By Cara Schweikert
At first glance, Mitchell Hernandez is a good-looking, fit, young, vibrant man. Even in his orange jumpsuit. He walks with a certain swagger, one that most men coming from the streets do, and his brown eyes portray a painful seriousness. Hernandez is a 34 year-old inmate stuck in the prison system.
Hernandez is what the state and federal system would characterize as a nonviolent drug offender. He is serving federal time at the Nassau County Correctional Center in Long Island New York. He is an individual raised in unfortunate circumstances, sadly becoming the thing he knows best, a victim of the streets. Hernandez has been in and out of prison three times, first for five years, the second time for eight years, and now he is awaiting his sentence.
Born and raised in Sunset Park Brooklyn, Hernandez is of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican decent. He describes the neighborhood he grew up as, “diverse, mostly white, Spanish and Mexican.” Mitch has acquired three felonies throughout the years, all drug-related. In the first few minutes of speaking to him, he said several times that he believes “everything happens for a reason” and that beyond all the sadness life has brought him he still feels that “God has a greater plan.”
Mitchell Charles Hernandez was born on August 31, 1972 at Momoides hospital in Brooklyn. Both of his grandparents immigrated here from Puerto Rico and Costa Rica in the 1950s. Hernandez was the first of three siblings born to Mirna Millan when she was just 16 years old. He has two siblings Charley and Erica, who came shortly after. His parents were never married and separated when he was young, “I hardly ever saw my father. My mother was so young, she was more like a friend to me.”
Hernandez had anything but a normal childhood. He enjoyed having fun being “adventurous”; he liked skateboarding and playing handball in a nearby parking lot with his brother and sister. His favorite childhood memory was a school play he was in when he was nine because “I got a lot of attention.” His worst childhood memory was discovering his mother was a heroin user when he walked in on her in the bathroom one day “with a needle in her arm.”
Hernandez enjoyed school and was an average student but found himself easily distracted by the absence of his mother’s love and the constant worry of her drug use, which began to progress. Besides the fact that their mother neglected him and his siblings, his father was also a drug user, a “violent drug user” and continued to fade in and out of their lives and in and out of jail, even today. His father was diagnosed with HIV 10 years ago due to his heroin use.
Hernandez doesn’t remember the exact day or month, but when he was 13 years old, he and his brother had returned home one afternoon to find his mother lying naked in the bathtub unconscious. Mirna Millan died in 1987 of a heroin overdose. She was 26. His grandmother took them in after his mother’s death, but she died six months later of cancer. Hernandez said, “it wasn’t just the cancer that killed her, she died of a broken heart, losing her daughter was too much for her to take. I loved my grandmother.”
Shortly after, Hernandez said began hanging out with the wrong crowd and doing stupid things for attention. “I dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and began selling and using cocaine. The first time I got locked up, I was 17 years old and I did five years.” It becomes clear where the painful seriousness in his eyes comes from, the memories to him are clear as day and he has not begun to move forward and overcome his past.
The U.S. Justice Department recently conducted a survey comparing childhood neglect involving New York State inmates and found that 68% percent of inmates in county jails in 2005 did not complete high school, and 60% of these men were abused or neglected as children.
For the survey, the Justice Department selected subjects at random from convicted male felons in New York State maximum security facilities. This was either the first or second incarceration for 89% of the subjects. The average age of these men was 30 years old. The definition of neglect used in the study included examples of children being left alone while their parents were gone for long periods, hearing from others that they were not getting enough to eat, not receiving proper medical care, poor hygiene, and being cared for by other relatives because no one was home.
These circumstances were a fact of life for Hernandez, and when asked how he dealt with this neglect as a child, he said, “when you’re in a bad situation, as a kid, you learn to do things to make yourself happy, you rely on yourself more than anyone else.”
Another study taken by The Journal Urban of Health shows that high rates of nonviolent inmates have grown immensely since the Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in 1973, which require harsh prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, regardless if the individual is a first time offender. These drug laws apply to any individual involved in narcotics sales without regard to the circumstance of the offense, or the individual’s character or background.
The Journal of Urban Health says, “high rates have begun since the Rockefeller Drug Laws, young minority males from inner city neighborhoods of New York. If instead of the prison inmates, these figures represented the progress of a new epidemic disease (e.g. AIDS epidemic) we would employ a set of standard methods to assess their impact. But prison data are not normally viewed as collective events that warrant such an assessment.” In other words, the casualty of drug inmates is so high that it could be described as a disease.
Hernandez is not just a drug offender, and he is not just an inmate. He has lived a life “full of ups and downs.” When asked if he has a girlfriend, he says, “I fell in love in 2004, of course I had girlfriends throughout the years, but when I met her, every time I was around her I had so much energy, she gave me energy and my attitude changed for the better.” Hernandez said when he is released he wants to get married, have a family, and look into opening his own clothing store. He loves art and has always been into urban men’s fashion.
Hernandez does not know yet how much time he will be serving. He has been held in Long Island for eight months awaiting federal sentencing for selling and possession of 30 pounds of marijuana, which he says, “is not a significant amount compared to most other individuals.” He is expecting to serve from two to five years because this is his third offense.
When asked about the most profound spiritual moment of his life, Hernandez said, “when I finally saw and felt everything I wanted in my life, when I realized I had everything I wanted, when I was content with my relationship with my girlfriend and my life in general, that same day I got locked up, that’s when I turned to God --for strength.”
Hernandez is involved in the drug program, bible study, gets weekly visits from his girlfriend and continuously goes to mass at the jail. He spends the rest of his time, “Mostly worrying, and praying. Worrying about losing my girlfriend, losing what I had and praying.” As the prison visit ends, he says, “Never take anything for granted, if you love someone, love them with your all, treat them the best you can because a person will never forget if you hurt them.”