Elaine Bartlett waved goodbye to the guard behind the front desk, strutted the last few yards to the prison’s front door, and stepped out into the brisk winter morning. Snowflakes sprinkled her face and her black trench coat, but she did not pause to brush them off. As quickly as her three-inch heels would permit, Elaine marched down the asphalt pathway toward an 18-foot chain-link fence. At 9:54 a.m. on January 26, 2000, after 16 years locked inside Bedford Hills prison in Westchester County, Elaine was finally going home.
Suddenly, behind her, dozens of women began yelling . Elaine stopped, spun around, and looked up at the brick building that housed the prison’s school. Prisoners filled its windows, waving mittens, hats, and scarves. “We love you, Elaine!” they shouted. “You go, girl!” It was a Bedford Hills ritual she had participated in many times, shouting goodbyes to other women while her own prison sentence dragged on. Elaine raised both arms and waved back. Then she continued her journey to the prison’s front gate.
On the other side of the fence, a young man in a parka paced the prison guards’ parking lot. Elaine passed through the last gate, skittered along the snow, and threw her arms around him. Robert “Apache” Paschall buried his face in his mother’s hair and squeezed her tightly, as if to ensure she wouldn’t abandon him again. When Elaine finally let go, there was a smudge of cranberry lipstick on Apache’s coat.
“We did it!” she shouted.
When Elaine arrived at the maximum-security prison in 1984, she was 26 years old. At five feet seven inches, she often wore shoes that added an inch or two, making her statuesque. She was slender and pretty, with large brown eyes and long, wavy hair. Now she was 42. A fresh dye job hid her gray roots, and the prison’s starchy diet had left her with a size-16 figure. Elaine had lost her youth in prison, but that bothered her far less than her years away from her family.
Before her arrest, she lived in an East Harlem housing project, where she was raising four small children: 10-year-old Apache, six-year-old Jamel, three-year-old Satara, and one-year-old Danae. While Elaine was in prison, her children had become adults, and now the three oldest each had a baby of their own.
“Where’s Tara and Na-na?” Elaine asked, referring to her daughters by their nicknames.
“Tara is asleep and Na-na is in school,” Apache said.
Elaine’s smile disappeared. But she decided not to grill Apache about why his sisters hadn’t come to celebrate her first minutes of freedom.
Instead, Elaine linked her fingers with her son’s and led him across the street toward a row of television camera tripods stuck in a snowbank. Elaine was not just any inmate going home; by now, she was a minor celebrity. One month earlier, just before Christmas, Governor George Pataki had granted clemency to Elaine and two other female inmates, permitting them to leave prison before their sentences ended.
“Congratulations,” said a WCBS-TV reporter, pointing his microphone toward Elaine’s lips.
“What are your thoughts after coming out after so many years?”
“I waited for so long that I’m just thankful the governor gave me my life back,” Elaine said. “Today, my life starts again.”
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?“
“I’m going to enjoy my family and show them how much love I’ve carried all these years and let them know that without them I wouldn’t have made it.”
“What have the past 16 years been like?”
Elaine’s arrest was a catastrophe not only for her, but for her children. In the fall of 1983, she had carried a four-ounce sack of cocaine from Harlem to Albany in a deal set up by an acquaintance, who turned out to be a police informant. Not only was Elaine busted, but so was Nathan Brooks, the father of her two daughters. It was Elaine’s first arrest. Under New York State’s strict drug laws, she got 20-years-to-life; Nate got 25-years-to-life. In one afternoon, all of Elaine’s children lost their mother, and her daughters also lost their father.
Elaine’s mother, Yvonne Bartlett, stepped in to raise the children. She began bringing them to the prison visiting room each week, a routine she continued for nearly 10 years. There, Elaine would braid her daughters’ hair and listen to her sons perform raps they had written. As they grew older, the children occasionally spent the night inside the prison’s fences, in trailers equipped with a kitchen, a television, and a bed. Elaine tried to be a good mother, nagging them to bring their report cards and using her phone privileges to track down their guidance counselors. But of course, she missed every school graduation, every birthday party, every basketball game.
Before she got arrested, Elaine had never heard of the state’s Rockefeller drug laws, which were signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973. She did not know that anyone convicted of possessing four or more ounces or selling two or more ounces of cocaine or heroin receives a mandatory prison sentence of at least 15-years-to-life. Nor did she know that the length of these prison sentences is determined solely by the quantity of drugs involved, not whether the defendant is a courier or a kingpin.
