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March|April 2004
The Problem of Prison Rape By Daniel Brook
Captive of the System By Jennifer Gonnerman
Lifers By Sasha Abramsky
The Last Supper By Brian Price
The Cuckoo's Nest By John Douglas
The Tinderbox By Don Cabana

Captive of the System

Elaine Bartlett was released after 17 years in prison, but that doesn't mean she's free. A woman's fight to keep her parole officer off her back.

By Jennifer Gonnerman

ELAINE BARTLETT PULLED OPEN THE DOOR to the parole office on West 31st Street in Manhattan one day in December 2001. "No parolees beyond this point," read a sign in the lobby next to the security guard's desk. Elaine turned left and got into the parolee elevator, which went only to the second floor. When the door slid open, she stepped out, walked to the front of the waiting room, and scrawled her name on the sign-in sheet.

There were no copies of Newsweek, Vanity Fair, or any other magazine in this waiting room. The only reading material was the large sign hanging on a front wall:

Waiting Area Rules
Sign In
Have A Seat
Wait To Be Called
Take Your Hat Off
No Walkman Use
No Cell Phone Use
No Loud Talking
No Pets
No Radio Playing


For Elaine, this dingy parole office was the latest stop on a journey that began 18 years earlier. In the fall of 1983, she had carried a four-ounce package of cocaine from Harlem to Albany and then been arrested when her buyers turned out to be undercover cops. It was the first time she'd ever been in trouble with the law. She went to trial, lost, and got a 20-years-to-life sentence under New York's punitive Rockefeller drug laws. She was sent to Bedford Hills, the state's maximum-security prison for women.

At the time of her arrest, Elaine was 26 years old and had two sons and two daughters. The boys were 10 and 6; the girls were 2 and 1. Over the next 16 years, Elaine watched them grow up in the prison's visiting room. The children bought popcorn from vending machines, posed for Polaroids, and talked about friends and teachers Elaine had never met. In 1998, a group of activists took up Elaine's cause, and, after a long struggle, she won clemency from Governor George Pataki. In January 2000, Elaine, then 42, was released from prison. But she was not completely free. She was on parole, which meant she had to obey a curfew, follow myriad other rules, and report regularly to a parole officer.

Elaine moved in with her grown children in a decrepit housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The first months were especially stressful. She struggled to build a wardrobe large enough to get her through the week. She clashed with both her daughters. Her younger son Jamel was locked up in a jail on Rikers Island for selling drugs. Each week, Elaine rode two subways and two buses to visit him. In her free time, Elaine looked for a job, and after three months of sending out résumés she found one.

By December 2001, Elaine had been out of prison for 687 days—nearly two years. In the parole office, she sat down and unzipped her winter parka. Underneath, she had on a gray cotton shirt decorated with tiny black polka dots and gold glitter. Her gray slacks were freshly ironed, a crisp crease running down the front. She planned to go straight from the parole office to her job at a residential program for drug-addicted men run by Project Renewal, an organization that helps the homeless. She didn't have to be at work until 4 p.m., but she'd come to the parole office early because she never knew how long she would have to wait.

In the past, Elaine had known what to expect here. For the first 18 months after leaving prison, she'd been assigned to Officer Alfonso Camacho. He'd been, in many ways, the ideal parole officer, not because he was a pushover, but because he explained the rules and enforced them consistently. Elaine had felt confident that as long as she kept her job, didn't get high, and didn't get in trouble with the police, she'd remain free. With Camacho, parole had been an inconvenience, not a source of enormous stress.

But in June, Elaine met for the last time with Camacho, who was about to be promoted. A large white man sat in on their appointment, watching Camacho work. Camacho explained that the man was a parole officer trainee.

"Listen, Camacho," Elaine said, as she settled into a chair next to his desk. "I think I'm going into the shelter system. I can't take it anymore. This playing mom and trying to catch up isn't working. You know, I gotta get high to deal with this daily life."

Camacho looked surprised. He knew Elaine sometimes got frustrated with her children when they wouldn't listen to her, but he'd never known her to use drugs. She had passed every drug test he had given her. "Are you getting high?" he asked.

"You know I am," she said. "Smoking my peace pipe."

"I've got to give you a drug test," he said.

"All right," she said. "Are you sure you want to do that?"

"Yeah."

"Damn, Camacho. Are you trying to violate me?" Elaine asked, using the standard term for sending someone back to jail on a parole violation.

Camacho, in fact, didn't want to send Elaine back to prison. She was one of his success stories—one of the few parolees on his caseload who had stayed out of prison for more than a year and managed to find and hold on to a full-time job. He was pretty sure that she was joking about using drugs. But there was only one way to know for certain.

Elaine went into the bathroom and filled a cup with urine while a female officer monitored her. Afterward, Camacho came in. He watched closely as Elaine placed a dipstick in the cup, waited several seconds, then removed it. In a tiny window in the middle of the stick, a blue line appeared next to each type of drug: marijuana, cocaine, heroin.

"Elaine, it's negative," Camacho said. "You must not have done enough drugs."

"Better luck next time, buddy," she said.

As Camacho escorted her back to the waiting room, Elaine leaned over to him. "We gotta make this fun," she whispered. "We can't make this boring." They both knew that she'd made up the peace-pipe story to put on a show for the trainee officer. Elaine thought Camacho would appreciate her efforts to entertain him.

Since that summer afternoon, Elaine had been through two other parole officers. She hadn't gotten to know either of them very well, and now the second one had been transferred to the Bronx. Today, she didn't know whom she would see.

At 11:30 a.m., nearly two hours after she signed in, Elaine was still sitting in the waiting room, wondering when her name would be called. As usual, everybody around her looked bored. Parolees stared out the window down onto the street. They dozed. They scanned the room, searching for friends and acquaintances. Some days Elaine ran into friends here, but not today.

Soon, though, her 24-year-old son Jamel walked in. He had left prison eight months earlier and moved into the apartment with her and the rest of his siblings. Everyone could see the evidence of Jamel's six years behind bars. His muscles bulged beneath his shirt, the product of thousands of hours of prison-yard workouts. Along one cheek was a long scar, the work of an enemy armed with a razor blade. Jamel had stayed out of trouble since leaving prison, and he'd come to the parole office from a job-training program, where he was learning about computers. Elaine hoped the training would help him land a job; she thought that if he had a steady income, he wouldn't be tempted to start selling drugs again.

After leaving prison, Jamel had been assigned to a parole officer named Ana Russell. From their first meeting, he had disliked her intensely. He thought she talked down to him, as if he were still a prisoner. And he got mad when she ordered him to tell her about anyone he knew who was selling drugs. Jamel had never cooperated with the police when he was in jail, even when it meant he would have had his sentence reduced; he had no plans to become a snitch now that he was out. Everyone in his neighborhood knew that ratting out drug dealers was a good way to put yourself and your family at risk.

After several months of reporting weekly to Officer Russell, Jamel had somehow managed to get off her caseload; he wasn't sure how. Since then, he and Elaine had been sharing a parole officer. This was standard practice. When the parole agency figures out that two parolees are related and living in the same apartment, they usually assign them to the same officer. But now the officer who had been supervising Elaine and Jamel was gone.

At 12:40 p.m., Elaine heard her name. "Bartlett!"

She looked up and saw Officer Russell. Not a good sign. Elaine and Jamel stood and walked over to her.

"I'm not going to see both of you together," Officer Russell said.

"Why can't you see us together?" Elaine asked. "The last P.O. [parole officer] we had in your division was seeing us together."

"I see each parolee individually. Period. That's it," Russell said. "We will continue this conversation in the office."

Elaine told Jamel to sit back down; she would go first. She started down the hallway leading to the tiny "report rooms," each of which is shared by two officers. Russell walked behind her.

