Pubdate: Thu, 21 Jun 2007
Source: Times Union (Albany, NY)
Page: B3
Copyright: 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Author: Anthony Papa
Note: Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy 
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)


God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes life's path is cut out for you
in ways that might not fit your liking. This was true for me when, in
1985, I was sentenced to 15-years-to-life stemming from my involvement
in drugs. My life was dramatically altered forever. At the time of my
arrest I was 29 years old, married, with a 6-year-old daughter. I made
the biggest mistake of my life when I delivered a package of four
ounces of cocaine for the promised sum of $500.

Nothing in the world could have prepared me for life in prison. I was
sent to Sing Sing, a maximum security prison in Ossining. It was a
living nightmare. Not only did I lose my family, I lost my life as I
knew it.

When I arrived at the prison I was surrounded with a sea of faces of
men who had lost all faith in their lives. It was the lowest point in
my life and I surely thought that God had abandoned me.

Soon after, I was walking past a row of cells that sat on the top tier
of the A Block housing unit. I inhaled the odor of paint and followed
its trail to a cell. I looked in and saw the most magnificent
paintings. They belonged to a prisoner named Indio. We became friends
and he taught me how to paint.

I began absorbing myself in my art. I was hooked. In 1988, I was
sitting in my cell when I picked up a mirror and saw a reflection of a
man who was going to be spending the most productive years of his life
locked in a cage. I set up a canvas and captured the image. I named it
"15 to Life." As my art became more and more a center point in my
life, I realized that God had not abandoned me but, instead, given me
a vehicle to find real meaning and purpose in my life.

I entered a graduate program in 1994 offered by the New York
Theological Seminary at Sing Sing prison. I studied liberation
theology with an emphasis on urban ministry. The center of our
teaching was based on praxis. We were taught that we could talk all we
want about tradition and the Bible but that, without a tangible
action, our intentions would be meaningless. The program's director,
the Rev. Bill Webber, who became my spiritual father, had given me
vision to become an agent of change and transformation.

In 1995, my self-portrait, "15 to Life," was exhibited at the Whitney
Museum of American Art. I received a lot of media attention and, in
1997, I received clemency from Gov. George Pataki. My art became my
ministry. I had exhibits and used my art as instrument to speak out
against inhumane drug laws.

At the same time, I made trips to Albany to speak with legislators.
Most of them had a dual view of reforming the laws. Their public view
was that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were working fine. Behind closed
doors they agreed the laws needed to be reformed. But they were afraid
of publicly speaking out against them because it would cause their
political deaths. I decided at that point that I was spinning my
wheels by trying to convince them.

I remember reading a book titled "The Upside Down Kingdom" by Donald
Kraybill. It basically spoke about how Jesus created change from the
bottom up, instead of the top down.

My idea then was to try and change the way politicians thought about
New York's drug laws by changing their constituents' views. I took
that concept and, in 1998, I co-founded the Mothers of the New York
Disappeared. This advocacy group was comprised mostly of family
members of those imprisoned by the Rockefeller Drug Laws. We formed a
street movement that generated tremendous press by utilizing the human
element of the issue.

It was a long row to hoe, but we managed to shift public opinion and
exert public pressure on the politicians. In 2004-05, the first reform
changes were passed with hope that more will follow.

Forgiveness and redemption -- especially forgiveness of oneself -- are
crucial to promoting social change. What gets in the way are the
psychological and spiritual walls we build to separate us from one
another. If we apply these concepts, we can break down these barriers
so that positive change can take root and grow.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake