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Life on the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years behind bars for selling cocaine — a first offense — under New York’s controversial Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning of January 26, 2000, when she walks out of Bedford Hills prison. At 42, Elaine has virtually nothing: no money, no job, no real home.

What she does have is a large and troubled family, including four children, who live in a decrepit housing project on the Lower East Side. “I left one prison to come home to another,” Elaine says. Over the next months, she clashes with her daughters, hunts for a job, visits her son and husband in prison, negotiates the rules of parole, and searches for a home of her own.

In recent years, the United States has imprisoned more than two million people while making few preparations for their eventual release. Now these prisoners are coming home in record numbers, as unprepared for “life on the outside” as society is for them. Jennifer Gonnerman calls attention to this mounting national crisis by crafting an intimate family portrait — a story of struggle and survival, guilt and forgiveness, loneliness and love.