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sentences to American jurisprudence. Brainchild of former governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the laws were passed in 1973, at the height of the heroin scourge in New York City. Under the new laws, judges no longer had the discretion to consider mitigating factors when sentencing defendants; they had to abide by the minimums established in the code. Early parole was also eliminated. The harsh new sentencing laws were designed to win the support of rural New Yorkers fearful of the spread of the blight afflicting Harlem, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. But more than that, the initiative was an effort to shore up the governor’s conservative credentials in anticipation of his fourth run at the Republican presidential nomination. As it happened, a short, ill-advised stint as Gerald Ford’s vice-president was the closest Rockefeller ever got to the Oval Office. His drug laws remain, however. Widely copied in state legislatures across the country, they have formed an enduring legacy. Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside is a powerful indictment of mandatory minimums, but the book isn’t just about the way New York locks people up. It’s also about what happens to the people who are left behind when somebody gets incarcerated, and what happens to prisoners once they get home. A book-length examination of this subject was long overdue. The nation reached a grim milestone in recent years: For the first time the number of persons incarcerated nationwide topped 2 million. The stark reality of that number has shamed even some conservatives into rethinking our national response to crime, especially drug crime, which has helped drive the total. Here is a less well-known but equally staggering figure from the other side of the equation: Every year 600,000 convicts are released from prison. There are now 13 million Americans who have served time. That’s 7 percent of the adult population. We are becoming, as Gonnerman writes, a two-tiered society, divided into those who have been locked up and those who have not. For those who have, the prospects for “re-entry” into society are bleak. Most leave prison with little education or job skills, and many have untreated substance abuse problems. An estimated 16 percent have a serious mental illness. Others will come out of prison with Hepatitis C \(which is epidemic tuberculosis. Increasingly punitive measures on the outside, meant to dissuade would-be offenders, are instead creating a kind of caste from which many ex-cons never escape. Felons are officially prohibited from living in federally subsidized public housing. From state to state, they may be prohibited variously from voting, obtaining student loans, driving a car, parenting their children, receiving welfare, or holding certain types of jobs. Forty percent will re-offend within three years. It is a caste with a distinct color: two-thirds of all ex-cons are black or Hispanic. For two and a half years, Gonnerman, a young star at the Village Voice, covered Bartlett’s efforts at rebuilding a life for herself and her family. Governor George Pataki corn If the drug war ended tomorrow, the prospects for Elaine and her children would not dramati cally improve. But that is not what we are meant to take away from this book. We are meant to understand that mass incarcer ation, that incredibly ambitious enterprise at which this country has excelled far beyond any other, is not part of the solution. By that measure, Life on the Outside is a masterpiece. muted Bartlett’s sentence after her case was taken up by the anti-Rockefeller drug law movement in New York and she became something of a minor celebrity. From her first day out, however, it was clear that Pataki’s pardon would not bring a happy ending to Elaine’s story. As the news cameras rolled, she was met at the Bedford Hills prison gates by her beloved son Apache. Just a boy when she was locked up, he was now 26 and had become the de facto head of the Bartlett household, following the death of Elaine’s mother Yvonne. Bartlett’s younger son Jamel was locked up, doing the first of many bits for heroin dealing. Her 19-year-old daughter Satara was mysteriously absent. The camera crew followed Elaine to a celebratory dinner, and then back to the apartment in which her kids had grown up in her absence. When she saw what was inside, unmistakable evidence of the mess that her children’s lives had become, she told the crew to turn the camera off. Nobody needed to see this. Except they did need to see it, which is the genius of Gonnerman’s project and the reason the book was nominated for the 2004 National Book Award. Elaine’s children were living in squalor. When Elaine, and later Elaine’s mother Yvonne, was in charge, order and a sense of family pride had prevailed at the Bartlett household. Now everybody seemed to have given up, as Elaine put it. Her youngest daughter Danae, a high school student, had gone to live with another family, stopping by the apartment only occasionally. Her older daughter, continued on page 20 1/7/05 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9