A Prisoner’s Story on Rehabilitation

Truth, justice, and the American way. I beg you to believe that I absolutely embrace these qualities from the bottom of my heart. Yeah, I know committed a heinous crime, but I KNEW what I was doing was wrong. In my heart, I believed in what was right, even though I chose not to do it.

I grew up in a working class family, and I often watched as both of my parents worked full-time jobs to try and make ends meet and afford a few luxuries- like cable TV or a used car that wasn’t a beater, you know… luxuries. When Nixon resigned in ’73, and Ford tried to get in there and clean up his mess, Mom became a big fan. She was also disgusted by the lawlessness of the flower-power stuff going on about that time or so, and consequently, she was driven forever into the arms of the Grand Ole party. She scorned Democrats and their progressive politics like sour milk, and that was before they showed themselves to be the party of radical sociological reengineering, trying to remake families, and even human sexuality in their own image. I know, I know! What does a child molester have to say about ANYTHING political or sociological? Well, credible or not, the prisoner has a voice, and if you’re reading this, my voice is at least being heard, and for that I sincerely thank you.

That said, after I turned myself into the police, I was really excited about the possibility of a new chapter beginning in my life. Don’t get me wrong. I was embarrassed and frightened by the judgment that awaited me in the courts, but I was so glad the truth of my “secret doings” had come out, and I thought I was finally going to get help. This isn’t some advertisement for Francisco; this is the truth. The ONLY real help towards what society would call “rehabilitation” has come from the advice and instructions he gave me the first time we met in his office. He urged me to stay involved in my church community with an emphasis on counseling with my pastor, and he directed me to seek out voluntary participation in a Sex Offender Treatment Program.

A lot of the guys I meet in here have been through the criminal justice system more than once. Once is all it takes to knock the dewey-eyed naivety right out of you. Truth, justice, and the American way are IDEALS. And, I am sad to say, they are ideals that are not very often realized in the modern court milieu. I am sure that I drove Francisco nuts with my hopeless optimism and complete lack of real-world knowledge in the midst of the power that was mounted against me, and I know it was nothing short of miraculous that I didn’t end up doing 30 years in prison. I thought that if I just told the truth, and if the judge or the D.A. could just see how truly sorry I was for what I’d done, that two things would happen: justice and mercy. Here’s the problem, folks, mercy doesn’t play well in today’s political climate. The legislatures of our land are stuffed with men and women who keep getting reelected because they show themselves ever more willing to pass draconian measures of civil-rights-killing legislation in the name of “being hard on crime”. It’s akin to a physician who is willing to do ANYTHING to stop the fever, including drown the patient in ice water, but who NEVER searches out the CAUSE of the disease. Prison has NOT turned me into some bleeding heart liberal. But it has shaken me awake to the collateral damage of lives that are destroyed by the prison system as we practice it in America right now.

If you look at my judgment of conviction, it will tell you that I have a 15-year sentence to serve before my debt to society is paid. If you’re really dumb, you’ll believe the Brooklyn-Bridge-sales-pitch the D.A. makes to the judge and jury about parole eligibility, and you’ll think, “Man, this guy could get out in 71/2 years IF he behaves himself.” (This tragic lie is explored in another chapter.) But what most people who’ve never been through the wringer even consider is what happens to the people left behind in the prisoner’s life.

Everyone that lived in the household that I grew up in has died since I came to prison. The stress of having a son or brother locked away in prison was, no doubt, a contributing factor to the health factors that took everyone I love away from this planet. My brother, Matt, was already chronically ill when I was sentenced. He had undergone a double- transplant because of diabetes complications, and, at least, before I came to prison, I had the chance to visit him at his home knowing that the chances of him being alive when I got done with my sentence were very small. Each time we talked or wrote, it was with the knowledge that it could be the last time. So, each conversation was meaningful and special.

The year after I received my SECOND three-year set-off from parole, Dad went into a nursing home rehab to recover from a minor heart attack. While he was there, I had no contact with him. I didn’t have an address to write him a get well card, and the nurses failed to have his cell phone charged up so he could take the only call I was able to make. I was disappointed, but not overly worried, as this was his second stint in rehab, and he’d come through the other one just fine. Two days later, on October 5th, Dad complained of chest pains and died of a massive coronary as they were trying to load him up in the ambulance. Without so much as a goodbye, the man who’d raised me was gone out of my life into eternity. What’s more, Texas prisons make no provision for sex offenders to attend funerals or memorial services for their dead loved ones. Whatever grieving you’re going to do, brother, you better get ready to do it right there under the ever-watchful eye of the grey suit and hundreds of other guys in white. Living through this time without a single act of violence will stand as one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. I really mean that. I found myself wanting to brutalize every mealy-mouthed whine bag who thought that the cruddy food they were serving us on whatever particular day was the worst thing that ever happened in the world. The main thing that kept me sane was thinking, “Whatever happens, I got to get out of here and take care of Mom. Just get out and take care of Mom.”

