After cycling in and out of the criminal justice system for nearly 15 years, Susan Burton gained freedom and sobriety and founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in South Los Angeles. Ms. Burton opened her doors to other women returning home from prisons and jails, offering shelter, safety, leadership and support to those seeking to rebuild their lives. Her story of perseverance in overcoming overwhelming odds and her dedication to the service of others is an inspiration to women across the United States, particularly formerly incarcerated women and those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
Susan Burton and A New Way of Life have caught the attention of Michelle Alexander, acclaimed author The New Jim Crow, the best-selling study of the US system of mass incarceration. Alexander points to Susan Burton’s reentry program as a model for the kind of bold initiative needed to build what she calls a “new underground railroad” – a network of families, faith communities, and organizations dedicated to providing desperately needed support and love to people at risk of incarceration, families with loved ones behind bars, and people returning home from prison.
This half-hour radio documentary weaves together the voices of Susan Burton, Michelle Alexander, and five residents of A New Way of Life, seamlessly incorporating plaintive music and insightful narration. The story shows the human face of those our society stigmatizes as “criminals,” “felons” and “offenders,” and sheds light on the tremendous hurdles they face upon release from prison, including the most basic and fundamental tasks of securing housing, work and sobriety.
Michelle Alexander describes the emergence of the largest prison system in human history, a prison system fueled by a decades-long war on drugs that has categorically failed to reduce both the presence of drugs and the prevalence of drug addiction in the United States.
The show features interviews and ambient audio recorded on site at A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and ties the emergence of the “new underground railroad” to the overarching movement to end mass incarceration.
A New Way of Life and the New Underground Railroad is part of the Bringing Down the New Jim Crow radio documentary series, produced by Chris Moore-Backman. This segment features the music of Loney Dear and Stray Theories.
Susan Burton: My name is Susan Burton. I am the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. The first house started in 1998. It started as my home – my home with a desire to help those who were coming back after incarceration. Help the women getting off the bus, downtown, skid row, totally unprepared to make a life. I figured if women had a safe place to go when they were released from prison, a place that they could call home, then the probability of them going back to prison would be lessened. And I found that to be real.
Michelle Alexander: What must we do to build this movement, this movement that has been living in the hearts and souls of our people for so long? Well, first, we’ve got to start telling the truth, the whole truth. A truth born of deep and abiding love for all of us, each and every one of us – including especially all those who have been locked up, locked out, ushered into a parallel social universe, stripped of basic civil and human rights, ushered into a permanent second-class status, all with the expectation that they will be forgotten.
Chris Moore-Backman: I’m Chris Moore-Backman, and you’re listening to “A New Way of Life and the New Underground Railroad: Making a Break for Freedom During the Era of Mass Incarceration.”
Alika Savage: Sometimes people have fear of doing good, when they’re not used to it. They’re used to failure. I’m not fearful of failure anymore.
Renee Levi: I am so not alone. I mean, from Susan, to her staff, to the ladies that’s here, and the people that come in – it’s awesome. It’s awesome.
Yolanda Brown: You know, oh God, I’ve just been in some crazy places. Nothing like this. I’ve never been in a place like this. You know, where people really care and people are really out there to help you.
Chris Moore-Backman: In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander describes the emergence of the largest prison system in human history, a prison system fueled by a decades-long war on drugs that has categorically failed to reduce both the presence of drugs and the prevalence of drug addiction in the United States. As Alexander explains, however, the drug war has very successfully supported the establishment of a prison-industrial complex unparalleled across the globe and across history. A complex which, like its partner drug war, consistently targets poor people of color throughout the nation with far greater tenacity than white, more economically privileged communities. The fact that whites sell and use drugs at the same rate as black and brown people doesn’t come to bear on the workings of this criminal justice/drug war institution.
“We need to have a network of families, of places of worship that are providing desperately needed support as people are struggling to survive.”
Many are surprised to learn that women comprise the fastest growing segment of the US prison population, the vast majority being impoverished black and Latina women ensnared by the drug war. In addition to raising consciousness about the reality of mass incarceration and the work of organizing for its abolition, Michelle Alexander identifies a third crucial area of work for those of us seeking a more human, more just future in the United States.
Michelle Alexander: Just as in the days of slavery, when it was necessary for a network of committed souls to emerge, who were willing – sometimes at great risk to themselves – to provide shelter and food, and safe places for people who were making a break for freedom, today we need to provide that same kind of support. We need to have a network of families, of places of worship that are providing desperately needed support as people are struggling to survive. People who are willing to come together and provide safe places.
