Life on the Outside by Jennifer Gonnerman
Life On The Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, shortlisted for the National Book Award, is journalist Jennifer Gonnerman’s account of Elaine Bartlett, a convicted drug dealer, and her struggle to cope with returning home after sixteen years in Bedford Hills state prison.
On January 3rd 1973, Governor Nelson A Rockefeller gave his annual State of the State Address in New York. No-one expected surprises, but part way through his speech he turned to the subject of drugs: “Whole neighbourhoods have been as effectively destroyed by addicts as by an invading army ... This has to stop.” His solution was austere: life sentences for drug pushers. Although virtually every expert in New York opposed on 8th May 1973, Rockefeller passed the laws which would take his name: a mandatory minimum of 15 years for anyone convicted of dealing heroin or cocaine. Elaine Bartlett was fifteen years old, and expecting her first child. Over the next thirty years, the number of inmates in the US soared from under 200200 to over 1.3 million.
Aged 26, Elaine Bartlett wanted some extra cash to make Thanksgiving special for her four children, and she found her means through Charlie, the friend of a colleague at the salon where she worked, Charlie had been dropping by frequently, and then came to her apartment to propose an idea. He knew a couple who wanted to buy a package of cocaine but wouldn’t travel to New York City. All she had to do, he told her, was to take the package to Albany, two-and-a-half hours away by train. For this, he’d pay her $2500. Her boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, who regularly sold ten or twenty-five dollar bags of heroin on the streets of Harlem, thought the whole plan sounded suspicious. But, wanting to protect Elaine, he went with her to Albany.
Charlie’s real name was George Deets, and he was the Albany Police’s informant of choice. And this sting landed Elaine with a minimum sentence of twenty years; Nathan Brooks is still in prison. As Gonnerman points out, the trial and sentencing apparently took no account of Elaine’s lack of criminal record, the indications of entrapment, or the four young children she would leave behind. When Elaine Bartlett was released sixteen years later, the children had grown up without her.
Weaving interviews and observations into a hard-hitting and emotional comment on the American justice system, Gonnerman suggests how easy it is for the cycle of poverty, violence and crime to repeat themselves. Immersing herself in Elaine’s daily life for nearly all of 2000, Gonnerman opens up a world of drugs, depression and gun crime. We follow Elaine’s frustration as she struggles to cope with the inflexible parole and welfare systems, and her determination to regain control of the family she left behind.
Life On The Outside is compelling and affecting, both emotionally and politically. Elaine Bartlett has since become a public figure, but she and this book are disturbingly representative of a massive population.