Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett [NOOK Book]


A groundbreaking work of reportage on the hidden consequences of America's prison boom

Life On the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years in Bedford Hills prison for selling cocaine-a first offense under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning of January 26, 2000, when she is set free, having received clemency from the governor. At forty-two, Elaine has virtually nothing: no money, no ...

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Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

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A groundbreaking work of reportage on the hidden consequences of America's prison boom

Life On the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years in Bedford Hills prison for selling cocaine-a first offense under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning of January 26, 2000, when she is set free, having received clemency from the governor. At forty-two, Elaine has virtually nothing: no money, no job, no real home.

What she does have is a large and troubled family, including four children, who live in a decrepit Lower East Side housing project. "I left one prison to come home to another," Elaine says. Over the next months, she clashes with her daughters, hunts for a job, visits her son and her husband in prison, negotiates the rules of parole, searches for her own home-and campaigns for the repeal of the sentencing guidelines that led to her long prison term.

In recent years, the United States has imprisoned more than two million people while making few preparations for their eventual release. Now these prisoners are coming home in record numbers, as unprepared for "life on the outside" as society is for them. Writing with a passion and an empathy that recall There Are No Children Here and Cold New World, Jennifer Gonnerman calls attention to this mounting national crisis by crafting an intimate family portrait-a story of struggle and survival, guilt and forgiveness, loneliness and love.

Life on the Outside is a 2004 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.

Finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Rather than marshal statistics to flesh out an annual migration that may be the least-noted demographic trend of our time, Gonnerman focuses on the story of one woman, Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years in New York state prisons on a drug charge before being granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki. The result, a remarkably balanced triumph of immersion journalism, is as gloomy as it is enlightening. — Michael Schaffer
The New York Times
Most of this moving and well-reported book deals with Elaine's struggle to create a life for herself outside the prison walls -- by finding a job, a place to live, and by reconnecting with her thoroughly damaged family. This ground is familiar, but revelatory too, as when Elaine realizes that she has exchanged the prison behind bars for the prison that awaits ex-offenders who try to make it in the real world. — Brent Staples
Publishers Weekly
A Village Voice staff writer's feature-turned-book about the impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on one family, this narrative begs comparison with last year's bestselling Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Gonnerman has obviously done her homework. The story of Elaine Bartlett, a first offender sentenced to a staggering 16 years for drug trafficking, and the fate of her four children both during and after her incarceration, is told in encyclopedic detail, sometimes to a fault-including the entire texts of many letters, minutiae of clothing and even full grocery lists. Unlike LeBlanc's graceful prose, Gonnerman's style is utterly artless, occasionally to the point of awkwardness. But Gonnerman makes an excellent argument for the ways in which the New York criminal justice system, particularly the "tough on crime" measures imposed in the last three decades, fails poor and less educated people. She skillfully uses Bartlett, a tough, assertive woman who struggles to hold a job and keep her family together after their enforced years of separation, as an exemplar of the wide-ranging impact of incarceration on both ex-cons and the communities they leave behind, a social problem just beginning to be studied. This book takes its place as part of a current broad reconsideration of the war on drugs and the unprecedented prison-industrial complex it has created in America. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Compulsively readable account of a life wasted by the war against drugs but later reclaimed. Elaine Bartlett was a struggling 26-year-old mother of four when she impetuously agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Albany in 1983 on behalf of a dealer/informant who set her up to curry favor with the police. Rashly refusing a plea because it was her first offense, she received a 20-to-life sentence under the state's punitive Rockefeller drug laws. Village Voice staff writer Gonnerman constructs a propulsive, cleanly written narrative that considers Bartlett's plight in the larger context of how America's obsession with drug crime has blighted the prospects of multiple generations in the inner city. She documents Bartlett's 16 years in Bedford Hills prison: grappling with her rage, Elaine gradually became a model prisoner while educating herself about the drug laws, which seemingly existed to warehouse members of the minority underclass for nonviolent crimes. After intense lobbying, Bartlett was finally granted clemency by Governor Pataki in late 1999. She was determined to use her jailhouse celebrity to work on behalf of other Rockefeller law prisoners, yet soon discovered that a parolee's life in late-'90s New York was fraught with hidden pitfalls. Finding a well-paying job proved nearly impossible; her search for affordable housing was long and increasingly desperate. Elaine's cherished dream of finally being a mother to her children was also thwarted; she found they were young adults, raised in a volatile extended family and caught up with their own resentments and complications, including brushes with a criminal-justice system predisposed to go after the youthful poor.Gonnerman captures this angry urban milieu in clear-eyed, non-melodramatic terms. Elaine's story forces the reader to consider the toll exacted by myopic and effectively racist public policies that purport to address the social conundrum of illicit drugs in a market economy. Powerful stuff, grievously well rendered: Bartlett seems to be a remarkable survivor. Agent: David Black
From the Publisher
"Heartbreaking...moving and well-reported...Revelatory."—The New York Times Book Review (Front Page)

