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.

"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.

The First Lesson
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 jeans—the 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 strong—two police officers had testified that she'd helped negotiate the sale—that Neidl figured even his eight-year-old son could have prosecuted this case and gotten a conviction.

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