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A close look at the rigors of straight time.

Reviewed by Michael Schaffer
Sunday, April 4, 2004; Page BW10

The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

By Jennifer Gonnerman. Farrar Straus Giroux. 356 pp. $24

America's status as the world's biggest jailer carries with it an unsurprising statistical corollary: Not only do we lock up more citizens than any other country, we also release more convicts than anyone else. A population of 600,000, larger than the District's, emerges from our prisons every year. Poor, hard to employ, short on both professional and interpersonal skills, ex-inmates are acutely vulnerable to sliding back into the cycle of crime and punishment -- at great cost to neighbors and taxpayers, to say nothing of their victims. But while we spend $55 billion on prisons each year in the name of public safety, re-entry gets little attention.

That's a scandal, but it's not one Jennifer Gonnerman belabors in Life on the Outside, her stirring and ultimately heartbreaking book on what it means to leave prison. Rather than marshal statistics to flesh out an annual migration that may be the least-noted demographic trend of our time, Gonnerman focuses on the story of one woman, Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years in New York state prisons on a drug charge before being granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki. The result, a remarkably balanced triumph of immersion journalism, is as gloomy as it is enlightening.

We first meet Bartlett on Jan. 26, 2000, the day of her release from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. "Today," she told a television reporter, "my life starts again." Up to that point, Bartlett's life had been equal parts tragic and pathetic. Gonnerman uses the first half of the book to tell a story populated by familiar stock characters of urban misery: family dysfunction, violence, out-of-wedlock births, racism, drugs, unemployment and arbitrary justice, plus a host of shady bit players.

Just before Thanksgiving, 1983, a guy named Charlie who hung out at the local barbershop offered the 26-year-old Bartlett, a mother of four struggling to pay her public-housing rent with the occasional off-the-books shift at the beauty parlor, a chance to make some money. All she had to do was carry a package of cocaine to Albany. Unsurprisingly, things went wrong: Charlie turned out to be a police informant named George Deets, who sent easy arrests to upstate cops as a way of protecting his own more substantial drug ambitions. And the bust took place in Albany County, where the jury pool was stacked with citizens eager to send a message to Harlem drug dealers. In court, Deets testified that the deal was the idea of Bartlett and her boyfriend. With no criminal record, Bartlett was sentenced to 20 years to life, the punishment mandated by the harsh drug laws signed in 1973 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

In prison, Bartlett was a good inmate, for the most part. But on the home front, her family carried on its bleak history as Bartlett continued trying to keep close tabs from inside: Of her six siblings, one brother was murdered, and another died of AIDS. Two more were released from prison and then sent back during Bartlett's incarceration. Her children were sent to live with their unstable grandmother, who died in 1998, three years after Bartlett's son Jamel was imprisoned.

This was the world to which Bartlett came home after her release, the result of a years-long lobbying effort supported by political groups out to change the Rockefeller laws. Gonnerman devotes the second half of her book to the long journey home from Bedford Hills. The elation of Bartlett's release day wore off fast. Family resentments resurfaced as fast as the loot from her post-release shopping spree at Costco disappeared. Accustomed to living without her, Bartlett's daughters wouldn't accept discipline from their mother. Her HIV-infected sister stole from her. Easygoing parole officers were succeeded by nasty ones. The tensions drove Bartlett from two family homes, leaving her for a time at the edge of homelessness. After several years at work, she started to shirk her dreary job at a drug-treatment center, earning a demotion. She was in a terrible accident but won money in a lawsuit. She got a nice new apartment with some of her children, but lost the job.

A staff writer for the Village Voice, Gonnerman makes Bartlett a compelling protagonist but not a perfect heroine. In an easy style that's free of tendentious bluster, she paints Bartlett's ample flaws, from her temper to her occasional delusions of grandeur to her often bafflingly knuckle-headed judgment. She also manages to weave a critical history of our 30-year national war on drugs and its many side effects into the book without breaking the narrative.

Ultimately, it is Bartlett's compelling story that really makes Gonnerman's case. True, Bartlett was less of a bad apple than many of the people who go to prison. But she was also a far better bet for rehabilitation than many of her fellow ex-cons, which is what makes her ongoing travails so relevant. •

Michael Schaffer is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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