Compulsively readable account of a life wasted by the war against drugs but later reclaimed.
Elaine Bartlett was a struggling 26-year-old mother of four when she impetuously agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Albany in 1983 on behalf of a dealer/informant who set her up to curry favor with the police. Rashly refusing a plea because it was her first offense, she received a 20-to-life sentence under the state’s punitive Rockefeller drug laws. Village Voice staff writer Gonnerman constructs a propulsive, cleanly written narrative that considers Bartlett’s plight in the larger context of how America’s obsession with drug crime has blighted the prospects of multiple generations in the inner city. She documents Bartlett’s 16 years in Bedford Hills prison: grappling with her rage, Elaine gradually became a model prisoner while educating herself about the drug laws, which seemingly existed to warehouse members of the minority underclass for nonviolent crimes. After intense lobbying, Bartlett was finally granted clemency by Governor Pataki in late 1999. She was determined to use her jailhouse celebrity to work on behalf of other Rockefeller law prisoners, yet soon discovered that a parolee’s life in late-’90s New York was fraught with hidden pitfalls. Finding a well-paying job proved nearly impossible; her search for affordable housing was long and increasingly desperate. Elaine’s cherished dream of finally being a mother to her children was also thwarted; she found they were young adults, raised in a volatile extended family and caught up with their own resentments and complications, including brushes with a criminal-justice system predisposed to go after the youthful poor. Gonnerman captures this angry urban milieu in clear-eyed, non-melodramatic terms. Elaine’s story forces the reader to consider the toll exacted by myopic and effectively racist public policies that purport to address the social conundrum of illicit drugs in a market economy.
Powerful stuff, grievously well rendered: Bartlett seems to be a remarkable survivor.