FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Reporter’s Account of an Ex-Prisoner’s Struggle to Re-Enter Society

by ELAINE CASSEL

In 2004, an estimated 600,000 people will be released from state and federal prisons. And in the near future, this number will increase exponentially — as persons who began serving long prison terms in the late 1980’s (for mostly drug offenses) return to their communities.

Criminologists are poised to study the challenges and problems facing those who attempt “reentry” into society outside prison. Meanwhile, Village Voice staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman has put a human face on the data with her compelling book, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett.

Bartlett served a draconian prison sentence for a first-time offense — and is now trying to put her life back together. She, and others like her, deserve our compassion and support — and Gonnerman’s book beautifully illustrates why.

Bartlett’s Plight: Sixteen Years in Prison for a Non-Violent First Offense

In November 1983, Bartlett traveled from New York City to Upstate New York to try to make a cocaine “drop” for a dealer. She hoped to make an “easy” $2,500 to pay some bills, and fund a big Thanksgiving dinner for her large, extended, and impoverished family. However, the intended recipient of the drugs was under surveillance and Bartlett was caught red-handed.

Bartlett, who was then twenty-six years old, was sentenced to twenty years to life, despite the fact that this was her first offense. She had to leave her children — infants and toddlers — behind.

Bartlett served sixteen years, during which she obtained a two-year college degree. (That achievement would be nearly impossible today, for the federal government has ruled that inmates cannot have access to federally-backed college loans.) She also struggled to keep in contact with her young children, and did so in spite of the distance between her upstate prison and their home in New York City.

In 2000, at the age of forty-two, Bartlett was released (Governor Pataki had reduced the sentences of some women serving long sentences for first-time drug offenses, including Bartlett).

Surely there are more enlightened policies that would serve to punish the likes of Bartlett while enabling them to support themselves and their families. Who would genuinely argue that a sentence 16 years for a first offense–when one is a mere carrier, not a dealer–is not disproportionate to the crime?

Bartlett’s Post-Trial “Reentry” and Readjustment to Society: Does Parole Help?

Sadly, Bartlett’s struggles only continued when she exited prison. And her post-release adjustment to date is typical of what inmates face as they try to “reenter” the society which has shunned them.

To begin, the transition from prison to freedom is itself hard. Self-discipline is a challenge when for years you have not been able to make many decisions for yourself. Years of being told what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake up make it hard for many — including Bartlett — to chart their own course after they are released, taking charge of their own lives to get up, get dressed, and go to look for work on their own initiative.

Probation officers are a mixed bag. Some insult and threaten the ex-prisoner; others are helpful.

On the whole, many criminologists endorse parole — at a minimum, it provides some structure and a person to look out for the former inmate.

Though the federal government and many states have abolished parole, New York still has the system. Bartlett had her share of good parole officers. Still, nearing the end of her parole period, she got fed up.

Indeed, in a battle of wills, Bartlett threatened her parole officer to find her in violation — urging the officer to give her a drug test to prove that she was, indeed, doing drugs. (Though Bartlett was no addict, she had taken to dabbling with drugs as she saw her dreams of a new beginning fade.)

Fortunately for Bartlett, the test came up negative. But her willingness to taunt the parole officer, and put herself at risk — as well as her dabbling in drugs, itself — reveal her precarious state of mind.

Bartlett’s problems are multi-faceted: mental, emotional, and financial. She struggles — and often fails — to keep a job, pay the bills, and hold her family together. (By the end of the book, two of her brothers are sentenced to long prison terms for drug-dealing.) Meanwhile, she also struggles to keep herself free from addiction (no mean feat, given her family and social history).

As Gonnerman’s book implies, Bartlett’s plight should stir us all to push for reforms in penal and social policies.

A Generation of Ex-Cons: How Will They Adjust When They Re-enter Society?

With the rate of incarceration continuing ,despite the decrease in violent crime, we are becoming a “prisonized” nation. (For more details, see my related earlier book review.) American incarcerates more people for more crimes than any civilized country in the world.

Imagine: No country — not Russia, not China, not even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, while it existed — has sent such a large proportion of its citizenry to prison.

In President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address, he threw a bone to these poor prisoners — promising to ask for money to help their “reentry.” Even the President is now acknowledging this has been, and will become, a huge social issue and problem. Can it be questioned that virtually throwing away hundreds of thousands of citizens a year diminishes a nation?

Elaine Bartlett deserved more from our system than what she got. Her sentence was terribly excessive and punitive. Now, she deserves help in her struggle to put her life back together — and others in similar situations deserve help, too. Gonnerman’s book is not only an individual’s moving, important story, but also a reminder of that societal truth.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. Her book, The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Have Dismantled the Bill of Rights, will be published by Lawrence Hill this summer. She can be reached at: ecassel1@cox.net

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
Steve Horn
What Do a Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66
Brian Saady
Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising
Luke Meyer
The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing
Binoy Kampmark
Adolf, The Donald and History
Robert Koehler
The Great American Awakening
Murray Dobbin
Canadians at Odds With Their Government on Israel
Fariborz Saremi
A Whole New World?
Joyce Nelson
Japan’s Abe, Trump & Illegal Leaks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump 1, Tillerson 0
Yves Engler
Is This Hate Speech?
Dan Bacher
Trump Administration Exempts Three CA Oil Fields From Water Protection Rule at Jerry Brown’s Request
Richard Klin
Solid Gold
Melissa Garriga
Anti-Abortion and Anti-Fascist Movements: More in Common Than Meets the Eye
Thomas Knapp
The Absurd Consequences of a “Right to Privacy”
W. T. Whitney
The Fate of Prisoner Simón Trinidad, as Seen by His U. S. Lawyer
Brian Platt
Don’t Just Oppose ICE Raids, Tear Down the Whole Racist Immigration Enforcement Regime
Paul Cantor
Refugee: the Compassionate Mind of Egon Schwartz
Norman Richmond
The Black Radical Tradition in Canada
Barton Kunstler
Rallying Against the Totalitarian Specter
Judith Deutsch
Militarism:  Revolutionary Mothering and Rosie the Riveter
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir Evoked a Lot More International Attention in the 1950s Than It Does Now
Adam Phillips
There Isn’t Any There There
Louis Proyect
Steinbeck’s Red Devils
Randy Shields
Left Coast Date: the Dating Site for the ORWACA Tribe
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bill Hayes’ “Insomniac City”
David Yearsley
White Supremacy and Music Theory
February 16, 2017
Peter Gaffney
The Rage of Caliban: Identity Politics, the Travel Ban, and the Shifting Ideological Framework of the Resistance
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Doublespeak: Israel’s Terrifying Vision for the Future
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail