A New Way of Life serves as model program for women in reentry


Susan Burton

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.


Circle of Support program helps ensure success of those in reentry

Photo courtesy of Madison Area Urban Ministry.

Photo courtesy of Madison Area Urban Ministry.

Few programs can claim the success rate of the Madison Area Urban Ministry’s Circle of Support, but then there aren’t too many other programs like it.

Sponsored by the Madison (Wis.) Area Urban Ministry – an interfaith social justice organization that deals with a wide range of social issues – Circle of Support is an innovative program that offers a circle of volunteers who meet on a weekly basis with a person in reentry. These volunteers welcome people home from prison and provide a support network to make sure that they successfully readjust to life on the outside and get the help they need.

During its decade of existence, the program has shown remarkable results. The recidivism rate of those who go through it is only 7 percent.

What’s the secret of its success?

According to John Givens, who has run the program for the past four years, it’s commitment – on both the part of the people getting out of prison and the people who volunteer to support them.

The program actually begins pre-release, when Givens goes into the two facilities he works with, the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wis., and the Oregon Farm, and makes a presentation to people who are within six to nine months of going back to Dane County (where Madison is located).

“We work with them to look at the way they will be living when they get out,” Givens says. “We use RESTTE, or resident, employment, support, transportation, and treatment and added education in there as well. Those are areas we feel a person needs assistance with.”

At the same time that he’s recruiting inmates, Givens is also going out into the community to churches, faith-based groups and the University of Wisconsin to recruit volunteers, of which he needs quite a few. MUM has 13 groups going now and each has four to six volunteers, as well as what is referred to as the core circle member, or the person recently released from prison.

Both the volunteers and the core member must make a six-month commitment, and those volunteers who haven’t participated in the program before must go through a six-hour volunteer training that teaches them about the criminal justice system and how to deal with any problems that may come up.

Support not fixing

“We’re not trying to fix people,” Givens says. “We’re not in the fixing business. We’re supporting them physically and emotionally.” And that support begins the day the person walks out of prison. Givens helps them get temporary housing, clothing and medication, if they need it.

Then the circle gets involved, meeting with the core member every week for an hour and a half. At each meeting, the core member establishes reachable goals to achieve during the coming week and discusses what they’ve done to achieve the goals they set the previous week. These goals could be writing a resume or finding housing. By the end of the evening, the core member may have five or six goals to work on for the next week.

According to Givens, many of the volunteers do the circles over and over again. “We have one group of men from a church that have had 11 circles, “ he says. “Many people are in it for the long haul, and if they’ve had success they become committed. Most of them say, ‘Our six months are up, what do you have now?’”

And the commitment displayed by the core team members? The 7 percent recidivism rate speaks for itself.

Givens is happy to talk to anyone who might be thinking about starting a Circle of Support-type program of their own. He can be reached at the Madison Area Urban Ministry by calling 608-256-0906.