There are more than two million adults in prison today in the United States. Nearly all of them will be released back into society sooner or later, with most of those eventually returning to prison. How will they make it? Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, a powerful new book by Jennifer Gonnerman offers an unvarnished glimpse into the life of one of these former prisoners. It joins a growing list of literature emerging on the issue of prisoner re-entry.
Gonnerman is a staff writer for the Village Voice, and this book grew out of her reporting on the impact of mandatory prison sentencing for drug offenders in New York state. She met Elaine Bartlett in 1998 while interviewing prisoners serving long prison time for first-time drug dealing. Bartlett was 14 years into a 20-year term. Bartlett grew up in the public housing projects of New York. She was one of seven children in a family with no father. Two of her siblings would serve prison time; one would die violently. The others struggled with drug addictions or other urban ills, and most never finished high school. Bartlett would have four children by two men, one of whom was Bartlett's partner in crime. Upon release from prison, Bartlett struggles to find work, get reacquainted with children she does not know, maintain housing for her and her family and remain free.
Gonnerman's non-judgmental writing style allows Bartlett's story to unfold on its own. The story is compelling; the picture created is not pretty. Should drug-sentencing laws be reformed? Probably, but changing those laws provides no solution for individuals participating in a subculture that encourages families without fathers, easy access to drugs and a complete absence of work ethic in short, a purposeless life. Bartlett stays out of prison in part because of her dedication to reform drug sentencing; the tragedy is that most of her former prison compatriots will not. J. Campbell Green has worked with ex-prisoners for more than 20 years and previously managed a halfway house program.