Susan Burton grew up in a Los Angeles neighborhood with her parents and five brothers. She explained that growing up, she had to make decisions that no little girl should ever have to make.
“I sort of survived all of the environmental factors, familial factors. My family wasn’t the most healthy family, and then my son was killed by a [Los Angeles Police Department] detective,” Burton said. “At that point, I just could not hold on anymore– the pain was too great, the grief was too big. I began to drink alcoholically, and then that escalated to drug use, and I was incarcerated.”
However, after being locked up for years, she decided to embrace a new beginning by fighting for women who are struggling to get back on their feet– just as she had.
Before and during her incarceration, Burton felt as though this is what her life would be.
“I was trapped in a revolving door of incarceration and addiction for almost 20 years, and then someone helped me,” Burton said.
She explained that it took a fight to beat the cycle of imprisonment and drugs, but she was able to get back on her feet and make a difference in the community.
“You know, I’m really grateful to be free, from not only the criminal-justice system but alcohol and drugs,” Burton said. “Next month, I will celebrate 20 years [sober].”
Burton shared her story on Sept. 14 at Veterans Park Community Center during the 14th annual Long Beach Recovery Awards, which she and her sister LaRonda Burton organized.
With her new beginning after 20 years, Burton set forth to help those feeling the burden of addiction and incarceration by creating an organization called A New Way of Life Reentry Project and writing a book.
“So, I have just written a book, it was actually released in May, and it’s called Becoming Ms. Burton because, before recovery, I just was not Ms. Burton,” Burton said. “Through recovery, I found myself and really sort of identified all of the ups and downs, the hills, the valleys, the pain and the victories. I have just fully claimed standing before you– claiming myself– the Ms. Burton in me.”
A New Way of Life Reentry Project has helped guide over a thousand women after they walked through the exit of prison gates to start their new lives, Burton said, adding that the project has also reunited 300 children with their mothers who have been incarcerated and are reentering the community.
Toward the end of the evening, Burton began to speak about the ethics surrounding incarceration rates.
“There is a race to incarcerate black and brown communities in really horrific numbers,” Burton said. “I just don’t feel like it’s by accident, and I know that we have more to give than […] the prison system. We can be more than that, and so I have just waged this struggle and this battle to bring our sisters home, to roll back harsh penalties and to repair our communities from the war on drugs.”
Burton also pointed out the difference between the war on drugs in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the opioid epidemic of today, since her incarceration was a few decades ago.
“Through the ‘80s,’90s and early 2000s, anytime a drug was talked about, there was always criminalization penalty for it,” Burton said. “Now we are in the 2017s and ‘20s and what have you, and we have an opioid epidemic. Now it’s an epidemic– it’s not a crime. But it’s not us who are mainly opioid users. Now they say it’s a health problem. Well, that’s good. But I just have to reflect when I used drugs, it was a criminal problem.”
Along with the rates of incarceration, the jails themselves are not ideal, and Burton was appointed to the Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections.
She continued to explain the horrendous state inmates have to live in and compared the current state of jails to “Third World” conditions.
“People should not be housed like that– treated like that,” Burton said. “This is the United States of America. We are rich all over the place, but they are stuffed in [prisons] like sardines.”
In addition to helping change the current conditions of jails, Burton also wishes to spread her message through her book.
Her efforts have been focused on the distribution of Becoming Ms. Burton through the nation’s prisons to incarcerated women in hopes that they realize their importance in the community– as Burton did years ago.
“It’s a fight, and it’s a struggle,” Burton said. “But, again, I just want to recognize and congratulate, you know, all of you who have picked up the coin of recovery and marched in a straight line courageously through your community. Not only repairing your lives but repairing the lives of those around you, because once you get your recovery, it’s about paying it forward.”