Part 2: Susan Burton’s Prison Book Tour: Wrightsville-Hawkins Men’s Unit, Arkansas

While I was in Arkansas I visited the men’s side of the Wrightsville-Hawkins Unit, where they also have a Think Legacy program. My experience there was profound in ways that I had never imagined.

In my book, “Becoming Ms. Burton,” I wrote about being raped at the age of 14 on my way home from a Christmas party with a friend. I didn’t tell a soul until my English teacher noticed a change in my physical appearance and asked if I might be pregnant. I was now forced to come clean to my mother about what had happened to me, but to her, the circumstances of my pregnancy didn’t matter, and she sent me away for the last half of my pregnancy to a facility for pregnant, unwed teenagers.

I don’t remember the trial for the boys who raped me; I just remember being given a lot of directions on where to go, where to sit, and what to say. After the trial I was returned to the facility where I was being housed and awaited the birth of my child. I felt hurt, rejected and profoundly alone.

I have only visited two men’s prisons on my book tour so far, and the way my story has resonated with many of the men I’ve met has surprised me. But one of the men at Wrightsville blew me away. During my discussion, this man stood up and said that after reading my book he felt like he needed to apologize to me for the rape I experienced many years ago. He told me that 23 years ago, he raped a woman and had been in prison for it ever since.

I was deeply moved. No one had ever apologized for what happened to me. I felt like some type of amends were coming to me through this stranger I’d never met. It was courageous of him to stand up and be vulnerable in front of 40 other men. To me, he demonstrated that he has taken responsibility for what he did. I accepted his apology and told him that I was really sorry that he had to be in prison for 23 years. It does not take 23 years to correct your actions.

There was another man during my visit who was visibly filled with remorse and shared his story of watching his wife be kidnapped while he was doing drugs. He told me that he is still haunted by what he did and he’s trying to find a way to apologize to his wife.

The deep discussions that I had in Arkansas showed me what can happen when people in prison are given programs to help them work through their pain. The Think Legacy program is bringing men and women to a new level of heightened awareness and responsibility. The six month program focuses on employability, family reunification, cognitive behavior therapies, anger management, substance abuse, parenting, thinking errors, victim impact, budgeting, credit building and various other components.

Before I left, the Wrightsville Inmate Council presented me with a plaque that reads:

On behalf of the entire population, the Wrightsville Inmate Council would like to express our sincere appreciation for your service and dedication to cause of recovery and reentry. Your commitment to helping others has been essential in opening doors that otherwise would have remained closed to those seeking a second chance. Thank you and best wishes on all your future endeavors.

My trip to the three facilities in Arkansas felt a lot different than my trips to other prisons, and I left feeling more hopeful than I often do when I leave a prison. I’m not sure what the key ingredient is in Arkansas, but what they’re doing there is working.