LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

Jennifer Gonnerman, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24 (356p) ISBN 978-0-374-18687-6

A Village Voice staff writer's feature-turned-book about the impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on one family, this narrative begs comparison with last year's bestselling Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Gonnerman has obviously done her homework. The story of Elaine Bartlett, a first offender sentenced to a staggering 16 years for drug trafficking, and the fate of her four children both during and after her incarceration, is told in encyclopedic detail, sometimes to a fault—including the entire texts of many letters, minutiae of clothing and even full grocery lists. Unlike LeBlanc's graceful prose, Gonnerman's style is utterly artless, occasionally to the point of awkwardness. But Gonnerman makes an excellent argument for the ways in which the New York criminal justice system, particularly the "tough on crime" measures imposed in the last three decades, fails poor and less educated people. She skillfully uses Bartlett, a tough, assertive woman who struggles to hold a job and keep her family together after their enforced years of separation, as an exemplar of the wide-ranging impact of incarceration on both ex-cons and the communities they leave behind, a social problem just beginning to be studied. This book takes its place as part of a current broad reconsideration of the war on drugs and the unprecedented prison-industrial complex it has created in America. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 01/12/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
Paperback - 368 pages - 978-0-312-42457-2
Open Ebook - 368 pages - 978-1-4299-3156-4
Show other formats
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!