Life on the Outside tells the story
of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years behind bars for selling
cocaine — a first offense — under New York’s
controversial Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning
of January 26, 2000, when she walks out of Bedford Hills prison.
At 42, Elaine has virtually nothing: no money, no job, no real
What she does have is a large and troubled family,
including four children, who live in a decrepit housing project
on the Lower East Side. “I left one prison to come home
to another,” Elaine says. Over the next months, she clashes
with her daughters, hunts for a job, visits her son and husband
in prison, negotiates the rules of parole, and searches for a
home of her own.
In recent years, the United States has imprisoned
more than two million people while making few preparations for
their eventual release. Now these prisoners are coming home in
record numbers, as unprepared for “life on the outside”
as society is for them. Jennifer Gonnerman calls attention to
this mounting national crisis by crafting an intimate family portrait
— a story of struggle and survival, guilt and forgiveness,
loneliness and love.