TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After serving six prison terms, my guest, Susan Burton, dedicated her life to stopping the cycle of recidivism, not just in her life but in the lives of other women she could reach out to. Knowing what it was like to get out of prison with no money and no safe place to live, she started a home for women in the same position. That expanded into her organization, A New Way of Life, which now runs five such homes and provides 12-step programs, counseling and helps women complete their education, find jobs and regain custody of their children. Burton also became active in the movement to restore the civil rights of those who have served time.
She's a fellow of the Soros Open Society Foundation and in 2010, was named a CNN Top 10 Hero. Burton grew up in a housing project in Watts. Like many women in U.S. prisons, Burton was first a victim. She was abused sexually and physically as a child. After being gang raped, she became pregnant with her first child. Her second child died at the age of 5 after he ran out into the street and was accidentally hit by a car driven by a police officer. Looking back, she thinks her crack addiction was a way of self-medicating after she lost her son. She tells her story in her new memoir, "Becoming Ms. Burton."
Susan Burton, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the times you got out of prison before you got out and stayed out - and you were in six times before staying out and becoming a prison activist - the times you got out, did you find it impossible to get a job? Like, did you look in the legit economy before turning to the alternate economy, the underground economy?
SUSAN BURTON: Yeah. Each time I left prison, I left with the resolve to get my life together, to get a job, to get back on track. And each time, the task became more and more and more daunting. You know, when you leave prison, you don't even have a California I.D. It's been destroyed. You don't have a Social Security card. And, you know, you're given back this opportunity to make decisions for yourself. You try your best, but the insurmountable obstacles that you face are just really difficult to overcome without support.
I wanted to be brave and I wanted to be strong and I wanted to be successful but being totally unprepared for all of that. One of the things about incarceration is that you're deprived. You lose all of your identity. And then it's given back one day. And you're ill-equipped to actually embrace it and work it. So I tried to find employment. I tried to stay clean, but it's a really sad and hopeless situation that people are released back into. That's one of the reasons that I started A New Way of Life.
GROSS: So one of the problems you had when you would get out of prison is you'd end up using drugs again. And it sounds from your book like you wish you had been given, you know, some kind of, like, drug treatment program, some kind of program you could be in that would have, like, counseling or a 12-step group or something. Did you not have access to anything like that?
BURTON: So long before I ever got incarcerated, I should have been able to access services that help me deal with the grief and the loss of my son, that help me deal with the trauma, the abuse that I experienced as a child. That should have happened long before I ever got incarcerated. Those things just weren't accessible in a community like South LA in the community of Watts. We as community members experience violence, trauma, loss almost on a daily basis.
And there are no places that we can actually go to begin to address the trauma, address the violence, to find solutions to the violence and resolve the trauma that can make our community safe. So we're over-policed and under-resourced.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the trauma that you grew up with. And it's really just an incredible story. You were sexually abused by several people before you were 14. I mean, you were gang raped by boys in the neighborhood. You were abused by your aunt's boyfriend when they babysat you.
You were selling brownies door to door for the equivalent of, like, the Girl Scouts and you were abused by a guy whose door you knocked on. You were abused by him repeatedly because he ended up paying you, and it was your only way of making income and you helped support the family.
Did you think at all at the time, like, this is probably having a really bad effect on me, like, maybe I'm traumatized, like, maybe I need help? Like, did you have any way of processing any of that?
BURTON: You know, when I think back to my childhood and my memories, I have two really strong memories. And one memory is sitting in the back seat of the car as my mother drove my auntie to Camarillo State Hospital where she would pick up the boyfriend who would sit across from me, who I knew was going to harm me.
I can remember counting the trees as a 4-year-old little girl. And I would be one, two, three. And when I got to tree 22, danger would get in the car with me. And all while counting, I can remember trying to just fade into the upholstery of the car because he was going to harm me. And I didn't know how to talk about the harm that he was going to do.
And my auntie, when she realized what was happening one day, she gave all the responsibility to me and called me a dirty little girl and swore me to secrecy. So I didn't know what to do with that. And I carried it with me. And I carried other instances of abuse and trauma with me until I was 46 years old walking through the hall of a prison.
GROSS: And you also mentioned your son. Your son was killed at the age of 5. Would you describe what happened?
BURTON: Yeah. So, you know, I went to pick my son up from school and walked him back and was in the house preparing dinner. And, you know, he came in the house and gave me this flower, a chrysanthemum that was full of ants. And he went back out to play and ran out in the street and got hit by a car. The car happened to be driven by a LAPD detective. So he hit my son, killed him and never even got out of the car. All of a sudden, there are - just seemed like hundreds of police all around.
And at the hospital, hundreds of police walking back and forth. And, you know, the doctor comes out and tells me that my son is deceased. I ask, can I see him? And I go in and my son's laying there and, you know, he's dead. And I fall into a depression and an anger and a rage. And I begin to drink. You know, I drink for the loss of my son. But I also drink because this police department never even acknowledged, never even said, Ms. Burton, I'm sorry that you've lost your son - I mean, never.
And between the sadness, the rage, the anger, the loss, I began to drink heavily, and that escalates into drug use. The war on drugs is about to take hold of all the communities across the country. And South LA - Watts - is one of those communities that was hard hit where crack became so plentiful. And I began to smoke it. And that sent me to prison. And I went to prison over and over and over again until I found help.
GROSS: So you had this kind of intersection in your life of tragedy - losing your son - a history of being physically abused and raped, and then you also have the crack epidemic and the get tough on drugs laws coinciding and at the same time. And you had a boyfriend who was selling cocaine and crack, which...
GROSS: ...Wasn't helpful either.
GROSS: He was the one who got you using cocaine.
BURTON: Yes. So - yes. My son's father was in the underworld, what they call the life. And, you know, he exposed me to cocaine. I used it occasionally recreationally with him, but after the death of my son, you know, I just really fell in so heavily. And at that time we were broken up, me and my son's father, so - yeah.
GROSS: So just so we have a sense of perspective, would you mind describing what the convictions were that sent you to prison six times?
BURTON: They were possession charges I served six terms for. And at the whim of the DA or the arresting officer, there might be possession for sales even though it was clear I was a user. You know, I can remember pleading with the court that my son had been killed by a police officer, and I needed help. You know, there were - there was no help for poor black people during the drug war.
GROSS: Well, I tell you what. Let's take a short break. We'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Burton. And she's the founder of the Group A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project which is dedicated to helping women when they get out of prison. She's also written a new memoir called "Becoming Ms. Burton." This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Burton. She's the founder of the Group A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project which is dedicated to helping women when they get out of prison by providing housing, counseling, case management and pro-bono legal services to women. She also co-founded All of us Or None, which is an organization dedicated to restoring basic civil and human rights for formerly incarcerated people. Her activism came out of her own experiences in and out of jail six times. She has a new memoir which is called "Becoming Ms. Burton."
You mentioned earlier that it wasn't till the age of 46 that you were able to actually talk about what had happened to you as a child and as a teenager when you were sexually abused. What happened at the age of 46?
BURTON: At the age of 46, in my sixth prison term, it was the second prison I was in - California Rehabilitation Center. The California Civil Education program kind of opened up all of the experiences that that I had dealt with in my life, that I had experienced.
All of the instances where I had been abused and had been molested and had been raped and had been beaten, had been burned, all of that abuse woke up. It woke up, and I didn't know what to do with it.
So the teacher for the Civil Education program, I saw her one day walking it down the sergeant's hall at the California Rehabilitation Center. And I said to her, Ms. Tucker (ph), at night I can't sleep because I'm having these memories as I lay in my bunk. And I begin to tell her about the experiences of my lifetime. And she said to me, don't worry about passing my class, you have too many other things to deal with. And at that instant, it was the first time that I had received any validation that my life had went really wrong.
GROSS: How was that helpful, knowing that somebody validated that you had been traumatized...
GROSS: ...And that that had had a really deep effect on you?
BURTON: It was the first time somebody had legitimately said, honey, this shouldn't have happened. Something went really wrong. And being able to have that verified by someone outside of yourself, it gave me the ability to actually begin to seek further, to get further validation with the individuals who the experiences had happened through.
