by Dean Becker
by Steve Nolin
Anthony Papa – author of 15 Years to Life, How I Painted
My Way to
(Audio Track) Intro – My name is Dean Becker; Steve Nolin is our engineer. We invite you to join us as we examine the unvarnished truth about the drug war.
Dean: Welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage. Tonight we’ll hear from Anthony Papa, the author of 15 Years to Life, How I Painted My Way to Freedom. We’ll also hear from Sanho Tree from the Institute for Policy Studies about the drug war in Central and South America; and we’ll hear from a medical marijuana patient who lives in the gulag city of Houston, Texas. Her name – we’ll call her Marsha. But first up: Poppygate.
Poppygate, bizarre news about the U.S. policy on controlling heroin, featuring Glenn Greenway: “On November 3rd, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that an assault on Afghanistan’s opium trade is eminent. On November 4th, the New Zealand Herald reported that Afghan drug lords have been approached by American agencies in recent weeks and told to retire before they are targeted and brought to stand trial in American courts. On November 9th, the Pakistan Tribune reported that the U.S. is preparing to destroy Afghanistan’s opium poppy crop from the air next spring before it can be harvested. The operation will be modeled after similar efforts in Columbia. The U.N. estimates that more than half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is being generated through the sale of opium, and half of all Afghans still live on less than $1 a day. This is Glenn Greenway, reporting for the Drug Truth Network.”
Dean: Next up, this interview I did with Anthony Papa, a man who painted his way to freedom after facing 15 years to life for possession of 4 ½ ounces of cocaine in New York City.
My name is Anthony Papa. I’m
the author of a new book I just wrote, 15 Years to Life, How I Painted
My Way to Freedom.
Dean: Tell us how this began, if you will, this story that led to that sentence of 15 years to life.
Papa: In 1984 I got involved with drug activity, which was the biggest mistake of my life, affecting me and my whole family. I brought an envelope of 4 ½ ounces up from Bronx, New York, to Mt. Vernon, New York. I met an individual who asked me if I wanted to make some quick money, and I said “yes.” I bowled with him on a league in Yonkers, New York; and I brought this envelope with 4 ½ ounces of cocaine for the sum of $500. I walked into a police sting operation. Twenty cops came out of nowhere. I was placed under arrest. The individual who got me involved worked for the police. He had three sealed indictments. The more people he brought into the operation, the less time he got. The reason I got involved with drug activity – I was desperate for money, and things were bad. I owned a radio installation place in the Bronx, and I just made the biggest mistake of my life. So, I was placed under arrest. I did everything I could do wrong, and I was sentenced to two 15-years-to-life sentences for a first-time nonviolent offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State. I went to prison – sentenced to Sing Sing Prison, maximum-security prison, in Ossining, New York, where I was going to spend the next 15 years of my life. I really didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I went into this very dangerous environment of imprisonment. I really discovered myself when I found out I was an artist. That helped me transcend the negativity of imprisonment, helped me find meaning in my life. I discovered my talent as an artist through another individual who was in prison who taught me how to paint. From there, I started painting to transcend the negativity and to survive in prison. In 1988 – 3 years into my 15-to-life sentence – I picked up a canvas, picked up a mirror, looked in the mirror, saw an individual who was going to spend the most productive years of his life in a cage, and then picked up the canvas and painted this painting called “15 to Life, Self Portrait.” Seven years later, it wound up at the Whitney Museum of American Art while I was in prison. And I got a lot of public sympathy for my case, which led to the Governor of New York State, George Pataki, to grant me clemency in 1997. So, I actually painted my way out of prison. I came out – really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. Went to a youth facility – a correctional facility in the South Bronx in New York City, and walked into an audience of 10- to 15-year-old boys and girls dressed in prison garb. It blew my mind – that these are the future maximum-security prisoners that were in prisons like I spent my time. So most of them were there for substance abuse problems; and I said to myself at that point, I have to do something to change these people’s lives. So, what I did is – you can actually do two things when you do an extraordinary amount of time like 15 years. Either you want to forget about it, which people most often really do; or you face the demon head-on, which I did. And I became an activist fighting the drug laws in the United States – specifically Rockefeller Drug Laws – using my art as a vehicle for protest. In 1998 I began going to Albany, the capitol, to meet with politicians, and to Washington, DC; and I saw that we really were spinning our wheels dealing