What I Learned From Susan Burton, a Modern-Day Harriet Tubman
Reading her life story will change the way you view the world.
By Michelle Alexander
There once lived a woman with deep brown skin and black hair who freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety. She welcomed them to safe homes and offered food, shelter, and help reuniting with family and loved ones. She met them wherever they could be found and organized countless others to provide support and aid in various forms so they would not be recaptured and sent back to captivity. This courageous soul knew well the fear and desperation of each one who came to her, seeing in their eyes all the pain she felt years ago when she had been abused and shackled and finally began her own journey to freedom. Deep in the night she cried out to God begging for strength, and when she woke she began her work all over again, opening doors, planning escape routes, and holding hands with mothers as they wept for children they hoped to see again. A relentless advocate for justice, this woman was a proud abolitionist and freedom fighter. She told the unadorned truth to whomever would listen and spent countless hours training and organizing others, determined to grow the movement. She served not only as a profound inspiration to those who knew her but also as a real gateway to freedom for hundreds whose lives were changed forever by her heroism.
This essay is adapted from the foreword to Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn (The New Press, April 2017) and published with the permission of the author and The New Press.
Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman. I know her as Susan.
I met Susan Burton in 2010, but I learned her name years before. I was doing some research regarding the challenges of reentry for people incarcerated due to our nation’s cruel and biased drug war. At the time, I was in the process of writing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness—a book that aimed to expose the ways the War on Drugs had not only decimated impoverished communities of color but also helped to birth a new system of racial and social control eerily reminiscent of an era supposedly left behind. The United States has become the world leader in imprisonment, having quintupled our prison population in a few short decades through a drug war and a “get tough” movement aimed at the poorest and darkest among us. I was writing a chapter that explains how tens of millions of people branded criminals and felons have been stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil-rights movement, including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. I had mountains of policy analyses and data, but I was disturbed by the fact that few voices of those who actually had been impacted by these modern-day Jim Crow policies could be found in the research.
I scanned dozens of articles online, then paused when I stumbled upon an interview with a woman named Susan Burton. The integrity and authenticity of her voice was undeniable. She told the reporter plainly and directly what it felt like, as a recovering drug addict released from prison and struggling to survive, to be forced to “check the box” on the ubiquitous employment, housing, and food-stamp applications that asked the dreaded question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” She knew full well that, once that box was checked, her application would be thrown straight in the trash. How would she survive without food, shelter, or a job? She described with clarity and conviction what it meant to be a second-class citizen in the so-called land of the free, and she insisted that she was determined to do everything she could to ensure that the laws, rules, policies, and practices that authorize legal discrimination against people with convictions are eventually abandoned, and that we begin to provide drug treatment rather than prison cells to people struggling with addiction and drug abuse. I learned Susan had created several safe homes for formerly incarcerated women and that she was part of a small but growing movement for the restoration of basic civil and human rights for people who have spent time behind bars. The interview moved me, and I thought I have to meet this woman.
Shortly after The New Jim Crow was published, I had my chance. A mutual friend introduced us via email, and Susan invited me to come to Los Angeles and visit the nonprofit organization she founded, A New Way of Life. She thanked me profusely for my book, and said that she, along with the formerly incarcerated women currently residing at the safe homes, wanted to organize a book event for me at a local community center. I told her that I would be thrilled to come and hoped to learn more about her work and lend support as best I could.
I was not prepared for what followed. Upon my arrival, Susan gave me a tour of the safe homes for formerly incarcerated women that operate as part of A New Way of Life. I’m not certain what I expected, but probably something similar to various halfway houses I’ve seen over the years. Instead, I discovered something else entirely. These were not facilities or shelters or way stations or simply housing for people released from prison who need support services. These were homes. Loving homes. Susan took me from house to house and showed me where the women slept and worked. The residents and staff greeted Susan with a measure of formality—“Good afternoon, Ms. Burton!—yet the warmth and love was palpable. In some of the bedrooms, paint was peeling off the walls, and mattresses for children were on the floor along with a few scattered stuffed animals. Clearly, every penny raised was immediately invested in providing more beds, houses, and services. The accommodations were sparse, to say the least. But they were also immaculate, and every woman I met expressed enormous gratitude for Susan and the lifeline she provided. Susan offered not just a place to sleep and to get desperately needed assistance but also emotional support as the women struggled to meet the seemingly endless and impossible requirements of parole and probation officers, as well as the demands of the most feared agency of them all: child protective services.
In California, like most states, women released from prison must meet a dizzying list of requirements if they hope to regain custody of their children, including showing they have secured employment and housing. Meeting these requirements is no small feat, particularly when hundreds of categories of jobs are off-limits to people with felony records, discrimination is still legal against them, public housing agencies routinely deny access to people based on criminal records, and—until recently—even food stamps weren’t available to people with drug convictions. Susan and her staff work tirelessly to help women at A New Way of Life meet these conditions, but they also go to court with them, hold hands with them, and pray with them, as judges decide whether custody will be terminated forever.
