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Progressive Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

LOOKING INSIDE: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences

This article is published in collaboration with the Harvard Journal of African American Policy, which will be publishing Sara Bennett’s work in its 2021 print edition.

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

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 meaningful lives. I wanted viewers to ask themselves, “what do we do with a redeemed life?” For this Journal, I reached out to 5 of those same women and asked them how the pandemic affected them. What follows are their responses.

© Sara Bennett, 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

A handwritten note from Trinity: “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…”

© Sara Bennett, 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

A handwritten note from Taylor: “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 are only allowing emergent 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.”

© Sara Bennett, 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

A handwritten note from Assia: “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 2 days and 2 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.”

© Sara Bennett, 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

Handwritten note from Sahiah: “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.”

© Sara Bennett, TIANA, 25, in the library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (2019)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Incarcerated at the age of 15 in 2008

Handwritten note from Tiana: “Covid-19 has effected 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.”