By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
Though she has a well-coordinated campaign and has received some publicity, Linda is resigned to the possibility that she may not get clemency this Christmas. "I feel next year will be my year," she says. "I feel the women they're going to [give it to] deserve it more than me. Precious has been here so long, she has more than earned it."
Unlike some clemency candidates, Elaine Bartlett, 41, does not have the backing of a judge or a district attorney or a team of law students. But like many of her fellow applicants, she does have an overwhelmingly sad story.
Elaine has been incarcerated since she was 26. In 1983, she sold four ounces of cocaine to a confidential informant. At the time, she was raising four children in an East Harlem housing project. This 15-minute interaction in an Albany hotel room was Elaine's first criminal offense. She thought she would get $2500. Instead, she got 20 years to life.
Elaine began her quest for clemency in the fall of 1995. She wanted to get out of prison fast in order to care for her mother, who was dying of kidney failure. Older inmates gave Elaine some pointers, and she went to the prison law library for information on how to apply. She drafted a one-page letter. And then she waited. It took months before she learned she would get an audience with a special parole board.
The memory of that 1996 meeting still haunts her. "I wasn't prepared for it," Elaine says. "I never experienced anything like that before. You'll kill yourself worrying about what you did wrong."
The clemency bureau eventually denied Elaine's application. And last March, Elaine's mother passed away. Elaine's 23-year-old son, Robert, who had been away at college in South Dakota on a basketball scholarship, quit school to care for his younger sisters. Robert, Elaine, 16, and Satara, 18, live together on the Lower East Side. (A fourth sibling is serving time at Attica for selling drugs.)
Elaine gave up her hopes of clemency after the first rejection. But this year, her children applied for her, sending in letters begging the governor to release their mother. "For all my life my mother been locked up," the teenage Elaine wrote. "I feel very sad 'cause now I don't have no one to go to my twelve grade graduation."
Satara echoed her sister's pain. "The problem is that I cry all the time because my mom is away and my grandmother is gone and it's nobody thier for me no more," Satara wrote in July. In another letter, Satara pleaded for her mother's release. "My family is falling apart and times are hard," she wrote. "Sometimes I feel like killing myself because my mother lefted me and know my grandmother is gone. She should of took me with her."
Elaine weeps when she thinks about Satara's letter. "I had no idea my daughter wanted to commit suicide," she says. "These are things that your kids don't tell you when they come to visit."
Thanks to Lora Tucker, Elaine's chance of getting clemency may be better this time around. Tucker works for WomenCare, Inc., a Manhattan nonprofit that helps current and former prisoners. In 1997, Tucker met Elaine while teaching a coping-skills workshop at Bedford Hills.
"When she first came in, I could see she felt hopeless," Tucker recalls. "Some of the women have people on the outside who are supporting them, but Elaine didn't. I could see that she needed someone on her side."
For the past year, Tucker has devoted her evenings and weekends to Elaine's campaign. She has persuaded more than 100 people including critics of the Rockefeller drug laws as well as members of her own church to write letters on Elaine's behalf. Elaine learned a few lessons from her first try for clemency, and she got more aggressive. Inside Bedford Hills, she too solicits letters of support from everyone she encounters.
If she does not succeed, Elaine will probably be stuck behind bars until she is eligible for parole in 2004. "I guess it's all a matter of who you know and who they know and how you market yourself," she says. Over the years, Elaine has watched the governor free women who had done less time or been convicted of worse crimes. This Christmas, she says, "if they don't give me clemency, I know I'm going to be devastated. It takes a long time to heal from that."
Research assistance: Soo-Min Oh