Tony Lewis Jr., the DC Ambassador for the Day of Empathy (Courtesy photo)
Tony Lewis Jr., the DC Ambassador for the Day of Empathy (Courtesy photo)

D.C. residents, activists and elected officials recently stood in solidarity with more than 180,000 federal inmates during an event touted as The Day of Empathy.

On Tuesday, as corrections officers across the country started the 4 p.m. daily head count, hundreds of people gathered at the Department of Employment Services in Northeast quietly reflected on the work that has yet to be done in criminal justice reform.

“I wanted individuals to picture themselves in that space and think about how dehumanizing it is to be identified by your number,” said Tony Lewis Jr., activist, reentry expert, author and D.C. ambassador for The Day of Empathy.

In years past, Lewis has conferred with local and federal elected officials about the residual effects of mass incarceration on inmates, their families, and communities. He expressed plans to push for changes in hiring policies and the sealing of criminal records. Lewis also said he wants to lobby D.C. Public Schools to identify children of incarcerated people during enrollment and connect them with mentoring and counseling.

“We have to stand up, fill that gap, and build a community that’s welcoming for our returning citizens when they come home,” Lewis said. “We have to take bigger steps around record sealing to identify people who need employment. This event highlights the amazing things D.C. has done to help returning citizens. Though we got some ways to go, we’re light years ahead.”

The Day of Empathy, in its fourth iteration, falls under the #Cut50 campaign, described as a bipartisan effort to deliver significant changes to the criminal justice system.

Despite its dispersal of inmates across the country, the District counts among the more progressive jurisdictions in matters of criminal justice. Returning citizens and inmates at D.C. Jail have voting rights. Project Empowerment, and the Pathways Program, hosted by the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, also serve as resources for returning citizens.

On March 5, D.C. residents with intimate familiarity of mass incarceration’s local effects took part in the activities for the first time, joining 36 groups across the country and the flagship cohort on Capitol Hill.

Key supporters in this endeavor included rappers Wale and Pusha T, Chef James “JR” Robinson of Kitchen Cray, Broccoli City, Shoe City, the D.C. Council, and a slew of government agencies.

This year’s Day of Empathy followed the passage of the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act. Provisions of the bipartisan legislation include the restricted use of restraints on pregnant inmates, the placement of the incarcerated closer to their family, and expansion of compassionate release for the terminally ill.

Louis L. Reed, national organizer for The Day of Empathy, said the FIRST STEP Act and the event itself speak to humanity needed to treat the incarcerated and break the cycle of violence.

“The National Day of Empathy is not only vital for those people who are survivors of violence, people incarcerated and returning to our communities or those impacted by substance abuse, but for our nation at large,” Reed wrote in an email. “Its purpose is to humanize people who, particularly, have been and are incarcerated in the sense that they are more than their worst mistakes, most regrettable decisions, and/or lowest moments of their lives.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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