‘Becoming Ms. Burton’: One woman’s quest to interrupt the incarceration cycle

Editor’s note: Susan Burton was featured last year in the Starbucks original series Upstanders. She visited Seattle recently during a stop on her nationwide tour to talk about her new book “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women."

His name was K.K. and he loved ice cream, his toy wagon and, especially, his mother.

He would have been 40 years old if he had lived. Susan Burton doesn’t have to stop and do the math – a mother always knows, no matter how long it’s been since her child died.

K.K. was 5 years old in 1981 when he crossed the street on his way to get an Eskimo Pie and was hit and killed by a van driven by a police officer. From her nearby home, she heard the screech of the tires. By the time he got to the hospital, nothing could be done for him.

K.K., whose full name was Marque, had been “inquisitive, lively, energetic, caring, sweet and mischievous, all in the same little 5-year-old boy,” she remembers. “He was a big bundle of joy.”

The day he died, her life as she’d known it ended too. His loss ripped a massive hole in her life – and she fell down into it, doing anything she could to try to numb the pain. Without insurance or resources such as counseling available, she turned to what was available: street drugs and alcohol.

“I didn’t have psychologists. I had liquor stores and crack on every corner,” she said on a recent morning.

For the next 15 years, “I was a throwaway person,” she said. She was in and out of prison a total of six times and struggled with addiction.

It’s a lifetime away from whom she is today – the founder of A New Way of Life, a non-profit organization with five residential homes in the Los Angeles area that helps women successfully transition from prison back to the world. It aims to give them the support and help that she never had.

Last year, Burton was featured as a Starbucks Upstander and is currently on a nationwide tour for her new book “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.” 

 “It’s a story that people need to hear,” she said.

A difficult journey

Burton grew up in Los Angeles as the daughter of two combative parents. After her parents split up and her father took a job on the East Coast, survival was a struggle. Sometimes there wasn’t money for food. Other times they lived in decrepit houses with holes in the walls and rats scurrying across the floor.

Few adults in Burton’s life were safe. She was sexually abused by an aunt’s boyfriend at a young age. Then she was molested for years by a friend of her mother. When she was 14, she and a friend were gang-raped when they were walking home from a Christmas Eve party and she became pregnant with her daughter, Antoinette. They were arrested months after when she saw them at a nearby hamburger stand.

Later, as an adult, she met a man named Mark who seemed like he could offer the stable life she yearned for and the two moved in together. Burton got a job with the local government filing probation papers. She knew Mark’s job involved drugs, but considered it his business. She focused on being a suburban housewife after the family moved to Ohio. Antoinette, who she called Toni, thrived in school and soon their family grew with the arrival of K.K.

Everything changed the day police arrived to arrest Mark for selling cocaine. Burton moved back to Los Angeles and in with her mother. She focused on her children, walking K.K. to kindergarten and home every day.

The afternoon K.K. died, he’d come home from school with a chrysanthemum for his mom. It was crawling with ants, she remembered, but still a sweet gesture. “For you, Mama,” he told her.

He left to go get ice cream and then, as she wrote in her book, “the world spun.”

The police officer driving the van didn’t stop until a few blocks later. And she never got an apology. At first she was filled with rage, followed by a deep, paralyzing depression.

By night she’d have dreams where she’d hear K.K. calling to her. By day, she turned to crack and alcohol to try and escape. Toni lost the mother she had known. 

“Life had been hard all along but the death of my son knocked me over,” said Burton quietly.

Without any income, or way to pay for her drugs, she began using stolen credit cards. When she was caught, she was sentenced to 16 months in prison. Once out, police found her sleeping in her car with cocaine in her possession. It was for her own use, but she was sentenced for possession with intent to sell. Her life continued that way for years, rotating in and out of prison – and back into a life where drugs were easy to come by, but affordable rehab programs were not.

At last, her brother offered to pay for her to attend an inpatient rehab. As the weeks and months went on, she got clean, started going to Alcoholics Anonymous and found a sponsor who became a strong advocate.   

Living Amends

It was the eighth step of the 12-step program that set the course for Burton’s new life. On that step, AA members make a list of those they’ve harmed and make amends. Knowing it wasn’t possible to do that with all of those she’d hurt, Burton learned about the concept of “Living Amends” – living in a new way that brings purpose through helping others and striving to bring good into the world.

An idea began to take root: What if there were a way to give incarcerated women the safe and soft landing and support she never had when she got out of prison?

She began to work as a home caregiver and she and her sister-in-law, who was also newly out of prison, began to save their money for a house. Eventually, in 1998, they had enough for a down payment, and Burton’s nephew signed for them. They decided to call their house – and their new non-profit – A New Way of Life. At first, the two women paid for everything themselves from their savings, then they got a contract from an agency and began receiving private donations and grants to fund their work.

