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Anthony Papa served 12 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence as a first-time, nonviolent felony drug offender under New York state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDLs). In prison, he became an artist and a political activist. Since his release in 1997, Papa has fought tirelessly along with others to repeal New York’s draconian drug laws, cofounding the group Mothers of the New York Disappeared.
Now, Feral House has published his book 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom. In October, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a party to launch the book. LUCY HERSCHEL spoke with Anthony.
THE SUBTITLE of your book is “How I Painted My Way to Freedom.” Can you explain how that happened?
I WAS sentenced to 15-to-life in maximum-security prison in Ossining, N.Y. I was lost. I really didn’t know how I was going to survive, until one day I discovered my talent as an artist. My discovery of my art was life saving, it maintained my humanity, my self-esteem, it gave me meaning in my life and helped me transcend the negativity of the prison environment.
Sing Sing was a cesspool. Parts of the prison were like the old Times Square–you could buy any type of weapon, TV sets, any form of contraband, drugs. There were more drugs in Sing Sing than in the streets.
The point I like to make is, if you can’t control drugs in a maximum-security prison, how can you control drugs in a free society?
More importantly, my art helped me discover my political awareness–who I was in society. I discovered the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and Picasso’s “Guernica”–those were my influences where I saw that art could be used as a weapon of the oppressed against the oppressor. I began painting social statements against the death penalty and the prison-industrial complex.
One of my pieces, “Corporate Asset,” portrays the prison-industrial complex before the term was even coined. It shows how the family unit is taken away from the home, the prisoner becomes food for the machine–the systematic dehumanization of the prisoner who becomes a nameless statistic going through the revolving doors of justice on the road to recidivism, only to be plucked in again at any time by the system.
It’s a visual narrative of important social concepts. For me, the greatest asset of an artist is using art as a social commentary.
WERE YOU ever afraid that the political message in your work would hurt your chances at clemency?
ACTUALLY, MANY times I debated this. While my clemency petition was pending, my counselor came to me and told me to slow down. Although he personally agreed with what I was doing, he thought I was jeopardizing my chances at freedom. Apparently, the warden had come to him and had wanted to withdraw the letter of support he had sent to the governor for me, because I was so outspoken.
But I felt I had an obligation to speak out against the atrocity of imprisonment through my art.
For example, I painted one series called “Contraband Search.” Coming back from a visit one day, I was put through a body cavity search three times, and I felt very dehumanized by it. I went to the library and I found policies and directives on how C.O.s are to conduct body cavity searches, and I was appalled by the 20 pages of directives describing the methods of all types of searches.
So I painted a series of six-page paintings about this issue, and I tried to send them out–but the work was confiscated.
I called my lawyer to say that I wanted to sue them because they took away my right to create–first they want me and now they want my mind. He said, “Look, slow down, don’t sue them, you have you clemency petition pending, and you’re going to hurt your chances at clemency. Handle it internally.”
So I was forced to strip down the directives off the paintings. But when I went back to my cell I thought, “Now they have my mind.” So I made diagrams of where the directives were on the painting and sent the directives out separately in the mail.
Later, I got a call that the deputy of security wanted to see me, and I thought, “Now I’m in trouble, they must have found the directives in the mail. I just blew my shot for freedom.” Instead, he told me that he just got off the phone with the governor, and he said, “You’re free.” I just broke down crying. That was an amazing experience.
So even though I did jeopardize my freedom, I thought it was my duty and my obligation. Because I had this vehicle, I became a kind of cause celebre, and a lot of people wanted to come in the prison and interview me. I used my art as a vehicle to talk out against the system.
I thank Governor Pataki for my clemency, but I have become an activist against him and his stance on Rockefeller reform, which is nonexistent. Three years ago, for the first time in 28 years, the governor openly came out and spoke against the drug laws. Then the Senate and State Assembly leaders also came out.
So you have all three top dogs of New York State government wanting to change the laws, but for three years, they’ve just argued about what changes to make. So throughout all this political rhetoric, people are still wasting away in prison. I will continue to use my art to fight the governor to compel him to change these laws.
SO IF the top three legislators all agree, why hasn’t there been reform?
BECAUSE OF the prison-industrial complex–money raised at local, state and federal levels through the business of the prison. Since 1982, 33 prisons have been built in up-state, rural Republican territories. It’s about the dollar. That’s why people are still in prison, that’s why these laws have not changed. That coupled with the disfunctionality of the legislative process in Albany.
