IN HER FOREWORD to Susan Burton’s harrowing new memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, Michelle Alexander describes a courageous woman with deep brown skin who “freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety,” changing their lives “forever by her heroism.”
“Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman,” Alexander writes, “I know her as Susan.”
As I delved into Susan Burton’s tumultuous life, I realized that Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, was not dealing in hyperbole. Burton’s journey, from childhood abuse, teenage motherhood, prostitution, and crippling drug addiction through the prison cells of California to founder of A New Way of Life and tenacious advocate for criminal justice reform, is truly a modern-day freedom fighter’s.
Through the lens of her own painful but compelling history, Burton illuminates the tragic but often marginalized experiences of the tens of thousands of women who find themselves behind bars. Though their voices are rarely heard, women prisoners face not only the same abuse by the criminal justice system and those who enforce it as men, but also added burdens upon release, including the cruel barriers that keep them from reuniting with (and sometimes even seeing) their own children.
The enormous rise in the number of women prisoners means their stories can no longer be ignored. Today, there are seven times as many women in prison as in 1980, the majority for nonviolent offenses. As many as 94 percent have experienced physical or sexual abuse.
The toll is especially harsh for African-American women. Though drug use and dealing occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic lines, black women are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses as white women. According to the Sentencing Project, the lifetime likelihood that a white woman will be imprisoned is one in 118. For black women, it is one in 19.
Burton is brutally frank and never self-aggrandizing. Her voice rings with authenticity whether when describing childhood abuse, attempts to reunite with her estranged daughter, or the constant frustration with facing government officials who turn a deaf ear to her pleas for change. The parallels she draws with her slave ancestry are especially powerful. Forced to shower under the sharp gaze of a prison guard, she thinks of her ancestors, “ordered to strip in slave pens as masters sized them up.” Yanked from her cell in the middle of the night, she recalls her “African ancestors bound and dragged onto slave ships.” Should incarcerated women dare forget their subservience to the prison system, Burton notes, their uniforms are stamped, “Property of the State of California.”
Burton and co-author journalist Cari Lynn start each chapter with a grim statistic, reminding the reader, for example, that the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars. These figures are jarring, and serve a dual purpose. They frame a section of Burton’s singular life, but they also weld her story to the lives of many other women, underscoring that her history, in turn traumatic and audacious, is not unique.
Burton’s early childhood in Watts was comfortable and happy, until her loving and attentive father lost his steady factory job, became despondent, started drinking heavily, and eventually abandoned the family. Her mother raised six children on her own, cleaning wealthy white families’ homes in Beverly Hills. Embittered and angry, she lashed out at her children, especially her only daughter Susan. Other neighbors endured the same downward spiral, and Burton’s familiar neighborhood became overrun with gangs and crime. She reminds us that almost half of African-American children under the age of six grow up in poverty, just as she did.
Even one of her few joys as a young girl — becoming a Woodcraft Ranger (“the poor girl’s Brownies”) and selling cookies — turned into a nightmare. Her best customer turned out to be a pedophile who abused her for years, while her mother turned a blind eye. When she was raped on the way home from a Christmas party at age 14, she became pregnant; she gave birth to her daughter in a home for unwed teenagers.
Once an excellent student, the 15-year-old Burton began cutting school and smoking grass. When her mother threatened to send her to juvenile hall, she ran away from home. Alone and penniless, she soon found herself in the clutches of a man who thrust her into the world of prostitution and drug dealing. It was to cast a shadow over her life for decades.
After several run-ins with the law, including stints in jail, she hoped to leave that life behind with the birth of her son K.K. But the world once again crashed around her when K.K., at age five, was hit by a speeding police car and killed. Despairing, Burton turned back to alcohol and cocaine. But even those were not enough to erase the searing pain of her child’s death, and she found something new on the streets that could — crack.
Burton writes of crack cocaine’s sudden arrival:
[T]here’d been a major shift in South L.A.: lots of people were all about small, white chalky rocks. You could buy these rocks, wrapped in tin foil or stacked in small glass vials, on most every corner in my community. You lit them and smoked them, and it hit you fast and hard. I’d never seen this drug before — and neither had the police. Crack had come to town mysteriously and seemingly overnight. One day it didn’t exist, the next it did. Like a Biblical plague of locusts […] crack swarmed out of nowhere straight into South Central and ravaged the place.
The new, dirt-cheap drug devastated both her neighborhood and her life. “The escape it brought was instantaneous. […] It didn’t matter what my mother said, or how my daughter looked at me. Crack made nothing else matter.”
