Breaking the Prison Pipeline

A former inmate’s quest to keep ex-convicts from returning to prison.


As Susan Burton stood in line to board the bus that would take her back to Los Angeles after her sixth stint behind bars, a guard recognized her. “We’ll see you back here soon,” he chided. “We’ll have a bed waiting for you.”

A sense of dread settled on Burton. She had spent part of two decades in the custody of the California state prison system. While she wanted to prove that guard wrong, she knew she would be returning to her old neighborhood, where crack cocaine, the root cause of her previous convictions, was still everywhere.

“It was almost like walking into a war zone,” she recalls. “I feared I would fail one more time.”

Determined to break her pattern, she repeatedly called a residential drug treatment facility in the affluent beachside city of Santa Monica, just 15 miles away but a sharp contrast to the inner-city community that kept sucking her into addiction and crime. An intake officer there, impressed by her persistence, offered her the chance she needed. Once clean, she landed a steady job and, soon thereafter, a house.

With the keys to her own place in hand, her first order of business was to return to the bus station in Skid Row where she had been dropped off from prison.

Susan Burton. (photo by Jessey Dearing)

Burton waited there for women who looked like she had when she was released. She knew the telltale signs: state-issue jeans, a manila envelope or small cardboard box holding all of their possessions, a wide-eyed gaze. As soon as she spotted one, she walked over.

“Hey, girl,” she’d say. “I have a house. If you want a place to live, you can have a bed there.”

Instead of enjoying a quiet life now that she had stopped cycling in and out of prison, Burton had decided to give fellow formerly-incarcerated women a chance at a new start, too.

“I found a way out, a way that many, many people in my community hadn’t found,” she says. “I wanted to share it.”

She furnished her house with bunk beds to sleep 10. Within a few weeks, they were all occupied.

Her guests got the bedrooms; she made do sleeping in the dining room.

There was no fixed rent. The women chipped in welfare money – if their benefits hadn’t been eliminated because of drug convictions – to help pay the mortgage. They pooled their food stamps to stock the refrigerator. And they stayed as long as they needed. There was no checkout date.

Burton helped them with the basics of post-prison life: obtaining a driver’s license, getting addiction treatment, finding a job, and, most important, discovering a sense of self-worth.

“We looked out for each other,” she says. Before long, she noticed a change. Women who would have been at loose ends and depressed back in their old neighborhoods – or maybe even in trouble with the law again – were beginning to thrive. She saw “the re-emergence of life, right there in front of me.”

That was 18 years ago. Since then, Burton has expanded her rescue operation to five houses in South Central Los Angeles and given more than 1,000 women a chance to rebuild their lives after prison.

In California, about 65 percent of former prisoners are reincarcerated within three years, according to a 2012 report by the state’s department of corrections. Last year, the recidivism rate of the women Burton took in was just 13 percent.

Burton grew up in an East Los Angeles housing project, in a home that was wracked by alcoholism and violence. Raped at the age of 14, she was forced to leave high school and enter a maternity home, where she gave birth to a daughter. “After that, my life kind of fell apart,” she remembers.

Ten years later, she had a son, K.K., and her outlook changed. She began “trudging forward.” Then one day when he was five, K.K. was struck and killed by a car as he played in front of the family’s home after school.

“I just unraveled,” Burton says. She began drinking heavily. When alcohol failed to numb the pain, she turned to the salve that was flooding the streets of her poor Los Angeles neighborhood in the 1980s: crack cocaine.

Her drug use, and the crimes she committed to feed her habit, led to her first prison sentence. When she was released, no one was there to help her transition to a stable, drug-free life. She returned to her former neighborhood and resumed smoking crack. That led to another arrest, and another prison sentence.

The cycle was repeated five times. She’d leave prison with the hope of getting sober and starting anew, but find herself drawn back into the vicious vortex of drugs.

“A place with positive supports – I didn’t know where that was,” she says. “It didn’t exist in the community that I came from. Our community had been saturated with drugs, liquor stores, and violence. That’s what I’d return to over and over again.”

But she also held the conviction that she could be of value to her community. “I knew I wasn’t born to be caged and chained up,” she says.

Her time at the treatment center in Santa Monica, after that sympathetic staff member called her when a bed came open, did more than help her achieve sobriety. It imbued her with a sense of purpose.

“I knew hundreds and hundreds of women like me, who had traveled in and out of prison in a revolving door,” she says. “They needed support and help just like I had received. And it could make a difference, just like it had made a difference in my life. I wanted to see them come back to the community and have a chance at a different life, too.”

But she didn’t want to send the women to treatment centers. She knew firsthand the challenges of finding a spot at one – it was only desperation and luck that had finally scored her the help she needed. Instead, she committed herself to help “lead them out of the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration, of crime and pain.”

Burton, a tough but motherly woman, is now 64. She no longer stakes out the bus station for recruits. Her houses and the nonprofit organization she established to run them, A New Way of Life, are well known in women’s jails and prisons in California and across the country. Inmates apply for a spot. Most of the time, Burton has more applicants than beds.

Gone are the bunks. She houses the women two to a room in one-story stucco ramblers, all of which are within a few blocks of each other in the city’s Watts neighborhood. The residents share responsibility for cooking and other household chores. They can search for jobs on internet-connected computers, and relax around large televisions in the evenings. A vegetable garden at one of the homes, sprouting collard greens and tomatoes, is tended by a 70-year-old woman who was locked up for almost three decades for the attempted murder of her abusive husband.