Since then, that one house has grown into five where women who are newly released from prison can come, be accepted for who they are, learn new skills, get counseling and find a supportive community. An estimated 1,000 women have been residents of A New Way of Life.

“I tell them you don’t have to figure this out alone,” Burton said. “We are carving out a path for healing.”

‘It was a home’

One of those women was Tiffany Johnson. When she was in prison, serving a 15-years-to-life sentence, she would write letters to groups offering transitional housing every time it looked like she might be up for parole. To be eligible, she had to show that she had a place to stay. The only one who wrote her back was A New Way of Life.

In 2010, after serving 16 years, she was awarded her release and moved into one of Burton’s houses.

Before she arrived, Johnson pictured the home as an institutional, warehouse setting with stark bunk beds. Instead, “it was a home,” she said. “It had love, people accepted you and greeted you to make sure you’re comfortable, taking time to sit down and find out what’s going on in your head. There were people who asked ‘Do you have goals? If not, let’s set some goals.’”

No one had ever done anything like that for her before. Johnson was raised by a single mother who was addicted to drugs. She remembers waking on her 5th birthday excited – only to realize her mother had completely forgotten. She endured sexual assault, from 5 years old to 10.

“It left me traumatized, wounded and with no self-esteem,” she said. As an adult, she ran into her abuser. A fight broke out, she said, and, in a blackout state, she killed him.  Her case never went to trial; her public defender recommended she take a plea deal.

“Women coming out of the criminal justice system have so many strikes against you,” she said. “The strike of having a felony, the strike of being a mother and trying to reconnect with children, the strike of being a woman of color. A New Way of Life helps you navigate through the 45,000 pieces of collateral damage.”

In Burton, she also found a role model – a living example of what’s possible. “This woman has so much compassion and drive to help women it’s unbelievable,” she said. “She looks at every one of us coming through these homes as if it’s her. She thinks, what do I need to do that I did for myself to get through these tough times that I can do for her so she doesn’t have to suffer.”

Now Johnson herself is a role model. Four years ago, Burton asked her to work for A New Way of Life, first as a community organizer and now as the associate director.

Burton is 65 now and is beginning to turn more of the day-to-day operations over to Johnson. But Burton’s not anywhere close to retiring; there’s far too much to do. Instead she’s focusing on a broader role spotlighting the issues of mass incarceration and advocating for change.

The overall rate of recidivism for people in California released from prison is 60 percent; for those who stayed at A New Way of Life, it’s 14 percent, Burton said. “The numbers have really flipped with just some basic support that people need.”

A birthday wish

Mary Mitchell can’t remember ever having a birthday cake. But this year, there it was – decorated with pinks and purples. When she blew out the candles, her wish was to be reunited with her family, for her daughter to forgive her and for God to forgive her and “to allow me to forgive myself.”

Mitchell, 53, went to prison when she was 18. She spent the next 35 years there. When she was released March 30, Johnson from A New Way of Life was there to pick her up.

Mitchell had met Burton years earlier when Burton visited the prison to lead a pre-release class educating inmates about A New Way of life. She attended the session and, later, when it was time for a parole hearing, Burton went before the board herself to say she had a place for Mitchell.

“She fought for me and believed in me when I lost all belief in myself,” she said. “I love her. When I didn’t have anyone, I had her.”

‘We are worth the investment’

A few years ago, A New Way of Life added a house where women could be reunited with their children. Burton has spent a long time herself rebuilding her relationship with her daughter, Toni Carter, who is now 50 and has a daughter of her own, Ellesse. These days, their relationship is strong, she said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Carter recently went with Burton to New York during a stop on the book tour, and told some of her own story about what it was like to be the child of an incarcerated woman.

Burton knows she can’t get back those lost years with her daughter. And that nothing she will ever do will bring her son back. “But I could help other women get their children back,” she said. “I’ve had 300 kids I’ve interacted with over the years.”

Her mind drifts to the K.K., the little boy she loved with her whole heart. “I often wonder what his life would be like today if he’d lived – his interests and his work,” she said. “But in that wondering, I can feel his presence. I can feel him right now.”

Over the years, her anger toward those who harmed her over the years has ebbed, even for the driver of the van that killed her son. In desiring forgiveness for herself, she realized she needed to forgive others. And wanting revenge “is a deep, dark, empty hole that can’t be filled,” she said. “To live there is to live in a grave that you are steadily digging for yourself. Forgiveness opens up a path to caring and the strength to care and love. I wanted to be free.”

Sometimes she wonders who she would be too, had she not lived through all the horrific experiences that she has. “It opened me up in a way so I could access this place, that’s now very fulfilling,” she said.

She uses all of that when she advocates for women who have been imprisoned, when she does work to help “restore the basic and human rights of people who have been deemed throwaway people. I need to say we are not throwaway people. We are worth the investment.”

Read an excerpt from "Becoming Ms. Burton"

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