Life on the Outside: the prison odyssey of Elaine Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2004)
This inside look at the life of one New York woman, caught in the Draconian 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, should be enough to convince lawmakers to repeal them, now.
Many of us know the devastation of drugs on families, on people poor enough to act as mules, on casual users caught in the official web of the criminal justice system. But author/journalist Jennifer Gonnerman is able to offer a concrete example of the destruction by following the sad life of one woman and her family. The first half of the book examines Elaine Bartlett’s two-job, low-pay, four-kid existence before she is offered $2,500 to take a package of dope by train from New York to Albany. She does, and is set up for the fall. The prosecutor and judge in 1983 hate the idea of New York sullying Albany, and they give all the drug dealers before them tough sentences. Tough, indeed. Ms Bartlett: Minimum of 20 years, perhaps life. First offense. Didn’t use or sell drugs.
The second half of the book begins with the celebration of Gov. Pataki’s exoneration a mere 16 years after that short train ride to hell. The celebration is tempered, however. Ms Barlett walked into a torn-apart and filthy apartment full of ragged friend and sulking teenagers, and an angry sister who had taken care of all those children. She was bewildered and angry. She stays that way through the second half of the novel, indeed, perhaps for the rest of her life.
Author Gonnerman sprinkles statistics and historical fact into her narrative of this one example: Selling only one bag of heroin/one vial of crack was a Class B felony. Crazily, though, in New York, ‘this offense is equivalent to first-degree rape, first-degree manslaughter, and armed robbery.’ And how much did tax payers get pinched for the 16 years the New York prison system kept her away from her children and the chance to earn a living? Nearly $500,000. The System has destroyed neighborhoods, families, and individuals. You will experience all of that as you turn the pages of this compelling book.
The freedom of Ms Bartlett is weighed down by her anger, her sense of futility, her children’s ruined lives and their own incarcerations. She survives. She takes demeaning jobs, works late hours, always meets her kind parole officer but defies her hateful one; she wants a man but has every problem in the world to keep a man from appearing. (Eventually she does seem to attach herself to a boy-toy…) Some of her children finally accept her. Some reject her; some go to jail or to prison.
What might Ms Bartlett be today without that $2500 ride? Without the punitive, heartless prosecutor and judge? She educated herself in prison and wanted her children to go to school and succeed. (They demurred.) She wanted a good job that reflected her education and skills. She worked in a system flop-house logging calls and socks.
Some readers find her a ‘heroine’ because she keeps trying. Others see her as a flag waving Failure. You need to read this moving, well written tale, and lament, and then decide for yourself.