Transforming the Prison System, with Ginny Burton

Ginny Burton, Post-Prison Education Program Graduate, Student, former Employee, Volunteer, and Peer Counselor

The way I remember it: December 15th, 2010, a nuclear explosion on tennis shoes burst into our office. The night before, I had received the following email from a member of our Board of Directors:

I texted you last night as I was sitting in a meeting with an amazing gal. 17-felony convictions, 2-months out of work release, staying clean and sober, working and trying to be a mom…She really wants to do some prison work. She really wants to go back into Purdy to tell the women how it is possible to have a life outside absent drugs and crime! She’s our kind of people Ari. Hungry and thirsty for an education and a better life…. Her name is Ginny.” 

Ten years later, Ginny’s mission is the same, but she has fortified her passion with degrees, honors, and scholarship. With greater strength and tenacity than I have seen from anyone during my 72 years of life, Ginny has been and continues to be a force for positive change. In many ways, she has become a legend.

In her interview with Hannah Myrick, Ginny speaks openly about her life, from childhood to prison, recovery, and scholarship. These experiences are the fuel for her work as a student, mother, aspiring politician and mentor to current and former prisoners. She sees viable new ways to change a system that politicians have allowed to destroy lives and families for generations — because since at least age six she has been caught up in it.

Having worked for Ginny the last 9-½ years, I could go on for pages and pages, but instead leave you with the following paragraph from a Letter or Recommendation I wrote to Yale University last year:

“When Ginny applied for scholarship assistance she entitled her Personal Statement ‘Mother of 3, 3 Time Loser.’ A ‘loser’ she is not. Ginny Burton embodies a positive, impactful Leader for Change, modeling for former prisoners, prisoners, parents, government leaders, and everyone else who wants to take notice that moving past a horrific life, almost indescribable trauma, is possible.”

We hope you’ll watch the video above, or look below to read Hannah talk with Ginny about her story and mission to transform the prison system.

*This interview has been edited and condensed*

Could you start off by telling me how you got involved with the Post-Prison Education Program?

Back in 2010, as a part of a 12 step fellowship, I met someone on the Post-Prison Education Program’s Board of Directors who gave me Ari’s phone number. Ari asked me to come into their office and he had all these grand ideas for my life. They convinced me that it was a good idea to go to college, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to be of service to other people. 

I was on a mission to change my life. So I walked out of that office, still not knowing what the Post-Prison Education Program was, but thinking “yeah I gotta start school now.” I quit my job and started school at Shoreline Community College. 

What things did the Program provide to you that were helpful at the time?

At the point I met Ari had just gotten out from my third time in prison, and they were really present and available for me. I could call or go to the office and there was always somebody there, always someone with a lived experience. They supplemented my situation financially and provided tutoring and supplies for us to be successful in school. They helped me with the process of getting into school and communicating with financial aid, when I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. They provided get-togethers with other folks that were also in prison. If I needed anything I probably could have asked. 

In a bio written about you by the University of Washington about the Truman Scholarship, you talk about how prisoners “often are released without having the skills they need to succeed.” Can you talk about what that means and what needs to be provided to get prisoners on that path to success?

We have to restructure the prison system and the way time is spent. This is the dream I’ve been contemplating for seven-plus years, and it’s what my Truman Scholarship Application is all about.

From the time somebody steps into prison there needs to be a very thorough assessment. If you look on the DOC website you’ll see their fancy chart that shows different programs, but those programs are sporadic, one dimensional and work with less than 5% of the population. What needs to be assessed is what is the person’s foundational learning? What does their education look like? What does their upbringing look like? What kind of household did they come from? How far did they get in school? How long have drugs and alcohol been in their life? Is there any job training that has ever occurred? Is there any type of violence in their history? Do they have children, so is parenting necessary? Have they had evictions and things like that, so are finance and budgeting classes necessary? Any sexual assault?

There needs to be group therapy, where people are talking about what caused them to come into prison and the other things in their lives. There needs to be drug and alcohol treatment. There needs to be anger management, domestic violence classes and sexual deviancy treatment (which exists but is very short lived). There needs to be education and job training that can be actually transferred out into the community once they’re released. Everyone would be mandated to participate in all of this programming. 

When a person gets out of prison they have to be able to take care of themselves economically and figure out how to navigate life, and that can be really challenging. 

