Students, faculty and members of the New Haven community gathered in the Yale Law School auditorium on Monday to listen to two previously incarcerated women speak about life experiences.

Dwight Hall hosted a talk featuring Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project and author of “Becoming Mrs. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women,” and Romarilyn Ralston, a feminist activist for domestic violence survivors. The panel centered around women’s experiences in the criminal justice system.

“One of the most understudied aspects of people returning from prison is the needs of women. Women’s needs are different than men’s needs,” said Clinical Associate Professor of Law Miriam Gohara, moderator of the talk. Gohara continued, “I think it’s important for people who are involved in the justice system in any capacity to learn more about why women have different needs from men, both in prison and when they return from prison, also what those differences are.”

The talk began with Burton, whose reentry project allows formerly incarcerated individuals in Los Angeles to stay in reentry homes for as long as they need if they abide by a set of community standards. Her organization has helped more than 1,000 women and children find safety and support in her seven reentry homes.

Burton read excerpts from her book. This included a chapter where she described the strip searches nearly 90,000 women in California state prisons were subjected to between 2008 and 2015, an issue later settled by a $53 million class action lawsuit.

After an L.A. police officer accidentally ran over and killed Burton’s five-year-old son, Burton entered a cycle of drug addiction and incarceration. She later received drug treatment and now guides young women through the same hardships she has been through. She was named a CNN Hero in 2010 and was pardoned last month by California Governor Gavin Newsom.

“The humiliating, harmful and degrading way that women are treated all across this nation as a result of incarceration [which is] a response to the trauma they endured [is] criminalized by this nation with no investment into them,” Burton said. “We can do better as a nation, as a penal system, we can just do better.”

Ralston, who was incarcerated when she was 24, served 23 years in prison for the murder of a friend. Her experiences prior to incarceration included a fraught relationship with an abusive husband. She said that while she was in prison, she “found [her] voice as a representative for the prison population.” Ralston was released in 2011.

Since her release, Ralston has earned her bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College and her master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Ralston now serves as the program coordinator of California State University, Fullerton’s Project Rebound, a programming center aimed at making higher education more accessible to formerly incarcerated individuals. Ralston’s program partnered with A New Way of Life to replicate a safe housing model for students.

“The prison system is about exploitation, not rehabilitation, not public safety,” said Ralston. “It’s about punishing people and profiting off their mistakes, their problems, their issues and their communities.”

Audience member Eliza Kravitz ’23 thought the panel gave her more perspective on prison volunteer programs.

Ralston stated that prison volunteer programs can often make those incarcerated “feel like [they’re] in an ant farm,” while Burton said that the engagement helped her “feel more human” when “being dehumanized every day.” Both encouraged students genuinely interested in prison reform not just to “come in” to prisons but to advocate for ex-offenders upon release.

“A connection that I hadn’t thought about was how formerly incarcerated women are the ones who actually know what is needed legislatively,” said audience member and poetry professor Claudia Rankine. “It was incredibly informative to find out that both of these women were working with California legislators to change actual laws and requirements; it’s not a connection I had made.”

Gohara emphasized that it is important to recognize that formerly incarcerated individuals can be active members of the community.

Since 1980, the number of women in U.S. prisons has increased by more than 700 percent.

Kelly Wei | kelly.wei@yale.edu

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu