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JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠

Susan Burton: A Rising Tide, A Welcome Home

Susan Burton was every little girl who ever sought to feel loved and valued. To feel safe. To thrive, and give back.

Before the uneven sway of the criminal justice system closed off treatment options and pushed her into incarceration, she was just a little girl with promise living in the projects of East L.A.

She wanted the things that girls everywhere want: a bit of popularity, tea parties with friends, the accolades that come with good grades. She wanted to soar beyond her circumstances.

Instead, she was mired in hardship, pulled deeper into the quicksand of poverty and its heaviness. The horror of sexual abuse resulted not only in shame but in pregnancy at age 15, and with it the sudden advent of adult responsibilities.

She had a daughter, and pieced together a life for them as best she could. She treaded water, stayed afloat, stayed alive. She fell in love and had a second child, a boy. Glimpses of her girlhood promise came like waves then—salty and turbulent, but lifting her up, too.

Until the big one in 1981, a riptide out of nowhere, that pulled her under. Her little boy, KK—her sunshine and joy—was dead at five years old. Hit by an LAPD officer driving an unmarked car.

Drowning, Susan thrashed about for something to pull her out of that grief-fueled tempest. She grabbed onto a vial of the omnipresent crack cocaine and drifted to a lower hell, arrested and incarcerated on drug offenses.

Once, twice, and eventually six times. With each prison release, she boarded the bus with the state-issued two hundred dollars—“gate money.” Each time, she disembarked into that same maelstrom, mere yards from Skid Row and its smorgasbord of drugs and alcohol and pimps, where the prospects for legitimate work were meager at best.

After the sixth time it would have been easy for her to succumb once more, to just give up and get high, get arrested again.

Something welled up inside Susan. That frayed ribbon of her girlhood promise somehow strengthened, like a lifeline pulling her toward the shore. She was swimming this time, pushing away the no-house, no-job hopelessness. Then an angel’s gift in the form of money from her brother got her a place at a rehab center.

Rehab is a fairly basic alternative after a drug arrest. Surely after the second or third—and most certainly by the sixth arrest—at least one judge could have remanded her to a treatment facility. At least one parole officer could have offered her a group home option, a halfway house, even a free list of AA and NA meetings.

No one ever raised the possibility of drug treatment instead of incarceration. A compassionate path to reentry…a path not blocked with boulders the size of monsters, or fraught with sink holes deep enough to swallow the human spirit. Never an option; until after the sixth time.

Susan’s stay in rehab started her on a new journey and for the first time people helped her believe she mattered.  The change profoundly signaled her new way of life.

She secured employment as a home health aide, saved her earnings and bought her own home. Then she went back to that Skid Row cesspool and waited for the same outbound prison bus that she herself had ridden six times. She watched the just-released women disembark, and found replicas of herself. In their faces—a mix of hope and despair that said, I want to do better this time, but how?

She began inviting the women back to her home to stay as long as they needed, contributing only what they could. She helped them chart a course that would untether them from the criminal justice system. Their needs were vast, from treatments to help in the recovery of their bodies, minds, and spirits. The demands ranged from sobriety to securing a Social Security card, to the deceptively simple acquisition of $3.00 for bus fare.

That was 1998.  Susan had doled out so many offerings of bus fare that her personal resources were dwindling. She incorporated into a nonprofit program, appropriately named A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

Seventeen years and five houses later, nearly 900 women have come through her doors.

Eight out of every 10 of those women have cut the cord to incarceration. Lives, families, and entire communities have been transformed.

Susan still meets that outbound prison bus at Skid Row. She still sees herself in those women. Though the details of their stories differ, they are the same at the core, where a little girl’s need to feel loved and valued, to feel safe, to thrive and contribute in kind still blooms.

Those are grown-woman needs too, denied to Susan Burton and countless like her who have cycled through a brutal criminal justice system that has been blind to those needs.

But thanks to Susan’s sensible, compassionate approach, A New Way of Life awaits them. As they step off the bus, she extends her hand to them, mostly younger versions of herself, and says, “Welcome home.”

Susan Burton: A Rising Tide, A Welcome Home is the first story in a multimedia anthology from formerly incarcerated people and others who have been touched by, and triumphed over, the tragedies of the criminal justice system. Email us to learn more about JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change.