Locked Out by the System

Jennifer Gonnerman gets it right in her merciless look at the human fallout of New York's drug laws.

There is no more unsatisfying read than this book. Nothing much happens, no one learns anything, no conflicts are resolved, and few characters are even likable. The guilty escape punishment. Haplessness is treated like venality, cluelessness like malice, treachery like heroism. Unresolved trauma and clinical depression leap from every page. The book ends as it begins, poised on the edge of the next calamity, the next boneheaded decision, the next missed opportunity. At times, Life on the Outside makes you want to swear off non-fiction and take up residence in Danielle Steel's world, because Jennifer Gonnerman gets it right. With sharp reporting, she captures the merciless grind of one woman attempting to reintegrate into society after serving a draconian drug sentence. Her book should take its place among such classics of urban sociology as DuBois' The Philadelphia Negro, Fox Butterfield's All God's Children, and Carol Stack's All Our Kin.

In early November 1983, 26-year-old Elaine Bartlett, high-school dropout and welfare mother of four, agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine upstate for a drug dealer she thought was a friend. Though she lived hand-to-mouth, the $2,500 lure was partly to fund a lavish Thanksgiving family fete in her Harlem project apartment. But that dream evaporated when state troopers stormed the hotel room that police informant George Deets—the dealer she knew as Charlie—had procured for the transaction. Bartlett, with no criminal record and no ability to produce the $250,000 bail, ate her turkey dinner on lockdown.

Nathan Brooks, petty drug dealer and father of her two youngest children, having failed to dissuade Bartlett from the scheme, did the only thing he could think of: With gallant foolishness, he went along on the drug deal to protect Bartlett. But he ends up providing the book's first opportunity to sigh at the poignant futility of such lives: Nine weeks after the bust, Albany County Judge "Maximum" John Clyne dourly married the couple in his chambers, moments before sentencing them in his courtroom.

Because of New York's Rockefeller drug laws, Elaine's childish irresponsibility cost her 20 to life, Nathan's defeatist chivalry a minimum 25. These two self-destructive fools were treated like drug kingpins, yet they couldn't even afford lawyers. (Meanwhile, George Deets, the insatiable addict whose drug ring was responsible for a biweekly kilo of cocaine on New York's streets, remained not only free but well paid by the police and with his inventory restocked.)

Sixteen years later, as a result of ever-increasing calls to overturn mandatory minimums for low-level offenders, Bartlett experiences the only stroke of luck in her benighted life: She receives clemency from Governor George Pataki, leaves Bedford Hills prison, and returns home to New York City as a poster child for sentencing reform.

It's all downhill from there. Gonnerman wryly subtitled this book about life after long-term incarceration a "prison odyssey" because, as Bartlett soon realizes, she's simply "left one prison to come home to another." One in the flood of 600,000 prisoners released each year from our 30-year incarceration boom, Bartlett returns to an overcrowded, filthy project apartment and the four children who have grown up in her absence.

Reporting originally for the Village Voice, Gonnerman spent myriad hours shadowing Bartlett as she attempted to rebuild her life and her relationships with her children—all while lacking the life skills to manage her money, handle on-the-job conflict, or even use her health benefits. Unfairly demoted at her new job as a drug-treatment-center aide, Bartlett begins to show up inappropriately dressed and sullen—self-destructive protests, to be sure, but a far sight better than the penchant for fisticuffs she struggles to curb.

Humiliated by the brusqueness of the parole officer Bartlett now shares with her son Jamel (we pause here for that second sigh), she narrowly escapes returning to prison for refusing to cooperate with simple, though infantilizing, rules. Still, Bartlett is our best-case ex-con: not criminal by nature. College educated (albeit while in prison). Hardworking. Smokes dope but doesn't drink or do hard drugs. Concerned, if clueless, mother. Consciously engaged in self-improvement. And yet, we've failed her. We've left her to flail alone through the rest of her life between the anti-drug-law rallies she neglects her job to attend.

This book should be unsatisfying—we are still chronicling our failure either to prevent crime caused by lack of opportunity or to rehabilitate offenders. We spend $55 billion annually imprisoning our fellow citizens but only $100 million transforming them back into productive citizens. Nearly two-thirds are rearrested within three years—often because of minor parole infractions. Ex-cons are often denied access to public housing, the right to vote, student loans, a driver's license, parental rights, or welfare benefits. Given the low educational levels and high frequency of mental illness in this population, one wonders what our true aims are in this regard beyond keeping our jails full. Tales such as Bartlett's highlight what should be fatal flaws in the system.

We leave Elaine in mid-2003, in the fourth year of her release, having just been fired from her overtaxing, underpaid job and pouring more energy into her work as an anti-Rockefeller-drug-law activist. Jamel is, yet again, in jail; he became harder to monitor once they stopped sharing that parole officer. Only her oldest, Apache, has steadfastly avoided trouble. He builds his life around coaching basketball. Both daughters flit about the edges of the criminal underworld leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation. Bartlett has three grown children headed nowhere fast. She's 46 and living in public housing. Her refrigerator is usually empty, or nearly so, and she's still living hand-to-mouth. But at least she has managed to stay out of jail. So far. Gonnerman, bless her heart, calls that a triumph.