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GOTHAM GAZETTE: We're here with Jennifer Gonnerman, formerly of the Village Voice, who will talk to us about Life on the Outside: the Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. The book uses the story of one woman to talk about some issues facing the city, and the nation as well but our focus is the city. These issues are the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and ex-prisoners' reintegration into society.
Ms.. Gonnerman, when you met Elaine Bartlett, you were working as a reporter for the Village Voice, meeting with various inmates. What struck you about her, that you would spend the next several years writing a book that rests on her story?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I met Elaine Bartlett in 1998 when she was in Bedford Hills prison doing 20 to life, and she was in year 14. At that time I was at the Voice, and it was the 25th anniversary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which no one was even writing about because by news standards there was no real news reason to write about it they had been on the books for so long and nothing had changed. I used the anniversary as an excuse to interview five people [in New York prisons] who were doing at least 15 to life for a first drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
That day at Bedford I interviewed three women; she was the last. The first two women who came in got all dolled up for the interview. Elaine came in last, and she looked like she hadn't gotten out of bed in a month. She purposely wore her whole uniform; she certainly hadn't brushed her hair or anything. I didn't want to ask any questions because she looked so deeply depressed. I was afraid that if I asked her about her life, or her sentence, or her prison circumstances, that she might just break down and cry. But of course I was there, and that was my job. So I started asking questions, and she started answering them. She was so both blunt and honest about her life, and perceptive, that I was just very struck by her.
I found her to be such a good interview and of course her story is so unbelievably compelling: she was doing 20 to life, went in when she was 26, when she was locked up she had four kids under the age of 10, it was a first offense
GOTHAM GAZETTE: -- And she was set up.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yes, and she was set up. I didn't even know half the stuff that's in the book at that time. In fact, I didn't know there was going to be a book. But I did quote her in the piece extensively, and ended up writing another piece about her a year later before she got clemency. When she got out of prison, I was there. The book grew out of those articles from the Voice, but the relationship really started with that very first meeting.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you remember anything specific that she said in that first meeting that stuck with you?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The meeting was April 1998, and her mother passed away in either February or March. She described going to say goodbye to her mother. This meant leaving Bedford Prison in a van, shackled, going to a hospital in East Harlem, and walking through the hospital in shackles to say goodbye to her mother, who she hadn't seen outside a prison setting in 14 years. Her mother is in bed, a day or two before her death, and she basically just climbed into the bed next to her wearing the shackles. It had happened just a few weeks before, and she was crying when she told the story. It's just the kind of thing you never forget.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: You write that in many ways she is not typical of the people who are in prison, and the people who are in prison for the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So two questions: how so? And then, the obvious question: Why write a book about her in particular?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It's probably impossible to pick any prisoner and say, "this prisoner is completely typical." Because prison is just like society who is the typical American? She's unusual because she's female that puts her very much in the minority.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: About 15 percent of prisoners are female?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I think it's less than that.
Elaine was also unusual because she was at Bedford Hills, which is the only maximum security prison for women in New York State, and it also had a college program. Many prisons used to have college programs, but they eliminated virtually all of them in the mid-1990s when Congress voted to take Pell Grants away from prisoners. But Bedford raised money privately, so Elaine was able to continue an education, get an associates degree, and move towards a bachelors. So by the time she came out she was much better educated than most other people coming out of prison.
She also did a tremendous amount of time 16 years. That's an extraordinary amount of time, especially for a non-violent offense. You see a lot of people going in and out, but for someone to do such a long stretch at one time is pretty unusual.
ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS
GOTHAM GAZETTE: How do the Rockefeller Drug Laws work? And you can say they don't really, but what is the mechanism of it?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The Rockefeller Drug Laws were created in 1973 under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. They were the first mandatory minimum drug laws in the country, so in a lot of ways they kicked off the nation's War on Drugs.
