I recently had the honor of meeting with Susan Burton in Los Angeles. Susan, who spent 20 years of her life incarcerated, has become one of the great leaders of the social justice movement in America.
At first, Susan's story didn't feel unusual to me, having been incarcerated as a kid alongside girls whose mothers were addicted to drugs as was mine. Drug addiction is a way we ease pain. To face and work through pain often requires a healing hand, a therapist, a loving community. I'm talking the type of emotional pain that all too often grows wild in the darkness of poverty, trauma, lack of opportunity and educational resources, and the desperation that fuels survival against all odds. Between black brown and white, there are many core similarities in the cycles of working class poverty with addiction topping the list, but the scale is vastly tilted toward people of color on the losing end time after time. These cycles continue unabated in families and communities until someone strong, brave and filled with a mighty big love stands up to break the chain.
Susan Burton is a chain-breaker.
Susan had a five-year-old son who ran into the street and was struck by a car and killed. Behind the wheel was an off-duty LA police officer; although Susan recognizes the tragedy was an accident, the officer never apologized to her for her child's death1. Losing a child this way cannot even be imagined by most, and it's not surprising that Susan turned to drugs to throw a blanket over her grief. She found herself caught up in the vicious cycle of addiction and spent 20 years in and out of prison on drug-related felonies. The last time Susan walked free of prison, a smug guard waved her off with this line: "I'll see you back in a little while."
As Susan says,
"Drug addiction is a medical problem, not a criminal problem. Putting me in a cage because I medicated my grief did not solve my grief problem, or my addiction problem."
That last time Susan walked free she made up her mind to turn her life around. She found resources on the other side of town - the Clare Foundation in Santa Monica - and went into treatment, becoming part of a sober community. She wondered why there weren't any resources like Clare in south L.A. but the answer was pretty obvious. Susan found work as a caregiver, diligently saving until she'd acquired enough for a down payment on a house in Watts.
Susan also dreamed of becoming a licensed home care aid but her felony convictions stood in the way. She found herself completely shut out of the system, with no support whatsoever. And so, her dream shifted. She decided she would find a way to provide the support she so desperately needed to others.
Susan knew about the buses that deposit parolees coming from jails and prisons into L.A.'s Skid Row, an area of homelessness rife with crime and drugs. She started showing up on Skid Row inviting women parolees to her house, providing safe haven and comfort to women like herself; women who desperately wanted to change their lives and needed help. Women who could not return to living situations that contributed to their problems in the first place.
After two years of housing and caring for women parolees out of her own pocket, Susan founded a nonprofit organization in the year 2000 called A New Way of Life; an organization dedicated to helping women rebuild their lives after incarceration.
Today, nearly sixteen years later, Susan Burton's A New Way of Life (ANWOL) consists of six transitional houses in L.A. that have provided lodging, food, clothing, job training, recovery support and pro-bono legal services to upwards of 900 women and their children2. It's nearly impossible to find national recidivism statistics and the most recent I came across were from 2005, from the National Institute of Justice stating that within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. This negligence to study recidivism rates and what actually affects the numbers is shocking in itself. Susan's ANWOL is a anti-recidivism success story. 18 months after release, 80% of those who leave Susan Burton's transitional housing programs surveyed were employed or taking classes and had not returned to jail or prison3.
How many women do we continue to incarcerate for drug felony convictions? I've read and heard stories from ex-inmates about conditions in the jails that are not only unhealthy but highly illegal, and I'd like to point out just one among many 'punishments' for bad behavior at a prison in California. 'Jute balls' are frozen, flavorless balls of mashed cabbage, veg and most likely mystery meats which serve as dinner. According to Reuters, we taxpayers in California are paying over $64,000 a year to incarcerate one person. It costs less than 1/3rd that amount to house and care for a woman yearly through A New Way of Life4. I'd call that a jute ball we all need to gnaw on for a moment.
Our politicians can speak about change and revolutions but it's the boots-on-the-ground leaders like Susan Burton who are pointing the way on how to heal a broken system. We would do well to pay closer attention to the grassroots heroes who are creating impactful change and who are doing it empirically, with overwhelmingly positive results.