NEW YORK–(ENEWSPF)–December 15, 2016
By: Anthony Papa
Recently, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci accepted the donation of my new memoir “This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, to be placed in all 54 general libraries in New York state prisons. Annucci and several members of his staff reviewed the book and concluded that it would be a useful resource and guide for general population inmates as they contemplate the challenges that lie ahead when they are released to the community.
In 1985, I was sentenced as a first-time nonviolent offender to 15 years-to-life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I served time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining. It was there I became part of the prison labyrinth and spent the next 12 years, until I was granted executive clemency by Gov. George Pataki in 1997.
I went on to write my first memoir, “15 to Life: How I Painted my Way to Freedom,” a story that captured my prison experience. Now, with my new offering, I talk about my 19 years of freedom and the struggle I have trying to re-enter society as a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen.
Formerly incarcerated people re-entering society face a daunting array of problems that prevent them from successfully reintegrating. These include not being able to find employment or secure housing, dealing with substance abuse and mental health problems, and difficulties in re-establishing and developing relationships.
On top of this, they also must face counterproductive and debilitating legal and practical barriers, including state and federal laws that hinder their ability to qualify for a job or get a higher education.
Because of this, many communities have struggled to handle the astonishing increase of people from prison. At the policy level, lawmakers are forced into questioning the Draconian drug policies of the past and are calling for solutions to ensure released prisoners can become productive members of society.
Millions of individuals have been sent to prison under the incarceration boom of the 1980s and ’90s that was largely the result of Draconian drug sentencing laws. The “tough-on-crime” era coincided with massive cuts to prison programs. I was lucky enough to receive three college degrees while I was incarcerated, including a master’s from New York Theological Seminary. I prepared myself for my eventual release.
My book stresses the importance of gaining an education and taking advantage of existing rehabilitative programs while in prison.
I wanted to write a book about the struggle one faces when released from prison. When I came home, I soon realized that I did not leave behind my 12 years of hard time. When you leave prison, you are not free. You are still doing time, just doing it on the other side of the bars.
I soon found out that prison life was deeply rooted in my present existence, a decade of life in an environment where survival mechanisms and behaviors were hardwired into my daily existence. Being hardwired for survival was a good thing in prison, but in the free world it was another matter, especially when those mechanisms would surface suddenly and without warning. The tools that were once lifesaving had become a tremendous burden as I tried to get my life back together.
In prison, I was beat down, piped and stabbed, but nothing hurt me more than my separation from my daughter Stephanie, who I left at age 7. When I tried to reunite with her, she was 19 years old and found me to be a complete stranger. I struggled with the most mundane tasks and realized that my support base was gone and I was alone in a new world that had drastically changed without me. No longer guided by the paternal benefits of institutional dependency, I found roadblocks at every level of existence.
For many, including myself, carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is often debilitating. “This Side of Freedom: Life after Clemency,” is a much-needed book that will help those incarcerated know what they will face when they are released, and also help those who are free understand the struggle the formerly incarcerated face as they try to regain their roles as productive citizens.
Anthony Papa of New York City is the manager of media and artist relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. www.15yearstolife.com
This commentary appeared in the Albany Time Union at: http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/Regaining-life-after-prison-a-burden-with-new-10793935.php?cmpid=twitter-desktop
Tony Papa WBAI radio interview with Randy Credico on his show “On the Fly” 12/13/16: