From Prisoner to Prison Activist

A Better Bumper Sticker - Photo by Justin Henry

Prison activism is a grassroots movement.

Susan Burton’s autobiography Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, written with Carl Lynn, provides a necessary counter-history, describing an early adult life in and out of prisons and her subsequent anti-incarceration work.

Black women in the United States have engaged in a struggle against incarceration since at least the nineteenth century, including such little-remembered reformers as Henriette Delille and Frances Joseph-Gaudet of New Orleans; Elizabeth McDonald, Amanda Berry Smith, Clotee Scott, and Irene McCoy Gaines of Chicago; and Carrie Steele Logan of Atlanta.

These women established children’s homes to alter the street-to-prison trajectory of black children and homes for sexually-abused young women. Although the community institutions they founded struggled financially, some managed to survive for decades. Several of these women were instrumental during the Progressive era in advocating for the establishment or reformation of juvenile courts.

Histories of incarceration and prison reform in the United States do not often mention these early African American women activists who devoted their lives to preventing juvenile incarceration and the criminalization of black youth. Prison reform histories have mostly focused on large state-run prisons and jails, not on local initiatives to keep people of colour from reaching these institutions. The result has been a white-male-only administrative history of the US carceral system.

Burton’s book originally appeared two years ago. An award-winning story with wide appeal, it now comes to us in a 2019 New Press edition with blurbs ranging from Howard Schulz to Michelle Alexander. The publicity campaign includes six thousand copies distributed to prisoners and a lengthy prison-to-prison inspirational speaking tour.

Like many people who arrive at prison, Burton seemed destined to end up there as a result of a troubled childhood. If the US had genuinely proactive and well-funded social and educational services, far fewer people such as Burton would have histories of incarceration. Prison is only one more stop on the continuum of violence, especially sexual violence, they have experienced since childhood.

The story she recounts is one of family poverty in Los Angeles, sexual abuse as a young girl, early pregnancy, the loss of her son in an accident, a descent into cocaine and crack abuse a coping strategy, prostitution, and a cycle of shorter and increasingly longer imprisonments. Burton’s personal history is a familiar one for millions of working-class women who have moved in, out, and parallel to carceral systems. She tells with clear honesty the devastating effects on her family relations, especially with her daughter.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, ‘Sue,’ relates this earlier, deeply troubled version of herself, then documents how she found the opportunity to escape through a drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica. Along the way she gains an education in prison life and the criminal justice system’s disparate treatment of drug offences among whites and people of colour. The second section, ‘Ms. Burton,’ shifts the focus away from her own story towards an understanding of herself as a community member able to contribute something meaningful towards solutions for the problems she lived through herself.

This move to celebrate social cooperation over individual perseverance is crucial. It enables Burton’s emergent anti-prison work and political practice. She establishes A New Way of Life, a reentry project for women just released from prison, whose needs included housing; assistance navigating bureaucracy; substance abuse treatment; employment; meeting parole requirements; and regaining stability within civil society.

Beginning as a hardscrabble operation with few resources, over twenty years later A New Way of Life has survived to become a respected Los Angeles community social service centre. Beyond social services, the centre today provides legal assistance for the formerly incarcerated on issues such as civil and employment rights, record expungement, and occupational licensing.

Along the way to creating a successful community organization, Burton writes of meeting and working with figures such as Saúl Sarabia, a lawyer and activist working in behalf of former prisoners. She shapes a portrait of community activism around incarceration, such as the All of Us or None of Us organization that fights discrimination against people released from prison.

Burton becomes active in causes such as Ban the Box, nutritional justice and food stamp advocacy, public housing discrimination, voting rights, ‘clean slate’ activism generated by the passage of California’s Proposition 47, and reform of jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centres. The book provides at least a partial map of important elements of community activism around prisons and jails in California over the last twenty years.

It is in her dedication to community that ‘Sue Burton’ finds herself as ‘Ms. Burton.’ While her earlier traumas never disappear she gains solace from this immersion in social and political organizing. In a recent research report on histories of violence among released prisoners in the Boston area, sociologist Bruce Western arrived at a conclusion worth quoting at length:

The interests of victims are not chiefly addressed through retribution, but through the development of social contexts that can foster order, predictability, and safety in everyday life. When criminal justice leaders step out of their usual roles to promote treatment programs, community organizations, and family reconciliation, they are working toward this alternative goal of just social contexts, rather than simply punishing individual offenders. Skeptics may object that the sociological perspective that identifies violent contexts rather than violent people seems to deny moral agency to criminal offenders. But none of this denies the agency of criminal offenders. Instead, it acknowledges that the offender’s role is often temporary, that violence has been present since early childhood, and that serious victimization is also common in the offender’s history.

Western’s conclusion leads him to advocate for community treatment programs much like the one Burton organized.

Burton’s inspirational autobiography highlights the potential that formerly incarcerated people have as agents of change. She locates this change as a continuation of the historic Civil Rights Movement. Community-based social work that relies on self-transformation by former prisoners can lead in positive directions that mass incarceration cannot. In the 1950s, the bus symbolized the need for and site of civil rights advancement; in the twenty-first century, prisons do the same.

Photograph courtesy of Justin Henry. Published under a Creative Commons license.