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02-17-2005, 04:51 PM
Drug War Casualty
After being locked up for 16 years, Elaine Bartlett found that life after prison has its own shackles.

by Maureen Turner ( - February 17, 2005

At the front of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett is a condensed Bartlett family tree. It begins with the family matriarch, Yvonne Powell Bartlett, extends to her seven children, then branches off to include her daughter Elaine's four kids and their fathers. Even in its abbreviated form, the family tree is heavy with misfortune, revealed in the small notes next to each name: Yvonne's oldest, Frankie, the father of four, murdered in a robbery at 37. Her second son, Ronald, dead of AIDS at 33. A daughter, Sabrina, a long-time drug addict who also contracted HIV and died at 40, leaving five children.

But if there's one dominant theme to the family's troubles, it's prison. Five of Yvonne's seven children have spent time behind bars, mostly on drug charges. In Life on the Outside, journalist Jennifer Gonnerman follows one of them, Elaine, who in 1983 was sentenced to 20 years in a New York state prison for her role in a cocaine deal. At the time, she was 26 years old, with four kids, aged 10 to one. She lived in a public housing complex in East Harlem, received welfare and worked off the books at a hair salon. This was her first offense, the first time she'd ever been arrested.

Bartlett was sentenced under New York's Rockefeller drug laws, named after then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who in 1973 launched a new tough-on-drugs campaign that included tough mandatory minimum sentences. Under the laws, being caught with four ounces of heroin or cocaine -- the amount Elaine was caught with -- carried the same penalty as second-degree murder.

The governor's anti-drug campaign was driven in part by public fear of the growing drug trade, especially in cities, and in part by his own political ambitions. Rockefeller wanted to be president and, after several failed attempts to become the Republican party's nominee, no doubt thought tackling the drug problem would better his chances. Rockefeller never became the GOP's nominee, although he was named vice president in 1974 by Gerald Ford, after the resignation of Richard Nixon.

But Rockefeller's most profound legacy was the drug laws named for him. In the 25 years after the passage of the Rockefeller laws, the New York state prison population ballooned from 12,500 to 70,000, Gonnerman reports. Ninety-four percent of prisoners are black or Hispanic. In 1973, there were 18 state prisons in New York; today there are 69. Over the past 15 years, the state's prison budget has risen from $450 million in $1.7 billion.

Those statistics are echoed across the country. The Rockefeller laws became a model for other states and a powerful symbol of the nation's "war on drugs." Driven largely by the drug laws of the 1970s and '80s, the U.S. prison population has increased from 200,000 in 1970 to 1.3 million today, Gonnerman writes. Thirteen million Americans -- 7 percent of the adult population -- have been in prison for a felony.

Life on the Outside (recently released in paperback by Picador) tells the story of one of those Americans, Elaine Bartlett, and the incalculable effect her time in prison had on her and her family.

Gonnerman spent hundreds of hours interviewing or just observing Bartlett, first in the visiting room at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in upstate New York, then later as Bartlett went about her post-prison life back in the city. The project began as a lengthy article in the Village Voice before developing into the book, a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.

The book begins on Jan. 26, 2000, as the 42-year-old Bartlett, dressed in a purple pants suit and three-inch heels, struts out of Bedford Hills as a free woman. After years of lobbying, she had been granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki, who shaved four years off her 20-year sentence. She was greeted by her oldest son, Apache, now 26, and a cluster of journalists.

"Today, my life starts again," Bartlett told a TV reporter.

Bartlett's first life had begun with an unstable childhood marked by violence and poverty. At six, she watched her mother cradling her father as he lay bleeding in bed, dying of a heroin overdose. Shortly after, her mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital and Elaine and her brother to an orphanage, where they spent two years. Bartlett dropped out of school in 10th grade and got pregnant at 15.

A single mom, Bartlett thought she'd found an easy way to make some money when an acquaintance offered her $2,500 to courier a package of cocaine to Albany. Early on the morning of Nov. 8, 1983, she dropped her kids off with family, stuffed the package in the front of her Jordache jeans and boarded a train for upstate. Her boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, followed her to the station; he was nervous about what she was doing and didn't trust the friend who set up the deal.

His fears were well founded. The man turned out to be an informant with a highly questionable arrangement with the Albany police: to get himself or his friends out of legal trouble, he'd persuade people like Bartlett to come up from the city to help in a drug deal, then tip off the cops. The police would get big splashy arrests, which in turn led to positive publicity, political support -- and more funding to fight drugs.

Bartlett and Brooks were busted in a hotel room. They didn't know they'd been set up until their "friend" showed up in court to testify against them. Bartlett turned down a deal that would have gotten her five years in prison and chose to go to trial. She ended up before a judge nicknamed "Maximum John" and an all-white jury that took 40 minutes to return a guilty verdict. She got 20 years; Brooks, who'd already served time on drug charges, got 25 to life.

"When that judge told me 20 to life, I thought that man was out of his mind," Bartlett told the Advocate in a recent interview. "I was never able to accept that, even in the 16 years I did. ...

"I never once said I didn't break the law. But let the punishment fit the crime. That punishment did not fit the crime in no way, shape or form."

Bartlett went to prison, and her children went to live with Yvonne. She was luckier than many other women prisoners, whose kids end up bouncing around the foster care system. But calling Bartlett's family "lucky" is a stretch. Her elderly mother struggled to care for her grandchildren. Bartlett tried to mother her kids through collect calls home and prison visits, while trying to get through life behind bars and dreaming of her eventual release.

