AT THE END OF THE DAY . . .

We have completed the last of our readings? Ms. Burton is up and running with her non-profit. What was the biggest hurdle she faced in her effort to help women recover from spending time in prison? See if you can find a single organization like this one in Richmond, Virginia? What about the state of Virginia?

12 thoughts on “AT THE END OF THE DAY . . .

  • April 12, 2020 at 9:20 pm
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    “Becoming Ms. Burton” was such an inspiring and beautiful story– and such a great way to conclude all we have learned this semester in this course. It was refreshing to read about A New Way of Life in “Breaking Women” after seeing the failure and shaming women experienced in Project Habilitate Women and the program in the “Prison Lullabies” documentary. However, it took Susan a whole lot of adversity in her personal endeavors and in creating A New Way of Life to become the Ms. Burton figure to the women in the program. While there were a plethora of hurdles she had to overcome–from the struggles with Beverly, securing funding for the program, the everyday struggles of running a nonprofit–I think the story of Tiffany Johnson in Chapter 32: “Living An Impossible Life” answers this question best. For Susan, I think what pained her most was seeing firsthand how her women at A New Way of Life came from adverse backgrounds, landing them in the criminal justice system, as she had. When Tiffany doesn’t remember how to use normal showers or in the outside world at all, and when she tells her story of childhood sexual abuse and near-death experiences.

    Although helping women like Tiffany was Susan’s calling, this was definitely emotionally tolling. In this chapter, Susan indicates that she “heeded every call, seven days a week, all hours. For the first time, I began to look up and realize I was exhausted,” (p. 240). While Susan does not devote much of her book indicating this was troubling, I do feel that working in any “helping” profession can be triggering and emotionally draining at times. I admire people like Susan who commit their lives to this type of work, especially when the passion comes from those who have experienced similar adversity for themselves. We need more people like this doing this work. However, developing and running a nonprofit is tireless work, and can feel like you’re pulling teeth with clients sometimes; for women who relapsed or were re-arrested, I can imagine it was difficult for Susan.

    In terms of programs such as this one, there are a few of a similar nature in Richmond and in Virginia, but A New Way of Life is certainly unique in its approach. The ones that I found to cater specifically to female reentry services are the Virginia Center for Restorative Justice (VCRJ) in Richmond and the Friends of Guest House in Alexandria. A New Way of Life is definitely one of the leading rehabilitation gender-based approaches in the country, and I am hoping that states can continue to allocate funding to build reentry programs of the same nature.

  • April 13, 2020 at 10:56 am
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    I think it is hard to pinpoint the “biggest” hurdle Ms. Burton faced in her effort to help women recover. There were so many hurdles constantly testing Ms. Burton along the way. So, I think the biggest hurdle was the compilation of all the obstacles for the program and the constant institutional pressures that virtually propel an organization to fail over and over. It is almost as if the system does not want these programs to survive, and they want their success to be as difficult as possible.

    One obstacle I found interesting was in chapter 31 when the LAPD would handcuff the women and search the house. What the LAPD officers were doing to the “free” women mimicked their time in prison. I couldn’t imagine how it would feel for a woman who has recently left prison and is trying to rebuild her life to be subjected to the same treatment she faced in prison. Ms. Burton said it perfectly: “When we see cops, we don’t see protection served. We see trauma, we see harassment” (page 229). These women are automatically viewed as guilty and are treated like criminals in their own home out of prison. Suffering similar treatment must be a resurfacing of past trauma they experienced in and before prison. Yet, this is only one obstacle Ms. Burton and these women faced with establishing and maintaining A New Way of Life. Like Anna said (in her evaluation of Tiffany), even for Ms. Burton I cannot imagine how difficult it is for her to see her pain in so many other women. She sees over and over again how the system failed her replicated in these women.

    I found the Offender Aid and Restoration program in my search for programs similar to A New Way of Life. However, I think something that is interesting about searching for these programs is, you don’t truly know the interworking of the program, its difficulties, or its commitment unless you truly see its story from the inside, as we have all seen through our reading of A New Way of Life. Many organizations can have a good website and a good mission statement, but it is difficult to truly know its commitment to prisoners unless you see these first-hand accounts of its struggles and successes. I think if we looked deeper into many of these programs, they are a facade so people believe there is help for prisoners. The truth is, many of these programs do not have the commitment Ms. Burton does. Now, I’m not saying that is the case for the OAR program. It is just that, in my search for these programs, and through reading Ms. Burton’s story, I think it is apparent that many re-entry programs only scratch the surface.

  • April 13, 2020 at 12:24 pm
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    I think the biggest hurdle Susan Burton faced in her attempts to help women re-enter society through her non-profit was teaching them that they are worthy of the help in the first place. Prison has an insidious way of entrapping not just the body but the mind of the incarcerated. This leads women to think of themselves as undeserving of a second chance and to be skeptical of those who offer them one. In Chapter 32, Burton writes about Tiffany Johnson, the first “lifer” who was released into her program. One day Ms. Burton walked in on her sobbing and overwhelmed because she didn’t know how to use the shower in the building, saying “for so long, I’ve only known the prison showers. It’s degrading.” Burton soothes her and tells her that this is part of her detoxing from prison. I think that statement was so powerful, especially coming from someone who had extensive knowledge of addiction and the prison system. The idea that prison itself is poisonous in a way is really interesting to me. The women in Burton’s program like Tiffany have likely been told (or shown) that they are unworthy or polluted since before their time in prison. Tiffany was sexually abused extensively as a girl, and her mother was quick to blame her for it. I cannot imagine how insurmountable it might feel to overcome childhood trauma like that, go to prison for homicide, and leave with any semblance of dignity or compassion for oneself.

    Luckily, Burton was able to teach the women about this process of detoxing and learning one’s worth again because she had lived it herself. This is why I think so many re-entry programs are led by people who are formerly incarcerated and why they serve as such excellent role models. All the institutional, bureaucratic and financial barriers notwithstanding, there is an enormous (invisible) emotional hurdle people face when released from prison. This is the process of de-institutionalization and of molding a new conception of oneself as whole and good. The effects of a prison sentence linger much longer in the psyche than the physical time one actually serves.

    In the next chapter, as Burton tries to secure Section 8 housing for recently released women, she encounters several who believe the program “too good to be true.” The experience of black people being historically denied or discriminated against in the realm of housing contributes to this learned disbelief. Burton writes that “the thinking around housing that had become ingrained in the black community was ‘no way someone could be looking out for our best interests.”‘ This kind of skepticism is heartbreaking to me, but it was conditioned and is understandable.

    My roommate at school interned at an organization in Richmond this summer called Bridging the Gap in Virginia. Her boss was its founder, a man named Richard who was formerly incarcerated. The nonprofit’s website says that it “aims to reduce recidivism, homelessness, unemployment and relapse.” One expansion of the nonprofit’s mission that my roommate was specifically a part of was into the environmental justice realm. She had experience working in this sector before and Richard’s tasks for her dealt mostly with this. Bridging the Gap trained a group of recently released people in the installation of solar panels and got them certified. Many of these people were able to find work doing this. This gives the participants a sense of purpose and ties them to a larger mission of renewable energy. The nonprofit also seeks to preserve the land at Union Hill that used to be a tobacco plantation, and has since become the home of descendants of the freed men who started a community there. I think Bridging the Gap is really cool (for complete lack of a better word) because environmental justice is such an emerging issue that gives formerly incarcerated people the sense they are contributing to a larger human project while also preserving history.

  • April 13, 2020 at 3:38 pm
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    Anna really hit the nail on the head in the previous post. I definitely agree that Burton’s biggest hurdles in running A New Way of Life had to be emotional investments. We read this in Tiffany Johnson’s story.
    Tiffany was the first “lifer”— refers to a person who was sentenced to life in prison— to be accepted into A New Way of Life. As a resident, she had second thoughts and a lot of doubts about being prepared for freedom outside of prison walls. At first glance, it seemed a bit ridiculous for Tiffany to have become overwhelmed when she didn’t know how to operate the shower and no one else was home to help her. However, one must consider the environment of prison: everyone was in there together all the time, meaning there would always be someone around to help with something. It was distasteful to read that Burton had to assure Tiffany would have to “relearn” what it meant and felt like to be treated with dignity and respect, as a human being.

