When Virginia Burton was a kid she dreamed of going to law school. But her path was derailed by trauma and addiction, which brought her in and out of prison. Eventually, though, she ended up at the University of Washington in her mid-40s. Now, she’s this year’s winner of the Truman Scholarship for the state of Washington, which provides $30,000 for students to pursue graduate studies related to public service.

In this episode of Ed Lab Live she talks about her educational journey and how she’s combining her lived experience with her educational course work to push for criminal justice reforms. She wants prison to be a place for rehabilitation so that people will develop the life skills necessary to successfully reenter the community after release.

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Virginia Burton is this year’s Truman Scholar from Washington. In this break from pandemic news, she discusses criminal justice reform and returning to university in her 40s.

TRANSCRIPT, LIGHTLY EDITED

Q: First, just so people know what the Truman scholarship is, it’s really meant to help advance people who are working in the world of public service. Tell us a little bit about the Truman Scholarship and why you applied.

A: Okay, so I feel like I probably know less about the Truman Scholarship than most people. I learned most about it after I found out that I was awarded the Truman Scholarship for Washington state. So the Truman Scholarship focuses on people that are driven toward public service, and it comes with up to $30,000 worth of funding for graduate school. If you are awarded the Truman Scholarship, if you decide to take the scholarship, if it’s offered to you, you are required to commit to three years of public service after graduation.

It comes with a lot more than just $30,000. But what I have found to be most profound is just the host of support from previous and current Truman Scholars. I have been reached out to by, I mean, one person, in particular, is she’s the 1978 Truman Scholar. So, like this community is really tight-knit. These people are all very professionally secured, I guess, and driven and really focused on public service. And it ranges from people that are in government to people that are working in agriculture but have like specific policy things that they’re really driven to succeed in. Yeah, it’s an amazing community. And I expected that it is going to really sort of help me move forward into an area of life that I never thought that I would ever reach.

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Q: That you never thought you would ever reach. Tell me more about that.

A: I’m a former prisoner, and I have 17 felony convictions and a host of misdemeanors. I absolutely have no idea how many of those. I’ve been to prison three times. And when I was really young, I expected to become an attorney. Then by about the age of 15, I expected that I would be a prison inmate. I sort of lost sight of my dreams from being younger. I never thought that I would make it out of that life. And here I am doing some pretty cool things that I really honestly never thought that I’d be able to do. I thought that I had lost my opportunities.

Q: The first time that we spoke, you told me the story about what inspired you to finally go back to school when you were a little bit older. Tell us about that. Why go back to university? What got you back on track?

A: In 2016, I was a victim of a violent crime. I was beaten by my husband in my home. And he had relapsed. We had a really great relationship. I mean, definitely there were, you know, nothing was ever perfect. I’m a recovering addict trying to figure out how to navigate life. He ended up relapsing, and he absolutely lost his mind and broke into my house and beat me until I couldn’t get up off the floor. And it was during that time that I didn’t know really, if that was going to be the situation that sort of removed me from the ability to participate in life because I have a long history of trauma. I was really concerned that this was going to be a thing that sort of broke me and disabled me from being able to care for myself and my children.

I was also working in social services. And I was in the midst of transitioning positions working for a couple of men’s shelters, supervising some programs. So that was all going on. And we were in the process of his court stuff.

He had finally gotten transferred here to King County. We were in the midst of trial. And I had a conversation with the advocate that worked with the prosecutors. She and the prosecuting attorney were present. It was just the three of us in the courtroom, and she said to me, “You know, we really feel like if we give people really long sentences, they learn how to make better decisions.” And he was facing a life sentence at that time. And the thing is, I believe in people, but I specifically believed in him because I know who he is when the drugs weren’t present. I was there definitely testifying against him, but I was also recanting on part of my testimony and trying to– I wanted him to do about 10 years. I didn’t want him to do a life sentence. I thought that was just ridiculous. It was in that moment, I really took a look at it. I knew he was going to be going into prison, and that nothing was going to happen inside of prison for him.

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Q: What do you mean nothing was gonna happen, like no programming? You don’t think the system works. Tell us a little more about that.

A: The system isn’t set up to work essentially and for whatever reason. I really feel like that changed back in 1996. Inside of prisons, there are some programs, there’s some therapy, there are some treatments, there’s some education. But it only reaches, maybe at best about 10% of the population. If you’re not court-ordered to do certain things, you don’t just go in and do them. So I knew because I’ve been there. So I knew that without my intervention, he was going to be going in and walking out the same or worse. I decided I needed to participate in this process very closely. And so I did.

So I was in the midst of the trial, and I had that conversation. It almost dropped me to the ground. I couldn’t even believe that came out of her mouth in public. And then I was also simultaneously working for Catholic Community Services, and I was sitting in a meeting and I served the homeless population. And I looked around and there are a bunch of people that don’t have lived experience and they’re advocating for things that I felt– they definitely were doing the best that they could, but they didn’t have really an understanding of what was needed. And I looked around at all of these people that were degree-holding people, and I asked myself if this was it. And I asked myself, are you passionate about what you’re doing right now? And I wasn’t.

