An Ex-Prisoner of America’s Drug War Speaks Out: It’s Not Over Yet

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Los Angeles rally, 2011. Photo by Neon Tommy via Flickr

In 1973, under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, New York State passed the toughest drug laws in the nation.

Lawmakers thought this was New York’s answer to addressing both drug addiction and those considered to be drug kingpins. But it did neither. Instead, it captured low-level drug offenders and overburdened the state’s prison system.

Forty-six years later, the Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDLs) stand as a symbol of a failed policy that has destroyed many lives and wasted tremendous amounts of tax dollars. That’s money which could have been used in countless ways to help those who are poor and marginalized.

I know firsthand about the draconian nature the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I was a first time non-violent offender who was sentenced to two 15-years-to-life terms for passing an envelope containing four and one-half ounces of cocaine to undercover officers in Westchester County in 1984. I was charged with sales and possession.

Since it was my first criminal offense, the judge in my case gave me a break, running the two charges together, giving me one 15 years to life sentence.

I got involved with drug activity when a bowling team mate introduced me to someone who was dealing drugs in the bowling alleys of Westchester County. Aware that I was desperate for money, a bowling teammate introduced me to someone who asked me if I wanted to make some fast money. All I had to do was deliver an envelope from the Bronx to Mount Vernon, New York.

I said no. But a few weeks later, he asked again, right after a fight I had with my wife about my failure to pay our rent. Broke and desperate, I agreed to deliver an envelope for $500 containing a small amount of cocaine. To my surprise I walked directly into a police sting operation where 20 undercover cops placed me under arrest. I did everything I could do wrong. My one mistake cost me life as I knew it.

It was then I became a prisoner of the war on drugs.

While in prison I discovered my talent as an artist. In 1988, while sitting in my cell, I picked up a mirror and looked into it.  I saw an individual that was going to spend the most productive years of his life in a cage. I then picked up a canvas and painted the image I saw. The painting was foreboding and dark, and captured the total agony of imprisonment. I titled this self-portrait, “15 to Life.”

In 1994, the painting was displayed at the Whitney Museum of Art, which led to media exposure of my case.

Painting My Way to Freedom

Two years later, Governor George Pataki granted me executive clemency.

It was 1997 and I was fresh out of prison. I wanted to go on a rescue mission and save those I left behind and change the laws that put me away. It was then I co-founded New York’s “Mothers of the Disappeared.”

On May 8, 1998, the Mothers of the Disappeared staged their first rally at Rockefeller Center in NYC. About two dozen family members held signs with photos of their loved ones who had been “disappeared” by New York’s drug laws.

This simple but dramatic gesture led to amazing media coverage and our efforts connected with all kinds of people by putting a human face on the war on drugs. The event became a weekly affair and eventually expanded to different cities in New York State.

Numerous advocates joined our ranks. They included celebrities like comic actor and TV host Charles Grodin, religious leaders such as then New York Cardinal O’Connor, former politicians, and elected officials.

Finally, in 2001, then-Gov. George Pataki, along with the state Assembly and Senate, called for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Both houses submitted bills with their own version of what changes should be made. This triggered an ongoing battle that lasted until 2004 when the first Rockefeller reforms were passed, followed by additional reforms in 2005.  Activists who had fought for change for years considered these reforms small steps.

2009 Reforms

Then, in 2009, Gov. David Paterson stepped up to the plate and initiated much broader reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The new bill enacted broad changes to New York’s disastrous drug laws, including restoring judicial discretion in most drug cases, expanding alternatives to incarceration, and investing millions in treatment.

After years of ineffective mandatory minimums, mass incarceration, institutional racism and billions in wasted taxpayer dollars, these reforms were long overdue and essential for making a better New York.

This month, on April 2, activists celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the 2009 reforms. We created a video about the reforms and what is possible when people come together and work for change. Now, reforms need to go further.

It’s been ten years, and we are still far from where we need to be.

We’re in the middle of an overdose crisis and there still remains an over-reliance on the criminal justice system.

In the spirit of the 10th anniversary, I hope with the help of Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature, we can go further to end the drug war in New York.

Anthony Papa

Anthony Papa

Anthony Papa is Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. In 2016 he was given a full pardon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, becoming the first individual in New York to receive both clemency and a pardon. He is the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, his second memoir about his 18 years of freedom after imprisonment, and 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom (2004), a memoir about his experiences of being sentenced to state prison as a first-time, nonviolent drug offender. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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