In the 30-plus years during which he’s been incarcerated, Tony Lewis Sr. has mentored younger inmates, quelled conflicts within correctional institutions and with the help of his son, Tony Jr., has connected returning citizens and their families with much-needed resources.
Lewis, a nonviolent drug offender, has carried out this work throughout the duration of a life sentence, even as the other people involved in his case have been released or had their sentences reduced.
For the younger Lewis, such circumstances more than qualify his father for an initial slot on what he envisions as a special program spearheaded by President Joe Biden (D).
“We have a president who was instrumental in mass incarceration as an architect of the bills that established mandatory minimums and expanded the prison system,” said Lewis, a nationally renowned activist and author focused on workforce development and helping children of incarcerated parents.
“It’s important and imperative that this president creates a robust clemency program to right his wrongs and my dad should be the poster child for that. [This will] start a journey that reunites American families like mine. This culminates all my years of activism. Now is the time. The stars are aligned,” he said.
The ‘Free Tony Lewis’ Movement
On April 10, Tony Lewis Jr. and several hundred others will converge on Black Lives Matter Plaza, located several feet from the White House, for a rally inspired by what’s known as the “Free Tony Lewis’” movement. During the afternoon, Backyard Band will perform a set while Lewis and other speakers will emphasize the importance of the initiative.
The younger Lewis, who said he regularly speaks to his father, has already found a supporter in D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) who once accompanied him to Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland where he witnessed how Tony Lewis wielded his influence to better the lives of other inmates.
However, as White told The Informer, his reasons for backing the “Free Tony Lewis” movement center more on the actions of government and military officials who set the stage for the War on Drugs.
“I don’t think any human being should spend their life in jail because of a drug distribution offense,” White said. “I didn’t see [the government] charge any of the military officials, elected officials and others that Gary Webb was exposing [for] flooding Black communities all across the country [with drugs] during that time.”
Thirty-Two Years and Counting
In the spring of 1989, the FBI, DEA and Metropolitan Police Department arrested Rayful Edmonds III, Tony Lewis Sr. and more than two dozen others in the takedown of what was then considered the District’s largest drug network.
Lewis, then 26 and with no prior convictions, would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Last year, federal authorities announced that Edmonds, who had long cooperated with law enforcement officials in more than 100 drug arrests and entered a witness protection program, would be released early. The news sparked reactions including that from Lewis Jr. who questioned why his father, after having served so many years behind bars, could not be afforded the same opportunity. .
In his 2015 memoir “Slugg,” the younger Lewis addressed how his father’s arrest and conviction impacted his family and later inspired his entrance into workforce development and youth enrichment.
For Jerome Bradley, a returning citizen who said he received mentorship from Tony Lewis while in FCI Cumberland, time remains of the essence in releasing a man who he credits with pushing him along a path to self-improvement.
“Society as a whole throws us away and looks at us like we can’t change,” said Bradley, an entrepreneur who started his automotive roadside assistance business upon his release in 2019.
Bradley said Lewis, with whom he still maintains contact, encouraged him to take classes during his incarceration. Following that advice would eventually lead to his teaching other inmates.
“Out of everyone [I met in prison], I could say that Tony Lewis changed,” Bradley said. “He has been incarcerated for more than 30 years and deserves a second chance. There’s no reason why he should be there for a nonviolent drug charge.”
“Society would benefit from Tony Lewis being home. I say to President Biden and everyone else, if they want to look at who he is, they can look at my progress,” he added.