For Susan Burton helping formerly incarcerated women embrace a new way of life is a calling. As a formerly incarcerated woman, herself, Burton is committed to giving back a little bit of what was given to her when she received her second chance.
With that commitment, comes a desire to reach into the community and to tell their story – her story - to communities whose time, talent and resources can make all the difference in the lives of the most vulnerable among us. One of those communities is Loyola Marymount University (LMU), a catholic university in Los Angeles where Burton has formed a partnership with faculty and students. On February 5, Burton was the featured speaker at a conversation on incarceration hosted on campus as part of Black History Month where she challenged the 100 students and faculty members in attendance to rethink how they viewed incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
“We have been trained to think about people who are incarcerated in a certain way,” said Burton. “There is this idea that everyone in jail is a sexual predator (or a monster) when the truth is most people are in prison because we have criminalized mental health, we have criminalized poverty and those are the reasons most people are incarcerated.”
This is a message that Dr. Deanne Cooke, Assistant Clinical Professor & Director of Engaged Learning at LMU, wanted to impart to the students in attendance.
“Our university’s mission is to promote social justice and so we enact that mission by helping our communities understand the current system of justice and imagine what it might look like to have a system that that is more just,” said Cooke. “And the most powerful way I can envision educating students is to let people tell their own stories and connect their humanity to the humanity of our students and community members.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 1 in 37 adults, that’s 2.7% of the adult population in the United States are under some form of correctional supervision. African Americans as a whole are incarcerated at a rate 5 times higher than their white counterparts, while African American women are twice as likely to go jail than their white counterparts.
“We rarely think about how the individual and their extended families are impacted by incarceration,” said Dr. Cooke.
“We rarely think about why, by far, America has the largest rate of incarceration in the world; why there has been a large increase in incarceration of women; what happens to people’s children or parents when individuals are incarcerated; how incarcerated people continue to be impacted by various policies well after their release; or how our policies create disproportionate enforcement and convictions for Black, Brown and poor people.”
Burton hopes that her participations in conversations like this puts a human face and a story that will change how people think and act around the issue of mass incarceration.
“I was out of prison six different times,” said Burton, who became addicted to substances after attempting to self-medicate to cope with the death of her child. “Then, somebody helped me, provided me with a safe place to live, provided me with food, showed me compassion and introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous. That was the magic pill for me, but what was so interesting to me was that help came out of Santa Monica and was so different than anything I had ever received in South Los Angeles and I became driven to bring these types of services to my community.”
In 1998, Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project, an organization that offers housing, legal services, and leadership training to formally incarcerated women. Through her organization she has provided safety and support for more than 1,000 women and children in her reentry homes and reunited more than 300 women with their children.
Burton is also the author of “Becoming Ms. Burton,” an autobiographical memoir in which she discusses her journey to become who she was believes she was born to be in the world.
As a woman who experienced incarceration herself, Burton knew that her organization needed to go beyond providing shelter to trying to eliminate the institutional obstacles that made succeeding post prison nearly impossible.
“According to the American Bar Association over 48,000 barriers to reentry that have been documented,” said Burton. “These barriers included limited access to employment, inability to get a driver’s license or a student loans, inability to secure permanent housing, and inability to get public assistance.”
“We are all human and we have all made mistakes whether we have been convicted of them or not, it is not fair to continually punish someone for a crime they have already served the time for,” said Burton.
One of the ways that Burton hopes to convey this message is through “Justice on Trial Film Festival, which features films that speak to the challenges of people caught up in the judicial system, held annually at LMU.
“It is important that we understand all the struggles that people who are incarcerated face…and that we focus more on restorative justice,” said Burton. “We need to start speaking to each other and in that way we can create the type of close communities that look out for each other that we use to have.”