The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility is New York’s sole maximum-security women’s jail, located atop a hill and protected by high razor wire barriers. More than a hundred offenders met recently at one facility and virtually at four others to hear from Susan Burton, an author who has served time in prison.
Twenty years of my life were spent in and out of prison while Burton “hoped and wished” to find his way, he told the women. I share my experience in the hopes that it will convince you that you are not expendable and that your life has value.
Burton’s already difficult life was nearly undone by the untimely death of her 5-year-old son. Her substance abuse led to her arrest and incarceration, and without help, she returned to her old habits upon her release.
Repeat that six times.
It felt like I was stuck in an endless cycle of incarceration. If I left the facility, I’d be returned to prison. She repeated this phrase several times. “At last, I have support. Because of that, I decided to choose a new route.
Burton has worked tirelessly for the past quarter-century to assist female ex-offenders in south Los Angeles in avoiding recidivism. She gives them a place to live and access to a variety of services through her non-profit, A New Way of Life Reentry Project. More than a thousand women’s lives have been turned around with her assistance since 1998.
Exposing her backstory
She was named one of the 2010 HEADLINESFOREVER Top 10 Heroes. The attention of the world, she claims, changed everything.
She explained that it gave her the “legitimacy and integrity” she had been striving for. And suddenly I had solid backing to develop the project further. And the number of houses tripled, from eight to twelve.
Becoming Ms. Burton, her autobiography, was released in 2017 and quickly became a best-seller. Burton discovered this as she did book signings across the country but still wasn’t reaching her target audience.
“I thought about all the women in prison that needed to have hope, so I wanted to get the book to them,” she explained. I decided to visit as many prisons as possible, so I travelled to 64 over the course of a year.
She donated almost 8,000 books to prisons in an effort to inspire female inmates and demonstrate that it is possible to start over after serving time. Instead, Burton noticed how hopeless many of them were after being released from prison with nowhere to go.
Those “women stood up with tears in their eyes” when she performed book signings, she claimed. “At night I would lie in bed and wonder, ‘What could I possibly do?'” I realise I can’t be in every single city in the country.
Protection for women following release from prison
In 2018, she established SAFE, an organisation that provides training to women in the housing industry so that they can implement Burton’s approach in their own areas. She has trained 31 persons so far, 90% of them are ex-inmates who have begun their own programmes.
One of them is Pamela Zimba. She had gone to a homeless shelter after being released from prison. She went to college while behind bars and graduated with a degree; after her release, she found work at the Ford Foundation. While she had accomplished much, she felt there was still more she could do.
Zimba said, “I wanted to open a house for women coming home so that they don’t have to go through the struggles that I went through.”
She went to a Los Angeles SAFE course and realised her goal with Burton’s guidance.
To build a home, “she literally gives you all the tools you need,” she said. Additionally, she awards grants of $50,000 to everyone. You can get off to a fast start with her assistance.
Zimba decided to quit her career and devote herself full-time to this cause. In Mt. Vernon, New York, she opened Lilac House for up to seven women last July. She specifically thanked Burton, who had travelled all the way from California to be there for the opening, in her speech.
I appreciate Susan very much. “I hope that one day I can help as many women as she has,” she said. That’s why I can say, “She made my dreams come true!”
Burton has found immense satisfaction in helping people like Zimba, and this has substantially increased the scope of her work. More than 700 women and nonbinary people have found accommodation through the SAFE network, which currently includes 38 homes across the United States and three in Africa. Burton feels she has something more to share than just her experience now when she visits women in prison.
She said, “I return with something real.” “I’ll be back to tell you, ‘Here’s a place you can stay.'”
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility inmate Jazmin Flowers, who heard Burton speak and bought a copy of his book, agreed.
I felt it was a fantastic occasion. She remarked, “There are a lot of opportunities for people.” Susan has given me a lot more hope for the future.
What keeps Burton going is knowing that she’s helped women like Flowers create brighter futures for themselves. That’s why she’s so keen on inspiring future leaders like Zimba to carry the torch.
She remarked, “We have just touched a fraction of the people that need a second chance in life, because there are 60,000 people coming home every year.” However, I am really satisfied with the progress made thus far. You sow the seed, you water it, and it sprouts.