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From Sing Sing to the Whitney

A victim of New York's Rockefeller drug laws recalls life as a prisoner, an activist and an artist.
 
 
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If you had met me in my prison cell eight years ago and told me I would someday be having a party at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I would have thought that you were talking out of your ass.

In Sing Sing, this wasn't just a figure of speech: Prisoners often smuggled drugs into the maximum-security prison securely hidden in their rectums. You could get everything from pot to pills to heroin. A lot of people coped with prison by cultivating drug habits. That's a small measure of what hard time will do to your soul; you suddenly become willing to snort, swallow, smoke, and inject things that have been in other mens' lower gastrointestinal tracts.

In 1984, I was arrested in a police sting operation for passing four and a half ounces of cocaine. Since it was my first offense, I was given the minimum sentence New York's notoriously harsh Rockefeller drugs laws allowed: 15 years to life. While in prison, I took up painting as a way to maintain my sanity. My work garnered national press coverage, and in 1997, Governor Pataki granted me clemency.

But you never really leave prison; I live the experience with every breath I take. It follows me in my sleep, much more powerful than Freddy Kruger could ever be because it's real – a heart-pounding reality that I cannot ever forget. I vowed to get the Rockefeller laws repealed. I made countless trips up to Albany in hopes of convincing the politicians, but soon realized I was wasting my time advocating for change from the top: Politicians were afraid of looking soft on crime and losing their jobs. I realized that we had to change public opinion. In 1988, I co-founded Mothers of the New York Disappeared, a group mostly comprised of ex-cons and family members of those incarcerated under the state's drug laws.

My life as a street activist was not a pretty one: Long hours, no pay, and not much job satisfaction. Our biggest heartbreak came in 2001. For the first time in state history, the governor openly called for reforming the Rockefeller drug laws. The State Assembly and Senate soon followed, but for the next three years, the governor and the legislature danced around the issue. The most outspoken group against change were the district attorneys, who wanted to maintain their power.

Joining the DAs were right-wing Republicans like outspoken state Senator Dale Volker, who has more than a handful of prisons in his district. Since 1982, 33 prisons have been built in Republican upstate rural communities and stuffed full of mostly black and Latino non-violent drug offenders from downstate inner-city neighborhoods. Thanks to a loophole in the census rules, close to 30 percent of these prisoners were counted as part of their towns' populations – which meant considerable money was to be made from the business of imprisonment. The war on drugs had become fuel for the prison-industrial complex.

After writing a book about my experiences, I contacted Andrew Cuomo, former U.S. Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, and told him how we could use the book to breathe life into a dead issue. In October 2004, Andrew arranged a book release party at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with the help of hedge fund wizard Larry Goldfarb.

With his dirty blond shoulder-length hair and blue jeans, Larry looks more like a guitarist from an '80s metal band than the managing partner of Bay Star Capital, a billion-dollar investment company in San Francisco. It was his idea to involve the movers and shakers of the financial world. We're even meeting with Martha Stewart once she's released for the crime of being a rich, successful, independent woman. (Maybe we can swap prison war stories.)

The party drew a crowd of very rich and powerful people, the kind of individuals politicians listen to. As we rode in Larry's white stretch limo to the after-party at the Waldorf Towers, he held up his glass off Remy Martin and said to me, "I want to make you my poster boy."

My mind drifted back to my prison cell at Sing Sing, where I was doing hard time for a first-time non-violent drug offense and contemplating suicide. All things considered, I'd rather be Larry's poster-boy. "No problem," I said, sure I was going to wake up at any moment.

In December, Pataki and the state legislature pushed through the first reform bill in 31 years. Then, with backing from George Soros, a virtual political unknown, David Soares, defeated the standing Republican District Attorney Paul Cline. Soares promised to curb corruption in the state capitol and reform the cruel and ineffective drug laws.

Goldfarb is my latest weapon in the drug war. He joins a host of others I have enlisted, including celebrity Jack Black and billionaire Tom Golisano. On the agenda is a Playboy Mansion benefit and a book presentation to the NYS legislature. We know now that if we keep pushing, real change will come. As for me, I will continue to speak out and fight for Rockefeller repeal even if I have to go to the Playboy Mansion to do it.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom (Feral House). Papa and guest speaker NYC district attorney Bob Morganthau will appear Thursday, Feb. 10 at 6pm at the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem.