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Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett Hardcover – March 15, 2004

28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

For two and a half years, journalist Gonnerman shadowed recently released prisoner Elaine Bartlett, providing an intimate glimpse into the multiple difficulties associated with attempting to reassimilate into a society that is ill-prepared and often unwilling to assist ex-convicts. Convicted under the unforgiving Rockefeller drug laws, first-time offender Bartlett served 16 years in prison for selling cocaine. Attempting to reconnect with her four children, find a job, and acquire decent housing were all herculean tasks for the undereducated yet fiercely determined Bartlett. Although undeniably attached to her subject, Gonnerman nevertheless paints a fairly objective portrait of both her strengths and her failings as she struggles to overcome and conquer societal pressures and expectations. Refreshingly and bluntly honest, Bartlett eventually achieves a personal triumph when she becomes an eloquent activist campaigning against the brutally harsh drug laws that dictated her lengthy sentence. Guaranteed to raise both eyebrows and awareness, this powerful testament to tenacity raises important questions about this nation's inadequately funded and poorly designed reentry system for paroled inmates. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (March 15, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374186871
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374186876
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #572,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By M. Shaffer on October 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I almost passed this book by because one of the trade reviews called it "artless". What a tragedy that would have been. The same trade reviewer questioned the use of shopping lists and other minutia of detail.

As a school board director, I can tell you that the most salient things are these details- particularly the writing samples, the better the writing sample is for a particular family member, the better the outcome of their life. Coincidence? I do not think so. This is hard evidence that skills matter.

Elaine Bartlett worked hard on improving her skills in prison. The tragedy is that she was not there to be able to usher those same skills in her children because the system removed her form their lives.

This book is an indictment on the Rockefeller Drug Laws-well-meaning though they may have been, they are a social disaster. They have and are continuing to destroy families. Many of the judges who initially supported them, have reversed their opinion. It is time to adjust the law for the social realities-after all, the Supreme Court found that prevailing Community Standards should be the standard. The Rockefeller Drug Laws are an outlier in the scheme of social norms.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book pulls you into the world of a woman who exposes every side of herself and her life - the good, not so good; tragic, and triumphant. It it a must read for any and everyone who is in human services, public policy, sociology...let's be real, for any and every human being. One does not have to totally identify with Ms. Bartlett to even learn and grow from this book. Ms. Gonnerman writes the book in "...words that we all can easily understand." moving one through so much information, one can not put it down....and the heroics of the people who were there for Ms. Bartlett! And her family! A testimony of true survival.
Great Read!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book actually blew my mind. I hadn't ever given much thought to our prison system. Bad people go to jail, right? Ms. Gonnerman has somehow been able to write a book that is fascinating, compelling, heart-breaking, infuriating, AND educational. I finished the book and immediately wanted more information about Elaine Bartlett and the status of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York. Fortunately, the author has also created a web site for those of us that want more information: [...]
I wish this book were required reading for all lawmakers, judges, lawyers, police and parole officers...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Brian on March 8, 2010
Format: Paperback
This book is the true account of Elaine Bartlett, and her life during and after a sixteen year prison sentence for drug possession, and encourages the reader to question the pragmatism and justice of such a severe sentence. It *is* obscene that Bartlett spent sixteen years in prison (at a cost of over $500,000 to taxpayers) for 4oz cocaine possession, while many more hardened inmates she met behind bars carried lighter sentences for violent offenses, including murder! The author, Jennifer Gonnerman, makes no pretense that Bartlett's personal history is average or representative of the overall inmate population. In fact, Elaine's experience is one of the more extreme examples of how New York's legendarily severe drug laws actually do more damage than benefit to the local community. The story should nevertheless give advocates of tougher drug laws pause:
Despite having no previous infractions in her life, in early 1984 Elaine stupidly allowed herself to be persuaded by a police informer (who initiated contact with her) to carry 4oz of cocaine from Manhattan to Albany. If anybody out there who has read this book has a law degree or similar training, I would love to hear how Elaine's arrest does not constitute entrapment. Leaving that question aside for the moment, Elaine was sentenced to 15 years-to-life for the conviction. Only through a series of unlikely circumstances was she granted clemency and released in January 2000.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Dan R. Beto on January 2, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Expertly crafted by Jennifer Gonnerman, this biography traces the life of Elaine Bartlett, a resident of a housing project in East Harlem, who at a young age was arrested for selling a small qualtity of cocaine to an undercover police officer in 1983. She was subsequently sentenced to serve 20-years-to-life under the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. From 1984 until she received executive clemency from Governor George Pataki, Bartlett spend the next 16 years in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where she initially experienced some adjustment problems before becoming a model prisoner. Following her release on parole in 2000, Bartlett returned to a dysfunctional and stressful life and to a world that had undergone substantial changes.

While she availed herself of some educational and self-improvement programs during her period of incarceration, Bartlett was ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of urban life upon her release. Saddled with a questionable value system, Bartlett experienced difficulty in finding suitable employment, managing her limited financial resources, maneuvering the social service system, avoiding persons with criminal records, reestablishing herself as the mother of her children, and providing some semblance of order to her chronically troubled family. Were it not for a few responsible friends, a forgiving employer, and an understanding parole officer, she would have likely found her way back into prison.

Despite her personal limitations and the challenges she faced, Bartlett survived her period of parole supervision and was discharged in 2003. According to the author, Bartlett celebrated her release from parole "by going to the apartment of a former coworker and smoking weed.
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