    It was even more distasteful to read about Tiffany’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. To him, Tiffany was his “special” little girl whom he used for his own sexual desires. From this, Tiffany resorted to drugs, alcohol, and sunk deep into depression to the point of suicidal thoughts. Burton was not only able to identify with Tiffany’s history of sexual abuse by her mother’s lover, but she was able to be there to guide and reassure Tiffany in her new life of liberation.

    Both transitional homes or halfway houses that I found are under the larger chain of Oxford houses. The primary purpose of Oxford House, a non-profit organization, is to aid people in their recovery processes from drug and alcohol addiction. People come from all walks of life to get help and make use of the resources Oxford provides including treatment programs and transitional housing. It is slightly different from Burton’s home as her main focus is on helping formerly incarcerated women, however, the women get help with addiction recoveries as well. Also, the Oxford organization helps both men and women with recoveries and housing (not in the same homes), while Burton’s A New Way of Life is for women only. There is one home that is located less than 10 minutes away from the University of Richmond called the Oxford House West End, and there is another in Alexandria, Virginia called the Oxford House Diva. These are just two of the organization’s nearly 3,000 locations.

  • April 13, 2020 at 4:26 pm
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    I think one big hurdle was distrust from a number of different vantage points.

    First, there was the distrust of the women who were offered or accepted a bed in her house. At first I thought this distrust came from women assuming the worst of Ms. Burton, that her nonprofit was just another toxic or unhelpful treatment program. But it was more that women didn’t trust themselves, or trust that they deserved anything more than what they had been given in their lives so far. Some remarked that the program was too good to be true. They had resigned themselves to lives in prison and poverty. The women didn’t know how to write a Christmas list when a faith group went shopping for them, and when they received the gifts some struggled with gratitude. Tiffany, a former Lifer, had an especially emotional transition. She didn’t think she could be free after the degrading experience of prison. Ms. Burton describes this feeling of shame and insignificance as post-incarceration syndrome.

    There was also the distrust and dismissal created by the bureaucratic system. It is incredibly difficult to get a job with a criminal history, and subsidized housing isn’t available with a criminal record. The prison system is intentionally set up to criminalize addiction and mental illness, restrict voting rights, and discriminate against people of color and immigrants. This isn’t a system that yields easily to even a small non-profit like Ms. Burton’s, built on compassion, trust, and acceptance. At the same time, it’s a system that needs organizations like hers. They released someone to her care without ever talking to her in the earliest days of her program. Her “spontaneity” at the Day of Dialogue was held against her. Something that stands out to me is where she writes in chapter 22 that her words were “crude” and that she needed a better vocabulary to be taken seriously in activist work. Other bureaucratic hurdles she and others faced included clearance denials, welfare reform that removed benefits, background checks turning up expunged records, and an anti-parole governor. After a probation reform, A New Way of Life became dependent on the LAPD and Probation Board and the freedom of its residents was restricted. She meets a state senator doing community service for a “crime” most senators were guilty of, but he was black and anti-prison.

    Ms. Burton’s own trust was what helped the program start and then survive. She trusted that the money to fund the program would come in, and it did, from nonprofits, from individuals, and even from friends. Public support eventually came as well. She trusted the women who entered the program–she states that she never asked them what they had done to end up in prison. They were trusted to come and go, excepting a 30 day period after drug use. She trusted and continues to trust in change, in reform, and in the movement. What she has done is incredible, and it took an immense amount of trust in herself and in the good of people, which is almost unbelievable after a life of so much mistreatment and abuse.

    In terms of like organizations in Richmond/Virginia, I agree with Avery that it’s difficult to tell from a website what the inner workings of a program are like and whether it is a good, encouraging, compassionate environment like A New Way of Life, or ineffective or cruel like some addiction treatment places can be. I found Bridging RVA which is an organization that compiles post-prison and recovery resources. It pointed me to Les’ Place, which is for men, Prym House, and the Frog Houses, which have five homes for men and three for women. This quote copied from the Frog house website shows a commitment similar to Ms. Burton’s:

    “We provide our residents with an environment that inspires change. We give them a safe, clean, secure home. We surround them with caring individuals who themselves are true testimoney to the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.

