By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Elaine stumbled out of the van, her leg irons scraping the pavement as she joined the line of new arrivals. The brick buildings of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility surrounded her, and its residents shouted their welcome:
"Hey, look at the fresh meat!"
"Move up here so I can take care of you!"
"I'm going to make you my woman!"
She shuffled into the building designated "Reception," slumped in a chair, and waited for her new life to begin. First on the authorities' to-do list was a shower with lice-killing disinfectant. Elaine surveyed the row of stalls with no curtains and the female guards milling around. "Get in the shower!" an officer shouted.
Elaine folded her arms across her chest and refused to move. Okay, she had posed for an ID photo and given them her fingerprints. But allow strangers to watch her strip down and shower naked? No way. "This isn't no fashion show," Elaine told the guard. "You're not going to be looking at my body. The judge sentenced me to 20 years. He didn't say I had to be subjected to all this."
"We've got a real live one over here," the officer announced, then turned to Elaine. "You're at Bedford Hills now. This is a maximum-security prison. You're going to do things the way we tell you to!" Elaine glared and didn't budge. She kept up her one-woman rebellion for hoursit felt like eight or ninebefore she finally uncrossed her arms and trudged to the shower.
What else could she do? She had been arrested for selling coke, gone to trial, and lost. Her punishment: a prison sentence of 20 years to life. For the moment, Elaine tried not to dwell on the fact that she was only 26 years old, that she had left behind four young kids, that she would be middle-aged by the time she walked out of here.
All she could think to do was keep an angry pout on her face, a mask to hide her fears. A guard handed Elaine her new state-issued wardrobe: one zipper-back green jumper dress, two pairs of green pants, two green shirts, three white cotton panties, three white cotton bras, a pair of white canvas tennis sneakers. No blue, black, gray, or orangethose colors belonged to the guards. Elaine slipped on her uniform shirt and noticed her new identity on the tag glued to her chest: #84G0068. As soon as she moved into her cell block, she found an iron and melted off her number.
November 8, 1983
She grabbed the package wrapped in brown paper, shoved it down the front of her jeans, and marched out of her East Harlem housing project. Elaine knew she was taking a huge riskafter all, the bulge in her pants hid four ounces of cocainebut she also knew she needed cash. Her welfare checks didn't cover her $127-a-month rent plus the costs of raising her four kidsApache, 9; Jamel, 6; Satara, 2; and Danae, 1. Elaine earned extra cash working as a beautician, braiding hair and manicuring nails at a salon on 125th Street. Her financial woes never seemed to ebb, though, and one day a customer promised a solution. If she carried just one package of cocaine to Albany, he would pay $2500.
His name was George Deets, but Elaine didn't know much more about him. He was a clean-cut white guy, maybe a numbers runner, she thought. She'd bumped into George at a few parties, seen him around the salon. For months, he'd pushed her to do this job for him. "It doesn't feel right," Nathan Brooks, Elaine's boyfriend, told her. Nate, 24, worked as a late-night custodian shampooing rugs in midtown offices, but he also knew something about the drug business. In recent years, he'd done two eight-month stints on Rikers Island for selling coke.
Elaine had snorted cocaine at parties, but she'd never sold drugs or worked as a mule. In fact, she'd never even been out of New York City. But, she figured, if she delivered drugs for George just once, well, how much trouble could she really get into? Outside the Wagner Houses, Elaine raised her arm to flag a cab and saw Nate come running down the street. Left behind in her fifth-floor apartment, Nate had decided he was too anxious to relax, too worried to let his girlfriend go to Albany alone.
George picked up Elaine and Nate at the train station in Albany and brought them to nearby Latham, where he had rented room 224 at the Monte Mario Motel. Elaine dropped the bag of cocaine in George's hands, then curled up with Nate to take a nap. George lay on the other bed, working the phone. Close to an hour later, strangers' voices woke Elaine, and she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes to see three people walking into the room. The only one she recognized was Richard Zagorski. A few days earlier, Richard and George had come to her home, freebased cocaine in her kitchen, and tried to talk her into making this trip. It was the only time she'd met Richard and the only time George had come into her apartment.
