Life After Life
Jason Hernandez was only 21 when he was sentenced to life without parole. But his brother’s death in prison led the former crack dealer to a life of advocacy—and freedom.
On December 19, 2013, after a groundbreaking ACLU report that detailed the harsh realities for inmates sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses, President Barack Obama granted clemency to eight federal inmates now known as “Obama’s Eight.” The group was the first wave of inmates to have their sentences commuted by Obama.
Jason Hernandez was one of them. Hernandez was once a prominent crack dealer from McKinney. He started out on the street corners of East McKinney at the age of fifteen, learning from his brother J.J., whose escalating crack addiction would propel Hernandez deeper into the drug game.
In 1998, Hernandez was convicted on fifteen charges related to running a major drug conspiracy. He wasn’t part of a gang or cartel, and he had never been linked to violence. Still, he received life in prison without parole. He’d just turned 21, and his life in the free world was effectively over.
But when J.J. was murdered in state prison in 2008 everything changed for Hernandez. He started taking paralegal courses and educating himself on incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders. Soon, he launched CrackOpenTheDoor.com, which sought to tell stories like his, with this mission statement:
We exist to bring awareness to a class of federal inmates that will perish in prison for reasons that have been dispelled by research, no longer supported by scientific evidence, and viewed by the public as racially discriminative towards minorities: first time and or non-violent crack cocaine offenders, serving life sentences without parole.
After his release from prison, Hernandez took a full-time position as a welder and now splits his time between his full-time job and traveling across the country to advocate for the release of nonviolent drug offenders serving life sentences. He’s also working on developing a curriculum for juvenile offenders and at-risk kids to help keep them out of prison.
Nearly two decades after his arrest, Hernandez reflects on his path from a rising teenage drug dealer to an advocate for people that the system has forgotten.
Story as told to Amy McCarthy.
Drugs came to McKinney, and they never left. It was 1992, and I was fifteen years old. I’d been out there watching my older brother, J.J. He’d drive to Dallas, pick up pounds of weed, and bring it back to sell in McKinney.
You had to run to the passing cars to sell your dime bags of weed. I finally got some weed of my own, and I made up fifteen dime bags and a bunch of joints and tucked them into the rolled-up cuffs of my Girbaud jeans. I ran out to a car to make my first sale. I was so happy, but when I turned back around to get the weed, everybody was laughing at me. When I’d run to the car, all the weed fell out of my pants.
I was furious, picking up my stuff off the ground. I heard somebody yell, “You should be at home with your mama, boy!” I said, “One of these days, you’re going to be buying drugs from me. I’m going to be the biggest drug dealer you’ve ever seen.” From that day forward, it was just like I got this passion in me for selling. I was going to show them.
J.J. ended up being hooked on drugs, and that’s what elevated me in the drug game. He would smoke crack and go on these binges for four or five days. When he smoked, everybody knew. My mother and father would ask me to find him. I’d walk the streets of McKinney, going into these beat-down houses, and he’d be just sitting there, gone. I’d cry, tell him to come home, and he’d just tell me to get out.
He was supplying all of the McKinney marijuana dealers. If they couldn’t get weed from him, they couldn’t get it from anyone. But if they gave their money to J.J., he’d smoke it all up. But I knew where he kept his stuff. This was back in the beeper days, so I’d get a page, and I’d bring it to them. I’d stuff it in my pants, get on my bike, and deliver pounds of weed.
J.J. went to prison a couple of months later—two years for delivering four ounces of marijuana. When he went to prison, nobody could get weed. He gets locked up and I’m in this great position. I know where to get it, I know who to sell it to, I know how to weigh it, how to break it down.
I was on top of the world. Here I am, sixteen years old, running a drug distribution ring. I was selling five or six pounds and making probably $1,000 or $1,500 a week. Everybody was looking up to me. I’d go to school with gold watches, gold bracelets, rings on all fingers. I moved out of the house. I had been trying to find my place in life, and I thought this was what I was born to do.
Eventually people asked if I could get cocaine. I bought an ounce and brought it back to McKinney. It was the best cocaine anyone had ever seen in their lives. Totally uncut, straight from the brick. Next it was crank, and then crack.
At the end, I knew that the feds were on me. I was real paranoid thinking the cops were going to set me up, or that my friends were going to set me up. I wasn’t happy. I wanted to stop selling drugs, but what was I going to do? I didn’t know how to do anything else.
The feds came and picked me up on March 16, 1998. I remember it was raining real bad. I was in Oak Cliff that night with a girlfriend, and at about five in the morning I went back to my parents’ house in McKinney.
Next thing I know, like the blink of an eye, my parents’ whole house is filled with 30 or 35 agents from the FBI, Collin County sheriff’s office, McKinney police, DEA. It was kind of a relief. Whew, they got me. It’s over now. It’s just part of my story.
The chief of police is handcuffing me, and my pops is standing on the other side. I was a young, arrogant kid. I had been 21 for thirty days, I think. The chief of police tells my pops, “Well, Joe, tell him goodbye, because you ain’t ever going to see him again.” I looked at my dad all cocky and said, “Call my lawyer. I’ll be out tomorrow.”
Tomorrow took almost twenty years. I never knew about the federal government or the 100-to-1 sentencing ratio for crack-cocaine offenders. I didn’t know about conspiracy charges or hearsay. I was thinking I could make a deal. If I could get ten to fifteen years, I’d take that.
My lawyer told me there is no plea bargain. Either I could cooperate or go to prison for life. I thought, “No way, I’m not cooperating.” I decided to get an attorney from Dallas, thinking that he’d save the day for me. He told me the same thing.
They convicted me on fifteen counts for being the illegal organizer of a 50-man conspiracy. They picked up 49 of us when I got arrested, and 17 of them ended up testifying against me. Some were family. Some of them told the truth and added onto it. Obviously, the more you tell, the more time gets knocked off.
Being testified against by your friends, people you said you’d die for—it’s like somebody put a knife in you. It hurt. All that honor amongst thieves bullshit. There is none. At the time, I was really mad. But what did I expect?
I was sentenced on October 2, 1998. All I remember is that they put you in the jury booth to wait for the judge to sentence you. My brain wasn’t trying to hear it. I’d have to see the transcript to know what happened. I was sentenced to life without parole, plus 320 years. If I died and went to heaven, I would be on probation when I got there. I was never going to get out.
I went to Seagoville, a holdover facility, to get designated to a federal prison. Every criminal says, “If I get caught, I want to go with the feds. They got swimming pools, golf courses, carpet, pool tables.” I thought it probably wasn’t that bad. At least I could live comfortably there.
As soon as I told the other inmates at Seagoville that I had life without parole, they said, “Damn, you’re probably getting sent to Beaumont.” They told me that I was going to end up having to kill someone or get killed at Beaumont. I’d have to roll with the gangs. Sure enough, when they gave me my sheet, I’ve been designated to United States Penitentiary, Beaumont.
Don’t think about trees or rabbits or nothing past this wall, because it’s not there for you anymore.
It was night when I got to Beaumont. There are towers all around it, 25-foot walls with barbed wire on top. Nothing but concrete and iron and fences and bricks. It kind of tells you, don’t hope for nothing. Don’t think about trees or rabbits or nothing past this wall, because it’s not there for you anymore.
It was eight p.m. and we’re all coming in and the next thing I know someone shoots a shotgun. The lights come on and someone said, “All inmates on the ground!” I’m laying down on the ground in the rain and the guards go into a cell. They brought one guy out in handcuffs, the other on a stretcher.
The first time I ever seen a man murdered was in prison. And I seen it a couple times. When I say murdered, I don’t mean someone shoots at someone and they just lay down and die. It’s like a fight. To see someone get stabbed to death or choked out or beaten with some type of object until they’re not moving, it hurts you a lot.
On Thursday, March 22, 2008, everybody in the prison is looking for me. I had a call, and I think I’m going home. I had recently ended up going back to court because there were some cops allegedly tampering with evidence, and I thought it might be a way for me to get out.
I had no idea what was going on. I thought I was going home. My dad answers the phone and he was just crying. Not tears of joy—like a child. I asked what was going on, and he said, “They killed him, son. They killed him.”
I said, “They killed who?”
“J.J. They killed J.J.”
My brother was in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system serving thirty years for a drug offense, and he had another twenty years after that in the federal prison. One morning, one of his friends got jumped on by three guys in a gang. He went to go help him, they pulled out shanks. The guy lived, my brother got murdered.
After I found out, I went to solitary confinement. It was probably a good thing, I was going crazy. I’m alone for a couple weeks and I’m thinking, “What happened? I’m in prison for life, my other brother’s in here, J.J. got murdered. This is not who we are. We weren’t born to sell drugs or go to prison or be murdered in prison.”
Had J.J. not been murdered, I would probably still be in prison. I was adapting. But I paid to take paralegal classes, law classes. I started doing my own legal work. I decided I was going to do everything I possibly could to get out.
I became pretty good, like a jailhouse attorney. That was my hustle in there, doing legal work for people. I filed everything you could possibly think of for myself. Direct appeals, Rule 60(b)s, writ of certiorari, BC2s, everything. Every one of them was denied, probably fifteen appeals. You can only file so many appeals. Even if you find a law that applies to you, you’re dead.
I filed everything until I had nothing left. Even I knew that I needed a miracle. Then I read a book called The New Jim Crow, and it basically said that our drug laws are designed to incarcerate minorities, to keep us in there, and to send us back if we get out, to destroy minority, low-income communities.
I went around the prison doing a little survey. I found that out of the seventeen of us serving life without parole, fifteen were minorities. Eleven were African Americans, all in for crack cocaine. The two white people that were in there for life without parole were in for murder. I decided that something was wrong, and that somebody needed to look into this.
I started a website called Crack Open the Door while I was in prison. I would type up all our stories for the website on a typewriter and mail them to my brother to put online. I wanted to do something to help these guys who were in there with me. One of them serving life without parole was a preacher that drew a bigger crowd when he spoke than when the free-world preacher would come. Another was a GED teacher who had the highest graduation rate in the entire federal prison system.
Nobody was fighting for people serving life without parole. I got nine of us lifers together—you could only have nine people in a picture in that prison—and took a photo of us all. I sent it to my brother and asked him to send it to Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow. She wrote us back and said, “Look, I can’t help you.” But what she did do was connect us to the ACLU, which eventually ended up doing a report called “Life Without Parole: A Living Death” to tell the story of lifers. They kind of did what Crack Open the Door did, but it was one hundred times better.
If you’re serving life without parole, you’re definitely not going to get clemency. I gave my petition to my counselor to file. He was laughing at me, just like they did when I was a fifteen-year-old kid selling weed.
I knew that the last thing I could do to get free was to appeal for clemency to the president of the United States. This is it, there’s nothing left. I’ve gotta apply for it. They have an eight-page blank form in the jail that you use to apply for clemency. There’s no instructions or anyone to tell you how to go about it.
There are tens of thousands of clemency petitions filed every year, and I wanted them to notice mine. I put it together like my life depended on it, because it did. I put a badass petition together, so good that sentencing organizations give my petition to families that are trying to help their relatives in prison. Even the ACLU asked me what attorney did it for me. Didn’t no attorney do it for me, I did it.
It took me probably six or seven months to put it together. People inside thought I was crazy. And they had good reason to laugh. If you’re a minority, you’re not going to get clemency. If you’re serving life without parole, you’re definitely not going to get clemency. I gave my petition to my counselor to file. He was laughing at me, just like they did when I was a fifteen-year-old kid selling weed.
On December 19, 2013, I was coming out of the chow hall and they’re calling my name. The first thing I think is that my mother or my father or my son has passed away, and I couldn’t take that. It was right before Christmas, my parents were supposed to come visit me. Lord, please don’t. I’d been strong, I hadn’t given up for fifteen years.
They escorted me to the captain’s complex. That’s rare, you hardly ever go there. For a split second, I thought, “Could this be my clemency?” But I knew better than to get my hopes up that high.
The warden walked into the room and asked if I’m 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 went down crying. It was over. It’s probably never a scene that you’ll see in a prison movie, but the guards and the lieutenants were hugging me.
There were eight of us granted clemency on that day. They call us the Obama Eight. All of us were drug offenders. Six of us had life without parole, two had thirty-year sentences. No links to gangs, guns, cartels, or violence. It was the exact same criteria [first-time offenders, no affiliations to gangs or violence] that I had used to create Crack Open the Door. Now I don’t know, and I wish I could ask the president, but maybe he stole my idea.
Just about everybody had done twenty years, so they got immediate release. I had only done a little over sixteen years. In August 2014, I was sent to a halfway house in Wilmer-Hutchins for a year. I was still in custody—I could go to work and come back. I did six months of house arrest under the halfway house’s jurisdiction. My actual release date from federal custody was August 11, 2015.
Life After Living Death
That day, the day I got out, I went to visit J.J.’s grave site. It was the first place I went. Then, I met with Officer Damien Guerrero, who had arrested me and took me into custody. We went to high school together. He went the right way and I went the wrong way. I wanted to meet with him so I could find out how I could help the community, help the kids that were like me.
I walked through downtown McKinney, and it was like walking on the moon. My footsteps felt funny. It was a wave of emotions, good and bad. I’d been gone for a long time. McKinney had been a country town, and now it looked totally different. It was an amazing day, like being born again. I had been buried alive. I was supposed to die in prison.
I had to find work. If you don’t get a job within 21 days after your release to the halfway house, they can send you back to prison. When I was incarcerated, I took culinary arts, I took welding, I took legal courses. I got a few offers, but they didn’t work out, mainly because I didn’t have a driver’s license, which meant that I couldn’t get anywhere that wasn’t on the bus or train line.
A lot of places made you apply on the computer, so I was denied before I even walked in. Obviously when you fill out a job application and you check Hispanic, you check ex-felon, that job goes away. Every job application asks you if you’re a felon and what you did. I thought that if I could just talk to someone and tell them my situation they would understand. Nobody ever called me back.
From then on, I took the actual letter from President Obama to apply for every job. I finally got a job at a place in Dallas. They didn’t care that I went to prison, but I had no work experience. I had sold drugs but never had a job. They hired me on as an insulator at $10 an hour. I was just happy to be free and have any type of money.
I ended up getting a new job where they pay me pretty good, but I was working so much that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do when I got out: work with kids. I put a curriculum for at-risk kids together while I was inside and sent it to the president and told him what I wanted to do. I also sent it to Chad Houser at Café Momentum in Dallas.
I read about Café Momentum, which helps at-risk kids gain culinary skills, and had written to Chad while I was in prison. I wanted to do my own nonprofit one day, and I wanted to work at Café Momentum when I got out. I was thinking, if I can get the president to write me, surely this guy would. He did, and told me to call him when I got out.
I call Chad, and he asks me if I wanted to go eat some good barbecue. I walk into the place, and I have this déjà vu feeling. I knew that tall dude who made the barbecue. I was pretty sure he wasn’t in prison, I knew I didn’t sell him drugs.
All of a sudden it hits me: When I was incarcerated, I used to keep a folder full of photos ripped from D Magazine and Texas Monthly. Things I wanted to see and do when I got out. I’d read Pecan Lodge’s story in D Magazine—it’s really inspirational—and knew that I wanted to eat there one day. This was when I was serving life without parole, and now I’m here. Great barbecue, by the way.
I got a job at Café Momentum. I’m not working there no more, but I’m welding. I’ve been going to D.C. for my activism work, and sometimes I have to miss my day job. If I have to speak somewhere or attend a conference, they’re kind of cool with it.
I’ve been healing my relationship with my son. He was six months old when I was sentenced and eighteen years old when I got out. When I was at Café Momentum, some of the kids would call me “dad” or “pops,” and my son would never call me that. He wouldn’t say, “I love you.” Probably a month ago, he said, “I love you too.” Now every time we talk, he says it.
My mother and father are both still alive. They’re still together. I put them through so much. They had shotguns pointed at them when the cops were looking for me and had their doors kicked down. They traveled five or six hours to come visit me in prison. But they never turned their backs on me. I still live with them. If it wasn’t for them, I would probably be homeless. I would’ve had to work every day all day, I wouldn’t be able to be an advocate or work with kids or give back. They’ve given me that opportunity.
I don’t really have a lot of time for dating. I’ve kind of made peace with the realization that there’s lots of things that I want to do, and I’m about to be forty. The stuff I want to do is on a grand level. 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.
I don’t see it as a sacrifice. Do I want one woman to make extremely happy, or do I want to change thousands of women’s lives? Do I want to have one kid and spoil him to death, or do I want to make thousands of kids’ lives better? When you weigh them two together, it’s a no-brainer. I know I can do it.
I’m working on getting my program going. They’re going to let me teach a class in Collin County at a center for at-risk kids. I’m trying to get some funding for it so that we can produce materials for teachers all over the country. There’s money out there, you can get paid to create these programs, and they’re looking for people just like me to do it. I’m going to tell you what’s crazy—this work is the only thing prison ever qualified me for.