Elaine had seen Russell around the parole office in the past, and she'd met Russell when she came to the apartment to check on Jamel. Elaine still remembered the day Jamel had first met with the parole officer. He had come home so angry and upset that he'd threatened never to go back to the parole office again—a serious breach that would have eventually landed him in jail. Elaine had spent hours railing about Officer Russell, while also pleading with Jamel to obey parole's rules.

Now it looked like Russell was going to be Elaine's new parole officer. Elaine started to seethe. She didn't want this woman to have any control over her life—to search her apartment, conduct curfew checks, even decide whether she went back to prison.

Elaine's animosity toward Officer Russell stemmed not only from Jamel's complaints but also from what she'd heard from other family members. Elaine's older son, her daughters, her sister, and their children—everybody she lived with—knew Officer Russell. None of them liked her style. When Camacho stopped by the apartment, he stayed in the front foyer, chatted briefly with Elaine, then left. Officer Russell, by contrast, strode down the apartment hall and glanced in each bedroom. After she left, everyone in the apartment complained about her for days, criticizing her gruff manner and accusing her of violating their privacy.

Ana Russell was 40 years old, four years younger than Elaine. A native of Costa Rica, she had moved to New York City when she was 14 years old. Elaine would have been surprised to learn of the similarities in their upbringings. They'd both grown up poor in a large family headed by a single mother. Russell was one of six siblings, Elaine was one of seven. In the mid-1970s, Elaine had lived in a city housing project in East Harlem, while Russell had lived in a Coney Island project.

Unlike Elaine, Russell had graduated from high school and gone onto a four-year college, where she majored in psychology. By the time Elaine met her, Russell had been a parole officer for 10 years. Occasionally, she recognized a few of the parolees who came into the office because they'd grown up in the same housing project. Nevertheless, she had little patience for these people, or for anyone who committed crimes. "I was in the same roughneck neighborhoods, but just didn't associate with the roughnecks," she often said.

Officer Russell sat down at her desk, and Elaine sat in a chair beside her. Right away Elaine began to complain about Russell's refusal to see her and Jamel together. To Officer Russell, it seemed as if Elaine thought she was the one in charge. On occasions like this one, Russell relied on a few standard lines. "You're sitting on that side of the desk; I'm sitting on this side," the officer said. "So who calls the shots? Be careful how you speak to me."

Russell picked up her pen and continued with her usual routine. Like all of her fellow officers, she had to record every meeting with a parolee by keeping chronological notes, known as "chrono notes." Officers keep track of where their parolees live and work, whether they obey their curfew, and whether they pass their drug tests. Elaine's file was thick with two years of entries.

"Where do you work?" Russell asked. It was a standard question an officer would ask any parolee who had just joined his or her caseload, but it riled Elaine.

"Did you read my chart?" she asked. "Did you take the time to familiarize yourself with my case?"

"Where do you work?" Russell asked. It was easier for her to ask than to look through Elaine's file. Parole officers supervise such large caseloads—sometimes 60 or even 70 people—that they rarely have time to read through a file before meeting with a parolee.

"Just answer my question," Russell said. "Where do you work?"

Elaine stayed silent.

"There is an interaction that takes place when you make your face-to-face reports," Officer Russell said. "I make the inquiries, and you're obliged to respond truthfully and properly according to the guidelines of your parole." Once more she asked, "Where do you work?"

"If you need to find out anything about me, you can read my file," Elaine said. "I'm not going to tell you a damn thing."

Officer Russell stepped out of the room, then returned with a senior parole officer.

"Just answer her question," he said. "That's all."

"I'm not going to answer that," Elaine said. "This woman is disrespecting me."

"How is she disrespecting you?"

"By the way she's talking to me."

"We're going to ask you one more time," the senior officer said. "Where do you work?"

Elaine did not answer.

"Stand up," he said.

As the senior parole officer watched, Russell pulled out a pair of steel cuffs and locked Elaine's wrists behind her back.

"Are you going to answer the question, or are we going to have to take you in?" he asked.

"Do what you got to do," Elaine said, sitting back down.

