2.7 Million Kids Have Parents In Prison. Here’s What It’s Really Like.
Nearly a million parents are incarcerated in America. Lonnie Lewis Jr. wants everyone to know what that’s like — and the profound impact it has.
Lonnie Lewis Jr. was born in 1981, in Wyandanch, New York, an area that, in his words, “was — and still is — highly affected by the criminal incarceration system.” Wyandanch is located in Suffolk County, with one of the largest populations of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people in a state that — like nearly every state in the U.S. — imprisons more people than most independent nations. Currently, more than 620,000 fathers will be imprisoned. In all, 2.7 million American children currently have a parent who is incarcerated. Lewis was one of them.
“I took an inventory when I was 14,” says Lewis. “I counted about 51 guys — people that were influential in my life, part of my family, and instrumental in my growth. And then out of those 51, 48 of them had been incarcerated.” Now, Lewis is 41 years old with children of his own. What do Lewis’ kids see now? What does Lewis see? That not much has changed.
Despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. The majority of people imprisoned come from just a handful of communities; in New York, for example, the state’s prison population is nearly 80% Black and Latino.
Lewis Jr. ended his military service in 2012 and then worked in a trauma-informed therapeutic school for adolescents and preteens. In 2017, Lewis Jr. left the field to come back to New York to be with his family and worked in the corporate finance world until 2020. He is currently a full-time college student with the goal of working in communities that are greatly impacted by mass incarceration.
After all, Lewis believes tackling the problem needs to begin with telling the stories of families and communities who are impacted by incarceration. With 45% of Americans having an immediate family member who has been incarcerated — there are a lot of stories to tell. That’s why Lewis is here to talk to Fatherly, starting with his own story.
I was born in ’81. I grew up in an area, Wyandanch, New York, that was — and still is — highly affected by the criminal incarceration system. But growing up, as a kid, I felt like my life was normal. It was the situation where you don’t know you’re poor until you know that you’re poor. I just lived life with my mother and my father, my siblings. My grandparents were both around. Both of my grandmothers were around.
The first time my father went away, I was probably 6 years old. I didn’t know he was in prison, I just knew that he would be in and out. He was there, and then he wasn’t there. He’d be there for a couple of months, and then gone; then he’d be gone for a year or two and then he’d come back, and he’d be there for nine months to a year and then he’d be gone again. I understood what was going on when I was about 10 years old when he left for prison again.
Emotionally, I wasn’t able to put words to that experience, because I was so young. All I knew was what my life was like. When my dad was around, our lives were a reflection of what a typical, suburban American life is like. My dad worked when he wasn’t incarcerated. We had a good life. We had a nice little home. We had a nice car. We played sports. I played baseball, my brothers played football, and we just lived our lives.
But he left when I was 10 and our lives changed significantly. It was a really heavy thing to carry around. I understood what was happening a little bit more than some of the kids that were my age in my neighborhood because I’m a listener. I would listen when my mother was on the phone talking to him, or when my mother was having conversations with her sisters and brothers about my dad being incarcerated.
It shaped my life — badly. I took an inventory when I was 10. I counted about 51 guys — people that were influential in my life, part of my family, and instrumental in my growth. And then out of those 51, 48 of them had been incarcerated. These people have been gone for years. I know how it affected my life, but I didn’t realize how much it affected my entire community. All of our fathers and uncles and brothers were gone.
My dad was incarcerated. My neighbor’s dad was incarcerated to the right. My neighbor’s brother to the left was incarcerated.
When we went to sports games, there were mostly mothers there. When there were events in the community, there were mostly mothers. When we went to church on Sunday, there weren’t a lot of men there. There weren’t a lot of men actively taking a role in our community.
The men that were there were so wrapped up in the street life, trying to sell drugs, trying to make money or survive, that they weren’t taking the time to stop a young boy like me and give me some guidance.
My mother — and all the women in my community — did the best job that they could. But I come from a family of five boys and my sister, and my mother worked, worked, worked, worked, worked because she had to feed all these kids.
I know how it affected my life, but I didn’t realize how much it affected my entire community. All of our fathers and uncles and brothers were gone.
I always felt the need to have to prove myself — I wasn’t going to let somebody hurt me or punk me. I wasn’t going to let anybody prove that I wasn’t a man. So I grew up with this idea that a man was supposed to be a violent person, that a man was supposed to be a person that doesn’t take any disrespect from anybody. I didn’t really know what a man was supposed to be. And the person that was supposed to teach me these things just wasn’t around.
I had never really experienced what Father’s Day was because my father was incarcerated most of my life. Father’s Day didn’t mean anything to me. Even when I had my own children, it was hard for me to receive love from them on Father’s Day, because I hadn’t done it for my father, because he was gone for most of my life.
That’s why it means so much that the Alliance of Families for Justice helped me understand my father on a deeper level — to understand what it was that he was going through in the ’80s, when I was a kid, during the Reagan era, and what it was like being incarcerated in New York, under the mandatory minimums and the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
My family has been highly affected by that. Everybody from my father to my two brothers has been incarcerated multiple times. All of my uncles, with the exception of one, have been incarcerated multiple times. Every guy that lived on my block on my side of the tracks has been incarcerated multiple times. And they’re locked up for things like a gram of marijuana, or a gram of crack cocaine. People were getting mandatory minimums of one to three years for a gram of crack cocaine.
