If President Biden doesn’t take notice of his case, Tony Lewis Sr. could die in prison.

He knows this. He fears this.

“This life without parole sentence I have, it’s really a slow death sentence,” he tells his son, Tony Lewis Jr., over the phone on a recent night. “That’s a reality that I know. And every time I think about it, it’s scary.”

On that night, the older Lewis calls from a federal correctional institution in Maryland, and the younger Lewis sits in his home in D.C., the city that raised him and that he has spent half his life helping.

I asked him to tape their conversation, and he agreed because he wants people to hear what his father has to say. He wants people to see that his father is no longer the man law enforcement officials arrested 32 years ago and charged with running a massive crack cocaine operation in the city.

Drug kingpin is the title most people associate with the older Lewis. But that describes the 26-year-old who owned luxury cars and designer clothes when he was arrested and not the 58-year-old who has spent decades in government-issued jumpsuits mentoring young prisoners, the younger Lewis says.

“My dad is the model for someone who is worthy of a second chance,” he says. “He’s remorseful. He’s rehabilitated.”

He is also the father of someone the government depends on to help people who leave prison and return to the nation’s capital.

Lewis, who is 40, works for CSOSA, a federal agency that supervises adults on probation and parole in the city. He is also a community activist who has handed out food in neglected neighborhoods, encouraged young people to stop shooting one another and helped create a day to honor District natives. He coined the term #DCorNothing.

“Anything I’ve done, my dad has to get credit for,” says Lewis, who published a memoir titled “Slugg” about his father and what happened after he went to prison. “He could have been a dad who promoted me ascending into his position. He did the exact opposite.”

He encouraged his son to help the city he hurt, the younger Lewis says.

Help versus hurt. Federal employee versus federal inmate. Lewis is used to standing in contrast with his father. He recognizes that is a part of their story — how one went this way and the other went that way. But he also knows how that story ends, and he is trying desperately to change that.

On Saturday afternoon, he and others held a “Free Tony Lewis Sr.” rally at Black Lives Matter Plaza. The event marked the most visible in-person display yet of support for Lewis’s release and followed the creation of an online petition that calls on Biden to “Free Tony Lewis.” As of Saturday, the petition had drawn more than 20,000 signatures.

At the rally, Tony Lewis Jr. spoke not only about his father, but also on behalf of other people who remain behind bars because of mandatory minimum prison sentences that were put in place as part of the nation’s “war on drugs.”

“This is not a moment, this is a movement,” reads a description of the rally. “The goal here is to not just free Tony Sr., but ask the Biden administration to establish a robust clemency program immediately to reunite all American families victimized by this era.”

Biden has faced criticism for his past support of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration. As a senator, he crafted legislation that authorized stricter penalties for drug offenses. “Later, a little-noticed provision in the law came to be viewed as one of the most racially slanted sentencing policies on record: a rule that treated crack cocaine as significantly worse than powder cocaine and ended up disproportionately punishing African Americans,” reads a 2019 Washington Post article.

“I feel this administration has more responsibility around this issue than any other,” the younger Lewis says. He describes his father’s case as a chance for Biden to start righting his wrongs. BLM Plaza is located in front of the White House. “My hope is somebody in the White House is peeking out of the blinds on Saturday and looks into the situation.”

Deciding whether a person deserves clemency is not an easy or enviable task. It carries high stakes. Give it to someone unworthy, and more harm than good can result. Deny it to someone who deserves it, and injustice prevails.

But Lewis lays out a strong enough case for his father that, at minimum, it warrants the administration’s attention. The elder Lewis has also filed court motions aimed at getting his sentence reduced.

His father hadn’t served time in prison before his conviction for the nonviolent conspiracy charge, his son says. He also points out that his father is the last of the more than two dozen people who were arrested in that operation to still be serving time for it.

In February, a federal judge reduced the sentence of Rayful Edmond III, whom authorities at one time described as the city’s biggest cocaine importer. Edmond was characterized as partnering with Lewis. The judge reduced his sentence of life without parole to 20 years, citing Edmond’s cooperation as an informant for the government. That cooperation reportedly began after Edmond and his mother were charged with dealing drugs while he was in prison.

Lewis says his father has a stellar record from his time in prison. He sent me a “progress report” dated Dec. 31, 2020, that the family requested from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“He is currently assigned to the position of Orderly,” it reads. “He receives good work evaluations on a monthly basis: quick to learn, little to no supervision required, completely dependable, gets along well with everyone, and does good work.”

It describes him as receiving “two Moderate Severity Incident Reports during his entire term of incarceration.” Under discipline reports, it describes those as “possession of a nonhazardous tool” and “being insolent to a staff member.”

One of the people who attended the rally met Lewis at the Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland in 2013. Jerome Bradley says he had been in and out of prison several times when a drug charge landed him at the facility. He shared with me a picture of Lewis standing at his side, with a hand on his shoulder.

“He started mentoring me, just basically showing me what’s important in life,” Bradley says. “When you grow up in the hood, you don’t pay attention to politics or climate change or different laws and bills that get passed. He taught me to pay attention.”

He says Lewis encouraged him to take classes, and after completing one on business management, Bradley started teaching other inmates. He was released in 2019. He now works for a towing company and has plans to start his own business. He bought his first home with his wife last year.

“Society looks at you when you get arrested like you can’t change,” Bradley says. “But that’s what incarceration is for, it’s rehabilitation for people to change.”

That night on the phone, Tony Lewis Jr.’s father tells him that he is proud of him. He also expresses remorse when his son relays to him a question I had asked: Why does he believe he should be released?

“I understand the harm and the damage that I caused to my community and my city,” he says. “It’s not a day that goes by that I don’t recognize and see that. At the same time, I paid 32 years of my life to society for my debts.”

If he gets out of prison, he wants to work alongside his son to help the community and try to improve public safety, he says. He also wants something more basic.

“I want to be the grandfather that I haven’t been able to truly be to my two beautiful grandbabies,” he says. “That’s what I want to spend my years doing if I get the opportunity for freedom.”

Lewis turned 9 shortly after his father was arrested. He recalls visiting him in prison as a child. Now, he takes his two young daughters inside those secured walls to visit their grandfather.

“My father was not innocent,” Lewis says. “My father should have went to prison, but not for this long. My father shouldn’t have to die in prison.”

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