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!
We are joined by two leading voices in the fight against mass incarceration: Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Susan Burton, founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, a nonprofit that provides housing and other support to formerly incarcerated women. Burton is the author of the new memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, in which she describes her journey from a childhood filled with abuse to drug addiction as an adult, and then to the fight to address the underlying issues that send women to prison. Alexander writes in the book’s introduction, “There once lived a woman with deep brown skin and black hair who freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety. She welcomed them to safe houses and offered food, shelter, and help reuniting with family and loved ones. She met them wherever they could be found and organized countless others to provide support and aid in various forms so they would not be recaptured and sent back to captivity. … Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman. I know her as Susan.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the story we will spend the rest of the hour on. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, “Most women in US prisons were, first, victims. It’s estimated that 85 percent of locked-up women were, at some or many points in their lives, physically or sexually abused, or both. Disproportionately, these women are black and poor.” Those are the opening words of the powerful new memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, by Susan Burton.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burton’s book comes out as Attorney General Jeff Sessions is vowing a major revival of the so-called war on drugs. This is the attorney general speaking at the Justice Department headquarters as he rescinded two Obama-era memos that encouraged prosecutors to avoid seeking inordinately harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Going forward, I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense, as I believe the law requires, most serious, readily provable offense. It means that we’re going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness. It is simply the right and moral thing to do. … And we know that drugs and crime go hand in hand. They just do. The facts prove that so. Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sessions has a long backed lengthy prison sentences and mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, including for marijuana use, which is now legal for either medical or recreational purposes in many states. Sessions’s escalation of the so-called war on drugs was met with widespread outcry. NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said in a statement, quote, “The Attorney General’s directive suggests that this long ugly era of mass incarceration now has eternal life. … The racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, and incarceration have led to the devastation of African American families and communities.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guests today know this devastation all too well. After Susan Burton’s 5-year-old son was run over and killed by an off-duty Los Angeles police officer, Burton fell into a deep depression and a 20-plus-year cycle of drugs and incarceration. She found her way to a rehab program in 1997 and made it her life’s work to help other women re-enter society after incarceration.
The foreword of Becoming Ms. Burton is written by another leading voice in the fight against mass incarceration: Michelle Alexander. She’s the author of the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
We’re thrilled to have her back with us today, Michelle Alexander. Susan Burton, for the first time, it’s great to have you. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Susan, let’s begin with you. The title of your book is Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. Tell us your story.
SUSAN BURTON: Amy, I was born in the housing projects in East LA and struggled most of my life to become, struggled for stability, struggled for safety. And it wasn’t until October 4th of 1997 I found that, after many, many years of abuse, suffering, and then, finally, the death of my son, which led to my substance use and incarceration. But the journey after, you know, October 4th of 1997 is when I was able to stand up and come into the community and fight for not only my right, but the right of other women, to come back and have a life that is just not survival but offers a lane to thrive.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your book, you talk about the — especially the — it’s a very power — I mean, I was reading it last night. It’s a very powerful book in terms of the personal relationships within your own family, the community, the support groups that you had, and how you felt for many years that you had failed so many of these folks who had provided you support. But you also talk about how the impact on your family of your father’s —
SUSAN BURTON: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — loss of work and the deindustrialization of Los Angeles —
SUSAN BURTON: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and the effect that that had on your family and the community.
SUSAN BURTON: Yes. So, my father, you know, he was a great family man, and he took us to the drive-in every weekend. And him and my mother came to Los Angeles running from the racism of the South. And they settled in the housing projects, or, rather, they were directed to this area, is what I understand now, where they could be contained, suppressed and surveilled. And, you know, my father — they began the deindustrialization of America, and my father lost his job. And with that went much of his esteem and his proud “I’m the, you know, breadwinner, and I’m the family man.” And, you know, we know that until things like the deindustrialization and unemployment hits white America, it’s a problem that, you know, “You’re lazy. You don’t want to work. You have no skills.” So, you know, that’s part of what I capture when I describe my early years and my mother and my father and our family.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Susan Burton, about 1997, about how, after just several decades of the cycle of addiction and imprisonment, you found your way to a rehab center, and what happened there?
