Ellis Henican

Etiquette for Ex-Cons

"I had $40 in my pocket when I came out," Jan Warren was saying with a shrug. "And my stock didn't triple when I was inside."

No two cases are ever the same, of course. Jan Warren isn't Martha Stewart – or vice versa.

But there are certain lessons one woman can teach another about coming out of prison and adjusting to life outside. Even if one did 12 years, four months and 17 days on a Rockefeller drug rap. Even if the other is coming home after five months for lying about a stock trade – with a reality-TV show waiting for her.

Martha, meet Jan. You should listen to what she says.

Think of what follows as one former inmate's gift to another. Here, in her words, is Jan Warren's 10-Step Ex-Con Etiquette. "It's a good thing," as the old Martha would certainly have said.

1. Follow the rules. You may be out of prison, Martha. But with supervised release and home detention, the government is still very much in charge of you. Don't linger too long in the garden. Don't come home late from work. Don't slip out of the bracelet or drink too much or give anyone any excuse to send you back again. You can finally taste your freedom. Don't blow it.

2. Don't try to hide the ugly truth. Always be open with the people you meet. It's OK to say, "Hi, I'm Martha. I just got out of prison." You don't have to be uncomfortable. Your honesty gives you control. Others can react immediately and directly to you. You're sending a message that says, "This is what I did. I'm not proud of it. But I'm moving on."

3. Expect people to be curious. You've just been somewhere very few of your friends have. You've come back with your sanity and humanity intact. Of course, people will ask you about it. But they may not want to hear too much. Don't be surprised if they ask you once, then never again. They'll say they don't want to dwell on it. Actually, it makes them uncomfortable.

4. Don't forget the people who stood by you. I had my sister Sherry, who answered every collect phone call I ever made. You can never thank these people enough. Hundreds and hundreds of women I met in prison who had nobody – no visits, no packages, nothing to make them believe that somebody, somewhere, cared what happened to them. You were fortunate. Be grateful.

5. Expect the world to have changed. My gap is bigger than yours, but you will have missed some things, too. In my 12 years, computers really came onto the scene. We already had cell phones, but they were much bigger. And we didn't have to dial so many area codes. I remember Jean Harris coming back and saying, "Everything is numbers now. You have to just keep pressing numbers into the phone." Even after five months, you'll notice the world has moved on.

6. Expect to notice things you never did. When I came out, I still smoked. I think I was the only woman in New York to put out her cigarette completely and then put it in the trash can. And I knew that every one of the wire trash cans on the street was made by women inmates at Albion. They had a welding shop, and it was the best-paid job at Albion. I knew that now. I was kind of paying tribute to them. I pointed that out to everyone.

7. Strike a balance over time. Some women, when they come out, say they are surprised by all the traffic. That didn't bother me. But I was the only one standing on the corner at the red light. I'd be at the corner. No traffic. Everyone else would cross. That was jaywalking. That's illegal. I could get violated for that. But then I noticed the police officer looking at me as I just stood there. I told myself, "Well, maybe I can cross."

8. Use the platform you've been given. You are in the public eye. You have this new experience. You've gained perspective you never had. Recognize all that. Bring it together. Tell the truth about prison. It'll give meaning to your experience and your new life outside.

9. Don't worry, you'll still be you. For Martha it may be cooking. Or working in the garden. But all the things you liked to do, you'll like them still. And you'll still remember how. When I went skiing for the first time, I wondered, "Will I be able to?" Well, it really was like riding a bike. No one took it away from you.

10. Don't make the same mistake again. Whatever got you into trouble last time, recognize where that came out of your character. You really didn't need to do it, but you did. Look what happened when you were away. Kmart is merging with Sears – and your stock went up all on its own. No inside information at all.

