Of the many memoirs that have landed on my desk, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women (2010) is one of the most inspirational. In the foreword, writer Michelle Alexander sets the stage by drawing a comparison between the memoir’s author, Susan Burton, and the legendary Harriet Tubman. Tubman helped create the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves yearning to be free; Burton helps women held captive by our prison system make a constructive break for freedom and rebuild their lives.
“African American families comprise 42 percent of welfare recipients…but are 59 percent of poor people shown on television are African American.” “Sustaining Stereotypes” by Lanien Frush Holt in QUILL Summer 2018 www.spj.org/quill
Burton’s efforts prefigure the era of Me Too and Times Up as she and co-writer Cari Lynn take readers through the struggles and setbacks women endure and the crucial policy changes necessary to promote their independence and, for the women who have children, create stable homes for both. She makes it clear that one person’s determination, aided by partnerships, can make an enormous difference.
The author vividly portrays the hardships of her own childhood and the many obstacles she had to overcome. Just one of the ways she suffered was abuse by the men in her mother’s life — abuse from which her mother did not protect her. The pivotal trauma in her life, however, was when her five-year-old son was killed by an off-duty policeman speeding through an intersection. The police refused to take responsibility for the death.
“64% of California’s jail population is awaiting trial or sentencing as of December 2016.” Most remain in pretrial custody because they cannot afford bail. Jail Profile Survey, http://www.bscc.ca.gov/
The combination of these events — the nagging effects of childhood trauma, the lack of police accountability and the gaping hole her son’s death left in her life – resulted in Burton turning to drugs. The timing of her addiction couldn’t have been worse because it coincided with the Los Angeles drug epidemic that she describes as follows:
Crack had come to town mysteriously and seemingly overnight. One day it didn’t exist, the next it did. Like the biblical plague of locusts, like Hitchcock’s The Birds, crack swarmed out of nowhere straight into South Central and ravaged the place.
“Drugs are insidious. No one does dope to get addicted,” Burton writes. “But you use it, and then it uses you.”
25 percent of millennial-age American men think asking a woman who is not a romantic partner to go for a drink is harassment, according to a recent survey by The Economist/YouGov reports The New York Times 1-17-18.
Her life spiraled out of control as she engaged in criminal activity to support her addiction. She describes substance abuse as “a social ill for some, a criminal ill for others,” adding, “The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for White women is one in 118; for Black women, it’s one in 19.”
Ultimately, Burton realized that getting off drugs was only the first step — a stable home after incarceration was another essential step toward successful reentry. To meet this need she created a halfway house: A New Way of Life.
“The total drug-overdose deaths was 64,070 in the 12 months through January 2017.” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27, 2017
While building the program, she discovered that she had an exceptional ability to “connect with people and feel something.”
Now, she sees hope and possibilities in everyone.
“My job now was to value each and every woman, to cast aside my doubt and believe in them — and to teach them to cast aside their own doubt and to hold themselves and others to a standard of accountability, integrity, and respect,” Burton writes.
After A New Way of Life began providing women a place to live post-incarceration, she realized that eliminating barriers to housing, employment and healthcare was also necessary. And, she writes, it’s crucial that women have access to their children after leaving prison.
“Then I thought, ‘it’s gonna take more of us to make some real change,’ so I became an organizer,” Burton writes.
The most important goal, Burton says, is reuniting women with their children. She points out that 65 million Americans with a criminal record face a total of 45,000 collateral consequences that restrict everything from employment, professional licensing, child custody rights, housing, student aid, voting, and even the ability to visit an incarcerated loved one. “Many of these restrictions are permanent, forever preventing those who’ve already served their time from reaching their potential in the workforce, as parents, and as productive citizens.”
Burton’s sense of what’s needed to assist returning citizens derives from her belief that the people most directly affected by a problem will have the best solutions for it because, she writes, “they lived it.”
Juan’s Book Review