As a prisoner, she explained, "You live in three worlds: Being incarcerated, the world you have no choice to be in. Then you try to hold on to the free world, the only thing that keeps you alive, helps you stay healthy, stay sane.

"And then in the visiting room, you live in a different world, because when your family comes and sees you, they're not going to be honest with you about the situation at home and how bad things are. The caretaker is telling them: 'Don't go up there and be worrying your parent. She can't do anything; she got enough to worry about.' So you develop a fantasy world of the visiting room. ... You're not really dealing with reality, and [later] you find out all these things have gone on and nobody was honest."

Among the things she didn't know was how quickly her younger son, Jamel, was heading downhill. At 10, he was making money running drugs; at 12, he bought his first gun; at 16, he went to prison for armed robbery.

Bartlett was a more-or-less model prisoner. She got her GED, then took college courses. She took prison jobs, moving her way to the most prestigious, like a spot working in the prison library. And as the years passed, she became a surrogate mother to younger prisoners, counseling them and trying to keep them out of trouble. She also began fighting for clemency, helped by the fact that reformers on the outside took up her case as an example of the drug laws' too-harsh consequences. In January 2000, after five years of lobbying and one failed clemency bid, she was finally released.

Bartlett's giddiness at being released didn't last long. She returned to the apartment where her mother, who had died years earlier, had raised her kids; it was now chaotic, filthy and crammed with relatives. Her older daughter was depressed. Jamel was in jail. Her sisters were resentful of the years she was absent and blamed her for hurting their mother.

Reclaiming her role as mother was daunting, Bartlett said: "My baby was 17. I hadn't been there her whole life, and she was like, 'Who are you to come home and tell me what to do with my life? You wasn't here.'

"When your child says, 'I'm going to make your life miserable, just like you made my life miserable' -- that's a hard piece for a mother to swallow."

Bartlett wanted out of her mother's apartment but couldn't find an affordable place. (In fact, she shouldn't even have been there; former felons are barred from public housing.) She spent months searching for work before landing a low-paying job at a men's rehab center. She had to relearn how to live life: how to dress, budget her money, shop. The first time she went to Costco, she recalled with a laugh, she was a "maniac," loading up her cart as if to make up for all the years of denial in prison.

While sympathetic to Bartlett, Gonnerman tells her story with unflinching honesty. She avoids heavy-handed lectures about the failure of the drug war. She doesn't sugarcoat Bartlett's questionable choices or her self-destructive behavior.

Bartlett's reason for participating in that long-ago drug deal -- she wanted to host a splashy Thanksgiving dinner and show off her new white leather furniture -- was both irresponsibly dangerous and almost touchingly naive. After 16 years in prison, she still struggles with her pride, her stubbornness and her temper. She wants to mend her relationship with her kids but smacks them when she's angry. She spends months searching for a job but repeatedly blows off work and is eventually fired. At one point, she locks into a pointless power struggle with a hard-ass parole officer, knowing she could be sent back to prison but unwilling to back down.

Life on the Outside isn't always flattering to its subject, but Bartlett praises the book's faithfulness to the truth. (It took her two months, she says, before she could read it without breaking down.) Indeed, the book is more persuasive because its subject is not a martyr, but a flesh-and-blood person, with flaws, regrets, dreams, weaknesses.

Elaine Bartlett wasn't a perfect person before she was sent to prison, and she wasn't a perfect person when she got out. But what had 16 years behind bars done to improve her lot, or that of her family? What had it done to make her a better member of society? She might have made mistakes; she might continue to make some. But does it serve anyone simply to dispose of people who make mistakes?

For all her challenges, Bartlett emerged from prison with a drive that allows her to channel her anger and frustration into a purpose. She's become an activist fighting against drug laws that tear apart lives, families and communities but do little to solve the real problems that lead people to crime. She's starting her own organization, called Life on the Outside, to help former prisoners re-enter society.

"I thought my freedom would be everything: I'd be the happiest woman in the world. I'd get my life back. It would be all over," Bartlett said. "The reality was, just getting your freedom isn't enough. When we come back into society, there's nothing really in place for us." Her goals include setting up businesses to hire newly released prisoners and affordable housing to help them avoid shelters, the street or volatile family situations. She also wants to help reform the parole system, to make it more supportive and less punitive.

By Gonnerman's estimate, New York taxpayers spent a half-million dollars keeping Bartlett behind bars. Then there are the costs -- police, courts, the parole system -- associated with the larger war on drugs.

"That money would be better spent in our community on education and other things," Bartlett said. "They could have sent me to be educated; they could have put me on house arrest; they could have had me do community services; they could have sent me to parenting classes to be a better mother for my four children. There's so many things that could have been done for me besides lock me up for 16 years."

Bartlett, who celebrated the fifth anniversary of her release last month, is also slowly piecing her family back together. She has a place in Harlem, where she lives with her youngest daughter. Jamel is still in prison, but she has a room ready for him when he's released. Her two older kids are doing well.

"Things are coming together for us. We still have our problems and stuff," she said. "I'm not where I wanted to be in the five years, but I'm getting there."

Elaine Bartlett and Tara Andrews, director of the Maryland Justice Coalition, will speak about drug law reform at the UMass Student Union Ballroom on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. For information, call 577-3791.