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The War on Drugs is a War on Minorities: Former El Reno Prison Inmate Freed by Obama Speaks Out

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President Obama became the first sitting president in history to visit a federal prison Thursday when he toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. After passing through several security gates, Obama stepped inside a 9-by-10 cell and walked through a section called Cell Block B that houses prisoners who are part of a drug rehabilitation and prevention program. He also spent about 45 minutes meeting with six nonviolent drug offenders, which he described during a press conference afterward. Obama’s stop at the federal prison in El Reno comes amidst a broader, bipartisan push to end mass incarceration. On Monday, he commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders. Many of them had stories like our next guest, Jason Hernandez, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for his role in a drug conspiracy, starting when he was only 15. He was one of eight prisoners whose sentences were commuted by President Obama on December 19, 2013. We are also joined by Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout and author of “Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama became the first sitting president in history to visit a federal prison Thursday when he toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. After passing through several security gates, Obama stepped inside a 9-by-10-foot cell and walked through a section called Cell Block B that houses prisoners who are part of a drug rehabilitation and prevention program. He also spent about 45 minutes meeting with six nonviolent drug offenders, which he described during a press conference afterward.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Visiting with these six individuals, and I’ve said this before, when they describe their youth and their childhood, these are—these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is, they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.

And, you know, I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes. And we’ve got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are. That’s what strikes me. There but for the grace of God. And that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Obama’s stop at the federal prison in El Reno comes amidst a broad, bipartisan push to end mass incarceration. On Monday, he commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders.

AMY GOODMAN: Many of them had stories like our next guest, Jason Hernandez, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for his role in a drug conspiracy, starting when he was 15. He was arrested and convicted of a nonviolent drug offense. He was one of eight prisoners whose sentences were commuted by President Obama December 19, 2013. Jason joined us on Democracy Now! the next day, after he learned of the commutation. I asked him how he felt after hearing the news.

JASON HERNANDEZ: Elated. I mean, it’s a dream come true. And I’m just—I just hope that this is the beginning of more to come. I mean, I’m happy for what was given to me by the president, but it’s kind of like a bittersweet moment because there’s other individuals in here who I believe that are more deserving than me. And they just didn’t—they didn’t believe that something like this could happen. But now they believe. And I just hope that, you know, the president and other lawmakers decide to do more for the individuals in here, because—you know, my mother and father, this Christmas, when they come visit me, and my family, my son, they’re going to be crying, but it’s going to be tears of joy. But at the same time, I’m going to have to look at other individuals’ mothers and fathers and kids crying at visitation, and their cries are going to be for sorrow. So, I just hope—I mean, I’m grateful for what the president has done, but I hope there’s more to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Hernandez had his sentence reduced to 20 years, of which he had already served 15. He was imprisoned at El Reno, Oklahoma, federal prison, the prison that President Obama visited on Thursday. He has since been released but is still technically in custody until this coming August. While he was in prison, he founded the sentencing reform group, Crack Open the Door. He now works as a welder at a nonprofit restaurant in Dallas called Cafe Momentum, where he mentors young people training there who were previously incarcerated in juvenile facilities. He joins us from his parents’ home in McKinney, Texas.

And in Chicago we’re joined by Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jason, let’s begin with you. You were imprisoned at El Reno, and you were released by President Obama. Obama just visited El Reno yesterday, first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Your thoughts?

JASON HERNANDEZ: Well, my first thought when I heard it was that—and I never thought in a million years I would ever say this, but there was no place I would rather be than El Reno FCI, just to, you know, meet the president and to shake his hand and to hug him and tell him I was just so grateful for what he’s done for me and for my family and others, and ask him to keep on doing it for those inmates who truly deserve it.

And I think it’s just a shame that there has never been a president, who has talked about sentencing reform or prison reform, who has never been to a prison. And for him to do that, I mean, that’s what’s needed. How can you make a suggestion on how to change something if you don’t even know what’s going inside prison? And President Obama, I mean, that’s a great step that he’s taken. And I’m pretty sure, while he was in that prison, in them cells, that he had to have felt what I felt in there, knowing that I was going to die. And hopefully, you know, it had a strong impact on him, and, you know, he’ll do some more changes and push Congress to do the right thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jason, you, yourself, were targeted under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders. Your reaction now as you’re hearing more and more discussion in the Congress and among national leaders about the need to reform these, especially these mandatory minimum, but also this mass incarceration of so many—so many youth in the country?

