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.

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 energy—biting her tongue, hiding her fears, watching her back—that 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.

Mom Behind Bars
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?"

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