with politicians at that level. That they were not going to change the laws because at that time it was political death for politicians to get involved with the drug war. To look hard on crime was the way to go. So from that point on, I said we have to change these laws, but not from the top down. It’s got to change from the bottom up. So I started a group called Mothers of the New York Disappeared, through the William Kunstler Foundation for Justice; and we based our group on the Argentina Mothers of the Disappeared. What happened in the 70s and 80s in Argentina where the military took over the government and 30,000 people were murdered – they disappeared, loved ones of these people in Argentina. So who spoke out against them were the mothers of those incarcerated. They went to the Plaza de Mayo and had candlelight vigils, showed photos of their loved ones, and they got a lot of public attention from across the world; actually, toward the regime that way. So we copied that style. We started our group in 1998. May 8th was our first rally in New York City. Every piece of New York press came and, from that point on, we said this is how we are going to change the face of the war on drugs – by putting a human face on the issue. And we were very successful with that. In about 5 years, we actually changed the way people thought about the war on drugs with these human interest stories. That, in turn, made politicians react differently. Because if their constituents wanted change, then politicians got onboard. And so now 31 years into the Rockefeller Drug Laws – they were enacted in 1973 – the legislative intent at that time was to curb the drug epidemic and to capture the drug kingpin men. It was a dismal failure. What it led to was incarceration of many, many nonviolent offenders. Today there are over 90,000 prisoners in the New York State system and 94% of those are black and Latino; 75% come from seven inner-city neighborhoods in New York. So these laws have been on the books, like I said, for 31 years. For the last 3 years in a row Governor Pataki; the senate leader, Joseph Bruno; and the Assembly Leader, Sheldon Silver have all said that we want to change these. They want to change the laws, but haven’t. They keep bickering over what change they are going to make. So for us as activists, it is a shame that through this political rhetoric people are wasting away their lives while politicians argue on what changes to make.
Dean: You’re talking about these Rockefeller Drug Laws and the need for change and how these public officials are beginning to say there is a need for change, and yet they remain deadlocked on that. They can’t move forward. What is it going to take to move this off of high center?
Papa: What is it going to take? Short of a revolution, I have been trying to fight this issue, like I said, for 7 years since I have been out. I know this issue inside out, and the reason why these laws have not changed is because the war on drugs fuels the prison-industrial complex – money raised at state, local, and Federal levels through the business of imprisonment. Since 1982 in New York State, 33 prisons have been built in primarily rural, up-state Republican territories. So this is one of the main reasons why the laws will not change – because of money gained through the business of imprisonment. I think right now what’s going on in New York – for people who don’t know New York politics – a couple of weeks ago we had a primary in the state capitol of Albany. This guy, David Soares, defeated the incumbent – a district attorney, Paul Cline, who was a strong supporter of the Rockefeller Drug Laws for 15 years. And David Soares ran solely on a Rockefeller platform, and he defeated this guy 2 to 1. So we sent a message to the governor and other elected officials and other district attorneys that we are going to continue to fight to change these laws; and we’re going to do it through the power of the vote – get you out of office, hurt you where it hurts the most, take away your jobs. So that’s what we are doing now, organizing. We have a big event coming up in the state in January. I teamed up with a couple of hip-hop entrepreneurs. Russell Simmons was involved in this, a big hip-hop guy. Andrew Cuomo, who ran for governor, is involved. I’ve worked with a guy, Larry Goldfarb, now at BayStar Capital out in the Bay Area, who introduced me to a lot of people. He knows a lot of powerful people. As a matter of fact, he gave the book to Susan Hess of Hess Oil to read and she said that this book should be standard reading material for all high school students. So my job is to constantly find ways of pulling people into this movement, constantly spinning it to change the way we fight it, but to get the issue constantly out there.
Dean: Now, Anthony, I know that you work to reach these younger people, to educate them to the pitfalls that are out there. And I want to address something: that it is the policy of prohibition itself more than these drugs that causes the problems. For example, I want to reach back to earlier in the story you were relaying, how you got involved. You were a young man, you needed $500, and yet there was this multi-leveled marketing organization out there called “drug distribution” that lured you in for that easy money. Let’s talk about that.
Papa: Yeah, I was a desperate, young – stupid, actually; and for $500 I destroyed my whole life. But this black market is created by the government. It has been there for years. People get caught up like myself – people are marginalized, disenfranchised. You know, when I was in prison, I worked in the law library for 7 or 8 years as a law clerk. I never saw – I handled hundreds of cases, drug cases, and I never saw a kingpin. These people who are juggling drugs to make a living, to feed and support their family – I think it is a complex social issue, a multi-leveled, complex social issue that should be addressed. People should have more opportunity, be able to have jobs and education. But I fight the war on drugs in the United States, also, at the Federal level. I work with the November Coalition, Nora Callahan; and I work with Julie Stewart of FAMM. FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimum sentences. These laws exist all across the country – mandatory minimum sentencing laws – and right now we have over a million and a half people locked up under these laws. And society’s way of dealing with drug users is strictly punitive, and it’s not right. Drug users today are treated as communists in the McCarthy era. Drug use is demonized. I also work with Drug Policy Alliance, the leading policy group in the United States; and we are planning a huge protest in January along with the hip-hop artists, against the government – to make noise on this issue again, to keep getting it out there.
Dean: One passage in your book – and let’s alert the listeners again to the name of your book. It is 15 to Life, How I Painted My Way to Freedom; and I want to advise the listeners out there that they can learn more about it by visiting Anthony’s website, which is at 15yearstolife.com. Anthony, I wanted to ask you about the fact that when you were first admitted to the county jail, you found that many of the prisoners were using methadone while they were in jail.
Papa: Right, that was a way of control. In prison, medication is the way to control the population. At the time I went into county jail, I was shocked when they were handing out methadone biscuits like they were candy. And all you had to do was to say you had a substance abuse problem. And the reason for this is because they control the population that way. They like nothing more than to have people doped up, walking around like zombies. It is a form of control. When I went into the state prison system – Sing Sing is one of the most dangerous prisons in America. In my book, in fact, it is called “Swing Swing--Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll,” talking about how the prison was full of vice. The female correctional officers prostituted themselves selling drugs. It was a terrible place. But most of the people in there, a lot people would have psychological problems and they go for help, they are medicated with psychotropic drugs and controlled like that. It is how the population was controlled in a maximum-security prison, too. The point I would like to make is that I went to Sing Sing where they say if you didn’t go in with a habit, you would come out with a drug habit for sure. Any type of drug you wanted was available there. In fact, if you can’t control drug activity in a maximum-security prison, how could you control the drug war in a free society? It’s the point I would like to make. My experience with the system, the way it works – as an activist, I want to fight for change. I use my art. Listeners should go to my website, 15yearstolife.com, and you can see my art. It’s very powerful work, and actually it draws people who wouldn’t necessarily get involved. My book has 16 pages of color photos, reproductions of some of my work. For me, this book 15 to Life is a clarion call for reform in the United States. I hope to use it to get people involved, to understand the issue – you know, one man’s struggle to find himself. It is about transcendence – I think anybody can understand that issue – to survive a bad experience. I think it is a great vehicle, great book for people to read if they are interested in finding out about the drug war. And my group, my organization Mothers of the New York Disappeared, we have been organized since 1998. Seven years we have continued to fight these laws, and we won’t stop until we change these laws.
Dean: Okay, once again, that was Anthony Papa; and his website is 15yearstolife.com. Now, let’s take our midpoint break.
It’s time to play “Name that Drug By Its Side Effects”: Weakness, nausea, skin rash, unexpected weight gain, swelling of hands and face, difficulty breathing, flu-like symptoms, sluggishness, dark urine or pale stool, double the chance of dying of heart attack or stroke. Time’s up, the answer: Vioxx. Another FDA-approved product.
Tree: My name is Sanho Tree. I’m a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and I run the Drug Policy Project there.
Dean: They say they are going to stop the rebels down in Columbia, that they have got them boxed in. Is there any truth to that?
Tree: Well, that’s pretty optimistic for the Columbia military. This is a civil war that has been going on for more than 40 years now. It’s the longest running civil war in the hemisphere, and no amount of military aid thus far has been able to defeat the rebels. We’re talking about a huge land mass and very dense jungle, and you can hide a lot of troops down there, and the rebels are able to move with relative ease and little detection.
Dean: There is no stopping the flow of the heroin coming in – the opium products coming in from South America – is there?
Tree: Well, not if you measure the street prices and the purity, no. By all indications, it is a live and healthy and vibrant market.
Dean: What do the recent elections at the Federal level mean to the drug war? How do you see the future there?
