The story of Susan Burton is one of tragic loss followed by pitiless punishment by the criminal legal system — but it is also, as Michelle Alexander says, “a story about personal transformation and collective power.” Read how Ms. Burton found her calling working to support and liberate women who’ve faced similar struggles to hers, in Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. Get your copy by donating to Truthout today!
Susan Burton survived a childhood filled with violence and abuse, battles with drug addiction and various stints behind bars. She was rebuilding her life when her five-year-old son K.K. was struck and killed by a police van. His death sent her spiraling back into a cycle of drugs and incarceration just as the war on drugs was gathering steam (and bodies). That “war,” coupled with the lack of resources in her South Los Angeles neighborhood, pushed her through a revolving door of addiction, arrest and imprisonment for the next 15 years. “Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction,” she wrote. “Education, hard work, dedication, a support system and knowing there were opportunities for me and that my life had value: those were what had made all the difference.”
But those opportunities were few and far between in South Los Angeles, especially in the 1980s as the war on drugs ravaged low-income Black neighborhoods. Burton had to find her own resources, ones that weren’t available (or even known) in poorer communities of color. With help from her brother, she finally found a private rehab center in Santa Monica, which not only helped her address the underlying causes of her addiction but later became a model for what Burton wants to see available in her community.
Now Burton runs A New Way of Life, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and other resources to formerly incarcerated women returning to Los Angeles. What began as a single house where women could live safely after leaving prison is now a string of three-bedroom houses that have provided hundreds of women with a safe place to live while they navigate reentering society and reuniting with their families. But Burton does more than simply run a women’s halfway house. She is also building power among formerly incarcerated people, including many of the women who come through her doors, so that they can change the policies and practices that have devastated their lives and communities. She teamed up with Dorsey Nunn to help create All of Us or None, a national organization of formerly incarcerated people fighting to restore their rights. She also created Women Organizing for Justice, which trains formerly incarcerated women to become social justice organizers and leaders.
In her new memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, Burton describes her journey from a childhood filled with physical and sexual violence to an adulthood with few options and even fewer resources, from spinning through the revolving prison door to developing resources to help address some of the underlying issues sending women to prison.
Becoming Ms. Burton isn’t simply a retelling of a painful life. It’s also a call to action, focusing not only on the ways society discriminates against people who’ve been incarcerated, but also on how people can and have been organizing for change. “I wanted to tell my story as a call for mobilization,” she writes. “Together, we can end discrimination. Together, we can push our government to remove barriers and open up doors for people who are qualified in the here and now. People should not be held stagnant. People who should not forever be kept in the place [where] they were at their lowest. Together, we can make these changes. And we must.” In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Burton spoke about how the lack of resources and opportunities repeatedly pushed her toward prison and eventually toward her current organizing to create those resources as well as systemic change.
Victoria Law: Today, there is very visible mother-led organizing around police killings. If this kind of organizing — and visibility — had existed when your son was killed, would this have changed the trajectory of your life?
Susan Burton: It just might have. I felt so abandoned and alone when my son’s death took place. There was nowhere to take my grief and my anger, which actually led me to try to medicate it. Had I been able to have a voice and some support, I might have had a different outcome. I might not have went on suffering for so many years, self-medicating, which led me to prison.
But there were other factors, like the war on drugs, which legitimized the mass incarceration of women. Because there was a larger societal trap and set-up out of the White House and out of our law enforcement, to begin this push to incarcerate. The whole thing about “welfare queens” and “crack mothers” legitimized the mass incarceration of women. So I might have been incarcerated anyway. I might have fell prey to what was happening throughout our country and especially in my community, when our communities were just drenched with substances.
I don’t know how much what I experienced would have changed had there been something different because there were larger forces at play.
You talk about being in and out of jail in the 1980s on drug charges. Each time, you told the judge about your son’s death, that you were using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, and each time you were sent to jail and then prison. You said that, at the time, “I didn’t know to ask for anything different — treatment wasn’t something offered up to people from my community. All I knew was that we went to prison for this stuff.”
In South L.A. and other urban communities that are poor communities, there’s no compassion or smart approaches to societal problems like substance abuse, like mental health. We’re seen as criminals and not as people who should be able to access real treatment. We’re just convicted and given criminal numbers and sent into cages, sent into chains, as workers for big corporations. It sends us back into perpetual slavery.
That was what was so startling about when I went to Santa Monica [and a private rehab program]. I saw a whole different world, a whole different approach to what was happening in South L.A. They’re not criminalized in the beach city. They were treated with resources, with solutions like going to a treatment facility, getting a paper to go to 12-step meetings and bringing that back to the judge. But they weren’t put in chains, they weren’t thrown into cages, they weren’t criminalized. That really opened my eyes and I thought how unfair this was.
You got into the California Rehab Center’s Civil Addict Program, which you and others called Addicts University. Can you talk about this program, the ways in which it seemed to be primarily offered to white people who could afford private attorneys, and the ways in which people got sent back for minor parole violations?
You would get a civil addict commitment instead of a criminal commitment. But no one from my neighborhood was ever sentenced to there. I just happened to be in a holding cell with this woman who told me about it. And I advocated for myself to go there.