And that was part of with my family, with my mother, with my brothers, not with the actual molesters, but those that were around me during the times that it happened. You know, there was a time that my brothers burnt me really, really bad. And there was a time that I thought my mother knew what was going on, and it gave me the ability to start to probe that. And it came to light that she did know.
GROSS: She knew that you were being abused and had done nothing?
BURTON: Yes. She knew I was being molested by the man who was buying the brownies from me, and she did nothing. And...
GROSS: Was that because he was paying you, and you were giving that money to the family, so it was actually like...
BURTON: Well, I think because...
GROSS: ...Being physically abused was financially helpful to the family, so?
BURTON: Right. I - it was - so I believe, you know, he was both giving me money and giving my mother money. And my mother was having it hard with six children all on her own, but it does not excuse what happened.
GROSS: You think he was giving her money, kind of like hush money? Is that what you're saying?
BURTON: Yeah. Well, I mean, he would not - it wasn't like - I don't know how to call it hush money, but I had to look at, you know, where my mother came from out of the Deep South. And there were ways of living and getting along and getting by that had been passed down through generations. And I think my generation is the generation that broke it but that my mother and father came here with trying to escape the abuse of the South, but much of what they learned they brought with them.
So I remember the day that I confronted my mother. She said to me, Susan, you know, I couldn't do anything about that, just go away. So it was a white man who was molesting me. You know, my mother and father were scared of white people. So there were ways of their upbringing and their environment that they carried with them from the South. They were running, but they brought some of that with them.
GROSS: So we've been talking about your early life, the trauma that you experienced, your times in prison, six different terms. After getting out the sixth time, you founded the group A New Way of Life. What led you to thinking that, you know, that you could become an activist and become helpful to other women who faced the predicament that you had faced several times in the past of getting out of prison and not having a place you could return to with security and some comfort?
BURTON: So I had reached a place that I could no longer contain the sorrow, the grief, the pain of all of those years of my life. And I was seeking some relief and help. And over a cheap can of beer, a friend of mine Joe (ph) told me about a place in Santa Monica that could help me. So he gave me the name of the agency. It was called CLARE Foundation, and I called it the next morning. And I began the road to recovery. What I saw and experienced in Santa Monica was a community that was really well resourced.
I also began to realize that people in Santa Monica didn't go to jail for possession of drugs like we did in South LA. And I - as I got stronger and became healthier and more mentally clear, I began to sort of inspect and analyze what was going on, the difference in Santa Monica and South LA. And I began to heal and get stronger. And after a hundred days of treatment, I returned to South LA, continued my recovery. I'm actually this year 20 years sober.
GROSS: My guest is Susan Burton. Her new memoir is called "Becoming Ms. Burton." Coming up, we'll talk about her work advocating for prisoner rights, like the right of incarcerated women to have access to tampons. And Milo Miles will review a collection of dance music from Cape Verde. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Susan Burton. Her new memoir, "Becoming Ms. Burton," is about her life before, during and after serving six terms in prison on drug charges. After that sixth time, she decided to help poor women like herself transition from prison back to the outside world. She's the founder of A New Way of Life, which now runs five houses that offer women just released from prison a safe place to live, 12-step programs, counseling and help finding jobs and regaining custody of their children. Susan Burton has been sober for 20 years.
So getting sober with the help of treatment, is that what led to you being able to become an activist and start your program for women transitioning out of prison.
BURTON: As I began to take women into the home into a new way of life, I began to recognize the barriers, the discrimination, the way our children was being taken, the way their children were being taken from them. It wasn't because they, you know, couldn't be a good parent because they didn't want to be a good parent. It was financial. They couldn't earn enough money to get a house to bring the children back to. It was because they had a criminal record.
They couldn't get a job. They could maybe get a under-the-table job, but not a living-wage job even when they were qualified. So that began to spur me toward activism, and I went to the community coalition. And I met Saul Sarabia, and we started a work group called Relative Care Not Foster Care. I began to understand the power of my voice, understanding how to analyze and how to build a power analysis.
It was on from there I began to show up at meetings and put myself into the conversation, even when there was uncomfortable conversations, even when they didn't want me there. I had a right to be there, and I stayed. And I spoke. And that's when activism was birthed in me.
