Founded by a formerly incarcerated man in 1967, Project Rebound has grown from one school, San Francisco State University, to eight other Cal State campuses.
As fires blazed across California last month, killing 43 people, scorching more than 210,000 acres and causing $3.3 billion in damage, about 250 female inmates were sent to the front lines to battle the flames.
“Who doesn’t want to get out of a prison?” asks Romarilyn Ralston, program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton, an effort aimed at helping former inmates gain access to higher education. Fighting fires while incarcerated is a coerced choice, she adds, with wages capped at a couple of dollars a day.
“You go through a couple weeks of training and then you’re sent off to fire camp to go protect other people’s lives and property at the expense of your own. And you do that because you want to prove to yourself and your family that you’re not the worst thing that you have ever done in your life — that your life is redeemable.”
Ralston’s life became a dramatic example of that redemption after being convicted of murder when she was 24. “I was involved with drugs,” she says, seated at her desk in a cozy two-person office on campus. “I shot a woman, and she died.” Now in her 50s, her long dark hair pulled back to reveal gold hoop earrings, she says she does not define herself by her crime. She spent 23 years in prison before she was paroled in 2011 and has earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont and a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis.
“Education is something
people cannot take away from you.”
Ralston is now program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, helping other former inmates get the education she believes saved her life. That can mean helping people behind bars apply to take part in the program that advertises in the San Quentin News. Once they are released, the program gives them access to financial aid, money for books and food, counseling, health care, academic and career advice, tutoring, legal assistance and a community of formerly incarcerated people who have made it out of the same traumatic experience.
“I believe that change is possible,” Ralston says. “Redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, rehabilitation. All those things happen.”
By the time she was released, Ralston had spent half of her life in prison. “Am I always going to be viewed by the crime I committed 30 years ago?” she asks. “Should it negate the rest of my life?” There had always been the chance of Ralston writing another chapter. “I wasn’t sentenced to life without parole,” she says. “So that was one thing. I knew at some point I might have a chance to go home.”
Growing up, she had wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, she found herself “going into the system — and it was the first time I had ever been arrested. That trauma was so severe to me that I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen to me again.’ Of all the things I wanted to be in life, prisoner number W32881 was not one of them. And so I had to look at some of the things that had put me on that path, and then reconnect with the things that I wanted to be as a child.”
She never made it to outer space but, this being the 1980s, she was able to make it to a classroom, with a real-life instructor, inside the California Institution for Women. That was before the 1994 federal crime bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. That measure took away the grants that had subsidized (and in most cases, made possible) in-person, university-level courses for incarcerated students.
The impact of depriving human beings of the ability to better themselves is predictable enough. Nearly half of those released from prisons in California are locked up again within three years, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And that’s progress. A little over a decade ago, two-thirds of those released were back in a cell 36 months later. Part of that is due to “tough on crime” policies from the ’90s slowly giving way to less punitive approaches to a law enforcement — some imposed by voters, like Proposition 47, which reduced many drug felonies to simple misdemeanors, and some imposed by courts, like the federal mandate that California release prisoners to address severe overcrowding.
A RAND Institute study found that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 times less likely to recidivate within the next three years.
These reforms have meant fewer people being put in cells in the first place, and fewer people being sent back to them for minor parole violations. But despite renewed interest in rehabilitating those inside, a prison is a prison.
“Prison is not a place where most people can rehabilitate themselves,” Ralston says. “The majority of folks who enter prison are coming from a place of severe trauma. “It’s not a supportive environment where people come to heal and become their best selves. Prison is overcrowded. There’s a lot of abuse and violence, and it can be a place where folks learn to check out.” Those conditions can lead to dulling the senses with drugs, or even acting out, as it were, so as to experience sensory deprivation in solitary confinement. “A lot of times folks just don’t want to deal with it,” Ralston says.
And when they get out? Not even those who fought fires for pennies an hour have much to bank on. The vast majority, like the vast majority of other prisoners, walk out poor and unemployed. Some make it, but the system that treats them like numbers does not put them in a position to succeed. That system, says Ralston, is “why we see a lot of people leaving prison worse off.”
“That’s the beauty of Project Rebound,” Ralston says. “We actually walk people out of being an incarcerated student to being a CSU student.” Founded by a formerly incarcerated man in 1967, the program expanded last fall from one school, San Francisco State University, to eight other Cal State campuses, from San Diego to Fresno.
The key, in Ralston’s experience, is giving people more than just the narrow technical skills to survive financially, but the language to describe their own experiences as well.
“Education is that transformative practice that people can own and have agency,” Ralston says. “Education is something people cannot take away from you. At some point within your education, the more education you have the less likely you are to recidivate. It opens up new pathways, new career opportunities. But education also helps to change the way that you see yourself in the world. That’s what it did for me. The more education I gained, I saw myself doing other things — different things, better things. I found myself in spaces with people that had no clue I had spent 23 years in prison and still don’t have a clue that I spent 23 years in prison.”
Twelve Fullerton students are now enrolled in Project Rebound, ranging in age from 23 to 54. Some have served just a few months in a county jail and others a couple decades in a state prison. There are many more who would like to participate. There is no lack of ex-prisoners in a state that imprisons roughly 130,000 people on any given day. Many are non-violent drug offenders, and many others committed property crimes. But there are also those who committed violent crimes. It’s no excuse for what they did to note that rehabilitation, of which education is a vital component, is in the interests of all — perpetrators, victims and neighbors.
A RAND Institute study found that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 times less likely to recidivate within the next three years. “This study demonstrates that education programs can help adults get back on their feet upon release from prison,” they wrote. Project Rebound encourages and enables that participation to continue, with internal data showing “only three percent of its students return to prison,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
“People don’t know there’s more people like me who have incarceration experiences in the community than folks like they see on television,” Ralston says. “Ninety-five percent of the folks that go into an institution come out. We’re everywhere. We’re serving your food, we’re riding in that Uber with you if you’re Uber Pooling. We’re flying on airplanes. We’re in classrooms with you. We’re everywhere.”