"Elaine, this is my friend Ken, and Sue," George said, gesturing to the two strangers. "And Ken and Sue, this is Elaine and Nathan." Elaine glanced around and realized she and Nate were the only African Americans in the room, a fact that did not make her comfortable. And she noticed that someone had placed the sack of cocaine on a scale, which she didn't remember seeing before she fell asleep.
Quickly, the conversation turned to the question of price. Ken and Sue, the buyers, were reluctant to pay more than $2000 an ounce, but finally compromised. They settled on $2200 an ounce for a total of $8800. Sue left the room, then returned with a stack of cash. Ten seconds later, a pack of shotgun-wielding state troopers burst in.
January 26, 1984
Nate squeezed Elaine's hand as the judge's words rang through his chambers: "I now pronounce you man and wife." The phrase sounded familiar, but nothing else about this moment made it feel like a wedding. There was no elegant dress, no crisp corsage, no three-layer cake, no Electric Slide. Elaine wore her son Apache's jeansthe same ones she'd had on when she got arrested. They now hung low on her hips; the stress of 11 weeks in jail had proved to be the ultimate weight-loss program. Instead of a tux, Nate wore dungarees, too, with a sweatshirt.
Elaine and Nate had been dating for six years and had two daughters, but they'd had no wedding plans and certainly never imagined marrying in Albany. That was before the arrest, before everything changed and they realized they now had only each other.
The prosecutor had offered Nate and Elaine the same deal: Plead guilty, work as an informant, and your prison sentence will be five years to life. Joseph Teresi, Elaine's public defender, met with her once in jail. He advised her to cop a plea, warning her about the harsh sentence she'd get if she lost at trial. But Elaine couldn't imagine returning to her neighborhood wearing a wire and setting up people she knew. After all, New York City was her home. If she snitched on her friends and acquaintances, where would she go?
She decided to go to trial and persuaded Nate to take the same gamble. "Everything is going to be all right," she said. "They don't have anything on us." Elaine, like Nate, had never made it past the 10th grade. She didn't know much about the legal system, but she did know that she'd been set up. George had nagged her to come to Albany, arranged the cocaine drop-off at her apartment, rented the motel room, brought the scale, negotiated the price, and found the buyers. Surely, she figured, the jurors would see that George had entrapped her, that she hardly fit the profile of a drug kingpin. After all, when the cops arrested her, the only money in her pocket was a $5 bill.
Elaine got a crash course in how cops and prosecutors fight the drug war during her two-day trial. George turned out to be an informant, and so was Richard. The would-be buyers, Ken and Sue, were actually state police officers. George and Richard had been arrested on drug charges in the past, and they had a long history of helping cops arrest unsuspecting acquaintances. By working as snitches, they earned a little money and avoided prison.
The jury took only 40 minutes to decide Nate and Elaine were guilty of selling four ounces of cocaine. Because they were convicted under New York's Rockefeller drug laws, which are among the nation's strictest, Elaine and Nate faced a minimum prison sentence of 15 years.
Elaine had never heard of the Rockefeller drug laws before her arrest. She didn't know that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had started the nation's War on Drugs with this 1973 legislation, which established the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. She had no idea that these laws had led to an explosion in the state's inmate population and a prison-building boom. And Elaine had no way of knowing that African Americans and Latinos would eventually make up more than 94 percent of New York State's drug prisoners.
She also didn't know that law enforcement officials routinely lured people from New York City to Albany because of the capital's reputation for tough-on-drugs judges. She didn't realize that the local district attorney considered her a big catch, though four ounces of cocaine might not seem like that much to a Manhattan prosecutor. If she had been arrested in New York City, she likely would have received a plea offer of three or four years in prison without having to snitch.
Standing next to the judge at Elaine and Nate's wedding was Thomas Neidl, the chief drug prosecutor for Albany County, who had convinced a jury to convict the couple. Neidl saw a beautiful, statuesque woman whom he knew would not hug her husband again until she was past 40. What a shame, he thought. He wished Elaine had accepted his plea offer and spared him from trying her case. The evidence was so strongtwo police officers had testified that she'd helped negotiate the salethat Neidl figured even his eight-year-old son could have prosecuted this case and gotten a conviction.
