DRCNet Interview: Artist, Activist, Former Rockefeller Drug Law Prisoner Anthony Papa 10/1/04

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Anthony Papa with self-portrait,
courtesy 15yearstolife.com
Anthony Papa was just another clueless young man, raising a family and scrabbling to make ends meet when an offer of quick cash ended up landing him in Sing Sing prison doing a 15-to-life sentence for carrying a package of dope into Westchester County. Papa had become another of the tens of thousands of people to run afoul of New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Just another number. But prison awakened passions and talents Papa never knew he had. He educated himself. He became a painter. And painting became his ticket to his freedom. After his art made him a cause celebre, Papa rode hard with it, becoming a one-man PR machine. It worked. Tony Papa walked out of Sing Sign around Christmas 1996, granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki after more than a decade in prison.

He hasn't stopped since. Now splitting his time between Brazil and New York City, Papa has been a stalwart member of the movement to repeal the Rockefeller Laws, helping, among other things, to form the New York Mothers of the Disappeared from family members of the thousands of people imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws. He has never stopped painting, and now he is extending his artistic reach with the publication later this month of a new book, "15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom," from Feral House Press.

DRCNet caught up with Papa by phone in New York City this week to hear his story and see what he's been up to.

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 winning clemency.

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 a baby.

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 doing that.

-- END --
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Issue #356, 10/1/04 DRCNet Interview: Artist, Activist, Former Rockefeller Drug Law Prisoner Anthony Papa | Hemp for Victory? No, Victory for Hemp: DEA Gives Up on Hemp Food Ban | Alaska Marijuana Regulation Initiative is On | On Capitol Hill, Pain Treatment Advocates Call on Congress to Help Patients, Restrain DEA | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Montana Medical Marijuana Initiative Winning Two-To-One in Poll | Newsbrief: No Nevada Marijuana Initiative This Year -- Backers Start 2006 Effort | Newsbrief: Support for Marijuana Ticketing Scheme Blows Through Windy City | Newsbrief: Protestors March in Montgomery to Support Nonviolent Prisoners | Newsbrief: New Indictments in Dallas Sheetrock Scandal | Newsbrief: New Zealand Greens Call for Uniform Drug Policy | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar
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