Susan Burton, a woman described as the Harriet Tubman of her time, wants the fight to end the disproportionate amount of Black women in the criminal justice system to start with housing.
Barton, the founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL), gave her expert opinion as a formerly incarcerated woman at the Sojourner Truth Legacy Project Town Hall: Black Women & Girls in the U.S. Criminal Justice System: School to Prison Pipeline on Wednesday, Sept. 20 during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 47th Annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in northwest D.C.
“I was in and out of prison for 20 years before I found help. When I was released the last time, the guard said, ‘you’ll be back, we’ll have a bed waiting for you,’ and I said no, I won’t come back,” Barton recalled.
“But deep down inside I prayed that I wouldn’t spend all my life caged and chained up,” she said.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Barton had a stable life with her son K.K., until one day at the age of 5, while playing outside K.K. was hit by a car and ultimately died.
Barton’s son’s death sparked the chain of events that led her to spending nearly two decades in prison.
“After his death I just unraveled and crumbled. I began to drink and that escalated to using illegal drugs.”
Upon being released for the last time Barton told the audience about her will to get on her feet and how the community made it possible.
“After I found help in the community, I was able to get on my feet,” she said. “I got a job, worked, saved money and I got a house.”
Barton would often go down to a familiar bus station in skid row and wait for women who carried the signs of being incarcerated like manila envelopes, plain clothes and prison jeans.
“I’d say to them, ‘hey girl, I have a house if you need to come,’” she said. “I knew hundreds of women who just needed the support to get on their feet and not return to prison. Since I opened the doors at A New Way of Life we’ve gone from one house to five houses, and we’ve helped over a thousand women come back into the community.”
Barton stressed at the conference the importance of the incarceration crisis in America and how she’s doing her part to help end it.
“The recidivism rate in California is about 75 percent. Last year at A New Way of Life, we flipped that number. Our recidivism rate is 13 percent,” she said.
With the number of Black women in the U.S. prison population rising every day, Barton believes the work that she does with providing shelter has to continue no matter what.
“When I see a woman getting the support she needs to make her life better thereby making her child’s life better it’s helping the entire community,” she said. “You think about the generations to come and how we are changing that. It’s a vicious cycle to return to an environment that led to your incarceration and that’s the cycle I’m trying to break, that we must break.”