I remember calling Susan one day, long after my first visit, and catching her when she was at the courthouse with a young woman who had just lost custody—permanently—of her daughter. Susan’s voice was cracking and breaking over the phone, failing to hold back tears, as she erupted: “I’ve been down here all week at the courthouse, watching and waiting as these families are torn apart. I see these women doing everything they can, and still their babies are taken away. How can we do this to people? Does anyone really understand what’s going on here? We’re willing to spend countless dollars putting people who need help in cages, and then when they get out we say you can’t have a job, and you can’t have housing, and because you don’t have either we’re going to take your kids too. Sometimes I think I can’t go on, that I just can’t bear to watch this or do this anymore.”
THE STAKES ARE HIGHER NOW THAN EVER. GET THE NATION IN YOUR INBOX.
But she does. Day in and day out, Susan is always there, welcoming women returning home from prison, providing them with as much support and guidance as possible, and walking with them into the courthouse. Over and over again. Like Harriet Tubman, who famously helped to build the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves who yearned to be free and reunite with their loved ones, Susan has committed her life to helping those held captive today make a genuine break for freedom, attempt to rebuild their lives and families, and hopefully begin to heal from the trauma of it all.
I don’t think I understood the full extent of the trauma experienced by people who churn through America’s prisons until I began taking the time to listen to their stories. Research suggests that people rarely change their minds or form a new world view based on facts or data alone; it is through stories (and the values systems embedded within them) that we come to reinterpret the world and develop empathy and compassion for others. Susan Burton’s life story—filled with trauma, struggle, and true heroism—is precisely the kind of story that has the potential to change the way we view our world. It is impossible to read her story and not feel challenged to reconsider basic assumptions about our criminal-injustice system, as well as the conscious and subconscious beliefs we hold about the living, breathing human beings we, as a nation, have condemned and discarded. In today’s political environment we are constantly encouraged—through the media, politicians, and government bureaucracies—to view certain groups of people defined by race and class as undeserving of care and concern, especially the drug addicts, criminals, and so-called illegals who are trapped in prisons, detention centers, and ghettos across the United States.
During my first visit to A New Way of Life, Susan sat me down on a couch in an empty safe home—the residents were out for the moment—and quietly began to tell her story. She explained that her odyssey with the criminal justice system began when her 5-year-old son was accidentally killed by a police officer employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. The officer was driving down her street in her South Central neighborhood and ran over her boy while he was crossing the street. The LAPD initially offered no compensation, no counseling, no trauma support—not even an apology. She 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 had been 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. Lacking money and a support system, she turned to illegal drugs and became addicted to crack cocaine. Living in an impoverished black community under siege during the height of the War on Drugs, it was only a matter of time before Susan was arrested and offered her first plea deal. It would not be her last. Susan cycled in and out of prison for 15 years, trapped in a virtual undercaste—a parallel social universe that exists for those labeled criminals and felons in the era of mass incarceration. Every time she was released, she faced a web of discriminatory rules and laws that made survival next to impossible, and continued to self-medicate with illegal drugs.
By no small miracle, Susan was eventually granted admission to a private drug treatment facility and given a job. When she became clean, she decided to devote her life to ensuring that no other woman would ever have to suffer what she had been through. She began meeting the prison bus, as it released women onto the streets carrying nothing but a cardboard box with their belongings and a few dollars in their pockets. She said to these women, who were strangers to her, “Come home with me, sleep on my couch or on my floor. I’ll make sure you have a roof over your head and food to eat. You don’t have to turn to the streets tonight.”
Susan explained to me that, in the beginning, she simply wanted to give women who were struggling to make it on the outside food, shelter, safety, and some support as they pieced their lives back together again. But now, Susan said, she sees her mission and purpose as much broader. She aims to help build a movement, a human-rights movement that will provide a path to a new way of life for all of us. She co-founded All of Us or None, an organization dedicated to the restoration of basic civil and human rights for formerly incarcerated people, and has begun training the women who are part of A New Way of Life to be leaders, spokespeople, and organizers. She views the women who live and work with her not merely as people to be “helped,” but women who are joining in a shared struggle to remake their individual lives, while transforming their communities and the nation as a whole.
Since that talk on her couch several years ago, Susan and I have had many conversations about the future of movement building and advocacy to end mass incarceration. She has become a friend and a confidant, as well as my personal shero. Every time I speak with her I am reminded of why it is so critically important for people who have been directly impacted by injustice to emerge as partners and leaders of the movements for justice we aim to build. As a lawyer and as 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. What I have found is that I have much more to learn from Susan Burton than she does from me, despite all of the research and writing I have done on these issues over the years.
Susan’s book, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, is not simply a story about a formerly incarcerated woman dedicated to working for justice and freedom in the era of mass incarceration. It is a story of a black woman who, as she often tells me, is “nothing special” and yet has somehow managed to transform her own life as well as hundreds of lives around her. She has emerged as a leading figure in the movement to end mass incarceration, always leading by example and never leading alone. This book tells a story of one woman known to staff and residents as Ms. Burton, but it is also tells a much broader, universal story about the utter fragility and breathtaking resilience of the human spirit—even in the face of severe sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. 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. To borrow the poetry of Maya Angelou, “And still like dust they rise.”