Mandatory minimum sentences mean that your prison term is mandatory. The power has shifted from the judges to the prosecutors in a sense in determining what the severity of your punishment will be. The judge's hands were essentially tied; once you were convicted of a certain crime he or she had to give a certain punishment, a mandatory punishment. And the way that the punishment was determined was by the weight of the drugs involved, not, for example, by whether you were a drug kingpin or a drug mule.
In Elaine's case she was arrested for a drug sale to an undercover cop for more than two ounces, the highest level, an A1 felony, in New York State. So the judge was required to give her at least 15 to life. She had the bad luck of having a judge up in Albany county, "Maximum" John Clyne, who gave her twenty to life.
This way of fighting the War on Drugs was copied across the country, and also by the federal government. These laws are still on the books, even though many states have softened them.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: They also don't place all drugs on an equal footing.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, the Rockefeller Drug Laws apply to cocaine and heroin. Meanwhile, New York State has a very lenient policy on marijuana. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is technically a violation, not a crime. Way back when, in the 1970s, a lot of middle college kids started getting a lot of state prison time for marijuana, and parents went ballistic. You had a lot of parents up in Albany lobbying, and that's when they started to really decriminalize marijuana in New York State. I always felt if you had the same kids getting locked up under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, maybe we wouldn't have the situation we have now, which is that roughly 94 percent of inmates in the state prison system who are there under the drug laws are African American or Latino.
BOB ZANE: It seems like before Governor Rockefeller signed these laws he had a liberal reputation. Then he made these drug laws. Do you think one of the reasons he did this is because he wanted to run for president or vice president of the United States?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: A lot of people who were around him at the time basically said as much. There was such a marked difference from the past; they felt he had gone from playing for a New York audience to a national audience. He had to shore up his conservative credentials, and what way to do that faster and easier than appearing tough on crime?
GOTHAM GAZETTE: You write that when you interviewed Elaine after she got of prison, you imagined this as the happy ending to her prison story. But your book continues for years, following her difficult effort to rejoin society. What trials that she faced surprised you the most?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, everything surprised me. The day she walks out of prison, she describes it as the happiest day of her life, of course. I had been going up to visit her in the weeks before, as the excitement was building. After fighting for a couple of years, she had received clemency from Governor Pataki. He had only given it to three or four people out of 70,000; it's like winning the lottery. So she got four years shaved off her sentence.
Elaine imagined that this was a happy ending to a very traumatic and tragic story. I thought it was the beginning of better days. It turned out we were both very, very naοve and overly optimistic.
I thought that when you get out of prison, you'd find a place to live, you'd get a job, and in six months you'd be up and running. After she got out of prison, I wrote a piece for the Voice about the release. I continued to stay in touch with her. Sometimes she would call me at the Voice and explain the scene in her apartment, and her relationships with the kids, which were increasingly frayed. She used to say things on the phone to me like, "I left one prison to come home to another." That phrase is almost like a mantra that runs through the book. I realized in a lot of ways that the story was just starting, the struggle was just beginning. It was another whole journey she was about to undertake.
I ended up following her for the first year for a piece that ran in the Village Voice in 2000. It was 18 pages in the Voice, very long. After the piece came out, she had a job. She didn't really have a place to live yet she was still living with her children at the Lilian Wald houses on Avenue D. And we stayed in touch and would hang out sometimes. She would say, "Hey, how about you write a book." And I would say, "A book? 18 pages in the Village Voice isn't enough? How much more is there to say? Is there really anything else going to happen here?" I didn't know. She promised me that the story hadn't ended, and of course it had not.
It got to this question of how long it takes someone to re-enter society, and to get back up on their feet. The book ends up following her over four years, and I would say the process continues even to this day. Especially someone who did as much time as she did. She went in at 26, and when she got out in some ways she was still 26 and in other ways she was 42. So there was this incredible learning curve. That's a lot of what the book deals with. People use the term reentry. For a lot of people coming out of prison it's much more complex than that. In a lot of ways I think it's a lifelong process.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: In general, is the difficulty in getting out of prison because of actual legal barriers, or because prisoners have been damaged socially by being in prison?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, both.
