As visitors flipped through bins of paintings, lingering on the ones they liked, Anthony Papa couldn't help but recall what a paint and brush had done for him during the 12 years he was behind bars for distributing drugs. He had been desperate, and it was his first offense.
"Art saved my life," he said yesterday. "It helped me to retain my sanity and regain my freedom. The greatest thing for me was my discovery as an artist."
In a makeshift gallery in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington yesterday, the works of dozens of incarcerated people from across the country were on display. There were serene landscapes and joyous clowns as well as celebrity portraits, including Tupac Shakur, Malcolm X and Ray Charles. There were also sober renderings of prison life: a pair of shackled hands, a roll of toilet paper next to a barren toilet.
Organizers said the importance of the pieces lies not in their artistic value but in what the expressions represent -- a chance to rehabilitate those who have gone astray.
"Art provides a second chance," said Dennis Sobin, director of the District-based Prisons Foundation, which regularly showcases prison artists.
Yesterday's Taste of Justice Fair also included dozens of victims' and criminal rights advocates and representatives of groups that provide services to the currently or previously incarcerated.
Among them was Rodney C. Mitchell, a District native, who served time and now helps others who have recently left prison.
As a reentry worker for the D.C. Public Defender's Office, he sees 30 to 35 people each week, helping them clear up legal issues and get arrests expunged from their records and steering them toward employers.
"We try to stabilize them," he said. "We try to be holistic."
But there are not enough services to reach the 2,500 inmates who return to the District each year, in addition to the thousands more who cycle in and out of the D.C. jail for minor offenses, Mitchell said. Service providers from the region and across the nation said they experience the same problems.
One of the biggest issues was what they said were strict penalties for drug offenses. It is the issue closest to Papa's heart. In 1985, Papa said, a bowling buddy asked a favor: deliver a small packet of cocaine in exchange for $500.
He accepted and was caught in a drug sting.
As a result of stringent drug laws in New York state, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. He spent 12 years in prison, studying art and finding himself.
After achieving some recognition for his work, he was pardoned by the governor.
Now he travels the country hawking his book, "15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom" (2004), and as an advocate for the Drug Policy Alliance, trying to get fairer laws in place to help people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.
"Mine is a familiar story," he said.
"Spending 15 years in a 6-by-9 cell, you really discover who you are," he added. "Art gives people a second chance. If you go to prison and there are no programs, you come out worse than when you came in. Why not use the prison as a re-socialization center? You have a captive audience."
Wearing a Superman backpack, Marcus Robertson, 7, flipped through a bin of paintings as his father, Vince Robertson, stood nearby.
One featuring a New York cityscape caught Marcus's eye: A plane was about to crash into one of the twin towers as the faces of dozens of people ascended skyward.
"I see people going up to Heaven," he told his father, referring to the picture of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "My teacher told me about that."
Robertson, a fundraiser who lives in Takoma Park, said that his work centers on environmental and social justice issues and that he wants his children to have broad exposure.
"I came intentionally to expose my son to this type of thing," he said. "I want him to understand that it's not all entertainment."
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