By the time he was 21, Jason Hernandez was already serving a life sentence in a federal prison. Arrested for running a 50-person drug distribution ring he inherited when his older brother J.J. was sent to prison, Hernandez figured he would be out and back on the streets within 24 hours. Instead, he found himself behind bars, sentenced to life without parole, plus 320 years. “If I died and went to heaven, I would be on probation when I got there,” he reflects. “I was never going to get out.”
Hernandez had resigned himself to living the rest of his life behind bars. But when J.J. was killed in a different correctional facility in Texas in 2008, he determined he would do everything he could do to get out of prison—even if it meant taking his case to the president of the United States.
After pursuing every conceivable avenue for release without success, Hernandez filled out the eight-page form appealing for clemency. Having spent months educating himself in legal procedures, he poured his newly acquired knowledge into the petition, taking “probably six or seven months” to complete it.
On December 19, 2013, he received his wish, becoming one of the first eight prisoners to be granted clemency by the Obama administration. “I went down crying,” Hernandez tells Texas Monthly. “It’s probably never a scene that you’ll see in a prison movie, but the guards and the lieutenants were hugging me.”
While Hernandez’s initial response to leaving prison was euphoric (“… it was like walking on the moon. … It was an amazing day, like being born again.”), he soon realized the many hurdles that he would face as a former prisoner. A lack of a driver’s license precluded him from taking jobs not readily accessible by public transit, and other opportunities disappeared when his past became known. “[W]hen you fill out a job application and you check “Hispanic,” you check “ex-felon,” that job goes away,” he says.
Today, Hernandez works to help others who are serving life sentences for non-violent offenses. He maintains a website (www.crackopenthedoor.com) to draw attention to the plight of these men and women behind bars, and travels the country speaking and advocating for sentencing reform.
He is also committed to helping kids in the community avoid the poor choices he made. He has teamed with Officer Damien Guerrero—the officer who arrested him and former high school classmate—to find ways to assist in the community. He is building a curriculum for teenagers that he hopes to distribute to schools across the country, and is preparing to teach a class at a center for at-risk kids.
“The stuff I want to do is on a grand level,” says Hernandez. “I don’t want to change one kid’s life, I want to change thousands of kids’ lives. And I know that I can if I apply the same passion and tenacity when I was trying to sell drugs or trying to get out of prison.”
Jason Hernandez is a reminder that many of the men and women behind bars can be transformed, and can make a difference in their communities if given the opportunity. Disproportionate sentences for nonviolent crimes and mandatory minimum sentences prevent prisoners from the opportunity to make amends and unnecessarily fill prisons with those who can be having a positive impact on society.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act currently before Congress attempts to make sure that punishments meet the crime, and seeks to provide programming for men and women in prison that will better prepare them for reentry while reducing recidivism. To learn more about the bill, and how you can encourage your senators to support it. click here.