The story of Ms. Susan Burton is truly remarkable and inspiring. Her autobiography is called “Becoming Ms. Burton: From prison to recovery to leading the fight for incarcerated women,"

The book describes the depths to which she fell, and her amazing success when she transformed her life.

Before reading the book, I had never heard of Susan Burton, or of A New Way of Life, a nonprofit she founded that provides sober housing and other support to formerly incarcerated women. Now I will never forget them. Her book will help everyone understand the terrible human cost that the war on drugs and mass incarceration have had on our society, especially on people of color.

Some of the statistics in the book are really shocking. For example, did you know:

The U.S., with 2.2 million people behind bars, imprisons more people than any other country in the world.

Since 1980, the rate of incarceration for women has risen more than 700%. The majority of these women are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.

More than 60% of incarcerated women report having been sexually assaulted before the age of eighteen.

One in 125 white children has a parent behind bars — for African American children, the rate is 1 in 9.

Over 70% of Americans in prison cannot read above a fourth-grade level. When inmates are provided literacy help, the rate of recidivism drops to a 16% chance of returning to prison — as opposed to a 70% chance for those who receive no reading help.

Nearly 80% of formerly incarcerated women are unable to afford housing after release. Most public housing authorities automatically deny eligibility to anyone with a criminal record. No other country deprives people of the right to housing because of their criminal histories.

In most states in America, anyone convicted of a felony loses the right to vote until their sentence plus parole or probation is complete. Voting rights may be permanently revoked in 10 states. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow citizens in prison to vote.

Sixty-five million Americans with a criminal record face a total of 45,000 collateral consequences that restrict everything from employment, professional licensing, child custody rights, housing, student aid, voting and even the ability to visit an incarcerated loved one. Many of these restrictions are permanent, forever preventing those who’ve already served their time from reaching their potential in the workforce, as parents and as productive citizens.

“Becoming Ms. Burton” not only humanizes the harmful impact of mass incarceration, it also points the way to the kind of structural and policy changes that will offer formerly incarcerated people the possibility of a life of meaning and dignity. I hope that lots of people read it. The book is available at both the Two Harbors and Silver Bay Public libraries.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at or