Pubdate: Wed, 19 Jan 2005
Source: Charlotte Creative Loafing (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.
Author: Nate Blakeslee
Note: Nate Blakeslee is a former editor of the Texas Observer.


Supreme Court's Reversal Of "Mandatory Minimums" Too Late For Some

Shortly before Thanksgiving 1983, a modest drug deal went down in a
beauty shop in Harlem. Elaine Bartlett, a 26-year-old mother of four,
agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine by train from New York City to

Bartlett was not a drug courier by trade. She worked as a hairdresser
and lived in one of Harlem's big public housing projects. A man named
Charlie stepped into the back room of the beauty shop one morning and
offered her $2,500 for one day's work. When she said yes, she had in
mind a huge Thanksgiving feast for her extended family and some new
furniture for her tidy little apartment. By the time she sat down to
dinner with her family again, 16 years later, it was in a household
ruined by years of frustration and neglect, and her children were no
longer really hers.

"Charlie," whose real name was George Deets, was a police informant,
retained by the state police in Albany to lure New York City dealers
upstate. It didn't matter to the cops that Bartlett was not actually
in the business, or that she had no convictions of any kind on her
record. In fact, everything about the deal was cynically contrived.
Deets and a partner named Rich Zagurski had worked on and off for the
cops for years, mostly to get themselves out of trouble following
minor drug busts. It was never hard to find somebody like Elaine in
Harlem, and the authorities in Albany didn't ask too many questions
about how they did it.

In this case, the pair set up the deal to get a friend and colleague
out of hot water, a service for which they charged their friend a fee.
While running this peculiar sort of brokerage, Deets and Zagurski were
also importing a kilo of cocaine directly from Colombia into Albany
every two weeks, and earning up to $1 million per year. In his
dealings with the police, Deets made no secret of his underworld

At trial, Zagurski was asked why he had cooperated with the police. "I
just feel that, you know, cocaine is at a bad level and I think that,
you know, it should be taken off the street," he testified.
Appearances had to be kept up, especially in Albany.

When Bartlett discovered the nature of the setup, she could not bring
herself to accept a plea bargain. That was a horrible mistake. New
York, that bastion of liberalism, had some of the toughest drug laws
in the nation. The sale of four ounces of cocaine, even for a first
offender, was punishable by a sentence of 15 years to life. Tried in
front of one of the state's most notorious hanging judges, Bartlett
was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Bartlett was sentenced under the so-called Rockefeller drug laws,
which introduced the concept of mandatory minimum sentences to
American jurisprudence. Brainchild of former governor Nelson A.
Rockefeller, the laws were passed in 1973, at the height of the heroin
scourge in New York City. Under the new laws, judges no longer had the
discretion to consider mitigating factors when sentencing defendants;
they had to abide by the minimums established in the code. Early
parole was also eliminated.

Rockefeller's drug laws remained on the books for a long time -- till
last week, in fact, when the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory
minimum sentences are unconstitutional. Widely copied in state
legislatures across the country, the Rockefeller laws formed an
enduring legacy. Elaine Bartlett's story is a prime example of how the
mandatory minimums initiative went terribly wrong.

Jennifer Gonnerman's Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine
Bartlett is a powerful indictment of mandatory minimums, taking a look
at what happens to the people who are left behind when somebody gets
incarcerated, and what happens to prisoners once they get home.

A book-length examination of this subject was long overdue. The nation
reached a grim milestone in recent years: For the first time the
number of persons incarcerated nationwide topped 2 million. The stark
reality of that number has moved even some conservatives into
rethinking our national response to crime, especially drug crime,
which has largely helped drive the total.

Here is a less well-known but equally staggering figure: Every year
600,000 convicts are released from prison. There are now 13 million
Americans who have served time. That's 7 percent of the adult population.

For those who have served time, the prospects for re-entry into
society are bleak. Most leave prison with little education or job
skills, and many have untreated substance abuse problems. Increasingly
punitive measures on the outside, meant to dissuade would-be
offenders, instead created a kind of caste from which many ex-cons
never escape. Felons are officially prohibited from living in
federally subsidized public housing. From state to state, they may
be prohibited variously from voting, obtaining student loans, driving
a car, parenting their children, receiving welfare, or holding certain
types of jobs. Forty percent will re-offend within three years. It is
a caste with a distinct color: two-thirds of all ex-cons are black or

For two and a half years, Gonnerman, a writer at the Village Voice,
covered Bartlett's efforts at rebuilding a life for herself and her
family. Gov. George Pataki commuted Bartlett's sentence after her case
was taken up by the anti-Rockefeller drug law movement in New York and
she became something of a minor celebrity. From her first day out,
however, it was clear that Pataki's pardon would not bring a happy
ending to Elaine's story.

