From the Back of the Bus to the Front of the Prison

Marissa Wells

From the Back of the Bus to the Front of the Prison


The day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Susan Burton’s memoir “Becoming Ms. Burton” received the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the category of Biography/Autobiography. “I’m honored to be recognized for my life story,” said Burton in acceptance of the award. “I think about Rosa Parks. She took us from the back of the bus. And now, Black women are at the front of the prison. I wonder… how we will get them out of the front of that prison? That’s my work.”

Burton’s words demonstrate the need for a movement to reduce the growing number of incarcerated women. According to a Vera Institute of Justice 2016 study, “since 1970, the number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold – from under 8,000 to nearly 11,000 – and now accounts for approximately half of all women behind bars in the United States.” These numbers do not include the number of women in prisons which The Sentencing Project reports has been increasing at a rate 50% higher than men since 1980.

The study also reports that the population of incarcerated women is “disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use.”

Policies that allow such disparities to take place have caused the population of women of color in jails and prisons to rise. Scarce resources in low income communities such as job opportunities and lack of access to quality health care are also among the numerous factors that contribute to exploding rates of over-incarcerating women. Now instead of being relegated to the back of the bus, women are tagged “criminal” – rising to the front of the prison. According to Wendy Sawyer with the Prison Policy Initiative, the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016 annual update on prison populations is largely consistent with her findings that women’s prison populations remain near record highs while men’s populations are falling.

Ms. Burton’s life experience, chronicled in her award-winning memoir, connects flashpoints of trauma, pain experienced without options or opportunities to access horizons of healing. Instead, she was dragged into chains and thrown to the horror of incarceration. According to Burton, her story is not unique. Having served over 1,000 women through her non-profit organization, A New Way of Life, she knows their suffering echoes hers. “Although we might want to say Black people have moved forward, reality is that we have not,” said Burton.

Even after being released, formerly incarcerated women (and men) are faced with 48,000 collateral consequences. These systematic and often life-long obstacles can serve as barriers to successful re-entry. Collateral consequences are defined by both The Council of State Governments Justice Center & the National Institute of Corrections as legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions that limit or prohibit people with criminal records from accessing employment, occupational licensing, housing, voting, education, and other opportunities.

To demonstrate that all rights have not been restored, Burton and All of Us or None (AOUON) members participated in the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. The group decided to start the march on the reverse side, in Montgomery facing Selma, to represent how they recognize that there are some issues that they need to go back and fix.

Susan Burton and AOUON members marching in the 50th anniversary of the Selma Montgomery marches of 1965.

Susan Burton offers hope, which fuels her advocacy on behalf of women in chains. She leads an ambitious project to place 11,000 copies of her memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, in prisons throughout all 50 states. She is also lifting the voices of other women, to create more compassionate policies and opportunities for women with histories that mirror hers. Burton says, “We need to transform the violent nature of this country with love and respect for all human life. That’s the only thing that’s going to make this right.”

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