The National Catholic Review
George M. Anderson

You are a 26-year-old mother of four, and suddenly you find yourself behind bars—not for a few months, but for a long 16 years as a first-time drug offender. During those years, your children grow up, and the youngest angrily blurts out, when you finally do return and attempt to resume your role as head of the household, “You’ve been gone my whole life. Who are you to be telling me what to do?”

This is the true story of Elaine Bartlett, an African-American woman raised in East Harlem, New York City. But it is also the story of the many thousands of other women—disproportionately African-American and Hispanic—who continue to be caught up in the web of the nation’s mandatory minimum drug laws. Enacted decades ago, they have served as the primary building blocks in the war on drugs. Although some lawmakers now see such an approach, with its draconian sentences, as counterproductive, legislators generally fear being tagged as soft on crime and therefore remain reluctant to change this response to a problem that has increasingly come to be perceived as primarily a public health and poverty-related issue.

The book itself, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, was written not by Ms. Bartlett, but by Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer for The Village Voice who had been reporting on New York’s criminal justice system. Ms. Gonnerman spent untold hours with her over a two-and-a-half year period, during but especially after her incarceration, in a kind of Boswell-Dr. Johnson relationship through which she won the trust of Ms. Bartlett and various family members. As the use of the word “outside” in the title suggests, a primary focus of the book is what happened to her after she was finally released.

Initially overjoyed on leaving the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where she had been a model prisoner, she soon found herself in a strange and often hostile world. Even the subway system, once known by heart, was confusing. With the help of a tough but well-intentioned parole officer, whose upbringing had not been very different from her own, she managed to find a job as a drug abuse counselor at Project Renewal, a program aimed at helping homeless men and women rebuild their lives. Realizing only too well how the Rockefeller drug laws had damaged not only her life but the lives of hundreds of thousands of other men and women, she became a popular speaker at rallies aimed at repealing, or at least modifying, their most damaging aspects. But the story ends with the loss of her job, and her life back on the streets of New York City continues to exemplify the harsh realities faced by the 600,000 people released from the nation’s prisons each year—ill prepared for re-entry by a system that consistently does too little to prepare them for what lies ahead.

Those convicted of a drug felony, for example, are ineligible for food stamps and for public housing—two basic needs that could help former prisoners in their efforts to reintegrate themselves into their communities. It was only by luck that Ms. Bartlett was able to stay with family members in a housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The manager knew her record but was willing to look the other way. The author describes this and other restrictions on former offenders—such as being barred from certain kinds of employment—as “an invisible scarlet letter, ensuring that former inmates are treated as outcasts whose debt to society can never be repaid.” The image of the scarlet letter is apt indeed. Little wonder that recidivism rates have soared, with parole violations a principal reason for the ever-expanding size of our national prison population. Nationwide, 40 percent of those released on parole, Ms. Gonnerman points out, are back in prison within three years—because of a new offense or a parole violation.

But Elaine was more fortunate than many other young women who face long sentences in having a strong mother, Yvonne, who was willing to assume the care of the four children after her arrest. For incarcerated single mothers who are their children’s primary caregivers, foster care becomes the only option when already stretched family members cannot take on extra burdens of this kind. Yvonne herself, struggling in a poor and drug-ridden neighborhood, knew the sadness of seeing another of her own seven children go to prison too or—like the son who died of AIDS—die long before their time. The oldest was murdered on a street corner. Only Elaine’s sister Michelle managed to avoid the criminal justice system, though she too had her problems. She tried to commit suicide by drinking antifreeze. When Yvonne lay dying in a New York City hospital, Elaine was transported from the prison to visit her, steel cuffs around her wrists and ankles, and a chain binding her legs “that permitted only baby steps” as she made her way through the lobby escorted by guards—a spectacle for all at a time of private sorrow.

In her long odyssey through the prison system and beyond, Elaine Bartlett emerges as a kind of Everywoman of our flawed criminal justice system—a system that aims its harshest punishments at poor people of color both during and after their incarceration.

George M. Anderson, S.J., the author of With Christ in Prison, is an associate editor of America.