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Life Inside

I Thought I Knew My Father, Then I Met Him in Prison

“In a way, it was like seeing myself clearly for the first time.”

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a special Life Inside series about fathers and incarceration. Read the previous essays about next-cell neighbors and dancing in the prison gym.

I always called my father Mr. Lewis. It didn’t seem strange to me at all. Everyone called him that.

Mr. Lewis came every day, unlike my brothers and sisters’ fathers, who never did. (My mother had many men in her life.) He showed up in the mornings before work to make sure I had money for lunch.

“Your father’s here!” my mother would say, just to me.

He worked as a security guard for as long as I can remember, and came in the evenings, too, after he got off the job, to make sure I had a hot dinner. My mother drank. By then, she was either drunk or sleeping, so Mr. Lewis would buy me McDonalds.

Whether it was school uniforms, sneakers, whatever. He made sure I had it. He brought me money every single week, an envelope full of cash. I was his son, but he always told me to share the money with my brothers and sisters, and I did.

Back then, I thought my Southeast D.C. neighborhood was the best place on Earth. Kids and adults would be outside all day long, having fun. There was always a cookout and usually a D.J. playing music.

By the time I was in my teens, though, it had become one of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods. People were afraid to go outside their houses because of all the shootings. I know more than 30 people who have been shot on my block.

We grew up knowing nothing but that. I’d never even seen the White House or the Smithsonian museums in my own city.

Almost none of the other kids in my neighborhood spent time with their fathers. A lot of them didn’t even know who their dads were. But I had one, and he cared about me. I felt special. I felt lucky.

Mr. Lewis was strict, though. All he wanted was for me to go to school, work hard and do right. But somehow, I always got into trouble, given the influences around me. And what’s crazy is that I loved school. I was smart. The worst part of getting in trouble was disappointing Mr. Lewis.

When I was 16 years old, I was convicted of armed robbery for a carjacking. Even when I went to jail, Mr. Lewis never gave up on me. He wrote to me every week. He put money on my books. He would always encourage me.

All I could think of was how much my father had done for me, and how I’d still ended up behind bars.

When I came home, I was 19. Things went back to the way they were. One day I was with my father, and it struck me how small he was. Neither he nor my mother was more than 5 feet 5 inches. I’m 6 feet 1 inch.

I started looking at him to see if I could see a resemblance between us. I couldn’t.

Then, one day, I had another argument with my mother, and mentioned my dad. She looked at me like I was stupid.

She said, “Boy, Mr. Lewis ain’t your father!”

I didn’t want to believe her. Was she just saying this to hurt me? And if it was true, did he know?

The only thing I knew for sure was that if Mr. Lewis wasn’t my real father, that meant that my real one had left me. How could you leave behind your own son? It hurt in a way I can’t even explain.

I decided that if I ever came across the man who was my father, I wanted to kill him for leaving me.

It didn’t take long before I got into trouble again. Another carjacking case would take me to federal prison. Jail was hard enough. I knew that being in “the feds” was no joke.

That first day, all of my senses were on high alert as a C.O. led me to my unit. The heavy door rolled open, and I could feel all eyes on me as activity ceased.

One man stood off to himself. He looked dead at me and kept staring at me even when I met his eyes. I looked away first and made my way to my cell.

One of the guys took me around and introduced me to other dudes from D.C. He motioned to the man who had stared at me, who was sitting at the same table but by himself.

“That’s Reggie. He’s from D.C. too, but he’s Muslim and don’t really talk to nobody, and ain’t nobody talk to him,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, I watched Reggie. I’d notice that we did a lot of the same things. Whenever he used the microwave, he’d let everyone else line up in front of him. He’d just be patient and wait. I’m the same way. There might be seven people trying to use it, and somebody will offer to let me go first, but I always just say, “I’m good.”

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Another example: Guys would walk to their showers in their shorts and slippers. Not Reggie. He always went fully clothed and changed inside the stall. I did the same thing!

Sometimes, I’d catch him watching me, too. You can feel somebody watching you.

One day, I walked past Reggie, looked back and asked, “Man, why you always watching me?” I was playing with him.

He doesn’t usually joke with anybody, but with me, he did. He laughed.

So I said, “Yeah, you think it's funny, but you better stop watching me.”

