Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life, a program that provides housing and assistance to formerly incarcerated women as they re-enter society, received the City of Philadelphia’s highest honor, The Liberty Bell Award, this week.
Mayor Jim Kenney presented the award Thursday at Ardella’s House, a home in North Philadelphia for women who are trying to make better lives for themselves after a criminal conviction. The event coincides with Prison Re-entry Month this June and the celebration of efforts to break cycles of recidivism.
Kenney said he learned from Tonie Willis, executive director of Ardella’s House, that “everybody has value, everybody has a story — it could be an illness, an accident, loss of a job or addiction. Society is what it is and we have a responsibility to help them.” He said he was also taught that “you are never really, really happy unless you help somebody.” Kenney said he has met with some women in prison “who realize that they have made a mistake but from now on they have to be positive.”
Burton was also the 2023 NBC News “Inspiring America honoree,” and she was named a CNN Hero in 2010 for her work helping women to get a second chance after incarceration.
“I want to thank the Philadelphia Commission for Women for the luncheon and thanks to Mayor Kenney for being here and for understanding the needs of women in the criminal justice system,” Willis said. “I founded Ardella’s House in 2010 to help women with criminal justice histories realize new possibilities for themselves and their families.”
Ardella’s House “is a beacon of light for women,” added Willis, offering opportunities in areas such as housing, family, health and well-being. “We would not be here without the invincible Susan Burton,” she said.
“I met Susan at the time when I was lost … she gave me purpose,” said Pamela Marshall, co-director of A New Way of Life, the re-entry project founded by Burton. A New Way of Life is one of the Safe House Partners providing hope to re-entry women. “The S in safe stands for sisterhood, the A stands for Alliance, the F is for Freedom and the E is for Equity,” Marshall said.
The Safe Housing Network has 31 partners across the United States, including houses in New York, Georgia and Texas, with a new program opening in Oklahoma. It has 12 houses in Los Angeles and programs in Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya.
Burton, a noted activist and prison reformist, was also on hand to support the passage of House Bill 900, dubbed the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act,” along with Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, State Rep. Mike Jones, R-York, and Mike Lee, chief of staff for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
If passed, the bill would prohibit the shackling of women who are arrested and bar them from solitary confinement while serving time or awaiting trial. The legislation would also make “trauma informed care training” mandatory for corrections officers who interact with pregnant and postpartum women. And there would be an end to full-body searches by male guards.
The bill was introduced by Pennsylvania State Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-192nd District, and was supported by Jones and others.
“The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office strongly supports House Bill 900,” Lee said. “Dignity is a necessary component of accountability and rehabilitation. Without the dignity associated with the programming, we put people in an unfair position … Meeting people’s basic hygienic needs is a form of dignity and accountability. Having trauma-informed supervisors and corrections officers is a form of dignity and accountability.”
“Most importantly,” said Lee, “shackling women while they are giving birth, or are being transported, is not only one of the most harming things we can do, but there is no medical necessity for it — no purpose for it — and ending that practice will go a long way for the building blocks of dignity for women in our legal system.”
The bill would also allow for three days of post-delivery bonding time between an incarcerated mother and her newborn child. There would also be a promise of visitation time between the mother and any other minor children. Finally, there would be some minor funding for expenses to transport women to a safe place upon their release.
“A woman could be released from prison at 9 or 10 at night in a rural setting,” Jones said. “Now at least we provide a ride.”
Over 200,000 women are incarcerated in the United States, a 700% increase in the last 40 to 50 years, according to Cephas’ office. The majority were incarcerated for non-violent offenses and most have been victims of sexual assault.