Life Behind Mass Incarceration: What the Socio-political System and Media Wont Tell Us
There is little dispute that mass incarceration has been a crisis in the United States for many decades and continuously shapes political discussions. However, these discussions fail to highlight the effects of parental incarceration on children. Even if we look at children as victims of mass incarceration, we may not fully understand their personal life, their life with incarcerated families, the challenges they face to maintain their relationships with their loved one who serve time and the stigmas associated with parental incarceration.
In the memoir, Slugg, A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Tony Lewis Jr., a community activist and author discusses the affects of mass incarceration on his family, growing up as the son of notorious drug kingpin Tony Lewis Sr. and the aftermath of having a parent sentenced to life in prison. In a conversation moderated by Tara Libert,President of Free Mind Book Club, Lewis explains drug dealing for his father and many others was not for fun, but rather drug dealing served the purpose of fighting to survive in a system that did not support them. The conversation held at the W Washington Hotel on August 4th.
“I wrote a book to tell others why I am not there and where my father is.” Lewis stated.
Through Lewis’ experience of losing his father to incarceration, he advocates one of the most significant and unspoken aspects of mass incarceration is the trauma family members endure while loved ones serve time. “At that age when I lost my father due to incarceration, I also lost my mother. She lost her mind.” The stresses associated with loss both emotionally and mentally are furthered complicated by social stigmas associated with incarceration. Lewis goes on to say, “[My mother] was traumatized and had mental health issues, but faced with stigma at the same time. She didn’t get help.”
Another challenge children and family members like Lewis have experienced through parental imprisonment are limited parent-child communication and interaction during incarceration. DC inmates can be sent to other state prisons as federal prisoners, which then separates children from their parents for a lifetime. Tony shares to an audience of 50 people, “From age of 9 to 22, I visited my father 3 times, because he was incarcerated in California.” Although visits were limited, Lewis considers himself lucky because some families are unable to visit their loved ones for various reasons.
The parent-child relationship is a fundamental connection in a child’s life. When the relationship is severed through parental incarceration, it destabilizes their sense of belonging, security and confidence. When discussing his childhood after the incarceration of his father, Lewis states, “We didn’t have a plan, we just figured out a survival model everyday.” For some children these survival models and coping styles lead them to similar fates as their parents—imprisonment. As Lewis mentioned, his grand mother’s support helped him complete high school, complete college and secure a job.
As the conversation wraps up, Tara Libert states the life of boys and girls like Lewis who live in the age of mass incarceration wasn’t told until how to disrupt the cycle. Libert states at the book signing, “Somebody brave like Tony must break the silence”.
Slugg, A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration was published by Hanover Place Press in 2015. You can find it on Amazon as a paper copy or electronic version. You can also follow Tony Lewis Jr. on his website and his various social media platforms to learn more about his advocacy initiatives in regards to mass incarceration and how he serves his community.