By Keith Jajko
They say Americans like rooting for the underdog. We also love a good comeback story.
Ms. Burton is a nationally renown expert on re-entry from incarceration. That is, people who want to re-establish themselves into our community and get on with life after paying their dues to society. If only they were given a fair chance.
In Long Beach, the Greater Los Angeles area, California and most of the nation our jails are full. No country on the planet incarcerates more people.
Issues involving incarceration pepper news reports often, and usually with local impacts. The state kicking non-violent offenders to county jails means facilities nearer to home get full faster, resulting in earlier release for more prisoners.
It can mean the too-early release of prisoners who might just need more time to reform. Aside from jail crowding matters, consider the overall financial impact. The more prisoners we house, the more it costs. Taxes and fees get raised for everyone; funding and building more correctional facilities is an ongoing problem.
Then there’s the human cost. The hope for the whole system of incarceration is for prisoners to learn a lesson, hopefully pledge to not make the same poor choices in the future, and maybe even improve as a person overall.
A major problem is the amount government spends to house convicted criminals far, far exceeds what is dedicated to helping prevent them from returning to jail. While government officials acknowledge recidivism is a problem, they dedicate little energy or resources to address it.
The government hardly helps transition human beings from formerly troubled persons into individuals who just might prove to be good people who can make communities better. Imagine that.
Susan Burton did.
Offering Hope: Helping Women Transition
Today Ms. Burton is a celebrated author, re-entry activist and founder and executive for a nonprofit organization that has helped thousands of women transition from incarceration into productive members of society.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit, A New Way of Life Reentry Project provides housing, case management, no-cost legal services, advocacy and leadership development for women rebuilding their lives after prison. Her memoir, “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.”
The book made Burton the winner of the Outstanding Literary Work – Biography/Autobiography at the 49th annual NAACP Image Awards. It’s one of many significant national honors bestowed upon Burton for her work, including a CNN Heroes Award in 2010.
In September 2019, Burton was presented an honorary doctorate from California State University, Northridge, for her remarkable and tireless efforts for people she has yet to meet. An excellent summary of her life and achievements is available via CSUN.
As CSUN advertisements for the event stated, “Released from prison with only $200 and a one-way ticket to Skid Row, Susan Burton decided she was never going back.”
Read this CSUN news release for details, but in summary, Ms. Burton served six prison sentences before getting a helping hand that ultimately resulted in the formation of her nonprofit organization and significant strides toward helping women break the cycle of incarceration.
She suffered many significant, traumatic experiences along the way; over many years, leading up to what could have been the most challenging experience of all. That is, being completely ignored after enduring punishments for her crimes. Basically, tossed onto the streets among us and left to fend for herself. Like so many others.
Re-Entry and Long Beach: An Example
Let me try to explain why this is significant for Long Beach and surrounding communities. We have large women’s correctional facilities in our area, namely the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, where almost 2,200 inmates are housed.
Every day, women are released from facilities not far away, with a fistful of cash and little else. Many find their way to public transportation, and Metro’s Line A south until its terminus in downtown Long Beach.
They step off the train and from that moment are on their own to find somewhere to sleep, and a way to get income to eat and live.
I met one, in March 2017, and became rather close to her on and off over the course of that year. Let’s call her Dee, to protect her privacy. Dee completed seven years of prison time for several crimes, namely possession of heroin, ending her stay at the Lynwood facility for women.
Upon release she was given a single change of clothing, and $200 in cash. She ended up in a transitional housing situation on the northern fringe of downtown Long Beach, where her housemates were all recently released men.
Though she had been mostly free of drugs for seven years while incarcerated, Dee quickly returned to a pattern of using. She was kicked out of the transitional living house within months, and ended up in the cold-weather shelter in Long Beach.
While there her heroin habit increased, and she used other drugs as well, and became immersed in a world of drug dealers, users and shady hotel rooms and shadier situations. All right there in downtown Long Beach.
Dee’s daughter in Minnesota will tell you Dee suffers from bipolar disorder, and clearly she also has substance abuse disorder – both significant mental health ailments. Yet, she received no support out of prison to address her mental health situation – as she began to undertake the already massive ordeal of securing housing fresh out of years behind bars.
Dee was committing crimes in Long Beach, among our homes and businesses. They might not have been violent or major property crimes, but she was buying illegal drugs on the street pretty much on a daily basis, and dabbling in prostitution to support her habit.
Eventually she landed back in the transitional living house, where she lived with often-abusive men, cramped on bunk beds in old two-story house. She spent a lot of time on the streets just to stay out of the house, where men threatened her and stole clothes and even her mail at times.
Last I saw Dee she was walking west on Pacific Coast Highway toward a neighborhood adjacent to the Los Angeles River. I had taken her along with me to a trip to a thrift store, where I bought her some lotions and a pack of cigarettes. I have no idea what happened to her; she stopped posting on social media sometime in late 2018.
There are many more Dees out there among us. While homelessness is the biggest issue in the Greater Los Angeles area, our correctional facilities and government agencies add to homeless numbers every day. It makes little sense.
A New Way of Life: And New Hope
Dee’s story could have been different, had she known about resources such as A New Way of Life, which operates several transitional living homes for women in the Los Angeles area and offers an assortment of other services to help these women transition into productive and hopefully fulfilling lives.
At Christian Outreach in Action (COA), we see cases like Dee’s all the time, for both women and men. Men get released from the main county jail near Union Station and take the southern trek on the former Blue Line and end up in Long Beach.
Often their inquiries on the street leads them to places like the Village on Elm Street, a homelessness triage operated by Mental Health America of Los Angeles (MHALA), which might provide referral to Los Angeles County Mental Health services, plus a two-sided sheet of paper that directs individuals to places in and around Long Beach to get meals, food, or clothing.
Case workers might provide information about housing, but few housing arrangements occur quickly. The demand is immense; the process usually takes months. Meanwhile formerly incarcerated individuals need to eat, find clothes, and more.
From there, individuals often take a short walk to COA, to eat. We serve breakfast every day, dinners on weekdays and lunch on Saturdays. We also provide a food bank twice weekly to give out canned and packaged food items, and a free-clothing bank on Friday mornings. On Fridays we also give out free diapers, and a lawyer volunteers his time Friday afternoons for no-cost legal advice.
Simply put, COA provides immediate assistance, to give a person a chance, to have the energy (and clothing, among other help) to be able to take the next step toward recovery. We can do this over days and weeks; and we can refer people to institutions and organizations that could provide other types of help.
We help a lot of people. But it’s a serious challenge to help people, long-term, who have no money, training or experience to live day to day. Like people fresh out of long prison terms.
Join Us and Learn More about Re-Entry and Hope
Enter Susan Burton and A New Way of Life. Come join us Feb. 8 and learn about re-entry, why it’s a vital issue in our community, and maybe what you can do to help. Details:
COA Valentine’s Tea Speaker Series
1 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8
Grace 1st Presbyterian Church
3955 N. Studebaker Road
(at Los Coyotes Diagonal)
Long Beach, Calif.
Buy tickets now: