March 23, 2004, Tuesday

New York Times
METROPOLITAN DESK

EX-PRISONER TELLS HER STORY, HOPING TO CHANGE DRUG LAWS

By AL BAKER (NYT) 626 words

ALBANY, March 22 -- Advocates and state lawmakers who have long been trying to overhaul New York's mandatory sentences for drug crimes invoked a time-honored tradition to push the issue in Albany last year: celebrity.

The hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons met for seven hours behind closed doors last June with Gov. George E. Pataki and the state's two top legislative leaders, trying to reach an agreement for changing the Rockefeller-era drug laws. There was a rally days before at City Hall, featuring appearances by entertainers, including Carly Simon and the hip-hop artist 50 Cent. Before long, the ''Drop the Rock'' campaign was gaining steam, after spots of the same name on MTV. But, in the familiar syndrome of Albany gridlock, nothing changed.

This year, with frustration mounting among legislators and thousands of inmates still languishing in state prisons, another strategy for change is being employed in the State Capitol by the prisoners' relatives and advocates for the cause: putting a human face on the issue.

To that end, Elaine Bartlett, 46, the subject of a new book, ''Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett'' (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux), made the rounds in Albany on Monday to tell her story about how she was arrested near Albany, in 1983, for selling four ounces of cocaine, and sentenced, after a trial, to 20 years to life for her first offense.

When the governor finally granted her clemency -- and she was released in January 2000 after 16 years behind bars -- it was into a world fractured by her time away. Her son, Jamel, 22 at the time, was now himself in prison on a drug conviction.

Ms. Bartlett, who lives in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, met with Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican majority leader of the State Senate, who had endorsed her clemency and promised to buy 100 copies of the book, written by Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer for The Village Voice, for his colleagues. Standing outside a Senate chamber with Mr. Bruno, Ms. Gonnerman and others, Ms. Bartlett told reporters she would push this year for a repeal of the laws, enacted in the 1970's.

''I plan to be as active as I can,'' said Ms. Bartlett, speaking of her plans to lobby the leaders in Albany. ''Also, I am hoping that this book will touch them in a way that no media, or any other organization, has been able to touch them because not only is it a story that you hear about, but once they read this book it will seep into them because they have families.''

Everyone in Albany agrees the Rockefeller-era drug laws are too harsh. The state's three major leaders -- the governor, Mr. Bruno and Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the State Assembly -- say that changing them is a priority. Yet, the three cannot come to agreement on how to do so and the issue has been kept open.

As Ms. Bartlett headed to a reception for her book at the Corning Tower in Albany, many in the State Capitol said they were not optimistic a deal could be reached this year. Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, a Democrat from Harlem, sat outside Mr. Silver's office and shook his head, explaining that people's lives hung in the balance.

''It's nothing but political jockeying,'' he said of the gridlock over the issue. ''I don't think Kofi Annan could even solve it.''

©2004 New York Times