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The people behind the policies: A story of second chances and healing

It’s a bright 88-degree summer in San Jose, CA, where it typically feels 10 degrees warmer than up in Stanford, CA and 20 degrees warmer than San Francisco. I’m up at the front desk of the Reentry Resource Center in San Jose, CA, where I worked this summer, welcoming our clients home and registering them as they come in search of services — whether it be food, housing, or medicine — post-release from jail. Up in front of me, an older man, soft-spoken and calm, moves up to the desk, looking to register for services. Introducing himself by his first name (but we will call him Mr. Hernandez), he signs in and proceeds to check into the literacy lab. To my surprise, unlike the vast majority of clients, who are in the 18-35 range with black hair, Mr. Hernandez hair is graying, and has more the look of a kindly grandfather than of a hardened criminal.

As he walked away, my coworker Cecilia mentioned to me that Mr. Hernandez was a lifer, sentenced to 25 to life in the 80s, and was released less than a year ago. Knowing that I was trying to chronicle success stories of clients at the Reentry Center, she urged me to interview this man to get his story. As I asked Mr. Hernandez if he had a few minutes to spare, I knew that I was in for something special.

Mr. Hernandez, 54, spent 28 years behind bars, shuffled between prisons throughout California. Being behind bars for such a long time changes a man in incomprehensible ways. The iPhones that we use look like futuristic alien objects for a man used to the landline phones of the 80s, as touch technology, cell phones, and inflation are completely new concepts for a man from a different world. As he says, “You can take a prisoner out of prison, but it takes time to take the prison out of prisoner.” Upon release at the end of 2015, the outside world initially overwhelmed and shellshocked Mr. Hernandez. Twenty-eight years of obeying orders in a controlled life ingrained a need for structure, schedule, and routine. Thus, while he was only mandated to do 40 hours in the literacy lab, he has done over 350 hours, as signing onto a routine has become necessary to build structure in his life.

When first speaking to Mr. Hernandez, it’s hard to label him as a former lifer with decades of experience in gangs. Today, it’s easy to see his grandfatherly side, as he exudes the peace of a changed man. He does not drink, he does not smoke; in fact, I would be surprised if he even consumes coffee. And while his adjustment and successful reentry back into society is thanks to many who work at the Reentry Resource Center, to truly understand Mr. Hernandez’s transformation, you have to understand his life in the context of both the personal and political systems around him.

When asked to describe his life, Mr. Hernandez plainly manifests his own quote, “Hurt people hurt people, healed people heal people.” Raised in a heavily abusive family, he turned to hate, drugs and alcohol to cope. With a nonexistent father and a mother who never hugged him, but instead brought a different man home every night to cope with her own abuse as a child, his family was part of a cycle of hurt that he looked certain to perpetuate. Mr. Hernandez entered into prison at 25, filled with hurt and anger, conditioned to hate. Thus, for his first decade behind bars, he stayed lost, digging deeper into gang activity, without any support to pull him out of it.

When I asked Mr. Hernandez if there was a moment that pulled him out of the darkness, he thought about it, and he, a man who could never show emotion behind bars, began to cry. His older sister, someone who did not reach out to him for over a decade in prison and who had abandoned him as he sunk deeper into gang activity, called him up one day, apologizing for her distance and vowed to visit him. This contact, while seemingly simple, marked the first time in decades that a family member had apologized to him, had cared about him, and made him believe in himself as a person. For the first time, with her apology, the cycle of hurt, running through generation of abuse in his family, had transformed into a cycle of healing. Unfortunately, to the devastation of Mr. Hernandez, as he was waiting to see his sister, he got the news that his sister had passed away on the long drive from Washington State to San Jose. In mourning, he said, “I expected to feel hate and anger, but somehow I simply felt gratefulness. In my sister’s forgiveness, I realized I wanted to forgive too. I really wanted to change, I wanted to be a different person.” In his sister’s forgiveness, he had been given a second chance.

For the next two decades, Mr. Hernandez changed his life. Taking no opportunities for granted, he left gangs and then stopped drinking and smoking in 1999. He reconnected with family, and worked to heal those around him, while seeking treatment for himself. He wanted nothing to control him and took every class he could, compiled every certificate possible, and presented a case for 15 years to see if he would be granted probation, only to be denied each year. No matter how many papers, certificates, or recommendation letters would be brought to the judge, the verdict was the same: Appeal Denied. Then AB109 was passed.

AB109 ruled it unconstitutional for California to overcrowd prisoners and initiated the release of non-violent, low-risk offenders back into society. The law has reduced recidivism in California, and has helped to realign low-level felons to jails rather than prisons. Additionally, the law has enabled the creation of the Reentry Centers, which aim to ensure that clients don’t just have fairer sentencing, but also rehabilitate to the point of never needing to return to prison again. Thus, as AB109 spurred a movement to release low-risk offenders, after three decades of being punished, warehoused, and deprived of freedom and 15 years of hard work, Mr. Hernandez was given a second chance. 

Wiping away tears, Mr. Hernandez excuses himself to call his grandson for his birthday. A grandfather now, he wants to be the father figure that he never had for his kids and grandkids.

Besides its fairytale ending, some of you may wonder why I tell this story. Well, just as that one call from a sister turned the tide, giving him a second chance at reunifying his family and relationships, AB109 turned the tide for thousands of people, giving nonviolent criminals a second chance at a free life. When AB109 and other policies are passed, they impact people just like Mr. Hernandez. For better or for worse, the laws and policies we create will directly impact full lives, especially those less privileged, from inmates to the elderly or the sick. Unfortunately, we see an election cycle today where policies look corrupted, where morality is hard to find, and where shapeshifting and selling out for a vote or an extra dollar has become so clearly the norm.

But, I urge you to take a look at Mr. Hernandez, my coworkers and our other clients at the Reentry Center. This man personifies two cyclical shifts, one interpersonal, one political. Mr. Hernandez represents the transformation of a system of hurt people hurting people to a system of healed people healing people, as well as a system of ineffective policies hurting people transforming into a system of effective policies healing people. Both interpersonal and political shifts are critical to understand and implement if we want to make the systemic changes we envision and idealize. And while it is tough, if Mr. Hernandez, after all this hardship, can still live to end up calling his grandson for his birthday, be a changed man, and start a new life at 54, I believe there is hope for all of us.  

Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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