Battle of the 1Bands

Susan Burton


After returning home from her sixth term in prison, Susan Burton was done, exhausted by the revolving door of incarceration and disappointed in the way her life had turned out. A friend steered her toward a substance abuse treatment center in Santa Monica, California. It was there, in that affluent oceanside city, that Susan found the resources and help she’d never had access to while growing up in South LA. After a childhood filled with abuse, Susan’s world had finally fallen apart when her five-year-old son was run over and killed. Not knowing where to turn or how to manage her grief, Susan self-medicated and spiraled into addiction.

On October 4, 1997, when she entered treatment, Susan began the process of turning her life around. But she wasn’t content with just helping herself; she knew that there were thousands of women just like her who needed a safe, sober place to live after leaving prison. Susan saved up money from her job as a carer, and in 1998, she opened a three-bedroom safe home in the South LA neighborhood of Watts. She began meeting women at the Los Angeles Bus Station as they returned from prison and welcomed them into her home, urging them to stay as long as necessary to put their lives back together. A New Way of Life Reentry Project was born.

Susan quickly recognized that her individual efforts were not enough. She saw that women coming home from prison faced tremendous institutional obstacles: laws, policies and attitudes that precluded access to employment, student loans, permanent housing, public assistance and many other services. Challenging these obstacles by herself would be futile. Susan came to understand that real change could happen only through a powerful grassroots community organizing effort, one that could amass enough political power to bring an end to discriminatory practices, and shift public attitudes in a way that would break the cycle of mass incarceration.