Pretending that she didn't care what happened to her next was, of course, a huge lie. Despite Elaine's best efforts, she was having trouble playing tough. Her legs shook. One foot started to flap. Elaine watched Officer Russell dump the contents of her pocketbook onto the desk. A pack of Newports, her Project Renewal ID card, a black book filled with business cards, a pen, an envelope, her black leather wallet. Elaine knew Russell was inspecting her possessions to prepare to take her into custody.

Parolees who get arrested in this office have usually violated some of parole's key rules—failing a few drug tests, skipping appointments, repeatedly missing their curfew. They don't often get locked up for refusing to answer a question. But they can be. Parole rule five states: "I will reply promptly, fully and truthfully to any inquiry of or communication by my Parole Officer or other representative of the Division of Parole." Once in jail, parolees can wait 15 days for a hearing to determine their fate—whether they'll return to the outside, stay in jail for a few months, or get sent upstate to finish the rest of their sentence in state prison.

Officer Russell walked toward the door. As she passed, Elaine contemplated kicking her in the shins. Stopping herself required all the energy she had. She knew that if she exploded, she would give the officer another, bigger reason to take her back to jail. And she knew that if Jamel heard she'd been locked up, he would erupt. Then they'd both end up on Rikers Island.

Elaine didn't like to think of herself as a parolee. She saw herself as a mother, an employee, an activist who often spoke at rallies protesting the Rockefeller drug laws. Yet here she was in this drab office, wrinkling her work clothes, with a pair of cuffs digging into her wrists. At this moment, in the eyes of Officer Russell, all that she'd accomplished seemed to count for nothing. She was just another drug dealer, a garden-variety criminal. She'd thought these days—the days of being treated like a number—were over when she left prison. But here she was, still paying for a mistake she'd made 18 years earlier.

On past visits to the parole office, Elaine had seen plenty of other parolees seated, just as she was now, with their wrists locked behind their back. When she'd been on Camacho's caseload, she'd never doubted that after each appointment she would leave the building on her own. But today was different. Today she was getting a taste of parole's true power.

Elaine had never heard the term "cuff therapy," but Russell and all the other officers knew what it meant: snapping a pair of cuffs around a parolee's wrists, then letting the person sit and stew for a while. Cuff therapy was a tactic officers used on parolees who were uncooperative or belligerent. Not all officers endorsed the practice, but many did, and for one reason: It worked. A good 10 or 20 minutes with their arms locked behind their back was usually enough to scare difficult parolees into submission.

The parole officer who shared an office with Russell had been listening to their dispute from behind his desk. Now he turned to Elaine. "You don't want to go to jail," he said. "Do you really want to be locked up for two weeks? I can tell you are a very proud woman, but don't let your pride get in the way because right now you're in a no-win situation."

"I understand what you're saying," Elaine said, "but I'm not going to be treated like that, whether I'm on parole or off. So if it means me being dragged downtown, I guess I just have to do it to make a statement."

Officer Russell returned to the room. As the minutes passed, Elaine's stubbornness began to subside. After about 20 minutes, the senior parole officer returned and unlocked her cuffs.

Officer Russell continued where she had left off. "Where do you work?" she asked.

"Project Renewal," Elaine said.

"Do you bring in pay stubs?"

"No. I don't have to do that. I did that in the beginning."

"Bring in a pay stub next time. What time is your curfew?"

"I don't have a curfew."

"All parolees have a curfew."

Technically, Russell was right. Camacho, however, had been flexible about Elaine's curfew. He'd given her permission to work at night, and if she got off work at midnight and returned to her apartment at 12:45 a.m., he didn't reprimand her. He also gave her permission to sleep over sometimes at her friend Lora Tucker's house in Queens. This was a privilege Elaine had earned after many months of following parole's rules.

