Becoming Ms. Burton (Book Review)

From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women- By Susan Burton and Cari Lynn

When you open the cover of this amazing book, you read a few words by Susan Burton about her life’s work:

“Most women in the U.S. prisons were, first, victims. It’s estimated that 85 percent of locked-up women were, at some or many points in their lives, physically or sexually abused, or both. Disproportionately, these women are black and poor. I was born and raised in these statistics. My life is now devoted to stopping this cycle.”

Burton dedicates this book to her five year old son K.K. who was accidentally killed by a police officer. She also dedicates the book to her daughter, granddaughter and all the women lying on their prison beds “dreaming of a new way of life.” Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow (read The New Jim Crow (Book Review) writes the forward to the book, so you know that you are in for a radical prison abolitionist ride.

After cycling in and out of prison for 15 years Susan Burton was finally granted admission to a private drug treatment facility and given a job. Having been granted this opportunity, she has devoted her life to providing this opportunity to other women by opening up safe homes for formerly incarcerated women.

Burton’s program, called A New Way of Life, costs $16,000 per year to help a women toward recovery, compared to the up to $60,000 a year spiraling downward, or at best remaining stagnant, in prison. Federal prisons offer halfway houses for people upon release, but state prison do not. Formerly incarcerated people are dropped off with no house key, credit card, checkbook, driver’s license, social security card, or any other identification at all because everything you had with you when you went to prison has been destroyed by the state.

Burton observed:

“As I built A New Way of Life, it sometimes felt as though a new underground railroad was taking shape. We, the people of the community, weren’t going to let each other fall. We would rescue each other, and deliver people to a lasting freedom.”

Later, Burton’s work has shifted from just direct service, to helping to also build a social human rights movement.

“Over 90 percent of criminal cases close in a plea deal [Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow writes]. The dirty little secret was that if fewer than 30 percent of people charged with a crime exercised their constitutional right to a trial, the justice system would crash. There simply wouldn’t be enough lawyers, judges or time. The right to a fair and speedy trial merely sounded good on paper.”

The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white women is 1 in 118 while for black women, this number is 1 in 19. The American Bar Association has documented 45,000 legal sanctions and restrictions imposed on people with criminal records.

“I funneled my frustration back into building a movement. Real progress was only going to happen outside of government. The problem was not going to become the solution,” Burton writes.

Burton concludes her memoir with a call to action:

“I wanted to tell my story as a call for mobilization. Together, we can end discrimination. Together, we can push our government to remove barriers and open up doors for people who are qualified in the here and now. People who should not be held stagnant. People who should not forever be kept in the place when they were at their lowest. Together, we can make these changes. And we must.”

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