Lead Story West Edition

Susan Burton seeks new life for once-incarcerated women

LOS ANGELES —Looking for normalcy after leaving behind the criminal justice system pipeline can be quite a daunting task.

Assimilating back into the mainstream of everyday life of going to work, looking for daycare for children, picking up food from the grocery store and just taking care of household duties, things that most people take for granted, are not so simple chores for the formerly incarcerated.

Susan Burton, the founder and director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, knows this scenario all too well. She’s been there and done that.

For the greater part of two decades, Burton has unceremoniously been on the front lines to assist former incarcerated women get acclimated back into society by helping them find housing and support.

Most individuals, once they are freed from incarceration, need a lifeline for someone to throw at them so they won’t sink back into a pathway of potential criminality. That’s not to mention the psychological and mental challenges some individuals have to overcome once they are no longer behind bars.

Burton has done her work in the trenches, toiling without fanfare in South Los Angeles, giving women what others have neglected to do: hope.

“I don’t think that the general public actually understands or recognizes how daunting and how many hurdles and roadblocks that people have, but especially women,” Burton said. “Women have unique needs different from men. Their whole emotional and physiological makeup is completely different from men. Most things are shaped towards men … the remedies and the approach, even to say that there are so much research about men and very little about women.”

To know the real impact of what Burton is doing in turning around other lives, is to know the woman she is and what led her down this trek of being the Good Samaritan. The spiral of her life and trajectory therapeutic avenues she took to get right began when her 5-year-old son was hit and killed by an LAPD detective.

Burton soon went into a deep funk of depression and anger. By choice, drugs became her consolation. Before she knew it, she was in and out of the criminal justice system for years.

When she finally got sober and clean in 1997, thanks to time spent recovering at the CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica, Burton set off to do the work that wasn’t being done in the community she had come from. Since founding A New Life, the nonprofit organization has helped more than 900 women get back on their feet once they leave jail or prison.

After taking her own money from her savings, Burton purchased one home. Today, there are five homes attached to A New Life Reentry Project. Ever looking for ways to push for more awareness about the plight of women and the lack of assets they need to get their life back on track, Burton is getting that message across in her new book, “Becoming Ms. Burton.”

“I think that I had a story that needed to be told about women and incarceration and the social structures and constraints,” Burton said. “I wrote the book about me, but in writing it, I really recognized that there’s so many women just like me that lack opportunity to make their lives meaningful. So, I wanted to tell a real story about how I did it, and maybe inspire and get other people talking about what they should be doing instead of what they are doing.”

Burton said that “Becoming Ms. Burton” has generated a lot of feedback, but more important than dialogue, she hopes the book is reaching the audience she penned it for in the first place.

“I know that the book has really taken off in a way that people are really responding to it, in ways of buying and writing and supporting the organization,” Burton said. “But I don’t know how much it has directly affected women. That’s what I want women to know. They have to fight for their lives, no matter what happens to them.”