Despite only being a courier and having no previous record, in 1984 Elaine Bartlett was given a sentence of twenty years and classified as a hard-core criminal under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Bartlett is the subject of the book “Life on the Outside, The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett” by Jennifer Gonnerman. Speaking Monday to an audience of 30 people at Yale Bookstore, the two discussed the difficulties that ex-convicts encounter upon emerging from prison, as well as other problems with the criminal justice system.
Reading from the prologue of the book, Gonnerman lamented the massive population of ex-prisoners in American cities.
“Thirteen million people have been convicted of a felony and spent some time locked up,” Gonnerman read. “The War on Drugs laid the foundation for an unprecedented prison boon — But the reality is that a prison record functions like an invisible scarlet letter when you are released.”
After being released from prison, Bartlett became a vocal advocate against what she calls harsh drug laws and founded Community League of the Heights, an organization dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system.
“I want the legislators to know that when you incarcerate a person, you incarcerate the family too,” Bartlett said. “When we vote for legislators, we need to think about that they are supposed to serve the community, even the poor community.”
After 16 years behind bars Bartlett was granted clemency by New York State Governor George Pataki ’67. But Bartlett said her punishment did not end after being released from jail. She said horrible social stigmas pervade one’s life as an ex-convict. Similarly, Bartlett decried the lack of resources available to help people reintegrate into society.
“I thought that the day that Governor Pataki granted me clemency would be the happiest day of my life,” Bartlett said. “But I found that my family had created its own type of prison on the outside.”
In addition to working for reform of the prison and parole system, Bartlett has rallied against New York’s Rockefeller Drug laws. The current statutes are designed to target drug kingpins, with minimum sentencing laws being based on the amount of drugs in possession, and not an individual’s actual role in the organization. According to Bartlett, the legislation has not had the desired effect, because poor and desperate people are the ones who actually being convicted.
She explained that the Rockefeller laws do not work because they target the wrong people, and do not employ preventative measures. Additionally, they do not help people improve their quality of life or give them a legal way to earn a living.
“They seem to think that we teach our children to sell drugs,” Bartlett said. “The reality is that there are not the resources available to our communities to properly care for our kids. They are often left without a choice. Even though I received a harsh sentence, my son still ended up in jail.”
Bartlett said something must be done to eliminate the culture in which it is normal and acceptable for people to go to prison. She said incarceration is accepted because life in prison can be better than life on the outside.
Lora Tucker, who spearheaded Bartlett’s campaign for clemency, also spoke briefly at the talk. She has been a co-advocate for prison reform with Bartlett and plans weekly rallies in Rockefeller Plaza to publicize their cause.
“I think that a lot of people need self-empowerment,” Tucker said. “That is a side of rehabilitation that is lacking in the prison system, and does not exist for parolees.”