Money & Policy

It’s Never Too Late to Contribute Your Talents and Gifts

A 2017 Influencer in Aging on women doing so after years in prison

(Next Avenue invited our 2017 Influencers in Aging to blog about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. One of the posts is below; we will be publishing others regularly.)

My hope for the future of aging: Don’t forget the forgotten; it’s never too late to contribute one’s talents and gifts.

I’ve received a lot of praise for opening my personal home and resources to provide safe spaces of healing for women leaving incarceration. Because of fear and uncertainty, most people would hesitate to do the same. However, I didn’t do this blindly.

I knew many women in prison during my nearly two decades of spinning in and out of incarceration. After my sixth release, someone stepped up to help me and I could access recovery resources — services I had never been offered or even known existed.

Becoming Ms. Burton book cover‘I Had Never Really Belonged in Prison’

As I began to heal, I realized that I had never really belonged in prison. I had used drugs and alcohol to block unrelenting pain; to patch gaping holes in my heart punctured through unresolved traumas from years of sexual abuse and the death of my son.

Remembering many of the women I left behind, I realized that, like me, they didn’t belong there. My story was their story; it didn’t serve any reasonable purpose to keep them locked up and in chains.

When most people think of retirement, it’s often paired with ideals of golden years, tranquility and peace. However, many women are spending their elder years incarcerated. The good news? Many are coming home.

How A New Way of Life Helps Former Female Prisoners

The re-entry project I founded and lead, A New Way of Life, is opening its doors to welcome more women who have spent decades shut away in prison. During 2017, we helped them reconnect with nearly 200 children, most of whom grew to adulthood without their mothers present in their daily lives.

I’m seeing these women, in gratitude, fully embrace the opportunity of freedom in their lives.

They have grown up behind bars. They’re coming back to a different world — neighborhoods have changed, cell phones and computers are new to them. Learning to navigate public transportation, access employment, finish school, and learn to drive — all can be very overwhelming. Yet I see them rise to the challenge of any occasion.

I watch them learn new skills and start college. I see them grateful for the opportunity to care for elderly parents who survived their incarceration.

Finding Purpose in the Next Phase of Their Lives

These women view this next phase of their lives as a time when it’s never too late to contribute to their families and communities. they aspire to lead lives of meaning and purpose.

In November of 2017, I walked into Tutwiler Prison and met a 70-year- old black woman named Geneva Cooley. Ms. Cooley has been sentenced to prison for 999 years, 99 months and 99 days for riding on a train with drugs. Meeting her seared my spirit open.

Also, I recently met a woman who brought in a donation to help A New Way of Life send women to an upcoming recovery convention in 2018. She works in a prison ministry and had known one of our current residents during the time she was incarcerated. By chance, the minister happened to be at an event where they became reacquainted. Handing me the check, she said, “This woman is a totally different person than the one I knew in prison.”

These stories mark the tragedy of over-incarceration and the difference that linking promise with opportunity makes in every life.

Aging can truly be the next level of purpose and brilliance; my greatest work unfolded as I matured and came into age. I have been able to transform my life experience into road maps of wisdom for others to follow. The next stage of my development is to create safe houses in communities for recently released women.

It’s never too late; if I’m breathing, there’s work to do.

Susan Burton
By Susan Burton
Susan Burton, a 2017 Influencer in Aging and former Purpose Prize winner, is a leading figure in the national movement for justice reform. Burton is author of Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, a powerful personal story of recovery and reinvention. After being in and out of jail for over a decade, she broke out of the cycle of incarceration and poverty. Then, Burton began inviting homeless female parolees into her home. Her organization, A New Way of Life, now serves hundreds of women who are rebuilding their lives after prison, providing legal aid, housing food and career training.

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