Burton's redemption story an inspiration
BRATTLEBORO — "Becoming Ms. Burton" could have been a memoir of a poor black girl from Watts who went from incarceration to a CNN Top Ten Hero. But Susan Burton and co-author Cari Lynn created a book that is much more.
It is the story of being black, female and poor. It is the story of getting and staying sober. It is the story of how the criminal justice system impacts individuals and families. It is the story of how one woman became an activist working within the system, until she realized the system is the problem and started a movement.
It is Susan's own heartbreaking story, those of her fellow inmates, and the stories of women she helped through her founding of A New Way of Life. The organization provides recently incarcerated women safe group homes for six months, plus legal clinics to help them through the byzantine maze they encounter. Most importantly, the women are active participants in their journey to re-entry. Their recidivism rate is 4 percent, and the programs cost half of what it would to keep them in prison.
Each chapter begins with a statistic that sets the theme for the next stage of Susan's life. "The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white women is 1 in 118; for black women, it's 1 in 19."
Over and over, through story and statistic, the black versus white experience is laid bare. Susan viscerally connected to the trauma of slavery whenever she was chained to others, when strip-searched, when in a prison uniform emblazoned "Property of the State of California."
"Only 15 percent of those serving time for a drug-related offense are given access to a drug treatment program with a trained professional."
In prison, Susan's drug treatment was always passive, without counseling or discussion. Inmates sat in a group, reading from a textbook and watching slides.
During her last prison term, a chapter on dysfunctional families triggered buried memories of childhood sexual abuse. She wanted to reconcile with her 30-year-old daughter and she yearned for a relationship with her only grandchild. She left prison with $100 in her pocket, determined to stay sober and out of prison for good. She was first sentenced to juvenile hall at 13, and was then incarcerated six times. She was 46 years old.
"The majority of people returned to prison within the first year of release [in California]."
Re-entry was always hard. Teetering on the brink of falling back into depression and drug use, Susan got sober this time because — through personal connections and luck, not government assistance — she landed in a treatment center 10 miles from Watts in Santa Monica, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States. It was her first time living in a white world. A white woman became her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
It is hard to imagine that Susan would go on to become Ms. Burton without that white sponsor by her side; she would have never made it past her first meeting with her probation officer.
"Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women are unable to afford housing after release."
In chapter after chapter, "Becoming Ms. Burton" describes the challenges faced by the formerly incarcerated. The collateral consequences of serving time range from the familiar (once a felon, in many states you can't vote for the rest of your life) to the cruel (a former felon cannot move back to live with their family if they are in public housing; the United States is the only country to deny people housing because of a criminal record) to the ridiculous (in prison, she was denied training in
cosmetology because she committed a felony; instead, she was assigned to fight fires). One confounding wall after another faced Susan, and she either failed and was reincarcerated, or, when she managed to climb over that wall with luck and grit, another regulation would rise up.
The personal becomes political as the effects of the war on drugs, the CIA's "Contra" swap of cocaine for guns, mandatory minimums, the rise of prisons for profit and more are told through individuals' stories. The personal stories reveal the insidious nature of inhumane policies and how our complex, dysfunctional system layers federal, state and municipal laws and regulations with no coherence to how those rules affect one another.
"All this time I'd lived with great sadness and disappointment over what I'd thought was my own inability to pull myself up for all those years," Burton writes. "Only now did I see all the ways these barriers had affected me, pushing me back into the prison system. I'd been considered a throwaway. And this oppression caused me to become depressed and aggressive, ruthlessly seeking what I thought I needed. The more my understanding of these social and political structures deepened, the more I was able to release myself."
In creating A New Way of Life, Susan was determined to empower women to release themselves from the label "throwaway." In doing so, she, too, became empowered and is now a leader in the movement for criminal justice.
"Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Woman" is now out in paperback, and will be inspiring reading for activists of all stripes.
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