Volume 4 Number 11
Wake up and Look at Where You're At!
01 December 1991

On 14 August 1990 the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) on Rikers Island, New York City, erupted in violence. Inmates turned on officers and on each other with handmade weapons. Correctional officers then blockaded the island's only access bridge for 36 hours to protest the administration's failure to hear their concerns.

Karen Elliott meets Audrey Brown Burton, the moving spirit of a programme which is encouraging inmates of New York's prisons to
“Wake up and look at where you’re at!”

On 14 August 1990 the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) on Rikers Island, New York City, erupted in violence. Inmates turned on officers and on each other with handmade weapons. Correctional officers then blockaded the island's only access bridge for 36 hours to protest the administration's failure to hear their concerns. By the end of the ordeal 142 inmates and 77 officers had been injured.

Today the OBCC rarely shows up in the New York City Department of Correction's 24-hour report, a document detailing unusual activity. In the last year acts of violence have decreased by 50 per cent. As a result officers do not have to work such long hours.

At the heart of this change is the programme of the Institute for Inner Development (111)). And at the heart of that programme is Audrey Brown Burton, special assistant to the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction.

Burton, the daughter of a Louisiana minister, came to New York City from Virginia 18 months ago. She was troubled by the return rate of those released from the ten prisons on Rikers Island in the city's East River. People who had served sentences for drug possession and theft were returning to the same temptations on the streets; for many, incarceration seemed a better alternative to life in the community because at least basic needs were met inside prison walls. Burton designed the IID in an attempt to break this cycle.

`What we're trying to do is wake people up and say look at where you are at,' says Burton. `Maybe if they know why they are here then they'll try to build up the community instead of trying to tear it down.'

The philosophy of the IID urges each individual to accept responsibility for his or her own actions and development of self-esteem. The eight-week course teaches problem-solving, decision-making, anger-management and financial responsibility. Professionals from the African American and Hispanic communities lead empowerment sessions and participants are encouraged to share their impressions through journalwriting and group meetings, led by prison officers.

Burton first had the idea for this type of programme when she visited India in 1988, while she was working in the Virginia Department of Corrections. With 19 other Americans she took part in a Yatra (spiritual journey) to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi and honour the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The party visited the Institute for Total Revolution, where students are taught Gandhian principles dealing with absolute truth and individual change. Burton began to wonder whether the same need for values couldn't be taught to people in the prison system.

She also met colleagues of Gandhi who had spent time in prison themselves. `They utilized prison as a means of strengthening their belief systems and their connections to God,' says Burton. `You can be locked away and still be a productive person in terms of your spiritual development.'

Burton grew up as one of eight children in a home where values and faith in God were instilled. She holds that, given the right help, young people can leave prison different. She knows this, because she has seen a change in the lives of inmates and in her own life.

In 1971 Burton left her work with the Urban League in New Orleans and moved to Richmond, Virginia, to marry Collie Burton, a single father of three. There she became involved in community work and encountered discrimination of many forms. `I was very confrontational,' she says.

She tried to make a difference through her work as an office manager of an international labour union. She also initiated a professional African-American secretaries organization which aimed to enhance personal development. `Being confrontational can have both positive and negative results,' she says. `But when it comes down to it, it can be seen as a disservice.'

In 1982, the Burtons attended an international conference in Caux, Switzerland, organized by Moral Re-Armament. There, meeting people from around the world, she discovered `new avenues to approach old situations'.

`I became more tolerant,' she says. `Before, I would have written some people off, but when I practise standards of honesty, unselfishness, love and purity then I can be around almost anyone and it doesn't set off a time bomb. Most importantly, it's a matter of seeking God's guidance each day and following his direction.' She discovered a desire to work for both parties involved in any confrontation.

It was curiosity which first took Burton into the corrections field, when as a community coordinator for a Catholic diocese in Virginia she visited a client in prison. `I wanted to be exposed and find out what it was like to work in a jail,' she says. `I wanted to see how a jail was operated. I couldn't imagine what was there. I didn't know if it was a calling or not. I believe it was a preparation for something larger.'

She worked with the City of Richmond jail system for nine months in 1980. Then her career of public service took her to the Virginia General Assembly and later to the State's Office of Public Safety and Transportation, where she served as executive assistant to the secretariat of the department. There she met Allyn Sielaff and went on to work with him in the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Community sites
When Sielaff took the post of Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction in March 1990, he asked Burton to join him, in a newly created position as his personal assistant specializing in community-relations work. Burton insisted that she would only come to New York as a team with her husband. Collie Burton is now the Director of Administration for the Nutritional Services Division of the New York City Department of Correction.

Since joining Sielaff's team, Audrey Burton has established ten community advisory boards that serve as liaisons between the whole of Rikers Island and New York City and the Institute for Inner Development. Burton is currently developing three III) community sites that will receive graduates from the programme once they are released from Rikers Island. In an effort to promote social responsibility, one site is located in a Hispanic neighbourhood and the others at a Muslim mosque and a Protestant church in two different African-American neighbourhoods.

Although the programme has only been under way for just over a year, it may not be too soon to pronounce its success. The entrance of III) graduates back into society looks promising. Of the one class that has been tracked only three of the 75 prisoners released from Rikers Island have been rearrested. There is even a list of officers who eagerly await assignment to work with the programme - evidence that things have changed. But Audrey Brown Burton doesn't take the credit.

`I'm just a catalyst,' she says. `My colleagues and I spent endless hours talking about how we wanted to put things together. It was the ideas that poured out of people's brains that God put in place to give their piece of this puzzle.'

Last September the Warden of the OBCC, All al-Rahman, received a letter from an inmate who had graduated from the programme. `I'd like to thank you all for waking me up to reality and realizing there's still hope in life for individuals such as myself,' wrote the inmate.

People tend to understand better, says Burton, when they see tangible results. `When you are doing something that is God-sent, rather than for your own self-gratification, you keep working at it, because there is a prize on the other end. And I see the prize.

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