As the news cameras rolled, she was met at the prison gates by her
beloved son Apache. Just a boy when she was locked up, he was now 26
and had become the de facto head of the Bartlett household, following
the death of Elaine's mother Yvonne. Bartlett's younger son Jamel was
locked up for heroin dealing. Her 19-year-old daughter Satara was
mysteriously absent. The camera crew followed Elaine to a celebratory
dinner, and then back to the apartment in which her kids had grown up
in her absence. When she saw what was inside, unmistakable evidence of
the mess that her children's lives had become, she told the crew to
turn the camera off. Nobody needed to see this.

Except they did need to see it, which is the genius of Gonnerman's
project and the reason the book was nominated for the 2004 National
Book Award. Elaine's children were living in squalor. When Elaine, and
later Elaine's mother Yvonne, was in charge, order and a sense of
family pride had prevailed at the Bartlett household. Now everybody
seemed to have given up, as Elaine put it.

Her youngest daughter Danae, a high school student, had gone to live
with another family, stopping by the apartment only occasionally. Her
older daughter, Satara, had dropped out of high school after becoming
pregnant. The despondent, non-responsive single mother was nothing
like the bright, bouncy girl Elaine remembered. Elaine's younger
sister Sabrina, addicted to crack and HIV positive, had also moved in.
She watched soaps all day and slept in the living room. Her presence
had forced the apartment's other residents to install locks on their
bedroom doors. Sabrina's 21-year-old daughter, who had an infant of
her own, was also living in the cramped apartment. Elaine had to share
a tiny bedroom with Satara and her daughter.

Elaine's daughters, unaccustomed to having a firm parental presence in
their lives, quickly came to consider their mother part of the
problem. Danae, a rebellious teenager in trouble at school, and,
Elaine was surprised to discover, a lesbian, rejected her mother's
overtures to rejoin the family. After a shouting match over living
arrangements in the cramped apartment, somebody, either Satara or her
boyfriend, called the police on Elaine. Though her sentence had been
commuted, she was still on parole, meaning she could be sent back to
prison at any time if she violated any of a laundry list of rules.
Getting arrested, obviously, would likely be disastrous.

Elaine had spent 16 years worrying about her children, dreaming of the
day she would be reunited with them. Now she found that -- despite all
the visiting room chats and letters over the years -- she had been
kept in the dark about what was really happening to her family. Her
daughters were depressed, bitter people, and she did not know them.
They blamed her, it seemed, for being gone so long. Elaine's own
sisters seemed to blame her as well, for refusing to take the plea
bargain, for being gone when their mother died, for saddling them with
her four children to raise on top of their own. Her son Jamel was a
gang-banger and a drug dealer who had earned the nickname "Murder
Mel." Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he would go to
prison himself. Only Apache, who had found his calling coaching youth
basketball, seemed to have his life together.

Elaine's efforts to find a new, larger apartment for her family went
nowhere. Elaine was told to move into a shelter if she wanted to be
bumped to the head of a waiting list. In the end, feeling unwelcome in
her own house, she did just that, packing up her things and heading to

Her hunt for a job was equally frustrating. Friends of her son Mel,
fellow drug dealers, helped her out with cash at first, but after two
months of a fruitless job search she was dead broke and desperate.
Elaine attended the mandatory how-to-get-a-job classes required by her
parole officer. Most of her fellow classmates -- all ex-cons like her
- -- were looking at a bleak future of cashiering at McDonald's or
janitorial work.

Unlike them, Elaine had some education and job experience. After 16
years at Bedford Hills, she had held virtually every job and taken
every class the prison had to offer, earning a GED and an associate's
degree in the process. Eventually, through the assistance of a heroic
social worker who was an ex-con himself, she landed a job as a
counselor at a halfway house for recently incarcerated drug addicts,
where her prison experience served her well.

Elaine Bartlett is a flawed heroine, and Gonnerman's gaze, to her
credit, is unflinching. Elaine is bitter about the years she lost and
consumed by feelings of guilt and resentment about what has become of
her children. On more than one occasion she loses control of her
considerable temper and punches her daughters, as though they were
fellow inmates at Bedford Hills. Still, the end of Life on the Outside
finds Elaine on what is, on balance at least, a hopeful trajectory.
Elaine's steady income allows her to move out of the projects. Through
Elaine's persistent ministrations, or perhaps through her mere
presence, Satara begins to come out of her shell. Danae gradually
accepts Elaine as her mother. Elaine finds love in a younger man who
dotes on her in the way she always wanted.

Elaine Bartlett's story played a key role in moving the debate on
mandatory minimums, and Gonnerman's compelling and moving account is a
call to arms for further reform. Mass incarceration, that incredibly
ambitious enterprise at which this country has excelled far beyond any
other, was, to put it mildly, not part of the solution.

Nate Blakeslee is a former editor of the Texas Observer.
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