On April 24, I attended an historic bill-signing ceremony that put another nail in the coffin to halt the 36-year reign of injustice promulgated by the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State. The ceremony took place in Corona, Queens, at the Elmcor Community Center. Governor David Paterson was joined by legislative and community leaders to pay tribute to long-time Rockefeller reform champion Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, who was a drug treatment counselor at Elmcor before he entered the political arena.
It was surreal watching Gov. Paterson sign the document that would put into place the meaningful reforms that activists like me had sought for many years. Paterson stood tall behind a podium and spoke: “This is a proud day for me and so many of my colleagues who have fought for so long to overhaul the drug laws and restore judicial discretion in narcotics cases,” he said. “For years, thousands of New Yorkers have spoken out against the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”
The bill enacted broad modifications to the long-failed Rockefeller Drug Laws, including restoring judicial discretion in most drug cases, expanding alternatives to incarceration, and investing millions in treatment. Activists like Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance, pointed out that “After nearly 36 years of ineffective mandatory minimums, mass incarceration, institutional racism and billions in wasted taxpayer dollars, these critical reforms are long overdue and essential for making a better New York. Gov. Paterson has helped to move our state in new direction on drug policy, one based on public health and safety, in fairness and justice. This shows what is possible when people come together and work for change.” While advocates applaud the changes to the law, they also point out that reforms should have gone even further. For instance, some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses still remain intact, and harsh penalties for low-level drug offenses remain on the books.
To see this day arrive was without a doubt a total vindication for me because in 1985 I was given a 15 years to life sentence for a first-time non-violent drug offense. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for life in the gulag. I was sent to Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison in Ossining, NY. It was a living nightmare. Not only did I lose my family, I lost my life as I knew it. When I arrived at the prison I was surrounded with a sea of faces of men who had lost all faith in their lives. It was the lowest point in my life.
Soon after, I was walking past a row of cells that sat on the top tier of the A Block housing unit. I inhaled the odor of paint and followed its trail to a cell. I looked in and saw the most magnificent paintings. They belonged to a prisoner named Indio. We became friends and he taught me how to paint.
I began absorbing myself in my art. I was hooked. In 1988, I was sitting in my cell when I picked up a mirror and saw a reflection of a man who was going to be spending the most productive years of his life locked in a cage. I set up a canvas and captured the image. I named it “15 to Life.” In 1994 this self-portrait was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I received a lot of media attention and in 1997, after 12 years in prison, I received executive clemency from Gov. George Pataki. Upon my release I began having exhibits and used my art as instrument to speak out against inhumane drug laws.
At the same time I made trips to Albany to speak with legislators. Most of them had a dual view of reforming the laws. Their public view was that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were working fine. Behind closed doors they agreed the laws needed to be reformed. But they were afraid of publicly speaking out against them because it would cause their political deaths.
My idea then was to try and change the way politicians thought about New York’s drug laws by changing their constituents’ views. I took that concept and, in 1998, I co-founded Mothers of the New York Disappeared modeled after their Argentinean counterparts. This advocacy group was comprised mostly of family members of those imprisoned by the Rockefeller Drug Laws. We formed a street movement that generated tremendous press by utilizing the human element of the issue. It was a long row to hoe, but we managed to shift public opinion and exert public pressure on the politicians. In 2004-05, the first reform changes were passed.
These new changes in the laws did not come easy because of the NYS legislature’s reluctance to change the long-standing political quagmire that was created in 1973 under the leadership of then Governor Nelson Rockefeller. At that time New York State passed the toughest drug laws in the nation. Their enactment had been considered the answer to solving the so-called drug epidemic. But the reality was far different. The harsh sentencing guidelines with their mandatory minimums did nothing more than fuel the prison industrial complex giving relief for economically depressed rural upstate communities by incarcerating low level non-violent drug offenders.
This led to the building of thirty-eight prisons since 1982 at a cost of over a billion dollars annually to operate them in Republican senate districts. The Rockefeller Drug laws became embedded in the political climate of these upstate rural districts becoming a cash cow for them
Joining these politicians were prosecutors who became staunch opponents of any Rockefeller reform legislation. They used the Rockefeller Drug Laws as a powerful prosecutorial tool whose use was claimed to shield society from the harms associated with drugs and addiction. But in reality the only solution these laws offered was based on a massive incarceration scheme that led to incarcerating hundreds of thousands of low-level, non-violent drug offenders to prison instead of treatment. Of these, over 90 percent were black and Latino. The Rockefeller Drug Laws had evolved to become a racist entity that was a complete failure in balancing the scales of justice with the needs of protecting our communities.
Through perseverance and determination we did not give up the fight to achieve meaningful reform and this year we achieved it. Now, it’s time to embrace the changes and set free those who have been imprisoned under harsh and unjust mandatory sentencing, allowing those who are eligible for judicial relief to be reunited with their families and start productive lives as citizens of New York.