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PEP Jan. 2005
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Public Employee Press

Media Beat
Freed from prison, she finds her new life harsh

In her powerful book, “Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” author Jennifer Gonnerman wrote: “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.”

Ms. Gonnerman, a Village Voice writer, Elaine Bartlett and Lora Tucker spoke at DC 37 Oct. 25. Susan Bailey of the sponsoring Authors Talk Committee introduced the program: “This is the first major work on re-entry. Over 600,000 people are being released this year from state and federal prisons,” she said.

Under the super-harsh Rockefeller drug laws, Ms. Bartlett served 16 years of a 20-year sentence. Thanks to Ms. Tucker’s relentless efforts, Elaine Bartlett won clemency in 1999. (DC 37 and a statewide coalition fought to change the laws; as PEP went to press, the Legislature voted to ease the penalties.)

“This is a book about us. It’s about women. It’s about families,” said Ms. Tucker, who met Elaine Bartlett when she ran a program for prison inmates.

“Elaine came out of prison on a cold day,” said Ms. Gonnerman. “Her kids were grown and angry. She had no clothes, no money, no job, and no vote.”

Ms. Bartlett told of the toll her prison sentence exacted from her loved ones. “Your whole family is incarcerated. My siblings, my mother, my children did the time too. Most of the women’s kids end up in the foster care system. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who cared for my children until she died in 1998.”

“Life on the Outside” explores the difficulties that begin after the sentence is served. “I felt that the happiest day of my life was the day I got out of prison,” said Ms. Bartlett. But after she was rejected in 52 job interviews and many other hardships, her outlook changed. “I left one prison to enter another,” she said.

There are 70 prisons in New York State. “The book puts a human face on a phenomenon that has been largely ignored and in this way exposes the hidden consequences of our nation’s punishment policies,” explained Ms. Gonnerman.

“Life on the Outside” tells a riveting story. For more information, you can e-mail lifeontheoutside2000@yahoo.com

— Jane LaTour


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