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Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

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We speak with Elaine Bartlett, who spent 16 years in prison for a first-time drug offense. After her release, Bartlett had no money, no job and no real home. We hear her story and speak with Village Voice journalist Jennifer Gonnerman, author of a new book about Bartlett entitled “Life on the Outside,” the first major work of journalism on the subject of re-entry. [includes rush transcript]

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Each year, millions of Americans who have served their time in prison are released to re-enter the free world. After spending years behind bars, many of them come back to society without money, a job and or a home.

Today we are joined in the studio by Elaine Bartlett. She spent sixteen years in prison for a first-time drug offense, the victim of New York’s harsh Rockerfeller drug laws. She is the subject of a new book entitled “Life on the Outside”, the first major work of journalism on the subject of re-entry. We also speak with the author of the book, Jennifer Gonnerman, a prize-winning journalist with the Village Voice where she has reported on the criminal justice system since 1997.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re joined by Elaine Bartlett. Elaine Bartlett spent 16 years in prison for a first-time drug offense. It’s good to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Bartlett was sentenced under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. Jennifer Gonnerman, an award-winning reporter, wrote a book about Elaine’s odyssey. It’s called, “Life On The Outside.” The first major work of journalism on the subject of reentry of a person who has been in prison, and in Elaine’s case, it was 16 years, returning to her home to her family, or what was left of it. And Jennifer Gonnerman also joins us in the studio right now. Welcome, Jennifer.


AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer is a prize-winning journalist with “The Village Voice” where she has reported on the criminal justice system since 1997. Jennifer, why did you choose Elaine and Elaine’s story as the subject of this book?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I met Elaine at Bedford Hills Prison in the spring of 1998, when I was writing about the 25th anniversary of the Rockefeller drug laws. At the time I wasn’t thinking about a book. I was writing a story for “The Village Voice.” I wrote a few more stories about her for the Voice in the next couple of years. On the day Elaine walked out of prison in the beginning of 2000, she received clemency from the governor after 16 years of being locked up. I was working on another story. At the time I thought this is the happy ending to a really sad tale. After 16 years, she finally gets out and is being reunited with her family. I think Elaine, too, probably thought it was a happy ending to her struggles. So, I think I might have written a story that went something like that, but as I stayed in touch in the next days and week, she started to tell me about her day-to-day life saying things, I left one prison only to come home to another. And describing the state of her apartment and family, I realized in fact that the story was in many ways just beginning. That’s when I really started to pay attention to taking more notes and ultimately, that’s the result of this book.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Elaine, could you tell us a little bit in terms of your own experience once — when you got out. When you got the clemency from the Governor, and walked out into the — into the world again? What were some of the experiences that you initially had to contend with?

ELAINE BARTLETT: Well, when I received clemency from Governor Pataki, that was the happiest day my life. I remember dancing through the gates in my purple suit. Once I got to Manhattan and put that key in my door, and seeing the state that my family was in, my whole world dropped at the bottom of my feet. For a mother to do 16 years and come back out into society and to find your family has basically given up on life, not caring about anything, about themselves, no morals, very depressed, feeling helpless, I mean, I did 16 years and I came out into society and I was in better position mentally, in my state of mind than my own family.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about your family when you went in. How many kids, how old were they and what did you go in for?

ELAINE BARTLETT: At the age of 26 in 1983, I was arrested for an A-1 Felony, the sale of a controlled substance, four ounces of cocaine. At the time I got arrested, my son was nine, six, two, and one. I had four children, two boys and two girls. My mother was the caregiver of my children, so I was fortunate enough to have my mother raise my children. They didn’t have to go into foster care like so many other mothers.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you been dealing drugs before?

ELAINE BARTLETT: No. This was my first arrest. My first time ever being arrested for anything. I had been to prison before to see other relatives, brothers and friends and boyfriends and stuff like that. But I had never been arrested myself. This was my first offense. When I got arrested, I had $5 in my pocket. Now, under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were created in 1973 Governor Nelson Rockefeller, these laws were created for A-1 felonies and kingpins. I did 16 years in Bethel Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum facility for women. I have yet to meet one kingpin. That’s not who is being affected by the laws.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up carrying this four ounces of cocaine?

ELAINE BARTLETT: I was working at a beauty parlor off the books. I was a mother living in Wagner Projects paying $127 a month.


