Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

My Journey With the Rockefeller Drug Laws

In 1984, I had a wife and child and worked hard to makes ends meet in my radio installation shop in the East Bronx. But I was frustrated with my situation. Business was bad. I was also a gambler, which did not help. Desperate for money to pay bills, I made the biggest mistake of my life.

word got around to a drug dealer who dealt in the bowling alleys of Westchester County. I was asked to deliver an envelope containing four and one half ounces of cocaine. At first I refused, but after a while my desperate state overtook my better senses, and I agreed -- and walked into an undercover drug sting operation. The drug dealer worked for the police and was trying to save himself from a life sentence. The more people he got involved, the less time he got.

In 1985, I was found guilty. Because I was a first-time non-violent offender, the judge gave me a break, or as much of a break as he could. He sentenced me to serve a term of 15 years to life. The draconian punishment was a result of New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws. These laws mandated a minimum sentence of 15 years to life for sales of two ounces or possession of four ounces of a controlled substance. I was sent to Sing Sing prison, one of the most dangerous prisons in America. I was shocked to find that a majority of the 2,300 prisoners there were also serving sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Like all prisoners who serve long sentences, I learned what doing hard time was all about. It was not just marking X’s on your calendar, it was about learning to live in the present, no matter how terrible it was. Thinking of the past and hoping for the future were as painful as they were futile. I had to forget about life on the outside in order to maintain my sanity on the inside. I had to let go of the rope to survive. I thought about time only in reference to the day at hand and the functions associated with it - the headcounts and bells and other mechanisms by which the prison maintained order and security. Even death had become a routine part of prison life.


Faced with violence and a self-defeating environment I prayed for a way to survive. My prayers were answered when I discovered art. I began to paint. It was through my painting that I transcended the negativity of imprisonment and found meaning in my life.

In 1988 one night sitting in my 6 x 9 cell I picked up a mirror and saw an individual who was going to spend the most productive years of his life in a cage. I picked up a canvas and painted my self -portrait titled 15 Years to Life. In 1994 the painting appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It generated tremendous publicity and in 1997 Governor George Pataki granted me clemency. I had literally painted my way to freedom.

When released I had struggled with my identity. My direction in life was unclear until I spoke at Spottford Correctional Facility for youth in the South Bronx. I was shocked to see my audience comprised of boys and girls ten to 15 years old who were dressed in prison uniforms. All were black and Latino and they were being molded into becoming victims of the prison industrial complex. It was then I decided to use my art and story as a vehicle to become an agent of change and transformation.

I volunteered with various activist groups who regularly visited the State Capitol to advocate for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws.


Some people have asked why such harsh and counterproductive laws have persisted for so long. One reason is money. Prisons are big business. Since 1982, 33 prisons have been built up-state.


Another reason is what I consider institutionalized racism; 75 percent of the 17,000 people locked up under these laws come from seven inner-city neighborhoods.

A third reason is New York politics. In October of 2004, New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice conducted a study that determined that New York State had the “most dysfunctional legislative process in the nation.”

The reality of New York politics smacked me in the face when during an early meeting a politician said that while he knew drug law reform and rehabilitation were necessary and right, he did not “want to look soft on crime.” It made me furious and I wanted an explanation. Another Assemblyman made it worst when he answered. “We all understand” he said, “but the Democrats just lost three seats in the House and we attribute it to appearing soft on criminal issues. We can’t afford to lose any more seats!”

“So that means that change will never occur,” I shot back. “You politicians are more concerned with your careers than implementing changes that would make the system work better.” He shrugged and didn’t reply. After several equally dismal meetings, I knew that I was wasting my time. I realized that the only way to change the laws was to change public opinion.


In 1998 I met Randy Credico, the director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Together we helped organize the "Mothers of the New York Disappeared", a group of ex-prisoners and family members of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws. Within six years, through street-level protests that generated tremendous publicity, the group managed to bring to the public its agenda of eliminating these terrible laws.


In 2001, for the first time in the 27 years since the Rockefeller laws had been passed, the governor of New York along with the Senate and Assembly all agreed that the laws had to be changed. But, still, for the next several years, nothing happened. The politicians could not agree on what the changes should be. Meanwhile, thousands of human beings were rotting away in prison while their families suffered.

At least the 2003 legislative session ended with a bang, because hip hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons got involved, launching the largest drug war protest in New York City history. Over 50,000 people crowded the streets near City Hall. Celebrities such as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon teamed up with Hip Hop stars like P. Diddy and Jay-Z to fight for repeal.

At a party launching my memoirs, "15 To Life", given by the Whitney Museum of American Art in October, 2004, there were more than 300 people in attendance, several of whom, including State Senator David Patterson, former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and Governor Rockefeller’s granddaughter, spoke out against the laws.

Finally, in December of last year, it was announced that the Rockefeller drug laws would be reformed. I was ecstatic. I thought that finally after all these years of struggle our dream would come through.


However, upon examination of the changes, I discovered that the new reforms were so watered down as to be of little meaning. The weight standards have been doubled, so that now the mandatory minimum sentences kick in after sales of four ounces of a controlled substance or possession of eight ounces. And then the mandatory minimum sentences have been reduced from 15-to-life to 8-to-20 years for A-1 felons, the most serious category of felons. But these changes affect only about 400 current prisoners -- leaving more than 16,000 behind, with no relief in sight.


These changes do not address the core of the problem of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. What needs to happen is the restoration of judicial discretion. We want judges to have the power to look at the totality of facts and base sentences on the consideration of each case and when appropriate, sentence offenders to treatment. We want to change the power structure of the Rockefeller drug laws. The 62 District Attorneys of New York State now control the outcome of drug cases from their conception. Our argument is: how could they be fair when these prosecutors’ careers live or die by their rates of conviction?

The reforms have now gone into effect and prisoners who had served lengthy sentences under the Rockefeller drug laws have started filling motions for resentencing. Although I applaud the opportunity for these individuals to be reunited with their loved ones, I want to send a message to the governor and the legislature. We will continue to fight for true reform and will not stop until that goal is reached.

Anthony Papa will have a book/talk on Febuary 10, at 6pm at Hue-Man Books and February 12 at the Schomburg Center for Research In Black Culture

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