Ever since she left her children and went to prison, Elaine had been looking forward to the day when she could return to New York City and live with them again. But the future she had fantasized about did not feature an apartment with bare cupboards, naked lightbulbs, and a broken toilet seat. Even so, Elaine moved in. It was not a tough decision. She had nowhere else to go.
Before Elaine arrived, four adults and two babies lived in the apartment, which had three bedrooms and one bathroom. Elaine’s younger sister had taken over the living room. Elaine’s niece and her one-year-old son shared a bedroom. Apache occupied another bedroom. And at the end of the narrow hallway, Elaine’s older daughter Tara and Tara’s eight-month-old daughter, Tenéa, slept in the largest bedroom. There was, of course, no empty room for Elaine.
So Elaine moved into Tara’s bedroom, which she figured was about twice as large as her last prison cell. The room was so crowded with Tara and Tenéa’s possessions—a baby swing, diapers, sneakers, trendy clothes—that Elaine left her plastic bags in the hallway. Elaine had given away most of her possessions before leaving prison, but the bags held the important items: family snapshots, legal documents, newspaper clippings, her children’s letters. She began sleeping next to her daughter and granddaughter in their queen-size bed. Elaine, at least, did not mind. Sleeping alone on a prison cot had felt stranger; she had never had her own bed when she was growing up.
Elaine knew her family kept secrets from her while she was in prison, hiding all the bad news behind a single, reassuring phrase: “It’s all right.” Now that she was home, Elaine quickly discovered that nothing was all right. The apartment was a mess, and everyone’s spirits seemed broken, too.
Tara, for one, seemed very depressed. Elaine’s older daughter was pretty, with almond-shaped eyes and long, straight hair. The 19-year-old had a boyfriend and a penchant for designer labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Enyce. When she was two years old, before Elaine went to prison, Tara used to slip on her mother’s high heels and parade around their apartment. During trailer visits at Bedford Hills, Elaine remembered having to chase her away from the mirror, where she always seemed to be primping. But that was the past.
Tara had dropped out of high school and now spent the days inside the apartment, minding her baby and watching soap operas. Now Elaine had to nag her to fix her matted hair. Elaine was not exactly sure what was at the root of her daughter’s unhappiness. She did have sickle-cell anemia, which left her in extreme pain. But Elaine thought Tara was likely still grieving her grandmother’s death.
“The problem is I cry all the time because my mom is away and my grandmother is gone and there’s nobody there for me no more,” Tara had written to the clemency bureau in 1998. In another letter, she added, “Sometimes I feel like killing myself because my mother left me and now my grandmother is gone.”
Elaine’s younger daughter had also composed a letter begging the governor to free her mother. “She has been locked up for 15 years—that is all of my life,” Danae wrote. “Just let her come home. She would not do the same thing again. She will be trying to catch up with her kids for all the things she missed.”
But when Elaine arrived at her children’s apartment, she discovered her younger daughter did not even live here. Danae had moved out long ago and joined a friend’s family. No one had dared to tell Elaine earlier because they knew the news would enrage her. Indeed, Elaine refused to accept that she would never get to be Danae’s live-in mother. Several times during her first week home, Elaine stormed over to Danae’s place and screamed at her to return. Once she even snatched an armful of Danae’s clothes and brought them back to the apartment.
Danae refused to relocate, though she did stop by her siblings’ place. “You’re not going nowhere!” her mother told her. “Stay here!” But when Elaine stepped into the shower, the teenager headed for the door. Naked and dripping, Elaine grabbed a robe, streaked out of the bathroom, and chased her daughter into the building’s hallway. Elaine grabbed Danae and started shaking her. “You’re staying right here!” she shouted. Danae left. Though she felt hurt, Elaine would later admit that she respected her younger daughter for having the gumption to find a new family after her grandmother died.
Danae was angry too. When her mother was around, the 17-year-old scowled more often than she smiled—even after happy events, like winning a basketball game. Danae, who was tall and sturdily built, played guard and forward on one of Apache’s basketball teams. Three years earlier, when she was 15, Danae had erupted in the prison visiting room. “What are you really here for?” she shouted at her mother. “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?”
The home Elaine had dreamed of returning to was a comfortable, familiar place. But nothing about the apartment where she now lived made her feel relaxed. In fact, she was starting to feel more stressed than she had when she was in prison. With the exception of Apache, everyone around Elaine felt like a stranger.
Elaine was the eldest daughter of seven siblings, and she had watched from prison as her family fell apart. Two brothers were dead. Two were in prison. Her sister Michelle, 35, now lived in Harlem, raising nine children. But of all her family members, no one had changed more than her younger sister Sabrina, who was 38 years old and sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room. Elaine remembered Sabrina as attractive and successful. When she was in her twenties, Sabrina always had a job—working undercover security at Key Food or Saks Fifth Avenue—and she always had new clothes, a testament to her ability to persuade her many boyfriends to pay her layaway bills.
But during much of the 1990s, Sabrina passed her days with her boyfriend, she said, “getting high and getting hit.” Crack, heroin, powder cocaine—she tried them all and wound up with a $300-a-day habit. Three years earlier, Sabrina had tried to kill herself by jumping into the East River from the FDR Drive. A rescue team had to pull her out of the water.
Now Elaine barely recognized her sister. Dark spots covered Sabrina’s arms. Most of her teeth were missing. Every morning she commuted to a methadone program on 125th Street. In the afternoons, she retreated to the living room and held imaginary conversations with their deceased mother.