JASON HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I mean, my first reaction and impression of that is it’s about time. I mean, it’s only took almost 30 years for Congress to realize that—and society, that the war on drugs, which you could actually call a war on minorities, is wrong, that we’ve been going about it the wrong way and locking people up for not only a couple of years, but 10 years, decades or the rest of their life, actually has an adverse effect on society. And like I said, hopefully, the—you know, I read an article the other day where they said the black president that everybody expected has finally arrived, and I think that’s far from the truth. I mean, he’s been here. His view on the criminal system has been set 10 years ago, if not 15, when he was a congressman. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Hernandez, the U.S. has, what, 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its prisoners. One in four prisoners in the world are imprisoned in the United States. One in 99 Americans are in prison, the vast majority black and Latino. How long did you serve in jail?

JASON HERNANDEZ: I served approximately about 16 years and eight months. And I’m doing a last year in like a home confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: You shared with us a photo of you and other nonviolent drug offenders with long sentences, mostly life without parole, at El Reno, before you were released. Can you talk about who is in this picture and where they are today?

JASON HERNANDEZ: One of them is Altonio Douglas. He’s serving life without parole. He’s been incarcerated since 1993 for crack cocaine. Real great guy, one of the greatest individuals that I’ve ever came across. He put me in the welding class in El Reno. And probably every year, he graduates about a hundred inmates from that—from El Reno and gets them ready to get a job immediately upon release.

There’s also Kenny Evans in there. He’s also a nonviolent crack cocaine offender serving life without parole. He’s been in there since 1993. When I left, he was a GED teacher. And while the time he was a GED teacher, he had the most highest graduation rate El Reno has ever had.

And there’s also a guy in there named Preacher. He’s holding the—he had left. He had left. He’s not there no more. He’s holding the Bible. And they called him “Preacher” because he preached his sermons on Sunday. He has a bigger congregation than the free world preachers that come in. So there’s some great people in there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re also joined by Maya Schenwar, editor at Truthout and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. She’s joining us from Chicago. Maya, welcome. Could you—your reaction to the president’s visit to a federal prison?

MAYA SCHENWAR: Well, I think, first of all, we have to acknowledge that this is unusual and commendable. And it’s interesting that we’re at a moment in history, a strange moment, where, fairly quickly, prison reform has become something acceptable to talk about in the mainstream, that a president visiting a prison actually earns him points. I think that the fact that he actually met with incarcerated people definitely was a positive thing. The way he talked about their shared humanity was definitely encouraging. And also, he did speak about the injustice of these long, excruciating sentences that have been prompted by mandatory minimums.

I do want to push back on a couple of things he said. One was this giant emphasis that he placed on distinguishing nonviolent and violent “offenders” behind bars. And the thing that he emphasized was kind of drawing this thick line, where some people are the people who just do stupid things, like all of us, as he said, and then there are the hardened, violent criminals. And I think drawing this line really causes us to discard huge numbers of people. Really, in state prisons, half of the people behind bars have been convicted of violent offenses. Many of those violent offenses are prompted by the same structural oppression, the same structural racism, structural economic violence, that leads to these nonviolent offenses. And I think we have to take that structural violence seriously and not discard these people. I also think it’s important to think about them as individuals and think about whether we would want to be judged for the worst thing possibly we ever did. And so, I think drawing that line, that’s something that’s being done across the board with this mainstream rhetoric on bipartisan prison reform, and it’s something that we have to challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s push to end mass incarceration comes two decades after another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed into law the federal “three-strikes” provision that mandated harsher punishment, often a life sentence, the third time a person commits a felony, a nonviolent drug offense, say. In May, Clinton acknowledged the policy’s role in overincarceration during an interview on CNN.

BILL CLINTON: The problem is, the way it was written and implemented, we cast too wide a net, and we have too many people in prison. And we wound up spending—putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances, when they came out, so they could live productive lives. I strongly support what she’s doing, and I think any policy that was adopted when I was president, in federal law, that contributed to it should be changed.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 2.2 million people are now behind bars, nearly double the number incarcerated when President Clinton took office. He, by the way, also repeated his apology before the NAACP. He spoke after President Obama did. Maya Schenwar, your response?

MAYA SCHENWAR: Well, I think this is an encouraging development. I think that in Clinton’s rhetoric and a lot of the discussion around bipartisan prison reform, which has really been spurred a lot by conservatives—the conservative group Right on Crime, the Koch brothers, Newt Gingrich—all of these people who now are very vocally speaking out for prison reform, a lot of what they are talking about is money. They’re talking about how much prison costs: $80 billion, we’re wasting all this money on incarcerating people, we could be doing other things.