ELAINE BARTLETT: Yes, and George Dietz used to come around to the beauty parlor a lot. And he used to try to convince me to carry a package saying it was a safe way. For a while I denied him and declined him doing so?

AMY GOODMAN: He was a drug dealer?


AMY GOODMAN: George Dietz?

ELAINE BARTLETT: Yes. I didn’t know how much of a drug dealer until later on when I got arrested, and he came out that he was an informer, and he was working for the State Police. So, I agreed to deliver the package for $2,500, and I went up to Albany to meet George Dietz. He picked me up from the train, took me to a motel. I had never been to Albany before. Never been out of Manhattan a day in my life. Only in the five boroughs. They painted this picture that I was a big kingpin, that I came up to Albany to open up shop and start business in Albany, which was impossible. For me not to know anyone from albany to do so. When I got arrested, my lawyer came to see me one time, and basically his name was Joseph Terisio. He came to see me and he basically told me that either I play ball with the police and stuff or I will be receiving a 20-life sentence. Well, I guess he didn’t lie, because that’s what I received.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go to trial or did you plead? ELAINE BARTLETT:> Yes, I went to trial. A plea bargain was 5 to life, if I come back to Manhattan, and set up people that they knew and wanted. So, I —

JUAN GONZALEZ: You wouldn’t tell them what they offered you as a plea bargain. You rejected that and went to trial.

ELAINE BARTLETT: I rejected that because who was I going to come back to Manhattan and set up? Mothers on welfare? I didn’t know any kingpins. So, who was I going to come back and set up. How was I going to live comfortable and my children. I was putting my family in jeopardy by doing so? I went to trial thinking that I would not be convicted, not that I didn’t commit a crime, because I’m not — I know I committed a crime agreeing to deliver the drugs, but the role that I played in this case did not warrant 20 years out of my life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I remember an article for the Daily News about you in 1998, and then when you got out. Though, you had to confront, as you said you were lucky that your children were raised by your mother. Many others who end up in jail don’t have that good luck. But then what did you find? How were you able to begin getting your family back together?

ELAINE BARTLETT: Well, basically, it was very hard for me, because when I came back out into society, they was living in a project apartment. Once we would become A-1 Felony Convicted, we have a felony conviction and even with housing, we are not allowed to live in the projects; even though the governor released me to the address and I was paroled to that address. Basically, when I went to housing about the conditions of the apartment, the apartment being overcrowded because you have, like, 12 people living in there, with children, my sister was sick and dying in the living room. No intervention went into the household. And a lot of people was bringing them back and forth to jail to see me once my mother took ill. There was a lot of organizations that I was working with from inside, that was going into the household. So there was no reason for no intervention to help them better adjust to the situation, and what was going on. So, when I went to Housing, they basically told me, ’You’re felony convicted. You’re not supposed to be there in the first place, so you have no say; so, the best thing that you can do is be quiet. We understand that the conditions are bad. We went up there. We did a paint job. We seen how the apartment is, and this and that, but it’s — there’s nothing that you can do. Because if you make noise, we are going to put your family out the projects because you’re not supposed to be there in the first place.’ So, my hands was basically tied with that situation. And with our families being away so long, they — they developed resentment. You’re not being there. They feel abandoned. And then, who are you to come home and try to change things now when we have been dealing with this for 16 years, and doing the best that we can. So, there was a lot of emotions. There’s a lot of different things that I had to deal with, as a mother coming back, and as just being the aunt to my nieces and nephews, being a sister to my sister, who had to step up and take over, too. Because she had five kids of her own and then she had 13 other relatives that she was trying to be responsible for.

AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Bartlett, you can talk about your oldest son? Jennifer, you write very movingly about that day Elaine, when you came out of prison. It was your son who was there to greet you?

