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Second Chances, First Steps, Making Heroes

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This commentary, authored by founder and president Gwen McKinney, originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

You can say Susan Burton has 20/20 vision. The lens is tinted in shades of trauma and triumph.

It’s been 20 years outside and 20 inside California’s criminal justice system. While the decades between then and now break even, Burton, 65, confides that the seesaw she rides remains lopsided.

Between 1976 and 1996, she cycled in and out of the system six times for low-level drug offenses. Finally, after the sixth time Burton secured residential substance misuse treatment. That intervention, never offered before, affirmed her worthy of a second chance – the first step in her transformation from victim to champion.

Rehab led to sober living, a decent job, modest savings and a cottage in South Central Los Angeles. Then came a sense of agency and empowerment and Burton never stopped connecting with women she met during her revolving door through the cages of California.

Fast-forward 18 years, five houses and some 1,000 women later.

The doors are open at A New Way of Life (ANWOL) Re-entry Project. Burton, the founder and executive director, provides formerly incarcerated women wrap-around services: transitional housing, counseling, family reunification, legal services, job training and a host of other life skills and supports. Most of the women return to the “free world” fractured and disempowered. They get a bed and a safe, supportive environment.

For the women in Burton’s house, this basic stuff is often hard to gain and even harder to retain. Occupying that space is the first building block to healing and becoming whole.

I met Susan in 2010. She had just been selected among the “Top 10 CNN Heroes.” Someone suggested it was time to get “professional help” to tell her story and advance her message. Perhaps, it was urged, a communications coach like me was in order. We scheduled a 30-minute telephone chat one Sunday morning. Our conversation lasted for two hours; the chats continue incessantly today.

Burton set me up for what has become an unfolding journey like peeling the layers of onion skin. From my relatively privileged perch, she became my coach. The world of formerly incarcerated women intersects with the vagaries of gender, race and American justice. Few who aren’t on that path can imagine a mom or grandmother in that wretched space; and even fewer understand the twisted road they navigate.

Second only to Thailand, the United States jails more women than any nation. Between 1980 and 2014, the women‘s prison population increased more than 700 percent.

As the most populous state California, where Burton lives, tops the nation in jailing women and is home to the world’s largest women’s prison, Central California Women’s Facility.

The figures are especially stark among Black women. Just 3 percent of California’s black population, they are a whopping 27 percent of the state’s criminal defendants. The majority of women, incarcerated for property or drug-related offenses, are victims of violence more often than perpetrators of violent crimes.

Incarcerated women have most likely endured sexual abuse and other trauma as children. Almost all are poor; many homeless, mentally ill or suffering from substance misuse. Like Susan Burton’s six-time stint, they are rarely offered treatment but warehoused in and out of the system.

The multi-generational impact is profound, causing irreparable damage to their children who are often live in unstable housing situations, constantly on the move and less likely to finish high school. Many are condemned to the correctional system that spawned their fate in the first place.

California has begun to right some of these gaping injustices with passage in 2014 of Proposition 47. The measure decreased sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, resulting in release of thousands of prisoners, and potentially hundreds of millions in county and state cost savings. Susan Burton was at the front of the line, expunging her record and leading a small army of canvassers seeking record change for formerly incarcerated people.

Moving beyond the social services deficit model, Susan also entreats each ANWOL resident to take responsibility, not only for their choices, but for their role beyond their individual needs. They must be civic citizens, giving back to the community that has embraced them.

Recently at ANWOL’s 10th annual gala Burton, delivering sendoff remarks, invited former and current residents to join her on stage. The powerful visual of three dozen women from ages 19 to 68 in glittering evening attire brought the house to standing applause.

Glowing with pride, they made it to a finish line that existed because someone helped them run the race.

Susan didn’t win the #1 CNN Hero slot in 2010. But she has earned that status in the lived experience she commands every day.

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