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15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom Hardcover – November 1, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
This tension-filled memoir by a prisoner turned activist and artist may seem familiar after Jennifer Gonnerman's NBA-nominated Life on the Outside, but unlike Gonnerman, Papa describes excessive imprisonment under harsh drug laws with the grim certainty of firsthand experience. In 1984, he rashly agreed, for $500, to deliver a package containing four and a half ounces of cocaine for a gambling acquaintance. It turned out to be a sting, and Papa was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. Although at first suffused with melodramatic regret, the account becomes leaner when Papa arrives at Sing Sing and describes the hazards and absurdities of the notoriously crowded, grimy prison. He found spiritual release from despair and violence through educational programs on painting, writing and law. Papa's public stature rose after a painting of his was exhibited at the Whitney Museum, and after numerous travails threatened his health and sanity, he was granted executive clemency after 12 years behind bars. Papa has since been active with the group Mothers of the Disappeared and the movement to repeal the overly harsh Rockefeller drug laws; his paintings combine surrealist overtones with hard-edged subjects often derived from the prison-industrial complex, and they reflect the material of his book memorably.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"Papa has an astounding visual imagination. 15 to Life is more than an insider's view of New York's prison archipelago. It's also a powerful statement against a war on drugs."
--New York Press
"Anthony Papa has written a riveting account of how he courageouslypainted his way to freedom from prison after unnecessarily servingtwelve years. His story puts a human face on the nearly one millionnonviolent drug offenders confined in prisons throughout the country."
--Susan Sarandon, actor/activist
"Papa's story gives me the chills. He's been through so much you won't believe it 'till you read it."
--Jack Black -Actor
"A powerful memoir of one man's struggle for freedom, 15 to Life tellsin vivid prose the story of Anthony Papa, a painter and a casualty ofthe War on Drugs. This journey of a soul shows the power of art totranscend the violence of prison, and all that is possible when thehuman spirit refuses to be contained. Papa's account should be requiredreading for New York lawmakers and all Americans who care about civilliberties."
--Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking)
"Anthony Papa's "15 To Life" tells of a heroic escape from a brutal system by a man who refused to give up. A thrilling, unforgettable read! -- Tim Robbins - Actor (Mystic River)
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Top Customer Reviews
Papa's writing skills are right up there with his painting skills. His book flows well and doesn't lose steam at any point, making it a fast read. 15 to Life is a timeless story that should appeal to all audiences. I look forward to reading Papa's second book, This Side of Freedom, about his experiences after prison.
15 to Life details how Papa transformed himself while in prison, from a convicted drug courier into an artist and later into an activist. The first 80+ pages cover his dealings with a shady lawyer, codefendants turning on him and his initiation into the jail system. Papa reinforces that what you see in the movies about prison life is not far from reality. Sex, violence, drugs, deals made and deals broken all take place on a regular basis behind the prison walls.
15 to Life takes a turn from prison narrative to survival tale when Papa realizes that he is going to serve a good deal of his sentence. Papa finds his inspiration to not give up when he sees a prisoner painting in his cell and becomes mesmerized by the act. A short while later, emerging from a three-day lockdown Papa has an epiphany as he looks around his cell. He considers the ten paintings he has completed and sees his freedom on the canvas. At this point Papa becomes committed to his art, realizing it is the only way he can survive prison.
While Papa works on his art he starts to realize that his lawyer is not doing much to help him. While in the library studying his case, a prisoner tells him about the law that has sentenced him to 15 years to life. The Rockefeller drug laws state that a judge must impose a minimum sentence of 15 years to life to anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a controlled substance. Kingpin or first time bust, everyone receives the same minimum sentence. Papa now had another focus besides his art, his case and more specifically, the law that put him behind bars.
Papa gets a break in September of 1993 when the Whitney Museum contacted Sing Sing about a show they would be putting together. The Whitney was looking for art by a murderer for their show. Papa saw an opportunity and pursued it, telling The Whitney that he was a convicted killer. In his mind the lie would expose his are and hopefully get him closer to freedom.
After the Whitney show Papa received his first press exposure, an in depth piece in the Gannett Suburban Newspaper. An article in Prison Life magazine followed, then a NY Times letter to the editor penned by Papa in regard to the Rockefeller drug laws. Later, an Associated Press story that is printed in six New York newspapers follows. Papa welcomes the press; the prison does not and reassigns him to a harsher area of the prison.
Papa later learns of an opportunity to join a Master's Degree Program from the New York Theological Seminary. While he is enrolled in the Master's Program Papa starts the ball rolling on his plea for clemency from Governor George Pataki. Papa details his attempts at clemency and his joy at finally receiving the news that it had been granted.
