By Susan Burton and Cari Lynn, The New Press, February 12, 2019, 1620974355
Wow. Susan Burton became Ms. Burton on a long hard road. I read about it, and maybe felt it through the excellent writing. (Ms. Burton’s voice comes through loud and clear.) However, I can’t truly understand what it is like to grow up poor, black, during 1950s.
Becoming Ms. Burton is a book for the times. It explains why you can’t ignore the path-dependence problem. We all have our histories, and they are unique to our experience, but the collective history of Black America is not mine. I was lucky. Susan Burton was extremely unlucky.
Her call to action is visceral. Read the book to understand why we have to find a solution to the formerly incarcerated people, to domestic abuse, to sexual abuse, to prejudice, to racism, and to police brutality.
[k113] I had mountains of policy analyses and data, but was disturbed by the fact that few voices of those who had actually been impacted by these modern-day Jim Crow policies could be found in the research.
[k166] She explained that her odyssey with the criminal justice system began when her five-year-old son was accidentally killed by a police officer employed by the Los Angeles Police Department.
[k168] The LAPD initially offered no compensation, no counseling, no trauma support–not even an apology.
[k169] Susan fell into a deep, seemingly bottomless well of grief and depression.
I have no doubt things would’ve turned out differently if Susan had been wealthy and white. Even if she was middle class and had access to a good health insurance plan, she could’ve afforded years of therapy and been prescribed the best legal drugs available to help her cope with her trauma. But things were different for Susan.
[k192] As a lawyer and an academic, I am often surrounded by people who think they know the answers, as well as how to define the problem, and have endless opinions about what to do next. They’ve done their research and studied the data and read the reports and they know how to navigate the halls of power. Yet often what they lack is relevant life experience–the deep, profound ways of knowing and seeing that come from living through severe racial and social injustice and making a way out of no way.
[k202] In the end, this is a story about how an entire system of oppressive rules, laws, policies, and practices has failed to permanently crush one woman’s spirit and the spirits of the many women who have walked through the doors of A New Way of Life, though surely that system has tried.
[k314] There’s also no logical reason why federal prisons offer halfway houses to those newly released, but state prisons provide nothing. Four thousand newly released women arrive in Los Angeles County every year to nothing.
[k316] You have no house key, no credit card, no checkbook, no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no identification of any sort because anything you were carrying when you were arrested has been destroyed by the state.
[k331] Three days: that’s the average time for someone to relapse after getting out of prison.
[k335] The prison guard who put me on the bus waved and said, “We got your bed waiting for you. See you soon.”
[k339] People with my color skin, and who grew up where I did, didn’t know concepts like rehab. I was always remanded to prison.
[k347] It could have been anyone at the wheel, but it happened to be a policeman driving an unmarked van. He didn’t see my son. Nor did he stick around.
[k352] When time’s numbing effect began to take hold, my rage was replaced by a depression so deep I felt hollow.
[k360] In Los Angeles from 1940 to 1945, the white population rose less than 20 percent, while the black population increased nearly 110 percent. Yet only 5 percent of the city’s residential areas allowed blacks.
[k382] Mama was beautiful, and she was smart. How determined she must have been to get herself all the way to Howard University. She pursued a degree in Home Economics, one of the only majors available to women then.
[k565] At 61st Street Elementary, I placed top in my class spelling contest, qualifying me to compete in the schoolwide spelling bee.
[k615] For those years, I lived in a constant state of fear. I was scared of my brothers and scared of my mother and scared of that house.
[k626] Mama had two sides: the tornado of rage she unleashed on me, and the side she presented to everyone else.
[k625] She hit my thighs until U-shaped welts appeared. Sometimes, my skin opened.
[k634] More than 60 percent of incarcerated women report having been sexually assaulted before the age of eighteen.
[k649] All I could do was silently stand there, burning with humiliation, swallowing back my fury. I was trained not to talk back, though this was about more than just respecting your elders. This went back to an archetypal core: you didn’t speak up to the master, no matter what, no matter if the master was right or wrong or crazy as a loon, you didn’t say a damn thing.
[k653] If only I had understood the threat I posed to Aunt Elizabeth–that if Daddy ever found out his sister’s role in what had happened to me with Curly, there’s no telling what he’d have done. Looking back, she had to have realized this, and her solution was to intimidate, to lord over me.
[k689] I don’t remember how much money Mr. Burke offered to lure me into his bedroom. He told me not to be scared, that he wasn’t going to hurt me. I clenched the bedspread, my body going stiff as a board.
