New York Times
Home & Garden

Published: April 29, 2004

At Last, the Windows Have No Bars

By SARA RIMER


Photo by Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
RELEASED Elaine Bartlett stands in the living room of her Harlem apartment with her daughters Danae, left, and Satara, right, and her granddaughter Tenéa. She made the wall hanging in prison in memory of her mother.

ELAINE BARTLETT, who spent 16 years behind bars as a first-time drug offender, strode into the gymnasium of the women's jail on Rikers Island last Friday morning. No longer inmate No. 84-G-0068, she was a free woman, chasing her dreams.

She announced herself in a red suit, a silk scarf and black heels. At 46, wearing her shoulder-length brown hair curled under and tasteful makeup, she could have passed as a corporate chief executive.

A hundred inmates, who had been waiting for nearly an hour, jumped cheering from the bleachers as Ms. Bartlett walked slowly toward them, absorbing their applause. She was accompanied by Jennifer Gonnerman, a reporter for The Village Voice and the author of "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett," published last month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a chronicle of Ms. Bartlett's struggle to rebuild her life and family since her release four years ago.

The inmates, most of them mothers serving time on drug convictions, had seen her on television or knew her story through the jail grapevine. She was the ex-offender who was making it, and here was the proof: she had walked through the front door of the jail, without handcuffs, the celebrity guest of the deputy warden for programs, Sandra Langston.

Until she won clemency from Gov. George E. Pataki and left the state prison in Bedford Hills, she was one of them. For 16 years behind bars, she had been sustained by her visions of home, and of becoming a mother on the outside again. She knows what it is to have your children visit you behind bars, to feed them vending-machine candy instead of home-cooked meals, to miss birthdays and school conferences and Christmas. She knows the shame and guilt of leaving your children behind, the fear that they will stop visiting, that you will lose their love.

As much as anything, "Life on the Outside" is the story of the toll incarceration takes on family members. (In 1997, the most recent year for which data is available, 65 percent of women in prison had children under 18, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.)

Ms. Bartlett was 26, with four small children, working off the books as a hairdresser in Harlem, when she agreed to take four ounces of cocaine by train from Grand Central Terminal to Albany, in exchange for $2,500. She wanted the money to buy furniture for her apartment and to put on Thanksgiving dinner for her large extended family. The father of two of her children, Nathan Brooks, who had already been jailed for selling drugs, followed her to Grand Central and took the train to Albany with her.

By Ms. Gonnerman's account, Ms. Bartlett had been set up by George Deets, a drug dealer who was working as a police informer. Mr. Deets, who would later die of a drug overdose, testified that she had masterminded the drug sale. Ms. Bartlett did not testify. No one mentioned that she had four children, ages 1, 3, 6 and 10. Though she had no criminal record, she was sentenced by one of the toughest judges in Albany to 20 years to life under the Rockefeller drug laws. (Mr. Brooks got 25 years to life and is still in prison.)

She left prison on Jan. 26, 2000, with a general equivalency diploma, a two-year college diploma, no job prospects and $40 from the state to start her life over.

She had fantasized about the welcome party her family would hold in their apartment in a housing project on the Lower East Side, where they had moved in her absence. "I thought the place would be decorated, everyone sitting down, waiting for me," Ms. Bartlett said over dinner in a Midtown restaurant a few nights before her Rikers visit.

What greeted her instead was a disaster scene. "There was no food in the refrigerator, no toilet paper," she said. "The toilet seat was broken — the sink was full of dirty dishes. There were roaches and mice running around. The ceiling was black with dirt. I couldn't believe it. I was so hurt. Everyone had given up."

In one way, Ms. Bartlett was fortunate. Her mother, Yvonne Bartlett, had been able to take in her children. But her mother died in 1998 after a long battle with diabetes, and the family sank into poverty and despair. Ms. Bartlett told the women at Rikers Island that she had returned home to find that her family had created its own prison in a housing project, and that she had been living better behind bars than the rest of the family outside.

"I had a sister dying of the virus in the living room," Ms. Bartlett said, meaning AIDS. "I had a daughter so depressed she hadn't combed her hair or come out of her pajamas in a month, with her baby."

Her other daughter, Danae, a high school senior, had moved in with another family. Danae, now a 22-year-old high school dropout, is furious at her mother. She "never lets me forget that I did 16 years," Ms. Bartlett said. "She's on a mission to destruction. Before I get to my deathbed, I got to reach her."

