Susan Burton is touring prisons, jails and re-entry programs across America with her book, “Becoming Ms. Burton.” She will be posting her story on Facebook and at becomingmsburton.com and anewwayoflife.org after each visit. Here is her first dispatch.
I just returned to Los Angeles after my first round of prison visits. This week I had the honor of visiting Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York, and Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Entering a prison always causes a lot of feelings in me, but I left New York excited about the tour and hopeful about the impact that the book will have on people behind bars.
I was joined in Taconic Correctional Facility by Cheryl Wilkins, who was once incarcerated herself but now works for the Center for Justice at Columbia University to facilitate classes inside the prison.
I expected to only speak with the women in the university class, but the warden opened the discussion to the general population and around 65 women were present for my discussion, in addition to staff and volunteers.
At first, I discussed my life and other issues that impact women, such as the criminalization of abuse. I read them the prologue of my book. And I told them the stories of other women I know who’ve been in their position: Ingrid Archie, whose life changed in a single day with the determination to piece her life back together, and Topeka Sam, a formerly incarcerated woman who started Hope House NYC, a re-entry housing program similar to A New Way of Life.
But then something extraordinary happened. Cheryl and I sensed a feeling of safety and trust in the room. We started talking about some very difficult topics, including abuse the women had experienced and whether the women had been to jail previously — and the women just opened up. It was an incredibly powerful moment.
Tears fell as the women reflected on their past and imagined how their lives could be after serving their sentences. We wanted these women to know that the landscape around women and incarceration is shifting and there are many opportunities for them to begin to dream again and find meaning in their lives. I believe that every incarcerated woman has the power within her to fight for her dreams
As I left Taconic, the superintendent of Taconic told me, “You changed the narrative for these women today.”
For me, there’s no place I would have rather been than right there with those women. Hope, although a small word has a big impact, and watching these women begin to hope again inspires me to keep jumping on planes and flying all over this country and taking this message to as many women as I can.