[k692] I kept returning to his house. I came back for $10, then $20, then $50. I taught myself how, the instant I walked through the door, to take my mind far away, to a place of silence and stillness.
[k695] I was ten years old, then eleven, then twelve, and I became accustomed to Mr. Burke’s money.
[k700] Around this time, I began to have a noticeable stutter and was sent to the speech therapist at school. The therapist, a white woman, called in my mother, and I overhead her telling Mama I was going to grow up to be a criminal.
[k719] The principal made me kneel on a bench. The edge of my jumper was supposed to graze the bench. Instead, it hovered about an inch too high. I was suspended from school for two weeks on account of the inch.
[k725] By the time I returned to school, I’d fallen considerably behind, especially in math.
[k723] I learned how to get with boys–and that I could pick the boys I wanted. I learned to buck authority, and I learned to be defiant.
[k726] Having always been a good student, I didn’t know how to ask for help.
[k727] With each passing week, my confusion and stress mounted. And then it occurred to me: there was a way I could solve this. I could decide to stop caring about school. I could, instead, go hang out.
[k769] During World War II, when the availability of defense factory jobs prompted thousands of black southerners to head to Los Angeles in search of a better life, Watts was one of the only areas blacks were permitted to live. Merely two square miles, Watts soon became the most densely populated neighborhood in the country
[k776] By 1965, Watts was boiling over with decades of employment and housing discrimination, segregation, extreme poverty, and police abuse.
[k796] We had the Four Tops on the record player, the volume turned up and the front door open so we could hear. Before our eyes, a military tank rolled down 41st Street. Out jumped soldiers in combat gear, rifles pointed at us. “Get inside!” they ordered. We scrambled into that stifling, crumbling house so fast.
[k875] Now, her shame had become mine. It would be another three decades before I’d finally confront my mother, and even after all that time it took vast courage to speak honestly to her.
[k931] If only I’d known that, too often, black girls like me were considered dropouts but were really “push-outs”–pushed out of opportunities that school should have provided.
[k934] We had no safety net, no system of support, no community or services to turn to and say, dignity intact: “I need some help.”
[k945] Black women comprise 40 percent of street prostitutes, though 55 percent of women arrested for prostitution are black, and 85 percent of women incarcerated for prostitution are black.
[k961] James secured me an ID that said I was twenty-one years old. And he found the johns willing to pay up. I entered into what we in the underworld called “the life.”
[k964] My sense of self was so warped that I believed my ability to divorce myself from my emotions was my greatest asset.
I set my sights three years ahead, when I would turn eighteen and could get Toni without fear of Mama dragging me off to juvenile hall. Until then, I’d linger on my corner, no shortage of men who wanted to get with me, and make what I convinced myself was an easy living.
[k1010] My first sentence was reduced from thirty days to twenty for good behavior. James was waiting to pick me up, and I hopped in his Cadillac and went straight back to work.
[k1046] Other women–white women–might have gone to the police for a restraining order. But in my community, the police weren’t who we turned to for help. To willingly go to the police, you had to believe they were on your side.
[k1334] Often, I thought Toni sounded lonely. But what I didn’t know was that, in a way, my brothers’ and my incarceration lifted a weight from her. She’d been shouldering the pressures of her academic life plus worrying about all of us, and now she no longer had to feel responsible for everyone else in the family. She could replace the shame and embarrassment of us with peace, quiet, and normalcy.
[k1340] I returned to Los Angeles in time for Toni’s prom, then her graduation. On top of that, she’d earned a scholarship in math to UCLA. My daughter was going to a university.
[k1346] Crack had come to town mysteriously and seemingly overnight.
[k1359] Webb pointed to a primary kingpin: a Contra enjoying political asylum in California. And his biggest customer: a young black man from South Central L.A., Ricky Ross.
[k1368] Suddenly flush with cash, the Crips invested in automatic weapons, which were also, conveniently, supplied by the Contras. Soon,
[k1378] But a Department of Justice Inspector General’s report would later reveal that, although the whereabouts of Freeway Ricky Ross’s major Nicaraguan drug supplier were known and tracked, the kingpin wasn’t arrested.
[k1392] At first, to me, crack seemed weird and strange, and I didn’t like it. But in the act of consuming it, my pain was replaced with a silence more profound than anything I had ever experienced.
[k1395] It didn’t matter what my mother said, or how my daughter looked at me. Crack made nothing else matter.
[k1398] Because of the crack epidemic and the harsh, racially discriminatory policies of the Anti–Drug Abuse Act, one in three black men will see the inside of a jail cell. The average time served by African Americans for nonviolent drug offenses is virtually the same as the time whites serve for violent offenses.
