Blog Post

Anthony Papa: Fighting for Reform

Drug Policy Alliance

Second chances is something Anthony Papa strongly believes in.   

In 1985 he made the biggest mistake in his life when he got involved with drug activity. Papa was married with a 7 year-old daughter, and self-employed installing radios and alarms in cars in the Bronx.  

It was Christmas time and he bowled in a league in Yonkers, New York and he kept coming late because his car kept breaking down. One of his teammates asked him why he didn’t just purchase another car. Papa told him his financial situation was bleak. The teammate suggested he meet someone who might have an answer to his problem.

It was then Papa was introduced to someone who dealt drugs in the bowling alleys of Westchester County. The drug dealer asked Papa if he wanted to make some fast money. At first Papa refused, but after a few months, he got desperate. The dealer called again and offered a fast $500. He told Papa all he had to do was transport an envelope from the Bronx to Mt. Vernon. Like a carrot dangling on a string, Papa went for it and wound up walking into a police drug sting operation. 

Papa was convicted of selling four and a half ounces of cocaine and sentenced to 15 years to life. He went to Sing Sing prison where he was lost until he met another prisoner who was a painter who asked Papa if he wanted to learn how to paint. Papa discovered his artistic talent and a few years later, he painted a self-portrait titled “15 to Life.” It represented the reality that he was to spend the most productive years of his life in a 6x9 foot cell. 

In 1994 that painting appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art as centerpiece in an installation by a famous conceptual artist, Mike Kelley. Two years later, former New York  Gov. George Pataki granted him executive clemency.

Anthony got out in 1997 after doing 12 years of hard time. But while being imprisoned, he discovered his political awareness and decided to dedicate his life to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State. He went on a rescue mission to save those he left behind so he co-founded the Mothers of the NY Disappeared which became the leading activist group. Papa used his prison experience to become an activist for drug decriminalization using his story and art as a vehicle for change and transformation. Finally in 2009, former New York Gov. David Paterson signed legislation that historically reformed the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In 2016, Papa published his memoir This Side of Freedom: Life after Clemency, about his 20 years of freedom and the struggles he had with life after imprisonment. The book was officially accepted by Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Anthony Annucci and placed in all 54 general libraries in NYS prisons, as it was deemed to be a useful resource and guide for general population inmates. In 2017, he received a full pardon from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, becoming the first person in the history of New York State to receive both clemency and a pardon.

Papa took a bad situation and made it the best he could. While imprisoned, he took advantage of positive restorative programs in prison and earned two college degrees and a masters from New York Theological Seminary. Papa’s experience is an example of how it is possible to turn your life around if given a second chance. He hopes others in similar situations will read his story and be inspired to change their lives for the better.

Read more second chance stories.

Second Chance Month