Fire Inside interviewed Susan Burton, co-founder of A New Way of Life Foundation, as she was doing the grocery shop for A New Way of Life’s two Los Angeles homes for formerly incarcerated women.
Fire Inside[FI]: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself and why this issue is important to you?
Susan[SB]: I am a formerly incarcerated woman. I was incarcerated not one time but six times. Each time it was substance abuse related-treatable, but nonetheless criminal. Each time I left prison determined not to come back, but I did come back five times! The obstacles were just too much for one person to overcome.
FI: What are these obstacles to women being able to successfully stay out in the community?
SB: First, is having a safe place to go. I could return to my family, but it was not safe and started the cycle of substance abuse again, leading to incarceration again. Second, is getting papers-an ID card, Social Security card. You can’t start to get a job until you have your papers. Third is money, like how to get welfare to help while you are looking for a job. Fourth is shaking off the effects of prison-post incarceration syndrome. In prison you have not been allowed to make any decisions, you’ve experienced a lot of shame and being told what a bad person you are. So people leave prison with this post incarceration syndrome. People don’t even realize this is affecting them, and they are expected to hit the ground running. So much happens between entering prison and leaving and is unspoken. I didn’t realize each time I left prison how much I was affected by post incarceration syndrome. Like going to the grocery store-I knew I didn’t want to eat mystery meat anymore, but I didn’t know how to buy food or what a healthy diet would be for me.
FI: Can you tell us about A New Way of Life Foundation?
SB: When I finally broke the cycle of incarceration I opened up my home to women coming out of prison back to the Los Angeles area. Now we have one house with nine women living in it, and on January 15, 2003 we opened a second home for six women and four young children. This is a place where women can come together and be safe while getting their feet back into the community. We also do education about the society we live in, how it has systems in place to keep women like us oppressed and thinking that we were really bad people. We talk about how prisons are the 21st century slave machinery, and tell them again and again that they are not bad people.
FI: Susan, do you do all this work alone?
SB: There are two other formerly incarcerated women who are working with me, Mitzy (Ora) Bozart and someone else who wishes to be anonymous. We don’t make a living wage doing this work, but we hope to some day. Another very important person who works with us is a social worker, Marilyn Montenegro, who has volunteered her time for free to help women get their social services paperwork together and does family reunification work.
FI: Is there something you want to say to women who have just gotten out or are just about to get out?
SB: Yes. You need help to break the cycle of incarceration. Don’t let yourself get cut off and try to do it alone. It’s important to connect with a support system before you get out.
FI: And what about for people outside who want to support our sisters getting out and staying out?
SB: When women are sentenced, it’s supposed to be over when they serve their time. The community must be committed to begin to employ former prisoners, to smile at them, to support them, to embrace them! People-formerly incarcerated-have so much to give and want to give it. We must give them the opportunity to do it. We pay a very high price for not opening up the doors. So we are coming together and must work together. We are looking forward to November 2004, to having a real impact on the elections and making a change.
For more information go to: www.anewwayoflife.org. You can make a financial contribution by sending a check payable to A New Way of Life Foundation to:
A New Way of Life Foundation
PO Box 875288
Los Angeles, CA 90087