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Story Publication logo April 27, 2022

Facing Life: Myra Burns

Melvin Smith stands outside his childhood home in Compton, California.


Facing Life

"Facing Life" is a multimedia project focused on the struggles of recently paroled people.

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Myra Burns

Oakland, California

“I was the butcher, the baker, and the sandwich maker.”

– Myra

Myra Denise Burns, who some might know as “Angel” or “Keli”, was born in Milwaukee, WI. Raised by a single mother and supportive grandparents, she says her childhood was relatively pleasant, despite being teased for her larger size or her periodic homelessness. 

She traces the origins of her trauma to her mother becoming a born-again Christian. “I feel like I lost my mother,” says Myra during an interview in Oakland. Her mother put all of her money into the church, causing the family to lose both their business and their house. 

Myra started running away from home. She surfed on couches around town but then ended up living with her grandparents for almost three years. Myra says that was the best time of her life. 

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The knowledge she gleaned from her grandfather regarding maintenance and repair became skills she’d rely on for the rest of her life. On top of the practical lessons, there were philosophical exchanges. “My granddaddy told me that as long as you have a truck, you’ll never be broke.” Imitating her grandfather’s voice, Myra continues, “There’s two things you really have: you got that slit between your legs and you got your head. If you got your head and a truck, you’ll never be broke, which means you’ll never have to use that slit.”

Myra laughed and followed up by saying, “I don’t have a truck yet, but I use my head, and I’ve kept my legs closed for a very long time.”

Myra says she was about 9 or 10 the first time she was sexually assaulted. She recalls being in the dry cleaners that her mother owned. Her mother was working late, so Myra slept in a back room of the business. One night her mother’s boyfriend laid next to Myra, and slid his hands under the blanket. “I didn’t tell anybody until maybe a year later,” says Myra. 

She would eventually be sent to live in a group home. From there, her life further devolved. She started stealing out of stores—food to eat, she says. When she got caught, she had her first experience with juvenile hall. 

That didn’t stop her. She graduated to stealing cars and taking them to the chop shop. “I stole the car from the group home,” says Myra, who was about 12 years old at the time.  

With a male friend riding shotgun in the stolen car, they left Wisconsin, heading south. When the two got to Memphis, Tennessee, Myra says her so-called friend took the car and abandoned her. A couple of weeks later Myra called her foster mom, who’d thought Myra was dead. It turned out the boy who took the car from Myra had fallen asleep behind the wheel. He drove it under an 18-wheeler and was decapitated.

“I was like, OK,” says Myra, “so, now we’re saying that this is the fifth or sixth time that God saved my life.”

Myra’s life changed in 1983 at the age of 21, when she got involved in an escort service. One night Myra brought a woman to a client, a former police officer, for what Myra says she assumed to be prostitution. “I took her out there to be dated by him,” says Myra. “But he murdered her, and that’s what I was convicted of.” Myra was charged with aiding and abetting first-degree murder, “delivery to death.” She was given a sentence of 25 years to life. 

Myra spent 22 years at the California Institution for Women before being sent to Valley State Prison, where she spent nearly five years. She would go on to serve the rest of her time in Chowchilla. 

One day, her mother visited and imparted some much-needed wisdom. “You’ve never done anything I’ve asked you to do your whole entire life, but now I’m asking you to do one thing,” Myra says, repeating her mother’s words. “While you’re in prison, mind your own business.”

Myra found her place in prison and learned how to cook massive quantities of food. “I was the butcher, the baker, and the sandwich maker,” says Myra. Her recipes consisted of “cooked down” (boiled) packages of cookies or candy, mixed together with butter, water and sometimes cupcakes or layer cakes for filling. “I did it for the hustle to begin with,” says Myra. “And then I started doing ‘em because I liked doing ‘em!” 

Myra also did blue-collar jobs, including but not limited to sewing machine maintenance and repair, electrical work and miscellaneous carpentry gigs. She fixed the air brakes, steam pipe fittings and airbags in the door of the industrial laundry machine.

Myra had other hustles too: involvement in drug dealing, and one instance where she was written up for having a contraband cell phone. 

The write-up would prove to be a thorn in her side as she appeared before the parole board seven times. The commissioners would compound that phone infraction with what they saw as lack of evidence that Myra had established any remorse for the victim of her crime. During the first four meetings with the board, Myra admits, she was just going through the motions; she hadn’t committed to change.

But after the passing of SB 260, Myra saw a window. Excited, Myra informed her mother that there was potential for her to get out. However, her mother wouldn’t live to see it happen—she passed in February of 2016. “I cried like I had never cried before in my whole entire life,” says Myra.

Through conversations with counselors, Myra came to a realization: if she felt this way about her mom’s passing, then she should understand how her victim’s family felt. “I know the two don’t exactly relate,” says Myra. “But my mother’s passing made me realize the human factor in my crime.”

The next time Myra went to the board, she was found suitable for parole. She didn’t care though; her mother was gone. “Once again, I was mad at God,” says Myra.

Before she knew it, she was out of prison and living at HealthRIGHT 360’s Female Offender Treatment and Employment Program, based on Treasure Island in San Francisco. It’s a “clean living space” that, Myra feels, reflects prison life. “To get out of prison, and have to do all this again, is mind-boggling,” says Myra.

She’s juggled multiple jobs since exiting prison, working at a supermarket, a catering company, a cafe, and jobs in the gig economy, to name a few. She even purchased a truck and opened an independent landscaping business. In spite of her work ethic, she still has anxieties around finding affordable housing. “There’s no assistance for single women who don’t have children,” says Myra. “I’m a part of a small group of individuals, and we’ve fallen through the cracks for many resources.” 

As of late, Myra, who’s now off of parole, has been preparing for knee surgery, which has caused her to slow down on the blue-collar work. She’s currently employed at the HealthRIGHT 360 medical clinic, where she works as a recovery coach, assisting others on their road to redemption. 

She is also developing relationships with her birth family, and works to stay in contact with her prison family. She relishes in the support she gets through her church, Market Street Seventh-Day Adventist in Oakland. Members of her church family have offered her odd jobs, and one person allowed her to sublease an affordable apartment. She’s now settled in Hayward, where she’s been happily living since February of 2021.

Myra says the church offers her a non-judgmental space where she can be fully grounded. “You have to have some kind of relationship with God. You can’t do it by yourself. Nobody is that strong.”



Criminal Justice


Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice

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