National Book Award Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book
A Chicago Tribune Best Book
Life on the Outside is a riveting account of one woman's struggle to win her freedom and change her life; it is also an extraordinary feat of reporting, one that makes vivid the real-life effects of the rough justice meted out to the poorest of the poor.
This book tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years in prison for a single sale of cocaine—a consequence of New York State's controversially harsh Rockefeller drug laws. It opens on the morning Elaine is set free from the woman's prison in Bedford Hills, New York, after winning clemency from the governor. At age forty-two, having spent most of her adult life behind bars, she has no money, no job, and no real home. What she does have is a large and troubled family, including her four children, who live in a decrepit housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "I left one prison to come home to another," Elaine says. In the months following her release, she strives to adjust to "life on the outside": conforming to parole's rules, hunting for a job and a new apartment, and reclaiming her role as head of the household, all while campaigning for the repeal of the merciless sentencing laws that led to her long prison term.
In recent years, the United States has imprisoned more than two million people—many for nonviolent crimes—while making few preparations for their eventual release. Now those people are returning to our communities in record numbers, coming home as unprepared for life on the outside as society is for them. With this important book, Gonnerman at once calls attention to a mounting national crisis and claims her place alongside the masters of narrative nonfiction writing—all by telling one woman's story, a saga of struggle and survival, guilt and forgiveness, loneliness and enduring love.