A former prisoner explains ‘what now’ for America
Anthony “Tony” Papa once spent 12 years behind bars for a small crime he committed in a time of weakness. He did so to come up on “some easy money,“ and readily admits it was one of the worst mistakes he’s ever made. He now spends every waking hour of his life as an activist against mandatory drug sentencing laws, with a concentration on educating ex-cons so they have a better chance of never landing in trouble again while they’re free — like so many of them often do.
And much like millions of others in America, he’s worried about the future of the country.
“We have to look at the reality of the situation,” Papa says of the election results. “This whole Trump thing took everyone by surprise, so now we just gotta deal with it.”
He says he and the Drug Policy Alliance (where he’s worked for over a decade now) have made tremendous strides in the fight against mandatory sentencing for non-violent offenders. It hasn’t exactly been easy doing so during the past two terms with Barrack Obama in office, but could grow even more difficult with the newly chosen sheriff in town.
That’s because President-elect Donald Trump has named a few worrisome men to fill key positions in his administration. One scares Papa the most. His name is Jeff Sessions, and he’s likely to become America’s next Attorney General. He’s also about the worst possible choice for anyone in the position of fighting for equal rights and lightening the load on non-violent drug offenders.
However, it’s a fight that Papa and his team plan on continuing, even in the face of extreme complications.
“We’re trying to rally the troops,” he explains. “We’re getting everybody we can in all realms of activism, of civil rights, against the drug war, and speak out and get everybody to rally to stop this guy from becoming the Attorney General.”
Sessions is frightening to many like Papa because of his hard stance on drugs and the law. He admits to hating marijuana, is cool with controversial “stop and frisk” laws (that have already been deemed unconstitutional) and relies heavily on misinformation about the dangers of drugs.
Bill Piper, senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s office of National Affairs in Washington D.C., agrees with Papa’s feelings toward Sessions. In a recent media teleconference, he points out the devastating effects a Sessions ran office could have on already structured policies helping battle the war on drugs.
“[Sessions] recently described marijuana as a dangerous drug, said ‘good people don’t smoke marijuana,’ and has criticized the Obama administration for respecting state marijuana laws,” he said. “If confirmed as U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions could escalate the failed war on drugs. He will likely use his position to oppose any kind of sentencing or criminal justice reform. He could undo the important changes Eric Holder made including expanding the use of mandatory minimum sentencing and reversing course on important consent decrees.”
He scares many, but at this point, the fears all surround only speculation on what these men can and can not do with their positions. It won’t be until January, when all members are sworn in and given the keys to their respective offices, that the country will finally be able to feel the temperature of the pot it's gotten itself into.
Even still, Papa at least remains hopeful that a Trump administration would have little impact on the gray area that forever haunts the cannabis industry. He says it’s too locked into our culture right now for him to be able to do anything — at least that’s what he’s betting on anyway.
“Trump’s a businessman,” he says. “It’s so far into the American lifestyle. I mean, 7 more states voted it in. You’ll have a civil war if he tries to pull it back. So many people and businesses are in it.”
He’s just going to continue on with his many projects he’s working on right now, such as the Prison Letter Project (of which he says he has thousands of messages from prisoners telling their own stories about the failed justice system), and expanding his Prison Library Project after receiving a substantial grant to continue teaching men and women how to survive in a world built for them to fail.
“I’m trying to reduce massive incarceration by education, by educating prisoners before they come out, to prepare them and thus reducing recidivism,” he says. “That’s my attempt to reduce mass incarceration.”
He’s also altering his title at the DPA by incorporating art into the fight against injustice — something he learned while locked up himself.
“It’s a hard sell,” he admits, “but you know what, I’m doing it.”
Create. Educate. Fight. It’s all anyone can do at this point, says Papa.