A Longer Than Life Sentence

At sentencing, they kind of saved me for last. I had just turned 21. It was 1998. I remember the judge saying, “Jason, I’ve thought about this all week. … I’ve written Congress about these sentencing guidelines for crack-cocaine but my hands are tied.” After, he starts reading my sentence off to me: “life without parole …” After life without parole, I didn’t hear the other part.

I don’t even know how I got back to the prison cell. When it was all added up, I got life without parole plus 320 years, 8 years of probation, and a $6,000 fine. Your mind can’t take in that reality — that you’re going to die in prison.

All the charges against me were related to conspiracy to distribute crack-cocaine. Back then, I was an arrogant, cocky kid. I started dealing when I was 15. I didn't know there was a 100-to-1 sentencing ratio for crack-cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. My supplier, who was higher on the totem pole, got 12 years but I got life without parole. I also received more time because I wouldn’t snitch on a professional football player who was buying marijuana off me and a friend.

Your mind can’t take in that reality — that you’re going to die in prison.

The insane part is that the prosecutor didn’t want to know nothing about the people I was getting my cocaine off of. I would find out years later why: They had been working with the government already for years. She just wanted a Dallas Cowboy.

Out of the 49 people that got indicted in my case, only three individuals were white and they all received either probation or a year or under. So was the prosecutor's intent to really rid the street of drugs? Or was the prosecutor's intent to rid the street of minorities? A majority of the people that I knew that were involved in drugs were Caucasian. But in prison, it was the saddest thing to see that a majority of the people — and a majority of people with life sentences — were minorities

I grew up in McKinney, Texas. It is a city where the wealthy and the poor are divided by a railroad track. I had white friends, and we’d go to school and hang out. But at the end of the day, they went back to their neighborhood, and I would go back to mine.

My area was known for crime, drug dealing, gangs. There weren’t a lot of street lights. There were no parks in the neighborhood, and the streets were bumpy, full of potholes. Houses were abandoned. My mom and dad were regular people. They were always poor and working double jobs, so they were hardly ever home. I was the third of four brothers. The older ones raised me: All four of us would eventually end up in prison.

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My mom was in the courtroom during sentencing. Immediately after, she came to visit me, and asked, “So when do you come up for parole?” I said, “Mom, there’s no parole in the federal system.” She said, “You didn’t kill nobody. Rapists don’t get that much time.” Three years into my prison sentence, she asks the same thing. I’m like, “Mama, I told you that there’s no parole.”  Four years later, she asks the same thing. And that’s when I started reading a lot of psychology books, learning how the brain deals with trauma. You block it out so you can deal with it. When she asked again in 2010, 12 years into my sentence, I cried. I grabbed her and hugged her. When you go to prison, everybody does the time with you.

In 2011, when I was 34-years-old, I petitioned President Obama for clemency. “I’m not going to sit here and try to downplay the effects of crack-cocaine on my neighborhood,” I wrote to him. “I was selling drugs to people I grew up with, most of whom were either friends or family. … I acknowledge that I deserve to be in prison, for how long, I am in no position to say.”

I told him that if I were given a second chance, I would not let him, my family, or society down. “I am a changed man from that boy who ran the streets 15 to 20 years ago,” I wrote. “I can see everything I want to accomplish and how I’m going to accomplish it, and it’s clear as day. All I need now is for you to give me a chance to turn those dreams into reality.”

By that time, I had earned a reputation as a jailhouse attorney. I was advocating for other inmates. I had also become obsessed with trying to get my freedom, and I was in the library all day, every day filing motion after motion, brief upon brief. That’s because on March 28, 2002, I learned that my brother, J.J., was murdered in prison. When we were younger, I wanted to be like him so much. I loved him more than I loved my father. After that, every day when I got out of bed, I did everything possible to honor my brother’s name.

If you’re ever going to do anything impactful in life, first, you have to get mad. But you don’t fight with your fist — you fight with your mind. I was one of the first ones that received clemency from President Obama. That night, Dec. 19, 2013, was the first time that I had closed my eyes and had a peaceful sleep. I didn’t wake up until it was time to wake up.

If you look at the executive order, it has coffee, oil, tears on it. I held it in my hand for two days straight. I would walk around with it because I wanted to show everybody: “Don’t give up. I’m going to go out there. I’m going to be the one that’s going to fight for you all.”

Jason Hernandez advocates for the clemency process to be reformed and expanded to undo the injustices caused by the war on drugs. He is also a recipient of the Latino Justice Media Fellowship, which will assist in preparing his memoir.

This article is part of a series on mass incarceration. Click here to see more. 

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Dr. Timothy Leary

I like President Obama. This article shows what a sane, compassionate man he is. It was always an enigma to me why so many people tried to denigrate him.

Joshua H.

It might have something to do with destroying the country of Libya, and killing thousands of innocent people by drone in the Middle East. Were their lives not as worthwhile as the man in the article's?

Dr. Timothy Leary

He did all that? I like him even more now.


I was so touched by your story,My husband has been gone for 25 yrs We are still not getting anywhere.WE won't give up however I am sure he won't ever get out.I am trying to reach out to everyone and anyone any advice on how to begin



I believe we discriminate against people who are minorities. Are there more white people who get to go to college? Are there more white people who go to ivy league schools? I live just outside of Boston how many minorities live in the suburbs north and south of the city. The answer is not many. Because we all are so divided up as a society we tend to blame people for the position that they may be in.