Tree: Well, it is a little depressing here. I work in Washington, DC, and the mood here is quite somber. It is going to be very difficult to stop a lot of the really bad things from happening. It is going to be almost impossible to make any kind of good things, reform stuff, happen. Right now, our system of checks and balances is left in the hands of one Republican senator by the name of Arlen Specter. He is right now next in line to be chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is a very important committee. He is a rather liberal Republican. He’s pro-choice. He’s decent on a lot of issues, including drug policy reform. He’s by no means a legalizer, but he’s very reasonable compared to his Senate colleagues. And there is a movement now led by the religious right to try to unseat him, which would break Senate tradition. The Senate respects seniority for their choice of committee chairs, and it has never violated that seniority policy. The House of Representatives has, but never the Senate. And so the Christian Right is mounting a very fierce grassroots campaign to knock off Arlen Specter as chair of that committee, to get his fellow Republicans to vote against him, which would be very unusual, unprecedented.
Dean: Insofar as Attorney General Ashcroft leaving and Bush’s new replacement, what do you see there on that front?
Tree: Gonzales’ nomination is going to be challenged. I don’t know if the challenges will be strong enough to stop him. I don’t know his record on drug policy issues, per se. Certainly, his treatment of the Geneva Convention regarding the Abu Graib scandal has not been very encouraging. And I expect that’s where a lot of the opposition will come from. There is an irony here, however. The right wing, the religious right, really wants to make a clean sweep of this past election. And that means getting rid of Arlen Specter, who they see as one of their major obstacles to overturning Roe vs. Wade in terms of Supreme Court justices and shepherding other judicial nominees through the Judiciary Committee. It’s ironic, because if I were Carl Rove, I’m not sure that I would want to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The radical right always talks about it. It’s their red meat for their core constituency, the Christian fundamentalists. But if they actually achieve that, you know there is an old saying “be careful what you ask for.” Because it’s somewhat like the drug reform movement. If you – what is the most effective way to destroy or to make the drug reform movement go away? The answer to that is to legalize marijuana. The day that happens, I think 90% of the drug reform movement would evaporate – go up in smoke, as it were – and no longer be as powerful a movement. And the moment they actually succeed in overturning Roe vs. Wade, the Christian fundamentalists have no reason to show up at the polls year after year after year. So, if you actually do get rid of Arlen Specter, this may represent the apogee of the Republican Party, because that army of right-wing voters doesn’t have a reason to show up at the polls anymore. Whereas, the liberal voters will have every reason for the next decade to get people out there to overturn it once again.
Dean: Sanho, I appreciate you joining with us. Would you like to refer folks to your website?
Tree: Sure. It’s www.ips-dc.org.
Dean: One must be careful what one wishes for, you are absolutely right.
Dean: You know, it’s one thing for those who smoke medical marijuana in states such as California, Oregon, and Washington. But here in the gulag city of Houston, Texas, many with debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis just have to take their chances. Here is an interview I did with one such patient here in Houston. Her name – we’ll call her Marsha.
Marsha: I am 40 years old, and I was diagnosed with MS when I was 26 after actually several years of odd things happening to me. I continued to work, and finally quit working full time in 1995 and went on disability. I have something that they call a “no-no head tremor” because my head tends to go in a “no, no” – like I’m answering you in a “no, no” fashion. Several people suggested that I try marijuana. They thought it might help with my tremors. So I finally did, and I was quite surprised at how much it seems to slow my tremors down and how much it seems to help my whole body not feel full of spasticity, or cramping, I should say. My legs feel as though someone is trying to pull them off of me. I have a situation where I go to some of the best-rated doctors in their field, and marijuana is not an issue that they want to discuss. They shy away from it, and that part bothers me. The intolerance.
Dean: Marsha, wouldn’t they prefer that you use pharmaceutical drugs that don’t necessarily alleviate your symptoms in the way that you would like?
Marsha: Oh, yes; oh, yes. That is really probably my number one complaint is I have had other friends who have told the same doctors that I go to that they use marijuana and the doctor turns around and says, “Well, you think you feel better – but we have a better pill, or we have a better drug for you.”
Dean: Marsha, let me ask you this. What are the, if you will, side effects of using marijuana? How does that impact your life?
Marsha: What are the side effects? (Laughter) .. I really cannot think of any.
Dean: John Walters, the illustrious “drug czar of the Americas,” when presented with facts such as Marsha has just stated, sometimes responds with, “Well, of course they feel better. But they would feel better if they had a hit of whiskey or a shot of heroin.”
Well, I hope you have enjoyed today’s Cultural Baggage and that you will join us next week when we examine the unvarnished truth about the drug war. And as always, I must remind you because of drug prohibition, you don’t know what is in that bag. Please be careful.
For the Drug Truth Network and on behalf of my technical producer Steve Nolin, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage, the unvarnished truth. This show is produced at Pacifica Studios of KPFT, Houston; tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.