GROSS: So through the program that you created A New Way Of Life, you now run five homes housing 32 women who were formerly incarcerated. So when you started this program, it was in part a house for you. I mean, part of it was like you wanted to buy a house.
You couldn't afford it on your own, so you went in on it with your sister-in-law who had also come out of prison. And you thought - right? - you'd make a home for other women, too, who were in the same position. And so you were running this. What kind of place did you want to provide for them? Like, tell us about what it was like early on when you were figuring out, like, who were the women who were going to be living with you...
GROSS: ...What the rules of the house were going to be, what would you require from them in terms of their contribution, you know, whether it was financial or cleaning or just staying sober?
BURTON: Yeah. So when I got the house and me and my sister-in-law started out together, I had worked a minimum wage job, and I had saved $13,000. Part of it went to the down payment of the house, and we pulled our money together, went to Ikea and brought bunk beds. And I would go down to the bus station where women were getting off the bus where I had gotten off the bus so many times before. And I would offer them a bed, offer them a place that was safe, that was drug and alcohol free, a place that they could rebuild their lives and be in community.
And I looked up one day and, you know, I recognized this was a loving community of women. And we were, you know, laughing together, crying together, struggling together. Most of the women were eligible for general relief. And general relief would give you about $230 a month. And each woman would pitch in $200 dollars. And I would scrape money from here and there, and we would be able to pull that money to pay the bills, to supply the house with food and begin to grow and heal. So there was some structure in place.
Eight o'clock in the morning, we would read from the morning meditation book, sit in a circle and set goals for ourselves. I had goals. They had goals. I mean, for some of us it was a first time in our life we had ever even ever set goals. And the goals as humble as they were, they were goals that we could achieve. And from that - achieving those goals build confidence and self-esteem.
And there was a 10 o'clock curfew where everybody would be in the house by 10 o'clock. Everybody had a chore to clean up a part of the house, and I would tell you it was one of the - it is one of the most beautiful community to see women sharing openly and caring sincerely and supporting one another to just be better.
GROSS: I'm trying to think what it was like for you to go to the bus stop where the prison dropped off women just getting out of prison and go up to strangers who had just gotten out of prison and say would you like to be part of this new experiment that I'm setting up where we're - have this house it's going to be for women who have just come out of prison who have no other means...
BURTON: See, they weren't strangers.
GROSS: Did you actually literally know them?
BURTON: They were my friends. I...
GROSS: Oh, these are people you literally knew?
BURTON: Yeah. I had been traveling in and out of prison for the past 20 years, the past 16 years or 17 years. So we knew one another if not by name, by face. And they were women who, like me, had repeatedly been arrested and sent through the revolving door of incarceration. So it wasn't like they were strangers. They were women I knew.
GROSS: And were these women who you had some faith in that they could - that they could stay clean, that they could contribute to the kind of healthy environment you were trying to create?
BURTON: So it wasn't a matter of me having faith in anyone, it was a matter of extending that opportunity to someone that could change their lives.
GROSS: That's an interesting distinction you just made.
BURTON: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's not like I have faith in you. It's, you know, do you want this opportunity? You know, we have to have a opportunity to excel, to build faith and confidence of things to come.
GROSS: And what if a woman relapsed and started using drugs again?
BURTON: If a woman relapses and starts using drugs again, it's really on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I'll refer her to a more therapeutic-like community to get a hold of the drug or substance misuse. Or she might not want to go to a treatment facility and want to just leave. And sometimes we'll try to start all over again from the beginning. So when women first come into the house, there's, like, 30 days that you don't do weekend passes, 30 days that you're working on getting your I.D. and you're getting your Social Security card and you're getting accustomed to the home and the environment.
One of the things that I recognize is that there's this period of after being released that people just need to detox incarceration. So there's a 30-day period for people to get back acquainted with the community. You know, I think of one woman who just got out of prison after 35 years of incarceration. And she wants to say, everything is OK. But I asked her to walk - I asked her if she wanted to walk from the office of A New Way of Life to the home of A New Way of Life. And she was terrified of the cars. She said, Ms. Burton, I don't know how to cross the street. I can't walk out there like that.