ELAINE BARTLETT: Apache is my oldest. That’s my first born. What saved Apache is his love for basketball. He coaches, and he has a program called Better Life for Children to help them get scholarships and stuff, so they can go to colleges and get out of the neighborhoods they’re from. He volunteers at St. Michaels where he works. He receives payday and he uses that to pay for tuition for people who don’t have the money to pay for tuition. He is basically a kid that lives on the land. How he does it is amazing. But I was blessed with him. Apache never showed any emotions the whole 16 years that he came to see me, even though my family members would tell me how when he would get on the train, the Metro North to go home, he would cry on the train and stuff. For the first time in the 16 years that I was there, when I received clemency and he came up that Christmas Day. As soon as he walked into the visiting room and I walked into the visiting room, my son grabbed me, he broke down like a baby. And at that point I really knew how much damage me being locked up for 16 years had done to him. Because here’s a kid who never showed any emotions at all. He was always, you know, strong on the visits, strong for his siblings, strong for my mother and the rest of the family; and he held everything in. And that particular day, he couldn’t hold it in anymore. The day I got released, as soon as I danced through them gates —- all I could do is throw my bags down and just grab him and hold him and tell him, ’It’s over now. It’s all right. I’m coming home. This is it. Don’t worry.’ You know, and we had a book signing at Barnes & Noble the other day, and after the event, my son came up to me and he grabbed me, and he hugged me and he kissed me on my forehead, he said, 'Mommy, I am so proud of you! I am so, so proud of you!' And that meant so much to me. You know, as a mother, and the fact that for 16 years, I was looked upon as 84G0068. Now, I can honestly say today, I am not that. I am Elaine Bartlett. That’s the woman that sits before you today and when I get through with using this book as an educational piece. Because it’s my story—-it’s a painful story; but it’s reality of what the Rockefeller Drug Laws do to us, and what our society has come to. And I hope that this book can touch a lot of people’s lives. Not only the people that are being affected by these laws, but the people in society that when they sit down and eat their meals at night with their families, they think about what they have done to other families and how they have just destroyed them. So, I hope that this book could touch their heart and let them know these are real people and lives that they’re destroying, not just the people that you lock up and incarcerate for a long period of time. And, so understand that eventually, we are coming back out into society and you have nothing out here in place for us. Ninety percent is against us. We have 10% working for us. And when you talk about rehabilitation, and you want people to come out and be taxpayers: It’s just unreal, you know. It’s — they spent over a half million dollars to house me for 16 years. They didn’t have to do that. They could have — they could have put me under house arrest. They could have sent me to be educated. They could have helped me become a better mother. They could have used that money towards education. How many families could have went to college with that type of money, that they locked me up and housed me like a cattle. I wasn’t a career criminal — I’m not a threat to society. If you see me walking down the street, you will not cross the street because you don’t want to pass Elaine Bartlett. As a society, I think we need to look at what we’re doing. Our communities are failing our children: the churches, the city councils. And I think there needs to get an eye-opener.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jennifer, you have been covering, now, the drug wars and the criminal justice system now for years. Interestingly enough, when you and Elaine went up to Albany, one of the main obstacles to changing the Rockefeller Drug Law the Majority Leader, the Republican Leader of the Senate, Joe Bruno, had an unusual reaction. Could you talk about that?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Sure. We threw a book party in Albany to kick off the book tour this week with the hope of getting the book into the hands of all of the legislators. So, we had a party with a lot of free food and alcohol to try to get them to come and buy a book. We invited Senator Bruno to speak at it. He wasn’t able to make it, but he did agree to a meeting. In the book, he actually looks quite good. He only shows up for three sentences, but he did endorse Elaine’s clemency campaign. He did agree to meet with us. He agreed in fact to buy 100 copies of the book for all the state senators and staff members. I think Elaine and I fell off our chairs when he said that; but, it was the most fantastic news that’s happened yet and shocking. Who better to read the book morn than all of New York State Senators who have been sort of the largest hurdle to reforming of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you compare Elaine’s sentence — And there are many still in jail 16 years. — To the sentences of other people for crimes like, oh, say, rape and murder?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yes. Well, her sentence of 20 to life was in fact more than many people received for other serious, violent felonies: you know, like rape or armed robbery or manslaughter. So, I mean it was an unusually long sentence in a lot of ways; but in New York State, we have the nation’s toughest drug laws. B-level felonies, which is a lower level than what Elaine was convicted of, a B-level felony can be selling a bag of crack or — I’m sorry, a bag of heroin or a vial of crack, and is essentially similar to being convicted of manslaughter.

AMY GOODMAN: This is part one of our interview. I want to have you both back. I think one of the most amazing parts of this story, aside from your survival in prison, Elaine, is that you came out and could have left it behind you. You have never stopped campaigning for the people still behind bars with the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I’d like to come back and talk about this and the situation for other people around the country in prison today. Jennifer Gonnerman, author of “Life On the Outside, The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett”. And Elaine Bartlett, thank you for being with us today.

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