I knew in the midst of that conversation and that experience, which I think that stuff happened within the same week, that I needed to go back to school. That it was necessary for me to get a degree because there was no way that I would be able to get into that system to be able to try to participate in any change if I didn’t move forward to get a degree. So that’s really what caused me to go back to the university.

Q: Because you felt like people would listen more if you have the degree versus just listening to your lived experience.

A: Yeah. Well, you know, and the thing is, I’ve learned a lot going to school. I was able to speak about things in a certain way before I started going back to school. But I’ve learned a lot about being able to communicate to other groups of people. And I’ve learned a lot about the system that I was not aware of.

Q: What do you mean? Learned more about what system that you weren’t aware of?

A: The government system, the criminal justice system. I mean, I definitely know a lot about that system from the inside. But I’m learning more about it from the outside. And government construction and like, how everything came about. I was absolutely unaware of a lot of things, which is what propelled me to take political science. Because it didn’t make any sense to me. Because it was hard and I didn’t want to learn about it. So there’s a quote from Elizabeth Warren that was really motivational for me. And I was actually competing for a different scholarship, the Martin Honors Scholarship, and I was a finalist and I had to write this competitive essay. I had a couple of different areas that I could focus on. And I chose the political essay, which was I think that the question was, what is the biggest threat to our democracy, which my response to that was, we don’t have a democracy. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.

But anyway, there was this quote that I came across while researching for that an essay from Elizabeth Warren, which said that “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” And that was really profound for me because I recognized how long I’d been on the menu. And then I thought about, you know, and then simultaneously with like, thinking about my husband’s experience in you know, so with this I not only was I thinking about myself, I then thought about the other 18,300 and some odd people that are incarcerated in the prison system in Washington state. And I thought about the fact that they’re going into prison, and they’re coming out the same. And I thought about the fact that they have no idea that they’re on the menu. So, how do we create a system that is more equitable for everybody that allows people to get out and be successful? It has to start when somebody goes into prison. And so I have this crazy fantasy that I’m gonna get this degree and I’m going to be able to change that system with a bunch of other amazing people that have been fighting for it, too.

Q: I’m not sure that seems like a fantasy so much as the path you’re actually on.

A: There are a lot of people in our community that are naysayers, a lot of people that–you know, one of the most common things that people say to me when I talk to them about it that–definitely not educators and the people that are giving me these scholarships, they’re definitely don’t think I’m crazy –but people in the community that are working in the field say, “Yeah, that’s a great idea. People have been trying to do that for a long time, but it’s not going to happen.”

Q: So what sort of ideas have you put out there and then received a negative reaction to? And then how do you respond? Like, what are some of your “crazy” ideas?

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A: I mean, I honestly I don’t think it’s that crazy. To go back to what I shared about my personal experiences. I have 17 felony convictions, and I’ve been to prison three times. … And so if that sort of is any indicator of what kind of life I’ve come from. It’s just sort of the norm. And I come from Pierce County. Most of us are in prison, at least the people that I’ve known my entire life.

I had an awareness, going in the first couple of times, that there were some things that needed to change in my life. I didn’t necessarily have an example of what needed to change and how it needed to change, but I was willing to absorb anything that I could. I tried therapy, I tried to go to school, I tried to do these different things. This last time that I was incarcerated, I was facing a fourth prison sentence back in, I was arrested in December of 2012. And I was facing a fourth prison sentence, I had five more felonies.  I was involved with the Post Prison Education Program, and I told them. I said, “Hey, I just want you to know I’m locked up. I’m safe. You know where I’m at. And I’ll see you in about five years or so.” But they actually paid for a private attorney, so I got the opportunity to have my charges transferred to Seattle and participate in the King County drug diversion court.

The month that I was incarcerated waiting to go to trial, there were a lot of things that I knew that worked. I knew about recovery. I have a spiritual practice, that when I’m not on drugs that I practice, or at least had tried to. I recognize the need for education. I knew that I fell short in a lot of areas, like my parenting, that I had some serious behavioral problems and things like that.

So I started to do what I could while I was incarcerated to sort of strengthen myself in those areas because I made the decision, regardless of whether I got out or not, that my life was going to be very different. Because when I relapsed that time, I didn’t want to use drugs. It just seemed like a better deal than what I was living in. And then what I found out was once I had started using drugs, I couldn’t stop. And I wanted to stop. It turned out worse than any other time. And that’s what they talk about when they say that addiction is progressive.

What I knew was I was in my 40s, and I absolutely hated myself and I hated the life that I was living. I recognized that if I wanted it to be successful, I had to figure out how to stop hating myself. So I started to practice a bunch of different things while I was incarcerated. And then once I got into drug court, I did the requirements, which was treatment and I had to go to meetings. But I also asked for extra support with mental health treatment and different things like that. Then I started working for the Post Prison Education Program and providing service to people that were incarcerated. So I sort of piecemeal this process together, right?

