BILL MOYERS: In our conversation, you heard Michelle Alexander single out a woman named Susan Burton as an inspiration – both to her and to the movement to reform the criminal justice system and reclaim basic civil and human rights for people released from incarceration.
Because of Susan Burton, many women have found shelter, a job, and camaraderie during that rocky period after they walk out of prison into what otherwise would be a cold and treacherous world.
She herself almost didn’t make it. Burton served six prison sentences in California for drug-related felonies. She’s never forgotten what she heard a prison guard say as she walked away for what turned out to be the last time: “I’ll see you back in a little while.”
After all, 65 percent of the state’s parolees do return to jail within three years, and nearly a third of them within the first six months.
But thanks to treatment and resolve, Susan Burton has stayed clean and free. Today her Los Angeles organization, "A New Way of Life," runs five houses offering help to women struggling to rebuild their lives. Her story is told in a film released last year, produced and directed by Tessa Blake and Emma Hewitt. Here's an excerpt:
WOMAN in SUSAN: This is Susan Burton, she's the founder and executive of A New Way of Life, and this is Samantha--
SAMANTHA in SUSAN: Jenkins--
SUSAN BURTON in SUSAN: [Released from prison 15 years ago] And whatever we can do to help you pursue your goals, you know-- we're here for you. What kind of plans you have?
SAMANTHA in SUSAN: [Released From Prison 24 Hours Ago] I plan on going to school.
SUSAN in SUSAN: Whatever you need to, you know, get your school going, you let us know.
SAMANTHA in SUSAN: Yeah, okay.
SUSAN in SUSAN: We want to keep you grounded and connected.
SAMANTHA in SUSAN: Okay.
SUSAN in SUSAN: Okay.
SAMANTHA in SUSAN: Thank you.
SUSAN in SUSAN: All right.
SAMANTHA in SUSAN: Thanks.
SUSAN in SUSAN: You're welcome.
SUSAN in SUSAN: A New Way of Life is a home.
WOMAN in SUSAN: We're going to get you situated and we're going to clean everything--
SUSAN in SUSAN: It's a home where women can come and feel accepted and supported and safe.
WOMAN in SUSAN: If you find any problems, just let me know. We can help you get yourself where you want to be in life.
SUSAN in SUSAN It's home for so many women who have no place to go.
TITLE CARD: Most inmates who enter the penal system are likely to return to prison within three years of their release.
ANGELA in SUSAN: [Released From Prison 11 Months Ago] I was locked up for four years, that's a long time. I was happy to be out, but still scared because, you know, I guess because we're creatures of habit and you want to feel secure and safe. They drive you to the bus station and you know, they give you $200 and they buy your ticket out of your money and put you on a bus.
And you're just headed to wherever. And so, I arrived downtown LA and it was really scary-- it was really scary. And I looked like I came from prison, you know, I was dusty looking, you know, with jeans and a paper bag. Everybody knows that you're from prison; they know, just by the way you look and they know. You get approached by everybody. There were people asking you if you needed a ride, telling you that you look fine-- drug addicts, people living that life and you know they are. It's so easy to get lured, especially if you're scared and I'm going to be honest, I was scared and I felt like I was just standing there buck naked.
I didn't have any place to go, I really didn't. And I called Miss Burton and I told her, I said, "I received a letter from you and you said for me to call you and that you would pick me up." And she says, "Where are you?" And I told her. She says, "I'll be there in about 15 minutes."
And she came and picked me up. To come into a place and be able to drink out of a glass and not plastic, to sleep on a mattress and not metal and to have food, have choices, it's just-- stuff people take for granted. Miss Burton is so sweet. She's a good lady. I'm glad she picked me up.
SUSAN in SUSAN: This house is the beginning of A New Way of Life. I got it in 1998 and fashioned a house for women who had been incarcerated and that's where I started. When I left prison, I went to treatment and got a job and, you know, I saved the money and I saved about $12,000. Yeah, and I mean, I saved every dime. Some months, I didn't spend but $40 a month for anything that I needed.
And everything else, I saved. And I didn't understand why or what I was saving for. I didn't know I was on my way to creating something that would have the ability to change lives. I tried to give help in the same fashion that I had received it.
