Outside, continued from page 9 Satara, had dropped out of high school after becoming pregnant. The despondent, non-responsive single mother was nothing like the bright, bouncy girl Elaine remembered. She rarely left the apartment. Elaine’s younger sister Sabrina, addicted to crack and HIV positive, had also moved in. She watched soaps all day and slept in the living room. Her presence had forced the apartment’s other residents to install locks on their bedroom doors. Sabrina’s 21-year-old daughter, who had an infant of her own, was also living in the cramped apartment. Elaine had to share a tiny bedroom with Satara and her daughter. Elaine’s daughters, unaccustomed to having a firm parental presence in their lives, quickly came to consider their mother part of the problem. Danae, a rebellious teenager in trouble at school, and, Elaine was surprised to discover, a lesbian, rejected her mother’s overtures to rejoin the family. After a shouting match over living arrangements in the cramped apartment, somebody, either Satara or her boyfriend, called the police on Elaine. Though her sentence had been commuted, she was still on parole, meaning she could be sent back to prison at any time if she violated any of a laundry list of rules. Getting arrested, obviously, would likely be disastrous. Elaine had spent 16 years worrying about her children, dreaming of the day she would be reunited with them. Now she found thatdespite all the visiting room chats and letters over the yearsshe had been kept in the dark about what was really happening to her family. Her daughters were depressed, bitter people, and she did not know them. They blamed her, it seemed, for being gone so long. Elaine’s own sisters seemed to blame her as well, for refusing to take the plea bargain, for being gone when their mother died, for saddling them with her four children to raise on top of their own. Her son Jamel was a gang-banger and a drug dealer who had earned the nickname “Murder Mel.” Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he would go to prison himself. Only Apache, who had found his calling coaching youth basketball, seemed to have his life together. Elaine’s efforts to find a new, larger apartment for her family went nowhere. The official prohibition against felons living in subsidized housing was often overlooked in New York City, but the waiting list for a new residence was enormous. Elaine was told to move into a shelter if she wanted to be bumped to the head of the list. In the end, feeling unwelcome in her own house, she did just that, packing up her things and heading to a YMCA. Her hunt for a job was equally frustrating. Friends of her son Mel, fellow drug dealers, helped her out with cash at first, but after two months of a fruitless job search she was dead broke and desperate. Elaine attended the mandatory how-to-get-ajob classes required by her parole officer. Most of her fellow classmatesall excons like herwere looking at a bleak future of cashiering at McDonald’s or janitorial work. Unlike them, Elaine had some education and job experience. After 16 years at Bedford Hills, she had held virtually every job and taken every class the prison had to offer, earning a GED and an associate’s degree in the process. Eventually, through the assistance of a heroic social worker who was an ex-con himself, she landed a job as a counselor at a halfway house for recently incarcerated drug addicts, where her prison experience served her well. F4 laine Bartlett is a flawed heroine, and Gonnerman’s gaze, to her credit, is unflinching. Elaine is bitter about the years she lost and consumed by feelings of guilt and resentment about what has become of her children. On more than one occasion she loses control of her considerable temper and punches her daughters, as though they were fellow inmates at Bedford Hills. Still, the end of Life on the Outside finds Elaine on what is, on balance at least, a hopeful trajectory. Elaine’s steady income allows her to move out of the projects. Through Elaine’s persistent ministrations, or perhaps through her mere presence, Satara begins to come out of her shell. Danae gradually accepts Elaine as her mother. Elaine finds love in a younger man who dotes on her in the way she always wanted. There is hope in policy circles as well. After years of organizing and lobbying in Albany, reform advocates won a partial victory last month when the state legislature voted to amend the Rockefeller laws, reducing the length of the longest sentences and raising the weight thresholds in the code. As a result, some of those convicts, like Elaine, who got the maximum sentence will now be eligible for release. \(The legislature stopped short of restoring discretion slow and uneven, but the general trend in recent years has been toward a softening of drug laws across the country. Texas, for its part, recently passed a law providing for drug treatment, rather than incarceration, for some first-time offenders. Elaine Bartlett’s story played a key role in moving the debate on mandatory minimums, and Gonnerman’s compelling and moving account is a call to arms for further reform. At the same time, however, by virtue of the thoroughness and honesty of Gonnerman’s reporting, Life on the Outside also points up the limitations of the criminal justice reform movement. Elaine’s story offers a rare and valuable glimpse of daily life in the inner city, and it’s a sobering vision. Nelson Rockefeller did not create the cycle of poverty and desperation into which three generations of the Bartlett familyalong with 600,000 other souls living in public housing in New York Cityare mired. Likewise, if the drug war ended tomorrow, the prospects for Elaine and her children would not dramatically improve. But that is not what we are meant to take away from this book. We are meant to understand that mass incarceration, 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. Nate Blakeslee is a former Observer editor. His book on Tulia will be published by PublicAffairs in fall 2005. 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER .1/7/05
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