Corrections System Survivor Establishes Safety Net for Women Returning From Prison

Excerpt of talk by Susan Burton, corrections system survivor and founder of A New Way of Life, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, a woman spoke to a large crowd in New Haven about women who are usually not celebrated at all – those who are incarcerated and struggling to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. Susan Burton, like a great many incarcerated women, grew up poor, suffered sexual abuse as a child, was raped as a teen, bore a daughter, and then lost hope when another child, a 5-year-old son, was run over and accidentally killed by police.

After spiraling into addiction and being incarcerated six times, she finally found a recovery program that worked for her and successfully completed it more than 20 years ago. Burton then began establishing homes for other women coming home from prison, with a range of support services. She now has founded seven such homes in the Los Angeles area.
Burton’s program is called “A New Way of Life,” and her new memoir is titled, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended and recorded her talk at Gateway Community College, which was sponsored by the Connecticut Women’s Consortium. Here, Burton begins by talking about the struggles in her early life.

SUSAN BURTON: I was learning how to get through with the least harm possible and negotiating one trauma for the next, you know, what was going to be more bearable. And that’s the story of many, many of the women – I’d say 80 percent of the women who come through A New Way of Life. We talk about and work through and try to understand what happened early on that affects the way we’re responding today. That’s the story of women all over this country who have responded to their treatment, to their environment, in ways this country has found unacceptable and locks them up. And locks them up and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to incarcerate them and then spin them back out into our community more harmed than when they went in.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Burton eventually got into a 100-day, residential treatment facility.

SUSAN BURTON: And what I discovered, you know, it was an upscale community. It was Santa Monica. it was by the beach. There was so much there. But what I found for me, for the first time in my life, I felt safe. There was compassion there. There was empathy there. There was food there. There was clothing there. There was regularity and I got introduced to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. So Oct. 4, 1997 is my sobriety date. (Applause).

But the other thing I discovered there is that people in Santa Monica didn’t go to prison for drugs. What is this? They get a court card. They get deferred to treatment. They get community service. And all of those times – six times – I was sentenced to prison for possession of drugs, and I’m thinking, nobody felt that they could invest in me? I wasn’t worth an investment? You know, what’s wrong with this society?

And I began to heal. And I began to get stronger. I eventually went back to school. But I began to think about how hard my life had been, and how it could have, and should have, been different, had anyone thought to make a simple investment. I can remember walking in the courtroom and telling the judge about my son and what had happened and that I needed help. And that judge sentenced me to prison. And I was stripped of everything – my identity, my individuality, my dignity, my purpose, any dreams, any hope. It was just gone.

But in Santa Monica, it was altogether different. So I began to wake up and I thought about if all the women that I knew going in and out of prisons. if they, too, had a place like Santa Monica in south L.A., then maybe, just maybe, they, too, could get back and recover.

So I saved a few dollars with the work as a caregiver, and bought a little house. And I’d go to the bus station on Skid Row, downtown L.A., where we’d get off the bus and try to make a new life. And I’d meet my friends and offer them a bed, a safe place and that started A New Way of Life. To date, more than a thousand women have been through those homes. There are seven homes now. (Applause)

And we have all types of services, legal services, organizing department, leadership department, communications, and of course, development.

BETWEEN THE LINES: After her book came out, world-renowned architect Frank Gehry invited her to do a project on the architecture of prisons.

SUSAN BURTON: And I got to go to Finland, and I got to go to Norway, and I got to go to Lisbon, and I got to see what other countries do. And what I came back with is that this country is intentionally barbaric. Yes, from the way they structure the prison, the whole thing is made to harm people, and that we as a nation has this deep-seated need for revenge.

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