Humanizing the Incarcerated: “Life After Life in Prison” at the Passage Gallery

Photo by Eve Comperiati

By Eve Comperiati

Last Tuesday, five women sat at a table in the Passage Gallery, ready to give a panel for the large crowd that had accumulated. Four out of those five women had once been convicted of murder.

The room was hot, but students, faculty and outsiders alike sat and stood wherever they could, all attentive and fascinated. Photos taken by Sara Bennett, a former lawyer, were pinned up across the wall behind them. Bennett spent the last year and a half following around and photographing Tracy, Keila, Evelyn, and Carol’s lives as they adjusted to life after being in prison. Each of these women served 17 to 35 years, and each have very different stories. Appropriately, the photo essay is titled Life After Life in Prison.

“It was really important, I thought, to give a face to the people who have been serving really long times,” said Bennett during the panel. “When you have a life sentence you might never get out of prison, and we’re missing out on incredible people in society.”

This exhibit came here by way of Suzanne Kessler, who met Bennett during her ongoing quest to help a friend who’s been in prison since 1981 get clemency. When she found out about Bennett’s project, she immediately thought about how it worked well with the sociology program and suggested the exhibit be held at Purchase.

“I think students are hungry for real things,” said Kessler, “things that bring what they’re learning in the classroom in contact with something concrete.”

The women smiled throughout the panel, thankful to be there, yet clearly overwhelmed at times from speaking in front of so many people. They got the chance to answer questions about the hardships of adjusting to the real world, all while blowing kisses and sending loving glances towards their friends in the audience.

Keila was first to speak about her experience: while she was fortunate enough to come home to family, she struggled having her anxieties about the outside world understood.

“They loved me, but mentally what was going on with me, they just didn’t get,” said Keila. “It’s just a lot that goes on, and if you haven’t been in prison and actually came home and experienced this, you really won’t get it.”

The other women all recounted their respective experiences as Bennett explained certain details in between. As the panel ended, people had the opportunity to mingle; some students went up and expressed their thanks and admiration to the women (who were equally thankful for having this opportunity), while others took the opportunity to take a closer look at the black and white prints on the wall.

Photo by Eve Comperiati

Many of the students were left eager to talk about the event. Patty Devarez, a sophomore, was particularly interested and surprised by fact that all of the women had been convicted of murder.

“I liked that you could look at the photos and see that that’s another human being right there,” said Devarez. “You look at somebody convicted of murder and you never really think about their families.”

Hailey Marino, a junior, had more issues with the way the panel was structured. “They were trying to humanize these people,” said Marino, “but they kept saying prisoners instead of people who were incarcerated.”

The photo essay, along with written stories of the four women, will be up in the Passage Gallery until Oct. 18.