The Miseducation of Elaine Bartlett

New York's War on Drugs Held Her Hostage for 16 Years. A Story of Prison, Politics, and One Woman's Pride.

March 12, 1998


The Longest Walk

As the van barreled through Manhattan, Elaine closed her eyes and leaned back against her seat. The guards up front tried to chat, but she didn't respond. She didn't even want to look out the window. The van stopped on the Upper East Side, and the guards escorted Elaine into the lobby of Beth Israel Medical Center. Everyone stared. Who was this woman wearing shackles, handcuffs, and a chain around her waist?

Mothers pulled their children closer, as if she were Charles Manson or some other vicious criminal. But today, Elaine didn't care what people thought. She had too much else to worry about. Her walk through the hospital corridors seemed to take forever; the chain between her legs permitted only baby steps. Elaine's mother was dying, and she was afraid she wouldn't reach her bedside in time to say goodbye.

January 26, 2000: Elaine, 42, and her son Apache, 26, savor her first few minutes of freedom. Apache was nine years old when his mother went to prison.
Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein
January 26, 2000: Elaine, 42, and her son Apache, 26, savor her first few minutes of freedom. Apache was nine years old when his mother went to prison.

What would happen to Apache, Danae, Satara, Jamel—and everybody else—when her mother, the family matriarch, was gone? Elaine didn't even want to think about it. She hovered over her mother's bed, trying to figure out how to hug with her wrists cuffed together. She rubbed her cheeks against her mother's face and caressed her shrunken body. The two officers stood watching Elaine. They had refused to remove her chains.

After an hour, a guard said, "It's time to go." Elaine began interrogating the doctor, hoping to squeeze in a few extra minutes with her mother. Two days later, she learned that her mother had passed away.

December 19, 1999


Thirty-Eight Minute Grilling

Elaine decided to dress like she was going to a job interview. She picked out a silk shirt with gold buttons up the front, a state-issued green skirt, and magenta lipstick. At noon, Elaine strode into the conference room near the prison's front entrance. A U.S. flag hung from a pole in one corner, and through the windows she could see a landscape of brick buildings and razor wire. Across the room sat her interrogators, the two parole commissioners who would decide her fate. Three years and two months had passed since her last trip before the parole board, and now Elaine was getting a second chance.

Elaine had not planned to apply for clemency again. In prison, the only thing worse than having no hope, Elaine had discovered, is to believe you are going home soon and then find out you are not. But Elaine's children had convinced her to try again. Apache, Satara, and Danae had sent letters to Pataki begging him to release their mother. "My family is falling apart and times are hard," Satara, 18, 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 watched as her interrogators flipped through her file, and she braced herself.

Do you really expect us to believe this was the first time you ever sold drugs?

Sometimes they like to play devil's advocate, Elaine thought, to provoke prisoners into revealing how angry or unremorseful they are. Last time around, Elaine had launched into a bitter diatribe about being entrapped by George Deets. But today Elaine wasn't going to take the bait. She wasn't going to let any hostility creep into her voice.

"I don't really expect you to believe anything," she said. "But it's the truth."

When you reached the Albany train station, why didn't you give him the package at that point?

Don't get angry or annoyed, Elaine told herself. Stay cool. "I've asked myself that question every day for 16 years," she said. "I don't have an answer for you."

Over the years, Elaine had become an expert on the Rockefeller drug laws, spending hours reading cases in the law library. She knew it cost taxpayers $32,000 a year to house one prisoner. If you multiplied that figure by the number of years she'd been in Bedford Hills, the bill for her prison stay exceeded $500,000. And she knew that Pataki had promised to reform the drug laws when he got elected, and then done next to nothing.

Elaine saw clemency as part of this political dance, a way for the governor to show concern about the injustices of these laws without actually changing them. She kept these thoughts to herself, though. She figured these weren't the sorts of statements that would help her win over her audience.

Since your last appearance here, what program has changed you dramatically?

Elaine was confident she knew what the parole board wanted to hear. She also knew the truth. She figured they wanted her to say that Bedford Hills—and its many inmate programs—had reformed her. But Elaine had never thought she needed much rehabilitation in the first place. She hadn't been an experienced drug dealer or an addict in need of rescuing. Maybe she deserved a few years in prison for working as a cocaine courier, but 16 years? That was way too much time.

Since she had come to Bedford Hills, Elaine had kept busy. She finished high school and two years of college. And she had participated in dozens of programs, from training seeing-eye dogs to working in the children's center to teaching other inmates to read. By the time she met with the parole board in 1996, she already possessed a thick stack of certificates, diplomas, and glowing letters of recommendation. All that had changed over the last three years was that she'd figured out how to play the clemency game.

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