Parents behind bars: DC activist speaks on age of mass incarceration

- A new Child Trends report says more than five million U.S. children – one in 14 -- have had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison.

Local activist Tony Lewis Jr. grew up as one of those kids.

“In communities like the one I come from, it’s so prevalent to have an incarcerated parent. And in today’s world, even mommy goes to jail,” said Lewis.

When he was just 8 years old, his father was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for his role in a major drug operation in the District.

Now in his 30s, Lewis still carries the burden of growing up without his dad around.

“When a parent goes to prison, a kid experiences so much shame, anguish, confusion, sense of isolation and detachment, abandonment,” he said. 

Lewis is the author of “Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

In his book, he wrote about how he relied on the support of other family members, including his grandmother, and he made education a priority.

Sadly, some of these vulnerable children are not as fortunate.

“A lot of my friends who had incarcerated parents found themselves incarcerated,” said Lewis. “Luckily, I had a family that was there to support and a dad that was adamant about me not following in his footsteps.”

Lewis mentors children of incarcerated parents because he knows their pain.

And as a father himself, Lewis would like for his 2-year-old daughter to have a relationship with her grandfather, but he struggles with the thought of bringing her to visit him behind bars.

“Those prison visits are the most bittersweet thing you can imagine, and it chips away at a child’s innocence,” he said.

Lewis says it is important that people are stabilized once they are let out of prison, so they can raise their kids.



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