Elaine Bartlett is a hero.
She survived serving 16 years of a 20 to life sentence for transporting a few ounces of cocaine. In the early 1980s, desperate to feed her family, she accepted $2,500 to transport a package of cocaine for a drug dealer who knew that Elaine had four children and struggled to pay her bills. She was the perfect dupe. Tragically, the father of two of her children, Nathan Brooks, accompanied her on the train ride upstate to deliver the package, so we also was arrested. Since Nathan had already been imprisoned for selling drugs, the judge threw the book at him and gave him a 25 to life sentence.
In 1983 her life changed forever when she left her family to enter Bedford Hills prison for women and become prisoner #84-G-0068. It was there that Elaine developed her ability to use her story to tell the world of the horrible drug laws that put her in prison and took her away from her family. Her family suffered greatly from Elaine’s imprisonment. During her incarceration her mother, who then was caring for her children, died in 1998 from complications from diabetes. Her son Apache then left college and became the caretaker of his brothers and sisters. He gave up a basketball scholarship and became an award winning coach for a championship girls basketball team.
In 1999 Elaine was granted executive clemency from former New York Gov. George Pataki. She walked out of prison with a $40 check only to return home to find that her family was in shambles. Two of Elaine’s brothers were imprisoned and another died of AIDS. One of her sons was arrested for drug sales. Tragically her son Apache, an accomplished basketball coach at the St. Michael Academy where he built a national championship program, died in 2012 of a heart attack at the age of 38.
For most people, the tragedies Elaine suffered would be too much to bear. But for Elaine, she found strength in surviving them and used her prison experience and as a badge of honor to get her life back on track. She began speaking about her situation and in 2004 was the subject of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. The book, written by Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer for The New Yorker, took a look at harsh sentences for drug crimes, and how the prison system fails to prepare individuals to reenter society.
Today, Elaine is working with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. She advocates for those in foster care and helps underserved girls. Elaine mentors women that are coming out of prison and gives lectures to groups about her story. She hopes her story prevents other women from walking the road she took and helps them get a second chance in their lives.
Anthony Papa is manager of media relations with the Drug Policy Alliance.