After his release Papa tells of his days outside of prison. His major focus is on the group he co-founds, Mothers of the New York Disappeared, named for the mothers and relatives who have had family members disappear behind prison walls. The group is focused on repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The efforts of the group have helped change public opinion on the law, however the public and the government that represents them are not on the same page and the laws remain unchanged.
The story of Anthony Papa is a great read and at points a heartbreaking story. Papa is a man that did not give up when he could have easily done so. Papa capitalized on every chance he had while in prison and his story is one of triumph. His story is also one that should make the reader think about the prisoners that do give up, that are not given any chances. 15 to Life should make you think about the prisoners that are left to rot behind bars due to unfair and restrictive sentencing guidelines. Papa's story helps the reader to realize that the Rockefeller Laws are not putting away the big dealers like they intended and need to be reevaluated and ultimately scrapped.
family could live. Like being asked to do some landscaping for a friend, Papa
was to deliver four and one half ounces of coke for some quick money and quick
resolution to his financial crisis. The deal was a setup to break the fall of
a dealer higher up in the hierarchy of the drug market and Papa endured the
mandatory 15 year minimum in court. Thereafter Papa lived an ordinary story of
acclimation to prison life as a first-time offender, as well as an extraordinary
story of discovery of latent talent, and a strategic engagement of that talent
to pursue his freedom. Through the pages we see the scant resources prisoners
have for advocating for their freedom. We see those scant resources exhausted
as Papa becomes a jailhouse lawyer creating appeals that are manhandled to his
misfortune by outsider law firms. In the end, as the title suggests, it is the
resource of art that prevails. Both as an occupation that allowed Papa to
transcend his despair in the cell and the afflictions of civil bureaucracy.
Papa wins his freedom through playing the ooh's and ah's of the art world and
its media following. His builds his campaign for clemency from then governor
George Pataki on the moral/aesthetic arguments that only his art is allowed to
communicate. And `moral argument' ought not be confused with plastic sympathy.
It is no puppy dog stare from a pet store window.
Papa's story is a milieu of competitiveness and resigned cooperation with an
inhuman system of power. Papa is forced to wile and trick a system to gain an
advantage that should be afforded to him on the basis of human rights. Papa
competes against many characters: lawyers, judges, dealers, other inmates,
CO's, high society artists and critics. And the prize of this competition is
not the fame associated with hanging portraits in galleries. That is just the
means to the real finish line: the freedom those on the outside all readily
take for granted. Papa literally paints for his life; it may well be the
reason he paints ("I knew that participating in the show [at New York's Whitney
Art Museum] was the break I had been waiting for. As I re-read the lines, they
blurred into a single word: FREEDOM.").
So art, the aesthetic realm all too often valued as transcendent of the hard
truths of life, finds a very practical cause. Art's power is used for a very
focused and determinate end: to sow a campaign for public opinion. Papa's
sentence at Sing Sing faces the opposite direction Oscar Wilde experienced
during his stay at Reading Gaol. Whereas Wilde was an aesthete whose genius
was eroded by the toil of his imprisonment, Papa finds his genius because of
the toil, because the normal argumentative paths to pursuing freedom (court
appeals) in maximum security prisons ultimately don't exist in his favor.
While Wilde may view art as those things that are unnecessary, Papa makes art
(and maybe more precisely the outside world's mass-mediated appreciation of
art) the absolutely necessary path to his campaign for clemency and his
15 to Life reveals the conflicts and cooperation between the artist's brush,
jailhouse-law study, and numerous letters from legal bureaucracy. Papa
struggles through them all, playing them with and against each other in hopes
that he can freely reclaim his humanity. It leaves a lot of questions for the
reader such as "What happens to the inmates who don't have talent or technique
to entice the sympathy of the free world, what about the rest of them?"
Fortunately, Papa doesn't take his freedom and run. As co-founder of the
Mothers of the New York Disappeared he uses his clout as a cultural and moral
sensation to campaign for the rights of those he left behind the gates of Sing
Sing. Papa leaves the story of 15 to Life with a strong and quickening gaze
toward liberation for the Rockefeller incarcerated.
Papa's memoir will be easy and important reading for those who want to figure
art as a politicizing and strategic resource for creating real change for
social justice. It will inform the reader not only about Papa's artistic
process but also the political process he must engage to make his art work for
social change and his freedom. This process includes mobilizing audiences,
critics, press, and other locations of power toward an ethic or political good.
Papa's art is great and can stand alone as a form of beauty. However, "How I
Painted My Way to Freedom" is a complex subtitle and ought not conjure an image
of the paintbrush as a mystical key to the cellblock latch. Papa's story does
not let one underestimate the amount of work and struggle Papa needed to endure
to direct his art toward political resolution.