Tony L.: The other side of mass incarceration

tony lewis sketch

Tony L., 35
Washington, D.C.

Most hated stereotype:The idea of what a returning citizen is. The stigma that these people are bad people and that these people will always be involved in criminality and can’t change.

 Listen: Tony juggles stereotypes from multiple sides

When released from prison, returning citizens are faced with many obstacles, including rebuilding connections with their families, locating employment and the attitudes and stereotypes in the neighborhoods they return to.

Most detrimental to returning citizens is the belief that they will always be the person who committed the crime, said Tony Lewis, Jr. the vocation development coordinator for an agency that oversees parole and probation in Washington, D.C.

“The idea of what a returning citizen is, the stigma that these people are bad people and that these people will always be involved in criminality and can’t change, that they aren’t parents, that they don’t have the potential to be good citizens, I think that’s the main stereotype for me that negatively impacts my life,” he said. “Because I’m working everyday to try to help these people rebuild their lives and that’s the primary thing that we’re up against. Just changing the stigma about the stereotype about who they are.”

The desire to help returning citizens and educate the public about mass incarceration runs deep for Tony.

The Past

Born and raised in the shadow of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tony is the only son of Tony Lewis Sr., a well-known player in the drug epidemic that consumed the city in the 1980s.

A 1989 conviction and life sentence transformed Tony’s relationship with his father to a long distance one. The stress of the situation took the mother he knew and changed her.

From there, Tony was shepherded through his teen years by his grandmother and aunt. Instead of DC public schools, He attended Gonzaga College High School before heading to the University of the District of Columbia. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in urban studies.

People are often surprised to learn that Tony speaks to his father often, not able to clear the mental hurdle between convicted drug dealer and involved parent.

“I guess if you’re a drug dealer, you can’t be a good person or you can’t be a dad,” Tony said. “People miss the fact that people who are incarcerated still have regard and love for their children or their family members.

That’s a stigma, that people don’t have strong family bonds. Because incarceration robs people of their humanity. If you’re stripped of your humanity, [they] don’t see you like [they see themselves].”

The Present

While his father was known for selling drugs and a lavish lifestyle, Tony’s neighbors know him for turkey and toy drives, advocacy for returning citizens and his memoir, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

Tony’s expertise in re-entry is backed by his lived experience and he has put his story on paper to help others – and himself.

“I suffer from survivors guilt and I have for awhile,” he says. “Everybody I came up with, it’s like we were in a plane crash and I was the only one to survive. I feel like that a lot. I’m trying to find the reason. The only way I could do that is to talk about how life happened.”

Throughout Slugg, Tony documents life before and after his father was sentenced to life in prison. Readers get an inside glimpse of his Hanover neighborhood in the 1980s, the privilege he was afforded as a child, the difficulties of navigating the justice system and his insight that drives his advocacy work.

For the person who reads the book to learn more about Tony Sr. or who thinks they’re diving into a “street novel,” they quickly learn this book is not that.

“They want to see how much cocaine my dad sold,” he said, laughing. “That’s two chapters. When you get to the end of the book you don’t even think about it. Because the book is about me. It’s about my perspective. It’s what I saw. What I remember.”

And it also shows the realities of “the life” and the people who live it, not the glamorous, stereotypical version some imagine.

“I’m going to tell you what it really feels like. My father doing life in prison, my mother is schizophrenic. Where you once had two parents that were there everyday… and then all off a sudden, they’re not. It’s about that. That’s what happens when people go away to prison.”

While therapeutic for him, Tony hopes Slugg encourages people with similar backgrounds and educates people who have to work with them. Slugg is far from the first time Tony has shared his story. It’s his main tool in connecting with the returning citizens he serves at work as well as the community he grew up in.

“In sharing my experiences I help them see the promise and greatness in themselves. Everybody’s not going to come through a class with me, but my stories and what I’ve been through and how I dealt with it, the decisions I made…I’ve seen how it’s influenced people’s lives.”


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