The human face of the drug war

March 22, 2017

On January 24, 1985, Anthony Papa, a young radio and auto repair worker, was entrapped in a bust planned by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Papa, in his late 20s, was living in the Bronx with his wife and young daughter, and struggling to provide for his family. Down on his luck, he took a chance to make some quick cash by delivering a package of cocaine to nearby Westchester County. When Papa handed over the package to two undercover narcotics officers, he was arrested. Papa was found guilty and sentenced to two 15-years-to-life sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, with their mandated minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes.

Although his time in prison would estrange him from his family and alter the course of his life, Papa didn't let his life go without a fight. During his 12-year stint at the notorious Sing Sing prison, Papa pursued multiple academic degrees, worked as a jailhouse lawyer and taught himself to paint. When his self-portrait was chosen for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum, it got the attention of then-New York Gov. George Pataki.

A growing chorus of criticism against the Rockefeller Drug Laws in general and Papa's own unceasing efforts on his own behalf won him clemency after 12 years behind bars. But instead of quietly disappearing into the long and difficult struggle to reintegrate back into society, Papa became an outspoken critic of the racist "war on drugs" and the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Over the next 15 years, Papa released a memoir, 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom, about his time in prison.

Papa continues his efforts to end the drug war as a part of the Drug Policy Alliance, including soliciting letters from prisoners about their experiences for the "Drug War Stories" project. His recently released second memoir This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency details his experiences attempting to reconnect with a family that sees him as a stranger and his struggle to settle back into the pace of daily work life while haunted by the experiences of prison. It also gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of efforts by reformers and organizers to fight the Rockefeller laws in the 1990s and the tireless energy spent trying to project the story of thousands of people caught up in the system of mass incarceration.

Julian Guerrero spoke with Anthony Papa right before he became the only person to have received clemency and a pardon in New York state about his new book, the ongoing fight against mass incarceration and what's ahead with Donald Trump in power.

AS PART of your Drug War Stories project, you humanize the people who have been incarcerated through the personal stories prisoners send you. Many people who leave prison want to forget that experience and distance themselves from it. In your book, you talk about the constant conflict between trying to overcome the habits and perceptions you developed in order to survive at Sing Sing and your advocacy for those who are still in prison. What led you to go back and fight for those who have been left behind?

YOU'RE RIGHT. For most ex-prisoners who do an extraordinary amount of time, they want to forget about the experience. But for me, I choose not to go that route.

I used my experience as a badge of honor, and I use it for my work as an activist. The fact that I did serve time for nonviolent drug offense is totally outrageous, and there's hundreds of thousands of people who go to prison who shouldn't be there because they used drugs.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is an organization that goes hand in hand with my philosophy about advocating for people, and we believe that people shouldn't be put in prison for putting drugs in their bodies.

Protesters demand repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York
Protesters demand repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York (Families Against Mandatory Minimums)

If I didn't go to prison, I wouldn't think like this, but I've been in their shoes, and I can understand what it's about. You leave prison, but prison doesn't leave you. You're doing time on the other side of the bars, and you drag along all these survival mechanisms that were great in prison, but outside, they're a danger to you because they pop up without warning.

I want people to learn that a dangerous part of coming out of prison is coping with those mechanisms that you created to cope with being imprisoned. You realize that the anger just makes things worse, and you realize that you'll never make up that time that was lost. Once you realize that, your life as a free person is easier.

My life now is dedicated to changing the system and using my experience to help others cope with the same experience.

YOU WRITE in your book about the fear of being sent back to prison. The U.S. Sentencing Commission released a report recently showing that recidivism rates are very high for former federal prisoners (44.7 percent within five years) and higher still for former state prisoners (76.6 percent within five years). What can be done to lower recidivism rates for good?

CHANGE THE drug laws. Educate. The thing I want to do with this book is reduce mass incarceration one life at a time, by education.

The legal roadblocks that exist, difficulties finding housing and jobs--all these things work against former offenders. In the epilogue, I talk about how politicians need to change these laws in order for communities to accept ex-prisoners who try to re-enter society. With those laws against them, they don't stand a chance.

We have to change the way the systems are built. Prisons should be resocialization centers where education is stressed and every level of your incarceration is therapeutic.

SOME OF the most interesting chapters for me were those about the Drop the Rock campaign, which was aimed at reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws and mandatory minimums sentences for drug offenses. Andrew Cuomo collaborated with you in those efforts.

The Rockefeller laws were reformed in 2009, and today, Cuomo is governor, and there are a number of and efforts for further reform, such as the Raise the Age campaign. What are your thoughts on these campaigns and the response by the city and state government to them?

THERE'S BEEN a big change. The whole atmosphere has changed. States are now reducing prison populations to save money. They're letting out nonviolent offenders. Laws are starting to change.

The Brennan Center for Justice just released a report showing that 570,000 individuals are in prison with no good public safety reasons. They could be let out tomorrow, and nothing would happen. The gates of hell won't open.

Releasing these prisoners could save $20 billion a year, but they are in there because of archaic, draconian drug laws. Much of the prison population, some 500,000 people, is in prison or some form of incarceration/parole because of the war on drugs.

You have to look at the connections between the prison-industrial complex and the war on drugs because they fuel each other.

What we try to do at DPA is change the laws. That doesn't happen quickly. Take what's going on with marijuana. Half the states have some form of legalization of marijuana, whether it's recreational or medical usage of marijuana. Five years ago, nobody wanted this. The world is changing.

There are still people now in prison doing time because of marijuana even though it's now legal. I just sent two letters to Obama for this one guy who owned a dispensary, Luke Scarmazzo. If that crime had occurred today, he wouldn't have even gone to prison. He's been there 14 years already. He's got kids, so they wanted me to help out with his clemency.

IN YOUR book, you argue against people who seem too willing to compromise the end goals of criminal justice reform. At one point, you and Randy Credico helped form an organization of mothers whose children are in prison, called the Mothers of the New York Disappeared. The idea originated with the struggles of family members in Latin America whose relatives were disappeared during the military dictatorships supported by the U.S. government. This was a masterful idea as it put those directly affected by the Rock Laws at the center and it also gave them a political vehicle to hold politicians accountable.

What can grassroots activists do to build campaigns locally and nationally to address some of the most damaging laws of the criminal justice system?

WHEN I went to the Albany, I realized that change isn't going to come from the top. It has to be from the bottom up.

On May 25, 1998, we had out first rally in Rockefeller Center. All the press showed up. We had a little 10-year-old girl there whose mother was doing 20-to-life for drugs. We saw that was how we were going to change the drug laws in New York--by putting a human face to it.

It took a while, but seven year later, New Yorkers wanted to change the Rock Laws. We changed public opinion.

Before that, when we met with politicians, they would say that they knew these law didn't work, but they didn't want to look "soft on crime." When we heard that, we decided to make a point to change public opinion, and that changed what politicians did.

When David Soares ran against Paul Clyne--a right-wing, lock-em-up, Rockefeller type of guy--Albany County District Attorney, he beat Clyne. District attorneys started to win on Rock reform platforms.

People are tired of locking people up for enormous amounts of time for nothing. Like the Brennan Center report says, almost 570,000 could be let out tomorrow. They're served enormous amounts of time in prison, and if the states let them out, they'd save $20 billion a year.

The way to get change isn't from the top down but from the bottom up. That's why it's so important for activists to use grassroots means and couple it with the media. The media reports on your issue, and you can battle the powers that be. I did it to get out of prison, writing my own press releases from prison.

Learn how to create news, how to get your issue out there in a new way, and repeat that issue over and over until people get it.

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