In prison, Elaine became an expert on the Rockefeller drug laws. She read court cases in the law library and studied newspaper accounts of the political debate over the laws. She learned that almost everyone arrested for a drug crime pleads guilty rather than do what she did—risk going to trial and facing a lengthy mandatory sentence. By the time of her release, Elaine could rattle off statistics about how the Rockefeller drug laws have led to a prison-building boom, how there are more than 20,000 drug prisoners in New York, and how most drug prisoners are, like her, African American.
“Do you feel that society will let you live down [your crime] when you leave here?” the reporter asked outside Bedford Hills. “Are you worried about people judging you?”
“I’m not worried about them judging me. Now I’ve empowered myself. I’ve educated myself. So I can stand here and say I am very proud of the woman I am today, that I was able to keep a bond with my family despite being incarcerated and be the best mother that I could be from behind these walls.”
When she got back home, Elaine planned to get a job and show her family a way of life that had nothing to do with selling drugs or getting arrested. She had dropped out of school in 10th grade, but in prison she got her high school degree and became the first person in her family to finish college, receiving a two-year associate’s degree. She wanted all her children to finish high school and go to college too. It wouldn’t be easy. Her younger son, Mel, was already on Rikers Island, awaiting trial on drug charges. Still, Elaine believed her children had held up fairly well. Unlike many prisoners, she had not lost her children to the foster care system. “At least I only have one kid in prison,” she would say. “Some people I know, all their children are in prison.”
Elaine did not explain all this to the reporters circling around, but when she got a moment alone with Apache, she announced her plan. “We’re going to change the whole cycle of the Bartlett family for the next generation,” she said.
By 11 a.m. the television cameras had left, and so had the other two clemency recipients. Elaine was not in a hurry. Swinging her trench coat over one shoulder, she pranced back and forth on the wet snow, showing off her electric purple pantsuit and transforming the prison guards’ parking lot into a fashion runway. “Do you like my outfit?” she asked, not waiting for an answer. “I’m a free woman now,” she announced. “It’s all good.”
Elaine climbed into the van that would take her to Manhattan, the first time since 1983 that she would travel without handcuffs and leg irons. Reaching inside her new Victoria’s Secret bra, she pulled out a wad of bills. “They gave me $40,” Elaine said. “Can you believe that?” She massaged the money with her fingertips; these bills, the first she had touched in years, are the prison’s standard farewell gift. “Can you buy lunch for $40 now?” Elaine asked, then laughed at her own joke.
Elaine began her campaign for clemency in 1995, after she had finished half her minimum prison sentence and was eligible to apply. Her mother was seriously ill with diabetes, and Elaine was desperate to get home to help. She drafted a one-page letter to the clemency bureau pleading for early release.
There are more than 70,000 prisoners in New York State, and the governor typically grants no more than six or seven clemency requests each year. Some years, he grants none. The clemency bureau rejected Elaine in 1996. Her mother died two years later. Elaine arrived at Yvonne’s funeral in the back of a prison van, wearing handcuffs and leg irons.
I met Elaine a few weeks after her mother’s death, when I went to Bedford Hills to interview her about the state’s drug laws. We spoke for an hour or two inside a conference room near the prison’s entrance. Elaine had never been interviewed before, and she was nervous. Sweat covered her brow. When the conversation turned to her mother, tears streamed down Elaine’s cheeks. To me, she looked defeated. Tangled hair. Gray roots. No makeup. Later, I learned that Elaine purposely did not fix herself up before the interview. When her picture appeared in the newspaper, she didn’t want to look any better than she felt.
Elaine reapplied for clemency in 1998. This time, she recruited a prison teacher to help her, and she solicited letters from everyone she knew, from the prison’s guards to her children. Meanwhile, a grassroots movement to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws was growing in New York. Elaine became one of its favorite examples of the laws’ injustices. Charles Grodin championed her case on his television talk show, and her story appeared in the Daily News, The New York Times, and twice in the Voice.
On December 23, 1999, Pataki awarded Elaine clemency, shaving four years off her sentence. Her perseverance and newly acquired media savvy had paid off. Elaine celebrated by planning her future. She swore she would never be like some longtime inmates, whose Christmas cards back to the prison talked about how much they missed everyone. It was too late to repay her mother for raising her children, but at least Elaine could go home and try to make up for some of the lost years.
I was working on a story about Elaine’s successful fight for clemency, and so on the morning of her release, I sat behind her in the back row of the van as it sped out of the parking lot. Lora Tucker, the former prison teacher who helped free her, was in the driver’s seat. Apache sat next to his mother, holding her hand.
This morning he had woken before 5 a.m. to catch a ride to the prison. As usual, he wore jeans, a gold chain, and a silver stud in his left ear. Though he was only 26, the same age Elaine had been when she went to prison, years of responsibility made him seem exhausted, with perpetually sleepy eyes. In all his trips to the visiting room, Elaine had never seen him cry. But this morning he had, and Elaine gently brushed away his tears with her freshly painted purple-glitter nails.
Apache had once been a high school basketball star with a promising future. He had played for La Salle Academy and High School for the Humanities, then won a scholarship to a prep school in South Dakota. He got a college scholarship, too, but then his grandmother’s health deteriorated. Friends told Apache he would be crazy to sacrifice his basketball dreams for his family. But Apache came home anyway, to help raise his sisters. He eventually got a job coaching basketball part-time at a Catholic girls’ high school. He also ran his own AAU basketball club with seven teams, which he entered in tournaments around the city.
Now Elaine wanted to locate her daughters. I handed Apache a cell phone and he dialed home. “Where’s Tara at?” he asked. “Go wake her up and tell her her mother wants to speak with her.”
Elaine had never held a cell phone, but she had no trouble figuring out how to use it. “You know who you’re talking to?” Elaine asked her daughter. “Do you know where your mother is at? That’s right. I’m in the car on my way to Manhattan. Listen. At three o’clock, I want you and Na-na to meet me at the restaurant. Do you have a pen? Take this address. We’ll be outside waiting for you, so you’ll definitely see your mother. You remember what your mother looks like, right?” Elaine laughed again. Apache and Tara had come to visit her just three weeks earlier.
The van hurtled down the highway en route to the West Village, where opponents of the Rockefeller drug laws were holding a party for the newly freed clemency recipients. First, she stopped at the Division of Parole on West 31st Street in Manhattan to meet her parole officer. Elaine was out of prison, but still under state supervision for the next five years. She would have to check in with her parole officer every week.
At 3:30 p.m., Elaine arrived at her welcome-home party. She was striding toward the restaurant’s front door just as her older daughter, Tara, and Tara’s boyfriend climbed out of a cab. Elaine hugged her daughter, and a photographer and cameraman ran over to record the moment. No time for a private reunion. When they got inside the restaurant, Tara hid in a corner while her mother bounced from journalist to journalist, savoring her minutes in the media spotlight with one arm draped around Apache’s shoulders.
“It was the best walk I ever took,” Elaine said to a WB11 TV reporter, describing her march down the icy path to the prison’s exit.
“When you heard that [20-years-to-life] sentence, what were you thinking?” the reporter asked.
“That I was railroaded out of my life. It didn’t take me 16 years, two weeks, and three days to learn my lesson. You could have put me on probation. You could have had me do community service. There were different things you could’ve done with me other than throwing me in jail and throwing away the key like I was Charles Manson or somebody.”
The party, the reporters, the free linguini with shrimp—it was all part of Elaine’s victory lap, the beginning of her new life as a free woman. Activists, ex-cons, reporters, prisoners’ relatives, a judge, and Charles Grodin congratulated her. But Elaine’s family reunion was still incomplete, and so around 5:30 p.m. Apache and Tara took their mother over to the school on East Houston Street where their younger sister frequently practiced basketball. Elaine bumped into Danae in a stairwell. “Oh, my God!” Danae shouted, as she embraced Elaine. “My mother! My mother!”
Finally, Elaine had tracked down three of her four children. Her son Mel would have to wait until she could get to Rikers Island. Elaine’s children steered her north along the eastern edge of Alphabet City, past the supermarkets and bodegas lining Avenue D. A television crew tagged behind to record her triumphant return.
Before her arrest, Elaine had lived with her children on East 122nd Street. She had never lived in the East Village, but this was where her mother had raised Elaine’s children. Over the years, Elaine had spent so many hours studying the snapshots her family sent—of picnics and birthday parties and barbecues—that she felt as though she had been on these blocks before.
The children led their mother down a graffiti-scarred hallway, and they grew quiet as they neared their apartment’s front door. The door opened, and Elaine stepped inside. She stopped. There were no crepe-paper streamers, no helium balloons, no “Welcome Home, Mom!” signs. Instead, pieces of a dining table leaned against one wall, held together by duct tape. Broken chairs spread across the front foyer. Dirt smudged the ceiling. And a tattered sheet hung in the doorway to the living room, creating a makeshift wall.
“Oh, my God!” Elaine shouted. She never imagined her children’s home would be in worse condition than the prison she had just left. She whirled around. “Turn that camera off! Do not show that on TV!”