Susan Burton: We’re in South LA, 91st and Central Avenue, right bordering Watts. And we’re at A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, where women coming from prison begin their new life. This is what we’re talking about – the underground railroad, making the way, leading the path from incarceration and slavery to freedom and leadership. Yeah, so this is South LA and… [Music of an ice cream truck, as it drives by] We do have an ice cream truck coming down the street. They’re everywhere.
Renee Levi: Anytime that I call her, Susan is like “Hello, could I help you? What’s the matter? Is something going on?” She’s always been there. And she always give us words of wisdom, words of respect, words of trying to do better for ourselves.
Maisha Bailey: She stands up for what she believes in. She lets me know that I could really do something with myself, regardless of what my background has been. You know, that I could still be something.
Chris Moore-Backman: Susan Burton’s 5-year-old son was killed when he was struck by a car after running into the street. Grief-stricken, Burton turned to drugs, became addicted, got arrested for a nonviolent crime and went to prison. She got out, but repeated the cycle again and again over the course of 15 years. Upon her release in 1997, at the age of 46, something shifted. A friend helped her find a job as a live-in caregiver for an elderly woman. She got into drug treatment and began rebuilding her life, eventually saving enough money to purchase a bungalow on a sunny street in South Los Angeles. Through the experience of overcoming the barriers placed in front of her because of her criminal history and the felon label she was forced to carry, Susan Burton felt called to the service of other women in the same situation, service which came to the attention of Michelle Alexander, as she was writing The New Jim Crow.
Michelle Alexander: I read about Susan when I was in the process of writing the book actually. I read about her organization, A New Way of Life, and read an interview that she did about the work of supporting women returning home from prison and how demoralizing it is to be constantly faced with these signs saying “You are not welcome here.” She talked about how on every job application the signs appear, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” On every housing application, when you go to apply for food stamps, the signs are always there – “You are not welcome. You are not wanted.” And the importance of eliminating those signs and creating welcoming, safe places, as well as real pathways of opportunity for people who have been released from prison.
Susan Burton: Hey, what you got? I see something behind you!
Sabrayiah DeMoss: No, I don’t!
Susan Burton: Yes, you do! [Sabrayiah squeals with delight.] Yeah, look at you. What you got? Oreos.
Sabrayiah DeMoss: [To Chris Moore-Backman, with his microphone] You already come over here.
Susan Burton: Say “Hi.”
Sabrayiah DeMoss: Hi. You already come over here two times again.
Susan Burton: [Laughs.] This is the third time he’s coming, yeah.
Chris Moore-Backman: As young Sarea [correction: Sabrayiah] so enthusiastically pointed out, this wasn’t my first visit to the house where A New Way of Life began. But this visit was my chance to get a house tour from Susan Burton.
Susan Burton: So this was it. This was the spot where I lived and worked. This was my little corner. This was the birthing place of A New Way of Life. I had a little cot back there, and I had a file cabinet right here. And I had a desk right there, and . . . This was it. I had two bunk beds in the front room, one bunk bed in the second bedroom, and two bunk beds in the back bedroom.
There were eleven of us total. And we created community. We created support for one another. The women come here – women desperate for safety and security, and they find that. Where they can feel welcomed, and feel ownership in where they’re living, feel responsibility where they’re living and rise to that responsibility. And begin to hope and begin to dream again.
Chris Moore-Backman: Over 600 women have made their home at one of the 5 safe houses established by A New Way of Life. Of those, almost 80 percent have successfully discharged parole, maintained their sobriety and not returned to prison. Those newly released from incarceration need to assemble a complicated puzzle in order to achieve the stability that will allow them to escape the cycle of imprisonment. And each piece of that puzzle must be found, acquired, and kept in place in the face of all the barriers placed before those who carry the burdensome label of criminal, or felon.
“I think it would have been better for me if I would have been given some opportunities to get at the root causes of what was going on with me.”
Of all the puzzle pieces, the most essential are almost always employment, housing, and sobriety, each of which are at the core of A New Way of Life’s advocacy work, in addition to many others.
Renee Levi: I met Susan while I was there, while I was doing my intake going in. And they was just telling me about the place. They was just telling me that . . . we’ll help you as a place to stay. We’ll help you do your medical papers, get your social security card, get your driver’s license, take me back and forth to the places that I needed to go. And they was telling me about the meetings that we go to, and . . . I never thought in my wildest dream that I would have been coming to this program. I just . . . [she lets out a big breath] . . . exhaled. It was like, it was like a burden just was lifting off me.
Chris Moore-Backman: You’re listening to “A New Way of Life and the New Underground Railroad: Making a Break for Freedom During the Era of Mass Incarceration.”
