Susan Burton is a CNN Hero, a Starbucks “Upstander,” a Soros Justice Fellow, a winner of Harvard’s Citizen Activist Award, founder of the internationally-recognized non-profit A New Way of Life, and someone that Michelle Alexander has compared to Harriet Tubman. She is also one of the millions of American women who have been incarcerated—in her case over 15 years—for non-violent offenses. In BECOMING MS. BURTON, Burton and jouranlist Cari Lynn tell the story of Susan Burton’s life, and use it as a lens through which to see the desperate need for criminal justice reform.
Born in the housing projects of 1950s Los Angeles, Burton’s world changed in an instant when her five-year-old son was killed. Consumed by grief and without access to professional help, Burton self-medicated, becoming addicted first to cocaine, then crack. As a resident of South L.A., an impoverished black community under siege by the War on Drugs, it was but a matter of time before she was arrested. Burton cycled in and out of prison; never was she offered therapy or addiction treatment. On her own, she eventually found a private drug rehabilitation facility. Once clean—and against all odds—Burton was able to buy a small house, and ever since has dedicated her life to supporting women facing similar struggles. She began by greeting formerly incarcerated women as they took their first steps off the prison bus, and welcoming them into her home. A New Way of Life now operates five safe homes in L.A. that break the cycle of incarceration by providing a lifeline—via job training and referrals, drug counseling, psychological support, and leadership and advocacy training—to over 800 formerly incarcerated women and their children for a fraction of what it cost to incarcerate them.
Part memoir, part political awakening, and part criminal justice reform manifesto—which Bryan Stevenson has called “a must-read”—Susan Burton’s story brings vividly to life the human cost of mass incarceration.