Our nation’s two-decade spree of building prisons and sentencing even nonviolent criminals to long spells inside them has produced a staggering number of incarcerated people in America–more than 2 million as of last year, a record. Equally shocking, though seldom discussed, is the fact that more
than 30 percent of that number, 630,000, will be released in the next year. A small but growing body of literature has begun chronicling the struggles of this cataract of former prisoners and parolees to rejoin a society where they’re alienated and stigmatized, and where they often had few resources to begin with. Life on the Outside, Jennifer Gonnerman’s account of Elaine Bartlett’s sixteen-year imprisonment and 2000 release, makes a timely and valuable addition to this body of work. By detailing the impact of Bartlett’s absence and reappearance on her extended family over a period of years, Gonnerman opens a window onto the American underclass, where cycles of poverty, drug use, homelessness and poor mental and physical health interlock to form a kind of prison of their own.
Since her release from prison by an act of clemency from Governor George Pataki, Elaine Bartlett has become active in the movement to repeal New York State’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate stringent sentences for drug-related convictions. Bartlett’s experience epitomizes the far-reaching consequences of these laws: Convicted of ferrying four ounces of cocaine to Albany for an acquaintance who turned out to be a government informant, Bartlett landed a minimum sentence of twenty years, although she had no prior history of arrests or convictions. She left four children behind, the oldest of whom was only 10.
Gonnerman begins her story with Bartlett’s version of the events leading up to her arrest, then devotes a fair chunk of her book to Bartlett’s prison time at Bedford Hills, where Gonnerman met her in 1998 while covering state prisons for the Village Voice. Ultimately, she tracks Bartlett through the first three years after her release. Along the way she also provides some history of Bartlett’s mother, Yvonne, who came to New York in 1950 from Alabama, had seven children and was eventually saddled with the task of raising Bartlett’s four children. In this sense, Life on the Outside encompasses the sweep of black New York, from the heroin-soaked days of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land to the present-day vicissitudes of Rockefeller and workfare.
The book is hugely compelling, in large part because the stakes for Bartlett and her family–many of whose members we come to know fairly well–are so high. One of the most poignant strands of the story involves Bartlett’s younger son, Jamel, who was 6 when she went to prison. Gonnerman writes that of Bartlett’s four children, Jamel “was the most needy and the most aggressive. In the visiting room, the only place he wanted to be was in her lap…. At the end of every visit, he cried and refused to leave, clinging tightly to Elaine’s legs. When the guards tried to pull him off, he kicked and punched them.” Jamel lived in his grandmother’s overcrowded public housing unit on the Lower East Side, with little supervision; his surrender to a life of drugs and crime unfolds with the bitter predictability of a Greek tragedy. “When he was ten years old, Jamel joined the neighborhood’s most lucrative industry,” Gonnerman writes. “He became a runner, transporting packages of heroin and cocaine for the older dealers. Each trip to another block or another borough could earn him $100…. After an hour or two of work, he could buy a meal, a new pair of sneakers, a gift for a girl.” At 12, he buys a gun. And by age 16, Jamel is locked up himself–accused with two others of robbing a cab driver at gunpoint. He writes to his mother from Rikers Island: “Mommy you no why I was crying when I was talking to you on the [phone] is because I miss you I love you and I just can’t take the fact that your not home with me and it ain’t just when I talk to you every time I see you or think about you I cry mommy.” He concludes: “while I’m here I’m going to get everything straight so when I go home I could do something with my life and make you proud of me.” But the reader senses, correctly, that such an angry, vulnerable boy will have a hard time resisting the undertow that has already dragged him out to sea.
Gonnerman deserves credit for her sustained and thorough reporting. She won the trust of her subjects and logged many hours in their company. The result is a mulch of rich detail: the fact that each prisoner was allotted twenty-four sanitary pads a month, the fact that Bartlett sometimes used one of these pads to wax the floor of her prison cell, the precise view from the prison yard where Bartlett often went to smoke marijuana. “Looking through the barbed wire and the many yards of trees, she could see cars whizzing down a highway,” Gonnerman writes. “Some afternoons, she would stand right next to the fence and stare at the road for hours. Other days, she would climb onto one of the wooden picnic tables to get a better view. The faint whoosh of cars reminded her that life went on in the outside world.”
It’s hard not to compare Gonnerman’s book to Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, published last year, which also chronicles years of struggle in an impoverished extended family, two of whose members (one a young mother) spend many years in prison, to the enormous hardship of their children. Both Gonnerman and Leblanc were clearly witnesses of many of the scenes they describe, but both chose to erase themselves from the narrative, never addressing the reader in the first person (Gonnerman goes so far as to talk about the impact on Bartlett’s life of “a lengthy article about all she had endured during her first year out of prison,” published by the Village Voice, without mentioning that she herself wrote the article).
The two books part ways diametrically, however, on the issue of polemics. While Leblanc refrains from making any broad points about race, class and public policy, letting her subjects’ words and lives do the storytelling–a strategy that has its own pitfalls–Gonnerman’s agenda is instantly and at times oppressively visible. In a prologue, she writes, “Today a felony record functions like an invisible scarlet letter, ensuring that former inmates are treated as outcasts whose debt to society can never be fully repaid. These myriad restrictions have transformed America into a two-tier society, in which millions of ostensibly free people are prohibited from sharing rights and privileges enjoyed by everybody else. The division between these two worlds falls along lines of race and ethnicity. Nearly two-thirds of people leaving prison are African American or Hispanic.”