And I think, while it’s important, obviously, that mass incarceration is being challenged, we need to step back a little bit and think about whether this is where we want to place our emphasis, because, first of all, a lot of the legislation being proposed in Congress to sort of right some of these wrongs is taking that money that would be saved by decarcerating some people who are in federal prison, and redirecting it into what they call “public safety measures,” like local police forces. So, that money isn’t being channeled into early childhood education or mental healthcare or real community resources that would promote lasting safety. A lot of the strategy going on is really about heightening policing in various ways and channeling that money into people who are really at the start of that prison pipeline. The police are the gateway to prison. And we know that police forces are imbued with racism and anti-blackness. They grew out of slave patrols. So I think we really have to challenge that idea of kind of easy reinvestment, and also just the emphasis on taking dollars from one pot and putting them in the other, now that it’s no longer acceptable to be spending $80 billion on prisons.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Maya, I wanted to ask you, as more people get released and the question of reintegrating former prisoners into society becomes a much bigger one, what do you make of the movement, the Ban the Box movement now that you’re seeing by companies like Target and Wal-Mart, when the reality is that these companies no longer need people to fill out a box on their employment form because they have so many databases now to determine what a person’s history has been to begin with?

MAYA SCHENWAR: Right, right. I think that the Ban the Box campaigns are definitely a positive step. And I’ve been happy that Obama, over the past week and in recent months, has been talking about voting rights in reinstating the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. I’d also question why people behind bars are not able to vote.

I think that when we talk about reintegration, re-entry, and we think about, well, what does it mean to be a participant in society, and thinking about the employment factors that you mentioned, thinking about how people are able to step back into this world, I think that we have to consider, well, what are we doing in the first place that is making it possible for them to enter the prison system? I think sometimes we do kind of overemphasize this idea of re-entry, and a lot of money can actually be fueled into re-entry that puts a lot of restrictions on people, that puts people in a position where they’re answering to a number of folks within the state apparatus and sort of continuing that type of confinement. So I think we have to be careful about that. I think we have to make sure to cultivate opportunities for people to really get involved.

One thing that I think we have to be careful of as we make this transition—and hopefully, fewer and fewer people will be incarcerated—is there’s a lot of talk of, “Oh, well, we’ll let them out early, and we’ll put them on electronic monitors. We’ll let them out early, and we’ll put them on house arrest”—all of these things that are still confinement, still isolation. “We’ll let them out early, but we’ll send them to a locked-down drug treatment facility or a locked-down mental health facility.” And so, we have to think sometimes about the ways that we are re-creating prison sometimes in our “transition” efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Hernandez, describe your time out of the El Reno prison that President Obama just visited yesterday, but you got out of a few years ago.

JASON HERNANDEZ: Well, you know, after almost two decades of incarceration, it takes—you know, it takes some adjusting—I mean, going to certain places like a store where there’s a lot of people just moving around you, driving. I had to learn how to—my father had to teach me how to parallel park and drive. But, you know, other than that, trying to get a job, it was difficult at first. You know, nobody really cared that I had a felony for drugs. They were like—you know, the bosses there were like, “Well, everybody goes to prison for drugs now.” And they really didn’t—they kind of laughed it off, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, for people who are hearing about these clemencies that President Obama has granted, more than the last four presidents combined, if you could briefly say how you started the process? You described your friends. You said many who were more deserving, but they remain behind bars. How did you apply for clemency?

JASON HERNANDEZ: I filed my own petition on my own, you know, from everything that I learned from legal classes. And I prepared it like my life depended on it. And luckily for me, Michelle Alexander connected me—who wrote The New Jim Crow—connected me with the ACLU, with Jennifer Turner, and practically got the ball rolling. I mean, without the ACLU and Michelle, Turner, I probably wouldn’t be here right now, and the inmates being released right now would probably still be in prison. So, you know, there’s a lot of people to give credit to.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to—

JASON HERNANDEZ: But, you know, it’s kind of—oh, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to say, we want to thank you for joining us. We will be checking back with you over time. Jason Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for his role in a drug conspiracy starting when he was 15. He’s one of eight prisoners whose sentences were commuted by President Obama in 2013. He was imprisoned at the El Reno, Oklahoma, federal prison that Obama visited on Thursday.

We would like Maya Schenwar to stay with us. We want to ask you about the case of Sandra Bland when we come back. We’re going to look at the case of police brutality in two cases, coming up. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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