“I told the judge I needed help. A police officer had run over my five-year-old son and killed him without even stopping. It caused me to turn to drugs. The judge sentenced me to 18 months in prison.” These words, uttered by my friend and colleague Susan Burton during her recent New York City book release event, will forever echo in my mind.
My week had been filled with the day-to-day responsibility of running College and Community Fellowship, a small nonprofit, attending early morning and late-evening events to support other organizations, and a day of training to help draw attention to those society would ignore. My bones ached, my head throbbed. The last thing I wanted to do was go to another event that had anything to do with my job.
But I went, because woman who have been to prison stick together.
So I found myself at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, witnessing history with one of my “sheroes,” a history maker. As soon as I heard Susan Burton say those words, I knew that this event was about the values that drive me and my sisters around the country to make ourselves vulnerable every day. It was about swaying public perception about the harsh punishment and criminalization that has overtaken the criminal justice system in America over the past 40 years, making the United States the largest incarcerator of woman (and men) in the world.
Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women is a riveting memoir by Los Angeles native Susan Burton about her life before, during, and after multiple interactions with the criminal justice system.
After the death of her five-year-old son, Burton cycled in and out of prison and jails for more than 20 years. All of her arrests, prosecutions, and sentences were drug related. But never once did the court offer her drug treatment. Never once did the Los Angeles Police Department apologize on behalf of the police officer who ran over her son.
The fact that she survived makes her story amazing. What she’s done with her life since then makes her story miraculously inspirational.
I first met Susan Burton in 2006. After moving through a gauntlet of vetting following a written application, she had been granted an interview for the prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship. I had been granted the Soros Fellowship the year before, and was asked by Soros’s Open Society Foundations to participate as a reviewer in the interview process for the finalists. This is the first time I had been asked to do such a thing and I took the responsibility very seriously.
When Susan walked into the room one thing immediately struck me: she exhibited no sign of knowing just how powerful she was because of who she was and what she had overcome. It reminded me of the sense of awe and humility I felt when I was first released from prison in 2001 after serving three years in prison for a non-violent crime, and realized that some people still wanted to support my ideas and help me succeed.
Susan quietly and unselfishly shared her story with committee members. Then she shared her plan for her organization, A New Way of Life Reentry Project (ANWOL) to help other women released from prison reclaim their lives and revive their dreams.
She wasn’t asking us to help her get started; she’d already done that on her own. With less than $200 in her pocket, dropped off on Skid Row after her last bid in prison, Burton decided to end the cycle. She got the help she needed when her brother said he refused to enable her by giving her money but said he would gladly pay for her to enter quality treatment. She spent 100 days in a high-end beachfront addiction treatment facility, all the while confused and angry that this type of treatment was not available in her community.
When she got back on her feet, Burton decided to become part of the solution. After obtaining her first place to live, she started meeting other women dropped off in Skid Row from that prison bus. She invited them to come home with her.
Burton called them her “home girls” during her book discussion at Abyssinian Baptist Church. She allowed them to stay with her as long as they needed, and she was their example. It wasn’t long before Burton realized a few things: she couldn’t house all of the women coming out of prisons, there were systemic barriers to women getting on their feet, and she needed to advocate for the elimination of those barriers.
Women — and all people returning to the community after prison — face insurmountable obstacles that have come to be known as the collateral consequence of conviction, part of the jargon that has been constructed to articulate the position of the United States as the world’s largest jailer. These statutes, laws and pervasive attitudes work together to deny people with criminal convictions access to voting rights, jobs, education, housing, public benefits, credit, and more. These consequences can turn every criminal conviction into a life sentence.
As she explains in her book, Burton’s desire to help as many women as she possibly could lead her to create a vehicle for these women to use their collective experience, strength, voice, and power. Through grassroots community organizing, they could build political power and become an essential part of the movement to end mass incarceration.
Since ANWOL was founded in 1998, it has housed nearly 1,000 women returning to the Los Angeles area in five homes designed to support an array of needs. Against all odds, these women have had opportunities that most with criminal justice entrenchment never have. Some have reunited with their children, others have become involved with ANWOL efforts to help the homeless. Some have joined the ANWOL advocacy community and participated in efforts to change legislation on the local, state, and federal level. The agency now has a legal clinic, and a chapter of the national prisoner advocacy organization All of Us or None.
Asha Bandele, author of The Prisoner’s Wife and unstoppable advocate for equal justice, moderated the Abyssinian book event. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Era of Colorblindness joined the conversation. Alexander read an excerpt from her foreword for Becoming Ms. Burton, in which she convincingly compares Susan Burton to Harriet Tubman.
Even after knowing and working with Susan Burton for the past 11 years, I was unprepared for the power of her words on the page, a recounting of an impossible, implausible journey that ends in unlikely triumph.
I read the 285 pages in one sitting and look forward to reading it again as well as giving it to everyone I know and recommending it to those I don’t. That’s not because I have experienced life in prison.
Becoming Ms. Burton is most of all a book about trauma, fair justice, inequality, healing, resiliency and selfless humanity. It is a life changer, and provides inspiration for anyone to make a difference, as Susan Burton certainly has.