Locked Out

By Dickerson, Debra J. | Mother Jones, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Locked Out


Dickerson, Debra J., Mother Jones


books Locked Out Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett By Jennifer Cornerman. Farrar, Slmus and Giroux. $24. 368pages.

REVIEWED BY DEBRA J. DICKERSON

There is no more unsatisfying read than this book. Nothing much happens, no one learns anything, no conflicts are resolved, and few characters are even likable. The guilty escape punishment. Haplessness is treated like venality, cluelessness like malice, treachery like heroism. Unresolved trauma and clinical depression leap from every page. The book ends as it begins, poised on the edge of the next calamity, the next boneheaded decision, the next missed opportunity. At times, Life on the Outside makes you want to swear off nonfiction and take up residence in Danielle Steel's world, because Jennifer Gonnerman gets it right. With sharp reporting, she captures the merciless grind of one woman attempting to reintegrate into society after serving a draconian drug sentence. Her 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.

In early November 1983, 26-year-old Elaine Bartlett, high-school dropout and welfare mother of four, agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine upstate for a drug dealer she thought was a friend. Though she lived hand-to-mouth, the $2,500 lure was partly to fund a lavish Thanksgiving family fete in her Harlem project apartment. But that dream evaporated when state troopers stormed the hotel room that police informant George Deets-the dealer she knew as Charlie-had procured for the transaction. Bartlett, with no criminal record and no ability to produce the $250,000 bail, ate her turkey dinner on lockdown.

Nathan Brooks, petty drug dealer and father of her two youngest children, having failed to dissuade Bartlett from the scheme, did the only thing he could think of: With gallant foolishness, he went along on the drug deal to protect Bartlett. But he ends up providing the book's first opportunity to sigh at the poignant futility of such lives: Nine weeks after the bust, Albany County judge "Maximum" John Clyne dourly married the couple in his chambers, moments before sentencing them in his courtroom.

Because of New York's Rockefeller drug laws, Elaine's childish irresponsibility cost her 20 to life, Nathan's defeatist chivalry a minimum 25. These two self-destructive fools were treated like drug kingpins, yet they couldn't even afford lawyers. (Meanwhile, George Deets, the insatiable addict whose drug ring was responsible for a biweekly kilo of cocaine on New York's streets, remained not only free but well paid by the police and with his inventory restocked.)

Sixteen years later, as a result of everincreasing calls to overturn mandatory minimums for low-level offenders, Bartlett experiences the only stroke of luck in her benighted life: She receives clemency from Governor George Pataki, leaves Bedford Hills prison, and returns home to New York City as a poster child for sentencing reform.

It's all downhill from there. Gonnerman wryly subtitled this book about life after long-term incarceration a "prison odyssey" because, as Bartlett soon realizes, she's simply "left one prison to come home to another. …

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