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Anthony Papa: My Return to Sing Sing Prison: The Agony and The Ecstasy

July 15th, 2009, 07:07 pm admin Leave a comment Go to comments

I swore up and down to myself I would never return. But over a decade later, here I was back at the maximum security prison where I served a 15 to life sentence for a non-violent drug crime under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State.

But this time I was lucky. I was not there to serve time for committing a new crime. Instead, I was there on a tour of the prison with my producer Brian Swibel and screenwriter Mike Jones. In October of 2004, my prison memoir 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom was published. The book was a riveting account about making a single mistake and having my life being torn apart by the unjust drug laws of NYS. My memoir was soon optioned by Brian and his partner Barrett Stuart.

In March of 2009 screenwriter Mike Jones was hired to pen my story for the big screen. In order to make the script as good as it could possibly be, Jones wanted to see and feel the prison. At first, when the idea of going back to that hell hole was suggested, I panicked. A chill ran up and down my spine. I did not want to go back to the gulag that kept me captive for the most productive years of my life. This was the place that almost took away my humanity, but did not because of my discovery of my art. Through art I transcended the negativity of imprisonment and found meaning in my life through painting. In 1994 my self portrait, “15-To-Life” , appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art which lead to a burst of publicity and my eventual freedom though clemency granted by Gov. Pataki.

After a few days the initial fear of returning to Sing Sing disappeared. I realized how important it was and I agreed to go. Brian’s people contacted the NYS Commissioner of Corrections office and obtained permission for a tour of the facility.

The night before the scheduled tour I could not sleep. I called a friend who had done time with me at Sing Sing. “Rich” I said, “do you think Big Don from the law library is still there?” Don was the ultimate gangster. He was into everything, from drug dealing to extortion. Before I left Sing Sing back in 1997 he caught me on the way out as I waited for a van to bring me to the front gate. “Hey, man, I heard you’re leaving us” he said, not sounding particularly happy for me. He wanted me to do him a favor and needed my phone number. “Sure thing” I said, but gave him a fake number. “You sure it’s good?” he asked. “If not, your ass will be grass.” “Sure I replied, you think I would kid you? ” This is how I survived prison, by learning how to con a con. As I thought about Don, Rich told me Don had been transferred from Sing Sing years ago. I was relieved.

The next day I met Brian and Mike in midtown Manhattan and we drove up to Sing Sing. During the hour’s drive to the prison I tried to focus on the positive aspects of the tour and how it would help Mike tell the story. But dark thoughts entered my mind, causing me to invent dramatic scenarios that would put my life in danger. After all — Sing Sing had become a living nightmare to me and a place where I saw first hand the strongest of men become broken by its absolute paternal authority.

When we arrived at the prison my eyes focused on the guard towers that surround the facility. I painted those huge fearful towers many times as a prisoner along with the thousands of miles of razor wire that encompassed its exterior. As I entered the main gate my body tensed up. The years of emotional turmoil caused by living at the prison for 12 years appeared once again. I began to feel dizzy and nauseous. I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. Brian and Mike looked at me and asked if I was all right. I took some deep breaths and retained my composure.

We then met with the Deputy of Security who outlined the parameters of our tour. He explained where we could and could not go and made it clear that this was a dangerous maximum security prison. When he said this, Brian, Mike and I looked at each others’ eyes with a touch of fear. I thought about the daily stabbings by the predators that roamed the prison that took place when I was there.

Our escort was an old timer who had been a Correction Officer for over 26 years. He knew the gulag inside out and made sure we saw it through his eyes. During my 3 hour tour I saw more of the prison than during my 12 years of imprisonment. Absent from its cavernous presence was the overbearing noise and craziness of Sing Sing’s past. Where hundreds of men ran wild in the cell blocks from my past stay there, now there were few. The prison had been tamed by a new administration. Absent that day, during the tour, was the vice and corruption of its past. But still present was the unmistakable dehumanization of its occupants and the look of hopelessness in their eyes.

While in A-block, one of three main housing units that held almost 700 men, I ran into a prisoner I knew. A smile came to his face as he waved to me. He asked me why I was there. As I raised my hand to greet the prisoner, the tour officer interrupted, “no talking” he said. I froze. I then turned my back towards him as I left the housing area. We all left the prison emotionally drained.

For many years as an activist, it has been a lonely job to challenge the system. But now there is a new trend in the politics of imprisonment… Now we have political leaders like Virginia Senator Jim Webb speaking out; saying that the American system for the prosecution and incarceration of criminals not only needs reform, but has become a “national disgrace”.

There are over a half a million Americans currently behind bars on drug charges. Most of them are non violent offenders and many need treatment instead of being locked up in a cage. It is my hope that 15 to Life will eventually be made and become an important film that critiques the war on drugs and becomes a clarion call for reform of America’s drug laws.

We need people to join us and there is an opportunity coming up soon.

On November 12-14, The Drug Policy Alliance will co-host Working Towards a New Bottom Line: the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference at the Albuquerque Convention Center in New Mexico. The meeting serves as the world’s principal gathering of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. Activists, elected officials, scholars, students, drug treatment professionals, people in recovery and others will spend three days sharing, learning, connecting, and strategizing about drug policy reform issues.

Visit http://www.reformconference.org today for more information and to register for the conference.

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