Looking at the women featured in Sara Bennett’s photos, currently printed across stretched canvas on the grassy slope of Four Freedoms Park, it’s easy to imagine them as neighbors, aunts, or friends. They are pictured in their bedrooms, one adorned with photos, one painted purple, and all with the little tchotchkes and comforts that make up a life. The one fact uniting each: time in a maximum security prison for homicide.
“We put people in prison and we don’t think about them anymore,” says Bennett, a former lawyer. “These pictures show people in their most regular self, in the best sense of that word. People who have been in prison are ordinary people, just like you and me.”
Bennett is one of 30 photographers whose work is currently showcased at the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy’s outdoor photo exhibition, Capture Your Freedom, on display through July 1.
Competitors were asked to show how the Four Freedoms extolled by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1941 speech – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – relate to our lives today. Winners were selected by a team of photo editors and human rights advocates.
The winning selections appear on four large-scale photographic cubes, each corresponding to one of the freedoms and highlight issues from across the globe. On the Freedom of Worship canvas, photos from North Korea show citizens compelled to worship Kim Jong Il. Another series was taken at the sites of gun violence during a two-year period in Brooklyn.
Bennett’s photos appear on the Freedom from Fear canvas – in their case, says Bennett, the fear of never truly being able to start over.
Photographer Sara Bennett (second from left), with the women she photographed (from left) Tracy, Valerie, Karen, and Evelyn.
Bennett got to know the women in her photos as an appeals attorney for the Legal Aid Society. While advocating to reduce the sentence for Judith Clark, who was sentenced to 75 years for driving the getaway car in an infamous 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored car that left a guard and two police officers dead, Bennett began interviewing and photographing Clark’s fellow inmates.
By all measures, says Bennett, Clark was a model prisoner. While incarcerated, Clark earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and led educational programs for inmates, including a prenatal course and an HIV/AIDS program. Bennett published her photos and interviews in a book, titled Spirit on the Inside, Doing Time with Judith Clark, which she then sent to everyone she could think of, including the governor, the parole board, and the New York legislature.
The effort worked – to an extent. On one of the final days of 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo granted Clark clemency, reducing her sentence to 35 years and making her eligible for parole in 2017. Nevertheless, the parole board refused to release her, and Clark remains in prison to this day.
“This is a very pressing social issue,” says Bennett. “Why do we incarcerate people for so long, and make it so difficult for them to be released on parole? And once they get out of prison why do we put up so many hurdles?”
She says her first book also attracted an interest in the other women pictured. “People had a very strong reaction to it. ‘What was that woman in prison for?’ ‘What about that one?’ That’s what sparked my next project, Life After Life in Prison: The Bedroom Project.” The goal, she says, is to put a human face to people who aren’t ordinarily seen by society.
As part of the project, Bennett photographed 17 former inmates – all convicted of homicides – sitting in their current bedrooms. She asked each, “When you see this photo of yourself, what do you think?” Their answers, written in their own hand, appear with their photos.
“They gave me all different kinds of answers that touch on different aspects of criminal justice, from what they are and are not allowed to have in their cells, to how many times they were denied parole before they came out, to what their hopes and dreams are,” she says.
The four women featured in Bennett’s photos attended the June 14 opening for the exhibit. They spread out a blanket on the lawn and basked in the perfect weather and the view of the Freedom Tower, the United Nations, the Pepsi sign, and the Williamsburg Bridge. They were social, friendly, and proud to be included. They didn’t shy away from discussing their crimes, their time, their families, or their friendship. There is only one maximum security prison in New York state, so the women all know Clark and have known one another for many years.
One of the women, Evelyn, incarcerated at 17, shared how she was arrested while visiting New York from Puerto Rico. She learned to speak English in prison. Now she works as a chef at the United Nations.
Another woman, Karen, the most recently released of the group, served as a mother to many of the inmates. Locked up at the age of 35, the former teacher was able to offer life experience and wisdom to the others. She was released at 70, having been denied parole five times. She currently works as a paralegal and lives in a homeless shelter. She left early because she had a curfew to abide by.
“They’re a good public face for formerly incarcerated women and other people who have done terrible things in their past,” says Bennett. She hopes that her work will start conversations and force people to look at these women and ask themselves, “What kind of situation brought her to do that? Why did she spend 35 years in prison when her sentence was 25 years?”
Capture Your Freedom is free and open during park hours, 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.; closed on Tuesdays.