The list is so long about what the problems people face coming home from prison. It's become an increasingly popular subject in the last three or four years. There's a long list of things prisoners can't do: in New York State you can't get a barber's license. If you're on parole you can't stay out after nine, can't vote, can't legally live in a housing project, even though the housing projects are full of people that have been through the prison system.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: No matter what the crime was that you were convicted of?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The laws vary state to state. In New York you can't vote if you are on parole -- it doesn't matter what the crime is. Most people coming out are on parole. There are basic parole rules and then sometimes they add on special ones.
The barber's license you can't get if you're a convicted felon unless they make a special exception for you.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: In the Drum Major Institute blog there was the story of a guy who was in prison
JENNIFER GONNERMAN; -- Marc LaCloche. He was a barber on the inside, he was trained by the prison system and became very good. He came out and wanted to be a barber and why not? He couldn't get a license, and he fought and it was a court battle, and he won, and then it was appealed. It was endless. One day I was sitting at the Village Voice and someone called me and told me Marc LaCloche had passed away. And in a very small world, he was a little bit of a celebrity, because he was the one person who actually tried to fight for his rights. He was en route to Potters Field, and we ended up writing a piece on him in the Voice. All these people came forward and donated money and he ended up being buried in New Jersey in a cemetery.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: How had he died?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: He ended up dying of AIDS.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: What I dont understand is why they trained him as a barber in prison in the first place if he wasn't allowed to practice when he was released.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It makes no sense, but it's not really unusual. What people spend their time doing in prison often times has virtually no relationship to what work they may be able to do on the outside.
This speaks to a larger ambivalence on the part of society about what are we putting people in prison to do. Are we trying to punish them or are we trying to rehabilitate them? There was a time when prisons were thought to be correctional facilities and rehabilitation was the goal. But over the last thirty years or so there has been a shift to pure punishment. This is why you have virtually no college programs anymore, why you have people not trained for jobs that they could actually do, or trained for jobs that don't exist.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: These are things that are obviously barriers. What about the psychological issues? Would these exist no matter what?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: When I was thinking about Elaine getting out of prison, what her year would be like, and what I would be reporting on, I had been thinking that as long as she gets an apartment and a job that she'd be okay. But she had four kids, and for her the biggest struggle coming out was not finding an apartment or a job - although those struggles were enormous - it was trying to be a mother to her children and repair these deeply damaged relationships, and make up for all of this lost time.
She has four kids. When she got out of prison, one was at Rikers Island on a drug case of his own, which was something she had to deal with. And though obviously her kids were thrilled to have her home, her two youngest daughters were very upset because their mother had been gone virtually their entire lives. Trying to help these kids who had basically grown up without parents was her full time job in a sense. That speaks a little bit to the psychological ramifications that someone faces when they come home. I think that in some ways they are a little more pronounced for women if they are the primary caretaker.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is there a most common way that former felons end up in jail?
Hills, the prison for women.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, there are many ways, but one of the main ways is through parole violations. This can mean any of a host of things that you give your parole officer dirty urine, failing your drug test; maybe you've stopped going to your parole officer altogether because you dont want to give him dirty urine, or you're tired of parole. Drugs, in many ways, are the things that take a lot of people back. Either possession or sale, or some crime related to it, or using drugs and disappearing and not reporting to your parole officer anymore.
But also, and this isn't dealt with so much in the book, there are a tremendous amount of people in prison who have some sort of mental illness. And you think the problems were hard for Elaine. When mentally ill people come out of prison, they have very few resources, and often there are periods of time when they can't get their medication. They may behave in ways that are not criminal but just so bizarre that their parole officer thinks that it's better to lock them up before they do something. Mental illness is often what brings people back into the system.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is there a happy ending to the Elaine Bartlett story? The book ends in 2003. We don't even know if Nathan, her boyfriend who was arrested with her when she was 26, gets out of jail.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: He did get out of prison, shortly after the book was published in 2004. This was not specifically related to the book's publication, but the legislature had changed the way that merit time was calculated in part because of the activism of people like Elaine Bartlett.