    Most important, The FROG House is a place where people learn to trust themselves again; where the transition from treatment to indpendence takes place almost effortlessly; where long-term recovery is not just a goal… it is a way of life.”

    I hope that in reality it is such a place.

  • April 13, 2020 at 4:36 pm
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    I wanted to try to answer the second part of your prompt, Profsi. I was able to find a non-profit in Northern Virginia called Friends of Guest House that is meant to help formerly incarcerated women transition back into the world outside of prison. They offer mental health services, provide food and clothing assistance, and job training. However, like many similar organizations, I found most concerning that they only really covered free housing for 6 months; then there is a limited number of rooms these women can rent. Just from what we’ve been studying this class, I don’t know if that period of time is enough for women who say have a debilitating drug addition; the stability is assuring long-term housing is often itself a pre-requisite for successful counseling, addiction treatment, and finding employment.

  • April 13, 2020 at 5:51 pm
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    Excellent posts. I think the biggest hurdle Burton faced, and faces, are the laws themselves and electoral politics. Critical race theory argues that racism is embedded in law. I think that this is true. Remember when they are celebrating Prop 47 and Sheriff Baca, as corrupt as they come, is celebrating his win in another room? It’s a juxtaposition in reality and in principle. Check out this short video on the deeds of Baca: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIIX640z8RE

  • April 13, 2020 at 6:09 pm
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    I think that the biggest hurdles that Burton had to overcome was the chasm between making a choice and ending up some place that she describes. For many of those incarcerated, their incarceration was just one facet of the challenges they faced. Like Burton, many had histories of trauma and abuse that had to be dealt with before and above all else. Also, the fact that over 70% of Americans cannot read above a fourth grade level makes it very difficult to acclimate to mainstream society. Not only does poverty itself from unemployment result in hunger, specific policies by the Clinton Administration propagated this problem. Many of those charged with drug crimes were unable to qualify for SNAP, a food-provision program. Many former inmates also have other mouths to feed besides their own, as nearly 10 million American children have had a parent in prison. Those with a criminal background also earn an average of 40% less than those without a criminal background. The lack of unemployment opportunities, coupled with financial hardship, stigma, food insecurity, and lack of formal education for former inmates creates a system that purposely grows the improbability of success for those with a criminal record. After leaving prison, one’s choices may very well not translate into the place one wishes to be.
    The Opportunity Alliance and Reentry Program in Richmond has expanded and allows for people to gain those practical skills that one foregoes in prison. These include communication, computer skills, and networking. Additional services include the provision of basic documents needed for employment like IDs. These are said to have major positive improvements in their quality of life. I would love to know more about its success rates for former inmates as well as what employment or education opportunities tend to be provided.

  • April 14, 2020 at 11:56 am
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    The overall biggest hurdle that Ms. Burton faced was the politics. She always had to fight her way through the system to try an enact change. She fought against and for many different policy changes, but she always had to fight just to be involved. Specifically, when on various commissions examining prisons, she constantly had to go through extra processes to try and be able to even visit the prisons because of her “criminal” past. In addition, the various legal processes of most of the work she did, beginning with applying for 501(c)(3) status. She always had to carefully navigate these processes just to get the opportunity to enact change. However, due to her determination, she pushed through a lot of the legal difficulties and gained an amazing amount of support.

    In Richmond, Virginia, there is the organization Bridging the Gap in Virginia that is located throughout all of Virginia. Like a New Way of Life, this organization was founded by a formerly incarcerated person of color. This organization is for formerly incarcerated men and women struggling with homelessness, addiction, multiple incarcerations and unemployment. This group offers safe housing, employment assistance, educational opportunities, vocational services, and recovery aftercare in a mission to help all participants obtain the necessary skills to be self-sufficient. They even contact people after they finish programs to check up on them and make sure that they continue to get the care that they need. In addition, they are also fighting against climate change and about the impact of environmental injustices for minority communities.

  • April 14, 2020 at 12:53 pm
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    I agree that the biggest hurdle is definitely politics. Susan Burton had a very hard time overcoming laws when trying to start her program for a new way of life for former inmates. Susan Burton had two big factors against her–being a person of color and a prior criminal. Automatically, those two factors extremely hard to apply for the necessary tools and materials needed to start any type of program. On paper, it is hard to get through laws because they will constantly deny you or make it very hard to access the necessary resources to start a program that will help people that are naturally forgotten in society. People who are released from prison aren’t a priority so when people are creating programs to help them they do not have a big community of support.

    One program that I found in the Richmond area is A BETTER DAY THAN YESTERDAY
    INITIATIVE PROGRAM ASSOCIATION. This organization offers education, employment coaching, healthcare, housing, and mentorship for individuals released from prison or jail. A Better Day then Yesterday was founded by a Black woman, LeTiesha Gordon. One thing I really liked about this program is that they help children and youth as well as adults and families. Their main focus is on helping entire families that have been affected by the criminal justice system.

  • April 14, 2020 at 3:44 pm
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    While there is not one particular area that was Ms. Burton’s biggest hurdle for helping women recover from prison, I believe chapter 31 “Being Beholden” is a turning point. Assembly Bill 109 made a New Way of Life beholden to the county viceversa in a different way than their relationship with the state. This struggle Ms. Burton dealt with as the county limited women’s freedom. This change was “damaging to relationships, tearing down the trust we were trying to build—trust between women and their families, and trust between the women and me” (228), causing other counties to take unnecessary measures to be involved and causing retraumatization of women. This lead her to one of the biggest decisions of her life to lose money and withdraw from Healthright 360, but this decision eventually led her to foundation and group of people who would give money honestly with no conditions.

    There are actually a few organizations in Richmond that deal with criminal justice similar to Californians for Safety and Justice, Prop 47 initiative and A New Way of Life. The Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI) protects at risk youth in order to end human trafficking. Furthermore, the Virginia Prison Justice Network strives to end mass incarceration through a connection of groups and organizers such Bridging the Gap and Interfaith Action for Human Rights.

  • April 16, 2020 at 3:05 pm
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    The discussion of co-optation really stood out to me. In my Indigenous Governments class, we just discussed co-optation as a major barrier in terms of indigenous leadership in the US, because the institutions of colonialism/white supremacy are so effective in terms of neutralizing threats to their hegemony. You can see similar themes play out in Susan’s experience, especially regarding funding and access to spaces. The state offers the potential for massive streams of income, but they come with powerful strings attached – strings which incentivize the maintenance of the status quo (e.g. the police raids of her homes reinforcing the state perception of the formerly incarcerated as “once a prisoner, always a prisoner”). In other words, the state seeks to limit the extent to which organizations like A New Way of Life challenge the mechanisms which create the need for the organization in the first place.

    The state also brings into its fold those who it seems as especially threatening – for example, the creation of councils/committees with community representation. Yet if you are working within the institution, it becomes more challenging to /dismantle/ the institution. The strategy takes a reformist rather than transformational approach, centering on addressing the symptoms rather than (and at the exclusion of) the root of the problem. We see this happen with the creation of the “Super 8” – while the people brought in were enthusiastic and committed to making seismic change, Susan questions whether “it was really a call to action or merely a meet and greet” (262). The chapter peters out, with the most notable event being the hiring of a formerly incarcerated person. And he, in the final sentence, expresses how little will at the top levels there is to actually get anything done (263). Susan, in her impatience and unwillingness to wait around for larger forces to act, pushes back against the pull of co-optation.

    Resisting the pull of co-optation makes building an organization and a movement infinitely more challenging. Susan resists. She refuses to compromise her larger vision for short-term benefits while working to provide those benefits in an independent manner aligned with her ultimate goals. I love that she has created a replication model for A New Way of Life, to help organizations in other communities build on the best practices she has established (http://anewwayoflife.org/safe-housing-network/). OAR in Richmond provides a network of services for the recently released; while it doesn’t operate housing, it does provide housing referrals/assistance. It would be great to see the replication model from A New Way of Life brought to RVA as part of the network of organizations my classmates have mentioned.

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