[Given the lack of jobs for so many in our society, it is time that we found better ways to cope with those convicted with drug offenses.  While we are at it our mentally ill (16% of our prisoners) with the closure of our mental hospitals are often those so convicted.  If any saw the 60 Minutes program last night – or many of the others similarly reporting the 16% mentally ill imprisoned — with one of these who died 4 days after incarceration of dehydration, you will have a vivid recollection of the brutalities of our penal system which allows unqualified guards to kill same.  One of my own students, a young Orthodox Jewish woman, was similarly dumped in prison for offending a local Yeshiva and nearly died there.  Ed Kent]

Subject: Albany Times-Union 7/21/07 (T.Papa Op.): Forgiveness at the heart of change
Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2007 10:40:30 -0400
From: Tony Papa
To: Tony Papa

The Times Union (Albany, New York)

July 21, 2007 Saturday

Forgiveness at the heart of change



LENGTH: 681 words

Forgiveness at the heart of change

First published: Saturday, July 21, 2007

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.

Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance.

LOAD-DATE: July 21, 2007



Copyright 2007 The Hearst Corporation
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“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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