|Drug War Chronicle:
How did you end up doing 15-to-life?
Tony Papa: I was married
with a six-year-old daughter and had a radio installation shop in the East
Bronx. I was in a bowling league, and one of my teammates asked me
why I kept showing up late. I told him my car was breaking down and
I didn't have any money to fix it. Then a couple of weeks later,
another guy from the bowling alley was dealing drugs up in Westchester
County, and he met with me and asked me if I wanted to make some quick
money. He offered me $500 to run a package up to Mt. Vernon from
the Bronx, and it was like dangling a carrot on a stick. At first
I said no, but things got desperate, and when that happens you do desperate
things. I was tapped out, I owed rent money, I'd been gambling at
bowling allies and was on a bad losing streak. I thought the American
dream was making a fast buck, and I saw a chance to do that.
I delivered the package and
walked into a police sting. The guy who set me up had three sealed
indictments, he was working with the police, and the more people he got
involved the less time he would get. That one-time delivery turned
out to be a nightmare. I did everything wrong. I was ready
to take a plea bargain that would have sent me up for three to life, but
I didn't want to go to prison, I didn't want to leave my wife and daughter.
So I let another lawyer convince me to go to trial. That lasted a
couple of days and it ended with what I call the St. Valentine's Day Massacre
on February 14, 1985, when I was sentenced to two 15-years-to-life sentences.
I spent a couple of months
at Valhalla jail in Westchester County before going to state prison, and
I used the time to prepare myself for my trip upstate. I got to see
what the system was about, how prisoners pretended they had drug habits
to get methadone, how the prisons tried to control the populations with
psychotropic drugs. In July 1985, I was sent to Sing Sing.
It was really the belly of the best, a maximum security prison. Stabbings
were common, there was violence all over the place, drugs were rampant.
In Sing Sing, if you didn't come in with a habit, you certainly left with
one. The guards brought the dope in. It was a cesspool.
In 1988, they busted a female guards' sex and drug ring, and the newspapers
starting calling it "Swing Swing, the home of sex, drugs, and rock 'n'
roll." There was a block behind the gym known as Times Square.
You could get anything there -- sex, drugs, knives, TV sets -- all you
needed was money. Sing Sing was a wild, dangerous place.
Chronicle: Those are
the kinds of conditions that destroy people's souls. Too many people
come out worse than when they went in. It's as if we've created a
system designed to generate mass pathology. What did you do to avoid
falling into the pit?
Papa: I transcended
the negativity by discovering art. Another prisoner turned me on
to painting, and I got hooked. It was like this very positive energy.
Prison is the most existential environment around; when you're sitting
most of the time in a 6' x 9' cage, you really have a chance to get into
yourself and figure out who you are. Through studying art, I introduced
myself to the masters, I got turned on to Picasso and "Guernica."
A woman named Vick saw some of my work at a local art show, and we corresponded.
I sent her a painting, and she wrote back and said there was more to art
than frilly white dresses. She turned me on to the Mexican muralists
-- people like Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros --
and following their example, I started to use my art as a vehicle to fight
the system on the side of the oppressed against the oppressor.
I also educated myself.
I got three degrees in prison, including a masters' degree from the New
York Theological Seminary. In 1988, I was sitting in my cell and
picked up a mirror and saw a guy who was going to spend the most productive
years of his life in a cage. I picked up a canvas and painted a self-portrait.
I called it "15 Years to Life," and for me and many others, it captured
the essence of prison. From then on, I began painting political pieces
-- death penalty, felony disenfranchisement, issues that affected my community.
Chronicle: Your art
ultimately led to your freedom. What happened?
Papa: Seven years later,
the Whitney Museum wrote the prison asking for work by a prisoner to show
in a coming exhibit, a retrospective of Mike Kelley, a conceptual artist
from LA. The piece would be exhibited in the art capitals of the
world. Basically, I sent my work, and Mike Kelley chose my "15 Years
to Life" self-portrait. I see that letter from the Whitney as angelic.
I knew this was the chance for me to get out of prison, to paint my way
out of prison. I got a tremendous amount of publicity from the show,
and I worked it. I became a PR wizard, I started writing to journalists,
and I had my own PR list. I finally hit pay dirt when Prison Life
covered the story. That was Richard Stratton, who later went on to
edit High Times before it ran into trouble this year. After Prison
Life, other publications followed.
I'd been in 10 years, I'd
exhausted all legal remedies; this was my only hope. I worked it,
and I started getting publicity and became sort of a cause celebre.
The prison was getting flooded with interview requests, then I had an exhibition
at the seminary, which generated more publicity, including the New York
Times and the New York Law Journal. Danny Schecter talked about my
case on his show "Rights and Wrongs" when he did a show on the drug war.
Every article, every media mention was important, another step closer to
Then, a week before Christmas
1996, I got called into the security office -- you only get called there
if you fuck up. I figured it was because of the political content
of some of the work I was doing. They were doing body cavity searches
on me, and I was outraged and drew a series of drawings of this experience
and posted them on cut-outs of the actual prison security directives.
The prison guards confiscated them. They said I was smuggling out
directives, but it was really because they didn't want me to expose the
dehumanizing aspects of prison life. I remember sitting on that bench
feeling defeated, thinking I had blown my chance for freedom. But
the deputy warden came out and said he just got off the phone with the
governor and I had been granted clemency. I started sobbing like
Chronicle: You mentioned
"Guernica" and the political influence of the Mexican muralists.
Did you have any politics before you went to prison?
Papa: No. The
greatest gift I got from being in prison besides the art was the birth
of my political life. I knew when I came out that I had to do something
to stop this injustice. I started going to Albany with different
groups, but I saw I was wasting my time. The politicians would say
they knew the Rockefeller laws didn't work, but they couldn't afford to
be seen as soft on crime. I realized it was fruitless to try to change
the drug laws in New York from the top down. It would have to come
from the bottom up, so I helped found the New York Mothers of the Disappeared,
and we became a leading group agitating against the Rockefeller laws.
These days, I work with the
Mothers, but I also work with other groups and individuals. I got
hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons interested in the issues, and I'm working
with Andrew Cuomo. I did commercials with Tom Golisano when he ran
for governor. I also work with groups active at the federal level,
like Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the November Coalition.
I'll be working with Cuomo on his new project Help USA. And of course,
I still work with local groups, like Justice Works and the Correctional
Association of New York. I continue to use my pen and my brush.
Art is a great vehicle to get public awareness and get people involved.
Chronicle: You've got
a book coming out later this month called, appropriately enough, "15 to
Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom." What are you trying to achieve
with this book?
Papa: One of the things
I want to do is try to jumpstart the movement to repeal the Rockefeller
laws. I hope this book will give people an idea of what goes on in
the prisons of New York and around the country, how they're full of nonviolent,
first-time drug offenders, how people are demonized for drug use.
We're going to have a big book launch at the Whitney [Museum] on the 18th
[of October], which will be hosted by Help USA. It'll be an effort
to raise public awareness of different social justice issues, from the
environment to the death penalty to the Rockefeller laws.
New York's legislative process
is dysfunctional, and the laws don't change because of the process.
The governor and the leaders of the legislature all say they want change,
but nothing happens. But knocking off DA Soares in Albany a couple
weeks ago (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/354/shocker.shtml)
is big. It's the DAs who are blocking change, and a victory like
this shows that if you continue to support these draconian drug laws that
everyone wants to change, you just might lose your job.
As an activist, it's my job
to do everything possible to bring this issue to the public. My job
is to find ways to make the drug war issue dramatic and memorable, like
a movement poem or a haunting melody. I hope my book succeeds in