Life on the Outside, by Jennifer Gonnerman

Life on the Outside

Life on the Outside is the story of Elaine Bartlett, who was imprisoned from age 26 to age 42 for an exceedingly minor drug crime, sentenced under the Rockefeller drug laws in New York.

Indeed it would have been longer, but she received clemency and got out early, mostly due to the fact that she became enough of an activist to get some attention from the media.

The book describes where her life stood when she committed her crime, her time in prison, and her first two to three years back on the outside.

Gonnerman is a journalist who followed her around and practically lived full time with her in order to write this book, and before that a series of articles. This is not in any way a participatory journalism account, though, where she treats herself as part of the story. In fact it goes to the opposite extreme. The author is completely invisible in the story.

It’s a tough decision how to write the story in a case like this. You can say that you maintain the maximum realism as a journalist by not becoming part of the story, but the fact is her very presence meant that Bartlett’s first few years on the outside were surely different than they otherwise would have been, so to leave that out is to render the story incomplete.

Observation changes behavior. Even if you only write about the observed and not the observing, that’s still the case.

I’m not disagreeing with the author’s decision to write the book this way, just noting that there are points to be made for and against it.

For better or worse, the neighborhood, the culture that Bartlett comes from—and for that matter immediately returns to after prison—is really not much different from the conservative stereotype of the urban poor.

Almost everyone in Bartlett’s extended family is a mess. Most of them are involved in drugs to varying degrees. Several of them go in and out of prison repeatedly. Just about all the women start having babies in their teens and go on welfare. Conventional employment is more the exception than the rule. Finishing high school is uncommon; college is typically not even considered. They—especially the younger ones—seem to spend the bulk of their time hanging out, doing drugs, and bickering.

At times the book tries to make it sound like the dysfunction is attributable to Bartlett being taken away from them for sixteen years, leaving her children to be raised by other family members. But I don’t see much change in their style of life before, during, or after her time in prison.

Her mother is pretty badly messed up, but has some admirable traits. She makes an effort to take care of Bartlett’s kids while their mother is in prison, as well as other family members who come and go.

The older of Bartlett’s two sons seems like mostly a decent person, at least relative to this neighborhood. The younger is a hoodlum from before he even hits his teens. Her mother (his grandmother) tries to discourage him (mostly by beating him—violence seems to be the preferred method for teaching right and wrong in this subculture, in spite of the fact that the evidence for its effectiveness is sorely lacking), but eventually gives up, in part because the little kid is bringing more money into the household through his drug dealing than anyone else living there is making, and that gives him a certain amount of say so in the family.

Bartlett does have one sibling, a brother named Frankie, who is a clear exception to the general dysfunction of the neighborhood and the family. Alas, he’s the one who gets shot and killed.

I would say her boyfriend—eventually husband—is one of the more positive characters in the story also, as well as an even better example than her of someone unjustly victimized by the War on Drugs.

The whole “crime” stunk from the get-go, not that that’s in any way exceptional in the criminal justice system.

The cops were in cahoots with a medium-size drug smuggler, pretty much letting him do his thing as long as he assisted them in arresting others for drug crimes. It didn’t matter how big or small time the arrestees were—they were all smaller time than him—and for the most part it didn’t matter how he set them up; all that mattered to the cops were the numbers. They needed to make a certain number of drug busts to look good to their superiors.

So the drug smuggler, who had been hanging around Bartlett’s area for a while and was vaguely known, recruited her to assist him by transporting a package of drugs upstate to Albany for him, for which he’d pay her $2,500.

According to her at least, this was her first ever involvement in anything like this, though she wasn’t new to drugs—she was a regular marijuana user. Her boyfriend—who had gotten into some trouble for drugs awhile back but had been clean for an extended period—thought the whole thing was suspicious and didn’t want her to do it. When he couldn’t talk her out of it, he tagged along with her for protection.

When they arrived in Albany, they were met by the drug smuggler and went to a motel room together. They were there for several hours. Eventually Bartlett and her boyfriend fell asleep. After some more time passed, some other men arrived and negotiated a deal with the drug smuggler. Then they announced they were cops and arrested everyone. (The arrest of the drug smuggler was fake of course, as he was in on the entrapment.)

But apparently they figured just transporting the drugs wasn’t a serious enough crime, so the cops and the drug dealer then made up a story in court about how Bartlett had initiated the whole thing and had been the one negotiating a sale with the undercover cops in the motel room.

The boyfriend, who had even less involvement than her, got a longer sentence than her due to having priors.

No doubt some people would still judge her harshly, either as a criminal since she did in fact break the law, or at least as imprudent because whatever you think of the War on Drugs you should avoid running afoul of it since you know it includes harsh penalties for even pretty minor stuff.

