CNN airs its annual “Heroes” special on Thanksgiving night, spotlighting 10 “everyday” people they think changed the world that much for the better. This is not something I generally would write about, but the cable network is honoring Susan Burton. Susan Burton! Burton started A New Way of Life Reentry Project in South Central LA, a really great – and much needed – re-entry organization focused on transitioning newly paroled women from their period of incarceration to their new life outside the prison complex.
In my past and sometimes present life, I represented a number of women before the Board of Parole Hearings. Most of them were serving sentences of 15+ years-to-life with the possibility of parole, most of them for some degree of murder. I never expect anyone to be sympathetic, but it does help to understand a few things about most of their crimes before making assumptions about how they deserve to be there forever (despite their sentences to the contrary). The majority of them were convicted of killing their abusers during a time when courts excluded evidence of battering; up until recently, courts did not grasp how that evidence was relevant to contextualizing the crimes. By the time my representation came around 15 or so years into their sentence, all of them understood why they did what they did and the circumstances leading up to their crime. They also participated in weekly (if not daily) group therapy sessions (many of which were self-formed – despite the enormous budget for the prison industry in California, there’s not a whole lot of money there for giving inmates the counseling they need). My clients also earned their high school and college degrees, as well as various vocational certificates. If the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate and release (and not, say, making a profit), then they were rehabilitated and should have been released long before I was engaged to represent them.
Now, if you’re coming up for parole before the Board of Parole Hearings, you have to prove to the board commissioners that you understand your crime. You have to demonstrate remorse. And you have to have plans for your life outside. This is where Susan Burton’s A New Way of Life comes in. Her organization provides a supportive sober living environment to support newly paroled women re-enter society; she helps them find jobs and provides critical mentoring. I know of A New Way of Life because the clinic where I worked placed a number of women here, and the organization has been critical to their successful re-entries into our society. To date, A New Way of Life has helped over 400 women get back on their feet. That CNN is honoring her and her work is really, really fantastic.
Preview the special here. The show airs at 5pm our time, so you’ll have something to watch while that turkey roasts and the side dishes are being made. A little inspiration in the background never hurt anyone.