Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, By Jennifer Gonnerman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,, 356 pp., $24
News stories and academic studies invariably list among the causes of urban violence the angry young men returning from prison to the streets -- primed to take up the criminal activity from which being locked up merely provided an interlude.
As Jennifer Gonnerman suggests in her compelling account of one woman's life after prison, of the 600,000 men and women released from prison each year, approximately 80 percent are placed on parole for some period of time. And, she writes, "even for ex-prisoners who stay out of trouble and get off parole, their punishment does not end. Today a felony record functions like an invisible scarlet letter, ensuring that former inmates are treated as outcasts whose debt to society can never be fully repaid."
Such, Gonnerman writes, was the lot of Elaine Bartlett.
Bartlett was 26, a self-employed hairdresser, and the mother of four young children when she was arrested in a sting for selling cocaine to a police informant, convicted under New York's punitive drug laws, and served 16 years in New York State's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
Gonnerman, who grew up in Sudbury, is a staff writer for The Village Voice, for which she has reported extensively on the criminal justice system. "Life on the Outside," a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction, grew out of stories recounting Bartlett's struggles following her release from prison and return to her extended family's apartment in a housing project on New York's Lower East Side.
Gonnerman reports the events that led up to Bartlett's arrest and incarceration, but the core of the book is the struggle to rebuild her life, the frustrations of parole, and her role as an anti-drug-law activist.
Bartlett appears more fortunate than many former prisoners; she was able to obtain a full-time job as as an aide in a residential drug-treatment program within six months of her release. For the men there, Gonnerman writes, Bartlett "was a role model -- a real-life example of someone who had made it, who had lifted herself up from the bottom of society and found her place in the workforce."
In her own life, however, she was trying to make up for lost time, looking for a boyfriend to replace the man she had been arrested with, who was still in prison. With the coming of warm weather, Gonnerman writes, Bartlett "had been conducting an experiment of sorts, trying to figure out how much sex appeal she still possessed." Finding boyfriends "had been easy" at 26, "but what about at 42?"
She was also spending too freely, buying clothes, furnishings, and gifts for her family. "You'll get all caught up in trying to please people," another former prisoner told her.
During her first year out of prison, Bartlett took part in 10 anti-drug-law events, including a march on Albany, N.Y., and rallies outside courthouses. "These rallies," writes Gonnerman, "were a necessary form of therapy for Elaine, a way to release her rage without using her fists."
With "Life on the Outside," Gonnerman has ventured onto treacherous literary turf. It is no easy task to convert a series of newspaper articles into a coherent book.
And it is even more challenging to attempt to examine a major social issue through the narrow focus of one person's encounter with it -- as not a few better-known writers than Gonnerman have found to their dismay. Gonnerman has successfully met the challenge with a sympathetic heart for Bartlett and an unblinking eye for social injustice.
"Nobody in prison," Gonnerman writes, "fantasizes about returning home to a low-wage job, a three-train commute, a pile of unpaid bills, an angry daughter, a son in jail, a 9 p.m. curfew, an empty refrigerator."
Such was Bartlett's situation on a bleak winter morning, three years after her release, walking to her job with three maxed-out subway fare cards in her pocketbook. But just going to work and staying out of jail, Gonnerman writes, "constituted a triumph for any former prisoner."