He looked at me like and gave me another laugh like, “I can watch you all I want, this is my unit!”

From that day on, we started kicking it. It had been nine months since I arrived, and I’d hardly spoken to him, but I started hanging with this dude every single day. Every day. I was drawn to him.

Reggie worked until the late afternoon, and I would just sit at his table waiting for him to come back to the unit. Every day. People would ask me if I was okay, because I didn’t want to do anything else but sit there and wait for him.

He had me read to him every night. I was working toward my GED. From the moment he got off work until the time we got locked into our cells, he made me read.

We worked on my math, and he taught me Arabic. He had me on a strict schedule. If I wanted to go outside during rec time, I had to ask him first, because it meant taking time off from studying. I didn’t care, though. Because every time I sat there, it was like nothing else or nobody else existed.

I felt special because of the attention Reggie paid me. He didn’t treat anyone else the same way.

Then he’d tell me about growing up in D.C. back in the day. The dudes he knew from around my way. He’d been deep in the streets, but he knew now how wrong it was.

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He was serving a life sentence for murder. Becoming a Muslim had changed him into a very peaceful man, he told me.

In prison, a lot of guys make jokes about how someone else is their son. They’ll say, “This my son!” and grab another man around the neck. They could be the exact same age, but still play with each other that way.

Reggie started doing the same thing to me. “You know you’re my son, right?” he’d say. I’d just laugh.

One day, he asked me what my mother’s name was. I said her name is Patricia. He said, “I’ve been with a few Patricia’s!”

Reggie was at least 10 years younger than my mother. “Well, I know you never knew my mom!” I told him.

A few days later, I was on the phone with my mother. I looked over and saw Reggie watching me again. Why, I don’t know, but I asked her if she had ever known a dude by Reggie's full name.

She was quiet. There was this long pause.

“Ma?” I said.

“Boy, that’s your father,” she said.

I just sat there. I couldn’t say a word. It was as if the whole unit got quiet, even though I know it didn’t. I guess my ears were ringing. Tears fell.

I looked at Reggie, and he just stood up and walked to his cell. I hung up the phone and followed him.

When I got inside his cell, I swung at him. He was stronger than I was, though, and just grabbed me and held me, and I started crying. I didn’t know what to think. I was still trying to hit him, but he just held me harder.

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“I already know. Just let it out! Let it all out,” he said.

After that day, I stopped talking to Reggie. I’d been harboring hatred for my real father ever since I learned that Mr. Lewis was not him. For years I had imagined the moment I would come face to face with the man who left me.

But I loved Reggie. And Mr. Lewis: Did he know I wasn’t his son? Or did Reggie know that while he was gone, another man had raised me as his own?

I refused to speak to him for more than a month. He was patient, though. Eventually, I began sitting with him again, but several more weeks went by with me refusing to speak.

But I looked at him. I’d see how our bodies were identical—bony and tall. Our faces were a similar shape. We even carried ourselves the same way.

It was like this window into my identity had just been burst open. In a way, it was like seeing myself clearly for the first time.

Reggie later explained that he didn’t know about me until many years after my birth. He’d been locked up since I was 4 months old. Once he found out, he stayed in touch with my mother, and wanted to know everything about me and my life.

My mother had told him when I was on my way to prison, but it wasn’t until one of my friends on the unit called me by my government name that he knew I was his son. He didn’t say anything because he didn’t want anyone with an old grudge against him to know we were related.

He also didn’t want to take anything away from Mr. Lewis, because he was grateful to him for raising me.

I spent three years with my father in prison. We made up for every single day we missed together.

On the day I was released, the C.O.s woke me up at 4 a.m. and walked me down the tier. When I got to my father’s cell, he was waiting for me. He was standing at the door with tears in his eyes. I wanted to ask someone if I could serve some of his time so that we could go home together.

Since I got home, Mr. Lewis’s health has gotten really bad. He’s in his eighties and is in an assisted living facility and has dementia now. I haven’t told him about meeting my father—I’m not sure he knows I’m not his biological son.

I’m not sure he even really knows who I am. I just wish I knew what was the right thing to do.

All I know is that I have two fathers, not zero. I’m not lost any longer.

Sergio Hill lives in Washington, D.C.

Editor's note: The names of some individuals have been changed to respect their privacy.