Judge John Clyne asked the bride and groom if they had any last-minute words before he sentenced them. "I still say that I'm not guilty and I did not make a first-degree sale, a felony," Elaine told the judge. "I feel that I am being railroaded and doing someone else's time. . . . George Deets . . . [is] the one that should have sat in this court and been tried for this matter, not me or Nathan Brooks."
Inside the Albany County courthouse, Elaine's judge was known as "Maximum" John Clyne, and today he lived up to his nickname. The Rockefeller drug laws required Judge Clyne to send the newlyweds to prison for at least 15 years. For reasons he did not bother to explain, the judge tacked an extra five years onto Elaine's sentence. He hit Nate even harder, handing him a prison sentence of 25 years to life. For their honeymoon, Nate and Elaine went to the visiting room of the Albany County jail, where they spent an hour talking on a phone, separated by a thick pane of glass.
September 16, 1995
Elaine tried to hide her shock when she walked into the visiting room at Bedford Hills and saw her mother. Diabetes had long afflicted her mother, Yvonne. In recent years, Yvonne's kidneys started failing, she became wheelchair-bound, and doctors amputated half her foot. Yvonne had always been a big woman, six feet three inches and 450 pounds. Now she was only 78 pounds.
Like her daughter, Yvonne was fiercely proud. She didn't let people see her cry, and she never talked about her problems. "It's going to be all right," she'd say. "Don't worry. Keep your head up." But today, Elaine could see tears in her mother's eyes. Yvonne rolled up her sleeve and showed Elaine the scars her dialysis treatments had left.
"You still look pretty," Elaine told her. "You still look good to me."
"Stop lying," Yvonne said. "I look like shit. I wish somebody would take care of me. I wish you were home to take care of me."
Yvonne had always taken care of everybody. When Elaine went to prison, her four children moved in with their grandmother. For nearly 10 years, Yvonne had brought the kids to prison every weekend to see Elaine. And when she became too sick to ride the train, Yvonne would pay a friend with a livery cab $70 to drive to Bedford Hills and wait while she and the children visited.
Of Yvonne's seven children, Elaine was the eldest daughter. Elaine had been only eight years old when her father died, and she became a sort of second mom in the house. She would take her younger siblings to school and to the doctor's office, and also to Coney Island and the Bronx Zoo. Elaine tried to keep playing this role even after she went to prison. When her mother's health began deteriorating, Elaine researched medications in the prison library, phoned Yvonne's doctors, and berated her sisters for not taking better care of their mother.
Despite Elaine's efforts, her family was falling apart. All four of her brothers were now dead or caught up in the prison system. Ronnie, 34, died of AIDS in 1992. A few months later, Frankie, 36, was fatally stabbed on his way home from delivering pianos. Kenneth joined a Boston drug gang as an enforcer and got sent to prison for murder. And Don Juan had recently finished a 10-year prison term for robbery. Elaine's sister Sabrina had begun smoking crack after she lost a baby to crib death. And now Michelle, the youngest sister, was raising her five children as well as Sabrina's four kids.
As the years rolled by, there always seemed to be more bad news. The number of secrets everybody was keeping grew, creating walls so high that sometimes Elaine felt as though she didn't even know her own family. At times, she thought, all their relationships seemed to be built entirely on a single, reassuring phrase: "Everything's all right." Things would go awryher mother would go to the hospital, a brother would get arrested againand nobody wanted to tell Elaine. She already felt completely helpless, they thought, why make her feel any worse?
Elaine, too, had a stash of secrets she couldn't share. She no longer ironed off her inmate number, but she never got used to the fights, the frisking, the way officers spoke down to her. She never got used to the the ritual that followed every trip to the visiting room, when she would have to strip off her clothes, press her palms against the wall, and spread her legs. And depending on the guard's mood, Elaine might also have to cough and squat, to prove that she wasn't hiding drugs.
Every morning, Elaine stared in her cell mirror and wondered, "Is it me that's going crazy, or is it everyone else around me?" She heard about other women swallowing safety pins, eating glass, dragging razor blades across their wrists. One day, she watched an inmate climb onto the hospital roof. A guard grabbed her foot, but she unlaced her shoe and jumped, landing on a mattress and barely surviving.
Sometimes, Elaine felt as though she was surrounded by zombies, women taking Thorazine who seemed only half alive. She knew inmates who lied about hearing voices to get drugs, but she didn't want to do her time in a haze. She wanted to go home. In the recreation yard, she would watch cars whiz along the highway nearby and fantasize about scaling the fence.
