The People Left Behind


Shortly before Thanksgiving of 1983, a modest drug deal went down in a beauty shop in Harlem. Elaine Bartlett, a 26-year-old mother of four, agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine by train from New York City to Albany.

Bartlett was not a drug courier by trade. She worked off the books as an unlicensed hairdresser and lived in one of Harlem's big public housing projects. A man named Charlie stepped into the back room of the beauty shop one morning and offered her $2,500 for one day's work. When she said yes, she had in mind a huge Thanksgiving feast for her extended family and some new furniture for her tidy little apartment. She never got to have her Thanksgiving dinner that year. By the time she sat down to dinner with her family again, 16 years later, it was in a household ruined by years of frustration and neglect, and her children were no longer really hers.

"Charlie," whose real name was George Deets, was a police informant, retained by the state police in Albany to lure New York City dealers upstate. It didn't matter to the cops that Bartlett was not actually in the business, or that she had no convictions of any kind on her record. In fact, everything about the deal was cynically contrived. Deets and a partner named Rich Zagurski had worked on and off for the cops for years, mostly to get themselves out of trouble following minor drug busts. It was never hard to find somebody like Elaine in Harlem, and the authorities in Albany didn't ask too many questions about how they did it. (Bartlett, for example, had never even been to Albany before.)

In this case, the pair had no charges of their own to work off; they set up the deal to get a friend and colleague out of hot water, a service for which they charged a fee. While running this peculiar sort of brokerage, Deets and Zagurski were also importing a kilo of cocaine directly from Colombia into Albany every two weeks, and earning up to $1 million per year. In his dealings with the police, Deets made no secret of his underworld connections; indeed it gave him the cachet he needed to set up his neck-saving deals with prosecutors.

At trial, Zagurski was asked why he had cooperated with the police. "I just feel that, you know, cocaine is at a bad level and I think that, you know, it should be taken off the street," he testified. Appearances had to be kept up, especially in Albany.

When Bartlett discovered the nature of the setup, she could not bring herself to accept a plea bargain. That was a horrible mistake. New York State, that great bastion of liberalism, had some of the toughest drug laws in the nation. The sale of four ounces of cocaine, even for a first offender, was punishable by a sentence of 15 years to life. Tried in front of one of the state's most notorious hanging judges, Bartlett was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Bartlett was sentenced under the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which introduced the concept of mandatory minimum sentences to American jurisprudence. Brainchild of former governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the laws were passed in 1973, at the height of the heroin scourge in New York City. Under the new laws, judges no longer had the discretion to consider mitigating factors when sentencing defendants; they had to abide by the minimums established in the code. Early parole was also eliminated.

The harsh new sentencing laws were designed to win the support of rural New Yorkers fearful of the spread of the blight afflicting Harlem, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. But more than that, the initiative was an effort to shore up the governor's conservative credentials in anticipation of his fourth run at the Republican presidential nomination. As it happened, a short, ill-advised stint as Gerald Ford's vice president was the closest Rockefeller ever got to the Oval Office. His drug laws remain, however. Widely copied in state legislatures across the country, they have formed an enduring legacy.

Jennifer Gonnerman's Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, just out in paperback from Picador, is a powerful indictment of mandatory minimums, but the book isn't just about the way New York locks people up. It's also about what happens to the people who are left behind when somebody gets incarcerated, and what happens to prisoners once they get home.

A book-length examination of this subject was long overdue. The nation reached a grim milestone in recent years: For the first time the number of persons incarcerated nationwide topped 2 million. The stark reality of that number has shamed even some conservatives into rethinking our national response to crime, especially drug crime, which has helped drive the total. Here is a less well-known but equally staggering figure from the other side of the equation: Every year 600,000 convicts are released from prison. There are now 13 million Americans who have served time. That's 7 percent of the adult population.

We are becoming, as Gonnerman writes, a two-tiered society, divided into those who have been locked up and those who have not. For those who have, the prospects for re-entry into society are bleak. Most leave prison with little education or job skills, and many have untreated substance abuse problems. An estimated 16 percent have a serious mental illness. Others will come out of prison with hepatitis C, HIV, or even tuberculosis.

Increasingly punitive measures on the outside, meant to dissuade would-be offenders, are instead creating a kind of caste from which many ex-cons never escape. Felons are officially prohibited from living in federally subsidized public housing. From state to state, they may be prohibited variously from voting, obtaining student loans, driving a car, parenting their children, receiving welfare, or holding certain types of jobs. Forty percent will re-offend within three years. It is a caste with a distinct color: two-thirds of all ex-cons are black or Hispanic.

For two and a half years, Gonnerman, a staff writer at the Village Voice, covered Bartlett's efforts at rebuilding a life for herself and her family. Gov. George Pataki commuted Bartlett's sentence after her case was taken up by the anti-Rockefeller drug law movement in New York and she became something of a minor celebrity. From her first day out, however, it was clear that Pataki's pardon would not bring a happy ending to Elaine's story.

As the news cameras rolled, she was met at the Bedford Hills prison gates by her beloved son Apache. Just a boy when she was locked up, he was now 26 and had become the de facto head of the Bartlett household, following the death of Elaine's mother Yvonne. Bartlett's younger son Jamel was locked up, doing the first of many bits for heroin dealing. Her 19-year-old daughter Satara was mysteriously absent. The camera crew followed Elaine to a celebratory dinner, and then back to the apartment in which her kids had grown up in her absence. When she saw what was inside, unmistakable evidence of the mess that her children's lives had become, she told the crew to turn the camera off. Nobody needed to see this.

