Dear President Obama:
In 2013, right before Christmas, you gave me a gift that changed my life and my family forever. You granted my petition for clemency and reduced my sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug charge to 20 years.
And although words can’t illustrate what I felt the moment I was told I was not going to die in prison as I had been sentenced to in 1998, my feelings of joy quickly transformed into sorrow and guilt when I returned to my prison cell and faced my friends serving life sentences. I had to convey to them that I was going home and was not going to die in prison, while I thought to myself, it more than likely they would. As I cried to them they told me not to worry, because the president was just getting started and you would grant them their freedom one day soon.
Admittedly, I thought my commutation was just some random act of compassion by you. I never could have imagined you would begin a clemency initiative with a focus on nonviolent crack cocaine offenders serving life without parole: a segment of our prison population that had been forgotten.
Now, nearly three years after, you granted me clemency, you have now commuted the sentences of nearly 1,000 federal prisoners ― many of whom had life without parole. Indeed, I was incarcerated with many of these individuals. They were people I considered not only friends but family.
However, Mr. President, despite your unprecedented action many are still lingering in prison. As if they are in a deep coma, waiting for you to breath life back into them (as you did me) so that they may once again be free and return to their families. And I have done everything I can to shed light on those I left behind, not only because they are in prison under harsh and racially disproportionate sentences, but because many of these individuals are good people who just made a wrong decision at one time. These are not decisions they deserve to die in prison for.
You visited the prison I was at in El Reno, Oklahoma, and while you were there, you stated that you could have easily been one of the individuals in that prison. You later stated, “The main difference between me and them is I had a more forgiving environment so that when I slipped up, when I made a mistake, I had a second chance.” Well, I was in El Reno Prison and others across the United States, and I can tell you that inside those walls are some of the most gifted and intelligent people you will ever meet. Individuals who, had they just lived in a “more forgiving environment,” could have been productive members of our society: mentors, teachers, officers, elected officials, even President of the United States. Indeed, I am frequently asked, “Why are there so few Latino and African-American leaders in our community?” And, unhesitantly, I respond, “Because they are in our prison.”
Though I was fortunate enough to receive a second chance, my brother who was sentenced to thirty years for less than 5 grams of crack cocaine was not. On March 28, 2002, he was brutally murdered by three other inmates while serving his sentence in a Texas prison. The pain my family experienced, and still deals with to this day, is indescribable.
And come January 20, 2017, there is no doubt those individuals serving sentences of life without parole and their families who are serving those sentences with them will feel the same pain me and my family did the day my brother passed if those sentences of life without parole are not commuted: for those individuals will no doubt die in prison.
I know you are not responsible for the destruction and devastation that the War on Drugs has inflicted on our people and communities. But you do have a moral responsibility to set aside and correct injustices that you are aware of and are within your executive power.
Thank you, President Obama, for all you have done, and may the Lord continue to bless you, your family, and this Great Nation.
Jason Hernandez, Individual Given A Second Chance By President Barack Obama