When he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Jason Hernandez was just 21 years old.
Hernandez was convicted of selling crack cocaine in Texas in 1998 and was sentenced to life for a non-violent crime. After his brother was killed in prison in 2008, Hernandez started to turn his life around, taking classes, learning about the legal system, and reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. In 2011, after serving 14 years, he applied to President Obama for clemency, filing all the paperwork himself.
His petition was accompanied by a one-and-a-half page, typewritten letter to Obama that Hernandez wrote from his prison in Oklahoma. In the letter, he took responsibility for the crimes he committed. "I acknowledge that I deserve to be in prison," Hernandez wrote. "What I can say for certain Mr. President is that I am a changed man from that boy who ran those streets over 15-20 years ago."
In December 2013, Obama responded with his own letter—letting Hernandez know he was commuting his sentence. For days, Hernandez didn't let go of that letter from the president, even sleeping with his hands still on it. Hernandez was sent to a halfway house in August 2014 and fully released from federal custody on August 11, 2015—one year ago yesterday.
In the year since, Hernandez hasn't forgotten the fellow inmates he left behind. He's helped other federal prisoners write successful clemency petitions and has advocated for more clemencies for Latina prisoners. Earlier this year, he visited the White House as part of an event on criminal justice reform.
Yesterday, Hernandez posted the letter he wrote to Obama in 2011 on Facebook, and gave us permission to reprint it. "Without knowing me he took a gamble," Hernandez said of the president. "Sometimes all a person needs is a second chance, and for someone to believe in them."
September 23, 2011
President of the United States
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC. 20500
RE: LETTER BY FEDERAL INMATE JASON HERNANDEZ #07031-078 IN SUPPORT OF HIS PETITION FOR COMMUTATION OF SENTENCE
Dear Mr. President:
Greetings. My name is Jason Hernandez. I am sure you have no idea who I am, and probably wondering why on God's earth am I writing to you. Well, to summarize it as best as I can I am a 34 year old federal inmate who has served over 14 years on a sentence of life without parole, which I was given for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and other controlled substances. As a result thereof, I have filed a Petition for Commutation of Sentence with the Pardon Attorney in hopes you determine there is sufficient cause to grant my request.
As you are aware there has been major support to completely eliminate the disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. But that is not what the substance of this letter is about. I'm not going to sit here and try to downplay the effects crack cocaine or any other drugs have on our nation. I know first hand the distruction drugs cause on people, families, and communities.
Nor will I attest that because I didn't kill anyone, commit rape, or a crime against a child, that I shouldn't be in prison for an excessive amount of time. Because the simple truth Mr. President is that I was a drug dealer. And what I didn't know then that I've learned over the years is that it would not be an overstatement to view my crime as equivalent, if not more detrimental, than those just stated. I realize this because I was selling drugs in the community I was born and raised in. I was selling drugs to people I grew up with, most of whom were either friends or family. Everybody I came into contact with I was destroying in one way or another. From the addicts and the families of those addicts, and the individuals I encouraged to sell drugs that ended up losing years of their lives in prison; resulting in parents being without a son, wives without a husband or kids without a father. Now I can see the cycle of destruction that drugs have caused on my neighborhood and those across the United States.
I acknowledge that I deserve to be in prison. For how long? I am in no position to say. I'm sure there are people who could argue either for or against my current sentence of life without parole. What I can say for certain Mr. President is that I am a changed man from that boy who ran those streets over 15–20 years ago. And if I were given a second at life I would not let you, my family, or society down. I would do everything I could to right what I have wronged and try to prevent kids from making the same mistakes I did when I was young.
If you review my Petition for Commutation you will see I have dreams Mr. President, big dreams. And not just dreams of being free, but dreams of becoming someone who is going to make a difference in this world. But to speak of my goals as dreams doesn't do them justice, for I can see everything I want to accomplish and how I am going to accomplish it as clear as day. All I need now is for you to give me a chance to turn those dreams into reality.
I thank you for your time Mr. President, and I hope that after you read my Petition for Commutation you come to the conclusion that I was not a bad person growing up, but a person who made bad decisions.
Jason Hernandez #07031-078
Federal Correctional Institution
Post Office Box 1500
El Reno, Oklahoma. 73036
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.