When Ms. Bartlett was freed, two of her brothers were in prison. Another brother had died of AIDS. Still another, whose life had revolved around his job as a piano deliveryman and his family, had been fatally shot on a street in the Bronx. Elaine Bartlett had attended their funerals, and her mother's, in shackles.

Ms. Bartlett's son Jamel, who was 6 when she left and always fought to be on her lap during visits to prison, was on Rikers Island for selling drugs. Her oldest child, Apache, had given up a basketball scholarship to a private high school that might have been his ticket to college, so he could help his aunt — Ms. Bartlett's younger sister Michelle — care for his siblings and his grandmother after she became ill.

For nearly two hours at Rikers Island, Ms. Bartlett shared her story and urged the inmates to get an education. After a round of questions, the women gave her a standing ovation. It was, in a way, the homecoming party she had never had.

From Rikers, she and Ms. Gonnerman went to Ms. Bartlett's new apartment, up six flights of stairs in a tenement in Washington Heights. Ms. Bartlett left her $18,000-a-year job at a drug treatment center a year ago and now hopes the book tour she and Ms. Gonnerman are on will start her on a career as a public speaker. Meanwhile, she is broke.

The apartment was immaculate, but she has been able to partly furnish only two of the four bedrooms. The living room has no sofa, only plastic lawn chairs, and milk crates holding books and Apache's basketball trophies. A plastic storage chest is the desk for the computer where she works, trying to start an organization, also to be known as Life on the Outside, that will help ex-offenders and their families.

On one wall of her living room is the purple quilt she made in prison as a memorial to her mother. Another wall is covered with pictures of her children, her three grandchildren and assorted nieces and nephews. "We have all been through too much," she said. "I have to rebuild, show them what family's about."

Her sister Sabrina, who had AIDS and became addicted to crack after the sudden death of her second baby, died a year and a half after Ms. Bartlett got out of prison, leaving behind five children. Ms. Bartlett said she dreams of being a mother to those children. "It's really about trying to save these kids," she said.

Her son Jamel, 27, is now in a state prison near the Canadian border. To visit him, Ms. Bartlett rides an overnight bus from Manhattan, seven hours up and seven hours back.

She has coaxed her daughter Satara, 24, out of her depression, but some days Satara is overwhelmed by the symptoms of sickle cell anemia — climbing the six flights of stairs to the apartment is exhausting — and the demands of her hyperenergetic 4-year-old daughter, Tenéa.

On Saturday afternoon Satara, Tenéa and Ms. Bartlett's other daughter, Danae, were all at the apartment. Danae, in her baggy jeans and basketball jersey, had shut herself in her bedroom. "I would have done it a whole different way if I had kids, you feel me?" Danae said. "If I had a child right now, I wouldn't be transporting drugs."

She loves her mother, she said, but "we don't communicate." Danae was 1 when her mother went to prison. Her Aunt Sabrina, before she became ill, was the one who went to Danae's school conferences, pretending to be her mother. "I got so much that I hold inside," Danae said. Her voice was soft, her earlier bravado gone. "I just wanted my mother home."

Apache, 30, still the family stalwart, was out coaching one of his club basketball teams. Apache said he always understood that his mother did what she did to get money for the family. He is angry only at himself, he said, for failing to keep Jamel out of prison.

"I can't really forgive myself about my brother," he said. And so he pours 16 years of guilt and family pain, and his own lost dreams of college, into coaching other poor children. Some of them, he said, have parents in prison. "There are other kids I can help so they don't end up like us or like my brother and sisters," Apache said.

Earlier in the day Ms. Bartlett had gone to Rucker Park in Harlem with Satara and Tenéa. For hours, Ms. Bartlett followed her granddaughter down the sliding board, played with her on the swings, helped her ride her bicycle with training wheels. Tenéa threw her arms around her grandmother and sang:

I love you, you love me,

We're a happy family.

In prison, Ms. Bartlett cut out magazine pictures of parents in parks with their children and sent them home with notes: "Here's you and me on the swings." She cannot get the 16 years back, but here in the park with Tenéa was a chance to recapture what it might have been to be a mother to her own little girls.

On the days when depression and frustration overwhelm her, Ms. Bartlett focuses on her dreams: breaking her family's cycle of incarceration and telling her story on "Oprah," the favorite television show of the women at Bedford Hills. And she said that no matter what it takes, Tenéa and her other grandchildren are going to college, not prison.

Her dreams also include owning a house big enough for the entire family. "I don't care where it's at," she said. "Somewhere all the kids can come, a little backyard, just to be able to have a dog."

©2004 New York Times