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.