programs. I like my individual counselor but all those programs is a lot of time. I feel most of it is a waste.” —Tracy
Tracy became an addict and an alcoholic at age 19, and joined a group which robbed and killed drug dealers. She was convicted of three counts of murder at 24.
Within the first two years of her 24-year prison term, Tracy received a cosmetology certificate from the New York State Department of Labor and worked as a barber, hairstylist, nail technician, and supervisor. Her children visited her regularly in prison; by the time she was released, she had grandchildren visiting her, too.
Tracy was released in February 2014. She has lived in five different places and has held several different jobs, but for the past year has worked at McDonald's.
"People have a stereotype about what women in prison look like, but they could be anybody."
Carol, one year after her release, with Darjay and her honorary grandchild Cecil (right), both almost three years old. Long Island City, NY (2014)
“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.” —Carol
Carol spent 35 years in prison after being convicted of being complicit in her ex-husband’s murder at age 29.
Carol received a GED, an associate's degree, and a bachelor's degree. She worked in facility maintenance doing carpentry, plumbing, and masonry.
She was one the first inmates allowed to live in a two-family house on prison grounds, which was reserved for the most honored and trusted prisoners. For a time, she also lived in the prison hospital ward, after suffering a heart attack.
Carol was released in March 2013 and lives in housing owned by Hour Children, an organization that provides services to formerly incarcerated women, in Long Island City, New York.
Women who served in prison, Bennett said, “face the same issues that poor people in general face, with extra added hurdles" because of their convictions.
Carol with her friends Kelly (left) and Tina, after being admitted for treatment for heart disease. Mount Sinai Hospital, Long Island City, NY (2015)
“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.” —Carol
At 16, Evelyn, her girlfriend, and her girlfriend's brother came to New York from Puerto Rico on summer vacation and ended up working for a drug dealer.
They never returned home, and two years later were charged with murdering a man in the apartment where they worked. Evelyn pleaded guilty and went to prison for 17 years. She was 19.
In prison she received her GED, took college courses, and gained culinary skills. When she was released in April 2012, Evelyn fell in love with a woman and lived with her and her three children. The relationship lasted two years, and Evelyn now lives on her own, working (after a couple of promotions) as the executive chef of a corporate cafe. She is eligible for release from parole supervision in the spring.
“They become more than their crimes, and that’s really valuable.”
Evelyn at work in a corporate cafe before her promotion first to sous chef and then executive chef. New York City (2014)
“When I came home, I got a grant and went to a culinary program. My dream job is to work for a nice restaurant. ‘Evelyn, Sous Chef.’ Or to have my own food truck — Spanish food. I cook like my grandma. That’s the best instructor you can have. Everything she cooked was natural.” —Evelyn