WESTCHESTER — For Susan Burton, helping formerly incarcerated women embrace a new way of life is a calling. As a formerly incarcerated woman herself, Burton is committed to giving back a little bit of what was given to her when she received her second chance.
With that commitment comes a desire to reach into the community and to tell her story to those whose time, talent and resources can make all the difference in the lives of the most vulnerable among us. One of those communities is Loyola Marymount University, a catholic university where Burton has formed a partnership with faculty and students.
On Feb. 5, Burton was the featured speaker at a conversation on incarceration, hosted on campus as part of Black History Month, where she challenged the 100 students and faculty members in attendance to rethink how they view incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
“We have been trained to think about people who are incarcerated in a certain way,” Burton said. “There is this idea that everyone in jail is a sexual predator (or a monster) when the truth is most people are in prison because we have criminalized mental health, we have criminalized poverty and those are the reasons most people are incarcerated.”
That is a message that Deanne Cooke, assistant clinical professor and director of engaged learning at LMU, wanted to impart to the students in attendance.
“Our university’s mission is to promote social justice and so we enact that mission by helping our communities understand the current system of justice and imagine what it might look like to have a system that is more just,” Cooke said. “The most powerful way I can envision educating students is to let people tell their own stories and connect their humanity to the humanity of our students and community members.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in 37 adults, 2.7 percent of the adult population in the United States, is under some form of correctional supervision. African Americans as a whole are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than their white counterparts, while African-American women are twice more likely to go jail than their white counterparts.
“We rarely think about how the individual and their extended families are impacted by incarceration,” Cooke said. “We rarely think about why, by far, America has the largest rate of incarceration in the world; why there has been a large increase in incarceration of women; what happens to people’s children or parents when individuals are incarcerated; how incarcerated people continue to be impacted by various policies well after their release; or how our policies create disproportionate enforcement and convictions for black, brown and poor people.”
The sentiment is shared by Nathan Sessoms, director of the office of black student services at LMU.
“Speaking about the need for justice is one thing; understanding that need and getting involved in the eradication of injustice is something totally different,” Sessoms said. “My hope is that today participants develop a better understanding of this justice-related issue, as well as the various ways they can get involved.”
Burton, who is the author of “Becoming Ms. Burton,” an autobiographical memoir in which she discusses her journey to become who she believes she was born to be, hopes that her speaking out will change how people think and act about the issue of mass incarceration.
“I was out of prison six different times,” said Burton, who became addicted to substances after attempting to self-medicate to cope with the death of her child. “Then somebody helped me, provided me with a safe place to live, provided me with food, showed me compassion and introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous. That was the magic pill for me. But that help came out of Santa Monica and … I became driven to bring these types of services to my community.”
In 1998, Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project, an organization that offers housing, legal services and leadership training to formally incarcerated women. Through her organization, she has provided a safety net and a chance for reunification for more than 1,000 women and children.
“In addition to the related and long-standing issue of police brutality, mass incarceration represents the critical justice issue of our time,” Sessoms said. “However, people’s knowledge about these issues is often derived from television shows and, perhaps, social media.
“So, the opportunity to hear about Ms. Burton’s experiences, as well as the amazing work that she’s done and continues to do, paints a much clearer picture of the bias and disparities present within the criminal justice system.”
Burton said that from the very beginning her organization was committed to going beyond providing shelter and was determined to eliminate the institutional obstacles that made succeeding post prison nearly impossible.
“According to the American Bar Association, more than 48,000 barriers to reentry have been documented,” Burton said. “These barriers included limited access to employment, inability to get a driver’s license or a student loan, inability to secure permanent housing, and inability to get public assistance.
“We are all human and we have all made mistakes whether we have been convicted of them or not,” Burton added. “It is not fair to continually punish someone for a crime they have already served the time for.”
One of the ways that Burton hopes to convey this message is through the Justice on Trial Film Festival, which features films that speak to the challenges of people navigating the criminal justice system. Held annually at LMU, the event is open to the public.
“It is important that we understand all the struggles that people who are incarcerated face … and that we focus more on restorative justice,” Burton said. “We need to start speaking to each other and working towards creating the type of close communities that look out for each other.”
By Angela N. Parker