And [the people who put them away, and the rest of us, are] not thinking about how their family is, not thinking about their children. Their children need to learn how to drive. Their children need to learn how to conduct themselves. Their children just want to feel safe.
I have a cousin who was incarcerated for 27 years. He told me that being incarcerated turns you into an animal. I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Animals move and operate based on survival. An animal goes and kills its food. They eat when they need to eat. They hibernate when they need to hibernate. They have to learn how to survive in a new environment, the things to do, and what not to do. It takes the empathy out of you. It takes the love out of you as a person. It strips humanity from you when you’re incarcerated.”
[And it’s hard to readjust to life.] Because a lot of people that are coming home now were incarcerated in the ’90s. They got 15, 20 years, and they’re coming home now, and the world’s completely different. You’ve got cars that drive themselves! Cellphones!
How are these people supposed to address and process all of this stuff when they get a pat on the back, an envelope with $100, and a bus ticket to come from upstate New York back to the Five Boroughs where they’re from? They get dumped into this world.
And, oh, by the way, you have to go see your probation officer or your parole officer tomorrow morning. And then your parole officer tells you you need to get a job. You need to get a job. You need to get a job. You need to stay away from felons. But most of the people that have been incarcerated can’t get jobs, because we still have to check that block in the job application that asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony. Because of that charge, you can’t apply for most welfare programs, legitimate services that help you transition from being incarcerated to being somebody that has to pay bills.
I hear frequently from people who have no experience with the system: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But what people that are not affected by the system don’t understand is that when there are structural pieces missing, when the foundation is not solid — how can you expect to build anything? People that are not affected by this don’t understand how much this has destroyed Black and brown communities and poor communities in this country and in this world.
For the people that don’t live in those communities and don’t understand what it is to be in those communities, there’s a lack of empathy. I’ve been able to straddle a line where I have operated on both sides of the fence — based on the work I’ve done. I’m a veteran and was in the Army for 12 years. I made friends with a lot of people around the country and world — and people that didn’t grow up around these things just don’t understand them. It’s hard to explain to somebody how the laws were written, and how these things were designed to break people. That’s what this system was designed to do.
Beyond empathy, there’s a lack of accountability. The structural systems that were put in place in this country are working exactly how they were designed to work, but people don’t want to admit that they were designed that way. So if you don’t even want to admit that the system was designed to destroy people, how can you work on changing that system?
If the services, government, and society that were supposed to be there to help me do that are shunting me to the side because I have this felony, how the hell am I supposed to make it in this world? That’s why we have such a high recidivism rate. Because there are no services. What services exist are not equipped to deal with the numbers of people that are coming back into this system.
It’s hard to explain to somebody how the laws were written, and how these things were designed to break people. That’s what this system was designed to do.
That’s why places like the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) are needed. AFJ really wraps its arms around people that are coming out of that system, people that are currently in that system, and the families of people that are in that system. AFJ is a home for those people — it’s a safe place for you to come and vent your frustrations and not feel ostracized. You know you’re with people that are experiencing the same things that you’ve experienced or are experiencing.
AFJ gave me the tools to talk to my father in a way that wasn’t judgmental. I always felt like my dad failed me. That he failed my siblings, that he wasn’t there. I felt like there was no excuse for that — he should have been there. And I just didn’t understand all the societal issues he was facing as well. My relationship with my father, now, is really strong. My father is my confidant. He’s the person that I call for everything, more than I call my friends.
When I brought my father to AFJ, he expressed the love that he felt, and the way that he could be himself and not feel judged as he does in most other places that he goes. And AFJ has given me that armor of compassion and empathy that allowed me to be able [to bond with him]. I’m finally able to accept love as a father, to heal relationships with my mother, my father, and my ex-wife. Because I carried toxic masculinity with me everywhere for most of my life. And now I’m in a place that… I’m really good. I’m super, super happy. I owe AFJ a lot.
Lewis has volunteered for the nonprofit Alliance of Families for Justice since 2018, which helped to connect Fatherly with Lewis to tell his story. The organization also helped him reconnect with his family, with his father, and with himself and offers one of the few resources out there for folks whose lives have been touched by incarceration.
“AFJ really wraps their arms around people that are coming out of that system, people that are currently in that system, the families of people that are in that system. AFJ is a home for those people. It’s a safe place to vent your frustrations and not feel ostracized,” Lewis says. “You know you’re with people that are experiencing the same things that you’ve experienced, or are experiencing.”
AFJ doesn’t just help formerly incarcerated people. It also helps their family members, like Lewis — family members who are sticking with their loved ones as they go through incarceration. There are family empowerment circles, support groups, and resources for everyone involved.
“A family member of mine was recently incarcerated, and his girlfriend has never dealt with anything like this,” Lewis says. “She didn’t know how to deal with what he was going through or with her own emotions — while trying to live life, and work, do all this other stuff. People like that — people that are going to stick with these people when they get incarcerated — they need something like the Alliance of Families for Justice to help them.”