Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Organization helps women find new life outside prison

By Dorany Pineda

Contributing Writer

If there is one person who understands the challenges of exiting the criminal justice system, it’s Susan Burton.

After a tragedy that led to years of self-medication, Burton spent more than 20 years cycling in and out of prison. When she was freed, she struggled to find work, housing and addiction-recovery treatment, and the people around her weren’t much help.

“Every time I was released from prison, people would tell me, ‘Pull yourself up from your bootstraps.’ Hell, I didn’t even have boots,” Burton said.

When she finally became sober in 1997, Burton decided to help other formerly incarcerated women get back on their feet by offering them the support and resources she didn’t get.

“[Burton] started meeting some of the women who were being released and who were getting off the Greyhound Bus,” said Tiffany Johnson, co-director of the nonprofit Burton founded.

Burton invited the women into her home, reassuring them that her house was a safe and sober place to go. And that was the beginning of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project.

Since its founding in 1998, the nonprofit has provided resources to thousands of formerly imprisoned women to help them re-enter the world.

“All of our services we give from our hearts for our communities,” Johnson said. “Our work helps people get from under the criminal justice hole. … We break down the barriers that have been hindering women from gainful employment, gainful housing.”

The organization shatters those obstacles by providing released women with three stages of supportive services.

The first is by helping them attain the basics, including a California identification, a Social Security card or clearing any debts they might have incurred while in prison. Volunteers and employees also accompany women to court appearances and to meet their probation officers.

For those in recovery, the organization helps them find a sobriety sponsor and create a plan to get clean.

Once those basics are met, women begin to re-establish themselves and think about their futures. The nonprofit guides women through finding employment or enrolling for classes and training programs.

For mothers, A New Way of Life helps them restore relationships with their children and, if possible, regain custody of them.

When a woman is ready for independence, the organization finds her permanent housing and offers her resources to continue a drug-free lifestyle.

“Providing information that will uplift our community is a major goal within our organization,” Johnson said. “We help uplift [women] to become the women they are meant to be, to become the people they were created to be.”

Over the years, A New Way of Life has transformed the lives of more than 1,000 women and children with its support, services and re-entry homes. And every woman they’ve assisted, Johnson said, has triumphed.

“If a woman gets out of incarceration and doesn’t go back, that is a success,” Johnson said. “A woman who gets out of incarceration and struggles through the barriers of gainful employment, struggles through the barriers of getting housing, that is success.

“If she struggles with reunifying with her children … that is the definition of success. … Success is not going back to prison. … Success is changing the way you think, success is living a new and different life,” she said.

And through its work, A New Way of Life helps formerly incarcerated women find those successes.

INFORMATION BOX

Co-Directors: Tiffany Johnson & Michael Towler

Years in operation: 20

Number of employees: 23

Annual budget: $2.14 million

Location: 9512 S. Central Ave., South Los Angeles, 90002