Susan Burton spent years in and out of California state prisons. She battled drug addiction and struggled with trauma stemming from childhood sexual abuse and the loss of her son who was tragically killed at age 5. She finally got help at a rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, Calif. It changed her life. Burton, 66, returned to her community and created A New Way of Life Reenty Project, a program for formerly incarcerated women that provides housing, job resources and reunification services. Her book Becoming Ms. Burton details her difficult journey from drugs and incarceration to her incredible work as a justice advocate today.
The Crisis: Where were you born?
Susan Burton: I was born in Los Angeles. My mother and father came from the South and settled in the projects — the projects of East L.A., called Aliso Village. It’s a difficult project. You have a lot of concrete buildings and concrete floors, and a lot of kids, and a lot of violence. My mother and father were searching for something different than the brutality of the South — the racism, the Jim Crow.
How was it growing up? Did you have siblings?
I have five brothers and I’m the only girl in our household. I’m the middle child. As kids, we ran amok through the brick lawn. We had a road called the “dirt road,” and we built tents and slept outside under the stars. It was a different time than it is now. But there was a lot that went on. My father worked until he lost his employment and, that’s when my mother began working. And we were left to the environment of the projects.
What does that mean?
That means that, because my mother had to work, we were put with babysitters and family members, and there were experiences — different types of abuse and exposure to things — that we just weren’t old enough to be exposed to that happened.
For example, one of my earliest childhood memories is counting the palm trees leading up to the mental health institution there in Los Angeles because I knew when I counted to tree number 22, the man was going to walk out of that mental hospital, and he was going to harm me over the weekend. I could remember going down that long road, counting those trees, hoping I could just evaporate into the upholstery of the car seat.
Did you graduate from high school?
I did not graduate from high school. That abuse led to other types of abuse, and eventually I ended up running away from home. And I finished high school while incarcerated.
Why did you drop out of high school and how old were you?
When I was 14 — it was Christmas Eve — me and a friend of mine left, going to a party. We were on our way home from that party, and I was raped. And I conceived a child Dec. 24 of 1965. Sept. 26 of 1966, I gave birth to my daughter, the day before my 15th birthday. I returned from a maternity home that I was placed in and returned to school. There was this day when my teacher made me feel so ashamed for what had happened to me. It was a class that I always had longed to be in. It was a typing class. And all my life I waited to get in front of the typewriter. I thought that being a secretary was the job to have in those days. And that teacher just crushed my world that day. And I left school.
At 15? So what did you do? How did you survive?
I left and I went into the streets of South L.A.
At what age were you first arrested?
I left and ran into a man who literally exploited me, and I began to be arrested for prostitution. And I was about 16 years old then. I went back and forth to the county jail for those charges.
When was the first time you were in prison for a length of time and what was it for?
In 1981, my 5-year-old child was hit by a car driven by a Los Angeles police detective and killed. At that point, I’d gotten my life back on track with my family and my daughter. [After my son’s death] I began to use drugs and alcohol. And that sent me to prison, and for the next 16 years or so, I was in and out of prison for possession of a controlled substance.
How long were you there the first time?
One year, 13 months.
What was your life like when you got out?
I’m locked away, clearly with the substance abuse problem, and while locked away, I’m not given any substance abuse classes or resources. I’m literally locked away, shuttled around like cattle, humiliated and traumatized just about on a daily basis, re-traumatized on a daily basis, and then released one day. [I’m] released with $200 of what they call “gate money,” put on a bus back to Los Angeles County, get off a bus [in] downtown Skid Row — no ID, no government papers, no place to live and pretty much have to [live] just with that. Okay? And I can remember the guard saying: “We got the bed waiting for you, Burton. You’ll be back.”
How long did it take you to go back?
Maybe a year.
In that year you were out, how’d you support yourself?
I got caught back up in the underworld because the upper world really doesn’t have a place for people with criminal histories. There’s the boxes that you have to check, of course. There’s the lack of skill and the trauma that has not been addressed, not only prior to incarceration, but while incarcerated. And I’m not trying to make excuses, I’m just telling you the reality of what people experience. You can imagine being — or maybe you can’t — being tossed away like a throw-away person, a disposable person, and then trying to merge your way back into your community, and it seems like nobody really even wants you there. Everybody’s been brainwashed about who the people actually are. “They’re dangerous. They’re this. They’re that.” They’re people that just want to be responsible and a greater part or the better part of the community.
Tell me how you were traumatized in prison.
I was woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A guard pulled my legs and said “Burton, get up.” I obey. I get up. I march to a waiting room, and all the people that are being shipped to prison are in there, and they tell you to strip down your clothes and you strip down buck naked. And they look at every part of your body. You and [the other] people are lined up, shoulder to shoulder, raising your arm, raising your feet, opening your mouth, bending over, coughing. And then you’re chained through these clothes and you’re chained side by side, next to each other. Chained ‘round the arm, ‘round the waist, and then down your leg, just like my ancestors were in slavery.
