Susan Burton on how to stop the cycle of mass incarceration: ‘There are no throw away people.’
By LA Stories Staff Montebello
PUBLISHED 6:00 AM PT Sep. 13, 2021
Born and raised in South Los Angeles, life was not easy for Susan Burton. At the tender age of 4, one of her aunt’s boyfriends sexually assaulted her. Just a few years later, she said an elderly neighbor did the same thing.
At 14, she was left pregnant after another brutal rape and gave birth to a daughter before she could legally drive. Having never properly processed the trauma she experienced growing up, Burton fell into a life of drugs and prostitution. Eventually, she gave birth to her son, Marquee, or “K.K.”
In and out of prison for years, she muscled through life the best she could, but it was the loss of her only son that was too much to bear.
“I began to try to smother it with drugs just to escape the hurting, the depression, the pain, the loss,” she said. “And I was incarcerated. I was incarcerated over and over and over again. And I didn’t think I’d ever break free.”
Incredibly, Burton overcame her past and broke the cycle of incarceration after finding help at the former CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica. She got sober, went to therapy and was able to rebuild her relationship with her daughter.
In this episode of “LA Stories with Giselle Fernandez,” Burton describes her astonishment when she realized programs like the one she participated in were not available everywhere in Los Angeles. And with that, the idea for A New Way of Life Reentry Project was born. Burton created her now nationally acclaimed program for formerly incarcerated women and opened homes throughout the most underserved communities in Los Angeles.
Be sure to catch Burton’s full conversation with Fernandez in the new episode of our podcast “LA Stories Unfiltered” here:
Hear much more: The unfiltered, in-depth interview with Susan Burton
“What we do here at A New Way of Life is support people to find their freedom and also their purpose,” she said. “I value the lives and the potential of the women that come here looking for a way up and out.”
Burton chronicles her journey in a memoir titled “Becoming Ms. Burton.” Today, she has ten houses and counting throughout Southern California, and she teaches her program all around the world. The program at A New Way Of Life consists of sobriety, meditation and therapy. They also offer help with child reunification, legal counsel and job placement.
Throughout it all, Burton continues to advocate for incarcerated people by fighting against laws that limit the rights of the incarcerated. She said she strongly believes that the constant cycle of imprisonment does more harm than good. To Burton, investing in the person rather than the punishment makes all the difference.
“I think the women coming through the homes…the interests of those that we’re serving to be a part of something bigger than themselves… I think that’s the most hopeful thing: the change that happens daily here.”