This blog posting is part of an ongoing series following our founder Susan Burton as she tours prisons, jails and re-entry programs across America with her book, “Becoming Ms. Burton.”
I spent my weekend visiting with over 200 women at Denver County Jail. The experience there was very moving like it has been at all of the facilities I’ve visited. The women were divided into eight pods that house 15 to 40 women each. I spent about 40 minutes in each pod, talking with and listening to the women and answering their questions. Some of the women had read Becoming Ms. Burton; some had not. They spoke about how they wanted to change their lives but did not have access to resources upon leaving jail.
I know firsthand the challenges women face after leaving prison and attempting to reintegrate into society. Over 80 percent of incarcerated women have experienced abuse prior to incarceration, and finding a way to heal from that and address it is challenging. And upon their release, women deal with both their original trauma and the traumatic effects of their incarceration.
I told the women that re-entry is not easy, but I know through the many ups and downs of my life that it can be done. They have to be willing to go after re-entry like many of them once went after drugs. They must stay the course and be willing to fight for their life. I have made it my mission to fight for my life and their lives too in hopes that they will be motivated to keep going. Some of the women told me that seeing me on the other side let them know that they can do it too.
I was joined at Denver Country Jail by Antoinette Gifford, a law professor, and Judge Fay, who some of the women recognized as the judge who sentenced them. Judge Fay asked the women if they had gotten assistance from the court, to which they replied, “We didn’t get any help; we were sent to prison.” The judge was moved by this comment, along with the story that one young lady shared about her journey through the foster care system before eventually becoming homeless. Since reading my book, Judge Fay said, she has actually changed the way she sentences those who enter her court room.
In Denver, I also attended a law conference where a district attorney asked me if she made my book available to her staff, would I come speak to them. I said, “Yes, if the prosecutors will go with me into the jail to talk to women.” Through interactions like these, I am seeing how Becoming Ms. Burton not only impacts the lives of those currently incarcerated but it’s also changing the hearts and minds of people who work in the criminal justice system!