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Homeless Sue Orange County to Stay at Santa Ana Riverbed Tent City
At the beginning of this year, Orange County announced the simplest of solutions to its homeless problem: It would make living along the Santa Ana riverbed illegal and let the homeless figure out where to go.
Nearly all of the eight homeless plaintiffs once belonged to Orange County’s suburban class.
Every day for the past four years, hundreds of thousands of commuters driving north on Interstate 5 just past the 22 Freeway in Orange County have witnessed the growth of something embarrassing to the region: a full-fledged homeless camp. It started with just a couple of people along the Santa Ana riverbed; tents, canopies and other makeshift shelters now line its western bank. About 500 people lived here at the end of 2017, a jarring counterpunch to the perpetually sunny story OC tells about itself to the rest of the world.
The encampment has enraged residents and flummoxed politicians, who ignored for years the warnings of homeless advocates that a housing, economic and heroin crisis would eventually overburden their services and lead to something like this. So at the beginning of this year, the County of Orange announced the simplest of solutions: It would make living along the riverbed illegal and let the homeless figure out where to go.
On January 22, sheriff’s deputies and local police told riverbed residents to clear out — or citations and arrests would follow; about 150 have since left. But earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) that banned any “haphazard, hurried enforcement action in an effort to clear the population” until a February 13 hearing to determine its legality. It came at the request of lawyers who filed a federal lawsuit against the County of Orange, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and the City of Orange on behalf of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Orange County Catholic Worker and eight homeless individuals. The suit alleges the riverbed evictions are a civil rights violation because the riverbed homeless have no permanent shelter and face indefinite criminalization whether they leave or not.
“Plaintiffs are afraid they will be cited and threatened with citation or arrest again if they leave the area,” the lawsuit reads, “but they now risk arrest or citation if they stay in that area.”
As part of their TRO application, the eight plaintiffs offered Carter written statements to argue their right to remain. “In a case like this,” said lead attorney Carol Sobel, “often the best evidence—and sometimes the only evidence—is declarations from the clients.”
Together, they paint a picture of official neglect in a county that long tried to pretend homelessness didn’t exist. Almost all the plaintiffs allege that law enforcement harassed them toward the riverbed, away from public view. All tried to fall back on the county’s safety nets only to find more solace at the riverbed. All want to remain there until the county offers an actual solution to their plight.
And nearly all once belonged to Orange County’s suburban class. Lisa Bell used to work for Broadcom, the semiconductor company founded by Anaheim Ducks owner and OC mega-philanthropist Henry Samueli. Cameron Ralston ran a printing business out of his mother’s garage until she passed away and her husband kicked him out and kept his tools. Army veteran Larry Ford tried to sleep in a shelter but “left before the morning because the environment…left me feeling unsafe.” Shawn Carroll quit his job working on cars to take her of his parents, then couldn’t find steady work once they died. He currently owns a 2000 Dodge Ram, but is afraid to sleep in it because Garden Grove and Anaheim police “have harassed me in the past about sleeping in my vehicle in their cities.”
The Legal Aid Society of Orange County filed a separate lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of seven disabled homeless plaintiffs to also stop evictions. They didn’t include any testimonials, but a passage in the complaint sums up the feelings of activists and homeless alike.
“The County has historically lacked the political will to implement the services identified as long-term solutions to solve homelessness,” it says. Therefore, the plaintiffs “remain on the Riverbed despite the hostile environment created by the County because they literally have nowhere else to go.”
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Is Los Angeles’ Homeless Epidemic Spurring Business Vigilantism?
After an Eagle Rock homeless encampment was dismantled, one business allegedly went a step further by covering the sidewalk with what an employee described as a mix of “half lime and half marking lime.”
“They took all my shit,” a homeless man said. “I feel like the government wants us dead.”
Los Angeles’ inability to arrest a dramatic rise in the number of people sleeping on the city’s streets has allegedly spurred one Eagle Rock lumberyard to coat a public sidewalk with a substance that can burn skin, in an apparent effort to discourage the creation of another homeless encampment in this middle-class community.
When the city on January 30 cleared such an encampment from the sidewalk outside Eagle Rock Lumber & Hardware — part of a clean-up effort occurring across Southern California amid the worst Hepatitis A outbreak since a vaccine was released over three decades ago — the business went a step further: It covered that sidewalk with what one employee described as a mix of “half lime and half marking lime.”
Lime is not to be touched, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends wearing goggles and protective clothing when handling. Contact can result in eye and skin burns, as well as cause the forming of cysts, while inhalation can harm the upper respiratory system.
Marking lime, by contrast, is used on athletic fields and is safe to touch.
The employee, who declined to give his name, citing potential retribution from homeless advocates, claimed the intent was to disinfect and deodorize. The city’s sanitation crew may have removed the encampment outside the business, but it did not leave the area clean. “It smelled like piss and all kinds of stuff,” the man said. Indeed, the day after the sweep feces could still be seen on the sidewalk, alongside a hypodermic needle. “Our customers are complaining.”
But two eyewitnesses maintain that the same employee told them something else, and they suggest a different intention.
Michael Steinborn of Atwater Village was at the lumberyard the morning of January 30, monitoring the city’s cleanup as part of a rapid response team formed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles, to document the dismantling of homeless encampments. He said the employee told him that he “put lye out,” pointing to a stoop on the property, and that he was “gonna pour more all around.”
“It was like he was putting blood meal out for rabbits in a garden,” Steinborn said, referring to a substance used to discourage pests.
Lye can cause skin and eye burns, as well as temporary hair loss, according to the CDC. (Capital & Main is not aware of any test results that show the actual composition of the substance.)
photos by Charles Davis)
Jenna Steckel, another DSA member, said she too heard the employee promise to spread “lye.” According to Steckel, the man also “told us he had already poured lye on his steps, which he showed us, and there’s nothing particularly dirty about those steps.” That, she argued, suggests the business simply did not want people sleeping there.
Ryan Kelly, an Eagle Rock resident and DSA member, said he arrived at the scene later that afternoon and a white substance had indeed been spread over the sidewalk. “I saw a young woman [walk] through it in flip flops,” he said. “I saw someone walk their dog through it.”
Nearly 58,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to the official 2017 count — a 23 percent jump from the year before, witnessed in the spread of encampments far from the concentrated poverty of Skid Row, the region’s traditional home for the shelterless.
The spread has corresponded with what the California Department of Public Health calls “the largest person-to-person… hepatitis A outbreak in the United States” since 1996, when the vaccine was released. Most of those affected by the virus, spread by contaminated feces, are homeless; 21 people have died.
While L.A. County voters last year approved $1.2 billion in spending on housing for the homeless, and millions of dollars more in services to keep them housed, local authorities have also stepped up their dismantling of homeless encampments. Between January 2015 and July 2017, the city of Los Angeles had swept up 16,500 encampments at a cost of $14 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The city also removed over 3,000 tons of trash in that time — before the Hepatitis A outbreak began — and a September 2017 report from the Los Angeles City Controller recommended that efforts to dismantle encampments be increased. But many of those living on the streets say that this trash is their stuff, spurring groups such as DSA to document the cleanings, announced by the city 72 hours in advance, to help that ensure clean-up crews abide by the law.
That mission also now extends to ensuring local businesses abide by it too.
Kelly, part of DSA’s rapid response team, said he called the Los Angeles Fire Department to report the dumping of what he believed to be lye, after consulting with those who had been evicted from the sidewalk in front of the lumberyard. LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey confirmed that a crew was sent out that evening in response to the call. “They spent 22 minutes at the scene,” he said. “It’s not clear what action they took.”
According to Kelly, the fire crew was rather hostile. One fireman “gave us a big speech about how business owners were tired of homeless people defecating and urinating everywhere,” he said. But that fireman also said he would tape off the area and tell the business owner to clean up the sidewalk, an account supported by Steinborn and another member of DSA, Shelby Li.
The substance was still there on the evening of Wednesday, January 31 — with the addition of two orange traffic cones. Those now living across the street were afraid to go anywhere near their former campsite.
“That’s poison,” said Michael Anthony, standing outside of a tent. “That shit will eat your body. Obviously it’s dangerous because they put cones [out].”
But he was more upset with the city than the business. “They took all my shit,” Anthony said. “I feel like they don’t care about us. I feel like the government wants us dead.”
Lye or lime, the government, in the form of a Los Angeles County Fire Department Hazmat team, did come back. Just after midnight on Friday, February 2, spokesperson Randall Wright said, a team was dispatched to “lend some expertise” to the Los Angeles Police Department. He referred all further questions to the LAPD.
The LAPD did not return calls requesting comment by February 5, but last week confirmed receiving reports about the dumping of white powder at the site.
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UN Housing Official Shocked by L.A.’s Homelessness
Nearly 58,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to a 2017 count — up from 20 percent from the year before.
Photos by Charles Davis
“You almost forget you’re in Los Angeles,” Leilani Farha remarked, looking up at a shabby hotel with a cartoon palm tree on its sign — a reminder of Southern California, the dream, in a part of the city better known as a nightmare. Skid Row is a place thousands of people sleeping in tents call home. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on housing, Farha stepped over trash and around the many people camped out on the sidewalks in a quest to better understand this otherworldly America, just blocks from luxury condos.
“I need to understand that world,” Farha had said a couple of hours earlier, Wednesday, at a public forum hosted by the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a Skid Row advocacy group. Appointed in 2014, the human rights lawyer and head of the nonprofit Canada Without Poverty was in town to identify obstacles to the realization of “the right to adequate housing and land.” She received an education, with people from across the region telling her what is like for them to sleep in cars and tents in a place oft-sold as paradise.
The obstacles were readily apparent within minutes: too little affordable housing and too many police.
“It’s not illegal to be homeless,” said Kim Sandoval, “but everything we do is illegal.” Sandoval lives in Orange County, where every city has an ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalks; even publicly feeding the homeless is officially discouraged in some parts of Orange County. The most extreme form of poverty is effectively, if not literally, criminalized — one man testified that he committed a minor crime just so he could sleep legally — in a jail cell.
“I’ve been out here 15 years,” Sandoval said. “Not proud of it. In and out of state [prison]. In and out of county [jail]. I’m also a drug addict who is now slowly recovering. But every day is a fight for me. I shouldn’t have to fight for where I live; where I want to lay my head.”
Sandoval said she’s on a list to receive permanent supportive housing, but that she’s been on it for a year. In the meantime, no landlords want her state-provided vouchers for rent — not when there are plenty of other potential tenants with reliable, expendable incomes in one of the country’s least affordable housing markets. “Everybody has to remember they’re one paycheck away from this,” she said. She sleeps outside a courthouse.
It’s no better by the coast.
David Busch said he has been homeless since 1994. “I’ve slept on the street the entire time,” he said. It’s never been this bad, however. “What we have in Venice Beach is a combination of the two deadliest things toward homeless people in America today: Inflated real estate and high tech.” He noted the presence of companies such as Google, Facebook and Snapchat in the former hippie enclave now called “Silicone Beach.” The increased presence of multinational tech giants has allegedly corresponded with increased police harassment of the homeless.
Busch said he was arrested for maintaining a porta-potty — an arrest that was ostensibly made for reasons of a public health crisis. “We know that here in California we have an epidemic of encampments and along with that we have an epidemic of Hepatitis A,” he recounted. Indeed, between March and October 2017, almost 600 Hepatitis A cases were reported, mostly in San Diego. As PBS reported, in a typical year the state sees just 180 cases.
“The way to deal with homeless people is not to criminalize them,” Busch said. “The way to deal with encampments is to provide us with services: education, food, clothing and shelter.”
