April 9, 2004 Program #0415
Inside Albany Online

New book chronicles journey of woman imprisoned for 16 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws

"Hello everybody ! It feels good to be free."That was Elaine Bartlett's greeting to several hundred people rallying for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws on a sunny day in May, 2000. Bartlett had been free for just a little over three months after spending sixteen years of a 20-year-to-life term in prison. Since granted clemency at Christmas in 1999 by Governor Pataki, Bartlett has made frequent appearances to crusade against the sentencing statutes.

The seasons have changed, the rallies have come and gone, just like the promises of reform from Albany politicians. Elaine Bartlett is not giving up. She returned to the Capitol a couple of weeks ago armed with a new weapon--a book about her life called Life on the Outside, the Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett.

The author is Village Voice reporter Jennifer Gonnerman. She met Bartlett while doing a story on 25th anniversary of the laws that Governor Nelson Rockefeller rammed through the Legislature in 1973 out of frustration of being unable to control a heroin epidemic. Gonnerman decided that following the impact of the laws on one person's life, their family and neighborhood would have more meaning than writing generalities about prison and drugs.

Elaine Bartlett's neighborhood in 1983 was Harlem. At 26, she was the mother of four kids, aged ten to one, struggling to get by on a welfare check and an off-the-books job in a beauty parlor. She was approached by a man she barely knew who asked if she would bring a package of cocaine to Albany. She said she saw it as a chance to make a quick $2,500 and get back to Harlem to pick up her little boy from school.

Her contact was George Deets, a drug dealer who also functioned as a state police informer. He brought Bartlett and her boyfriend who had gone along because he was suspicious about the arrangement, to a suburban Albany motel. As soon as the cocaine was displayed, police burst in and took the two of them to jail. Until that day, Bartlett said she had never been arrested.

After spending two months in jail because she had no money to pay the $250,000 bail, there was a three-day trial in the Albany County Courthouse. Bartlett was ignorant of the Rockefeller Drug Law's and the ramifications of not agreeing to a plea bargain. She said she turned down a sentence of five years to life and the requirement that she become an informant who would then lure others to Albany. She thought if she could tell her story, jurors would see she had been set up. She never got the chance to take the stand.

Under the Rockefeller statutes, all that mattered was the weight of the drug--two ounces or more meant at least 15 years to life in state prison. Even though Bartlett had no prior criminal history, the prosecution portrayed her as a drug kingpin who had come from NYC to Albany to set up shop. The drug informer who set up the deal testified against her. After 45 minutes, an all white jury convicted Bartlett. The judge who had almost no discretion, sentenced her to a minimum of 20 years behind bars.

Bartlett was hustled off to Bedford Hills Prison in Westchester county. As prisoner 84G-0068, she saw her children only in its visitors room for the next 16 years. They lived with her mother in a lower east side public housing project.

In 1995, after George Pataki became governor, Bartlett began applying for clemency. Lora Tucker, whom Bartlett met through a mentoring program for women prisoners, worked to help her. She told Bartlett's story to Randy Credico, a reformer who organized the Mothers of the Disappeared, a group of relatives of inmates serving long drug sentences. He excited media interest which eventually reached Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. With that influence, Bartlett won clemency from Governor Pataki in 1999. That's when her next struggle began.

She said there was nothing in place to help when she came out. New York state gave her $40 and a parole officer to monitor her for the next three years. She had to hunt for a job, search for a home of her own and try to reconcile with her children, now adults. Her daughters, she said, seemed lost and depressed, one near suicide. Both dropped out of school. Her younger son got sucked into the drug trade at age 10. He bought his first gun at 12 and landed in Rikers Island jail at 16, arrested as a drug runner/seller. He is currently in state prison on a gun conviction. Only her older son escaped the cycle of drugs and prison, she said, through his interest in basketball which he now coaches.

Bartlett founded an organization with Lora Tucker named Life on the Outside. Its mission is to break the cycle of prison and drugs that has captured so many families. She has found an ally in Senator Bruno. When she visited last month, he said he would buy 100 books to distribute to senators and his legislative staff.

Now a grandmother of three, Bartlett still struggles to hold her family together. Even though she lost her job at a residential drug treatment center, Bartlett hopes her organization, fueled by attention to the book, will help others survive as she has. She said the hardest thing was not to become bitter about her experience. She wants to continue to speak out, be heard and never be forgotten.

© 2004 Inside Albany Productions