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The $250,000 Joint


In 1992 Anthony Williams, now known as Amir Varick Amma, was sentenced to 25 years to life for a non violent drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Amir was convicted of two felonies, the worst of which was the sale of 2 ounces of cocaine in Albany County. Amir was badly assaulted by the police when he refused to give up his accomplices. His refusal to cooperate guided Judge Keegan to sentence him to 12 and a half years to life on each charge, meaning he had to serve 25 years. Most judges would have incorporated the two charges together, resulting in a 12 and a half year sentence. But Keegan was a “hang em high” judge, part of a tightly knit crew of upstate judges that dished out extraordinary sentences for drug offenders.

Amir challenged his conviction, but lost every legal challenge he pursued. On the outside, Amir’s greatest supporter was his mother Queen Nazimova Varick. Over the years she fought tooth and nail to get her son out of prison. She joined the Mothers of the NY Disappeared, a leading activist group that fought the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws for many years. She was suffering from several ailments, including cancer, but she never gave up hope that her son would return home to her, although his continued incarceration made her healing process all the more difficult.

In 2004, the legislature passed some incremental Rockefeller reforms that would help individuals like Amir who were sentenced to extraordinary amounts of time. Amir filed an application only to be denied. The judge could not even address his motion because he had been busted for smoking marijuana in prison. For this they gave Amir 60 days in solitary confinement and took away his merit time, rendering him ineligible for judicial relief under the new reforms of 2004.

Activists quickly rallied together to seek justice for Amir, but to no avail. Amir then filed for executive clemency, but his application was denied by Gov. Paterson. Amir did not give up hope. In 2009, under the new Rockefeller reforms that were championed by Gov. Paterson, Amir was finally granted his freedom.

On March 23, 2010, after 19 years in prison, Amir was released. He came by my office and I hugged him. I shared a laugh with him when he showed me a check he had received, issued by the prison from their parole release funds in the amount of 83 cents. What the hell was he suppose to do with that check, I asked. When I telephoned Albany County District attorney David Soares and asked him his opinion of Amir’s case, he described it as a travesty of justice.

In this time of economic crisis in New York State, when politicians are looking for solutions to reduce the budget deficit, they need look no further than the state’s correctional system. That single joint Amir smoked cost him an additional 5 years in prison, and taxpayers roughly $250,000. Was it worth keeping him in prison and punishing him for an additional 5 years after serving 14 years for a first time non-violent crime? How many other Amirs are wasting away in our gulags?

To reduce the budget deficit, law makers need to take a good look at our criminal justice system and how punitive methods of incarceration waste not only billions of dollars, but also human lives.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at:


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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