There was a lot of movement in the house, a lot of cooking and TV watching and healing going on. And a part of it was my healing, also. I relate really closely with the women. I understand what they're feeling-- I've felt the same thing. I've had the same fears, the same anger, the same frustration.
I lost my son and he was accidentally killed by a police officer and I just didn't know what to do. My whole world just spun. The pain of everything was so unbearably present in my body, I think if you looked at me, you could almost see it or touch it. And it was all the disappointment, all the grief, all the sorrow that had to be addressed. So I was able to address it through someone helping me.
TITLE CARD: Residents of the house are required to remain sober and to attend weekly recovery meetings.
STACEY in SUSAN: [Released From Prison 9 Months Ago] I am about to go visit with my daughter. I'm a little bit fearful because of the way my lifestyle was a few years back when I was in my addiction. I started prostituting myself and that is the worst thing ever, in her eyes.
So I don't know where we're going to go with this or how we're going to get through it, but I'm going to try talking to her and hopefully, she'll open up and we can get past it.
Dominique has some resentments towards me because of my addiction and I was in and out of prison. This is a picture of me when I got my GED in prison; I was in prison when I took this picture.
I went to prison for involuntary manslaughter. I left in 1989. I didn't come home until 1996. I was happy to come back into my daughter's life, but I didn't know how she would accept me because I had been gone so long.
You know, I would stay clean and sober and then I'd go back to that lifestyle again, so I knew that I had to work hard to earn her trust again.
DOMINIQUE in SUSAN: I couldn't trust her. So through her addiction, as I got older, I knew I couldn't trust her. I didn't trust her with anything; I didn't trust her with my child, I didn't trust her with me.
She went back to jail a lot. Parole violation after parole violation, repeatedly. I'll never forget the day that I had to kick the freaking door down to get to my mom who was getting high in the next room, who stole my son's piggy bank to go buy drugs. I couldn't think--
STACEY in SUSAN: I never stole your son's-- no, I did not, Dominique.
DOMINIQUE in SUSAN: Mom, there's a lot of stuff that you say you didn't-- you don't think you did, but I think that you're-- when you were active in your drug use, you don't remember a lot of stuff. I mean you hurt a lot of people.
STACEY in SUSAN:I know.
DOMINIQUE in SUSAN: And you have a lot of relationships to fix. You can't hide the things, the mistakes you make. You can't act like they didn't happen or push them aside and think you can start all over.
STACEY in SUSAN:I'm getting better. I'm not there yet, but—100 percent, but I'm working on it.
DOMINIQUE in SUSAN: You are.
STACEY in SUSAN: Okay.
DOMINIQUE in SUSAN: I guess that's all I can ask for.
STACEY in SUSAN: Okay, and you got it.
DOMINIQUE in SUSAN: Thanks. A long time coming.
STACEY in SUSAN: You're welcome. Give me a hug.
ANGELA in SUSAN: This is my room and this is my bed and I was right here on the computer. I like the fact that I know how to use it. It's so cool, I just wish I could use it to get a job. I'm healthy, I'm employable, I'm willing. I've been out of prison for just about a year and I've been looking for a job ever since I've been out. I was a nurse before and I had never had a resume and I just walked in and they would hire me right on the spot. Now I have all these resume, these certificates and all this stuff, but it doesn't matter because my background is in the way.
SUSAN in SUSAN: We don't get a lot of money here. We barely make it from month to month keeping the doors open, keeping food in the houses, keeping the lights on, keeping staff paid. That invoice should’ve been paid, right? And then do-- how much am I short from payroll? That's still short. Okay. All right. Bye.
It was 1999. I was a few months sober and it angered me that I would be treated so cruel and caged and chained for a drug charge. And I knew thousands of women just like me who had been negatively impacted by the War on Drugs, who were incarcerated on a turnstile going in and out of prison, not able to get help.
Imagine $70,000 a year to keep us contained, just squandering public funds. And I just got a notice saying that mental health services have been defunded. Hell, they could’ve sent me to Yale. For all those years and got so many degrees. You know six prison sentences. You know, six degrees, right? If it’s not one is two, or three.
TITLE CARD: The female prison population grew by 832 percent from 1977 to 2007, due to the war on drugs.
