Book details

Life on the Outside

The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

Author: Jennifer Gonnerman

Life on the Outside

Life on the Outside


About This Book

A groundbreaking work of reportage on the hidden consequences of America's prison boom

Life On the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen...

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Book Details

A groundbreaking work of reportage on the hidden consequences of America's prison boom

Life On the Outside tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who spent sixteen years in Bedford Hills prison for selling cocaine-a first offense under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. The book opens on the morning of January 26, 2000, when she is set free, having received clemency from the governor. At forty-two, Elaine has virtually nothing: no money, no job, no real home.

What she does have is a large and troubled family, including four children, who live in a decrepit Lower East Side housing project. "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 her husband in prison, negotiates the rules of parole, searches for her own home-and campaigns for the repeal of the sentencing guidelines that led to her long prison term.

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. Writing with a passion and an empathy that recall There Are No Children Here and Cold New World, 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.

Life on the Outside is a 2004 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.

Imprint Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



In The News

“Elaine Bartlett is a real person for whom conservative and liberal nostrums are unreal. Jennifer Gonnerman's searing book will drag you into a world where an ex-con like Bartlett, a mother of four, serves a ridiculous sentence for a first drug offense, then with no confidence, no job, and few skills she leaves prison and struggles to survive. Gonnerman crafts a first-rate story with universal meaning from the particulars of Bartlett's life. This luminous book gets inside your brain and doesn't escape.” —Ken Auletta, Media correspondent, The New Yorker, and author of Backstory: Inside the Business of News

Life on the Outside is required reading. At a time when the prison-industrial complex is destroying African-American families and neighborhoods, Elaine Bartlett is more than a survivor: she is a heroine. The future of our communities depends on women like her.” —Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and Chairman Of The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

“The Rockefeller Drug Laws were put into effect to show that New York State was tough on crime, but when you look at the case of Elaine Bartlett you don't think tough on crime but human rights violation, cruel and unusual punishment, or just plain immoral.” —Charles Grodin

“Jennifer Gonnerman's Life on the Outside is that rarest of books. It informs both the heart and the mind. Honest and stirring, Life on the Outside will keep you reading through the night. And it will leave you shaking your head at our nation's thirst for rigid and unforgiving sentencing laws. This book is a triumph of storytelling.” —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

“Through the remarkable Elaine Bartlett, Jennifer Gonnerman deftly maps out the middle passage of what is perhaps the most pernicious social injustice of our time. She charts a seemingly impenetrable intersection of problems, fact by brutal fact. Only writing and reporting of this caliber could track the intricate ways in which our nation's prison industry is also family business, and show how harsh sentences don't end on the outside.” —Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

About the Creators

Life on the Outside

Life on the Outside