As a result, we would create a much safer community and the recidivism rate would systematically start to reduce. Granted, there’ll be people that reoffend, but everyone would still have access.

Where did your plan for all these different pieces of reforms come from?

I am probably your average prisoner. I grew up in a drug addicted home, where I was six years old when I started using drugs, so a lot of fundamental things were not given to me in the beginning of my life. I grew up with a very distorted sense of reality, like a lot of prisoners who grow up disconnected from their foundation. 

These are the components that I’ve pieced together in my own life that have caused me to be successful. Those are the things that people are missing or avoiding dealing with. What I’ve sort of gathered is I’m somewhat of an anomaly, I’ve gained awareness that I needed help in a lot of ways, but that’s been an ongoing thing for me since I was young. And there’s a very small percentage of people who have that same awareness. 

The majority of people who are incarcerated are afflicted in a way that means they need to be repatterned, because we all function in patterns. Maybe you overeat, or you overshop, it’s working out, it’s sex, it’s drinking, everybody has their vices. But people that go to prison have vices that cause serious problems in their lives and make communities want to lock them up and throw away the key. Once that gavel is down on the desk people assume they’re ‘out of sight out of mind’ but people don’t really take into account the fact that 95% of them are getting out. If we want a safer community it is our job to be the village; it is our responsibility.

In 2016, I was a victim of domestic violence. My husband had relapsed and I was participating in the court process. I testified for him and against him, the state wanted to give him a life sentence.  That could have very easily happened, however, I recanted on part of my testimony and I thought that [a life sentence] was excessive. What he needed was help, not to be warehoused for the rest of his life, where he would go in and get out the same person. 

The prison system does not rehabilitate, and I’m able to be here to fight for his specific situation, but what about the other 18,300 people {incarcerated in Washington State}?

You talked about immediate assistance that can help post-release, like housing, but what are some of the more long term barriers former prisoners face that are important to address?

One of the things that is typically not addressed is addiction. One of the biggest coping mechanisms people have are drugs and alcohol, which were usually present when the person committed their crime. But most of the time they’re not participating in any sort of recovery on the inside. And relationships are usually the first drug a person puts in their life once they’re released because it’s inherent in the human being, we want to be connected to someone else. 

A lot of society doesn’t look at prisoners as vulnerable, but they’re very vulnerable. There is unidentified fear that transfers into ego and that ego usually shows up saying “I got this” and inside it says “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea how to catch this bus, and I’ve been locked up so long I don’t know how to use a phone.”

When I mentor people, I allow them to feel comfortable feeling vulnerable by communicating parts of my story. I talk about fear and I really emphasize my dependence on outside things to change the way I feel internally. 

Can you talk about your work in rehabilitation? You talk about working in Men’s Shelters, but what about your other related work in research, mentorship, etc.?

My first mentoring work was in 2008. I was getting ready to go back to prison and was attending Community Correctional Alternative Programming (CCAP), through the King County Jail. While I was waiting to go to prison they put me on day reporting, where I got really involved in the classes and got put aside with a small group of participants who would mentor some of the participants and work in advocacy. 

When I was in prison, some of the most impactful and meaningful moments were having a former prisoner come back with a program. It created a lot of hope for the potential of not ever having to go back again and of being able to change our lives. So when I met Ari, I started going into prisons and absolutely fell in love with going in and talking to my people. 

Around the time I started going into prisons with Ari, I ended up relapsing. When I got out of jail, PPEP paid for an attorney for me and that gave me an opportunity to go to drug court where I started volunteering in the office. I was talking to guys on the phone and going into more prisons and doing a lot of work with people who were getting out of prison. 

That was super powerful for me because it assisted me in a really important part of my recovery. It allowed me to be of service in really meaningful ways.

Once I completed drug court I applied to Catholic Community Services and I got pulled into the agency where I started as an advocate in a women’s housing program. I ended up being hired as a peer support person at a behavioral health program and did that for about 13 months. Around then, in 2016, my husband relapsed, and all the sudden I was responsible for all of the bills, so I applied and chose a supervisor position where for three years I supervised three different programs, five different case managers and carried caseloads in those programs. It challenged me a lot.  

How did those positions change the path you were on, both for yourself and in serving others?