My two brothers and I have all served prison time. It is no secret that America locks of more of its citizens (mostly, yes, as part of the failed, farce, wrong "War on People Who Use Drugs" or "War on Drugs" as Republican politicians call it. Before he died, Walter Cronkite made a stunning documentary about America's War on Drugs which ended with a quote from Cronkite that I paraphrase from memory here: America will look back on its War on Drugs as its biggest shame, harming more American citizens, since the Vietnam War. My father served in Vietnam in 1968-69, if you look at a graph of the 58,000 American troops who died, and millions of Vietnamese citizens, 68-69 was obviously a very bad time to have been there, judging by number of casualties. He had a wife and four children at home, in a trailer where the front door didn't close properly, and I had snow inside my home when I was in third grade. My dad was drafted because he was not Donald Trump. He was poor, like most of the black men he fought with, saving each others' lives each day. We are white, most of my family--with all of the other races mixed in, here and there. So we were the oppressed minority, in prison. Although very unpleasant, that was a useful lesson for me to learn, how minorities are treated day to day. I was in the longest, at 5.5 years, until my younger brother passed me up, after that. I never re-offended as they call it, after I got out. My brother, however, kept using drugs, married a woman he met in the drug-seeking-pharmaceuticals game. He wound up surpassing my family prison record by doing 10 years Federal for bank robbery, and being in at least two other state prisons, not counting L.A. County jail (that's got like 10,000 inmates, more than any prison--that must be a good story). Once he taught his neighbor how to hit her finger with a hammer and break it and go to the E.R. to get Oxys. My brother has pretty severe mental illness now; after the meth, after his last prison and homelessness stint, he did not snap back, like he did when he was a young man. He's got a home in an institution for mentally ill, ex-cons, and other people that no one is qualified to house in their homes, and I'm always hoping for the best for my brother. If I were president, I'd set up a folding table and you can get in line. Hammer on the table. If you're willing to break your own finger to get drugs, you would be entitled to all the drugs you want, free of charge, and no threat of prison. You are obviously fairly serious about using. If you'd do THAT to YOU, what would you do to ME to get more?
I am so happy that the man in this story was restored the waste of a human life that is American Prison System. More than Russia and China combined--that's how many America locks up now. (Of course, China will send out a mobile execution unit to punish drug offenders--I didn't see that mentioned in the stats I just quoted, but I lived in China for three years, and I know whereof I speak. I really don't think there are drugs in China, not to any extent approaching other countries. If the government wants a factory to manufacture meth to export to other countries to earn some millions, I do not doubt they would do that. I did meet a group of Nigerian fellows during the time I lived there who sold narcotics, on pain of death, if caught. Now THAT's entrepreneurship in the face of no employment opportunities! Yes, I sort of admired their ambition. It was not something I wanted to do.)
The Sentencing Project.org, The Innocence Project, and EJI, Equal Justice Initiative (Bryan Stevenson started in 2004) can show its charts & graphs about racial disparity in sentencing. Alabama is the only state that does not allow legal representation to inmates on Death Row, so Bryan Stephenson started doing that and quickly gained release for some inmates proven innocent, and of course he was threatened with death for trying to help black people who were innocent, and locked up in Alabama. Alabama don't play that shit! Letting people out? Because they're innocent? And THEY'RE BLACK?! Oh, no no no, brother! Haven't you seen George Wallace's proud "segregation now, segregation forever!" speech? Sure, he's dead of old age now. But Alabama abides. Sweet Home Alabama by Lynard Skynard, aside. Lawyer Stephenson also represents children sentenced as adults, and mentally ill in prison (Christ, can this shit get any more evil? I'm braiding a goddamn rope while I'm typing to just hang myself after I comment, just making myself read the shit I'm typing.) So, all I do is I support these orgs, like ACLU. I always say, sometimes the only people who care if you're locked up is the ACLU and Amnesty International. And the other three organizations I mentioned. If you shop at smile.amazon dot com, you can choose an organization that will receive some minuscule amount of the money you spend, 1% or something (we can't have Amazon lose any billions, or even millions of pure profit just to help, can we?) Like Starbucks, for every bottle of Ethos water you buy, they donate a fucking penny to get some water for a dying child somewhere on earth. Have any of you corporations every heard of Newman's Own brand of foods, salad dressings, etc? It donates 100% of profits to its charities! Paul Newman is already rich. So is Starbucks. So is Amazon. So I am not impressed with their tightwad asses, as I am with Newman's Own brand, and someone like Elon Musk who said, I already made a billion dollars inventing and selling Ebay. So for the rest of my life I am going to work to help others and give other people good-paying jobs.
Good luck to you, I worked myself up and forgot released prisoner's name, but good luck to you. All of this 20% of Americans own 80% of the stock market, and the 1% against the rest of us is not going to change in our lifetimes, but keep working it!
Portugal already has over 10 years of good data in the benefit to society of decriminalizing crack, heroin, marijuana, meth, all prescription drugs, and they lock up zero people for being drug addicts. Can. you. imagine. what America could do with that 30 to $50k per year we spend locking up 2 million people? Read all about Portugal to see what they do with all the money they have saved, and what gains in treatment for addicts, what gains a society feels when they treat all human beings like human beings instead of treating addicts, not like your brother and your mother and your neighbor, which is who they are, but as evil demons to lock up in prison forever. To create jobs--for prison guards, and all the medical personnel employed as you watch them all die of old age inside.
Look to Portugal! Learn from other countries. Let Norway take over the schools, Portugal the prisons & drug policy, the EU for National Healthcare for all.
OR just keep stepping over homeless veterans in the gutter as you go about your day, as America continues to pay more of its GDP than any other country while paying 1000% more for For-Profit Medical Insurance, and for Big Pharma, while only the rich receive birth to death medical care. That should be the first right of citizens in any civilized nation. Under Trumpdom, we will all either join Mar-a-Lago for $200,000 each, or die in the poorhouse or prison.

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