Nights were the hardest. As she lay on her prison cot in the dark, the demons she struggled to silence all day would take over. Guilt consumed her as she thought about how Nate was doing 25 to life because of her, how her mother had 15 kids living in her three-bedroom apartment, how her children were raising themselves, how Danae kept begging her to come to her school graduation, how Satara talked about running away from home, how Apache had given up a basketball scholarship to college to care for his sisters.
Elaine watched herself grow more bitter and more defeated, and she worried she was becoming somebody she no longer recognized, somebody she did not want to be. Surviving inside Bedford Hills required so much energybiting her tongue, hiding her fears, watching her backthat she felt she might never relax again, might never be able to peel off all the masks she now wore.
Rubbing lotion on her mother's skinny arms, Elaine decided she had to do something or her worst nightmare would come true: Her mother would die while she was stuck in prison. She didn't think she could survive losing her mother. She didn't think she could stay sane inside Bedford Hills without her greatest source of strength. If only she could get home, Elaine thought, she could prolong her 64-year-old mother's life. She wanted to put some joy in Yvonne's final months, to begin to pay her back for raising Apache, Danae, Satara, and Jamel all these years. She would do whatever she had to do. She knew New York's governor traditionally commutes a few prison sentences every Christmas, and so she decided to send a letter.
December 24, 1997
Apache, Satara, and Danae came to Bedford Hills to spend Christmas Eve with their mother, but nobody was in a festive mood. They had already celebrated too many holidays in this dingy, fluorescent-lit room with pale pink pillars, nine vending machines, and the lingering smell of microwave popcorn. By now, Elaine was supposed to be home.
Elaine had applied for clemency in 1995. Months passed before she learned that she would get an audience with a special parole board. When the clemency bureau rejected Elaine in 1996, her children were stunned. They thought she was coming home soon because state investigators had come to their apartment and interviewed them about their mother. As for Elaine, the memory of her parole meeting haunted her. What had she done wrong? Did she not answer the questions the way the parole board wanted? Was she too straightforward? Should she have lied?
Suddenly, a prisoner's cheers echoed through the visiting room. Elaine Lord, the superintendent of Bedford Hills, had just delivered some good news. Governor George Pataki had commuted the sentence of Angela Thompson, 27, a first-time offender who had served eight years for selling two ounces of coke to an undercover cop. A retired judge had spearheaded Angela's clemency campaign and convinced a New York Times columnist to champion her cause.
Apache, Danae, and Satara knew Angela and her son. The children had watched each other grow up in the visiting room at Bedford Hills. For one week each summer, Elaine's children came to see her during the day and stayed nights with a host family nearby. When they were younger, Elaine's kids had been content to show her the latest dance moves, splash in the plastic pool on the prison patio, pose for Polaroids. Apache would perform raps he had written, while Satara would beg her mother to give her braids. Elaine tried to keep these prison visits happy, but it wasn't easy. When visiting hours ended, Jamel cried and clung so tightly to her leg that the guards would have to pull him off.
As the children grew older, these visits became less frequent and less fun. Jamel stopped coming altogether, and Elaine could feel she was losing him to the streets of the Lower East Side, where Yvonne and the kids lived in a 13th-floor apartment inside the Lillian Wald Houses. Elaine would hear Jamel was hanging on the corner outside, getting into trouble for stealing cars and selling drugs. When she used her phone privileges to track him down at his girlfriend's house, he would promise to come see her, but she knew he wouldn't. Now he was 20 years old and in prison, too, serving a two-to-four-year sentence at Attica Correctional Facility for peddling drugs.
Elaine, Satara, Danae, and Apache listened to the whooping across the visiting room and watched as officers and prisoners congratulated Angela. Suddenly, Danae, 15, jumped up and began to rage at her mother. "Why did she get clemency and you didn't?" Danae shouted. "What makes her need to go home any more than you? What are you really here for? Don't lie to us! You couldn't be in here for what you say you're in here for. Who did you kill? You've been in here my whole life! When are you coming home?"
March 12, 1998
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.
What would happen to Apache, Danae, Satara, Jameland everybody elsewhen 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
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 Hillsand its many inmate programshad 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.