All of the problems that are detailed in the book don't stop existing after it comes out. Life goes on. The damage done to her entire family by her absence over such a long period of time runs so deep that [it can't be erased] no matter what she does over the next twenty years. She says this herself in a very memorable way: "After being away for 16 years you come home and you're a complete stranger to your family. They love you but they're angry with you at the same time because of everything they went through in those 16 years and you weren't there. You can't get the birthdays back, you can't get the graduations back, you can't get the nights they laid up crying wanting mommy and she was nowhere to be found. You can't get those years back. No matter what you do in life you can never go back." I can't say it any better.
MARTHA SOFFER: What's she doing now?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: She is living in the same place she is at the end of the book, in Washington Heights. She is still trying to rebuild her life. She puts tremendous amount of energy into her granddaughter Tanae. From the passage I just read you can see that the pain of not raising her children is never going to go away. So it's almost like she's trying to be a mother to the grandchild. She had her kids quite young, so if you saw her on the street with her grandchild you might think that was her kid.
MARTHA SOFFER: Is she working?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: She was working, but she just lost her job and I don't think she has a new one yet. The struggles go up and down. There have been good streaks and bad.
MARTHA SOFFER: What kind of work was she doing?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Her last job, I believe, was answering telephones at a community center on the Lower East Side.
EASING THE TRANSITION FROM PRISON
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do city, state, and federal government have responsibilities or incentives to create programs for ex-prisoners? Are such programs politically feasible in New York?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: In the last three or four years there's been a tremendous focus on prisoner reentry, which means there's also been a lot of federal money going into a lot of programs across the country. There's been a tremendous sea change. It used to be that people just talked about, "lock 'em up, lock 'em up", and there was very little thought about what happened on the back end. Now there's been a real focus on that though it's hard to generalize nationally.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: What about in New York?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: There are a number of different places people can go for services. The biggest thing is housing. It's a problem for everybody, but the shelters are full of ex-prisoners with nowhere to go.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Are there specific programs for ex-prisoners in terms of housing?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Not so much. There is a little bit of housing specifically for ex-prisoners, but a lot of people in New York City need housing who never committed a crime. That's just a huge problem citywide.
MARTHA SOFFER: What about organizations that can help you get a job?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yeah, there are a lot of organizations. New York City actually has a much higher number than most places, so in some ways Elaine was fortunate that she came home here. There are places like the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society. There's a lot of different places that if you go in there after you've gotten out of prison they will help you get a job. What do you do in an interview? How do you make a resume? What do you say? What do you not say? How do you deal with the inevitable question, "Do you have a felony on your record?" It is possible to get a job for a lot of people when they come out of prison.
This is dealt with a lot in the book. This guy named George Lino helps Elaine to get a job. He plays a very important role by giving her very straight-up advice on how to get a job. He told me once that getting people into jobs is not the hard part; it's making sure they keep their job. This might seem counterintuitive, but these people are coming from a highly structured environment where every decision is made for them. Suddenly they're on the outside and responsible for themselves. They may not have used an alarm clock in ten years. They never wear a watch. There are a lot of things that people may have never dealt with that they must learn before they can be a reliable employee.
