Culture

An Intimate Portrait of Life After Life in Prison

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life Served: 24 years Released: February 2014 “I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

Top of dresser

CLAUDE, 45, in transitional housing five months after her release. Corona, NY (2017) Sentence: 25 years to life Served: 25 years. Released: February 2017 “When I step into my room, I feel like I’m stepping into another world. I spent 25 years isolated. I really isolated myself. My room in the prison was my safe haven. There was no negative energy. No one came in unless the officers were doing a room search. It was my cocoon, my womb, where I feel the safest. It’s the same thing here. It’s my space. Everything in the room belongs to me, so I have a claim. I have things I was not allowed. I have glass bottles, perfume, shower gel, my mom’s ashes. My mom’s picture in a picture frame with glass. I shed the day the minute I cross over the threshold. I am home.”

American photographer Sara Bennett knows the legal system from a vantage point few have. Working as a public defender specializing in cases with battered women and the wrongly convicted, Bennett has developed a profound understanding of the impact that prison has on innocent and vulnerable lives.

The experience of prison resonates long after release for many who are consigned to spend years inside the system. Over the past five years, Bennett has begun documenting the lives of former inmates in the project Life After Life in Prison. Here we see women making their way back into the world, adapting to the challenges of life after having lost it all.

With a humanist eye and a sensitivity to detail, Bennett shares stories rarely told anywhere: the struggles of the dispossessed and marginalized who carry the weight of redemption on their own shoulders. It is only when they are able to retreat into their own private worlds that they may lay down their burdens for a moment.

It is here that The Bedroom Project centers itself, deep within the most intimate space of one’s domicile. Here, Bennett creates a series of portraits that reveal each of these women within the sanctity of their private lives. In each photograph, there is a sense of relationship between subject and space, in the way they dress, decorate, arrange, and pose for the portrait. A sense of consistency begins to reveal itself, a sense that we may know and be known through the way we live.

Each portrait is accompanied by a handwritten piece, wherein the subjects share their stories. Some speak on their homes, providing insight into the profound experience of home and the way it informs identity and healing for mind, body, and soul.

Tracy, 51, was sentenced 22 years to life. She was released in February 2014, after serving 24 years in prison. She now lives in her own apartment in Jamaica, New York. “I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that,” Tracy says. “I call this room my ‘doll house,’ my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

Bennett’s portrait captures this sentiment perfectly. Donning a black tank top with the word “FIERCE” emblazoned in pink block letters across her chest, Tracy sports a high bun, big hoops, and pink pajama pants. She sits upon a single bed covered in a white sheet with pastel-colored peace symbols bubbling about. An assortment of stuffed animals, fashion photographs, and purses hang on the wall. It is the room of a twenty-something, the woman Tracy was before her life was interrupted by the prison industrial complex.

The story of Aisha, 45, echoes this. Sentenced to 25 years to life, she served 25 before being released in June 2016. She now lives in a house with five other women in Flushing, New York. “When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, Metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested,” she explains.

“My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year- old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

Aisha’s experience speaks to all that has been lost, while simultaneously embracing the present as it is, and the ability to live into a brand new future. Although we do not know the crimes for which these women have served, there is a sense in these works that these stories of redemption go far beneath the surface into space we have yet to explore, to conversations waiting to be held in our brave new world. For these women remind us of the power of endurance and the ability of the spirit to survive, to see a new dawn finally arrive.

As Sharon, 57, says after serving 20 years in prison, “My body tells me, I was in prison, but my mind tells me that I never spent a day there. I have this sense of freedom and a strong sense of feeling liberated. I am so in touch with my womanhood, of being a mom and a grandmother, a friend and a partner, a spiritual sister. I’m in touch with all that . . . my room is a place of peace and a sanctuary to come home to every day. I love turning the key in my door.”

MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017) Sentence: 15 years to life Served: 15 years. Released: May 1998 “I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.”

KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017). Sentence: 25 years to life Served: 35 years Released: April 2017 “When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine.In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind. “

Sole possessions

ROSALIE, 70, on her couch bed in her studio apartment five months after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2015) Sentence: 25 years to life Served: 27 years. Released: June 2015 “There is always sunshine after the storm. After 27 years…the gates opened and I walked through. I don’t dwell on the past. I keep moving forward.”

AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017) Sentence: 25 years to life Served: 25 years Released: June 2016 “When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, Metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year- old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

Shoes

SHARON, 57, back in supportive housing seven years after her release. Corona, NY (2017) Sentence: 20 years to life Served: 20 years/ Released: May 2010 “My body tells me, I was in prison, but my mind tells me that I never spent a day there. I have this sense of freedom and a strong sense of feeling liberated. I am so in touch with my womanhood, of being a mom and a grandmother, a friend and a partner, a spirtitual sister. I’m in touch with all that . . . my room is a place of peace and a sanctuary to come home to every day. I love turning the key in my door.”

SHIRELLE, 54, in a homeless shelter one year after her release. East Village, NY (2017). Sentence: 16 years to life Served: 24 years (8 years on two prior crimes) Released: July 2016 “I’ve been in this shelter since I came home. It’s a place to live until you move forward to where you have to go. I don’t complain because there’s always someone who has it worse than me. I think about horseback riding and getting on a yacht, but, for now I appreciate any opportunity afforded to me. Yesterday I spoke at Columbia University Law School and I met a parole officer who wants me to speak to her parolees. Things are rolling uphill for me.”

All images: © Sara Bennett


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