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New York's state legislators finally voted to rewrite the Rockefeller drug laws on December 7, 2004 — 31 years after these controversial laws were originally enacted. One week later, Governor George Pataki signed this bill before a standing room only crowd of politicians, reporters, and several drug-law activists, including Charles Grodin and Russell Simmons. At the bill-signing, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the state's number-two Republican, credited Life on the Outside with raising awareness about the true impact of the laws' overly harsh sentences — and ultimately helping convince legislators to change them.

Check out The New York Times story from December 8 about this historic event.

Elaine and Jennifer appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC on December 8 to talk about the state legislature’s efforts to reform the Rockefeller drug laws.

"Life on the Outside is a masterpiece."
Texas Observer

"[A] stirring and ultimately heartbreaking book on what it means to leave prison…. The result [is] a remarkably balanced triumph of immersion journalism."
—Michael Schaffer, The Washington Post

"[This] book should take its place among such classics of urban sociology as DuBois' The Philadelphia Negro, Fox Butterfield's All God's Children, and Carol Stack’s All Our Kin."
—Debra J. Dickerson, Mother Jones

"Life on the Outside stands with those rare books that open a detailed and nuanced window into the often invisible lives of America's urban poor."
The Christian Science Monitor

"It is…challenging to attempt to examine a major social issue through the narrow focus of one person's encounter with it — as not a few better-known writers than Gonnerman have found to their dismay. Gonnerman has successfully met the challenge with a sympathetic heart for Bartlett and an unblinking eye for social injustice."
The Boston Globe

"Moving and well-reported...Revelatory."
—Brent Staples, The New York Times Book Review (front page)

"Bracingly compassionate, quietly outraged."
The Village Voice

"It's a story that grabs your interest and quickly boils your blood."
The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Returning to outside life after prison…turns out to be full of catch-22s….It's frustrating and confounding. And the madder you are about it, the more you'll know this book has worked its magic on you."
Chicago Sun-Times

"Life on the Outside encompasses the sweep of black New York, from the heroin-soaked days of Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land to the present-day vicissitudes of Rockefeller and workfare. The book is hugely compelling."
The Nation

"A riveting tale of how America's prison-industrial-complex sets up people of color, churns them through the system, and spits them lifelessly back on the streets."
High Times

"Every once in a while you read something in which the characters are so vivid you find yourself thinking about them even when you’re not immersed in the text. "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett" is such a book….The result is journalism in the powerful tradition of Michael Harrington, Jacob Riis and Margaret Sanger."
New York Law Journal

"Compulsively readable account of a life wasted by the war on drugs but later reclaimed…Elaine’s story forces the reader to consider the toll exacted by the myopic and effectively racist public policies that purport to address the social conundrum of illicit drugs in a market economy. Powerful stuff, grievously well rendered."
Kirkus Reviews

"Guaranteed to raise both eyebrows and awareness, this powerful testament to tenacity raises important questions about this nation’s inadequately funded and poorly designed reentry system for paroled inmates."

"Gonnerman captures both the love and the decades of grief that envelop the entire Bartlett clan. This powerful book shows in detail what unfair sentences do — to the convicts, but also to their neighborhoods and families."
—The Progressive

"Gonnerman makes an excellent argument for the ways in which the New York criminal justice system, particularly the ‘tough on crime’ measures imposed in the last three decades, fails poor and less educated people. She skillfully uses Bartlett, a tough assertive woman who struggles to hold a job and keep her family together after their years of enforced separation, as an exemplar of the wide-ranging impact of incarceration on both ex-cons and the communities they leave behind, a social problem just beginning to be studied."
—Publishers Weekly

"Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, a powerful new book by Jennifer Gonnerman, offers an unvarnished glimpse into the life of a former prisoner. It joins a growing list of literature emerging on the issue of prisoner re-entry."

What People Are Saying

"Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside is that rarest of books. It informs both the heart and the mind. Honest and stirring, Life on the Outside will keep you reading through the night. And it will leave you shaking your head at our nation’s thirst for rigid and unforgiving sentencing laws. This book is a triumph of storytelling."
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River

"Through the remarkable Elaine Bartlett, Jennifer Gonnerman deftly maps out the middle passage of what is perhaps the most pernicious social injustice of our time. She charts a seemingly impenetrable intersection of problems, fact by brutal fact. Only writing and reporting of this caliber could track the intricate ways in which our nation’s prison industry is also family business, and show how harsh sentences don't end on the outside."
—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

"Elaine Bartlett is a real person for whom conservative and liberal nostrums are unreal. Jennifer Gonnerman’s searing book will drag you into a world where an ex-con like Bartlett, a mother of four, serves a ridiculous sentence for a first drug offense, then with no confidence, no job, and few skills leaves prison and struggles to survive. Gonnerman crafts a first-rate story with universal meaning from the particulars of Bartlett’s life. This luminous book gets inside your brain and doesn’t escape."
Ken Auletta, media correspondent, The New Yorker, and author of Backstory: Inside the Business of News

"Life on the Outside is required reading. At a time when the prison-industrial complex is destroying African-American families and neighborhoods, Elaine Bartlett is more than a survivor: she is a heroine. The future of our communities depends on women like her."
—Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and chairman of The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

"The Rockefeller Drug Laws were put into effect to show that New York State was tough on crime, but when you look at the case of Elaine Bartlett you don’t think tough on crime but human rights violation, cruel and unusual punishment, or just plain immoral."
—Charles Grodin, actor and author of I Like It Better When You're Funny

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