Shackled. And then you’re marched off to a bus and that bus drives you down the highway somewhere and you don’t know where you’re going. And then you get off that bus and again your chains are taken off, you’re stripped down and you’re looked at — every part of your body. Then you’re locked up in a room for six weeks. And you come out of that room only to eat. And you’re not allowed to talk to anybody. The only time you open your mouth is to put food in it. And then you’re given these medical exams. And you’re classified to a job. You know, they want you to go fight fires. I’m like, “Damn, I’m not a firefighter!” A man told me it’s a privilege and I’m like, “Not in my world!” That’s what I thought because, that’s not what I could say. So, you’re exploited and you know you’re exploited. You’re subject to a search at any time. Your property is never your property because they can come in and do anything they want to, whenever they want to. So, all of that is a form of torture, and it’s the reality. My reality.
Tell me about this “underground economy” that you had to operate in once you got out of prison.
So it’s a cash economy. We talk about unemployment in our communities, but we’re never able to really look at the cash economy that happens in our community. I’m not talking about the illegal cash economy. I’m talking about the cash economy where people create things to sell — bake things, do hair, make jewelry, make cds.
What did you do to survive?
I did get involved in theft. I got involved sometimes in forgery. But I did what I had to do to survive, you know?
When you first got out where did you live?
Sometimes with family, sometimes with friends. I’d go back to the household in which a lot of things happened. And it wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a healthy household. And I would be there for a period of time.
How old were you when you first went to prison?
I was 30.
You get out. A year later you’re back in, and over the next 16 years, you’re in and out?
Why did you go back over and over again?
I went back because I needed help and help wasn’t available.
What kind of help did you need?
I needed support to understand the grief, the trauma, and my lifetime of pain. I needed to understand the solution to not using drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain and the loss — you know, the grief. I needed to understand mental health. I needed to understand ways of coping with depression, with anger, with rage. I needed help and in my community there were no places of help. I did find help in Santa Monica, in the beach community. In the upper-middle class, White community I found a drug treatment facility that helped me. After that help, I was able to become healthier and stronger and not return to prison. I was able to get therapy there. I met 12-step people. I found job services. I found classes that just made me think differently and exposed me to different ways of dealing with myself and the world. And I couldn’t understand — and I still don’t understand — why these resources are so plentiful in some communities and in our communities, we lack the types of resources that could make our communities healthier — trauma centers, therapy centers, treatment centers, housing. Our communities could be healthier.
When was your last year in prison?
I was released finally in June of 1996. I found help in October of 1997. I’m 20 years and a couple of months sober.
Tell me about how you started A New Way of Life.
I stayed 100 days in treatment, and I returned to the community. One of my brothers had a girlfriend who was a nurse, and she introduced me to a lady that no longer had enough insurance to pay for her services, and I would take care of her cheaper than the nursing staffing company. The lady asked me to move in with her. So, for the next year, I take care of this lady. I save all my money. I try to go to school for nursing ‘cause I wanted to take care of her better. I wanted to understand more about diabetes, wound care, and things like that. The school told me I couldn’t go there. I had a criminal record, and I could never be licensed. So eventually [the lady I was taking care of] was put into a convalescent home and her leg was amputated. I’d saved all my money while I was living with her, and I bought a little house. I began to evaluate more the whole situation around women’s incarceration —what they had in Santa Monica and what they didn’t have in South L.A. After I bought that house, I would go down to the bus station down at Skid Row where women were getting off the bus. They weren’t just women. They were friends, my buddies, my homegirls. I would tell them: “I have a house if you’d like to come there. It’s drug- and alcohol-free, and you can have a bed there.” And that’s how I started A New Way of Life.
What year was this?
1998. It’s been a very successful organization. There’s five houses now, and we’ve helped over 1,000 women. We have a legal department to help people get their babies back and clear up the post-conviction stuff. We also help them get licensed as a caregiver. We do expungements, certificates of rehabilitation. We do voter education and organizing and advocacy. We have a bill in the legislature to restore the right to serve on a jury because I still can’t be a juror.
What are some challenges that women specifically face when they are released from prison?
The challenge that women face is reuniting with their children. We should be going toward the solution to bring women back into our communities and support the reunification of them with their children. Because a woman goes to prison doesn’t mean she’s a bad mom, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have her children.
Is there anything you want to add?
The mass incarceration going on in America is outrageous. It’s slavery. It’s the exploitation — the continued exploitation — of Black people and Brown people and poor White people.
— interview by Lottie L. Joiner