The appalling statistics of America’s incarceration industry are a staple of prison nonfiction, and Jennifer Gonnerman’s bracingly compassionate, quietly outraged Life on the Outside is no exception. As she clearly understands, such numbers retain their power to shock no matter how many times you read them: over 2 million people currently serving time; a sixfold increase in the number of convicts since 1970; a federal prison system that, as of 2003, operates at 133 percent capacity; over 600,000 people released from prisons each year; and so on.
Powerful as they are, these figures can’t convey the inconceivable disruption of human life that they represent, and Gonnerman wisely dispenses with them early on. Rather than framing her account—a long overdue expansion/summation of her work for the Voice—as a dry, clinical study, she literally fleshes out the stats by focusing on the experiences of a single New York City ex-con named Elaine Bartlett. The results illuminate what most prison books only hint at: the character-depleting effects of confinement, the frustrating continuation of its injustices once a convict is sprung, and the tenuous resilience of the criminal justice system’s castoffs.
The book opens with Bartlett’s release from Bedford Hills maximum security prison, where she served 16 years for selling a small amount of cocaine (her first offense) to a professional police stoolie in Albany. From there, the book backtracks to Elaine’s unsettled childhood in heroin-infested 1960s Harlem, where she was equally coddled and abused by her troubled mother; to her peripatetic stabs at domesticity and eventual motherhood; to her ill-advised moneymaking venture upstate, the punishment of which was exacerbated by New York’s Rockefeller drug laws—the grievously unbalanced policies largely responsible for the numbers listed above.
While her stint in Bedford Hills (a Westchester County facility that, ironically, had a real estate link to the Rockefeller family) is chock-full of deprivation and tedium, Elaine’s post-prison existence is even more harrowing. After a promising start, she must endure power-mad parole officers, uncaring landlords and employers, the understandable resentment of her children, and her own rage and depression at having forfeited more than a decade of her life. She quells some of this anger by becoming a tireless anti-Rockefeller-laws activist, but, as the book’s ambivalent conclusion reveals, nothing can compensate for her loss.
This vacuum haunts Life on the Outside, and Gonnerman’s austere prose and taut, crystal-clear reasoning belie an obvious respect for Bartlett’s stubborn ability to maintain a level of dignity in the face of the systemic and intrinsic odds against her:
“Coming home from prison is about learning to control your temper without using your fists. It’s about finding a place to sleep. It’s about remembering how to feed yourself. . . . It’s about trying to earn respect from the children you abandoned.”
It’s impossible not to share the author’s respect and wider sense of tragedy, but if there’s a quibble to be made, it’s that Bartlett is presented as an uncharacteristic casualty of the prison system. She’s female and reasonably educated, and was granted clemency rather than paroled or put away for life. She also possesses formidable personal courage. Only a heartless martinet would begrudge her these admittedly narrow advantages, but it leads one to wonder what becomes of the thousands of cons and ex-cons who lack them. It’s to Gonnerman’s credit that her book surreptitiously raises this question, and there’s ample reason to hope she’ll answer it in future projects.