In 1985 a bowling partner asked Anthony Papa if he’d deliver an envelope containing a small amount of cocaine in exchange for $500. Papa agreed–and was subsequently arrested as part of a police sting operation.
For his first-time, nonviolent offense, thanks to the Rockefeller drug laws, he was sentenced to fifteen years to life. In prison at Sing Sing, Papa studied art and began creating paintings that embodied the despair and isolation of prison life. In 1994 his self-portrait was displayed at the Whitney Museum. Parlaying his artistic success into publicity for his case, Papa was granted clemency by Governor George Pataki in 1997 after serving twelve years.
Now, he is using his art to publicize the injustice of the drug laws that put him away. He has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of their repeal, collaborating with other activists such as hip-hop artist Russell Simmons and co-founding Mothers of the New York Disappeared, a group of prisoners’ family members.
Just this week, new legislation was agreed on in Albany that would modify certain provisions of the Rockefeller laws for the first time. The legislation, which Governor Pataki says he will sign, reduces minimum sentences for some first-time offenses and increases the amount of narcotics necessary to qualify possession as a serious felony. It also allows inmates already serving time for these offenses to apply for a reduced sentence. But most anti-Rockefeller advocates consider these changes far from sufficient, and fear they could temper demands for more fundamental reform.
Aside from his legal work and activism, Papa also recently published a memoir, 15 to Life, telling the story of how he painted his way out of prison. He spoke recently with The Nation in New York.
Q: In your book you mention that you had almost spiritual experiences in your cell. In prison you also pursued your education and discovered your passion for art. Would you say that prison served a beneficial purpose for you?
It was a positive experience in regard to the changes. Besides my gift of art, I also discovered my political awareness. Prison is a very spiritual place. There’s something mystical about spending time in a 6-by-9 cage for fifteen years. You discover who you are.
Q: But you seem to be an exception. How would you describe prison’s effect on most inmates’ consciousness?
If you’re serving a sentence of fifteen years in prison, eventually, you’re going to fall to the negative aspects of imprisonment, unless you find vehicles to transcend the experience, like I did through my art. The way the system is set up now, rehabilitation is not even considered anymore. People can change their lives if you have restorative programs available. Prisons should be resocialization centers. But they’re not. They’re designed to dehumanize.
Q: When you were incarcerated, there were more of these rehabilitative programs than there are now.
They took away college education in 1995. State and federal funding were eliminated. Society went toward the strictly punitive mode of justice. The type of justice that sleeps in the shadows of life itself–lock-’em-up, throw-the-key-away type of mentality–doesn’t think of the future of the incarcerated individual, the same individual who eventually has to return and interact with society.