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Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlettby Jennifer Gonnerman
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
Elaine Bartlett strutted the last few yards to the prison's front door and stepped out into the brisk winter air. This morning, she had made every effort to look good. She wore an electric-purple pantsuit, black suede boots, and several coats of lavender glitter nail polish. Snowflakes landed on her trench coat, but she did not pause to brush them off. As quickly as her three-inch heels would permit, she marched down the icy asphalt driveway.
Once she passed through the front gate, she headed straight for a young man in a gray parka. She dropped her pocketbook on the snow, and threw her arms around him. The two embraced for nearly a minute, rocking back and forth. Nothing could distract them. Not the shrieks of friends and relatives greeting two other women. Not the prison guard standing three feet away. Not the rifle in the window of the watchtower above them.
Elaine placed her hands on her son's cheeks, kissed his lips, then raised herself on her tiptoes and hugged him once more, this time wrapping her arms around his neck. He held her tightly, too, as if to ensure they would never be separated again. Neither of them wanted to rush this reunion. After all, they had been waiting for this moment for sixteen years, two months, two weeks, and four days. By the time they finally let go of each other, there was a smudge of cranberry lipstick on the collar of his parka.
Elaine had been twenty-six years old when she arrived at this prison in 1984, with a 20-to-life sentence for selling cocaine. Before her arrest, she had been living in a housing project in East Harlem with Apache, then ten, and he three younger children, ages six, three, and one. Now all her children were grown, and the three oldest each had a child of their own.
At forty-two, Elaine no longer looked the same as she had when she first came here. The prison's starchy diet had added a few pounds to her five-seven frame. A fresh dye job hid her gray roots. Her once-prominent cheekbones had disappeared, and he eyes were puffy. She looked as if she hadn't had a good night's sleep in years.
Apache didn't look the same either, of course. When she left him, he had been a skinny ten-year-old with a mop of curls. Now he was six-foot-two and weighed 210 pounds. He had a mustache, a receding hairline, and a sliver stud in his left ear. He dressed like any other twenty-six-year-old, but there was a heaviness about him that made him seem much older.
As the oldest child, he had tired to fill his mother's role ever since she had left, struggling to raise his younger brother and sisters while still a child himself. Over the years, he had come to this maximum-security prison in Westchester County more time than he could remember---maybe sixty or seventy, maybe a hundred. Usually he brought his sisters, Satara and Danae, with him.
"Where's Tara and Nay-nay?" Elaine asked, referring to them by their nicknames.
"Tara is asleep and Nay-nay is in school," Apache said.
Elaine's smile disappeared. She considered grilling Apache about why they had no come, but then thought better of it. At the moment, she did not need to be reminded of any family tensions.
Glancing across the road, she saw a row of television camera tripods stuck in a snowbank. She knew they were there for her and the two other women who had just been released. One month earlier, two days before Christmas, Governor George Pataki had granted clemency to the three of them, shaving a few years off each of their sentences so they could go home early. Of the state's seventy thousand prisoners, they were the only ones who had received clemency.
Elaine linked her fingers with Apache's and led him toward the cameras. In all their hours together in the prison visiting room, he had never allowed himself to break down in front of her. Her daughters and mother had cried often, but he never did. Elaine heard that he sometimes cried on the ride home, but she never saw his tears.
This morning, though, his eyes looked watery. Once they crossed the road, she kissed his right cheek, then pressed her face against the crook of his neck. The next time she glanced up, she saw tears starting down his cheek. She reached up to hold his face in her palms, then used her thumbs to brush the tears away.
"Hey," she said. "It's going to be all right."
For both of them, this morning represented much more than a long-awaited reunion. It marked an enormous shift in responsibility. Now the burden of trying to hold their family together would no longer be his alone. After Elaine returned home, he would not have to play the role of parent to Satara and Danae anymore.
"Congratulations," said a WCBS-TV reporter, pointing his microphone toward Elaine. "What are your thoughts after coming out after so many years?"
"I waited for so long that I'm just thankful the governor gave me my life back," she said, draping one arm around Apache's shoulders. "Today, my life starts again."
Arriving at this prison in the back of a sheriff's van, watching the metal gate open and then close behind her, she felt as if she had died. Nobody inside the prison seemed to care that she had never been arrested before, or that she had left behind four small children. All that mattered were two numbers: the length of her sentence and the ID on her shirt, 84-G-0068.
