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


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