It was just a matter of time until Burton was arrested again — but this time the sentence was measured in years rather than months. The epidemic coincided with Reagan’s War on Drugs and the sentences for crack, which flooded black neighborhoods, were 100 times as long as those for powdered cocaine, the form favored by whites. Thus began Burton’s longest incarceration, and her beloved daughter became one of the approximately five million children in the United States who have had a parent behind bars.
Like the classic fictional prisoner in Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, Burton’s descent into the penal system became more and more grueling and degrading with each sentence. Because women were being incarcerated at record-breaking rates, the prisons were perilously overcrowded. At one point, Burton was sent on a bus to the men’s prison at Avenal, California. “No wonder California’s prisoners had the nation’s highest suicide rate — a shocking 80 per cent higher,” she writes.
Buses loaded with prisoners were spotted driving aimlessly around the state, stopping at a prison for bathrooms and a meal, and then it was back on the bus. […] Busloads of prisoners were living on the road in what amounted to mobile prisons, waiting for word that someone had been released or died and a bed had opened up.
But as the book’s subtitle suggests, Burton — after many failed attempts — found her way out of prison, drug addiction, and the defeatism that haunted her early years. Life on the outside brought on a whole new set of challenges: where would she find a job, a place to live, sobriety, a supportive community?
When she got off the bus in downtown Los Angeles, around the corner from Skid Row, she found, “[i]t’s nothing like the freedom you’d dreamed about in your cell. This freedom smells of urine and stale beer. Lingering to check out the new releases are pimps and drug dealers […] They all know you are easy prey.”
But with grit and tenacity, she ultimately overcame the obstacles, successfully completing a private drug rehab program (none had ever been offered to her in prison), and took on multiple jobs as a home health care worker to earn a living. Acutely aware that the problems she faced were common to many women in her community, she took what savings she had, and a signature from a relative who had no prison record to impede his credit rating, to purchase a small bungalow in Watts, with a lemon tree in the backyard. Knowing that half of the people on parole in Los Angeles were homeless, this was one problem she thought she could help solve.
With few resources, Burton was determined to help other formerly incarcerated women find help once they were released.
I went to the bus station […] I didn’t know who’d be getting off the bus, but I knew that every day women released from prison were on it. I showed up there because I wished someone had been there for me. Sometimes I saw a familiar face get off the bus, someone I’d served time with. “I have a house in South L.A.,” I offered. “There’s a bed if you’d like it. It’s drug and alcohol free. You don’t have to go back to the streets if you don’t want to.”
When Burton went back inside the women’s prison, it was to find women who wanted to stay in her home after they were released. “Prison was the last place I ever wanted to return to,” she writes, but these visits — even when she was subjected to humiliating denials of clearance or sneered at by guards — were made with purpose and dignity.
Thoughts of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth filled my head. In some small way, I hoped my presence and my voice could offer women a way out of the cycle, could help them find their own lasting freedom.
With the support of many friends, especially those like her colleagues in the Community Coalition and All of Us or None, an organization of formerly incarcerated people, Burton launched A New Way of Life, providing housing, a legal clinic, job training, and a leadership training program for the newly released women. Realizing that helping individuals would not be enough to meet the challenge of a racist and corrupt criminal justice system, she began advocating for legislation to make broader changes, including “Ban the Box” and Proposition 47, which allows for the retroactive reduction of certain felonies to misdemeanors and the expungement of criminal records.
To date, Burton has purchased five homes, and supported more than 900 women as they moved from an existence completely controlled by the corrections system to independence. She encourages the residents to participate in political and advocacy campaigns, including registering people in jails to vote. As she watches women from A New Way of Life making phone calls to get out the vote, Burton reflects, “[M]any who were still on parole and did not, themselves, have the right to vote. This, I realized, was a new type of underground railroad.”
Even after being honored by the Soros Open Society Foundation and CNN, serving on the Little Hoover Commission, appearing on national TV, lecturing at Yale Law School, and being invited as an advisor to the federal Department of Justice, Burton is haunted by her prison record: appointed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to the Sybil Brand Commission to inspect conditions in women’s prisons, as an “ex-con,” she was initially denied clearance to enter the very correctional facilities she was supposed to evaluate.
There have been many valuable books published in recent years analyzing the racism and brutality that dominate the criminal justice system. These include Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. But rarely has such a powerful, personal perspective been made available to us, from a woman who has been on both sides of the prison bars. Our understanding of the criminal justice system is immeasurably strengthened by Susan Burton’s fierce, compassionate, and expressive voice, as she shares with the world her arduous, but ultimately triumphant, journey to Becoming Ms. Burton.