Susan Burton advocates for the end of mass incarceration after spending years incarcerated herself. Now, she uses what’s she’s learned as an ex-prison mom to fight recidivism in the American justice system.
She shares how the traumatic death of her 5-year-old kid launched a chain of events which led her in and out of prison 6-times in a span of 16-years.
Burton’s son died in 1981 from a car accident. A young mother by then, Burton started drinking to distract her depression. She used Valium, crack, and cocaine. One year after losing her son, Burton was already in prison, serving 13-months sentence for drug possession.
But upon her release, she recalls, one correctional officer forecasting her return. The guard told Burton:
“Your bed is waiting for you. You’ll be back!”
Recidivism in the American Justice System: Guard Predicts Ex-Prison Mom’s Return to Prison
She walked out with only, $200 and a bus ticket to Los Angeles’ Skid Row — a common drop-off point for the ex-felons, full of crime, drug dealers and many living just on the streets.
Burton was still dealing with addiction. She hadn’t been rehabilitated in prison. Soon after leaving prison, she embarked to criminal activities. She stole for necessities, because as an ex-felon, Burton couldn’t be hired.
The guard’s prediction was right! By 1984, Burton was back in prison facing the similar charges to that of her first incarceration, drug possession.
Burton with other inmates was later transferred to the California Rehabilitation Center, a prison in Norco, CA. However, life there was not any better than in the California Institution for Women (CIW). She never got substance abuse assistance.
She rarely met her kid, who was being taken care by Burton’s mother. And she was not gaining any helpful skills that would help her when she’s released.
“I was locked away for 6-weeks … and traumatized almost each day,” Burton recalls.
How Things Went Bad for the Ex-Prison Mom
As little as 4-years-old, Burton was sexually harassed, by someone close to her family. The horrible act caused her trauma. And at 14-year-old, she was raped, to pregnancy and went to a home for the young expectant mothers. There, she delivered her first kid, a girl. She was officially a teen mom.
She tried to return to school but later dropped out after one teacher ashamed her. The teacher asked her openly in front of the entire class, to go and take care of her baby rather than being at school. Burton left her home, and at 16-years-old she was arrested multiple times for prostitution, but her pimp always bailed her.
Luckily, by the time she hit 30, she had found herself what she calls “a comparatively better life.” She got a job at one real estate company which enabled her to take care of her kids. But then her son died in a car accident.
Burton spent about 15-years going in and out of prison because, she says:
“I needed assistance to understand the trauma, grief, and my lifetime full of pain.”
Recidivism in the American Justice System: Help Finally Comes for Ex-Prison Mom
In Oct. 1997, after finishing her last prison sentence, Burton (46-years-old by then) was helped from her substance abuse complications in one treatment facility located in Santa Monica, California. She received psychological therapy, got a job and attended classes which:
“…changed my reasoning and thought me different ways to deal with the world and myself.”
Burton later saved money to help other incarcerated women who, when released, had very few options.
After Enduring Addictions and Prison Challenges, Burton Saves Women from Re-Incarcerations
It was 1998 when she started her mission by helping a newly released Black woman and who was also her former friend in prison. Subsequently Burton’s non-profit organization A New Way of Life began.
A New Way of Life is a re-entry project. The foundation dedicated to helping communities, women and families heal and break the cycle from experiences caused by incarceration. Its members are doing their parts to help end the recidivism in the American justice system.
Through A New Way of Life, Burton has helped over a thousand women, and as written in her the memoir Becoming Ms. Burton. She helps women refrain from that old habits that led to re-incarceration:
“It’s something I wished somebody had done for me,” Burton recalls.
What began in one house now has grown to five houses, voter education and family reunification services. The group has a policy department as well—that works to assist legislators to know the structural challenges to successful re-entry in the community.
Video: Susan Burton Talks About “A New Way of Life”
As an advocate for ending mass incarceration, Susan Burton knows her stuff. But, she went through a lot before starting her journey to help end recidivism in the American justice system.
In this video, Burton talks about how losing her son at 5 years old set her on her path. After entering the revolving door of prison 6 times in just 16 years, she’s a better woman now. Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY