I recently returned from Albany where I visited with a group of 20 women who were in a drug rehab program at Albany County Correctional Facility, along with Paul Grondahl of New York State Writers Institute and Dr. Alice Green of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. It was striking for me to see the women assemble in the room in their identical orange uniforms. To me, that showed what incarceration can do: it takes away a person’s individuality and identity, stripping them of the very things that make them who they are.

Since it was a smaller group than I usually meet with on my tour, this visit was more intimate. We sat in a circle and I asked each woman to introduce herself and to share one of her goals. Many of the women talked about wanting to rebuild their relationships with their children. Others talked about wanting to become beauticians or pursue other careers.

Paul Grondahl (director of New York Writers Institute), Susan Burton and Dr. Alice Green (executive director of the Center for Law and Justice)

There was one woman there who was a little over 50 years old. I could tell that she had been through a lot and that she had a wall around her, so I spent some time chipping away at that wall. I told her that I was 46 the last time I was released and I was almost 50 when I started A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. Just because she’s middle aged, her life is not over yet. It’s never too late to change your life.

When I asked the women how many of them had been incarcerated here before, every single hand went up. I wish I could say that this surprised me, but it didn’t. Recovering from addiction is an issue for so many people who cycle through incarceration. Far too often, people fail during recovery because they go back into the same old environment where there is not a lot of support for them.

A woman opened up to me about a recovery home she went to that was filled with drugs. While she was there, she had access to any drug she wanted and she just didn’t have the ability to fight her urges in the center of this drug den that was supposed to be a rehabilitation facility. I think there’s a certain level of commitment that any provider must have to keeping drugs out, and some facilities simply lack that commitment.

The women and I had a good conversation for about an hour about my book and the need for them to get reentry support. Every time I walk away from one of these facilities, I have the same feeling: that these women need to be welcomed into a home that’s drug and alcohol free and into a safe space where they will not only be allowed to heal but also be treated with dignity.  There isn’t a city or town in this country that doesn’t need a model like A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. While I want to do everything for everybody, I know that in order to be effective, I have to focus on what is manageable. Later this year, I will be starting a new project to help others replicate what we do at ANWOL. More details on this will be coming soon.