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.

 February 15, 2000

By the time the sheriff's van lurched into the parking lot, she no longer cared if anyone noticed her wet cheeks and swollen eyes. Tears had been rolling down Elaine Bartlett's face for two hours—the entire drive from Albany to Westchester County—and she struggled to wipe them away with handcuffed hands. Locked up for the last four months in an Albany jail, Elaine had heard plenty of horror stories about her new home, ugly rumors that swirled through her head. The women at Bedford Hills will attack you, rape you, steal all your stuff.

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 hours—it felt like eight or nine—before 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 orange—those 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.

An Easy $2500
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 risk—after all, the bulge in her pants hid four ounces of cocaine—but she also knew she needed cash. Her welfare checks didn't cover her $127-a-month rent plus the costs of raising her four kids—Apache, 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.

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