Maisha Bailey: The worst part about being in prison for me was just the fact that, that I was just confined. I mean ’cause it, you . . . it’s doable. You can survive. When you commit a crime, you just have to be accepting that, like this is the situation that you got yourself into so you just have to deal with it.
Susan Burton: Do you think there could have been something else for you that would have been more helpful than prison?
Maisha Bailey: Yeah . . . I’m in a place right now that’s, that’s . . .
Susan Burton: I think it would have been better for me if I would have been given some opportunities to get at the root causes of what was going on with me. It would have been better for me if I would have been able to go somewhere where they concentrated on helping me address my addiction issues, than putting me in a cage, than locking me up, handcuffing me, stripping me, demoralizing me.
Maisha Bailey: My outlook on the situation is different, Ms. Burton, and I’m sorry, for the simple fact that if you commit a crime . . . period.
At one point in my life I felt like because I couldn’t stop using, the only way for me to stop was for me to be locked up. My first program, when somebody told me to go to a program, I said, “That’s not gonna work for me, because if I can walk out, I’m gonna walk out.” So, I ended up – like I said – committing crimes. My second charge was, is I was on a high-speed chase on the freeway and crashed. And I could’ve killed some people. Because I was in my addiction, under the influence, and went and stole somebody’s car and, and crashed. I could’ve took, I could’ve took somebody’s life . . . You know what I mean, so . . .
Susan Burton: I understand. I understand that. But again, I think about the root causes, from the get-go. I mean, when you were going to school, or when you were born, or when you were thinking about what you wanted to do, it wasn’t like “I want to be a drug addict.” All the drugs that came into our communities, you know. I mean, what was that for?! What was that for?! And many of the crimes that are committed are crimes of poverty. People are driven to commit those crimes. And then somehow it becomes a way of life. And then we medicate the pain and the demoralization of where we’re living from and how we’re living with drugs and alcohol. And then we’re incarcerated for that.
“The way society is constructed today, it never ends. The punishment goes on and on and on.”
But the root causes – poverty in America, lack of systems that function in poor communities, lack of resources in poor communities, is the root problem. I’m sorry but I had, just had to speak up, mama. And, you know, when you say, “People like Susan . . . ” But you’re like Susan!
Maisha Bailey: I said that to say – people like you who are…
Susan Burton: People like you!
Maisha Bailey: …giving opportunities, and who stand up for what you believe in, just like every…
Susan Burton: People like you standing up for what you believe in! People like you…
Maisha Bailey: I do. I do. And I’m learning from you.
Susan Burton: …standing up for what you believe in.
Maisha Bailey: I’m learning from you.
Susan Burton: Alright, we’re gonna get down to root causes, mama.
Maisha Bailey: Okay.
Susan Burton: We gonna take responsibility for our actions, but we gonna understand what drove us to those actions. Got it?
So the “something else” probably could have been long before she hit that prison door. The ability of her parents to take her to swimming classes. Or the ability of her parents to introduce her to some type of arts. A lot of other things that people with privilege would have gotten. A school system that operated differently from a place of punishment, or overcrowded classes in shabby classrooms, inadequate teaching tools. But, be it that it didn’t start there, she might have been able to get some therapy. She might have been able to access a drug treatment program. She might have been able to have adequate shelter, adequate food, things that make it possible for you to live, maybe not even from day to day, but maybe from year to year. Some sort of security that brought about a feeling of safety.
Michelle Alexander: We’ve got to start ending this us versus them. That we’re going to help those criminals who aren’t us. All of us are sinners. All of us have made mistakes. All of us are “criminals.” The question is, are we willing to still love one another despite our failings and our mistakes. Now, I want to be clear, I want to be clear that when I’m talking about love, I’m not talking just about love for those people who have committed crimes like we may have committed, you know, crimes that we think “Not so bad.” I’m talking about the kind of care and love that keeps on lovin’ no matter who you are or what you have done. It’s that kind of love that is needed to build this movement. We’ve gotta build an underground railroad. We’ve gotta build an underground railroad for people returning home from prison, helping to save people one by one, helping them find food and shelter and work. And we’ve got to embrace those labeled criminals, not necessarily all their behavior – but them.
Chris Moore-Backman: Michelle Alexander points to the stigmatization of the imprisoned and formerly imprisoned as one of the biggest barriers facing the movement to end mass incarceration. I asked Susan Burton for her thoughts on that stigmatization.
Susan Burton: There’s so much judgment that goes on in the world in relation to people, period. But when it comes to people with a criminal conviction, the judgment gets really, really harsh. And I think what needs to happen is that we put judgment aside and help wherever and however we can. The reality is that people who have served time, whether I believe they should have served time or not, the reality is that the time should end. And the way society is constructed today, it never ends. The punishment goes on and on and on.
