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Maximum sentencing, maximum misery

Review by Helen Redmond | August 6, 2004 | Page 13

Jennifer Gonnerman, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004, 368 pages $24.

LIFE ON the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett is an honest and, at times, infuriating account of how the criminal justice system destroys lives. At the age of 26, Bartlett was convicted of selling four ounces of cocaine for a drug informant who set her up.

Under the Rockefeller mandatory minimum drug laws, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The judge who sentenced her was nicknamed "Maximum John."

Bartlett was granted clemency after serving 16 years. The bulk of the book details what happened after her release. Without a job or any assistance to help her rebuild her life, Bartlett moves back to a run-down, crime-infested public housing complex.

While she was incarcerated, her mother and two brothers died, and her four children struggled to survive living with various family members. As a convicted drug felon, she can be denied public housing, student loans, a driver's license, parental rights, welfare benefits, many types of jobs and, in some states, the right to vote.

The parole system itself is an invisible prison. She can't leave the city without a pass, there's a curfew (usually 9 p.m.), she can't associate with other felons, and she must submit for random drug tests. Any violation can result in immediate arrest.

The strength of this book is that it makes clear that the real criminals are the "get-tough-on-crime" politicians, prosecutors and judges who sacrifice the lives of women like Elaine Bartlett for political gain.

The other power of the book is Bartlett herself. Smart and tough, 16 years in prison haven't humbled her or made her bitter. They've turned her into an activist to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. This is a first-rate exposé of the criminal justice system that leaves the reader more educated, incredulous and very angry.

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