FORMER PRISONERS AND ACTIVISM
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Are there specific programs that are known to be most effective, and are they focused here in New York? You said New York is known for its programs. Is it because they're more effective, or just because there are more of them?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: There are a lot of programs here in New York. I mentioned a couple of them; there are many more I can mention. There's a program called Exodus that started in the last five years in East Harlem. It was started by Julio Medina, who was a drug gang leader from, I believe, the Bronx. He did a lot of time, he came out, and said he wanted to start his own organization for people coming out of prison. I met a lot of people who after coming out of prison said they wanted to start their own organization where they gave back and did something positive. He's one of the only people I saw who pulled it off. All the skills he had used in the past to commit crimes he put to good use. He was actually with George Bush at the State of the Union a couple of years ago as a model program. It was very much about people who have come out of prison helping other people who are coming out of prison a peer model. I think it is a very powerful model, people saying, I know what you're going though because I've been down that path before.
One of the things about coming out of prison for Elaine and a lot of people that's so difficult is that you don't have role models. You may know people who have been locked up again, but it's hard to find people who have broken out in the ways you were suggesting. Elaine was very hungry to find those people, to try to follow their lead. Programs that hire a lot of ex-offenders, like Fortune Society, play a crucial role in helping people figure out how to overcome all the legal and psychological hurdles.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Is there a group of people who have devoted themselves to fighting the Rockefeller Drug Laws? Has that given them a purpose in life?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: One of the themes that runs throughout the book is the role that Elaine's activism plays, politically and statewide, but also in her own personal life. After she gets out of prison she does become an activist, hanging out with Tony Papa and other prisoners-turned-activists who did time under the drug laws. For her becoming an activist, speaking at rallies, telling her story again and again, it was therapy, and it was also a way to rewrite her history. I don't mean rewrite by changing the facts of what happened, but by recasting prison as less about a tragedy that decimated her family, but more about, "I went through this and now I'm going to help people avoid the same fate, and change the laws so they don't have to do as much time as I did."
But one of the things about coming out of prison, as I mentioned, is that most people are on parole. And when you're on parole you can't associate with other people who are on parole other felons. Now that makes sense on the one hand, because you don't want someone who you're trying to steer in the right direction to be hanging out on the corner with people who are selling drugs. But it does make this question of peer counseling or looking for new role models a little more complicated.
CALVIN JOHNSON: I have a question carrying on the theme of activism. To what extent were you motivated by activism as well? Certainly the Village Voice has a reputation of that journalistic style. Can you comment on where you saw an activism agenda or political implications of the book? Beyond telling a story, what are the effects that reach out into the larger situation?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I felt like my personal goal, mission, or purpose was to tell the story as clearly and frankly as possible. What happened after that, politically or otherwise, was out of my hands. I also thought that it wasn't my concern in a sense. One thing that happens with journalists who are well meaning or trying to make a difference, is that there's an impulse to sugarcoat the story. And I think that doesn't make for good journalism.
As an example, when Elaine gets out of prison she is very frustrated and angry, like most people. Her youngest daughters are home, and she starts bossing them around, acting like she thinks a mom should. There's obvious tension, and a couple of times she becomes physical with them. I felt that was a very important thing to put in the book. This speaks to how deep the problems run, how deep the frustrations and anger truly are. Controlling her temper is going to be one of the challenges through the rest of her journey. Of course, this might not be something that an activist would want to read.
TARA McISAAC: I wanted you to comment more if you could about low-income housing. The state funds for low-income housing were re-routed into building prisons. I was appalled at that, and I was wondering if you could educate me any further?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I don't know much more than what's in the book, but it talks about state money being earmarked for low-income housing and then being diverted, and I talk about how it was used to build prison cells in upstate New York. One of the saddest parts of Mario Cuomo's legacy is that he built more prisons than any governor before him.
In a lot of ways his hands were tied. You can say, "Well, that's a horrible thing. He shouldn't have done that." But the state legislature had passed these incredibly punitive Rockefeller Drug laws, so he's required, once they are given these very hefty sentences, to put them someplace. For the laws to be changed, the legislature had to change them. And no one was willing to go out on a limb or what was perceived to be a limb and change them. That only happened within the last year or two.
