Once facing a life sentence, today Anthony Papa is an author, artist, and activist who works at the Drug Policy Alliance. Recently, he released his second memoir in paperback. Here’s a quick look at the man behind This Side of Freedom.
So, for starters, tell me a bit about yourself – and, more specifically, what your latest book is about?
This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency is a riveting, compelling tale about my life. I tell of my experience of returning home after serving 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for a non-violent drug crime, sentenced under the mandatory provisions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State.
In 1997, I was granted executive clemency by New York Governor George Pataki. Upon release I soon realized that the freedom I fought so hard to get smacked me swiftly in the face, overpowering me. I struggled with my freedom while fighting to free those I left behind. I go through heart-wrenching trials and tribulations as I sought to end the war on drugs and save those I left behind. Along the way I meet an array of individuals from famous movie stars to politicians and the very rich, enlisting their help in doing away with mass incarceration and draconian sentencing laws that have destroyed America’s criminal justice system.
This is not your first book and not your first memoir – so what was your first book about?
15 to Life is a rare adventure story about how an average married Joe was railroaded by the subterfuge surrounding the War on Drugs. Offered a chance to make a quick $500, I agreed to deliver an envelope in a fated police sting operation. My first and only criminal offense cost me a 15-year sentence in Sing-Sing, a maximum-security prison in New York State. I had tried to commit suicide when I realized the best years of my life would be spent in a 6×9 cell.
One day I discovered my talent as an artist. This gave me the ability to transcend the negative environment I lived in.It also gave me the will to live. When the Whitney Museum chose my self-portrait 15-to-Life to exhibit in a retrospective of installation artist Mike Kelley I had to lie because of the jarring stipulation that the painting chosen would have to be that of a murderer because of the intellectual context of Kelley’s art. I did, and soon afterward I received intense media attention. Governor Pataki got wind of my case, and after 12 hard years of time, I was granted clemency.
What motivated you to write the second memoir, especially after already having a first one out?
I wanted to address the need to write a book that would provide valuable information about returning to society after serving a long time in prison.
Carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is often debilitating, from being denied employment and housing, to not knowing how to establish healthy relationships, life becomes exceedingly difficult. In addition, maintaining that freedom is no easy task while wrestling with the haunting memories of past imprisonment
I realized that after serving a tremendous amount of time in prison upon release my prison life was deeply rooted into my present existence. I had a decade of life in an environment where survival mechanisms and behaviors were hardwired into daily existence. Being hardwired for survival was a good thing in prison; it had saved my life many times. In the free world, though, it was another matter, especially when these mechanisms would surface suddenly and without warning. The tools that were once lifesaving had become a tremendous burden to me as I tried to get my life back together.
Through my second memoir I talk about my 18 years of freedom and the extraordinary experiences that I have lived through. I have advocated for celebs like Cameron Douglas and enlisting him to become the poster boy of drug relapse and how he was punished for falling off the wagon and given an unbelievable prison sentence for it, to fighting tooth and nail for the hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders who are rotting away in the gulags of the United States of America because of outdated drug laws.
I would imagine that publishing a memoir about such deeply personal topics could be nerve-wracking. Did you have concerns about how your books would be received?
Yes, I reveal a lot of personal issues in this book and talk about them in an open fashion. The hardest issue was talking about my daughter Stephanie who was totally traumatized by the prison experience. During my imprisonment I had tried to commit suicide, been stuck with a knife, and was beat down with a pipe, but nothing hurt me more than my separation from my daughter.
As time went by, my 7-year-old daughter learned about the reality of our situation. No child should have experienced the horrible conditions she had to go through, such as body searches, long waiting lines and abusive correction officers. Little by little, her beautiful child-like demeanor disappeared, and was replaced with a sadness and depression generally seen in a much older person. By the time she was 12, she had become psychologically damaged, and so traumatized by the prison experience that she could no longer visit me. Today she sees me as a total stranger as we have no type of relationship. In fact she just had a baby girl and I don’t even know her name!
What do you want a reader to come away with after finishing this book?
I want them to realize that prison does not stop at the prison wall, it extends far and wide reaching love ones and that for many, including myself, carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is often debilitating. And that the road to freedom is very hard to walk especially when reentering the real world you find that there are many roadblocks that exist that will prevent you from facing a smooth transition. From being denied employment and housing, to not knowing how to establish healthy relationships, life becomes exceedingly hard. Responses have generally been supportive for both books. But breaking through the stigma of being an ex-offender has been tough. Hopefully people will buy this new book and see what I went through in maintaining my freedom, despite the odds being against me to stay free. Statistics show that almost 70 percent return to imprisonment within three years of release. I have been fortunate enough to stay free and become an activist to fight for meaningful drug law reform.
Do you have plans for a third memoir? Or a third book or any kind?
Yes. I also want to write a book about my art and to talk about my life as a painter and show the work I have created in a coffee table-style book.
Finally, where can interested readers buy your book?
It’s now available on Amazon and Barns & Noble in ebook form and softcover