Fifteen years ago, when Susan Burton began her work helping women who were leaving prison, she would pick them up where the bus left them off in south Los Angeles and take them home with her. People would throw rocks at her house.
Today they bring flowers and supplies that the women need to get back on their feet. And Burton’s organization, A New Way of Life, manages five transitional houses, which served 62 women and 23 children last year. It also runs a legal clinic and leadership training programs that reach hundreds more.
As someone who was in and out of the criminal justice system for two decades herself, Burton well understands her clients’ situations and how to help them.
“A New Way of Life has been a first chance for them not a second chance. They came from families and environments where they never had a chance,” she says. “They survived trauma after trauma and have responded so well to opportunity. It’s like the thirst being quenched.” And what she does seems to work. The recidivism rate for those in the program is just 20 percent.
Women stay in her homes from nine days to 18 months, depending on their needs. “The main requirement is that people want to change their lives and they’re willing to take care of themselves, bathe themselves and be medication compliant,” Burton says.
Although her staff works with residents on resumes, A New Way of Life deals more with the basics of providing a place to stay and working to reunite women with their children and refers women to other organizations that can help them find jobs.
Legal clinic helps clients expunge conviction records
Through a partnership with UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies Program, ANWOL’s Reentry Legal Clinic deals with one very real barrier to employment – criminal records. Two staff attorneys and another 10 or so volunteer attorneys and other community volunteers run the monthly clinic. They help about 400 men and women each year expunge their conviction records and make sure their employment rights are not being violated.
Although A New Way of Life deals with most of the practical needs of women in reentry, Burton wants to create a dialogue so that her clients and others understand what has happened to them within a broader context.
To do this, she created the LEAD (Leadership, Education, Action and Dialogue) Project, a program in which women who live in her houses meet biweekly to discuss issues related to incarceration and the prison industrial complex.
“Many times our residents think that what happens to them is acceptable. They deserved to be locked up,” she says. “The LEAD Project opens their mind to see what can make things different.“
Another group that she created, Women Organizing for Justice Leadership Training Institute, is an intensive four-month program that brings 30 formerly incarcerated women together twice monthly. Participants develop leadership skills, learn about community organizing and take a critical look at the criminal justice system.
Through all these efforts, Burton has made a substantial impact helping women navigate their post-release reentry. “The most important thing that needs to happen is that they have a place where they can feel a part of community. Where they feel like they’re valued. And from there, it’s just making one accomplishment and overcoming one barrier after the other,” she says.
Those interested in staying in one of Susan’s homes can apply online.