Now, standing outside the prison's gates, licking snowflakes off her lips, feeling her son's head on her shoulder, she began to feel alive. No longer was she merely a number. Now she was Elaine Bartlett once again.
"What's the first thing you're going to do when you get home?" the reporter asked.
"I'm going to enjoy my family and hold them and just show them how much love I've carried all these years, and let them know that without them I wouldn't have made it," she said.
"Do you feel that society will let you live down your crime when you leave here? Are you worried about people judging you?"
"I'm not worried about them judging me. Even though I went through a lot of pain and suffering, I took everything good as well as bad and I'm bringing that out with me. So I can stand her and say I am very proud of the woman I am today, that I was able to keep a bond with my family despite being incarcerated and be the best mother I could be from behind these walls."
Elaine did not reveal her ambitions to the reporters circling around, but when she was alone with Apache, she poked him under the chin. "Hold your head up," she said. "I'm very proud of you, and I'm going to make you very proud of me." As if to reinforce her point, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "We're going to change the whole cycle of the Bartlett family for the next generation," she said.
She was determined to keep not only herself out of prison but everyone else in her family, too. It would not be easy. Prison, drugs, poverty, and violence had all been part of her family for as long as she could remember. At the moment, she had two brothers in the state prison system and her younger son was on Rikers Island, awaiting trial in a drug-conspiracy case.
While she was in prison, she had earned a two-year college degree. Now she wanted the same for her children and grandchildren---for them to finish high school and for at least a few of them to go to college, too. She knew that Apache would be her biggest ally in this campaign. He had never gone to prison, did not use drugs, and had never even tried marijuana. Recently, he had started working as a basketball coach at a Catholic high school in Manhattan.
The reporters packed up their equipment and headed for their cars, but Elaine was not ready to go. She slipped off her trench coat and swung it over one shoulder. Then she pranced back and forth atop the wet snow in the parking lot, showing off her new pantsuit and her high-heeled boots. Just in case anyone was watching from the prison's windows, she wanted to make sure they got a good look. Whenever anyone talked about her in the future, she wanted them to recall how she strutted out of here with her head held high.
"Do you like my outfit?" she asked the smattering of people who were left. "I'm a free woman now. It's all good."
After collecting a few more compliments, she strode over to a van in the parking lot. Her friend Lora Tucker sat behind the steering wheel. Elaine slid into the back, next to Apache. The van lurched out of the parking lot, and a few minutes later, they were all hurtling down the Saw Mill River Parkway, heading south toward her welcome-home party.
"I cannot believe it," Elaine said. "I did not think I was going to survive this." She grabbed Apache's hand and curled her fingers around his. "It's all over," she said. "No more sleepless nights, right?" She reached over and stroked his cheek. "No more sleepless nights."
After so many years in prison, being able to touch her son felt like a luxury. She no longer had to brace herself for that dreaded moment when a guard would walk toward them and say, "Hurry up. You've got five minutes." In the backseat of the van, she kept her fingers entwined with his. Only by holding on to him could she make this moment feel real, and convince herself that freedom was no longer just a dream.
In America's cities, former prisoners are everywhere. Seated across from you on the subway. Pushing the cart next to yours in the supermarket. Standing behind you in line at the movies. It is impossible to pick out these ex-prisoners, of course. Once they are no longer required to wear cotton jumpsuits or ID cards pinned to their chests, they look just like everybody else.
The reality is inescapable: America has become a nation of ex-cons. Thirteen million people have been convicted of a felony and spent some time locked up. That's almost 7 percent of U.S. adult residents. If all of these people were placed on an island together, that island would have a population larger than many countries, including Sweden, Bolivia, Senegal, Greece, or Somalia.
In some ways, America's transformation into a nation of ex-cons is not surprising. In the 1970s and 1980s, a nationwide "war on drugs," combined with tougher sentencing policies, laid the groundwork for an unprecedented prison boom. Since 1970, the number of people in U.S. prisons has grown more than six-fold. In 2002, the nation's jail and prison population exceeded two million for the first time.
There is another side to this prison boom story that few people have wanted to talk about: Almost everybody who goes to prison eventually comes home. The same legislators who called for tough-on crime laws rarely considered the long-term consequences of locking up so many people. And so, as America's prison population ballooned, there were few preparations made for the day when nearly all these prisoners would be set free.
Our nation's prisons now release more than 600,000 people a year. That's more than the entire population of Boston, Seattle, or Washington, D.C. And this number continues to grow, fueling an invisible exodus: men and women leaving their prisons and moving back to the places where they once lived.