Two weeks later, she was walking to the office for her therapy session that she has once a week. So that 30 days, I think, it's really important that people get to get accustomed to their environment. And I get accustomed to them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Burton. She's written a new memoir called "Becoming Ms. Burton." We'll talk more about her work for prisoner rights and for the rights of people getting out of prison after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Burton. She's the founder of the group A New Way of Life. It's dedicated to helping women when they get out of prison by providing housing, counseling, case management and pro-bono legal services. She also co-founded All of Us or None, an organization dedicated to restoring basic civil and human rights for formerly incarcerated people. Burton's activism came out of her own experiences in and out of jail six times. She has a new memoir called "Becoming Ms. Burton."
So you've done a lot of work trying to change prison conditions. And this is, in some ways, a small detail but it's a really telling one. One of the things you worked on in California was trying to make tampons and sanitary napkins accessible for women in prison. It seems like a really basic thing. What were the obstacles to getting that?
BURTON: In prison, you're issued a number of sanitary pads per month. And many times, even when you're issued a number of sanitary pads, the guards will just come in and rip your room apart, rip your locker apart and take them. So you'll find yourself unable to access enough pads for your cycle. And that's just one of the cruel treatments that women have to go through and endure as a part of their incarceration experience. So we fought to have that changed and to bring it to the public's attention what was happening inside the prisons around women's menstrual cycle.
It's so degrading, so humiliating, first of all, to have to beg a male guard for sanitary pads and then to get a supply 'cause you know your cycles cycle's coming and have that supply taken from you. At A New Way of Life, one of the lingering sort of ways of being from that is that women will literally take the roll of toilet paper to bed with them. And I'll have to remind them that they have enough of everything now. They don't have to hoard the toilet paper in their beds. I mean, that's sort of like something that you would never think of of a way a person would become to operate in the free world, as we call it.
But, yeah, it happens, and it's the conditioning that happens as a result of incarceration to women.
GROSS: One of the things you want to see happen is having people who have criminal records get the right to vote. They have that right in some states but not in others. Why do you think it's so important for people getting out of prison to have that right?
BURTON: For the last five years, I've been going into the jails and registering women and men to vote. One of the attorneys at our offices filed an intent to sue when the sheriffs kept us out and wouldn't allow us to register to vote.
But across this country, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are waiting, just charged with crimes but not convicted, who are eligible to vote. And we need to make sure people can vote for African-American people. Our ancestors went through so much in a fight for us to vote. So I believe that we should engage in all civic participation. It's healthy engagement. You know, I also am fighting here in California for the right for me to be able to serve on a jury. Right now for the rest of my life, I can never serve on a jury. And people laugh and say, you really want to do that? Yes, I do.
BURTON: Because a person from my community will never get a jury of their peers if that whole community has been criminalized. So across America, we have entire communities who have been criminalized.
GROSS: Can you vote in California?
BURTON: I can vote. Once I discharge parole, I'm eligible to vote. And do I vote? Yes, I do.
GROSS: What are some...
BURTON: And I'm registered.
GROSS: What are some of the states in which convicted felons are not allowed to vote? I know Florida.
BURTON: Florida is a big one. There are many states across this nation that bans people from voting, even after they serve their time. So we talk about continued exclusion and punishment long after you've served your time. You know, it's almost like you think about your credit card. And you charge up a bunch of things on your credit card. And at the end of the month, you pay your credit card in full where it doesn't incur interest. Well, at the end of a sentence, at the end of the time served, you know, our debt should be paid in full and we should not continue to incur interest.
GROSS: You have to go back to prison to work with people, to visit them, to talk with them. Is it hard for you to return to prison? I mean, I know you're not there to stay. You can get out. But still, is it hard to enter one?
BURTON: It's not hard for me to go back because I'm going in with the purpose of freeing people up. But it's troubling for me to see the conditions in which we incarcerate people, the continued horror of it and it hurts to see us in America treat people so harshly. So many nights after I've gone into a prison and I lay my head on the pillow, it's a heavy head that I lay on the pillow.
GROSS: Susan Burton, thank you so much for talking with us.
BURTON: You're welcome.
GROSS: Susan Burton's new memoir is called "Becoming Ms. Burton."
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