Six months later, that rationale was taken away from me, too. I lost Mom. There is no one who is on your side like Mom is on your side, my friend. When the whole rest of the world thinks you’re a friend who needs to be locked up the rest of your life, Mom’s the one who KNOWS that if you just give the kid chance, he’ll show you he can turn things around. Just Mom’s believing in you can make that happen, too. And that is where I think we got this criminal justice system all screwed up. You know as well as I that Mom isn’t going to just let you get away with anything, and if she catches breaking the “big” rules, you will be punished. You can count on it. But she’s not going to disown you, and she won’t throw you into a human warehouse and lose the key. In fact, a place where parental discipline far excels the criminal justice system is in an area where that same system has an opportunity to shine: restitution. Restitution is not just about punishment; it’s about helping boundary-breakers realize the impact that their misdeeds have had on people or society in general, and then giving them a consequence that somehow helps to restore, or at least mitigate, the damage they have done. A great example is having a kid who got caught painting graffiti on the side of a building scrub the paint off and repaint the wall. Chances are, the next time he pulls out that spray can, he’ll think twice before ruining someone else’s property. Why? Because, hopefully, he learned just how much time, effort, and money go into repairing the damage that he did.

Look, I realize that there is no amount of money that replace a human life, so I’m not just talking about monetary fines, although that might certainly be part of it. I’m talking about meaningful and thoughtful sentencing. Don’t we all love to hear about the mom who “punished” her cyber-bullying teen son by taking his phone away from him and publicly “shaming” him on his own social media account? That’s the kind of parenting that gets results! If we, as a body of tax-paying, freedom-loving people desire to see real change in the criminal justice system- the kind of change that will keep people OUT of the “revolving door” of prison- then we must eagerly seek out judges who are willing to put forth the effort and creativity to implement a better justice and put them in office. We’ve already tried the “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” approach, and our nation’s prison systems are bursting at the seams. It’s not working.

So, what is a good punishment for a murderer? Here’s where we get caught up. There is no one right solution. A Charlie Manson-type of killer probably needs to spend the rest of his life in prison, no doubt. But we all know that he is the rare exception. What kind of punishment will teach a young gang banger how precious life is, when he’s looking at a rap for attempted murder? Changing diapers at an orphanage? Assembling wheelchairs for special needs kids? Working with disabled vets whose bodies have been ravaged by the kind of violence they are trying to create in their own neighborhoods? Any of these show the amount of effort it takes to sustain life, while providing the opportunity for life-mending relationships to form.

Alas, that is simply not the TDCJ-way. Texas, perhaps more than any other state in the U.S. is still standing proudly as the poster-child for the human warehouse, and not even 20 years of losing governance of their own prison system to the federal government was able to exorcise that demon.
Here’s what doesn’t work. When I was arrested at age 33, I’d been working full-time for over a decade, paying taxes the whole way. I’d graduated from college, and had worked part-time since my freshman year in high school. I’d voted in every state-wide election since turning 18. Had a car that was inspected and tagged; and had just moved into my first home. All of these things should have been a deterrent for me, and weren’t, because my problem was bigger than that. But, my problem was NOT as big as take his career, take away his car, take away his career, take away his freedom. Now, as if that wasn’t enough, let him sit out some of the best years of a man’s life in a human warehouse while his whole family dies one by one, and top that off with making sure that he won’t be able to so much as hug them goodbye or help lay them to rest. No, my problem wasn’t that big. Truth be told, my first night in the holding tank of the city jail of Euless, Texas was more than enough to make sure I’d never touch anyone, ever again in a sexually inappropriate way. And I understand that even though it was enough for me, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the appetite of justice. But, dear reader, we can go beyond justice so easily and cross into cruelty without even realizing we’ve crossed over, and then, as a society, as a people, we have become a builder of the problem instead of solver of the problem.

The TDCJ population doesn’t count men “in transit” (prisoners who are being moved from one facility to another, or who are being transferred to a hospital or to or from county jails). Nor does it count those who are awaiting their intake into the system after being sentenced while still in county jail. Even so, I believe there are about 175,000 men and women in the state prison. Add those left out, and this number could easily by 200,000. EACH and every one has a mother and father, a son or daughter, brothers and sisters, LIVES that are terribly impacted by there absence. Yes, the prison system should be a tool in the toolbox of the criminal justice system, but almost as much as the death penalty itself, it should be a tool of last resort.
When I was incarcerated, I’d never spent a day or an even an hour in jail in my life. Not even so much as a tour of the facilities. And now I have been brutally and traumatically exposed to the truth of just how clumsy, inept, and inadequate the system is. I wish with all my heart I’d known the truth of it in the time when I had a greater voice in society and a vote in our political destiny. Now, all I can do is sound the alarm bells and hope that my warning cry doesn’t come out sounding like “sour grapes”.

If any man or woman comes out of the Texas prison system changed for the better, it is only because God has done an amazing work in his or her heart through the life-changing power of Christ, or because the inmate has taken upon himself the responsibility to seek out Bible studies, self-help correspondence courses, or volunteer programs that guide down the path to rehabilitation. It is almost assuredly NOT the result of anything the TDCJ has done, except get out of the way of chaplains and Christian volunteers.

If I walked into a store, picked up a candy bar, and walked out of the store, and, if I then walked across the street and paid for the candy bar at another store, I haven’t accomplished anything. And that, my friends, is our present criminal justice system. I may have hurt John Q. Public, but the one getting paid for it is the TDCJ. John Q. doesn’t benefit in any way. There’s no closure, there’s no resolution, there’s no restoration. That’s because there is no RESTITUTION. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. We should empower and encourage the judges we elect to make thoughtful punishment that seriously meets out restorative justice, and make restitution a priority instead of an afterthought.

Los Abogados
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez