I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I’m going to get out of prison and I’m going to get my life back.
by Jason Hernandez, #LwC2020
April 28, 2020
I was sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense in 1998. I was only twenty-one years old at the time. On December 19, 2013 I became one of the first people to receive clemency from President Obama as a member of the group known as the “Obama 8.” When I was finally released in 2015 I was almost forty years old. Today I am a Soros Justice Fellow and with support from the Open Society Foundations I’m creating a clemency guidebook and tool kit that I will distribute both inside prisons and also to families who have loved ones still inside. It will explain how to create a clemency petition and also, most importantly, how to become an advocate and find allies to fight for your or your loved one’s release. Getting clemency doesn’t happen by itself; it takes a lot of work to bring enough pressure on risk-averse presidents and governors to make them do the right thing.
In 2002 I experienced a personal tragedy that set me on the course that would eventually lead to my freedom. That year my brother, JJ, was murdered in prison. I actually considered ending my own life, but then I thought, “You know what? I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to give my brother’s death meaning. I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I’m going to get out of prison and I’m going to get my life back.” Up until then I hadn’t spent any time in the prison library, but once I realized it was going to be the key to my release, I was there 24/7. I started reading all the old law books, back to the 1940s, because I didn’t want to miss anything. I became a jailhouse attorney, and although everything I filed was denied, I didn’t give up. Then in 2010 I read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” Until I read that book I wasn’t aware of how the war on drugs was created to destroy communities of color. I started talking about the book with other incarcerated men saying, “Hey man, we fell into this trap and we need to figure out a way to get out of it!”
When I was first locked up, I didn’t know about the internet. All we had at the time were beepers. But I started to educate myself about this new technology, and I realized I could use the internet to humanize not just me but others serving drug war sentences. I started a grassroots organization called Crack Open the Door to advocate for nonviolent drug offenders serving life without parole and wrote up profiles of incarcerated people and sent them to elected leaders, newspapers and advocacy organizations. Another one of my brothers created a website for me. And it was then that I sent a petition and letter to President Obama asking for a reduction in my sentence. Since my release I have helped six other individuals serving life sentences receive clemency, and my goal is to help many, many more.
I’ve always seen myself as a leader but I wasn’t sure whether I possessed the traits and characteristics to be an effective leader. What Leading with Conviction has taught me is that I do possess those qualities and it’s helping be more effective, not only with respect to criminal justice reform, but to any area of work I put myself into.
Jason Hernandez has written for and been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN and other major media outlets. He is a recipient of a Latino Justice Fellowship and was awarded the Volunteer of the Year in his city, Dallas, TX by two different organizations.