This is strong stuff, and it raises enormous questions: Is Gonnerman saying that parole should be abolished? Which rights in particular does she think felons are being unfairly deprived of? Does she draw any distinction between felons who have committed violent, versus nonviolent, crimes? Is she suggesting that the parole system is an overt tool of racially motivated repression? Sound argument no doubt exists on all of these topics–John Riley’s three-part series in Newsday last year, which probed the contradictions inherent in depriving felons of employment and housing rights, shores up some of Gonnerman’s claims more concretely than she does.
In fact, Gonnerman’s book never takes on most of the issues her prologue raises, but the aggrieved tone of those early paragraphs crops up again and again in Life on the Outside, exposing a danger of advocacy journalism: A writer’s obvious bias can short-circuit the sympathy she hopes to evoke for her subjects by prompting wariness among readers who feel railroaded toward a point of view they may even share. When Bartlett appears in court in 1984 for her trial, Gonnerman writes,
Sixty-four nights on a jail cot had left her completely exhausted. Her hair was straggly and flat. All the polish had peeled off her nails…. If she had come from a wealthy family, she might not have looked so haggard. If she had found somebody to bail her out, she could have spent the last nine weeks living in her own apartment. Her hair would have been bouncy and clean. She would have had on a fresh, well-pressed outfit to impress the jurors.
Gonnerman is right; surely someone from a wealthy family would have looked better at trial. Still, her tendency to bombard the reader with comparisons like these can be wearing. Later in the book, describing Bartlett’s visit to her parole officer, Gonnerman writes, “There were no copies of Newsweek or Vanity Fair or any other magazine in this waiting room. The only reading material was the large sign hanging near the front: Waiting Area Rules.” Would it bear mentioning that glossy magazines are also absent from Passport Offices or Departments of Motor Vehicles or any other government office that churns through scores of people in a day? Probably not.
Gonnerman’s injured tone most compromises Life on the Outside when she tries to rationalize her subjects’ questionable moves by suggesting that a larger, fault-ridden system is really to blame–that the injustice of their poverty outweighs, and therefore excuses, any crime they might personally commit. When Bartlett’s son Jamel is freed in 2001 after his third prison sentence, he clashes with his new parole officer within a month. Jamel seems determined to defy her, even if it means finishing out his sentence in jail. Gonnerman writes, “Jamel had thought he was free after he left prison, and now, once again, he felt the grip of the criminal justice system tightening around him.” But wait a minute–why would a three-time veteran of the criminal justice system have “thought he was free” immediately upon release? Jamel’s reaction to his parole officer is proud, wrongheaded and utterly human–even sympathetic. By trying to pretty it up, Gonnerman just gets in the way.
Similarly, she tries to mitigate the impact of Bartlett’s violent temper, which at one point nearly leads her to punch out her crack-addled sister, Sabrina. “She carried so much rage inside her all the time that she was always looking for a way to release it,” Gonnerman writes of Bartlett. “There would be sixteen years of pain and frustration behind every one of her punches. When she punched Sabrina, she would also be punching [the man who set her up], Judge Clyne, and everyone else who had enraged her over the years.” The problem here isn’t just with the fact that Gonnerman states the obvious but with the prose itself; she has a habit of stepping into her narrative and glossing people’s emotional states in terms so familiar that they blur, rather than reveal, her subjects. After detailing the physical injuries Bartlett sustained during her prison time, Gonnerman writes, “Elaine carried many invisible scars, too. Prison damages everybody, no matter how educated they become or how much they believe they have not changed. Despite her best efforts not to become bitter, Elaine still carried with her sixteen years of frustration and rage. Her wounds were not yet visible, but in the days and months to come, the true toll of her lengthy imprisonment would become apparent.” All true, no doubt, but clichéd to the point of blankness.
Gonnerman is much more effective when she lets her subjects speak for themselves. Later in the book, when Bartlett actually does hurl a punch at her daughter, Danae, she’s left feeling helpless and guilty after Danae quite naturally recoils from her. Here, Gonnerman lets Bartlett do her own rationalizing, and the hollowness and futility of it are actually poignant: “the way kids are today and how disrespectful they are, they need to be knocked on their ass,” Bartlett rumbles, straining for the last word. “That’s the bottom line. They ain’t got no respect.”
The story Gonnerman tells is fundamentally sound enough not to require her explanations and apologies to prop it up. And while one family’s saga can’t justify the blanket swipes Gonnerman takes at the criminal justice system early on, her book is a devastating indictment of her more immediate target: the Rockefeller drug laws. Having watched the crushing effect of Bartlett’s sixteen-year absence on her children, and her helplessness to undo that damage after she’s finally released and their formative years are long behind them, the reader is left with little doubt that these laws are senseless and destructive. By what possible logic can we, as a society, have profited by locking up Elaine Bartlett for sixteen years, when one of her children is now spending his adulthood cycling between crime and prison? Of course, other members of Bartlett’s family are criminals too, and Jamel might have followed that path even if Bartlett had been at home to mother him. But it’s also possible that the little boy who clung to his mother’s legs each time he had to leave the prison visiting room might have turned out differently. We’ll never know.