Life on the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years in Bedford Hills prison for selling cocainea first offenseunder New York's Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning of January 26, 2000, when Bartlett is set free and returns to New York City. At 42, she has virtually nothing: no money, no job, no real home.
All she does have is a large and troubled family, including four children, who live in a decrepit housing project on the Lower East Side. "I left one prison to come home to another," Elaine says. Over the next months, she clashes with her daughters, hunts for a job, visits her son and husband in prison, negotiates the rules of parole, and campaigns for the repeal of the laws that led to her long prison term.
Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, says: "At a time when the prison-industrial complex is destroying African American families and neighborhoods, Elaine Bartlett is more than a survivor: she is a heroine. The future of our communities depends on women like her."
Rather than marshal statistics to flesh out an annual migration that may be the least-noted demographic trend of our time, Gonnerman focuses on the story of one woman, Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years in New York state prisons on a drug charge before being granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki. The result, a remarkably balanced triumph of immersion journalism, is as gloomy as it is enlightening. Michael Schaffer