"[A] stirring and ultimately heartbreaking book on what it means to leave prison . . . A remarkably balanced triumph of immersion journalism."—The Washington Post

"[This] book should take its place among [the] classics of urban sociology."—Mother Jones

"Bracingly compassionate, quietly outraged."—Village Voice

"[It] will keep you reading through the night ....This book is a triumph of storytelling."—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429931564
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 323,531
  • File size: 508 KB

Meet the Author

Jennifer Gonnerman
Jennifer Gonnerman is a prizewinning staff writer for The Village Voice. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. Her article on which Life on the Outside is based won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2001.
Jennifer Gonnerman is a prizewinning staff writer for The Village Voice. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. Her article on which Life on the Outside is based won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2001.


Jennifer Gonnerman was previously a staff writer for The Village Voice, where she has reported on the criminal justice system since 1997. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, The Nation, The Source, Newsday, and many other publications. Her stories have won numerous prizes, including the Gold Typewriter Award for Outstanding Public Service from the New York Press Club. Her article on which this book is based won the Meyer Berger Award from the Columbia University School of Journalism as well as the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Jennifer studied at Cambridge University and received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1994. She lives in Brooklyn.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 24, 1971
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., Columbia University, 1994
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman. Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Gonnerman. To be published in March, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


An Easy $2,500



Twenty-six-year-old Elaine Bartlett cracked open the bedroom closet and surveyed her options. She picked out a T-shirt, a pair of Jordache jeans, a leather belt, and a brown knit sweater with suede patches on the elbows. She fastened a thin chain around her neck and slid a pair of gold hoops in her ears. Then she checked herself in the mirror. The day before, she had gotten a wet and set; the plastic rollers were still in her hair. She picked a beige silk scarf out of a drawer and tied it around her head.

Barefoot, she headed down the hall. She loved how the plush carpet felt between her toes. People had told her she was crazy to put carpet everywhere in her apartment, even in the kitchen, but she had been dreaming of wall-to-wall carpet for years. She had not been able to afford an interior decorator, of course. Instead, she had studied photos she had ripped out of glossy magazines. After seeing wall-to-wall carpet in the pictures of every celebrity's home, she had been determined to settle for nothing less.

There had not been enough money to buy furniture for every room, but she was especially proud of the living room, which she had done all in white: three white leather sofas, a white leather bar (even though she didn't drink), and, of course, white carpeting. Around the perimeter were statues: a tiger, an elephant, a giraffe. There was also plenty of glass. The record player had glass doors, and there were two glass tables. Not long ago, there had been three glass tables, including one with a zebra statue atop it. Then one day, her younger son, Jamel, had decided to play cowboy, jumped on top of the zebra, and crashed through the glass.

Friends had warned her about decorating her apartment with so much glass when she had four young children, but she hadn't listened. She thought her home looked glamorous. Anyone who saw a photograph of it certainly would not think she was broke, and that was precisely the point. Reality, of course, was a different story. Her apartment was located in the Wagner Houses, a large city housing project in East Harlem. Her rent was only $127, but she scrambled every month to make the payment.

To support her family, she collected welfare and worked off the books at a beauty parlor. Some nights she also poured drinks at a local bar. Still, the cost of caring for her four children-of buying food, clothes, and diapers-regularly exceeded her income. She got a little help from her boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, the father of her two daughters, but he was often in jail. As for the carpet and furniture, she hadn't actually paid for them all by herself. She'd had them on lay-away for almost two years, then convinced her best friend, a drug dealer named Littleboy, to pay the rest of the bill.