In March 2017, Los Angeles County voters approved a ballot measure that was sold as a means to pursue that gentler approach, with a quarter-cent sales-tax hike that would raise over $1 billion in three years to fund services for the homeless, including 10,000 units of affordable housing. But the extent of the problem far exceeds the proposed solutions.
Nearly 58,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to a 2017 count — a 23 percent increase from the year before. “The reason for the number of people living in encampments and in their vehicles is very simple,” Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, testified at the forum. “The City of Los Angeles is 560,000 units short of affordable housing for very low- and extremely low-income households.”
Myers said city officials talk the right talk, while primarily concerning themselves with the wishes of the well-to-do, especially when touting urban renewal that results in gentrification.
According to Myers, instead of treating the presence of thousands sleeping on its streets as an emergency, a city that’s hosting the Olympics in 2028 has “doubled down on its commitment to seizing and destroying people’s property.” The stated reason is cleanliness and disease, but the embraced solution is myopic and cruel, placing “the onus of public health, of alleviating the public health crisis, on unhoused people.”
Farha, who is preparing a report for the UN on informal settlements, shook her head throughout the testimony. After two hours, she’d heard enough.
“How the fuck did we get here?” she asked, apologizing for her profanity. It’s just that, she expained, “the fight is so base. In the frickin’ richest country, a relatively stable democracy, it’s so base — I mean, fighting for the right to sit; fighting for the right to shit; fighting for the right to sleep, in a tent.”
“People are being annihilated here,” she continued. “I have my work cut out for me.”
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Scenes From Los Angeles’ Women’s March
Photojournalist Joanne Kim captures the sights of Saturday’s Women’s March in downtown L.A.
Approximately 300,000 people gathered in and around downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square Saturday for the 2018 Women’s March. Their signs and banners spoke to a variety of issues that also included climate change and immigrants’ rights. From Pershing Square protesters took to Olive and Hill streets, Broadway and Spring Street towards Grand Park and City Hall. Many held signs focused on encouraging women to vote and run for office.
Many young women and girls took to the streets with their mothers and grandmothers. One young girl sat on her mother’s shoulders holding a sign with a woman’s fist in the air declaring, “We Rise.” Kimberly Castro, from South Gate, California held a sign in support of Planned Parenthood. “Being around everyone makes me feel powerful to make a change, and that all together we do have a voice,” she said.
Across from City Hall, a group of Trump supporters gathered in a small counter-protest. “Go back to Mexico!” screamed one of the Trump supporters. Wendy Rodriguez, whose mother is from El Salvador and father is from Honduras, shouted back, “Go back to your country!” Another young woman waved a sign at the Trump supporters that read, “Anything you can do I can do bleeding.”
All photos by Joanne Kim
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Still Learning From Martin Luther King Jr.
50 years after his death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching on nonviolent direct action are as relevant as ever.
About a year ago, sometime between the feelings of depression that followed Trump’s election and his inauguration, an old activist friend – and occasional Capital & Main contributor – contacted me. Vivian Rothstein had traveled to the South to register voters during the civil rights movement, and she thought it was time again to focus on non-violence as a way of resisting what was floating to the surface in America. She meant not only white supremacy, but what many activists recognize in Trump’s authoritarian tendencies: a threat to democracy itself. Would I join a small group of people to offer trainings in nonviolent resistance, including civil disobedience?
I agreed, and teamed up with a few others who have spent most of their lives practicing some form of nonviolence. We shared Rothstein’s belief that training people from faith communities in the protest tradition was timely and could be effective political work. In the time since, we have developed a course and taught it in a handful of congregations – even to a couple of activist groups beyond the religious community.
What I did not expect from this experience was a re-immersion in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. It turns out that preparing for and leading these trainings has become an on-going learning opportunity. We have re-read parts of King’s writing, like the “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” chapter from his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. We’ve watched documentaries about his life, as well as a great segment on the Nashville sit-ins from the PBS documentary series A Force More Powerful. We have dug into serious questions from participants in the trainings, like what about nonviolence and the Holocaust?
We’ve been guided to much of this material by Andy Moss, a retired professor who taught peace studies for many years, and we each bring our own life pathway to nonviolence and civil disobedience. When we read King’s “Pilgrimage” chapter, I recognized my own intellectual journey. He and I had read the same theologians and philosophers, gone through similar questions, rejected the same dead ends – but he was a decade ahead of me in this academic workout.
It also took me a few more years beyond his life before I was fully committed to a nonviolent way of working. Caught up in the fervor of the late 1960s, I could not grasp the totality of life that nonviolence meant. As one of our team members, Abby Arnold, puts it, nonviolence is “three-fold: a philosophy, a spiritual practice, and a strategy.” I got the thinking part. I understood the strategies too. It took longer to get the inside-out part.
A life committed to nonviolence goes deeper than political activism or social change. It requires an interior life seeking a well-spring of motivation beyond anger, rage, or raw power. It requires a consistency between the inside and personal and the outside and public parts of our lives. I’ve known activists who will walk a picket line for all manner of peace and justice issues, but whose own personal relationships are bitter crucibles of conflict, hostility, even violence.
Studying King emphasized another issue for Elissa Barrett, also part of the teaching team: reconciliation. When the Montgomery bus boycott ended in victory over segregation, King preached that blacks should not flaunt their success at white people. Boycott leaders even printed and distributed leaflets to blacks using the buses again to curtail their glee. This resolve came from a belief that it’s not people who are evil, but a system that maintains injustice and in which white people participated. It was justice the boycott won, not a defeat of people.
In stressing this point, the team shares stories of polarization bridged through gestures of reconciliation that follows conflicts. When the first car wash in America agreed to a union contract for its workers, community advocates took the management a potted plant as an affirmation that a new relationship between workers and owners could grow in that place. We also leafleted local congregations to let people know there was now a place to clean their cars that treated workers fairly.
Of course many Americans did not think of King’s voice as reconciling. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, a reminder that his teachings on nonviolence were so powerful that some people thought he had to be killed. His murder took place in Memphis, where King had joined a campaign for the rights of sanitation workers to form a union and receive fair wages.
Now this administration threatens the very existence of unions. Low-wage workers feel the sting of flat or stolen wages, even as deportation hangs over many of their heads. Democracy itself may hang in the balance. In such times as these, we know of no more effective way to meet injustice than re-immersing ourselves in King’s life and teaching people resistance through nonviolence.
Negotiating Trauma: How Susan Burton Gave Discarded Women a Tomorrow
Chances are you’ve never heard of Susan Burton. Yet her A New Way of Life organization has provided shelter and services to thousands of formerly incarcerated women and their children.
All Photographs by Joanne Kim
Susan Burton overcame six felony convictions and incarcerations to create and run one of America’s most successful social programs.
Is everybody decent!?” Susan Burton yells as she ascends a flight of stairs. She is giving a visitor a tour of one of her five Los Angeles houses that provide havens for women returning to society from California’s prisons.
She knocks on a bedroom door that’s half ajar and peers inside.
“You ain’t trying to catch the worm, huh?” Burton says to a woman still in bed.
“No I am,” the woman mumbles.
“You lying here. It’s 10 o’clock in the afternoon. You gotta go get the worm!’
Burton moves on and walks into an empty, freshly painted room. “We need to get pictures on the wall,” she mutters to herself.
Every room has a bed and dresser for each of its occupants, usually two to four in a room, and the walls are painted bright colors. Burton reveals that the grays and greens of prison are purposely avoided. One bed in each room is usually left free for the sudden arrival of a released inmate or space for visiting kids.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Susan Burton. Yet to thousands of people, she has been a savior. A 2010 CNN Hero, Burton has written a book chronicling her remarkable life, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. In it, Burton, 66, documents how she overcame six felony convictions and incarcerations to create and run one of America’s most successful social programs. Since its founding in 1998, A New Way of Life has provided shelter and services to thousands of formerly incarcerated women and children. Far more than a housing agency, it has evolved into an inspiration for change and a beacon of hope to women who have been largely discarded by society.
A New Way of Life Resident:
“If it weren’t for this I’d be on the street
or back in prison.”
Before Burton could become an angel, however, she had go through hell. Sexual abuse started at age 4. First it was her aunt’s boyfriend, then an older male neighbor whom she met selling cookies for the Woodcraft Rangers, a group similar to the Girl Scouts. A Christmas Eve gang rape resulted in her first child at the age of 14. Fifteen years later, Burton’s life was shattered when her 5-year-old son was run over and killed by a van driven by an off-duty police officer. Burton retreated onto despair, turning to drugs to dissociate herself from the trauma of her tragedies.
After becoming an alcoholic and crack addict, Burton became trapped in a vicious cycle of incarceration. Her catch-and-release tale was similar to those of millions around the country. Unceremoniously dropped off in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Burton had no tools or resources to make it in a world without bars. Most states make it nearly impossible for felons to make it back on their feet. Hundreds of categories of jobs, as well as many public housing agencies, are off limits to those with records. Securing employment and housing, which are among the requirements to regain custody of their kids, is made even more difficult without necessary documents like state-issued I.D. cards, which are destroyed when entering prison. It was a chance, pejorative comment from a correctional officer on her sixth (and last) release from prison that sparked her evolution into an agent of change.
“He said, ‘I’ll see you in a little while,’” Burton recalls. “It was daunting and scary to hear that. And he said, ‘There’s no jobs for you out there. The only job you’ll ever have is in a prison.’”
A friend told Burton about the CLARE Foundation recovery center in Santa Monica. She was accepted — and instantly thunderstruck by the disparity in services afforded her in this upscale community, compared to those available in her neighborhood.
“I had get-well help served to me like in a buffet at a restaurant,” she remembers. “It was like having the best waitress and waiters come and serve you your food, and when you’re finished with one part of your meal, they take the plate away and they take the fork and knife away, and then they bring you clean ones. I went to therapy like that. I went to dental services like that. I went to medical services like that. I went to AA meetings like that. It was like another world.”
Every bedroom in the shelters has a bed and dresser for each of its formerly incarcerated women. Walls are painted bright colors — prison grays and greens are purposely avoided.
Later, while working at a job as a home care worker, she devised a plan inspired by the CLARE Foundation, and after a year had saved $12,000 to make that plan a reality. She bought a small bungalow in South Los Angeles and started A New Way of Life. As newly released inmates stepped off buses near Skid Row 19 years ago, Burton was waiting to greet and offer them a sanctuary to begin their life anew. As she started to run out of savings, someone suggested she start a nonprofit. Before long she was off and running, becoming a modern-day Harriet Tubman with a string of five safe houses for society’s outcasts.
But there soon came a harsh epiphany.
“I thought that if women had a safe place to go, that would be everything they needed to restart their lives,” she recalls. “But we soon realized It didn’t matter how hard or committed the women were in completing their tasks, there was still a box they were put in. They couldn’t get their children back. They couldn’t find employment. They couldn’t even receive food stamps.”
Burton got to work, organizing and advocating to change bad policies.
“Some of the laws that have been changed have just been bad laws,” she says. “Not giving women who have had drug crimes food stamps? That was a bad law. Having people check a box on employment applications? That was a bad law. The disparity in sentencing was a bad law. Taking people’s babies away.”
So she partnered with the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Law in 2006 to look at how they could reverse the institutional obstacles confronting former inmates. An in-house free legal clinic was created that in the last decade has provided pro bono assistance to thousands seeking relief from the burden of criminal histories, expunging criminal records and offering access to occupational licenses. Burton also reached out to companies for donations and now runs a distribution center that provides over $2 million dollars in household goods yearly. Thanks to her, over 3,500 formerly homeless individuals have gone on to establish their own living spaces.
Jannie’s youthful looks belie the fact that she served 28 years for killing a man who, she says, jumped on her niece.
“She is persistent, dynamic and strong,” the group’s associate director, Tiffany Johnson, says of Burton. “God has wrapped a unique set of skills into this one woman to be able to touch multitudes of women in ways that most people can’t.”
Ingrid Archie, another senior staff member, agrees. “I think Susan saw that some resources were offered in other communities as a common right,” she says, “but in her community people were being criminalized and families ripped apart. She is providing a solution to a problem that everybody was sweeping under the rug. She helps you take responsibility and ownership for yourself and your future.”
In the largest bedroom of one of Burton’s houses, a woman named Aukilia sits on the bottom bunk, readying herself to attack the day. Her story is typical in its complexity. A couple of years ago she was asked by someone to deposit checks into her incarcerated boyfriend’s jail account.
“I was so loaded. I was high, under the influence,” she explains. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, free money, I’ll do it.’”
She was arrested two years later for bank fraud. Typical of the draconian laws that help propagate the modern prison complex, each check carries with it its own separate charge. So she is facing 120 years in prison. But A New Way of Life has given her hope, allowing her to pursue a GED and her dream of going to cosmetology school while she awaits trial.
“It’s beautiful here. You go to your meetings. You get up and you do your chores. You do what you’re supposed to do and everything’s great. If it weren’t for this I’d be on the street or back in prison.”
Her roommate Jenny has just finished her night shift at Foster Farms, a job A New Way of Life helped secure. Her youthful looks belie the fact that she served 28 years in prison for first-degree murder, for killing a man who, she says, jumped on her niece.
“I think it would have been difficult had I gone anywhere else, but Miss Burton and her staff and the ladies here welcomed me and made me feel special, made me feel like this is my home. I’ve been doing great ever since. This program is amazing.”
“Unconditional love, no judgment,” Aukilia chimes in.
“But I ain’t no joke either,” exclaims Burton, who has been hovering just outside the door. She is flashing a tough face, which she does often, but her kind eyes and a slight smirk give her away.
The women laugh and shake their heads in agreement.
“I don’t save women,” Burton says.
“I provide opportunity.”
Susan Burton’s houses shelter anywhere from four to seven women, with most staying anywhere from nine months to two years. If she runs out of space, Burton works with a network of thousands of beds in the county that provide sober living, and she is known to pay out of her own pocket to provide relief for a woman in need. Her passion and dedication have engendered remarkable results. She estimates that 80 percent of those who go through her program have not returned to jail and are employed or in school, an impressive record in light of the American prison system’s traditionally high recidivism rate.
“I don’t save women,” Burton says. “I give them an environment that allows them to heal and thrive and begin to pull themselves up. I provide opportunity. They have to work the opportunity.”
Burton makes it a point to provide individual attention to each woman’s needs. But how does one continue that as the movement grows? And how does the work continue after she is gone? Add to that the colossal systemic legal and bureaucratic obstacles facing her constituency, and the future may be the biggest challenge Burton faces. She hopes that a new generation of women will carry on her crusade. Women like Tiffany Johnson and Ingrid Archie.
Johnson had served 16 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder when she walked through the doors of A New Way of Life in April 2010. She quickly found a job but soon realized that no matter how well she did it, her criminal record excluded her from upward mobility. So she returned to work at A New Way of Life and today, as the organization’s associate director, serves as Burton’s right-hand woman.
“If you are consistent people can depend on you,” Johnson says of both Burton and the group.
California’s Proposition 47, passed in November 2014, reduced six felonies to misdemeanors, but for ex-cons to have their pasts expunged, they must request that their records be changed. That’s Archie’s mission. A former prisoner herself, she is the organization’s Prop. 47 specialist and came to A New Way of Life in 2006, driven by her passion for fixing a skewed system.
“Revenge is a deep, dark, empty hole that can never be filled. I know that from losing my son.”
Just as A New Way of Life has given support to thousands of those in need, it has provided Burton herself with something just as profound. With a history riddled with misery, it is her port in the storm.
“I negotiate trauma,” she says. “I’ve had to. And A New Way of Life insulates me from the trauma and gives me a bigger meaning and purpose to my life. We’re all here to help and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Before, I never found that something bigger because I was dodging all of the arrows that were coming my way.”
But Burton is no longer dodging. She is moving and shaking, with ambitious plans. A New Way of Life now has 23 employees and survives on an operating budget of approximately $2.6 million raised primarily from grants, individual donations and an annual fundraising dinner. Burton has carefully grown the organization, mindful of the pitfalls of quick expansion:
“I don’t wanna become a people-processing machine. I think the community, the individuality of the way in which we work with people is meaningful, and it brings about success. So if I have these big houses or too many places, then the interaction becomes impersonal.”
Nevertheless, with a growing new generation of activists under her wings, Burton hopes to replicate her system across the country, to not only build an underground network of reentry homes and safe houses, but also civil rights advocacy groups.
But the challenge is formidable. More states. Differing laws. This country’s massive prison complex, with its systemic effects, illuminated so cogently in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, has become part and parcel of modern society.
“We criminalize trauma in this country,’ says Burton. “There should be and could be something different. What I know is [that] revenge is a deep, dark, empty hole that can never be filled. I know that from losing my son. I think one of the most powerful things that happened for me is that I was able to go deep into myself and find a place of forgiveness for all those that had harmed me, and to ask for forgiveness of those I had harmed.”
So how does one make headway in a society that is bent on exploiting over rehabilitating? How does Burton plan to grow her efforts in the future without being swallowed by the system? One way is to not take their money. Burton likes to point out that she works within the community, not within the system.
“I terminated the contract with the system a long time ago,” she says. “Traditional ways of doing and thinking about things doesn’t allow for people to be spring-boarded and supported to realize their dream and purpose. It’s too big of a risk for traditional funding agencies and governments, because you have to have all this proof of who you are and what you do. How do I support people to be able to build that track record where they’re accepted back into society, humanized, treated with dignity and respect, and [where] people are able to realize their dreams? You have to have it bubble-up. I might not be here for the whole bubble, but I’m here to plant seeds.”
To many, Burton is an outlier, a remarkable individual who achieves the nearly impossible. But she strongly disagrees.
“I think the biggest misconception people have about me is that I am this ‘extra ordinary’ person and that I’m different from other people,” she says. “I just believe that there was an opportunity for me, and in that opportunity, I was able to grasp on and grow something. There are so many people where we’ve locked away their talent, their treasures, their love, their dreams…and they are coming back into the community. They just need opportunity.”
Burton has not wasted hers. She is moving forward confidently and with a purpose.
“While I’m no daredevil, I go forward . . . in the face of racism, capitalism, homophobia and all of these things that are a part of what affected us in the first place. The universe will support me in ways as long as I am staying true to universal principles.”
On one autumn afternoon Burton is back where it all started — in the first house she ever bought, in South Los Angeles. Sitting at the dining room table is a visibly upset woman whose long, salt-and-pepper ponytail falls down her back. Burton asks why she is so overwhelmed and, with her voice cracking, the woman laments that she needs a ride to get a driver’s license and there is no way to get where she needs to go in time. She seems like she is about to have a breakdown. Burton looks her in the eyes and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll take you now on my way back to the office, just give me a minute.”
A few moments later, as the two women walk to the car, Burton’s latest resident, who hasn’t been outside of prison since the last century, is overheard saying to herself, “Cars are so nice looking now. Look at how nice they are…” Burton is a dozen steps ahead, full of encouragement. “C’mon now,” she says, “Let’s go. Everything’s going to be alright. We’ll get it done.”
Copyright Capital & Main
2017: The Year in Photos, Part 2
Today we continue our look back at 2017 through Capital & Main’s photos and stories.
The Holiday Season: A Long Night’s Journey Into Light
Winter festivals emphasize family and home, core strengths of every society. In our communities we guard ourselves against the long darkness. We hold out signs to one another that we can withstand these worst of days.
Advent calendars used to be quite popular. Now they’re fairly difficult to find, and I imagine not many people bother with the old custom associated with them. But my wife Susan and I have had one that we’ve used over and over for years, until now.
The calendars were invented by German Lutherans in the 19th century as a journey of preparation for the birth of Jesus on Christmas. The “calendar” is actually a large artist’s rendering of some scene. It might be a European ideal of Bethlehem or a quaint mountain village blanketed in snow with a church at its center. In recent versions, the picture is likely more secular – a small, snow-covered New England town with Santa, his sleigh and reindeer flying overhead, or a family gathered around the Christmas tree in a rather well-appointed living room that most of us don’t have.
On the picture there are a random series of windows numbered from one to 24. Each day, beginning on December 1, the faithful open one small window. Each opening displays a seasonal symbol behind it: a candle, a star, an animal or a wrapped gift. Each is a surprise, a precursor to the Great Surprise. In recent years the calendars seem to have fallen into a kind of Disneyesque kitsch. You can even buy Advent calendars with a piece of chocolate behind each window.
This fall, as Susan and I traveled in northern New Mexico, we discovered a different calendar. Instead of New England, it pictured a pueblo characteristic of the architectural style of the Southwest with, of course, a church at its center – the indigenous culture with an overlay of Spanish colonial religion. Instead of presenting only images, each window includes a few words. A drawing of a road runner reads “Personal Integrity”; a hanging bough of chile ristras says “Hard Work”; a pictograph of a lizard, “Living One’s Creed”; a pueblo pot contains the word “Justice.”
Pictures and words are a unique contribution to the Advent calendar tradition. But the words remind us that all of the festivals of this season carry values. In their several ways they not only help those of us in the northern hemisphere get through the longest night of the winter solstice, they embody moral principles – virtues – that guide a society toward survival and sustainability. Overtly they bring light – like the Hindu tradition of Diwali – as the daylight dwindles. Below that, these festivals carry meanings.
A rabbi friend reminded me this year that Hanukkah was a tale made up by the rabbis as an alternative to the bloody saga of the brutal victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. The reality of the war so horrified the survivors that Jewish spiritual leaders replaced it within another story. They literally created a narrative that could celebrate the unexpected and transcendence — but built around a flame that kept burning.
The African-American festival of Kwanzaa also carries values that sustain and empower a community. The festival begins on December 26, and each day for a week people light a different candle. Each one refers to an underlying value, like “cooperative economics” and “collective purpose.” People not only use these symbols in their homes, they gather with others to light the candles together and rehearse their meanings.
Solstice gathering, Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley. (Photo: Tim Ereneta)
These winter festivals emphasize family and home, core strengths of every society. They also underscore the importance of community and the reciprocal nature of people sharing, giving and receiving. They are public events – from the bonfires of Diwali to the lights that line our major streets to Posada processions and caroling on street corners. In our families and in our communities we guard ourselves against the long darkness. We hold out signs to one another that we can withstand these worst of days. That together, we humans can go on.
After all, the music of the season and the cards that fill our mailboxes carry constant messages of this hope. They say: love, peace, hope.
Copyright Capital & Main
Report: Cash Bail System Hurts Poor and Communities of Color in L.A.
A UCLA report says the state’s money bail system takes “tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”
“Many people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food.”
In advance of a legislative battle over reforming California’s cash bail system, a new report shines light on which Los Angeles communities pay the most bail and by how much. The Price for Freedom, published by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, analyzed arrest data from 2012 through 2016. The authors concluded that the money bail system takes a “multi-billion dollar toll that demands tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”
Using the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s misdemeanor and felony bail schedules, researchers discovered that bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for misdemeanors and felonies over that five-year period was $19.4 billion.
