Thursday, November 11, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman

“For Elaine, the nights were the hardest, when she was locked in her cell…she spent the last hours of every day crying into her pillow, trying to muffle her sobs so the other women wouldn’t hear her. Eventually, after an hour or two, she would wear herself out…Every day began the same way, with a guard outside her cell shouting , ‘On the count!’ ”

If I were still at Passages I would definitely teach this book. Maybe not every kid would read the whole book but definitely I know (have some in mind) who if I brought it to their room they would devour it. In class I would photocopy particular chapters or long passages and teach the book piecemeal. The writing is worth studying because it’s honest, detailed, fair and decent to its subject. It's about how incarceration affects the whole family -- parents, children -- so if it doesn't speak to a student’s personal experience, it will probably connect to an adult he or she knows who faced prison and release. A large takeaway would be the scarlet letter of incarceration -- how one arrest can marginalize you, dehumanize you for your life.

The book hits a lot of the requirements for HS English standards -- journalism, memoir, historical accounts, govt. policy document, which is why I recommend it to teachers planning to cover these topics.

It’s a New York Story - - Rikers, the Lower East Side, Bellevue, The Rockefeller Laws, the G train, part two is titled “Thirty-five Miles from Harlem - - about Elaine Bartlett, her four children, her 16 years for a first offense, and her attempt to build a life. --Kevin Jay Heldman

Kevin Heldman taught Journalism at Passages Academy’s Horizon site from 2007-2009 and is a veteran of the U.S. military. You can read his students’ published writing here and here. Mr. Heldman has received numerous awards and his work has been published all over the place. You can read his writing at and check out his amazing bio there. If you like to read insightful, excellent, writing, you might also want to visit Mr. Heldman’s new blog at

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