Every year, her scramble for money intensified in the weeks before Thanksgiving. Today was November 8, 1983; Thanksgiving was only sixteen days away. Organizing a huge feast was a Bartlett family tradition, and this year she wanted to invite everyone over to her place. Now that she had all this new furniture, she was eager to show it off. The party promised to be expensive, but in recent weeks she had stumbled upon a plan to earn some extra cash.

All weekend long, Nathan had told her that her plan was a mistake. "It doesn't sound right," he'd said over and over. But now she did not have time to discuss the matter anymore. She dressed her daughters, three-year-old Satara and one-year-old Danae. Then she took them over to Nathan's mother, who lived next door. Her sons, ten-year-old Apache and six-year-old Jamel, were already at her own mother's apartment downtown. It was nearly 8:00 a.m.: she had to hurry. As Nathan watched, she grabbed her pocketbook and marched out.

Most mornings, she headed to work, walking north three blocks, then west on 125th Street until she reached the 125 Barber Shop and Beauty Shop. Often she had at least two children with her. She could never make it down those four long blocks on 125th Street without sparking a small commotion. "Hey, Big Red!" the country boys would shout when she strolled by, "See her calves? She got good strong calves. She's a breeder. She can have some more kids. She ain't finished yet."

The men on the street always called her "Big Red"—the same nickname they gave every big-boned, light-skinned woman. The name stuck. Everyone at the beauty parlor called her Big Red, too. All day long, customers appeared in the doorway and asked, "Is Big Red in?" Four barber chairs filled the front of the shop, and a row of shoe-shine stands lined one wall. Elaine's customers knew that to get to the beauty parlor, they had to walk through the barbershop and into a back room.

She had been working here for nearly nine years, though she did not have a hairdresser's license. She rented a booth for fifty-five dollars a day, then kept everything else she earned. On a good day, she left with two or three hundred dollars.

While she worked, her children played at the arcade next door, with the older children minding the younger ones. Whenever they needed more quarters, they sprinted through the barbershop to find her. And whenever she got a break, she went next door, joining them in a game of Pac-Man or Frogger.

The barbershop was always buzzing with the news of the day. Nicky Barnes, the notorious drug kingpin, had been testifying recently in court, squealing on his former business partners. One year earlier, the movie 48 Hours had opened, and some people were calling Eddie Murphy the new Richard Pryor. And now Jesse Jackson had just announced that he was going to run for president. To most people here, he was far more appealing than the current crop of politicians: Mayor Koch, Governor Cuomo, and President Reagan.

Like many businesses along 125th Street, this barbershop was a magnet for anyone trying to make a dollar. Numbers runners stopped in all day long, taking bets from employees and customers alike. Boosters parked a van out front and walked in with armloads of stolen goods: sneakers, boots, underwear, cosmetics, socks, radios, even slabs of meat. Elaine rarely had to go shopping anymore; everything she needed, she could buy here for discount rates.

Almost everyone who came into the beauty parlor was black. One of the few exceptions was Charlie. He was the friend of a coworker, and he stopped in all the time. Elaine figured he had some sort of hustle, just like everybody else. Maybe he was a numbers runner; maybe a small-time drug dealer. She had seen him at parties, and he was always getting high. Although she'd known him for only a few months, she considered him a friend.

Charlie knew Elaine was always looking for a way to make some extra money. Four days earlier, at 10:30 on a Friday evening, he had visited her apartment to talk about a deal he wanted her to do for him. While her boyfriend Nathan was in the back room, Charlie had spelled out his plan. He knew a couple of people in Albany who wanted to buy a package of cocaine, but they didn't want to come to New York City. If she carried the package to Albany, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away, he would pay her $2,500. The way he described it, the plan sounded perfectly simple.
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Table of Contents

The Bartlett Family Tree viii
Prologue 3
Part 1 An Easy $2,500 (1983-1984) 13
Part 2 Thirty-five Miles from Harlem (1984-2000) 71
Part 3 Life on the Outside (2000-2001) 157
Part 4 A Second Homecoming (2001-2003) 271
Epilogue 339
Author's Note 347
Selected Bibliography 351
Acknowledgments 355
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2007

    Heartbreaking Story

    This book reveals the injustices of the war on drugs and the lucridity of believing that locking up individuals for non-violent drug offenses is best for this society. Elaine's story is harrowing and poignant. It's the story of a woman trying to reclaim her life after being in prison over 15 years. I'm glad her story is being told.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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