Bail agents typically charge seven to 10 percent of the total bail; money going to bail bondsmen, whether upfront or through installments, is nonrefundable, even if defendants are found not guilty or have their charges dropped by the prosecutor.
The Bunche Center study also found that the cash bail system disproportionately affects lower income Angelenos and communities of color. During the period covered by the study, black Angelenos paid bond agents $40.7 million in non-refundable fees — 21 percent of total fees paid to bond agents in a population that represents only nine percent of the population. Latinos paid just over $92 million, and whites just under $38 million over the same period. Figures for Asian Americans were unavailable to researchers.
The Bunche Center study is the first comprehensive look into the size and impact of the bail system in the city of Los Angeles. Researchers plan to release a similar report for Los Angeles County in 2018, saying that the numbers they compiled should show lawmakers what’s at stake in the escalating debate over cash bail reform.
Comprehensive legislation to eliminate California’s bail system failed in the Legislature this year. Twin bills, Senate Bill 10 authored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), and Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would throw out the California bail schedules and mandate counties to conduct pretrial assessments to determine whether a defendant poses a safety threat to the community or a flight risk. The bills would also mandate counties to develop plans to ensure low-risk defendants show up for their court dates. Bonta and Hertzberg have vowed to bring back bail reform legislation early in 2018. And their efforts have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has said “inequities exist” in the system, and of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who cited the state’s bail system as “unsafe and unfair,” and created a working group to recommend changes.
UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, one of the authors of The Price of Freedom, told Capital & Main that her study showed 70 percent of the bail amount levied went unpaid, and as a result 223,366 people remained behind bars until their arraignment.
“Many of these people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food. If the breadwinner stays behind bars, the family suffers from lack of income.”
And it is most often female family members who, when they are able, engage bail agents. A 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that incarceration takes a toll on all family members through debt, mental and physical ailments, and severed family ties.
For Isaac Bryan, a graduate researcher in the UCLA Department of Public Policy and a co-author of The Price of Freedom, the issue of cash bail is personal. Eight months ago he received a call from a bond agent saying that a family member had been arrested for alleged property crime and drug possession. The bail was set at $25,000, and would he be able to cover it? As a struggling student, Bryan didn’t have the 10 percent upfront fee.
Supporters of cash bail say it ensures defendants will show up to court. If they fail to appear, they forfeit their bail money. Critics answer that only works when an arrestee puts up the entire bail amount. If they pay a bail agent, they lose their down payment regardless of whether they show up. The agent is on the hook for the rest of the bail.
Bail reform advocates also point to a 2017 report, Selling Off Our Freedom, published by the ACLU and the nonprofit Color of Change, which showed that much of the money collected by bail agents goes to big underwriters, including Japan-based Tokio Marine and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial, and that insurers offload most of the risk to bond agents.
Efforts to reform the cash bail system have met strong resistance from law enforcement, prosecutors and, not surprisingly, the bail industry, whose representatives say that eliminating cash bail would pose considerable harm to the public.
“Bail bond is of no expense to the taxpayer,” said Zeke Unger, owner of Lil’ Zeke’s Bail Bonds in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. “But if you let defendants out, not only do they have no motivation to go to court, you’ll have to invest in manpower to keep track of them while they’re out.”
Cash-bail advocates also point out that agents help defendants, who otherwise could not afford to do so, exercise their constitutional right to bail. But the question reformers ask, and what’s at the heart of the reform debate is: Why should freedom be determined by a person’s bank account?
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice and a contributor to both Selling Off Our Freedom and The Price for Freedom reports, said that cash bail is supposed to make sure people return to court, but because of the high bail, in many cases, “it’s a way of keeping people in jail. Bail is not supposed to be a punishment. Right now the bail system is wealth-based detention.”
“We know that people of color are over-policed and over-represented in jails,” she added. “These reports show one more piece of the scale of economic drain of the criminal justice system on those communities.”
Across the U.S., states and courts are starting to rethink their cash bail systems. Earlier this year, New Jersey implemented an overhaul in its bail structure, and New Mexico is deciding how to address a voter-backed bail reform measure. In July, an Illinois judge ordered the reform of the bail system in Cook County, which includes Chicago. Now defendants who cannot pay bail and pose no flight risk or danger to the public do not remain behind bars before trial.
At the federal level, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill to encourage states to reform the practice of using money bail as a condition of pretrial release in criminal cases.
Supporters of cash bail may see the reform writing on the wall, at least in California. Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, told Capital & Main that, although his organization will continue lobbying to fight the abolition of cash bail in Sacramento, it might acquiesce to some reforms.
“Bail is set way too high in California right now, and without the bail industry hardly anyone in the state would get out,” Clayton said. “Even bail on misdemeanors is higher than for felonies in Colorado. This market imbalance needs to be corrected and doing so wouldn’t have a big impact on us.”
Bail in California is set by a schedule for each crime, but varies county by county, though judges have the discretion to alter the bail amount. The Selling Off Our Freedom report found that bail amounts as late as the 1980s were much lower than today, and many people arrested for felonies were released without paying bail. That report also showed that, nationally, between 1990 and 2009, the share of arrestees required to post money bail grew from 37 to 61 percent, and the share of releases depending on bail bond companies doubled in that same period. The report said bail bondsmen and the insurance industry used high crime rates to bolster their argument for laws requiring bail, and lawmakers bought that argument.
Clayton added that sensible reforms could simply do away with bail for minor crimes that don’t present a public danger, like loitering, which often impact homeless and low-income people. “We shouldn’t detain a person who can’t make bail for longer than [what] the actual sentence might be. A 60-day sentence on a fine-eligible offense doesn’t make any sense.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Homeless for the Holidays
New federal data show that America’s homeless population has increased for the first time since 2010.
Today is National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day, a seasonal moment to remember that these final weeks of the year are no holiday for thousands of our fellow Americans. (New data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reveal that last year “Los Angeles had the largest number of individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness, with 19 percent of the nation’s chronically homeless individuals.”
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