by Andrea Mejia, Cyrus Carrillo, Eduardo Laguna, Maria Castro
Susan Burton, founder and director of A New Way of Life (ANWOL), saw a need to help formerly incarcerated women coming home from prison who faced tremendous institutional barriers, rules, laws, policies and attitudes that operated to deny them access to employment, student loans, permanent housing, public assistance, and many other services. Susan like many others was one of the 67.8 percent of prisoners who are reincarcerated. Burton realized for these women to challenge such obstacles in isolation would be a futile exercise. After experiencing the cycle of incarceration, Ms. Burton owned a house where she and 11 other women would live in between their incarcerations. She experienced first hand what was needed in order for reintegrating into society after being in prison. Ms. Burton states that in order to reintegrate successfully there must be a support system to help emotionally because you go from having no rights in decision making to deciding even what clothes you’re going to wear. ANWOL provides housing, transportation, legal support, education, leadership development, and help in attaining a job.. While in prison Susan, Paulette, Megashia, Lily, and Johnny have all experienced the injustices of being imprisoned. They spoke about how while in prison there wasn’t any type of rehabilitation that would prevent them from falling back into the cycle. ANWOL is a way for many women to break that cycle, these are their stories.
Ms. Burton was part of a panel of speakers at the “The Criminalization of Women: Formerly Incarcerated Women Speak Out” event that was sponsored by WEEC, Department of Sociology Chicano/a Studies, College of Humanities, Academic Programming, and Gender and Women’s Studies. The panelist spoke about their experiences after incarceration.
Ms. Paulette Villa spent 20 years for being an accomplice in a murder with her cousin, who at the time had not met prior. Ms. Villa now understands that she could have made the right choice but did not. She was recently released almost five months ago. In her life, she witnessed and experienced a lot of abuse, alongside with love. Growing up she began drinking and doing drugs which became a very normal thing for her. In her teen years, she got married to an abusive man who did not let her have contact with her family. During this marriage to her former husband she had three daughters, but would later end in divorce due to his drug abuse and infidelity. After being released from jail, she became a drug and alcohol counselor with the help of ANWOL.
Ms. Megashia Jackson grew up in an abusive home. She used drugs and sex to gain friends, in middle school and sold joints in an effort to be cool. After high school Jackson had three children and made the decision to move to Kansas in hopes to provide her children a better lifestyle. In Kansas, Jackson found herself caught in “modern day prostitution”. During her prosecution she was charged with 13 federal charges that belonged to her pimp. She took a plea for one of the charges in an effort to get out of the situation. Jackson had a salon and while in prison Jackson kept her cosmetology license and was able to keep her salon open. In prison Jackson would wake up early on visitation day and would provide hair and makeup services as a means to make money on the inside. While in prison Jackson did everything she could to keep her children but when she was placed on probation she was forced to do things she didn’t feel was safe for her children ie. taking her children to meetings where there were rapist and killers present. Today Jackson is staying at ANWOL and continues to spread awareness.
Lily is a formerly imprisoned woman now studying at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Getting into a four year university was a long journey. Lily continues to face many adversities while on campus. As a felon, she wasn’t given any opportunity to an education. While in prison, there were no educational programs. Her only form of knowledge where books provided to her by relatives. After serving her time in prison, she left feeling lost. She found her way to Homeboy Industries, where she found was a supportive community that helped her find her strengths, develop as a person and become a contributing member of the community. As a student at CSUN, she was hesitant to explore the campus. After meeting others under the same situation, she began to open up and explore the campus and discover the resources available to her. She is involved with the student life on campus and is creating a resource of her own to be able to help out others who have been affected by the prison system. She is an inspirational student on her way to receiving her degree.
Johnny is a former incarcerated man who is also now studying at California State University, Northridge. When Johnny first got to CSUN he had a feeling of not belonging, This uneasiness around his peers was caused by the time he spent in prison. Through his brother he learned of a support group at UC Berkeley that helped its former inmate population reintegrate into the student population. This gave him an idea to implement the same system into the CSUN’s student body. Through talks with Lily another former inmate they are in the works of creating a support group called “Formerly Incarcerated Students and Allies.” They asked for signups from those in attendance who were either incarcerated or affected by mass incarceration. With more people involved and more effort they hope to have their idea made into reality.
Today A New Way of Life owns 5 houses in total where women previously incarcerated and their children can live. If you’d like more information please visit http://www.anewwayoflife.org. Also if you would like to join Johnny and Lily’s efforts in creating Formerly Incarcerated Students and Allies, you can visit the Department of Sociology for more info.