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.

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 people—including critics of the Rockefeller drug laws and members of her church—to 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.

Taste of Freedom
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
Quit smoking
See parole officer
Go for seafood dinner with Lora
Buy gum
See The Hurricane
Find job
Stop cursing
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.

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