There was still a gun tower, there was still barbed wire, it was still maintained by the Department of Corrections, but it was not a criminal commitment. If I completed it, then it would not be a crime on my rap sheet. But what happened there is that, unless you can complete the parole, you get violated. They had a high rate of recidivism. Each time you were violated, your sentence would start over again and you might spend 10 or 15 years doing violations and never [be] able to actually complete that sentence.
When you were in this program, you were still taken away from your community?
It’s essentially a prison. But what they did offer there that no one had ever offered me was this CCEP class — Civil Commitment Education Program. In that class, it brought up these memories and it taught about early childhood trauma and family dynamics. It taught about addiction.
It opened up these doors and left me to flounder, but the door was open. It allowed me to begin to examine everything [that] was pushed down and closed up. The talks in the sergeant’s hall with the teacher, Miss Tucker, allowed me to understand. [The experience] validated the devastating childhood and experiences I had prior to being incarcerated.
Later, you were in CLARE, a private rehab program, which your brother paid for. Can you talk about the differences between CLARE and the Civil Addict Program?
CLARE was not a prison. CLARE was a community-based organization whose mission was to help people recover. With that mission, they also had a huge buffet of services and you could actually access vital resources to help address some of the core problems.
First of all, it was a safe place and I was treated kindly…. I don’t think I had been treated that way in my lifetime, and I was 46 years old. It was a place that allowed me to access weekly therapy sessions that made a huge difference in opening up the past trauma and addressing it in a safe environment with a skilled person. That put me on the road to healing. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous allowed me, with that healing, to not be resentful or angry, but have a way to resolve the issues and experiences that I had had. I used all those tools and I became stronger. I became more useful to myself and to the world. I became a warrior.
If you had been mandated to CLARE instead of the Civil Addict Program, what difference would it have made?
I would have had a shot at something different. I wouldn’t have experienced the pain and torture of incarceration. I might have realized and came to terms a decade sooner.
The other thing that I’m really advocating for is trauma services. Had there been trauma services, a place that I might have accessed resources for my lifelong trauma and abuse, then perhaps I’d have been better able to address a lot of things. When I was raped at 14, I never got trauma services. I think trauma services are essential for communities that are steeped in violence and abuse.
What would these services look like if taken out of CLARE and put into the community?
At A New Way of Life, we have a therapist who comes every Thursday to give people counseling services … we multiplied it because we don’t want to take it out of CLARE, we want to make it available to other communities. I see it make a huge difference with our residents at A New Way of Life. Maybe someone hasn’t lost a child, or maybe they have, or someone dear and they don’t know how to deal with the grief. Or they’ve had childhood experiences similar to mine. I think that multiplying those services is really important.
Do you see this happening in other places and other communities?
I think that it’s still not as accessible as it needs to be.
You talk about Flozelle Woodmere, a woman who fatally shot her abusive boyfriend when she was 18, spent 21 years in prison and was denied parole five times before being released. How common is Flozelle’s experience?
It’s brutally common. There’s a lot of women who, while protecting themselves from a batterer, get convicted of a crime. What I also see often, even more often than people being convicted of [a crime related to their abuse], is the damage that has been done to women by enduring a long history of partner abuse. That’s a continual mantra in the lives of the women that we help at A New Way of Life.
How does that long history of abuse lead to criminalization and incarceration?
It plays out in different ways — anger, substance abuse, becoming violent — it just has so many ways it surfaces. Again, that’s why I believe trauma services are so important to our communities.
Is there any effort to address these traumas in prison?
There was more trauma delivered as an everyday practice of the prison. In different ways. Guards might come into your living area and have you strip buck-naked. Or they might take all of your property and destroy it and call it a locker search. And if you say anything, you would be beat or put into the lock-up or what we call the Hole. You’re walking on pins and needles being careful not to get the wrath of the prison punishment.
So no, they did not address trauma. There was nothing for it. Sometimes some of the women would create something, but the prison didn’t do that.
Can imprisonment ever play a part in transforming people and communities?
Imprisonment as it exists today can never play a part in the transformation. It harms people. It doesn’t begin to address the core issues.
Truthout Progressive Pick
“A story about personal transformation and collective power… it will help free us all.” – Michelle Alexander
If I had a magic wand, all these different bureaucracies that claim to make community safe, like parole and probation, I’d take those resources out of law enforcement and put them into community supports and healing, like social workers, like housing, like training and jobs, for the community at large. I know there are a lot of jobs connected to probation and parole. It’s a big bureaucracy that is not doing anything to enhance public safety or to help those who they’re supposed to be serving.
What needs to happen to truly transform people and communities? If you had a magic wand, what would you change?
If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it over our court process that says that you have due process and you’re giving these plea bargains that we actually call a threat, not a bargain. I would make over our whole court systems and make [it possible] for people to actually have a day in court, to have a trial and a real jury.
I would definitely legalize drug use … I would put [in place] a community health approach [for] any type of drug or substance abuse.
Access to healthy food is one of the core things that should change. Access to green, healthy food. Access to better restaurants. Parks. Art. Music. All of these things that allow people to develop in different ways from early on. Access to clean air, clean soil. Housing…. Access to good schools, access to arts and recreation, parks. And of course, back to food, good food.