Giving Former Prisoners A Purpose (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Giving Former Prisoners a Purpose

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
It's a story we've all heard before. A man loses his way, goes to jail and eventually finds a path to redemption. But while we might be familiar with that particular tail, how often do we hear from the children left behind. Alice Ollstein introduces us to one Washingtonian who says his father's incarceration shaped his life. After a childhood of loss, he eventually found a meaningful way to give back to his community.

MS. ALICE OLLSTEIN

00:00:30
Tony Lewis, Jr. was just eight years old when his father received a life sentence for importing and selling cocaine. Without his father illegal income supporting the family, Lewis grew up in poverty in house just off North Capital Street while his mother slipped in and out of mental illness. Lewis had been close with his father and felt the loss deeply.

MR. TONY LEWIS

00:00:49
My father wasn't there and also my mother was going through her thing. So my parent essentially weren't there. I was forced to do a lot of stuff and have to mature quickly, a lot of responsibility fell on me solely.

OLLSTEIN

00:01:01
Those convicted in D.C. can be sent to any federal prison in the country. For most of Lewis's life, his father served time in California and flying out to visit was far too expensive. With no father figure in his life, it was hard to navigate the minefield of adolescence.

LEWIS

00:01:16
You're trying to find yourself anyway that time of your life as a teenager and it was really difficult, it was very hard. And then I also had the pressures of people wanting me to kind of follow in my dad's footsteps and I grew up in a pretty violent environment. So, you know, my friends were dying, my friends were going to jail, so all those things, I'm in the midst of that without that parental guidance and support.

OLLSTEIN

00:01:36
At certain moments such as his first date and his high school graduation, his father's absence hurt even more. And on top of the sadness and frustration he vividly remembers a sense of shame.

LEWIS

00:01:47
For instance when I was in high school I went to Gonzaga College High School where, you know, mostly kids and their parents, two-parent household, everybody's parent was pretty much a professional of some sort and you know, you know, at that time my mom was back and forth over at St. Elizabeth because she suffered from schizophrenia and depression. My father was doing a life sentence, you know, so when you say, "Tony, what does your parents do?" you know, what I mean, like, "Where does your dad work? where does your mom, you know, I couldn't answer those questions.

OLLSTEIN

00:02:11
Now, more than two decades later, Lewis no longer hides the fact that his father is in prison, just the opposite. He tells everyone his story. as a job developer at D.C.'s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, Lewis helps people on parole and probation find work and re-enter society in a positive way. Each week, Lewis teaches a class for ex-offenders that's part job training, part life skills and part group therapy.

LEWIS

00:02:35
Anybody ever heard of this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1

00:02:37
Survivor's guilt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2

00:02:39
Guilt.

LEWIS

00:02:40
I kind of experience that on a daily basis. Every time I got to push five, you all know what I mean when I say I got to push five, right?

1

00:02:47
Yes.

2

00:02:47
Yes, you're accepting the call.

LEWIS

00:02:48
Accepting the call from prison, right? every time I got to push five or every time I look at pictures from my childhood at dudes that dead, what I want you to start preparing for, and I don't mean this next three weeks but as you go on your journey, get used to this. Let's get ready to start experiencing survivor's guilt because I feel like I'm in a room full of people that's going to what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 3

00:03:07
Survive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 4

00:03:08
Survive.

OLLSTEIN

00:03:09
Lewis's background helps him in his volunteer work as well, mentoring the children of incarcerated parents, many of whom are struggling with the same issues he faced as a child. He calls the program, Sons of Life.

LEWIS

00:03:20
Sons of Life represents the fact that we are sons of individuals that have life sentences but we also are sons of this city that's trying to pretty much bring life to the city or life to a lot of desperate and depressed areas of the city.

OLLSTEIN

00:03:33
The all-volunteer program holds all kinds of community service and outreach events.

LEWIS

00:03:37
Thanksgiving food drive for kids of incarcerated parents, toy drive for kids of incarcerated parents.

OLLSTEIN

00:03:41
They organize group activities such as a recent basketball tournament and give plenty of one-on-one attention.

LEWIS

00:03:46
We mentor kids of incarcerated parents, provide tutorial and, you know, exposure field trips, things of that nature.

OLLSTEIN

00:03:52
Between his official career, working with ex-offenders, and his off the clock work with the Sons of Life, Lewis said he's finally found his calling.

LEWIS

00:04:00
I feel like it's what I'm supposed to do. I really feel like it's my duty, my responsibility because I think I've been able to overcome some things that you don't see a lot and so I feel like it's my duty to kind of help or facilitate that happening in other people lives if I can. I mean, I'm not Superman, of course, I just feel like I really should be doing this and that's why I'm doing it.

OLLSTEIN

00:04:22
Today, his father is incarcerated just a few hours away in Cumberland, Maryland, and Lewis tries to visit him every month. He's currently organizing a bus trip for himself and the kids in the Sons of Life to visit their fathers together. I'm Alice Ollstein.
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