The “war on drugs” is a war on people itself and primarily people of color. It’s about controlling a certain population. If you look at New York State, 75 percent of the 19,000 people who are locked up under these laws come from seven inner-city neighborhoods. So this is about institutionalized racism.
It’s very hard to change the system when it’s run by politics that are dictated by personal gain. All politicians are thinking about is their own political careers. They don’t care about people locked up in prison; they don’t care about anything else.
YOU TOLD me about a new district attorney who, with the support of activists, won a big upset victory in Albany by running strictly on an anti-Rockefeller Drug Law platform, beating out an incumbent who was a strong supporter of these laws. How do you think he won?
MY GROUP, the Mothers of the New York Disappeared that I cofounded in 1998 through the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, laid the foundation by going to Albany dozens of times, meeting with officials, protesting in the street and getting tremendous publicity up in Albany, so the people in Albany were educated about the draconian nature of the RDLs.
They saw it was a waste of tax money, of human life, money that could be better spent on needy communities, to feed the homeless, put shoes on shoeless children.
When I came out in 1997, I went to Albany with different groups to lobby politicians, and I saw that I was wasting my time trying to change the laws from the top down. All these politicians had dual opinions about the laws. The public opinion was: “We support these laws. They work.” But behind closed doors, they said would say, “Look, I know these laws don’t work, they cost a lot of money, but I can’t look soft on crime because I don’t want to loose my job.”
From that point, I said to myself, “We aren’t going to win it up here. We’re going to have to develop a plan to work it from the bottom up.”
That’s why I started the Mothers of the New York Disappeared. We actually changed public opinion by taking the issue to the street and putting a human face on it. We formed the group based on the Argentine mothers. They fought the military when they overtook the government in the 1970s and ’80s. Some 30,000 people were murdered–they disappeared. They held candlelight vigils and the Plaza de Mayo, and got a lot of public sympathy and public pressure from around the world to seek justice.
We met May 8, 1998, the 25-year anniversary of the RDLs, right across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and we staged our first rally, and all the New York press was there. We saw that this was how we were going to change these laws–by getting the press involved and reaching the masses with these human interest stories.
And from a small, dedicated group of maybe 25 people, in five years, we changed the face of the war on drugs and how it was fought in New York. What we did is we took to the grassroot street level. Now that model has expanded to other groups that hold rallies now across the country.
WHERE DO you think the fight against the Rockefeller Drug Laws should go from here?
WE NEED to continue to put pressure on the governor, and we need to do it in a variety of ways. I had a meeting with Larry Fisher, LL Cool J’s former manager, who runs an organization called Hip Hop for Youth, about going to Albany in January during Pataki’s State of the State address and having an event with different rappers.
The governor’s proposed legislation is watered-down reform. It’s a slap in the face to activists and to the people in prison.
In 2002, Pataki pushed through the Senate a reform bill that would have affected some of the loved ones we were advocating for. The next day, the governor met with the Mother of the New York Disappeared and said, “If you support us, your loved ones will be free.”
So that was hanging like the carrot dangling on a string. And we actually rejected it, and it was hard for a lot of mothers–some of these women are disabled, in wheelchairs, dying of cancer, their loved ones stuck in prison.
But we thought about the whole group. Instead of letting a few hundred people out, we want to build a movement to save thousands and thousands and thousands of lives in the long run.
AFTER THE election, Bush is claiming a mandate for all this policies, including the “war on terror.” Do you see a connection between the “war on drugs” and Bush’s “war on terror”–the locking up of immigrants, Guantánamo Bay and the prison scandals in Iraq?
IF YOU go to Times Square, they have a Drug Enforcement Administration exhibit, “Drug Traffickers, Terrorists and You,” in which they are basically saying, “If you smoke a joint, you’re supporting the terrorists.” It’s total propaganda.
Drug users today are demonized–they’re treated today as Communists were during the McCarthy era, the same way groups of people suspected of terrorism are treated today. This goes with the whole philosophy of controlling certain populations of people with propaganda.
I don’t think Bush has a mandate, I think he stole the election again. But that won’t effect my fighting against the war on drugs. I will continue to create ways to fight the government around these draconian laws that lock up certain disenfranchised or marginalized populations in the U.S.