Days at A New Way of Life officially begin at 8 a.m. Conversations cease, breakfast is pushed aside, and mobile phones are turned off as the women gather in a circle in the darkened living room of a house on East 91st Street for group meditation.

Women at A New Way of Life participate in a morning meditation session. (photo by Jessey Dearing)]

Residents don’t have to beg, or wait for months, to avail themselves of substance-abuse counseling and employment training. Every woman is assigned a caseworker who tracks her progress and seeks to address underlying issues if she is failing to make a smooth transition. Burton allows everyone in the program to stay until they’re ready to move on. For some, that’s a month or two; for others, it can be a year or two.

“Everyone needs a place to live. Everyone needs a place to come home to every night,” she says. “I don’t understand why our society, our government, can think that you can lock a person away for months or years … and then release them back after they pay their debt without any support and expect it to be okay.”

The State of California spends, on average, about $60,000 to incarcerate a woman for a year. And when inmates are released, Burton notes, most are “ill-equipped to get a job, to go back to school, to be a productive member of society.”

It costs about $18,000 for A New Way of Life to house and support an ex-convict for a year. All of Burton’s costs are borne by foundations and private donors.

“Let’s do the math on this,” she says. “It makes more sense for our country to put resources to help those who have been released from prison. It’s cheaper to keep people out of prison.”

But that kind of policy shift would require society to change how it views the purpose of prison. “It has to be about more than punishment. We need to rehabilitate people,” she says. “We lock up far too many people in America today. We lock them up as if locking them up is gonna solve the problem. And locking them up does not solve the problem. Did locking me up make me better? No, it did not. It made my struggle harder.”

On Sept. 11, 2014, Carolyn Robinson put a pencil to a piece of prison-issue ruled paper. Her release date from the Century Regional Detention Center in Los Angeles County was four months away, and she wanted to end what she called “the cycle of insanity” that kept landing her behind bars.

She was 47. She had spent the past 26 years in and out of California’s jails and prisons for drug offenses and crimes she committed to fuel her habit. Her descent began in her teens, when she joined a street gang in Pomona, the city where she was raised. Her home, as she recalls it, was dysfunctional, and she craved the attention she received from fellow gang members. Before long, she was expelled from school. By the time she was 21, she had been sentenced to prison for the first time.

Each time she was released, she returned to Pomona. “The same people you used with, the same people you committed crimes with – they’re all there,” she says. “Even though they didn’t support you at all while you were in prison – didn’t write, didn’t do anything – all of a sudden, when you’re out, it’s, ‘Hey, we missed you.’ And it’s so easy to fall back into your old ways. I didn’t have any productive people in my life. All I had were people that were using drugs and committing crimes.”

During her stints back home, she usually got pregnant. By the time she picked up that pencil, she was a mother to six children, all of whom had been raised by relatives. She was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She wanted to get clean, to start over. But she had no idea how to reset her life, until a fellow inmate mentioned A New Way of Life and urged her to apply. So she wrote Burton.

Susan,

I am asking for an opportunity to be accepted into your program. I am willing to comply with all of the expectations and requirements of the program. I have several years of experience in recovery, so I am aware of what’s expected of me, and I am willing to go to any length to stay clean.

Sincerely,
Carolyn Robinson

Burton wrote back within a few days and told Robinson to call her from a prison phone. When they spoke, Burton heard echoes of her own story in Robinson’s. She was impressed with Robinson’s passionate desire to turn over a new leaf and her candor about her past transgressions. Before hanging up, Burton offered her a place at A New Way of Life and a ride from prison when she was released.

On her first day of freedom, Robinson, a vivacious woman with long braided hair, headed to a nearby community college and enrolled in a full load of classes. She was determined to get an associate’s degree in psychology, the first step to becoming a substance-abuse counselor and finding the silver lining in years of addiction.

But a few weeks later, abdominal pain sent her to the doctor. A gynecological cancer diagnosis soon followed, with the order to begin chemotherapy. She insisted that her treatments be scheduled on Fridays, so she wouldn’t miss her classes.

“After all I had been through,” she says, “I wasn’t going to let cancer get in the way.”

One morning this June, when women at A New Way of Life gathered for the morning’s meditation, Robinson was moved to speak.

“Today, I am not a failure,” she told a dozen fellow residents. “I have fallen, but I know how to get back up.”

Then she headed out to primp. Have her nails polished. Get her hair done. Put on a stylish black and white dress and pumps.

Although her cancer had gone into remission, her doctors wanted to perform a reconstructive surgery. Important as it was, she had decided it would have to wait, at least for a few more days.

That afternoon, she covered her dress and hairdo with a commencement gown and cap and walked onto the football field of her community college. As her name was announced, and she strode across the stage under the bright California sun to receive her diploma, Burton stood in the stands, applauding wildly.

A New Way of Life resident Carolyn Robinson, center, prepares to graduate from community college. (photo by Jessey Dearing)]

Seeing Robinson holding her diploma, pumping her fist into the air, left Burton feeling jubilant, too. “There's so much potential if people can actually get the support they need,” Burton says. “If you give these women a chance, they will show you a remarkable ability to overcome.”

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