September 21, 2017

Susan Burton discusses prison recovery activism

Author an advocate for removing the barriers people face upon returning home from prison

“When I was released from prison, I was pushed back out into the world with absolutely no support,” said activist and author Susan Burton at a talk on September 19 at the University of Redlands. “I was facing 45,000 legal barriers and sanctions that allowed people to discriminate against me because I had been incarcerated.”

Author of Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life in South Los Angeles, a reentry program that provides housing, legal services, and family services to people who have been recently released from prison. Burton was named CNN Hero in 2010 and has been interviewed recently by National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” The New York Times, and USA Today.

“She has become a real leader, both in criminal justice reform in California and in imagining how to create spaces of transformation for people who are coming home from prison,” said Jennifer Tilton, U of R professor of racial and ethnic studies, who was instrumental in inviting Burton to the U of R. 

Sponsored by a variety of groups on campus—Race and Ethnic StudiesJohnston CenterPhilosophyWomen, Gender, and Sexuality StudiesPolitical ScienceCampus Diversity and Inclusion; and the School of Education—the event aimed to raise awareness of the difficulties that formerly incarcerated people face after they have served their prison sentences.

During her talk, Burton revealed a personal history that involved the sudden death of her five-year-old son. The pain of his loss spiraled into heavy substance abuse, leading to six prison terms. Eventually, however, Burton was finally offered the chance to change course and forge a path to success.  

“After my sixth prison commitment, someone led me to a recovery agency in Santa Monica,” she said. “After spending 100 days there, I emerged a woman who was committed to her life and the lives of other formerly incarcerated women.”

Burton explained how advocates in California are working to change criminal justice policies and employment practices (such as "banning the box" on job applications) so people do not face a lifetime of punishment for past convictions. Additionally, she explained “sentence enhancements” and “collateral consequences”—the public and private services that convicted criminals are excluded from after serving prison sentences—while promoting legislation for criminal justice reform.

“If I get arrested again, the court could give me additional time for one of my prior convictions, which is called an enhancement,” she said. “But I believe that once a person has served his or her time in prison, they should no longer be punished. Senate Bill 180 is sitting on the governor’s desk, and if it passes it would limit enhancements on a criminal’s prior convictions.”      

In her final remarks, Burton spoke about the unfortunate reality that the majority of formerly incarcerated people face. “We weren’t designed to live in chains and cages and then be pushed back out into an environment with no opportunities,” she said. “But that’s what happens in our country, over and over again.”