ATLANTA - A day after being released from a four-month prison term, Jamal Lewis addressed a packed room of reporters yesterday at a downtown hotel with an air of liberation, speaking candidly about his struggles with incarceration and his accountability for making the most critical mistake of his life.
Wearing an untucked white button-down shirt and jeans, the usually reserved Ravens running back answered questions with a touch of humility for a half-hour before leaving to report to a halfway house in downtown Atlanta, where he will spend the next two months to complete his sentence.
He expressed no grudges toward Atlanta prosecutors despite a federal judge's saying in January that they had little reliable evidence against him.
It was a vastly different scene from five years ago when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis exuded anger toward the Atlanta district attorney for bringing murder charges against him.
"I don't think I'm a victim," Jamal Lewis said. "I did my time and stood up for what I did. I did what the government asked me to do. I don't have any bitter feelings to the prosecution. I took responsibility for my own actions. I'm the only one accountable for them."
Lewis, 25, pleaded guilty in October to using a cell phone to try to set up a cocaine deal in 2000. He had been imprisoned at a minimum-security federal work camp in Pensacola, Fla., since Feb. 4.
Lewis said he hopes others can learn from his experience.
"I will say to any kid, 'Be careful of who you hang around and who you keep in your circle because it can all come back to haunt you,'" Lewis said. "That's not something that is taught in the classroom or home. It was a hard lesson to learn."
Lewis admits he should have known this lesson well.
His mother, Mary Lewis, was a former warden with the Georgia corrections department and brought him in for the occasional visit. "He knew what the setting was," his mother said, "and he knew what the consequences were."
Said Jamal Lewis: "I never thought I would be in this situation, but unfortunately I was. Now it's behind me.
"It's like a heavy weight off my back," said Lewis, cupping one hand over the other. "I'm a stronger person."
'Tears of joy'
After the news conference, his mother's eyes welled up.
"You're seeing tears of joy," she said. " ... I've always said to my son, 'It's a journey in life.' This was a part of his journey. So this is a victory for me today, and it will be a victory when Jamal gets back on the field because he's got something to show all of the world."
Lewis' typical day in prison began at 4:30 a.m. when the lights came on - "that's pretty early to get up and start the day," Lewis said with a chuckle - and included a 7 1/2 -hour shift in the prison tool shop, where he distributed and hauled equipment for mechanics.
"It wasn't easy," Lewis said. "People say four months isn't that long. But when you're serving it day by day, you have a chance to reflect on the things that are important in your life."
Lewis described his time served as a regimented lifestyle in which, as prisoner 55612-019, he had to line up three times a day and be counted. He slept in a cubicle with 11 prisoners and interacted with people serving 10 to 20 years.
"I had guards watching me every minute on the minute, and you don't have your freedom," Lewis said. "You can't eat what you want to eat, you can't do what you want to do, you can't move where you want to move. It's not about a Jamal Lewis or a football player. You're just another number in prison."
His primary focus was coming back from an ankle injury that sidelined him two games last season. Lewis entered prison on crutches and appearing heavy. But after diligently hitting the weights there, he looked sleeker than in any previous offseason and had no noticeable limp. He said he has been running for over a month and expects to be close to full strength by training camp, which begins Aug. 1. "The football season will seem like nothing now," Lewis said. "That's going to be a breeze after what I've been through."
In an attempt to keep Lewis on course for the season, the Ravens have delivered a letter to Jerome J. Froelich, one of Lewis' attorneys, making the case for the former All-Pro to attend two minicamps this month.
The letter, which Froelich plans to give to the managers of the halfway house, explains the importance of Lewis' "spending time with trainers so they can evaluate what type of rehab he should be doing," team president Richard Cass said. The letter also makes the general point that it would be helpful for Lewis to join the Ravens, who have a new offensive coordinator, as soon as possible "to be with his teammates and get ready for the season."
The team has minicamps beginning Monday and June 13, but the halfway house isn't likely to evaluate Lewis fast enough to allow him to attend the first one, Froelich said.
"We'll deal with whatever the system says he has to do, but it's my hope that we can communicate with the authorities that there are things that he has to do now to not put himself at jeopardy physically," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
The next stage for Lewis was checking into a halfway house, which Froelich and others say combines elements of a hotel and military barracks.
He will be given his own room with a single bed. A job will be assigned to Lewis, who ideally wants to work with children at a gym. Neither Froelich nor officials at the U.S. Probation Office's northern Georgia headquarters would specify which halfway house Lewis was sent to. "I don't want him harassed," the attorney said.
One possibility for Lewis - discussed in open court at his January sentencing - is Dismas House, which has several branches in the Atlanta area. It houses residents in nondescript buildings that draw little attention. "Accountability is very big," Gladys Scott, director of one of the Dismas House branches, said in an interview at the time of Lewis' sentencing. "People check out to go to work or do a job search, and there is a curfew according to their work schedule."
But as in his approach to tacklers, the running back said he is prepared to take the challenge head-on.
"This [case] has been something hanging over my head for the last four or five years ... so [the halfway house] is just another hurdle to cross," Lewis said. "I'll get through it. I have to take care of myself and be an adult about the situation and make sure I'm ready for what's at hand. Because I know when the season starts, I will be ready."
Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.