ANGELA in SUSAN: There's a chicken in the backyard. Hi, there. Are you thirsty or do you want something to eat? I think he's hungry. He's looking for food. I had a big tax bill and I just panicked. I did. And started talking to a friend and said, "I can help you out, you can make some quick money selling drugs." I was selling crack, crystal, marijuana, Vicodin, Viagra, everything I could get my hands on. I was just going to do it for a little while, pay my bills and be done.
But that didn't happen. I got four years. I went to see a social worker to sign up for food stamps. She asked me if I had a conviction or anything like that on my record and of course, I told her the truth, you know. I said, "Yes, I have."
And she said, "What?" And I said, "For sales of you know, narcotics." And she says, "Oh, you're not eligible for food stamps." They won't give me food stamps because of my conviction; they won't give me low-income housing because of my conviction and trying to find a job, it's like, they throw your application in the trash. I feel like I'm drowning. I could call up a drug dealer right now, somebody that knows me and I don't have to have any money.
They would give me something to sell and I would pay them back and then I would be on my way. Very easy to get back into that lifestyle.
ANGELA in SUSAN: Here's another one, isn't that one pretty? They are cute. We have a yellow one; there's a yellow one, too, I shouldn't say we, we're not allowed pets, but oh well. I really like sitting here. It's a good place.
TITLE CARD: Federal law bars anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving federal assistance. In most cases, this is a lifetime ban.
STACEY in SUSAN: Well, it was pretty deep, but I believe she got a chance to say a lot of things that, you know, she had been holding in.
SUSAN in SUSAN: Yeah.
STACEY in SUSAN: And a lot of it was hurtful.
SUSAN in SUSAN: The pain that our children incur, we just don't know how deep and how far it goes. It's taken me over ten years to receive some forgiveness for the character I was through my alcoholism and addiction. And I did the same thing that you were doing-- that you're doing now.
STACEY in SUSAN: Yeah, you are very inspiring and I consider you to be my mentor. I've never told you this, but I admire you.
SUSAN in SUSAN: Thank you.
STACEY in SUSAN: And I'm staying under your wing. You are not getting rid of me and I want to learn from you and I want to be like you.
SUSAN in SUSAN: Yeah, yeah.
STACEY in SUSAN: And give back and help others that come behind me.
SUSAN in SUSAN: Yeah, well, I don't know if I told you, but I admire you, too, and I think about you and where you're headed and it makes my heart very, very happy, because you are the reason I do what I do.
ANGELA in SUSAN: I got blessed with a job. I'm working in the laundromat. The lady that owns the laundromat is an acquaintance of Miss Burton and she gave me two days a week part-time, at $8 an hour and I am thrilled. It's keeping the washers and dryers clean and giving people change and she gave me the keys and I count money, she trusts me. I'm happy to have a job. Just awesome.
I wouldn't be able to survive on the money that I make here if I left A New Way of Life. So I need some more hours, I need to have my own housing and I need transportation. But anyway, I'm happy I have this. This is a start. One step at a time, you know?
TITLE CARD: More than 600 women have been through Susan Burton’s reentry program. 70% have not been re-incarcerated.
WOMAN 1 in SUSAN: It's chicken, ribs, sausage.
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: There's greens in there.
WOMAN 1 in SUSAN: I'm starving.
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: When did you start?
ANGELA in SUSAN: I started last Wednesday.
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: Wow.
ANGELA in SUSAN: So it's just two days a week.
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: Chasing bubbles.
ANGELA in SUSAN: I do. I'm this bubble chaser, which is okay. It's a job, you know what I'm saying? I'm thankful. You know what?
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: You never gave up looking for a job, never.
ANGELA in SUSAN: And I'm still not giving up.
STACEY in SUSAN: I want you guys to meet my daughter, finally. Her and my grandkids will be here.
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: Uh-huh, that's good.
WOMAN 1 in SUSAN: And things are good.
WOMAN 2 in SUSAN: That's good Stacy.
STACEY in SUSAN: Yeah, things are good.
BILL MOYERS: That’s from the film, "SUSAN," by Tessa Blake and Emma Hewitt. Not only is Ms. Burton’s work the subject of the movie, she's also been recognized far and wide for her leadership and courage. She was a member of California’s sentencing reform commission; she serves on the board of the Los Angeles Sober Living Network; and she received the Citizen Activist Award from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.