SUSAN BURTON: Yeah. A friend of mine told me about this rehab center in Santa Monica, California. And I arrived there October 4th of 1997. And what I found there — I stayed in this rehab for a hundred days. After six prison terms, a hundred days in a rehab. And, you know, this was a wealthy beach community. And there was this huge buffet of services that I was able to, you know, partake in just anything I wanted: therapy services, recovery services, clothing, job, medical, dental, mental health — just everything. And it was delivered in such a friendly and opening, warm way. And in that community, what I found is that people arrested for the same things that I was arrested for was not sentenced to prison. And I thought, “What is this? You know, why is — why are we treated so harshly, and other people given help, given a pass, given a court card, given diversion programs, sent to rehab instead of to prison?” And I began to really look closely at, you know, the difference in being black in America and white in America, being — having income, having wealth and not having wealth, and where that left us. And that was one of the driving factors that had me come back to South LA, where our community had been devastated by the war on drugs. So many women were sent away to prison. I came back there to create what I found in Santa Monica. But I didn’t have the wealth, you know, and my skin was not white. But I did have the commitment, a little of the anger, to get the job done.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Michelle Alexander, I’d like to ask you, first, how you first came in contact with Susan, and your decision to write the foreword for her book. And I’m wondering if you might even be willing to read the opening graphs of your foreword, as well.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Sure, I would be happy to. You know, it has been such a privilege and honor to know Susan. You know, I met her shortly after I published my book, but I had heard of her sometime before. I actually stumbled across an interview with her while I was doing research for my book. And in that interview, she described so clearly and so powerfully and with such deep conviction what it meant and felt like to be a second-class citizen in this country because you become — you’ve been branded a felon. And she described what it was like to check the box on employment applications, housing applications, and to be denied even food stamps because you’ve once been caught with drugs.
And I came to learn that she had founded several safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles and that she was helping to birth a movement, led by and for formerly incarcerated people who are demanding the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. And after I published my book, she invited me down to LA to visit the homes that she created and to do an event for me. And when I got there and saw these homes and met the women, I was just blown away by what Susan had created.
And she’s been a profound inspiration to me. And I believe this book will be a profound inspiration to millions of people, particularly those who have themselves found themselves ensnared by our criminal justice system and are struggling to make a way out of no way. Susan has made it possible for hundreds of women not just to survive in this era of mass incarceration, but to find a path to thriving and to see that they, too, can be movements — leaders in this movement for justice.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, if you could read for us the opening of your foreword?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: OK. “There once lived a woman with deep brown skin and black hair who freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety. She welcomed them to safe homes and offered food, shelter, and help reuniting with family and loved ones. She met them wherever they could be found and organized countless others to provide support and aid in various forms so they would not be recaptured and sent back to captivity. This courageous soul knew well the fear and desperation of each one who came to her, seeing in their eyes all the pain she felt years ago when she had been abused and shackled and finally began her own journey to freedom.
“Deep in the night she cried out to God begging for strength, and when she woke she began her work all over again, opening doors, planning escape routes, and holding hands with mothers as they wept for children they hoped to see again. A relentless advocate for justice, this woman was a proud abolitionist and freedom fighter. She told the unadorned truth to whomever would listen and spent countless hours training and organizing others, determined to grow the movement. She served not only as a profound inspiration to those who knew her, but as a literal gateway to freedom for hundreds whose lives were changed forever by her heroism.
“Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman. I know her as Susan.”
AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of Michelle Alexander in those opening three paragraphs in this stunning new work, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. Michelle, before we go to break, how you see Susan’s story fitting into this larger narrative, the way you have framed your book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, especially in the era of Trump?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think when you read Susan’s story carefully, you see that it’s not only a story of individual trauma and struggle, survival and heroism, it’s also a story that explains how a system has been born in the United States that criminalizes people in the era of deindustrialization and globalization, that has criminalized individuals, families and communities, locking people up who are now deemed disposable, their labor no longer needed, their services no longer required in the current economy, and how we have chosen to treat drug addiction as a crime rather than a public health problem, and how the literal war that has been declared on poor people and people of color has led to the birth of a prison system unlike anything in world history.
You know, if Susan Burton had been white, if she had been solidly middle-class, she would have had access to legal drugs that would have helped her cope with her trauma and depression following the death of her son. But instead, Susan had no choice but to turn to illegal drugs and self-medicate herself. And when she was arrested and released onto the streets, she forced a legal — faced a legal system of discrimination that kept her locked out of jobs and housing, denied her access to food, and ensured that she, along with millions of others, would cycle in and out of prison, potentially for the rest of her life.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Susan, I’d like to ask you, your response to the foreword that Michelle wrote, to her comparing you to Harriet Tubman, and also the — how her book had an impact on your life and on your understanding of your own journey?