[k1437] But you couldn’t get angry or sad in jail because you had no recourse, there was nowhere to put it–you couldn’t talk to anyone about it, or shout about it, or eat it back, or walk it off, or punch the air.
[k1458] But we weren’t allowed to talk. In chow hall, you opened your mouth only to put food into it.
[k1488] “Fire camp is a privilege,” a board member informed me. Indeed, this privilege was reserved for those who presented little threat of escape if taken off prison grounds. But being sent to the front line to fight California wildfires when you wanted to be learning how to do hair seemed the opposite of a privilege.
[k1491] What I didn’t know at the time was that, even if an assignment to the cosmetology shop had been granted, I still wouldn’t have stood a chance of working in a beauty shop on the outside. Most professional licenses–whether it was beautician, barber, social worker, plumber, the list in many states was a hundred job titles long–were denied to people with a criminal record.
[k1510] worked out to be a good system, and by sharing our possessions we were rarely without. The money prisoners made at work detail amounted to spare change, so in order to buy common necessities at the canteen you needed people on the outside to mail a money order to the prison to fill your account. One thing I can say for my family, they always pulled together when any of the Burtons were incarcerated.
[k1522] To me, prison was about learning how to navigate and how to comply.
[k1534] Seemed like America had figured out reliable phone service half a century earlier, but the prison phone would work some days and not others, and no one was ever sure why or how to fix it. The spotty service was especially surprising since the private company that had the prison phone contract engaged in some serious price gouging: all calls were collect, and the recipient was billed $15 for a ten-minute, in-state call.
[k1558] One in every 125 white children has a parent behind bars–for African American children, the rate is one in nine.
[k1628] She was tired of accepting the collect calls, tired of planning days around visiting hours. She felt her reward for being well behaved and a good student was that she had to run around and take care of all the adults who were screwing up their lives.
[k1687] We were dealing with police who, when called to a homicide, would walk over the bodies looking for property to take–but under the country’s seizure and civil forfeiture laws, this was not illegal. Each time I was arrested, any money I had on me disappeared. The police said the cash was evidence. But none of this “evidence” would be recorded on booking slips, none showed up in court documents. This time I was going to prison not on evidence the police stole but evidence they planted.
[k1718] Still under construction at the time was the $140 million Central California Women’s Facility, which would hold the title of the largest women’s prison in the world (and which, only a handful of years after opening, would be stuffed to double the intended capacity).
[k1750] Though I can’t blame my actions on the drugs, I was high when I said my vows. I had no idea what a good man was supposed to be, but Chief supported me financially and never raised a hand to me, and that meant something.
[k1758] Dope doesn’t exactly compel you to be a kind, considerate person, and I treated myself and everyone around me poorly.
[k1767] I was a sad, lost, broken woman. I was an addict, an alcoholic. Not once in those courtrooms did it go down differently. Not once did a judge say, “Let’s defer her to treatment.” I didn’t know to ask for anything different–treatment wasn’t something offered up to people from my community.
[k1803] Public pretenders, that’s what we called them on the inside. No more useful in court than your own shadow standing next to you.
[k1807] Bright-eyed intentions were useless when the public defenders’ office was so severely underfunded it was practically impossible for a lawyer to spend more than five minutes per case. It was the prosecutors who now ran the courtroom; public defenders and, for that matter, judges were virtually powerless.
[k1821] This time, supplied with information from my bunkie, I decided I would be the bargainer. I told my lawyer, “I will take the plea of five years if I am sent to the Civil Addict Program.”
[k1824] From the moment I had entered the system, I was flagged for the criminal side, while my white bunkie was flagged for the civil side, even though our crimes were the same.
[k1827] California Rehabilitation Center, located in Norco, about an hour from Los Angeles, was still a state penitentiary with barbed wire surrounding the premises, but the interior felt slightly more welcoming.
[k1831] The first obvious thing I noticed about my fellow prisoners was that they were predominantly white. Soon, other things became clear: most hailed from suburban areas of California, and most had been represented by private attorneys, not public defenders. No wonder I hadn’t been offered CRC before.
[k1839] Though the prison was called a rehabilitation center, CCEP wasn’t drug rehab. It didn’t include therapy, there were no group discussions, no counseling, it didn’t delve into anything personal. Our teacher was a former prison guard, not a therapist. We were assigned a textbook and watched stilted educational movies about addiction.
[k1874] Also, my mother had grown oddly passive and distracted–what we’d later learn was the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “I’d wanted to do everything differently,” Toni later told me. “But how could I when I was still there?”
As a mother, Toni was beyond strict, and I knew her biggest fear was that Ellesse would stray down a bad path, like the rest of us.
[k1885] I passed the written CCEP test, then went before the board for the verbal test. Right on schedule, I was released, having served eight months.
[k1950] Once again, I memorized the lessons in the textbook and watched the same slides and stilted movies. And, just as before, old wounds were prodded. But, this time, something unsettling happened: I couldn’t automatically shut myself down. When one of the movies described dysfunctional family roles, such as the perpetual caregiver or the scapegoat, something in me began to stir. At night, as I tried to fall asleep, scenes of my childhood flashed before my eyes. I thought I’d buried these memories too deep to unearth, but the images continued to grow more and more vivid. As the months went on, emotions that I didn’t want to feel flooded me. I was hurting like hell and had no idea what to do about it.
[k1966] I told her about the rape and my pregnancy. I told her about K.K.
Ms. Tucker looked at me for a long moment. I feared she was going to tell me I was out of line. She said, “I don’t want you to worry about passing my class. You have enough to think about.”
[k1970] This was an official indication that things had gone very wrong in my life. Her validation caused me, for the first time, to cry my heart out.
[k2016] “Susan, you never learned.” She shook her head. “You just cross your legs, and you lock them. That’s what I always did.” She then paused from her quilting, as though exasperated. “Look, I could not help you as a little girl, and I cannot help you now. Why don’t you just go away?”
[k2013] “Mama, about Mr. Burke,” I said. “I was just a little girl.” Her face hardened. “Don’t try to run no guilt trip on me, Susan. You did what you did.” “But, Mama, it was illegal. Why did you keep letting that happen?” “Susan, you never learned.” She shook her head. “You just cross your legs, and you lock them. That’s what I always did.” She then paused from her quilting, as though exasperated. “Look, I could not help you as a little girl, and I cannot help you now. Why don’t you just go away?”
I went out back, the abused little girl now a mangled, broken woman.
[k2050] Black women are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses as white women.
[k2074] One of the men shared that he was here because he’d been driving drunk and hit a police car. In my neighborhood, that’d be called attempted murder. But this man, white, living in Santa Monica, was sentenced to community service, which entailed painting a jail.
[k2077] I listened silently, thinking about my brother, Michael, who’d been sentenced to eight years in prison for falling asleep at the wheel–with no alcohol or drug involvement–and he still had to serve the full sentence even after being diagnosed with narcolepsy.
[k2084] In that room, I found hope. Someone passed me a newcomer chip. Someone else gave me the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. On the walk back after the meeting, I held both close to my heart.
[k2089] I learned how to meditate, and to not be afraid of being alone with myself.
[k2091] Every morning we gathered for readings and discussion and to set an individual goal for the day. It was the first time in my life I’d deliberately set a goal.
[k2361] Ms. Andrews was a sweet lady, and I bathed her, did her laundry, cleaned the house, grocery shopped, cooked, and picked up her prescriptions.
[k2365] I saw firsthand how poorly most seniors are treated–how lonely and scary it is to grow frail, and how ill equipped we are as a society to provide care.
[k2377] She and her friends continued referring me, and before long, I was caring for seven clients, visiting different homes on alternating days of the week.
[k2405] He asked about my background, and I stumbled through some answers, which prompted him to ask if I’d ever had a felony conviction. “Yes,” I said. He put down his pen. “You are not eligible to take nursing courses,” he said. “You can’t be licensed as an RN or certified as a home health aide with a criminal record.”
[k2445] We decided A New Way of Life was exactly right. Ms. Andrews and I said a sad goodbye and, as she moved out of her home, I moved into mine. It was 1998, and I had no idea I was on the brink of something that would become larger and more meaningful than I could ever have imagined.
[k2455] Stan was, himself, formerly homeless. A black man from Chicago, he’d been arrested for a murder he didn’t commit and was imprisoned for two years before being proven not guilty at trial and, at last, released. But in the years he’d been locked up, he lost everything–work, his home, his family.
[k2511] In some small way, I hoped my presence and my voice could offer women a way out of the cycle, could help them find their own lasting freedom.
[k2559] In the evening, Mitzi cooked dinner, and we all ate together, going around the table to hear about each other’s day. Maybe, to some, having a cook seemed excessive. But I believed coming home to a meal set a warm foundation for the household and eliminated a worry many of us knew all too well: that we might go to bed hungry.
[k2622] Sixty-five million Americans with a criminal record face a total of 45,000 collateral consequences that restrict everything from employment, professional licensing, child custody rights, housing, student aid, voting, and even the ability to visit an incarcerated loved one. Many of these restrictions are permanent, forever preventing those who’ve already served their time from reaching their potential in the workforce, as parents, and as productive citizens.
“The result is that these collateral consequences become a life sentence harsher than whatever sentence a court actually imposed upon conviction.”
– American Bar Association president William C. Hubbard
[k2633] Capabilities didn’t matter; neither did skills, past experience, or aptitude. The sum of everything else was blotted out by a criminal conviction.
[k2686] His encouragement meant as much if not more than the money. For the next decade, until his death from a brain tumor, Mr. Forstmann quietly and steadily supported us.
[k2721] “In this country, there’s a public policy commitment to incarceration,” Saul said, explaining how those in charge had made a conscious decision to treat addiction and mental illness not as the public health problems that they were, but as criminal justice problems. “What does it mean that the number-one funder for political campaigns in our state is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which is the prison guards’ union?
[k2826] “Children’s group homes and private foster agencies receive thousands more dollars in monthly funds per child than does a relative who steps up to care for a child,” he said. “The truth is, most relatives receive no funding at all, even though, by law, they should.”
[k2847] Saul passed around to our study group a sheet with columns of numbers–numbers I’d soon grow accustomed to studying–detailing payment rates for foster care. Group homes received the most, several thousand dollars a month per child, though the group home system was riddled with documented cases of severe neglect and abuse.
[k2894] “All of us here in South L.A. know police misconduct isn’t a new thing. It’s never not been happening.”
[k2898] Something as minor as jaywalking routinely landed a black man facedown on the street, his hands slapped with cuffs. Power was a beast, and it was hungry, especially in poor communities where citizens had little recourse. “
[k3023] When he first entered prison, he recalled seeing more black men in one space than he’d ever before seen. He also reunited with the kids from his neighborhood he’d played Little League with, and they soon realized their whole team was there in prison–except for the one white kid.
[k3066] Part of Clinton’s flawed Welfare Reform Act was a seemingly random stipulation that anyone convicted of a drug felony was banned for life from receiving food stamps.
[k3068] Also, it arbitrarily singled out drug offenders while still permitting food stamp benefits for those with any other conviction, such as armed robbery, rape, or murder.
[k3129] Pain was inevitable, I told myself, but suffering was optional.
[k3175] The vicious cycle was heartbreaking: you couldn’t keep your children unless you demonstrated a safe place to live, but your criminal record banned you from subsidized housing and disqualified you from most private housing.
[k3182] It cost up to $75,000 to incarcerate a woman for one year–but, after her release, zero was invested in reuniting her with her children and providing support for the family.
[k4138] But when Vonya went to collect the completed forms, there were only five, and they were all marked Republican. Out of four thousand inmates in a largely Latino city, this seemed odd. She requested that All of Us or None be allowed to enter the jails to conduct voter registration, but the sheriff’s office delayed responding until near the voter registration deadline, and then rejected the request.
[k4143] In 2012, a victorious ruling came down in Riverside All of Us or None v. Riverside County Sheriffs. The sheriffs were ordered to comply with providing voter registration forms to everyone in jail, to change the jails’ requirements for voter registration, and to include the updated voter procedure in each jail guide.
[k4203] I was shocked to learn that when other commissioners toured a facility, they didn’t speak with inmates. They only spoke with administrators. To me, this seemed a gaping and absurd hole in the oversight process.
[k4467] Unarmed blacks are killed by the police at five times the rate of unarmed whites. At least one in three blacks killed by police were identified as unarmed. In 2015, police killed at least 102 unarmed black people, nearly two each week. Of these cases, only ten resulted in police being charged, and only two cases saw convictions of the officers involved. One officer received a four-year prison sentence. The other officer was sentenced to jail for one year, though he was allowed to serve his time exclusively on weekends.
[k4493] We’d lost the gains of the civil rights movement on the back of the criminal justice system.
[k4529] And from the crack of dawn until I couldn’t keep my eyes open my life was pure knuckle and grit and nonstop work. Turning pain into power, turning despair into hope. But, just like dealing with addiction, if there’s one thing I’ve learned without a doubt: a system doesn’t work just because it’s there. You have to make it work. And, when it comes to government systems, we have to make it work.
We have to call and write, and we have to show up. It can’t just be a handful of big mouths like myself; it has to be a community.
[k4534] I wanted to tell my story as a call for mobilization.