By Jennifer Gonnerman. 356 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.
Reviewed by Brent Staples, author of the memoir ''Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.''
The United States is transforming itself into a nation of ex-convicts. This country imprisons people at 14 times the rate of Japan, eight times the rate of France and six times the rate of Canada. The American prison system disgorges 600,000 angry, unskilled people each year - more than the populations of Boston, Milwaukee or Washington. "Thirteen million people have been convicted of a felony and spent some time locked up," Jennifer Gonnerman writes in "Life on the Outside." "That's almost 7 percent of U.S. adult residents.
If all of these people were placed on an island together, that island would have a population larger than many countries, including Sweden, Bolivia, Senegal, Greece or Somalia."
Ex-cons are marooned in the poor inner-city neighborhoods where legitimate jobs do not exist and the enterprises that led them to prison in the first place are ever present.
These men and women are further cut off from the mainstream by sanctions that are largely invisible to those of us who have never been to prison.
They are commonly denied the right to vote, parental rights, drivers' licenses, student loans and residency in public housing -- the only housing that marginal, jobless people can afford.
The most severe sanctions are reserved for former drug offenders, who have been treated worse than murderers since the start of the so-called war on drugs.
The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for example, imposed a lifetime ban on food stamp and welfare eligibility for people convicted of even a single drug felony. The states can opt out of the prohibition, but where it remains intact it cannot be lifted even for ex-prisoners who live model, crime-free lives.
Drug offenders, many of them former addicts, have been consigned to civic purgatory with no clear route to redemption. Gonnerman, a staff writer for The Village Voice, traces this disastrous policy back 30 years to the presidential ambitions of Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican New York governor who was denied his rightward-rushing party's presidential nomination because he was seen as too liberal.
Rockefeller sought to prove his "tough on crime" bona fides through a widely emulated package of drug laws that has come to be his chief legacy.
The legislature rejected a Rockefeller proposal that would have required a life sentence for the highest level drug felony, known as A-1, but adopted a similar sanction that set the mandatory minimum sentence at 15 to life -- which meant that hard-core judges could go higher if they chose.
A sentencing policy that had once penalized petty street-corner peddlers less severely than drug kingpins no longer considered the perpetrators' level of involvement in the trade.
Now everything hinged on the weight of the drugs.
A conviction for selling at least two ounces of heroin or cocaine meant A-1 -- which meant a long, long stay in jail. Under the law, two ounces were as bad as two kilos.
The first-time offender who gave in to the siren song of an easy score and the junkie selling watered-down smack to feed a habit were no different under the law from the full-timer who moved serious weight.
Rockefeller reveled in the fact that he had passed the toughest drug law in the country.
But as Gonnerman notes, he "had helped launch a new experiment in crime control, one that would have repercussions in every corner of the country for decades to come." The states were soon competing to see who could lock up the most people for the longest periods of time. The national prison population skyrocketed, from a modest 200,000 in 1973 to an eye-popping two million today, at a cost to the country of about $55 billion per year. States were soon forced to choose between building roads and schools and building prisons.
Mass imprisonment has not hindered the drug trade.
Indeed, drugs are cheaper and more plentiful today than ever. In addition, many of the addicts who are held in jail for years at a cost of more than $20,000 per inmate per year could be more cheaply and effectively dealt with in treatment. What jumps out at you from "Life on the Outside" is the extent to which imprisonment has been normalized, not just for adults from poor communities but for children who visit their parents in prison.
Spending holidays and birthdays behind bars for years on end, these children come to think of prison as a natural next step in the process of growing up.
"Life on the Outside" tells this story through the family of Elaine Bartlett, a young mother of four who received a sentence of 20 to life for her first offense -- selling cocaine to an undercover cop in a motel near Albany. Bartlett was pardoned after 16 years and went on to speak publicly about the evils of the Rockefeller drug laws. She rails against the unfairness of the law, but she was hardly naive when she decided to carry a package of cocaine from New York to Albany together with her boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, a petty dealer with whom she shared an apartment.
Elaine had grown up in Harlem during the 60's and 70's, when the neighborhood that has become newly fashionable today was a burned-out shell and the epicenter of the heroin trade.
Elaine's mother, Yvonne, had been arrested for selling heroin for pocket money and Yvonne's boyfriend had died of an overdose.
When Elaine took that train from New York to Albany, she was hoping for a quick score of $2,500, perhaps to buy some furniture and hold a nice Thanksgiving dinner for her family.
She and Nathan, however, were ensnared in a buy-and-bust and hauled before one of the toughest drug judges in the state. While at trial, Elaine was startled to see the man who had lured her to Albany take the stand as a witness for the prosecution. The man was George Deets, a drug dealer and addict who ran a drug-trafficking operation while working as an informant for the state police.
Deets has since died of an overdose.
Even so, the story of how he maintained an intimate relationship with the state police while freely selling large amounts of drugs -- and fingering other dealers elsewhere -- merits further investigation. It also underscores a problem with how the police have operated under the Rockefeller system.
Gonnerman writes that Deets typically volunteered to serve as an informant -- which meant trawling for fresh meat in Harlem -- whenever he was arrested on a drug charge.
He waltzed down to New York and lured the mark up to Albany County, making sure there was enough drug present for an A-1 bust. The mark sold the drugs to the cops, who were grateful for the collar, and Deets lived to traffic another day.
Elaine's children were 10, 6, 3 and 1 when the judge sent her to jail. The most heartbreaking scenes in "Life on the Outside" depict Bartlett huddled with her four young children in prison visiting rooms.
The family gathered every weekend and posed for pictures taken by the visiting-room photographer. The years wear on and the children grow up before our eyes, suffering all of the problems that might be expected in young people traumatized by the absence of a beloved parent.
The prison visiting rooms have become a bizarre lovers' lane where teenagers strike up relationships with people from other prison families or with inmates themselves. With each generation, the families grow steadily more accustomed to living their lives in captivity.
By the time Elaine is pardoned, her mother, who has cared for the children, is dead, and the wreckage of her extended family is too much to bear. Most of this moving and well-reported book deals with Elaine's struggle to create a life for herself outside the prison walls -- by finding a job, a place to live, and by reconnecting with her thoroughly damaged family.
This ground is familiar, but revelatory too, as when Elaine realizes that she has exchanged the prison behind bars for the prison that awaits ex-offenders who try to make it in the real world.
Her worst nightmare comes true when her teenage son, Jamel, who grew up in the visiting room, follows in his mother's footsteps and goes to jail himself. Jamel is visited inside by a 15-year-old girlfriend who is too young even to enter the gates but gets in with a fake ID. The girl becomes pregnant by Jamel, who has left jail briefly only to return, and the cycle begins anew.
You can read more about, and order this book online, at: Life On The Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett - The first major work of journalism on the subject of re-entry: the challenge of leaving prison and re-entering the free world.
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