SUSAN BURTON: I can’t get through the foreword without tears. I’m touched very, very deeply, the way in which Michelle wrote that. And while I embrace it to be real and true, it just touches me very, very deeply. Like a tear is falling right now.
When I — much of what Michelle wrote in The New Jim Crow allowed me to examine more deeply my life, my family’s life, my mother’s and father’s life, to understand what happened, how my family, my mom and — my mom and father’s dreams got dismantled, their hopes got smothered, with deindustrialization, with racism, with the treatment that they had prior to coming here. I used to — I remember my father talking about the hanging in trees. And, you know, he had that horror that came with him. I can remember how my father never was able to look white people, white men, in their face. And, you know, this all drowned and dismantled, derailed their hopes and dreams, this systemic oppression, racism and no value of the black man or woman in America. So, Michelle’s book, as I flipped the pages, you know, I began to understand more about my life and the life of black people in America and this cruel, really cruel system that we have that drives people into being criminalized, entire communities criminalized.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Susan Burton — her new book, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women — and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. We’re going to go to break. When we come back, after Susan Burton came out of prison for the final time, we’re going to talk about A New Way of Life, the nonprofit that she has founded that provides support and housing for formerly incarcerated women, why Michelle Alexander calls Susan Burton the Harriet Tubman of our time. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” by Ella Fitzgerald. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Los Angeles, headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, then Arizona and Houston tomorrow. And Juan González is in New York.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re spending the hour with two leading voices in the fight against mass incarceration: Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Susan Burton, founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, a nonprofit that provides housing and other support services to formerly incarcerated women. She’s the author of the new memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. I want to go to a clip from a short documentary by the digital channel WIGS about Susan Burton and New Way of Life. This is Angela, who was released from prison just 11 months before this was filmed.
ANGELA: They drive you to the bus station, and, you know, they give you $200, and they buy your ticket, out of your money, and put you on a bus. And you’re just headed to wherever. And so, I arrived downtown LA, and it was really scary. It was really scary. And I looked like I came from prison, you know? I was dusty-looking, you know, with jeans and a paper bag. Everybody knows that you’re from prison. They know, just by the way you look. And they know. You get approached by everybody. There were people asking you if you needed a ride, telling you that you look fine. Drug addicts, people living that life, and you know they are. It’s so easy to get lured, especially if you’re scared. And I’m going to be honest: I was scared. And I felt like I was just standing there buck naked. I didn’t have anyplace to go. I really didn’t.
And I called Ms. Burton, and I told her — I said, “I received a letter from you, and you said for me to call you and that you would pick me up.” And she says, “Where are you?” And I told her. She says, “I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.” And she came and picked me up.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from a documentary about our guest, Susan Burton. We are also joined by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. So, Susan, talk about this New Way of Life, your nonprofit, and what it is that you’re doing with women who are coming out of prison right now.
SUSAN BURTON: A New Way of Life is a safe house that women can come to after they’re released from prison in South Los Angeles. It’s a place for women to detox the trauma, the torture of incarceration, be welcomed and embraced and live and begin their new path to — if it’s recovery or receiving mental health services, go back to school, get their children back. Whatever their goals are, we support them to obtain those goals.
You know, it’s criminal that we spend $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 a year to incarcerate someone for minor drug charges or petty crimes, and then put them on a bus and send them back into Skid Row without ID, without government papers, after years of torture and trauma inside of a prison system, and say, “Go make a life for yourself,” and give them that $200 and nothing else. It’s criminal and such a waste of not only financial resources but human potential.
I’ve seen some of the most amazing women, with just a few months of support, come back and actually their lives soar. They become organizers. They become caregivers. They become mothers again. They become, you know, social workers and drug therapists and just all types of walks of life, you know, hairdressers, just fit back into the community. But without that support once they leave those gates, all that potential is just wasted. It just goes down the drain.
So, from what I received in Santa Monica, California, and my goal to transplant it back into South LA, you know, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people have been touched, and lives changed, hope and inspiration given back. And, you know, what I believe and have witnessed is that, you know, women are sort — women are the glue of our community. You know, we put the Band-Aids on. We hug the kids. We raise them. We bring that love into the community and that grounding foundation. And when you come through a community like South LA, and you just criminalize the entire community and just suck all the women out of it, you know, that community hurts and bleeds as a result of it. So my goal, my hope, is to actually repair that damage from the war on drugs and replant the women back healthy and whole and able to function and put those Band-Aids on their kids’ knees.