Two dates mark turning points for Susan Burton: 1981, when a police officer speeding down a street struck and killed her five-year-old son, K.K., and set her on a path of drug and alcohol addiction, and 1997, when she became clean and sober. During the decade and a half in between, Burton, who is now 65, was imprisoned six times, becoming part of a disquieting trend: the incarceration rate for women has risen more than 700% since 1980, with most convicted of nonviolent offenses.
If losing her freedom and being imprisoned was hard, what happened each time Burton was released, with no resources to help her make a life on the outside, was also devastating. “The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery other than in prisons—but it was a lie that you regained your freedom once you left the prison gates,” Burton writes in the prologue of her book, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women (New Press, May), which she wrote with journalist Cari Lynn. “Upon release and for the rest of your life, you faced a massive wall of No.”
Burton and Lynn intersperse her story, including her rape at age 14 and the subsequent birth of her daughter a day before her 15th birthday, with statistics about incarcerated women. “It was important [to me] that it was not too academic, or heavy with numbers,” Burton says. Among the troubling facts that open each chapter are that nearly 80% of formerly incarcerated women are unable to afford housing after release and that most female offenders are under 30 years old, are disproportionately low-income and black, and have not completed high school.
While the focus of Becoming Ms. Burton is Burton’s life, many of the statistics she cites show how closely her experiences hew to those of other imprisoned women. “For so many years, I, too, had come up against these seemingly insurmountable barriers,” she writes. “But I’d convinced myself that my failing was personal, that it was all on my shoulders. Now, a larger picture was emerging.... A criminal history was like a credit card with interest—although you paid the balance, the interest kept accruing.”
Despite the parallels between Burton’s early years and the experiences of incarcerated women in general, what makes her stand out—and has earned her accolades, including a Citizen Activist Award from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and being named a CNN Top 10 Hero, a Soros Justice Fellow, and a Starbucks Upstander—is her ability to break the cycle of incarceration and help others. After gaining her sobriety, Burton, in 1998, founded and continues to head A New Way of Life Re-entry Project in Los Angeles, which offers housing and other assistance to women recently released from prison.
“The last 19 years has been working nonstop for change, 14 hours a day,” Burton says. “I don’t know anything else.” She began by establishing a home for formerly incarcerated women and their children. Today there are five homes and an administrative office that houses A New Way of Life’s organizers and lawyers. “Our tagline,” Burton says, “is, ‘Linking promise with opportunity.’ There are so many bright people who just need an opportunity to help others and pay it forward.”
Burton also cofounded All of Us or None, a grassroots movement to restore civil rights to the formerly incarcerated. The group has been active in the Ban the Box movement to remove from job applications the question (often in the form of a box to check) about whether a candidate has ever been in prison.
“We continue to work on policy to end discrimination against people with criminal records,” Burton says, adding that in November the local chapter helped get an ordinance passed that banned the box in the city of Los Angeles. An attorney from A New Way of Life also helped represent Jane Roe in a recently settled class-action lawsuit (Roe v. Frito-Lay Inc.) regarding the way Frito-Lay used background checks and consumer reporting agencies to “compile information from various sources including state and federal criminal record repositories that are often inaccurate or outdated.”
Writing a book was a departure for Burton, although she says that she always had to be creative to avoid being “crushed.” Burton tried several times to write the memoir before Lynn approached her at a screening of Susan, a short film about Burton by Tessa Blake and Emma Hewitt, released in 2012. The hardest thing about writing the book, Burton says, was dealing with the feelings it stirs up. “You think you’re healed,” she explains. “I’m better, but I’m not healed.”
For Burton, there was no question of bringing the book to anyone but New Press publisher Ellen Adler. “I knew Ellen because I think I bought more copies of The New Jim Crow than anyone, including bookstores,” Burton says. “I felt like everybody in America needed to read that book. So, from the day I got an advance reading copy, I was just ordering cases.”
Publishing the book was a departure for the New Press as well. Becoming Ms. Burton is the first memoir it’s published since it was founded 25 years ago. “When [The New Jim Crow author] Michelle Alexander asked us to consider publishing [it], I figured that I’d take great care with the inevitable rejection letter,” Adler says. “But when I read the proposal, I was dazzled. The question became not whether we should publish it, but how we could find the widest audience for Susan’s story.”
The New Press has announced a 40,000-copy first printing. In addition to placing the book in trade bookstores, Adler is working with recovery bookstores and treatment centers. The press is also fund-raising for a special paperback edition for incarcerated women. On her author tour, which includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Washington, D.C., Burton plans to visit prisons. “My hope,” Burton says, “is that people will read [the book] and realize how we’re addressing women with harsh punishment.”
Burton’s latest project, JustUS Voices/Storytelling for Change, is a “multimedia anthology” that features the stories of women who have been touched by mass incarceration. The W.I. Kellogg Foundation and the Weingart Foundation have awarded $850,000 in grants to support the project, which will focus on women in California, the state with the largest prison population and the largest women’s prison in the world.
“Telling your story is transformative,” Burton has said. “For both the storyteller and their audience, a new bridge to understanding is created.”