Back in 2009 when I was in prison there was a Church guy who came in and he prophesied over me and he said “you’re gonna make prisons a better place to live, and it’s not gonna happen from here.” As my life has unraveled since then, starting with meeting Ari and going into prisons, I would be reminded of that and I became very passionate about this stuff. 

In all of my jobs including PPEP, I got the opportunity to show up in people’s lives authentically as very much myself. Through training at CCS, and I learned how to not show up as a hardass, but from a trauma informed care perspective. I learned how to be really compassionate and look at people’s circumstances instead of their behaviors. It’s through this work that I got to learn how to be a better and stronger person.

I also got to participate in a lot of really interesting things with the county, the city and different portions and institutions that are clueless in terms of people’s lived experiences. In there, you’ve got a lot of people who’ve read some books and sit in these meetings and have no experience working with individuals. I was sitting in a meeting one day and I looked around and I asked myself “These are all a bunch of degree holding people, is this it for me? Is this what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life?” And the answer was no, {so in 2017 I applied to South Seattle, and in 2018 I would apply to UW where I’m currently a student}.

Even the things that have unraveled in my life headed me in that direction. I really feel like my life fed me a story that allows me to be a voice for other people that allows for a lot of change. But really it’s not about me, it’s about the people inside, it’s about the kids who are on their way, it’s about the families that are broken and lost and those that are in the foster system because their parents are incarcerated. There’s a huge part of society I want to mend. 

In a recent Facebook post you said: “If you are someone who is fearful of prisoners being released, have been the victim of a violent crime, know someone who was the victim of a violent crime, or think there should be tougher and longer sentences for crime, I would love to have a conversation with you. I am hoping to gain some insight and ask your opinion about some ideas I have. It is your opinion I am most interested in. I think you can help me with one of my big goals.” Can you tell me what that big goal is and what it is you’re aiming to talk through in those conversations?

Here’s the best way to describe how I often feel: if I walk into the best Ice Cream Shop in town and I tell all the patrons “This is the best ice cream shop in town you need to eat here!” They’d say “Yeah we know.” And that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m saying “We need to restructure prison time!” and everyone says “Yeah we know.” But there’s a whole other part of society that says “They need to go to prison for the rest of their lives. This happened to me. What about me?” And those are the people I need to be having the conversations with.

The people who already believe me are not the ones I need to be talking to. 

In response to the post, I’ve had a couple people reach out. One person reached out with a really tragic story, and a person that did a lot of really terrible things is doing 20 years. So my conversation is about how that person would feel when 20 years is up, knowing that in prison, they didn’t do anything the whole time they were in there. What if these things I’m looking to implement were in place? Would they feel safer?

Over the course of the, let’s say, 5 years, where do these conversations you’re having over messenger need to go? They start online, hopefully eventually change the policy, but in what other arenas do we need to be having these hard conversations? 

That was a question I had to ask myself, is now that I’m having these conversations, now what? I need to figure out some objective questions that will tie into some research over the next 5 years. I want to be able to start advocating for these ideas in Olympia. I want to be able to use this work with people and groups who are already trying to implement these things in the system. I also want to see if I can get some of these people to tell their stories in Olympia and figure out how I can use this work to move forward politically.

When I have these conversations with people in the community I get a lot of “It’s not possible” and I usually walk away feeling very disheartened and feeling like I need to change my trajectory. Then I have a conversation with a friend who’s in work-release and just got out of prison. I start talking to him about my plan and it sort of reaffirms in me a feeling in my heart, this feeling of “this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

It’s really exciting that you’re able to do all of this work while at UW and have access to that network and research systems, combined with your life experiences that have lead you to this point.

I really wanted to go to UW and knew I would get there and network but I had no idea, in just 9 months, the connections I would make and the support I would have. It’s unbelievable.

Over the last four years, when the stuff happened with my husband, it was horrific. I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself. I didn’t trust myself, I was terrified and bruised. I couldn’t go to work. I posted about it, and people immediately responded with hate. Not in a way that was malicious, but because they loved me so much, and it really dawned on me in that moment “He doesn’t need hate, he needs help.” That moment allowed me to be softer with myself.

I started to participate in the things that made me feel well on a daily basis. I would pray, I would meditate, I would journal, I started working out and I mentally became a lot stronger. It changed my life. It just sort of reaffirmed for me that whatever I tell myself is the truth. If I just keep believing and I keep taking the steps forwards, it’s gonna happen. 


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