Jason Hernandez was a first time nonviolent drug offender when he received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. He served 17 years before his sentence was commuted by President Obama on December 19, 2013.
It didn’t even feel real to receive that much time.
I knew people who were murderers and got 20 or 40 year sentences so I was in shock when the judge told me life. I was 21-years-old, I didn’t know about mandatory minimums or that you could get life without parole for drugs.
My judge, who was a conservative President Reagan appointee, told me at sentencing that he thought long and hard about my sentence but explained the law gave him no choice but to give me life without parole. He even said he had written Congress about ending the crack powder cocaine disparity.
In my neighborhood, you either sold drugs or you used drugs. You drop out of school, you go to prison, you come out — I just didn’t see anything wrong with it at the time. I thought selling drugs was going to be my way and my families way out.
They sent me to a maximum security prison in Beaumont, Texas.
It’s nothing but concrete and iron and 25-foot walls with barbed wire. It sends you a message: don’t think about trees or rabbits or nothing past this wall, because it’s not there for you anymore. No matter how strong you are, prison is going to change your outlook on life. You’re treated like an animal, caged like an animal, thus you tend to start acting like an animal.
Beaumont was a violent place. Even though I sold drugs, I never saw violence like I saw when I went to prison. More than once I saw someone killed — beaten to death or stabbed. It’s something that stays with you and over time you become desensitized and dehumanized.
I think my family suffered more than I did. Everyone does the time with you.
My mother became depressed and still suffers from it. My family actually hid from her the fact that I received a life sentence because it would have broken her heart. She didn’t find out until a few years later.
What I looked forward to the most was my son coming to visit me. It’s a maximum security prison so there’s no toys allowed and you have to be creative when playing with your child. I would get Oreo cookies and Cheetos and gummy bears and play tic tac toe or army man battles with food. He used to like that and had a great time.
Sometimes when I’d walk out to see him and he would have already have the cookies and cheetos spread out ready to play. It made me feel good but at the same time it hurt to see that my relationship with my son had come to that.
In 2008, my brother was murdered in prison.
My brother J.J. was serving a 30 year sentence in another prison, also for crack cocaine. One of his friends got jumped on by three guys in a gang and when J.J. went to go help, they pulled out shanks and killed him.
I couldn’t even go to my own brother’s funeral and be by my parents side. Through all the years I was in prison, that was the hardest thing I went through.
I was put in solitary after it happened, which was probably a good thing, and I just started thinking, “How did we get here? We weren’t born to sell drugs or be murdered or go to prison.”
That’s when I decided wasn’t going to die in prison.
I started studying law through correspondence paralegal courses. I spent countless hours in the law library researching and learning anything that could help my case or others. I became a jailhouse attorney and even founded an organization called Crack Open the Door to assist inmates in applying for clemency.
I filed my own petition for clemency. That’s something most people have a lawyer do for them. I submitted it in 2011, along with a letter I wrote President Obama asking him to give me a second chance. I always felt that I had made a great case on why I should receive clemency. I knew the chances of me getting it were slim to none, but I felt that if anyone would give it to me it would be President Obama and only him.
President Obama commuted my sentence on December 19, 2013.
I was coming out of the chow hall when I heard my name being called. You never think it’s going to be good news — I worried someone was going to tell me my mom or dad had passed away.
I was brought to a room and the warden walked in asking if I was Jason Hernandez. I said, “Yes, sir,” and he said, “I’ve got an executive order from the president of the United States, Barack Obama, commuting your sentence of life without parole plus to twenty years.”
I just went down crying. It was over. Even the guards were hugging me.
That day was like being born again or hitting the lotto twice, but instead of winning millions of dollars, I literally won my life back.
I wouldn’t let go of the clemency letter. I thought that if I did, maybe this wouldn’t be real. I even slept with it. It’s covered in stains from coffee and food because I brought it everywhere with me.
They moved me to a halfway house in August of 2016. I had to stay there for a year and then do six months of house arrest before I was really free.
As you can imagine, being a Hispanic ex-felon who just got out of prison, it wasn’t easy finding work at first. But there are people who want to give you a chance, who want you to succeed — you just have to find them.
Sometimes all a person needs is a second chance, and for someone to believe in them. Now that I’m out, I’m focused on my family — my parents who have always stuck with me — and rebuilding my relationship with my son. I also started using my law knowledge to help others apply for, and receive, clemency.
I currently work at a drug and alcohol recovery center called Grace to Change where I am head of youth outreach. I work a lot with the schools and the juvenile justice system and I am also an inspirational speaker at prisons, colleges and churches. I want my story to change kids’ lives.
It’s a place I’ll go to often and I leave my prison ID card in the headstone. It helps me remember everything I’ve been though, that my family has been through, and what I’m working toward in life.
If I could speak to President Obama I would tell him I love him like a father for giving me my life back and like any son, I want to make my father proud. No matter what I do I can never repay him for the gift of life he has given me and my family, though I will try to repay it back until the day I die.