To me that’s a stretch—and it would be considerably more of a stretch to similarly condemn the boyfriend. The way I look at it, it’s all pretty random and arbitrary. Almost every human being has done one or more things in their life as bad as succumbing to the temptation of $2,500 to deliver some drugs. Many have done things a lot worse. Yet the percentage who have to pay with decades of their life is tiny.

As extreme as the War on Drugs is, and as extreme as the Rockefeller drug laws and all the copycat laws in other states are, drug use is so ubiquitous, especially in some neighborhoods, that it’s still very much the exception that someone gets any kind of sentence like Bartlett and her boyfriend got for a low level drug crime. I mean, in raw numbers it’s a huge number of people, but the vast majority of people active in the drug subculture—or, again, the people who do things every bit as bad or worse than that—either never get caught and do time or they bounce back and forth between prison and the streets every few months or every year or two. When she and her boyfriend received the sentences they did, they were stunned, like it was way beyond what they had any reason to expect.

Considering how widespread drug use and drug dealing continue to be, all those harsh laws and policing techniques don’t seem to be very effective deterrents. So do they need to be even harsher, so that no one in Bartlett’s shoes could be surprised like she is when they’re sent away for much of the rest of their life?

Given our already insanely high incarceration rates compared to the rest of the world—including dictatorships—I wouldn’t think so. And thankfully things have gone slightly in the other direction lately, with the Rockefeller drug laws and others like them softened rather than made even more extreme.

Some might take the book—and maybe the author to some extent thinks of it this way—as a woman’s heroic struggle against injustice. There’s some of that, but to me Bartlett is never better than a mixed bag. There are times that I felt quite sympathetic toward her and impressed by her, but other times when what I was most conscious of is how she and the others in the book typically don’t rise above the cultural dysfunctions of their environment.

Like when she finally gets out and tries to re-establish her life on the outside, in some ways she shows self-discipline, strength, and more mature values, but in other ways not.

She doesn’t get back into drugs, at least that the book mentions, though at the very end when she finally gets off parole she celebrates with marijuana, whether as a one-time thing or something she’s now returning to as a regular habit I don’t know.

But aside from drugs, she’s pretty hit or miss with complying with the rules of parole. It’s like she adjusts a bit to conform to them, but doesn’t treat them as some kind of top priority where she’s willing to adjust in a big way to do everything by the book.

So mostly she goes to her mandatory meetings with her parole officer, but here and there skips one because she “forgot” or doesn’t feel like going.

To varying degrees she’s polite and cooperative when she meets with her parole officers—she has multiple, as they change one or more times—depending mostly on whether she likes them or not. Her attitude seems to be that if the parole officer is not being flexible and understanding with her, then her obligation to comply is lessened to that degree, when if anything being defiant and cutting corners with a hard-ass parole officer is more, not less, likely to land you back in prison.

She doesn’t routinely leave town or break her curfew in violation of parole, but she does sometimes. Again, it’s like the existence of such rules are a factor in her behavior, but not any kind of absolute. When she has family business or other things that matter to her that she thinks require her to leave town without permission or be out late at night, then she violates the rules, seemingly without much thought or hesitation.

She’s in violation of the law even living where she’s living as a parolee, since she’s not allowed to live in public housing. But that’s such a dumb rule—where are broke, poor people supposed to live when they get out of prison if not in the cheapest places?—that even the parole officers look the other way.

Even though she’s not on drugs, the apartment where she lives is the scene of routine drug use from her family and their various mates and friends and whoever else happens to be hanging out there, which is a huge parole risk since her parole officer can drop by anytime. But she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about it and doesn’t make much effort to change it.

So it’s not like the experience of all those years in prison shocked her into an attitude of determination of “it’s so unacceptable to me to ever go back to prison and ever be separated from my family again that I’m going to do anything and everything I can to avoid it,” which would mean consistently erring on the side of safety as far as things like parole rules.

Instead, she recognizes—and this is true in prison as well—that rules can be fuzzy, that rules are enforced with discretion, that you aren’t always going to get caught when you violate the rules, etc., and so she keeps taking it to the edge, doing whatever she can get away with so as to only make the adjustments to her habitual lifestyle that she absolutely has to.

I’m sure that’s not an uncommon attitude, and there are probably even things to be said in defense of that attitude, but many times reading the book my reaction was that I wish she’d show more urgency about staying out of trouble.

Or just about turning her life around in general, because it isn’t only a matter of parole violations. Just the way she lives her life on the whole when she gets out shows that same intermittent effort to make major positive changes interspersed with evidence that she really isn’t able to rise above the environmentally-instilled habits and attitudes people of her background tend to have.

So for instance she’s employed the bulk of the time she’s on parole, which already puts her ahead of the majority of people in her surroundings, and she shows some limited ability and willingness to sacrifice and make the necessary effort to maintain employment, but on the other hand you certainly can’t say she has an ideal work ethic or anything very close to it. She not uncommonly skips work or shows up late (while other times making a truly extraordinary effort to make it in to work despite various life crises and transportation emergencies). She’s quick to get indignant when she doesn’t get what she thinks she entitled to at her job, and she lets her job performance reflect that. She gets lax enough about her job to be demoted and eventually fired.

