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Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett - Jennifer Gonnerman This book is the true account of Elaine Bartlett, and her life during and after a sixteen year prison sentence for drug possession. It is obscene that Bartlett spent so long in prison (at a cost of over $500,000 to taxpayers) for 4oz cocaine possession , while many more hardened inmates she met behind bars carried lighter sentences for violent offenses, including murder! The author, Jennifer Gonnerman, makes no pretense that Bartlett’s personal history is average or representative of the overall inmate population. In fact, Elaine’s experience is one of the more extreme examples of how New York’s legendarily severe drug laws actually do more damage than benefit to the local community. The story should nevertheless give advocates of tougher drug laws pause: Despite having no previous infractions in her life, in early 1984 Elaine stupidly allowed herself to be persuaded by a police informer (who initiated contact with her) to carry 4oz of cocaine from Manhattan to Albany. If anybody out there who has read this book has a law degree or similar training, I would love to hear how Elaine’s arrest does not constitute entrapment. Leaving that question aside for the moment, Elaine was sentenced to 15 years-to-life for the conviction. Only through a series of unlikely circumstances was she granted clemency and released in January 2000. I believe the main purpose of this book was to put a personal face on the “Rockefeller Drug Laws”, and to provide an opportunity to detail the circumstances behind this body of legislation: In 1973, New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller, ever with his eye on the White House, set out to build his “tough on crime” credentials by calling on the state legislature to enact a new schedule of heavy-handed penalties for all drug-related crimes. The so-called “Rockefeller Drug Laws” meted out the toughest sentences in the nation for even minor drug-related crimes, including mandatory 15 year-to-life sentences for all convictions of contraband drug possession or sale, even for juveniles and first-time offenders. As an added benefit to the Governor: the laws created a massive increase in work for the courts, necessitating an unprecedented number of new judicial appointments. Such appointments are a “goodie bag” of rewards for a sitting Governor to entice supporters, and allowed "Rocky" to stack the courts with like-minded cronies who would carry on his misguided (if not malicious) strict disciplenarian policies long after he left office. The new laws were controversial with the voting public, not only because of the associated costs (and inevitable tax increases), but also for the punitive rather than rehabilitative or preventative nature of the laws, and their focus on drug users and small-time dealers rather than larger distributors and importers. In stark contrast to the public, New York State lawmakers embraced the Rockefeller laws, because they meant an inevitable explosion of the prison population, which would have to be accommodated by new prison construction… lots of new state-sponsored prison construction projects, bringing tax dollars, construction jobs, and ultimately prison jobs to the lawmakers‘ home districts. There is incidentally an unexplored question in this story regarding how the massive statewide prison construction program may have personally enriched Rockefeller himself. The Rockefeller Group is one of the largest real estate development and construction companies in New York State, and they do a good deal of business in governmental contracts (most recently with our Dept of Homeland Security). I have tried unsuccessfully to learn whether this large corporation was involved in real estate transactions or construction contracts resulting from the Governor's laws. If Nelson Rockefeller was personally enriched by sending nearly 750,000 of his constituents to prison, it seems an unforgivable conflict of interest, even beyond the inherant evil and hypocrisy of most for-profit prison systems.This narration is most powerful when it documents Elaine’s first two years back in society, and the difficulties she encounters adjusting. Far from the joyous homecoming she expected, Elaine finds her family fragmented and neglected. Her children, rudderless and traumatized by sixteen years with no stable parental figures, are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of life below the poverty line. They have become estranged, and have variously turned to drugs, contracted HIV, and have themselves been incarcerated. Likewise, Elaine’s younger brothers and sisters, who relied on her so much in childhood have fared poorly without her. One brother dies of HIV; another of senseless street violence, and one sister, Sabrina, eventually commits suicide. Perhaps Elaine could not have done much to prevent these tragedies, but maybe she could have. As a felon, Elaine faces additional challenges obtaining employment and housing, which hamper her efforts to reestablish herself in the community and with her family. What emerges from all this is a clearer picture of the true human cost of the Rockefeller laws. Add to this the monetary costs of expanding New York’s prison population over five-fold, and the evidence appears overwhelming: there has to be a better, more humane approach to drug-related crime. I make no secret in questioning the need to criminalize drug use at all (see my review for Plants of the Gods Their Sacred Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers). I know this is somewhat extreme to many, but if one is inclined to criminalize drug use, it seems to make more sense to focus resources on the big-time drug dealers and importers, namely aristocratic families like the Windsors and Rothschilds (and dare I speculate the Rockefellers?) (Ref: Dope Inc). Perhaps the greatest tragedy in this story is how firmly entrenched the Rockefeller Drug Laws seem to be. For the same reasons the laws were passed to begin with, it seems nearly impossible to reverse them, even with widespread consensus on all sides that they have not achieved their ostensible goal of reducing drug-related crime.