Susan Burton - Fighting for Incarcerated Women in "Becoming Ms. Burton" - Extended Interview

Extended - May 17, 2017 - Susan Burton 05/17/2017 Views: 42,379

Susan Burton talks about breaking the cycle of incarceration in her book "Becoming Ms. Burton" and discusses her rehabilitation organization for women, A New Way of Life. (9:14)

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Please welcome Susan Burton.

-♪ -(cheering, applause)

Welcome to the show.

Thank you.

Thank you for being hereand thank you for sharing

this amazing story with usin the book.

Your memoir...I had two books to read.

It was this and Ivanka Trump's.

And she's liveda tough life, but, uh...

You-You've... you'vereally dealt with a lot.

You've really dealt with a lot.

Uh, a story of a person

not just going intothe American prison system,

going in and out of prison,

but then coming outand reforming your life.

Do you feel lucky every day

that you were ableto change that narrative?

I feel very lucky.

Um, very gratefuland very blessed

that I was ableto change the narrative.

Not only for myself,

but for over 1,000 women

who've been througha new way of life.

And they've been ableto change their narrative

because they got basicsupports after incarceration.

Right. And-and your storyis-is one of...

You know, i-it's a tale that'sunfortunately all too common:

a story of a person

cycling in and out of prison,in and out of prison.

In fact, in the book,you talk about how

one of your prison guards,when you were leaving,

said to you, "Don't worry,Susan, I'm gonna

keep your bed for you,'cause I know you'll be back."

-Yes.-And it was a joke,

and it was the truthat the same time.

-Yes.-Is that something...

That's all too common,the question is why.


you know, we investso much in incarceration

but don't investin rehabilitation,

do not invest in reentry

and thereforepeople leave prisons

a little worsethan when they went in.

-Right.-And, uh,

and broken and unableto rebuild their lives.

You know, when I wentinto prison I had a ID.

When I came out of prisonI didn't have ID.

-It was destroyed.-Wow.

My basic government, uh, papers

to, uh, to-to reenter

back into the community.

So the guard told me,"You'll be back."

And I came back.

And I came back and led womenup out of that place.

-So...-(cheering, applause)


You have a storythat is unique, in that

you didn't just go backbut, as you say,

you went back to help.

Uh, for criticsout there who would say,

"Well, Susan, you did it,

"so why is everyone elsenot doing it?

"Clearly, it's justabout pulling yourself up

and getting it done."

You know, I went in...

in and out of prisonover and over again.

Someone helped me.

And that's how I-I was able

to get on my feetand, uh, rebuild my life,

-is I had basic help andsupports from someone. -Right.

And, uh, with that help,you know,

I paid it forwardto help others.

When-when you lookat the numbers,

you know, I-I read in yourbook-- and-and this is true--

85% of women in prisonhave been abused.

Uh, predominantly, those numbersare women of color.

The justice systemdisproportionately

negatively changes the livesof women of color.

You are a woman of cl... color.

You work with so many womenin your program,

trying to rehabilitate andget... and get these women back

into the space.Why do you think that is?

Why is it that the black womanin America

faces a unique prison experienceto everyone else?


many women, uh, black womenin the criminal justice system

have been abused prior to, um...

-prior to incarceration.-Right.

So the, uh... the supports,

the therapy, the counseling,

the other resources thatare available for some people

in some communitiesaren't available

-in the black andthe poorer communities. -Right.

So, therefore, thatuntreated abuse and a traum...

and trauma, that stuff surfacesin other ways.

Uh, and, uh,for us to criminalize it,

it's criminal.

-I, uh... I want to read, um...-(applause)

One of the... one of the-thepassages that really got to me

was where you talked about goingin on one of the occasions,

and you said, "From the momentI had entered the system,

"I was flaggedfor the criminal side,

"while my white bunkiewas flagged for the civil side.

"Even though our crimeswere the same,

"the fact was we both neededtreatment and help.

"But the rest was fullof stark irony.

"There wereinsufficient resources for help

but a concerted effortto fill prisons."

-Yes.-That's a terrifying and,

at the same time,fascinating journey to be on,

to see yourself infor the same crime

and yet seeyour white counterparts

not treated the same way.

Yes. Um...

When I got help,

it was in a white communityin Santa Monica, California.

That help that I received there,

I realized that the people therewas not going to prison

for the crimesthat we were going to for--

for possession of drugs, uh,

for under the influence--in South L.A.

So what I foundin, uh, Santa Monica,

I brought back to South L.A.

and began A New Way of LifeRe-Entry Project.

But there's this, um,really lopsided approach

to the, uh... who gets...

who gets helpand who gets prison,

-um, who gets freeand who gets chains. -Right.

-Yes. -If-if we...if we look at the system--

and you-you often hearthese voices, unfortunately,

asking questions out loud--they say things like,

why should we spend that moneyon rehabilitating people

when they have broken the law?

Shouldn't they be in prison?

Why should the taxpayer pay

for them to get their livesto become better?

Um... so...

I just want to say,why would you incarcerate me

over and over and over again

because I turned to substances

after an LAPD officerkilled my son?

Why wouldn't you offer mecounseling and rehabilitation,

which is much morecost-effective to...

and much more cost-effectiveand much more effective

than, um, imprisoning me

over an over at $60,000,$70,000 a year?

It just doesn' just doesn't add up.

And then, at the endof the time... the day,

-I'm worse off thanwhen I first went in. -Right.

And I still need servicesand rehabilitation.

It's just kind of...kind of backwards, uh, approach

to building better, healthier,safer communities.

It really isa backwards approach.

And you've talked abouthow you have started

being the change in your world.

You know, you're responsiblefor, I believe, it's five

of these homes whereyou're looking to rehabilitate

and get women backinto their lives,

and to better lives.

But what you really talk aboutis the system needs to changed.


Jeff Sessions, as we've seen,

has now completely done a 180on the previous administration,

in saying that he will pursuemaximum sentences

for people who are involvedwith drug offenses.

What do you thinkthe right way forward would be,

and how do you thinkthis decision will affect people

who are alreadypart of the system really?

You know, that... it is a-a...

um, social problem,

not a criminal problem.

Drugs are a social problem,

and they should not becriminalized.

I would hate to see

what Sessions is talking abouttake us back

into the dark agesof criminal justice.

We've been through that.We've seen the changes.

We've seenhow to be more, uh, uh,

morally right and-and humane...

-Mm-hmm.-...and cost-effective.

So, that's all around,you know, the moral high ground,

um, the most cost-effectiveapproach

to rebuilding livesand communities.


And-and, you know,

Jeff Sessions, you know...



(applause and cheering)

You know what?The look says it all.

I-I thank you so muchfor being here.

Thank youfor what you're doing.

Thank you for an amazing story

that you tell in that book,and, uh, in this book.

And thank you for being amazing.We appreciate you.

-Yeah. Thank you.-Thank you so much.

(applause and cheering)

Becoming Ms. Burton is available now.

It's an amazing story.Susan Burton, everybody.

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