Money is hugely important to her prospects of taking her life forward (she desperately needs a better place to live, for example), yet at times she’s positively frivolous in her spending.

To me, her budgeting and spending priorities seems like a major weakness, though again some of that is relative to her culture, to the attitudes almost everyone around her has had toward money her whole life.

So I think almost all of us have blind spots in this area, just different ones. I’ve been middle class and below pretty much my whole life, mostly considerably below where I really have needed to be as disciplined as possible about my spending. But I’m sure you can pick out numerous respects in which I’ve spent money I really didn’t need to spend—I could have spent less on books, CDs, things like that; there are times I could have done without a car, etc.—so I haven’t been perfect in my frugality by a long shot. Plus certainly on the income side I haven’t taken advantage of every opportunity to make more money, even when I really could have used it.

So I don’t know that she’s necessarily all that much worse than me as far as throwing money away, just different. (Well, I guess I do think she’s at least somewhat worse than me, so I won’t be a total relativist about it.)

But some of the specifics make me cringe, even if it should be in a “Wow, she wastes money differently from how I do!” way, rather than just a “Wow, she wastes money!” way.

She’s living right on the edge, struggling mightily just to pay her bills, desperately in need of money to make her place less of a total dump—or better yet move—needing very much to save money for things like education and future emergencies, and yet on impulse she’ll spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on clothes and jewelry, way more than I’d probably spend in a decade on such things and I’m not nearly in as bad shape financially. But it’s a part of the culture she’s used to—and has not risen above—that “looking good” in some superficial, materialistic way is of equal or greater priority than paying your bills, having a reliable vehicle to get to work, whatever.

Or she, and the people around her, will run up cell phone expenses in a month that exceed anything I’d spend on that in a year or probably several years.

You see her conformity to her social environment also in her attitudes about dating, that it’s mostly about landing a man who will financially benefit you (and avoiding the far more common phenomenon in her circles of ending up with a man you have to carry financially). It’s all about a guy who is a fancy dresser, spends money on you, etc.

Or, again, you see it in the instinctive use of violence to impose one’s will. When she gets in an argument with her daughter, she hauls off and slugs her. Granted she isn’t happy about it, and she resolves to try to avoid doing so in the future, but there’s that sense that that’s what she’s used to.

Another respect in which she remains consistent with her past and her social environment—one that is arguably admirable rather than something it would be better to rise above—is a certain collectivism. There isn’t as much of a “save yourself” urgency in her or in most of the people in that environment as, say, I might feel.

In a lot of ways you can say her family drags her down, but she seems to have little inclination to escape from that. Her goal instead is to deal with it better, because there’s a certain commitment to family and to community that discourages “rising above” them or escaping from them.

Not that this leads to family members and people in the neighborhood treating each other particularly well. They lie to each other, steal from each other, talk about each other behind their back, etc.

But they don’t abandon each other. When someone goes to prison, others step in and raise their kids. When someone doesn’t have a place to live, they crash at someone else’s house. The few who are employed allow others to sponge off them. If you stock up on food, it will disappear soon enough as others help themselves to it. There’s that sense that if one person has a little something, it kind of belongs to everyone, that you shouldn’t refuse it to someone in need (with apparently very little emphasis on personal responsibility—you allow not just the responsible employed person who has helped you out in the past to take from you, but also your pregnant teenage daughter’s part time boyfriend’s dropout buddy who does nothing but hang around your apartment doing drugs all day).

They still complain about being exploited or treated badly, fight about it, occasionally blow up and kick somebody out about it, but then it quickly blows over and things return to “normal.”

In general as I think about the world of Elaine Bartlett, yes I agree with the thrust of Life on the Outside that the War on Drugs has been a miserable failure, that individuals and whole communities have been devastated by ridiculously punitive and at least unconsciously racially-motivated responses to drugs, that unconscionably long prison sentences don’t just affect the incarcerated people as individuals but whole families, and on and on. I’m inclined to be at least as liberal on such issues as before I read the book.

But I also feel like there’s enormously more wrong with communities like hers, and that a radical softening in drug laws and how they’re enforced is only going to be of limited benefit. Judging by how these folks live their lives, if you eliminate all those unjust aspects of the War on Drugs, you’d still be left with mostly miserable people with self-destructive lifestyles and little hope, who contribute next to nothing to the world.

In other words, society has much bigger problems to deal with in addition to—not instead of—opposing the War on Drugs. Whether you prefer conventionally liberal solutions, conventionally conservative solutions, or something else entirely, there is incalculable human potential going to waste in many of our communities, and much work to be done to change that.


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