The last time I talked to Tony Lewis Jr., we were discussing the issue from the opposite side. It was the 25th anniversary of his father’s arrest. Today, we were looking at people Tony considers his peers. At “Collateral Damage,” the exhibit that displayed portraits of the family members of incarcerated people, the vibe was redeeming. The aerosol art-soaked Blind Whino venue that housed the photos, appropriately enough, is a former church.
There were more smiles than one might expect; both in the photos and at the gathering. Many visitors posed outside the building before entering to get a shot, a routine that I imagine populated Instagram heavily. And while Sunday was a largely social event in some regards, the fact that it existed at all was significant. Until the D.C. metro area can understand that its incarceration rate is a holistic problem that affects our entire region and not just the people behind bars, the true potential of the populace will never be realized.
This is why BreeAnna Haynes, a fourth-grade science and writing teacher at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast, brought a group of a half-dozen of her students to see the show. The situation in the classroom can’t be ignored.
“I took a poll in my class about how many people in my class had family members locked up and I promise you, out of 22, about 19 people raised their hand and said that they know someone that is locked up that’s close to them,” Haynes, 24, said. “That’s why I’m working, that’s why I brought them. The bigger picture, I don’t think they see it yet. But getting them to understand that the decisions they make now as fourth- and fifth-graders will affect them. If they start the good decision-making now, they won’t even have to be in these kind of situations.”
The “War on Drugs” has put so many people behind bars, and breaking that cycle requires recognizing that a support system needs to exist to help connect those behind bars with the people they care about. Something that D.C. Council member David Grosso, who was there Sunday, understands completely.
“I think it’s extremely powerful and just a real first step in what we have to do to begin to recognize the fact that there are a whole lot of people living in our community that have loved ones that are locked up,” Grosso said. “The fact is that what we’re doing to help people who are locked up is pretty dismal. The system is working against them every single day, and then you think about their families back here.
“In D.C. it’s really appropriate because the fact is we have our residents spread out all over the country in BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons),” he added. “The phone call is farther away, more expensive, the visit’s impossible. Even Tony Lewis who does this show, his dad was in California. And how do you visit? How do you visit California from D.C.? It’s important to recognize that and make it possible for families to be engaged, because we know for a fact that the more you connect families to people that are in jail, the more likely they are to come out and be a positive part of society again, and give them that chance.”
But on the outside, the kids affected are still people, too. The stigma that comes with having a parent locked up creates tensions, shame and internal strife that is almost immeasurable. It’s what brought Michelle Hare to Lewis. She is a mother of two teenage boys whose father is incarcerated for what she called “a very long time.” Finding the right fit for a mentor was not easy. Her kids, Delfon, 16, and Xavier, 15, have been working with Tony for three years.
“When he first became incarcerated, I tried to find someone to relate to them and I really couldn’t. They didn’t want to go through therapy, they got bored with the other mentors, and they felt like nobody really understood them,” said Hare, 34, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md. “It was just a perfect match.”
On the surface, they seemed like fun-loving kids. Both were wearing jeans and polo shirts with perfectly coordinated Nike Air Force 1’s. Xavier’s outfit was pink, Delfon’s purple. They play sports at their schools and had an enjoyable time being a part of the making of the exhibit. In their photos, both are smiling. But it wasn’t always that way.
“If people aren’t personally affected by it, they really don’t pay it any attention, and these are a set of kids that really go forgotten about. They have other issues that other kids don’t have. People look at them differently, I think,” Hare said.
In a funny exchange, the family talked about the growth her sons have gone through.
“I’m open to telling people that my father’s incarcerated. It’s not really a problem. He’s taught me to just be myself and don’t be afraid of who you are,” Delfon said of Tony’s help.
“You weren’t always as open,” his mom quickly pointed out. “I remember, what was the girl’s name? You would NOT tell her that your dad was locked up,” she said with a laugh.
“I mean, she never asked,” Delfon replied.
“You never told!” she said.
“Wasn’t her dad a doctor?” Xavier chimed in.
“Right. So, [your dad] was not a topic of conversation,” Hare said. “I just say that because it shows that it’s okay and other people are going through the same thing.”
Eerily, the prospect of a feedback loop of incarceration and pain that Lewis speaks of was ever-present the whole time. Less than a half-mile away, 1st Police District cars occupy parking spaces all around. Its presence is impossible to miss.
It was something that one mom of a young kid wouldn’t let her son forget. By the picnic tables in front of the entrance, kids were throwing rocks from the driveway into a trashcan against the fence. One kid abstained, knowing his mom was watching. “What if you hit somebody’s car? You gonna pay for it?” his mother asked, in all seriousness. “Chill before I go get the police on you. They’re right down the street.”
The damage is real.