On Friday, over 100 attendees gathered to listen to and learn from current and formerly incarcerated women at the Yale Law School.
The symposium, titled “Real Women, Real Voices: Where the People Meet the Policy,” discussed the effects of high incarceration rates on the female population and was hosted by the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. Audience members ranged from Yale undergraduates and New Haven residents to Yale faculty, public health students, ministers, teachers, nurses and prison volunteers.
“We are going to interject our voices into the policy dialogue,” said event moderator Andrea James.
James, a former lawyer as well as the founder of the organizations Families for Justice as Healing and a member of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, was incarcerated for two years starting in 2009. She said the Council’s motto is “Nothing About Us Without Us,” explaining that the voices of women who are or have been incarcerated need to be heard for radical change to take place within the United States justice system. Speakers at the event chose not to disclose why they had been convicted.
Speaking to the crowd, James recalled a time when Yale Law School students visited the Federal Correctional Institution of Danbury, where she was being held. She said the students did not interact with any of the inmates, keeping their eyes down even when she attempted to greet them.
“The power of Yale needs to shift into place when you visit these spaces to do more than look at us,” James said. “Yale students, you are going to rule the world. You have a privilege that far surpasses most people in the entire world. Use your voices to speak up for us.”
Event organizer Topeka Sam wrote in an email to the News that she first came up with the idea for a symposium of this kind when she was incarcerated herself. Since then, she has helped organize similar conversations at multiple other universities, such as American University and Loyola College.
At Yale specifically, the conference included panels on clemency, re-entry and the effects of incarceration on family members.
Four women at the Indiana State Women’s Prison spoke at the event via video conference and detailed a project they are currently working on. The initiative would allow incarcerated women to start to work towards acquiring a home while still in prison through non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
Vanessa Thompson, one of the four women to speak on the call, explained that incarcerated women often have no home to go back to or must return to the environment that led to their incarceration in the first place. Through the proposed initiative, the women could take healthy living classes and work on fixing abandoned houses when serving their time.
During the second panel, women with family members that were incarcerated spoke about their experiences with the U.S. prison system.
Kyndia Riley, a 19-year-old whose mother has been incarcerated since she was two years old, said her grandparents, who raised her and her sister, passed away while her mother was behind bars. After the death of her grandmother when Riley was 18, she had to assume financial responsibility for her mother and found she had difficulty reaching her mother to grieve with her, as it was too costly to make phone calls from the prison.
“I couldn’t have a relationship with my mother unless I sent her money I didn’t have,” Riley said.
Barbara Fair, a New Haven community activist, spoke of the psychological trauma her sons endured while incarcerated. One of her sons was placed in a supermax prison, the most secure levels of custody in the current prison system, at age 17.
Fair added that many people who have been incarcerated suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the treatment they receive in prison, which can include isolation and unnecessary strip-searches.
“You can’t put a person in a cage and expect that not to change them,” Fair said. “After we cage [prisoners] like an animal we put them on the streets and wonder why they act like they do.”
According to Business Insider, the U.S. has the highest percentage of its population in prison of any country in the world.