In 1997, after her first clemency rejection and before her mother died, Elaine walked into a coping-skills workshop and asked Lora Tucker, the teacher, for help. Lora saw a woman devoid of all hope, who had resigned herself to staying in prison until she was eligible for parole in 2004. She looks like she needs somebody on her side, Lora thought. She also looks like she could be my sister.
Lora had recently switched careers, quiting her job as an interior designer to work on criminal justice issues. Now she launched her first fight on behalf of a prisoner. Lora tracked down Governor Pataki at a political fundraiser and handed him a letter from Elaine. She persuaded more than 200 peopleincluding critics of the Rockefeller drug laws and members of her churchto write letters on Elaine's behalf. And she became a regular at the anti-Rockefeller drug law rallies sponsored by the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Holding a placard with a photo, Lora would tell Elaine's story to every stranger who stopped.
Together, Lora and Elaine figured out how to work the media. Elaine got talk-show host Charles Grodin on her visiting list. She showed up in columns in the Daily News and The New York Times. Geraldo Rivera came to interview her. For these moments in the spotlight, Elaine purposely did not wear makeup so she wouldn't look any better than she felt. And she didn't mention Nate to reporters. Over the years, Elaine and Nate had traded letters, and they were permitted one phone call every six months. Since Elaine was a first-time offender, they knew she had a better shot at clemency. Nate was afraid his rap sheet would jeopardize her chances, so he told Elaine to push her case in the media and leave him in the background.
Elaine did not explain any of her strategies to the parole commissioners. Instead, she served up a few calm words. "Education and the death of my mother," she said, when they asked what had changed her in the last few years. After her 38-minute interrogation ended, Elaine thanked the commissioners, smiled sweetly, and walked over to shake their hands.
January 26, 2000
Elaine woke at 4 a.m. on her last morning in Bedford Hills. Exactly 16 years had passed since the day Judge Clyne had sentenced her to 20 years to life. Now she was 42 years old and had three grandchildren. (Jamel, Satara, and Apache each have one child.) George Deets was dead. Her former lawyer, Joseph Teresi, had the most high-profile judge's job in the state, overseeing the Amadou Diallo trial. And her former prosecutor, Thomas Neidl, had become a critic of the Rockefeller drug laws.
Elaine flipped on 98.7 KISS-FM and began singing along. She had been in a great mood ever since December 23, 1999, when the governor granted her request for clemency. Pataki had commuted the sentences of three women, all of whom had spent at least a decade in Bedford Hills thanks to the Rockefeller drug laws.
For weeks, Elaine had been planning her exit. She gave away her hair dryer, lamp, rollers, sheets, and pajamas. She practiced what she'd say to the television cameras awaiting her release. She colored her hair at the prison beauty salon. And in her mind, she created a to-do list:
Spend time with Apache, Satara, and Danae
Visit Jamel on Rikers Island
Visit Nate at Green Haven Correctional Facility
See parole officer
Go for seafood dinner with Lora
See The Hurricane
Go back to college
Lobby for repeal of Rockefeller drug laws
The masks she had been wearing for years began crashing to the ground. When guards told Elaine to hurry in the hallways, she would just laugh. "Have your fun now," she said. "I'm going home soon. Just try to tell me what to do on the other side of the fence."
A few hours later, Elaine entered the building marked "Reception" and changed into civilian clothes. "I'm not stepping out in my greens," she had said, and so Lora had bought her a new outfit. Elaine pulled on a black Victoria's Secret bra, black panties, an electric purple pantsuit, and suede high-heel boots. Earlier, she'd painted her nails with purple glitter to match. Pinned to her new raincoat was a photo of her mother with a message: "Yvonne, I Carry You in My Soul."
Elaine had waited for this day ever since she arrived at Bedford Hills. In the fantasy scene she liked to replay in her mind, three white doves flew up in the air at the moment of her release while Diana Ross sang, "I'm Coming Out." At 9:54 a.m., Elaine heard a different sort of music. "We love you, Elaine!" shouted her fellow inmates. They filled the windows of the prison's school building, waving hats, mittens, and scarves. "You go, girl!" Along the asphalt path to the front gate, Elaine stopped, spun around, and waved goodbye.