After cycling in and out of prison for two decades, Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project for incarcerated women in California. Since 1998, the Ford grantee has provided housing to more than 1,100 formerly incarcerated women, reunited 300+ mothers with their children, and provided pro bono legal services to 3,000+ people with conviction histories.

Can you describe the challenges many women face when they leave prison?

Well, it’s striking to me how we can spend $75,000 a year to lock a woman like me up, and then we send her back to the community with $200, no ID, no Social Security card, nowhere to live, and expect her to make it. It’s impossible. Everywhere in the community, you’re excluded. You’re discriminated against. You’re deemed a throwaway person who is no longer useful. But we are not throwaway people. We are useful. Given the opportunity and the support, we become thriving, contributing members to our community, to our families, to ourselves, and others.

After spending 15 years in and out of prison, you decided to help women as they left prison. How did you do this?

In 1998, I founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project following my experience in the criminal justice system, with the goal of helping others break the cycle of incarceration. I would go to the bus station where I knew women were leaving behind a life of incarceration and entering the community. I’d meet them there and offer them a bed and a place to live in my house. More and more began to come, and we created a community of women helping and supporting each other. Many were recovering from substance misuse or the effects of incarceration or early childhood trauma, and in this community we all got better. We all thrived. I thought, “My, this is magic, what’s happening here.” But it isn’t magic. It’s what should happen in every household—to have a place where people are supported, welcomed, loved, and appreciated. That’s what we did there. And that’s what we should do all over this country.

How do you measure success?

The rates of incarceration for women in the US have risen more than 700 percent since 1980, with an over 70 percent recidivism rate. That’s devastating for the communities these women come from. At A New Way of Life, we have a recidivism rate of around one percent. And for less than one-third the cost of incarceration, we will support a woman to get her children back, help her get into school, enroll in higher education, get a job, obtain a savings account, help her to get on her feet, help her to understand the importance of herself and the role that she plays in the community. To date, we’ve helped over a thousand women come back into the community and find their path to life.

My hopes and dreams are to create a national network of safe homes for women to have a place to come back into their community.

What does equality mean to you?

Equality means uncensored opportunity. It means the recognition of everyone’s humanity and potential.