There were so many problems in the apartment that Elaine did not know where to start. She had hoped to celebrate her first days of freedom by riding the Cyclone at Coney Island or eating a seafood dinner on City Island. But one look at her family and she knew that was impossible. She could not have any fun yet. Not until she had filled her family’s empty refrigerator and fixed up the apartment. On her first full day home, she went to Costco and bought a mop, a broom, sponges, Comet, and Lysol. She put a new seat on the toilet and a new trash can in the kitchen. And she threw out the broken kitchen table.
Later that week, Elaine cooked the dinner she had been craving for years—spare ribs, collard greens, yams, potato salad, corn bread—enough food for everyone who was home and all their friends. It was the sort of meal her mother used to cook when she presided over her famous holiday parties, preparing enough food for at least a dozen families.
But the family spirit she tried to promote did not last and her cleanup efforts were soon undone. The toilet seat broke again. Garbage routinely overflowed the trash can. Rats scurried down the apartment’s hallway. Elaine knew her mother never would have permitted her home to become a hovel, but now Elaine could not seem to stop the slide. She watched the children disappear into their bedrooms at night, locking their doors behind them. Instead of eating together, they hid boxes of cereal in their rooms.
Elaine and I talked several times in her first few weeks home. All the enthusiasm from her release day had vanished from her voice. “My children have created their own prison,” Elaine said. “The apartment feels icy cold, like where I came from. It doesn’t seem like a home. There is no love. Everything my mother strived for and taught them, they just put it on a shelf and forgot about it.”
Over and over, Elaine repeated a single sentence to describe her predicament. “I left one prison to come home to another,” she said. Being out of prison, she had realized, was not the same as being free. It wasn’t just the decrepit apartment. It was also the reality of parole, the fact that the criminal justice system was still watching her every move, and could punish her if she reacted to this emotional maelstrom by making a single mistake.
Like prison, parole has dozens of rules. And if she was caught violating any one of them at any time over the next five years, her parole officer could send her back to prison. Parolees are not supposed to have any encounters with the police. Any police contact—whether a parking ticket or domestic dispute—and Elaine might wind up back in jail. There is also no staying out past 9 p.m. No smoking pot. No owning a pit bull or a rottweiler. No leaving New York City without notifying your parole officer. No visiting a prisoner without permission. No socializing with anybody who has a criminal record. No staying at a friend’s house without telling your parole officer.
Parolees are supposed to pay for their own supervision—$30 a month—though they won’t be penalized if they cannot afford the fee. To monitor the state’s 50,000 parolees, parole officers rely on random drug tests and surprise home inspections. There are so many regulations that even a well-intentioned ex-con can slip, and not surprisingly, many do. Forty percent of the state’s prisoners are reincarcerated within three years of being released. This is a phenomenon Elaine knows well, since at Bedford Hills she watched some women return again and again. Some had committed new crimes, but most had landed back in prison after violating parole—often for flunking a drug test or failing to check in with their parole officer.
I thought Elaine’s struggle had ended the morning she left prison. But as I listened to her describe her life, I realized that in many ways her travails had just begun. And I figured her predicament was in many ways typical, and would be shared by many of the 600,000 ex-convicts, men and women, who are making their way back into U.S. society this year. I asked Elaine if I could write a story following her through the year, tagging along as she tried to rebuild her life. She agreed.
Elaine’s motives were partly personal, partly political. She thought having a reporter around might help her get better services, perhaps find a job or an apartment faster. She also hoped that publicizing her situation would persuade state legislators to change the Rockefeller drug laws. Few drug felons go to rallies and lobby legislators once they leave prison, but Elaine intended to keep fighting. About politicians who might read her story, she said, “Now when they lay their heads down at night, they’ll have something to think about. I don’t want anyone to forget Elaine Bartlett.”
Elaine and I spent hundreds of hours together after she came home. Sometimes I asked questions. More often, I just hung around, watching and taking notes, while she went about her day-to-day life. During her first months home, she had few friends, and I became a sort of confidante. After a while, her family members started to refer to me as “Elaine’s friend,” even though everyone knew I was a reporter. I interviewed most of the people in her life, including her sons, her sisters, and her daughters’ father. Her daughters, Danae and Tara, did not want to talk.
As store windows filled with red, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and other Valentine’s Day treats, Elaine walked the streets looking for a job. She filled out applications to be a census worker, a security guard, and a cashier at stores along 14th Street. But checking “yes” next to “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” did not invite enthusiastic responses. Few employers were willing to hire an ex-con, much less one who had just left prison after 16 years. The stigma of being a convicted felon would be hard to erase. During her first weeks home, Elaine signed up for public assistance. Her first trip to the welfare office yielded $18. She was told it would take 45 days for full benefits to begin.
Elaine’s children and a few friends tried to help. Tara bought her two outfits. Apache got his mother her own phone line. (Her first answering machine message announced, “You’ve reached Elaine Bartlett, a free woman after 16 years.”) The former prison teacher who helped her win clemency gave her a beeper. But what Elaine really needed was money. She struck up a friendship with an activist she met at her coming-home party, and he began giving her $100 or $200 each time he saw her.
Elaine was determined to rebuild her life and repair her children’s lives, too. In many ways, prison had changed Elaine. It had given her diplomas, contacts, and a belief that her own efforts might pay off. Still, friends warned her about taking on the seemingly impossible task of fixing her family’s problems. They told her just to worry about herself, to focus on getting a job and a bachelor’s degree.
“Don’t let anyone stress you out,” she recalled her brother Kenneth saying, when he called from prison in Massachusetts. “Do what you gotta do for you. They’re your family. Love them from a distance. But they will call the police on you. I’m telling you because I’ve been through it.”
Elaine ignored the advice. She hadn’t waited 16 years to be a full-time mother just to give up now that she was home.