Portrait Of a Free Man

It took a while, a whole lot longer than it should have. But Tony Papa finally got to see his painting hanging where it belonged. Thirty-five miles and 16 years from the prison cell where he painted it. Displayed in a gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This wasn't the first time that Papa's self-portrait, which he titled "15 to Life," was shown at the Whitney. But the last time Papa wasn't able to make the museum show. He was otherwise detained, serving an absurdly long prison term at the Ossining Correctional Facility on a nonviolent drug conviction under the state's harsh Rockefeller laws.

"That portrait changed so much for me," Papa said. "I was sitting in my cell, three years into my sentence. I picked up a mirror. I looked in the mirror. In the mirror I saw an individual who was gonna spend the most productive years of his life in a six-by-nine-foot cage. Then I went to the canvas, and I captured that look."

The picture Papa painted was foreboding and dark, acrylic paint on an 18-by-24-inch canvas. He was holding a paintbrush. His fingers were spread. His hands were resting on his head. His right eye was in a shadow. His left eye was wide open, staring ahead.

"I created this painting, and seven years later an angelic letter arrived from the Whitney Museum, asking me to put a piece of my work in an upcoming show," he said. "From that point on, I knew that was the key to my freedom. If I could show my work at the Whitney, I could paint myself free."

It wasn't quite that easy, of course. People inside and outside the prison admired Papa's talent and recognized the injustice of these counterproductive laws. Various friends interceded on his behalf. And in that roundabout fashion, Papa's confidence in the power of his art was ultimately borne out.

The painting was shown, him still at Sing Sing. The story got some media play. That generated a second look at the drug conviction and his long prison term. Finally, in 1997, Gov. George Pataki signed the executive-clemency order that set Papa free. For a single cocaine sale, his first conviction, he'd served 12 years of his 15-to-life.

"I really did paint my way out of prison," he said.

He never gave up on the broader cause. He has spent the past seven years working to change the law that locked him up. He co-founded a group called the New York Mothers of the Disappeared, organizing relatives of Rockefeller law inmates and trying to push Pataki to expand his one-man clemency into a more sensible drug plan.

It's slow going, but the signs of hope are real. Again this year, Papa and his drug reform allies will take their case to Albany.

He's written a book about it, being published next month by Feral House, "15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom" by Anthony Papa with Jennifer Wynn. There's a Web site, www.15tolife.com, and the story's already been optioned for Hollywood.

But Tony Papa had one piece of unfinished business. He had never been able to see his portrait on the museum wall.

So the other night, there was a party at the Whitney to celebrate the new book. Hors d'oeuvres were passed. Wine was served. Mario Cuomo turned up. So did most major players in the drug reform movement. Several of Papa's paintings, including the famous self-portrait, were hanging in a beautifully lit space on the gallery wall.

People kept saying what an inspiration Tony Papa is.

"Tony is the human face of these inhumane laws," said Andrew Cuomo, the former federal housing secretary who has been championing the drug reform cause in New York. "Here is what a Rockefeller prisoner looks like. Here is his art. He was locked in a cage for 12 years. Was he really such a threat to us?"

Miele Rockefeller, the granddaughter of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, for whom the laws were named, was there to support Papa. "The Rockefeller laws should be renamed the Pataki laws," she said. "My grandfather would have changed them by now, and George Pataki won't."

After the museum show, the group retired to an after-party in the Waldorf Towers apartment of hedge fund director Lawrence Goldfarb, a Republican. Wealthy Wall Streeters mixed with freshly released ex-prisoners. It was about as far as you could get from Sing Sing.

"I'm a Republican businessman," said Goldfarb, whose company is called Baystar Capital. "In dollars and cents and in social devastation, these laws make no sense at all."

All evening long, Papa, who is 49 now, looked humbled but also energized. "So many people are reaching out with love," he said. "They're walking up to me, crying, asking, 'What can I do?' "

He had an answer for all of them. "Speak to your political leaders. Put pressure on the governor. We have to change these laws for everyone.

"One person really can make a difference," he'd say each time. "Believe me. I know."

This article originally appeared in Newsday (New York).

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.