On the afternoon I'm scheduled to meet Susan Burton at her office in South Central, Los Angeles, I walk into a room full of caseworkers talking on the phone to prison inmates; a development director hard at work trying to raise money; and an attorney fighting a job discrimination case.
But no Susan. As one of her colleagues said, she's hard to pin down.Fair enough. In the last fifteen years, she's achieved the impossible. She was released from prison for the sixth time, got clean and sober, saved money, bought a small house for returning felons and recruited women she had known in prison who she thought were good bets. Before long, she founded an organization that would give hundreds of women a chance at a new life.
When Susan finally arrives at the office, she enters like a walking jazz improv, seamlessly giving advice, asking for information and making changes -- all while talking to me and my colleague Emma about making a documentary about her New Way of Life Prison Reentry Project. Susan is elegant and poetic. And, pretty clearly, exhausted.
A New Way of Life now owns five houses in Compton and South Central for women returning from prison. Susan provides practical assistance -- helping the women to find work or get training, to secure independent housing and to reunite with their children.
But more than anything, Susan has created a place without judgment. She believes these women are worthwhile. She believes given opportunities and support, they will not return to prison. And, overwhelmingly, they don't.
Federal law permanently bars anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving food stamps and federal assistance. This is a lifetime ban -- even if they completed their sentence, overcame an addiction, were employed but got laid off, or earned a certificate of rehabilitation or clemency.
The main Greyhound terminal in Los Angeles sits at the edge of "skid row" -- the site of one of the densest homeless populations in the U.S.. When you get out of prison near LA, this is likely where you will end up.
While Emma and I are making the documentary, I have fantasies of bringing one of the authors of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act here. Let's imagine Newt Gingrich.
In my twisted reality show, he was busted for drugs a few years ago but he's determined to get clean, get a job and find a safe place to live. He arrives in downtown LA with no money. His family is full of drug users or, better yet, he doesn't have any family. The shelters are overflowing, so he puts in a few nights on the streets.
He's undaunted. He's willing to work. But legally, businesses can discriminate against ex-convicts. No one will hire him. And, because of his drug conviction, he has no recourse to federal assistance to help get back on his feet.
I'm fairly sure it would take a smart guy like Newt no more than 72 hours to realize his logical recourse is to sell drugs for a few weeks, just to save some money.
After Susan's 2-year-old son was accidentally killed by a police officer, she went to prison repeatedly for drug-related offenses.
She takes responsibility for her own inability to stay clean. But when you look at the community she's created, you can't help but wonder if her story would have been different had she had the resources she offers to other women.
Susan never wants to forget what her life was like just fifteen years ago. She drives to the bus station about once a month to pick up women who are joining her program. A New Way of Life has a team of helpers -- some paid, many volunteer -- who would be willing do the pick-ups for her. But Susan needs to remember how lonely and frightening it was for her. And still is, for hundreds of women every day.
Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil rights activist, deftly argues in her impressive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, that America's criminal justice policies are tantamount to a modern Jim Crow. In A Plague of Prisons, Ernest Drucker looks at the problem as epidemiologist who believes we're suffering a full-fledged epidemic of mass incarceration.
Susan just looks at the problem as one woman trying to help other woman build meaningful lives, and, at every turn, meeting almost insurmountable obstacles.
She may be tired -- it's been a long fight -- but Susan's determined to knock those obstacles down until we make a better America, until we rebuild the system, until there is true justice for all.
WATCH: Susan, A Documentary