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.

Q: Governor Pataki granted you clemency after you’d served twelve years. Is it awkward for you to participate in a campaign that’s so critical of him?

I thank the Governor for giving me my freedom, but he’s an expert in dancing around the issue. His office knows about my book. I don’t have a problem with it, and I hope he doesn’t. For three years in a row, the Assembly and the Senate wanted to change the laws, but for three years they’ve been bickering on what changes to make. Meanwhile, people are wasting away in prison. My job is to keep pushing the issue, keep it in the news, and keep the Governor informed that I will not give up until these laws are changed.

Q: Do you think he regrets giving you clemency?

I think he definitely regrets it.

Q: What is the organization you co-founded, Mothers of the New York Disappeared, doing to raise consciousness about the issue?

Family members of the incarcerated work with us to bring the message to the Governor. When we go up to Albany with our group, these women–mothers in wheelchairs, canes, dying of cancer–they [the politicians] cringe. They’re like, please. Every time we go there, they’re afraid of the photo ops. I got the idea for the group from the Argentine mothers of the disappeared. They fought for over twenty-seven years against the government that murdered their children. Maybe I’m not dealing with 30,000 deaths, like what occurred in Argentina, but there are tens of thousands of people who disappear, who are socially dead, when they go to prison.

Q: The new reform deal does address some of the harshest consequences of the laws, but it’s certainly not the repeal you’ve been advocating.

I applaud the change giving prisoners who have already served long sentences an opportunity to be reunited with their families. But the proposed changes are watered-down reform.

Q: What do you find most lacking in the reform?

It will not change the power structure of the Rockefeller drug laws, which is controlled by the district attorneys. Right now, the prosecutor controls the case from its beginning. And prosecutors live and die by their rates of conviction. Judges should have discretion. In my case, my judge didn’t want to sentence me to fifteen to life, but he had to because of the law. Without judicial discretion incorporated, this is a feeble attempt by the legislature to satisfy activists who have fought for repeal. I vow never to stop fighting until we get true repeal and help the many, many other prisoners who will be left behind in this whirlwind of false celebration.

Q: In the book you say that when you got out, it was extremely disorienting at first, after having been in prison for twelve years. Have those feelings lingered?

Only when I dream. Now, I’m out seven years. What I felt when I got out should have been bottled. Everything had a Zen-like feeling, and life was just amazing. I floated when I walked. But I’ve been out now for seven years, so I’ve kind of settled down.

Q: Do you have any messages for the prisoners you met while you were doing time, who are still there?

I would say, don’t give up hope. Seven years ago I was sitting in a cell, and today I got my book published, soon to be made into a major motion picture. I sold the film rights to the book already. It’s going to Hollywood–another Traffic. We’re going to get this issue out.

Q: Whom do you want to play you?

First it was Al Pacino, but now he’s too old. Tom Cruise, but he’s too short. I don’t know…he’s got to be a young, sexy-looking guy.