Powerful portraits of women serving life sentences in prison show that they are more than their crimes

Sahiah, 23, was sentenced to 20 years to life. Sara Bennett

Sara Bennett, a criminal-defence lawyer turned photographer, is shedding a light on the humanity of women serving life sentences for homicide.

For her latest photo series, “Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences,” Bennett stepped inside the Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities in New York and sat down with 20 women to learn what it’s like to be sentenced to life and, in many cases, repeatedly denied parole.

Keep scrolling to see some of the women Bennett encountered and learn their stories.

As a former public defender, Bennett has been immersed in the world of criminal justice for more than 30 years. She’s now using her photos to shed light on the flaws in the system.

Assia in the storeroom for baby clothes at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018). Sara Bennett

“Recently, I spent the night caring for a 9-week-old baby girl whose mum was removed from the nursery unit. I fed her every three hours and changed her diaper after each feeding. As a nursery aide and doula, I am one of the very few women entrusted with caring for precious life and supporting new and experienced mothers. Despite the bad choices that landed me in prison and away from my own children who have had to grow up without me, I can still make a difference.” – Assia, 35

Sentence: 18 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 19 in 2003.

Through her earlier photo work, Bennett has shown what it’s like for women to adjust to living in society again after spending decades in prison.

Tiana in the library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019). Sara Bennett

“At the age of 15, I was charged with murder and tried as an adult. As a result, my entire youth was spent in a juvenile setting, and then I was later transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional. I have done independent introspection of the last 10 years and have grown tremendously. I am remorseful.

“Currently, I am in college working towards my AA in human resources and business management. I received a variety of certificates and awards during my incarceration, in addition to remaining disciplinary-free. One day I would like to become a motivational speaker for troubled teens and illuminate the injustice of the American justice system.” – Tiana, 25

Sentence: 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 15 in 2008.

But for “Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences,” she was granted access to step deeper into New York prisons, where she captured powerful portraits and heard women’s stories.

Elizabeth in the mess hall at Taconic Correctional Facility (2019). Sara Bennett

“I look at others who have been to multiple parole boards like me, and they have lost hope and don’t see the light. I wonder when I will lose hope. When will I stop seeing that light? That’s my biggest fear. My dream is to feed people with food made with love. I will give back to my society and will never stop growing.” – Elizabeth, 52

Sentence: 20 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 22 in 1989 (released on parole in 2019 after serving 30 years).

For Bennett, it wasn’t about detailing what landed these women in prison, but showing that they’re human beings capable of change.

Kat outside her housing unit at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019). Sara Bennett

“Society’s outlook of those serving LWOP tends to be negative, even more so if you are a woman. Regardless, people can change. My choices of the past do not define me today. Although I wear a ‘scarlet letter’ I am so much more.

“Rehabilitation is within. It’s the desire and ability to change. I choose to change, to grow, and to better myself. Mentally, emotionally, and physically. This journey gives me the strength to survive my past and be someone who is more than a number or statistic. LWOP is not a remedy.” – Kat, 43

Sentence: Life without parole (LWOP). Incarcerated at the age of 34 in 2009.

“We send people to prison, and as a society, we don’t think about them,” Bennett told Insider. “We don’t think about how they pass their time, and we don’t think about what their living conditions are like.”

Haydee in the rec room at Taconic Correctional Facility (2019). Sara Bennett

“When I was able to move around without a cane, I was able to work, doing floors, stripping, buffing, polishing. Because of my health, now I’m just sitting in my room doing nothing, spending taxpayers’ money. I’ve been denied parole six times, either because of the nature of the crime or my disciplinary, like smoking in the wrong place.

“We came here when we were young. I was 26. And we’re leaving here like old ladies to begin the process of turning back into a baby. Sad but true.” – Haydee, 52

Sentence: 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 26 in 1993 (released on parole in 29019 after serving 26 years).

“Through my photography, and particularly through this work, people are getting a view of something that they haven’t seen, and they’re actually hearing the voices and the thoughts of the women that I photograph,” she said.

Linda in the rec room for the medically unemployed at Taconic Correctional Facility (2019). Sara Bennett

“This is my 27th year being incarcerated. I’ve been scared, lonely, hurt, disappointed, and forgotten. When I got here 11 months ago, I couldn’t believe all the women I had done time with were still here, going to board after board and never getting out. Will that happen to me?

“I do my hair and makeup every day. It makes me feel good. But on the inside, I’m breaking down. To name a few, I had a triple bypass, two strokes, major back surgery, and I take 30 pills a day. The bottom line is I beg for forgiveness and a second chance. Will I ever see my freedom? Will I die behind these walls?” – Linda, 70

Sentence: 30 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 43 in 1992.

Bennett also told Insider that these women, especially those who have been in prison for a long time, are “self-reflective, smart, soulful, and really in tune with who they were and who they have become.”

Patrice in the gym at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018). Sara Bennett

“Just because we ask for a second chance at life doesn’t mean we haven’t forgotten what we have done. It means we were once part of the problem, and to heal those we have hurt, we must be part of the solution, part of the conversation. You’ve held the state accountable by our punishment. Now let us show you how we’ve held ourselves accountable to your pain.” – Patrice, 36

Sentence: 25 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 16 in 1998.

And this photo project has opened viewers’ eyes to those qualities. “People are struck by the humanity of the women I photograph,” she said. “They see them and they cry.”

Taylor in the fire and safety office at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018). Sara Bennett

“Do not judge me by my crime. One incident should never define an individual. The majority of the time, inmates are characterised by their crime. However, our crimes are not who we are as people. They do not define us. Some of us chose the wrong lifestyle, were brought up in dysfunctional homes, suffered domestic violence, or suffer from drug addiction or mental illness. Most of the time all we need was someone to intervene and get us the help we desperately needed.

“Incarceration and excessive prison time is not always the answer. We have redeemable qualities and deserve a second chance.” – Taylor, 36

Sentence: 22 1/3 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 24 in 2006.

But while these prisoners’ stories are eye-opening, the conversation around the criminal justice system is far from over.

Sahiah in the college library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019). Sara Bennett

“Being incarcerated at such a young age, in the beginning I felt as if my life was over. But as the days and the time went by, I knew that God had a special plan and purpose for me. There is light at the end of my tunnel. I will be free.” – Sahiah, 23

Sentence: 20 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 16 in 2011.

“The people I photographed for this series are serving lengthy sentences, but they’re also real people worthy of being released, and I just wanted them to be part of the conversation,” Bennett said.

Monica in the college office at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2018). Sara Bennett

“I am not unlike you, yet no one saw my potential. Unlike you, I was deemed unworthy, unredeemable at the age of 21 and given a 50-to-life sentence.

“I am not unlike you. I too have hopes and dreams. Like you, I struggle to find meaning, to find love.

“I am not unlike you. Like you, I am not the person I was 23 years ago.

“We all change when given the chance to grow from within and to reach our full potential. I am not unlike you.” – Monica, 42

Sentence: 50 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 20 in 1996.