What I know is that I represent a lot of people that are incarcerated, probably the majority. Where we never had a foundation, so it’s really hard for a person when they go into a prison to be able to create a foundation on their own thinking. Because we are only equipped with what we know. I think that there’s a misguided idea that people can just go in and well, now they’re in there so they can just figure it out and get their life together. But we can only do things based on the information that we already have. And if no new information is being fed, then nothing new is going to come out of that. Or the information that is being fed is typically from other people with similar lived experiences. So then you’re coming out with some other information, but it’s nothing that’s going to allow you to be successful.

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So my idea about prisons is–the crazy idea that’s actually not crazy at all–is that prison time needs to look very different. From the moment that a person gets in, they need to be case managed. They need to have an in-depth assessment that assesses needs, not, “What happened last time you were in prison? And what kind of drugs are you doing, so that we can keep an eye on you?” But like, “What was your housing situation like? Do you have children? How are you involved in your children’s lives? Do you have an open CPS case? How long have you been on drugs and alcohol? What kind of drugs and alcohol?” They should be being tested, first of all, when they come in, but “What kinds of drugs and alcohol were present? What kind of other charges do they have?” So that their time in prison can be choreographed in a way that attends to the needs that are present.

So if you have treatment, and you have group therapy, and you have anger management, and you have domestic violence, and then you have sex offender stuff, and you have budgeting and financing and you have these different components that a person has to–not chooses to, because that’s the problem– we’re giving people the opportunity for consent.

And I’m going to tell you right now, like I’m raising a kid, and I’m not gonna say, “Well, you know, whatever you decide to do, and you’re eight years old, and you just do what you want, and then we’ll just figure it out later.” It takes a village. And so I think that we as a society have the ability to create that village inside of prison. And it would be more cost-effective in the long run. Then, prior to the people being released from prison, they would participate in more intensive case management, and have continuity between programs in the community, with school being connected with their education programs, so they can finish that or whatever job training they had. Have different businesses that hire straight from prison and have better housing programs. It would be more cost-effective in the long run, and I think that our recidivism rate will decrease tremendously.

Q: Yeah, because you’re basically starting to plan for release the day that you enter as opposed to planning for at least 90 days before you get out.

A: Well, and most people say, “Well, I’m going to do that when I get out.” If I haven’t been practicing– okay, if I wake up and if I decide I’m going to eat a bunch of donuts every day, and I end up gaining like 70 pounds, and I’m 210 pounds, but I’m gonna run tomorrow. I’m just going to start running tomorrow. Tomorrow’s never going to come. Tomorrow is never going to come. And in saying that there is a very small percentage of people that do do what they do once they get out. But the majority of people, they don’t. And the people that are receiving access to services, that’s a really small percentage. It’s less than 10%. You know, and so like, we need to make sure that 100% of people have access.

Q: So now that you have this scholarship, and you have a solid education, what’s next?

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A:  I’m looking at graduate school right now. Next year is my senior year. I just met with one of my professors who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. He started the LSJ program at UW. His name is Mike McCann. So I’m talking to him about research because I’m interested in researching the politics of prison. And I reached out to an adjunct/Ph.D. T-A teacher that’s at UW also who’s doing a lot of stuff with prison work. So I’m gonna start doing research for my senior year, and I’m really looking at my opportunities for more scholarships for law school. I am planning to do you know, study for the LSAT.

Over the summer, I’m going to work for my friend Amanda Dubois’ law firm, and I’m just changing direction. But I’m trying to immerse my life in this field of politics and law. I’ve become actually quite obsessed with it.

So law school, potentially. I don’t know. Maybe they don’t want me in law school and maybe I’m gonna have to study for the GRE also, so I can apply to some other schools. Yale sent me another recruitment email. I’ve been being recruited by a number of universities for quite a while. Once I’m done with the LSAT, then I’ll start to practice for the GRE and figure out what the next opportunity for graduate school is.

Q: We have a community question. Carrie wants to know, in your opinion, how can schools best support children with a parent that’s incarcerated?

A: That is a great, great question. Yeah, so my daughter recently was at a school that wasn’t very supportive. I think that really sort of educating teachers and admin staff to be sensitive to people’s experience. And I think that all students need to be looked at in a way that there’s potential trauma. That they could possibly have a parent in prison. Because educators might not know. And there might be behavioral stuff that occurs because a kid’s life might be up in arms. And I think that just having tremendous sensitivity around that instead of penal sort of mindset. Because that’s what my daughter faced at this school that she was at, and it was honestly it was really bothersome for me. And now I’m in another battle with Seattle Public Schools because of the same situation. They’re trying to send her back to the high school that that school trickles people into.

So I think just recognizing that trauma and other traumas are potentially present in the lives of every child and just being really compassionate about that. And even if a kid doesn’t want to talk about stuff, just really sort of accommodating them where they are. Meeting them where they are, as opposed to where we think they should be.

Q: Well, thank you very, very much for your time today. I wish you the best.