It is one of the little known tragedies. We have now 66,000 people locked up, most of whom are in upstate New York. You go to these little towns near the Canadian border and it seems like every other person is a prison guard, because that's the number one employer. All that money that's going up there is money that's not being spent for low-income housing here, or other things. It's extraordinarily expensive about $32,000 a year to keep somebody locked up. I think I estimated it cost about half a million dollars to keep Elaine locked up for all that time.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: There are two other aspects of what you were talking about. One were the electoral politics of that how prisoners are counted as residents upstate.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: This is something that has been getting a lot of attention thanks to the work of one or two people. I'm guessing on the numbers here, but between two-thirds and three-quarters of prisoners in New York State prisons are from New York City. Once they leave the five boroughs their numbers are counted in the Census wherever they are placed. Since virtually all the prisons are upstate, those districts look larger. Obviously they are allocated funds accordingly. There has been a push to count prisoners in their home zip codes, which would benefit New York City.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: The idea is not just that the money is allocated upstate, but that there are more representatives upstate than would be otherwise because there are more districts there because of the populations who are imprisoned, even though they are not allowed to vote for candidates. Some people have compared this to the 18th century where slaves were counted for purposes of apportionment but could not vote.
TERRI GOLDBERG: One thing that was very striking to me in the book was parole violations. I was amazed that they were as strict as they were: the voting, what kind of dog you could own. Do you have any idea of how and why they come up with these? It almost seems like they're still in prison.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, you know you can't have a rottweiler or pit bull if you are on parole. Officers don't want to get bitten when they do a house visit. They don't make these rules up for no reason. You have to be home by 9 pm and can't leave before 6 am. That's because officers do house visits to check that you're actually living there. They want to be able to show up at 9:15 and know you'll be there.
But there is a sense that you're still in prison after you leave. Just as I was saying with the prison system that there has been a shift from rehabilitation being the focus to straight-up punishment, the same thing is true with parole. So while there are a lot of parole officers trying to help people when they get out of prison, the pressure is on them to just play the role of law enforcement, just be a cop in a sense. There is very little incentive to not lock someone up, and the fear is that if you don't lock someone up they're going to commit another crime and you're going to be called into your boss's office.
CHANGES IN THE DRUG LAWS
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Let's go back a little to the drug policy, which was changed in 2004. What did these changes mean to people who had been convicted of drug offenses, or for those who are being convicted now?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I don't recall all the numbers off the top of my head, but people that were convicted under the A1 statute, the most extreme statute, received less time than they would have previously, a few years less. It was retroactive. But most people who are in the system under the drug laws are so-called B-level felonies, a lower level. They were not affected by these laws.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think the change in administration in Albany will bring more substantial change to the Rockefeller Drug Laws?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It might. But nobody wants to appear to be not tough on crime. It's political suicide. So it's very hard for even the most well-meaning lawmakers to make changes like this. There were some small reforms a few years back, but the laws had basically been unchanged for 31 years. So I don't think you're going to see overnight some dramatic difference. It's a very complicated issue, and very difficult for lawmakers to sort out.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: You mentioned that 48 other states have similar rules based on the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Have any of them rolled back since then?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Most of them have softened or changed their drug laws over the years. New York was one of the last. A few years back State Senator David Paterson put a report out saying that our drug laws were still the harshest in the nation, and that's because so many other states that had followed our lead had either seen the light in a sense or could not afford to have so many people locked up for so long, and had consequently reduced the length of some of those sentences.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: The ones who have softened up, their reforms were more thorough than New York's in 2004?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It's hard to generalize, but yes. The perception was that New York State laws were changed, but it wasn't a huge reform. One of the sticking points in these debates about New York drug laws is the idea of mandatory minimums: who should have the power to decide how much time somebody is doing? Should it be in the hands of the judges or should it be in the hands of the district attorneys? A lot of activists want to undo that so that judges have more discretion. Of course the district attorneys association doesn't want to give up power and has been fighting that. So the structure has remained in place. There has been some tinkering around the edges, but it's a battle that is going to continue to be fought.
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