Most prisoners come from urban areas, and most return to the same neighborhoods they left. Thirty thousand prisoners return to Los Angeles County every year. Twenty thousand return to New York City. Fifteen thousand go back to Chicago. With these cities, ex-prisoners are usually concentrated in just a few neighborhoods, places like the South Side of Chicago or Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Men and women come back from prison changed people. They carry scars, visible and invisible, from their years behind bars. Some come home with HIV or Hepatitis C or tuberculosis. They have new friends, new enemies, maybe a new gang affiliation. All the frustration and rage that has built up inside them while they were locked up comes home with them, too.
In prison, they may have kicked an addition, or they may have picked up a drug habit they'd never had before. They may have acquired a new resolve to abandon their criminal ways and turn their lives around. Or they may have learned from other prisoners how to become a better criminal---a more skilled car thief or dope dealer or gunrunner.
Most ex-prisoners have no money, few job skills, little education, and a history of addiction. An estimated 16 percent suffer from a serious mental illness. With little or no assistance, these men and women are expected to rebuild their lives and stay out of prison. Not surprisingly, the odds of success are slim: Forty percent of people released from prison are back behind bars within three years because of a new crime or a parole violation.
Eighty percent of people leaving prison are supervised by parole officers. In many ways, parole functions as a sort of invisible prison. Parolees cannot get high, skip appointments with their officers, stay out past curfew, socialize with other felons, or leave town without permission. Any violation of these or many other rules could earn them a try back to jail.
Even for ex-prisoners who stay out of trouble and get off parole, their punishment does not end. Today a felony record functions like an invisible scarlet letter, ensuring that former inmates are treated as outcasts whose debt to society can never be fully repaid. By law, former prisoners in some states may be denied public housing, student loans, a driver's license, parental rights, welfare benefits, certain types of jobs, as well as the right to vote.
These myriad restrictions have transformed America into a two-tier society, in which millions of ostensibly free people are prohibited from sharing rights and privilege enjoyed by everybody else. The division between these two worlds falls along lines of race and ethnicity. Nearly two-thirds of people leaving prison are African American or Hispanic.
Nowadays, almost every criminal-justice dollar is spent on locking people in prisons and keeping them there---and very little is spent on transforming them back into civilians. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice did allot $100 million to state prison agencies to prepare inmates for their release. This is a marked change from the past, but it is still a minuscule amount compared to the $55 billion spent annually on the entire prison system.
In the last few years, the phenomenon of people leaving prison has becomes a popular topic in academic and criminal-justice circles, where it is referred to as "reentry." Experts debate the subject at national conferences; trade journals publish papers on it. These public discussions usually leave out the voices of former prisoners, relying instead on statistics. But the true story of America's exodus of ex-cons cannot be told only with numbers.
Coming home from prison is about learning to control your temper without using your fists. It's about finding a place to sleep. It's about remembering how to feed yourself. It's about accumulating a wardrobe. It's about rediscovering the opposite sex. It's about finding a way, legal or illegal, to make money. It's about trying to earn respect from the children you abandoned.
This book illuminates the hidden journey home from prison by documenting one woman's experience. In some ways, Elaine Bartlett is not representative of people leaving prison. Eighty-eight percent are male. Very few have earned a college degree. And virtually nobody wins clemency. The average prison term is twenty-five months---must shorter than the sixteen years Elaine spent behind bars.
In other ways, though, she is typical. Like about one-third of prisoners coming home, she served time for a drug crime. Like nearly half of all inmates, she is African American. And like the vast majority of people who go to prison, she grew up in poverty.
This book chronicles Elaine Bartlett's odyssey, from the streets to prison and back again. Parts One and Two recount how she got into the prison and how she got out, covering the period from 1983 to 2000. Parts Three and Four follower her after she returns home, from 2000 to 2003, detailing her efforts to begin her life once again.
While no one prisoner's homecoming story is truly representative, there are many common threads. Often this story is actually two tales. There is a solitary journey of the ex-prisoner returning to a changed world. And if she is fortunate enough to have relatives waiting for her, there is the family's story, too.
Just as Elaine's imprisonment permanently altered the lives of her four children, her homecoming also changed their lives. This book is about all that they, too, endured. In the end, it is the story of the Bartlett family---a story about not only prison and poverty, but also departures and reunions, dreams and disappointments, loneliness and love.
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