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Life on the outside

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE: the prison odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. By Jennifer Gonnerman. Granta Books pound;8.99

When Elaine Bartlett went into Bedford Hills Correctional Facility she was 26, with four children, aged 10, six, three and one. When she came out the three oldest each had a child of their own, and the oldest boy was 6ft 2in with a moustache and receding hair. That's what 17 years in prison actually means to a young mother.

Elaine was sentenced under New York state's then draconian drug laws (their relaxation last year is credited at least in part to this book). Constantly in need of money to feed her family, she'd been set up by an informer.

Although it was her first offence she was sentenced to 20 years to life, a punishment that's already unimaginable. Only the clemency of the state governor got her out early - to what was in some ways another sort of captivity.

"Nobody in prison fantasises about returning home to a low-wage job, a three-train commute, a pile of unpaid bills, an angry daughter, a son in jail, a 9pm curfew, and an empty refrigerator."

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