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The Free World

Life on the Outside Chronicles One Woman's Struggle to Find Life After Prison

Emily Flake

By Scott Carlson | Posted 5/5/2004

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, clothbound

Take a close look at our country's education system and our prison system, and you might notice an interesting paradox. The quality of the public education system, which always seems to be fighting for money, earns the harshest scrutiny of any facet of government. If drop-out rates spill into the double digits, parents and officials wring their hands, and there is hell to pay at the Department of Education.

Meanwhile, state corrections departments routinely fail to "graduate" their prisoners and get them out in the working world. Yet no one seems to care, even though the prison population (and ex-prison population) has been burgeoning for decades. The United States had about 200,000 people in prison 30 years ago. Now, the prison population is above 2 million, and continuing to accelerate. What's more, recidivism rates--the number of prisoners who return to crime after release or parole--are staggeringly high because inmates often walk out of prison with inadequate educations and few skills. In short, "corrections" has simply become a euphemism for human warehousing, all but abandoning its role in reform, the programs for which have been consistently cut over the past couple of decades.

These problems form the heart and drive the narrative of Life on the Outside, a book about Elaine Bartlett's struggle to make a life for herself after 16 years in prison. Jennifer Gonnerman, the author and a reporter for The Village Voice, points out that the country's massive prison system currently ejects 600,000 prisoners, much like Bartlett, each year.

"Most ex-prisoners have no money, few job skills, little education, and a history of addiction," Gonnerman writes. "With little or no assistance, these men and women are expected to rebuild their lives and stay out of prison. Not surprisingly the odds are slim: Forty percent of people released from prison are back behind bars within three years because of a new crime or parole violation."

In Life on the Outside, through the portrait of Bartlett, Gonnerman attempts to document that common and often unsuccessful reintegration. And Bartlett is a good choice as a subject: Her tale is extraordinary, yet aspects of it are depressingly common. In the early 1980s she is trying to make ends meet, living in a housing project in New York, supporting four children and working at a salon. She then gets an opportunity to transport drugs from Albany for "an easy $2,500." It turns out that a police informant set up the deal.

The police and the informant "railroaded" her, as Bartlett repeatedly points out, accusing her of planning the deal. Because of the harsh drug laws in place, she gets 20 to life.

After 16 hard years and a high-profile campaign for her release, the governor grants her clemency. But as the title of the book suggests, she finds that the battle to survive on the outside is at times more difficult than life on the inside. She gets $40 upon release from prison. She has no prospects for a job, little experience, and no skills. She returns to a family that has been fractured by crime, drug abuse, and poverty. They live in a squalid apartment, her sister is addicted to crack, one of her sons is in prison, and her daughter is a terror at school. Bartlett must either pull herself together and get a job, or face the possibility of sliding back into a life that brought her to prison in the first place.

One would think Gonnerman's story would be rich material for a compelling and important tale. And it is, but not always in the hands of Gonnerman, whose skill with language and storytelling isn't quite as sharp as it should be. Her writing style is straightforward and plain--but also dull at times. Some reporters prefer an unadorned style to relate telling details and descriptions of powerful moments; with no regard for style, Gonnerman crams in detail at every possible moment, as if that would provide color to the narrative all on its own. So you get endless descriptions of what Bartlett is wearing or what she orders for lunch. You get pages of tedious conversation.

But you also get some remarkable sections and memorable moments, especially in the second half of Life on the Outside. As Bartlett struggles to find a job, she finds in the family she had longed to rejoin many millstones that are difficult to carry. As one of the final straws in dealing with her family, in the middle of the night, Bartlett's addict sister begins screaming about people eating her food in the refrigerator. Exasperated, Bartlett leaves with only her own resourcefulness to fall back on. When she turns up at a social worker's office and finds an empty desk, she sits down at the phone and poses as an employee, calling around to find housing for herself. She then finds herself living in a YMCA, where the unappealing local residents hit on her.

After coming to understand all this, the way in which Gonnerman has rendered Bartlett's story begins to seem more appropriate, if still difficult to read at times. After all, like most who leave prison, Bartlett is living a life of few grand dramatic events--those things that usually drive a book-length treatment--dealing instead with those challenges that are daily, enduring, and seemingly endless in number: finding a place to live, getting a job, and other struggles that advance one small triumph at a time. Gonnerman, through her relentless detail, does well to show all of the little things that can make these achievements seem Herculean. Uncommon grit and guts pull Bartlett through.

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