Every year, 52,000 Americans die from drug overdoses. This epidemic requires attention and action, but too often the chance to help people recover from addiction is missed. America’s treatment of addiction as a criminal justice issue results in the imprisonment, not the treatment and recovery, of addicts. People like Susan Burton are combating this issue by helping ex-convicts rebuild healthier and happier lives.
Susan Burton, 65, is the founder of a nonprofit called A New Way of Life Re-entry Project (ANWOL), an organization that runs safe houses in Los Angeles to help women who have just left prison. ANWOL began in 1998, and is dedicated to helping women, families, and communities break the cycle of addiction and heal from their experiences behind bars. The organization has seen immediate success.
Burton started ANWOL by drawing off of her own experiences with addiction and the justice system. Growing up in what she calls a dysfunctional family in LA, Burton was repeatedly abused. At four years old, a relative’s boyfriend began to sexually abuse her, and at 14, her first child was born as a product of gang rape. When Burton’s baby was run over and killed, she turned to alcohol, cocaine, and crack to deal with the emotional pain.
For 20 years, Burton cycled through jails, prisons, addiction, and crime.
“After six prison commitments, I was more broken than when I went into the system,” she said. “Each time I was released, I would say I’m going to get it together, but each time it was more daunting.”
Burton’s prison cycle ended only after she got into a 100-day drug treatment program in Santa Monica, CA. In 100 days, she turned her life around. This was the founder’s inspiration for ANWOL.
“We keep a woman in prison for decade after decade at a cost of $60,000 a year, and then give them $200 when they hit the gates for release,” Burton explained. “People have to get their ID’s and Social Security cards. They have to get clothing, housing, apply for benefits and services, and it’s impossible to do with only 200 bucks.”
ANWOL provides housing, case management, legal services, and advocacy and policy development for women leaving prison. Burton also coaches the women on how to stay sober and find jobs. Now, she has 28 staff members and runs five homes for 32 women. Burton has been recognized by CNN as a hero, and others praise her for being a 21st century Harriet Tubman.
Burton has also co-written a memoir titled Becoming Ms. Burton, which tells her remarkable life story, from tragedy to prison to recovery.
“Susan’s life story is one our nation desperately needs to hear and understand. This is a story about personal transformation and collective power. It is about one woman’s journey to freedom, but it will help free us all,” says Michelle Alexander, a civil rights activist who provided the foreword for Becoming Ms. Burton.
ANWOL is successful because it values the individual and encourages women to see the power of possibility and transformation in themselves. It empowers formerly incarcerated women and their families, and restores their hope. Susan Burton’s life is a testament to the power of second chances and the impact one person can have on others.
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