Renee Levi: I felt that burden ever since day one that I was incarcerated. I felt that, okay . . . People are gonna look at you different. People do look at you different when you are offender. It don’t matter what kind of offender you are – sex offender, drug offender, theft – it doesn’t matter! Being in prison, uh . . . I am offender.
Yolanda Brown: It’s sad, you know, ’cause people do change, and they, they hold that over your head like that. But people do change, because me, I’ve really changed. You know, I don’t ever want to go back to prison. I did three years, and that was long enough for me. Having to be locked up in a cell, or doing slavery work for nothing, and just to be told when you can go eat, and, you know, when you want to go to bed. Nah, I . . . I don’t wanna ever go through nothin’ like that again. I have prayed and asked God to help me to be humble, and I’m a humble person today.
Samantha Jenkins: October 2009, I was driving . . . driving under the influence of PCP. And my friend died that day. She was a good friend of mine, real good friend of mine. She have four kids. A lot of people kept saying that my life was spared. I’m like, you know, what? I didn’t even know the meaning of that. I couldn’t understand like, why would God spare me to live on Earth, you know, knowing what happened. How can I live with that? I forgive myself to a point where I know how to forgive people for doing things to me. I had to get that in my head while I was in prison, ’cause I couldn’t come out more depressed than ever, and . . . I don’t mind talking about it, and it’s easier when I keep talking about it than just holding it in. Afterwards I always find a new understanding or . . . peace.
Chris Moore-Backman: You’re listening to “A New Way of Life and the New Underground Railroad: Making a Break for Freedom During the Era of Mass Incarceration.” I’m Chris Moore-Backman.
As the movement to end mass incarceration builds, a critical conversation is taking hold. History strongly suggests that it is crucial to the success of social movements that the people on whose behalf the movement speaks and acts need to themselves have a seat at the table when movement decisions are made and when the character and culture of the movement is developed. Michelle Alexander points out that the emerging underground railroad for newly released prisoners and their families is not only an example of necessary social work, it is a critical element in the overall strategy to dismantle the system of mass incarceration.
Michelle Alexander: Can the underground railroad help to ensure that leadership emerges, continues to emerge, you know, from prisoners and formerly incarcerated folks? Absolutely. It is very difficult for people who are struggling literally to figure out where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re gonna sleep. People need to have basic needs met in order for it even to be possible to contemplate devoting one’s life to the service of others.
A spiritual turning, a new embodiment of care, compassion and concern in our society, is what Alexander argues is necessary.
It is my hope that by building this underground railroad and by working in partnership with people who have been directly impacted by this system, that we will build a movement in which the voices of those who have been harmed the most and who have suffered the most in the system are not only heard, but are helping to shine the way.
Susan Burton: The morality of America needs to be awakened. The consciousness of how we think about people needs to be awakened. This class system needs to be shattered. That everybody looks at each other straight across, not down or up. That there’s this regard, human regard for one another. And there’s this level of accountability for that. That when I see something or hear something, I don’t lay dormant or silent. I step and speak to correct it. And that’s some real work.
Chris Moore-Backman: Susan Burton’s voice sounds the twin resolve of a woman devoted to hands-on service and to movement leadership. Her example and the spirit of her work at A New Way of Life illustrate one of the most central and potent themes of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Tinkering with the criminal justice machine, she argues, will never be enough to end mass incarceration. Cost benefit reforms and piecemeal policy changes are not a foundation for truly transformational and structural change. On the contrary, a spiritual turning, a new embodiment of care, compassion and concern in our society, is what Alexander argues is necessary. The simple, yet profoundly challenging realization that we, each and all us, belong to one another. Susan Burton and the women of A New Way of Life give us a picture of what that might look like.
Susan Burton: You know it’s beautiful, I watch them going to school. I watch them with their children. I watch them with their disappointment. I watch them come in and say, “You know, it worked Ms. Burton.” Or “It worked Mama Sue. I got into school today. What you told me worked.” And . . . it’s beautiful.
Chris Moore-Backman: A New Way of Life and The New Underground Railroad is part of the radio documentary series “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow,” a joint production of the Chico Peace and Justice Center and KZFR Community Radio in Chico, California. It featured “The Moment I Need You” and “Blackout,” by Stray Theories, written and recorded by Micah Templeton-Wolfe, from the album “Even Though We Sleep”; and “Calm Down” by Loney Dear from the album “Hall Music.” Special thanks to Maisha, Alika, Renee, Yolanda, Rebecca [correction: Samantha] and all the women at A New Way of Life, in South LA. And thank you for listening.