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.

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.

The Only Hope
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 awry—her mother would go to the hospital, a brother would get arrested again—and 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.

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