Officer Russell pulled out a yellow form with the heading "SPECIAL CONDITIONS OF RELEASE TO PAROLE SUPERVISION." In the space below the heading, she wrote: "I will abide by a curfew of 12:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. when scheduled to work 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. and on days off Fridays Saturdays and Sundays I will abide by a 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew inside of my approved residence. . . . Failure to abide by the above written special condition may result in a violation of my parole."

Watching Officer Russell write these words, Elaine could feel herself getting angry all over again. Like the handcuffs, this piece of paper was intended, she knew, to be a tangible reminder about who was in charge.

On the bottom of the form was a blank space for a parolee's signature. "Sign this," Russell told Elaine.

"I'm not signing that," Elaine said. "To sign that means I agree with that and I don't."

Russell called for the supervisor again.

"What now?" he asked.

"She's refusing to sign the paper."

"Just put on the paper that she refused to sign."

For the last 10 months, Elaine had been on a once-a-month reporting schedule, another privilege earned by following parole's rules. Now Officer Russell told her that she was being put back on a weekly schedule. She would have to report back the following Thursday. The change enraged Elaine, but this time she kept her mouth shut.

She walked down the corridor back toward the waiting room. When Jamel saw her, he stood, and she held the door open for him. As he passed by, she didn't say a word about what had transpired. She would wait until after his meeting with Officer Russell to tell him about hers. If Jamel found out Russell had cuffed her, Elaine knew that he would throw a tantrum of his own. Elaine left the parole office and walked about 30 blocks to her job. She got to Project Renewal at 2:45 p.m., more than an hour before her shift began. She figured she'd feel better at work than wandering around the neighborhood. One of the first people she saw was Felix Laboy, a friend and co-worker who was also on parole.

"I had a rough day," Felix said.

"I did, too," Elaine replied. "I almost got locked up."

"For what?"

"For not answering where I work at."

"It's got to be more than that."

"I'm dead serious."

Elaine called everyone she could think of who might be able to make her feel better. The only person she could track down was Lora, who had been her best friend since Elaine had left prison. As soon as she had a sympathetic ear, Elaine's fury and frustration spilled out. "Can you picture that?" she asked. "Me being back in prison? It makes no damn sense. They act like they don't want to let you go. It's crazy. Two years of straight, good parole with no problems. So, c'mon. What's going on? You're telling me, if I earn something and I get switched, they can take it away from me, so what I earned means nothing."

Venting to her friend made Elaine feel a little better. What she really wanted, though, was for somebody inside the Division of Parole to hear her complaints. But if Elaine called the parole office and shouted at a supervisor, Officer Russell would surely hear about it and would probably be furious. Then, Elaine figured, Russell would watch her even more closely.

This wasn't the future Elaine had envisioned for herself during all the time she'd been locked up. She'd never imagined that, nearly two years after her release, she would still be forced to follow the dictates of the criminal justice system. She'd never expected again to feel the edge of a steel cuff digging into her wrist. But Elaine would have to report to the parole office on West 31st Street for at least another 13 months—a total of three years—before the Division of Parole would consider setting her free.

Catch and Release

PAROLE AS WE KNOW IT HAS FEW DEFENDERS. Beleaguered parole officers complain that heavy caseloads render meaningful supervision impossible, forcing them to make do with hectoring lectures and spot curfew checks. Their charges bridle at the intrusions while faulting the system for doing little to help them with the basics of life on the outside. And many policy makers and academics think parole supervision is a waste of money. There is no statistic for what parole costs the nation as a whole, but New York, the state where Elaine Bartlett lives, spends $250 million a year on it.

It's hard to measure parole's impact, since it's the subject of few studies. (It's not easy to set up a good control group of freed criminals.) But the available data offer little proof that ex-cons who are monitored by parole officers are less likely to commit a fresh crime than those who are not. Massachusetts, Florida, and Oklahoma, which each supervise fewer than half of the ex-offenders released from prison in the state, don't have more recidivists than New York, California, or Oregon, which supervise nearly everyone.