Except they did need to see it, which is the genius of Gonnerman's project and the reason the book was nominated for the 2004 National Book Award. Elaine's children were living in squalor. When Elaine, and later Elaine's mother Yvonne, was in charge, order and a sense of family pride had prevailed at the Bartlett household. Now everybody seemed to have given up, as Elaine put it.

Her youngest daughter Danae, a high school student, had gone to live with another family, stopping by the apartment only occasionally. Her older daughter, Satara, had dropped out of high school after becoming pregnant. The despondent, non-responsive single mother was nothing like the bright, bouncy girl Elaine remembered. She rarely left the apartment. Elaine's younger sister Sabrina, addicted to crack and HIV positive, had also moved in. She watched soaps all day and slept in the living room. Her presence had forced the apartment's other residents to install locks on their bedroom doors. Sabrina's 21-year-old daughter, who had an infant of her own, was also living in the cramped apartment. Elaine had to share a tiny bedroom with Satara and her daughter.

Elaine's daughters, unaccustomed to having a firm parental presence in their lives, quickly came to consider their mother part of the problem. Danae, a rebellious teenager in trouble at school, and, Elaine was surprised to discover, a lesbian, rejected her mother's overtures to rejoin the family. After a shouting match over living arrangements in the cramped apartment, somebody, either Satara or her boyfriend, called the police on Elaine. Though her sentence had been commuted, she was still on parole, meaning she could be sent back to prison at any time if she violated any of a laundry list of rules. Getting arrested, obviously, would likely be disastrous.

Elaine had spent 16 years worrying about her children, dreaming of the day she would be reunited with them. Now she found that – despite all the visiting room chats and letters over the years – she had been kept in the dark about what was really happening to her family. Her daughters were depressed, bitter people, and she did not know them. They blamed her, it seemed, for being gone so long. Elaine's own sisters seemed to blame her as well, for refusing to take the plea bargain, for being gone when their mother died, for saddling them with her four children to raise on top of their own. Her son Jamel was a gang-banger and a drug dealer who had earned the nickname "Murder Mel." Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he would go to prison himself. Only Apache, who had found his calling coaching youth basketball, seemed to have his life together.

Elaine's efforts to find a new, larger apartment for her family went nowhere. The official prohibition against felons living in subsidized housing was often overlooked in New York City, but the waiting list for a new residence was enormous. Elaine was told to move into a shelter if she wanted to be bumped to the head of the list. In the end, feeling unwelcome in her own house, she did just that, packing up her things and heading to a YMCA.

Her hunt for a job was equally frustrating. Friends of her son Mel, fellow drug dealers, helped her out with cash at first, but after two months of a fruitless job search she was dead broke and desperate. Elaine attended the mandatory how-to-get-a-job classes required by her parole officer. Most of her fellow classmates – all ex-cons like her – were looking at a bleak future of cashiering at McDonald's or janitorial work.

Unlike them, Elaine had some education and job experience. After 16 years at Bedford Hills, she had held virtually every job and taken every class the prison had to offer, earning a GED and an associate's degree in the process. Eventually, through the assistance of a heroic social worker who was an ex-con himself, she landed a job as a counselor at a halfway house for recently incarcerated drug addicts, where her prison experience served her well.

Elaine Bartlett is a flawed heroine, and Gonnerman's gaze, to her credit, is unflinching. Elaine is bitter about the years she lost and consumed by feelings of guilt and resentment about what has become of her children. On more than one occasion she loses control of her considerable temper and punches her daughters, as though they were fellow inmates at Bedford Hills. Still, the end of Life on the Outside finds Elaine on what is, on balance at least, a hopeful trajectory. Elaine's steady income allows her to move out of the projects. Through Elaine's persistent ministrations, or perhaps through her mere presence, Satara begins to come out of her shell. Danae gradually accepts Elaine as her mother. Elaine finds love in a younger man who dotes on her in the way she always wanted.

There is hope in policy circles as well. After years of organizing and lobbying in Albany, reform advocates won a partial victory last month when the state legislature voted to amend the Rockefeller laws, reducing the length of the longest sentences and raising the weight thresholds in the code. As a result, some of those convicts, like Elaine, who got the maximum sentence will now be eligible for release. (The legislature stopped short of restoring discretion to judges, however.) Progress has been slow and uneven, but the general trend in recent years has been toward a softening of drug laws across the country.

Elaine Bartlett's story played a key role in moving the debate on mandatory minimums, and Gonnerman's compelling and moving account is a call to arms for further reform. At the same time, however, by virtue of the thoroughness and honesty of Gonnerman's reporting, Life on the Outside also points up the limitations of the criminal justice reform movement. Elaine's story offers a rare and valuable glimpse of daily life in the inner city, and it's a sobering vision. Nelson Rockefeller did not create the cycle of poverty and desperation into which three generations of the Bartlett family – along with 600,000 other souls living in public housing in New York City – are mired. Likewise, if the drug war ended tomorrow, the prospects for Elaine and her children would not dramatically improve.

But that is not what we are meant to take away from this book. We are meant to understand that mass incarceration, that incredibly ambitious enterprise at which this country has excelled far beyond any other, is not part of the solution. By that measure, Life on the Outside is a masterpiece.

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