In 1907, New York enacted the first parole statute (the word comes from the French parol, referring to word of mouth, or giving one's word of honor). The practice fit with the progressive era's faith in the possibility of reform and in dealing with criminals individually. By 1942, all the states and the federal government had passed parole laws. Politically speaking, the appeal was, and is, clear. Constrained by limited resources, prison officials and legislators often quietly release prisoners early to ease prison crowding and save money. Parole supervision is supposed to be the safety net—a way to reassure that dangerous criminals aren't being left entirely to their own devices. Parolees aren't free, the logic (and the law) goes. They're serving out the remainder of their sentences on the outside, subject to whatever conditions the state sees fit to impose.

During the crime waves of the 1980s, politicians scored easy points by calling for more inmates to serve their full sentences. Some states abolished parole boards and their power to grant early release. But as sentences for drug dealing and other non-violent crimes increased, the elimination of early release threatened to drive prison costs skyward. In most states, the answer has been more parole supervision. In 1960, about 60 percent of American prisoners were monitored upon release. By 2002, 80 percent were.

Since the 1980s, the number of parolees nationally has more than tripled to 725,000. At the same time, many states started cracking down on parolees who violate conditions of their release—by breaking their curfew, failing to report their address, traveling out of state without permission, or failing a drug test. Twenty years ago, fewer than one in five prisoners were behind bars because their parole had been revoked; today, the number has risen to one in three. California, which has the highest rate of parole violators, sends almost 90,000 of its 118,000 parolees back to prison, at a cost of $900 million each year.

Yet there's little evidence that parolees who break the rules—by coming home past midnight, skipping town, or even failing drug tests—are more likely than other ex-cons to sell drugs, rob a store, or do anything else illegal. That disconnect has persuaded some insiders to question the premise of supervision. As Martin F. Horn, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and Probation and former director of the parole agency for the state, put it: "Supervision is a magician's trick. Look up my sleeve: There's nothing there."

Once parole's rules are in place, however, there are incentives to enforce them. If you're a parole officer, it's much less risky to haul a parolee who breaks the rules back to jail than to see his face or yours on the evening news. But revoking parole has costs: The price of a month in a New York cell is $2,400 per inmate, compared to $265 a month to supervise a parolee. As Michael Jacobson of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice likes to quip, "No government employee can spend money as quickly as a parole officer." Horn thinks much of the money spent re-jailing parolees is misspent. "Sure, lock up the guys who commit new crimes," he said. "But do you really want to spend the money to lock up the guy with hot urine for six months?"

In Horn's view, the government is ill-suited to help parolees achieve the three goals that will keep them out of prison: finding a home, getting a job, and staying clean. Horn wants New York and other states to replace parole with vouchers that would allow ex-cons to pay for housing, job training, and drug treatment. "The government's job should be to pay the bills," he said. "If people fail, it's on them, not on us."

That libertarian position doesn't sit well with Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. A liberal who believes in government responsibility, Travis wants to expand the system of supervision to cover every ex-inmate. "What about someone who comes out and needs help continuing his medication because he's mentally ill?" he said. "What is the nature of the government's responsibility to that person, and how does it square with concerns about public safety?"

In Travis's altered universe, parole officers would work closely with their charges in the first days and weeks after release, and they'd have the time and resources to offer support as well as conduct surveillance. Ex-offenders wouldn't be barred from receiving welfare and public housing, stripped of their parental rights, disenfranchised, and prevented from working as teachers or child-care workers, as they now are in many states. Those who did what was expected of them would earn their way off parole quickly. Those who broke the rules would cool their heels in jail for a few days.

Travis also thinks ex-offenders should be accountable not to an overworked parole officer in a small, dingy room, but in open court to the judge who sentenced them. A few states, including New York, have experimented with some form of re-entry courts. Judges help set the conditions of release and oversee a parolee's progress. When he or she successfully completes the term of supervision, there is a moment of celebration. "The judge hands you a certificate," Travis said. "Your family is there. You're restored."

—Emily Bazelon


Jennifer Gonnerman is a staff writer for The Village Voice and the author of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), from which this was adapted.

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