Aaron Hernandez—convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, charged but not guilty of murdering Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu, living in prison after once being paid millions to play football—died with $7.20 in his inmate kiosk. The final printout registering his account said the balance will be released. It did not say who will receive it.
The final hours of Hernandez’s life are laid out in hundreds of pages of Massachusetts State Police documents. They range from dozens of incident reports filed by officers documenting their movements in the moments after his body was discovered to redacted interviews with other inmates to his discipline history to his toiletries. They note that Hernandez bought 977 pieces of media. (The last songs he bought, on April 13, were “Earned It” and “False Alarm” by The Weeknd and “Unfaithful” and “Selfish Girl” by Rihanna.)
These are among the thousands of picayune details pored over by reporters searching for clues about what led to Hernandez’s death by suicide. Since the news first broke nearly six months ago, seemingly every one of these details has been repurposed to fit under some sordid headline. You’ve seen these: Was Hernandez gay? Was Hernandez bisexual? Was Hernandez in a relationship behind bars? Was he a bad inmate? Was he in a gang? Did he have CTE? Did CTE make him commit his crimes? Did CTE cause him to kill himself? In death, Hernandez has become a vehicle for whatever headlines and narratives seem most compelling, or convenient, at that moment.
There is a story about Hernandez that few reporters and columnists want to touch, though, and which is not buried in the details surrounding his death. It’s the story of Hernandez’s death itself, which exists within the context of an ongoing national crisis. In 2014, 249 people committed suicide in state or federal prisons, according to federal data. Another 372 people died by suicide while in jail, which made suicide the leading cause of death in American jails. A person in prison or jail is more likely to commit suicide than a person who isn’t. This isn’t limited to the harshly punitive systems in traditionally conservative states, either. Liberal-leaning California has struggled with prison overcrowding and suicides, while Massachusetts’ prison system has been the focus of multiple Boston Globe investigations by the newspaper’s famed Spotlight Team.
And yet the question of how Hernandez was able to kill himself in prison, despite living under some the most supervised conditions possible in American life, somehow remains largely untouched and even unanswerable. This is despite the fact that just about everything else about his life behind bars, from his sexual orientation to the contours of his brain to the night in jail that he binged on honey buns, has been placed before the public by journalists as evidence of whatever point it was they wanted to make.
Any discussion of Hernandez’s life in prison should begin by acknowledging that the actions that landed him there were truly horrifying. He was found guilty by a jury of murdering Odin Lloyd and, according to prosecutors, the motivation was merely that Lloyd knew something that bothered him. (One theory is that Lloyd knew too much about Hernandez’s role in a deadly 2012 drive-by shooting.) Hernandez deserved to be punished, but that’s not all he deserved. A criminal conviction is not a mandate to strip a person of their humanity and will to live, although America has, through the mechanism of its prison system, increasingly allowed it to become just that.
Since his death, prison officials in Massachusetts have released hundreds of pages documenting Hernandez’s life and death. His three-page “offender fact sheet” has a long list of “inmate characteristics,” that include race (white), “hispanic_flag” (yes), “comprehend English” (yes), culture (American), and religion (Christian). There’s an alias list that include “Hernandez,” “Boom,” “Double A,” “Rokk Boy,” “Chico,” “A Money,” and “Can’t Get Right.” Every one of his many tattoos is given a date, a time, location, and description, then documented, again, with photos.
Even before his conviction, Hernandez’s life was the subject of hundreds of reports from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, which oversaw him before the conviction. The documentation ranges from Hernandez having an illegal “fishing line” to his stuffing his face with about 20 honey buns he got on accident so he wouldn’t have to return them to Hernandez calling an officer, who had denied him an extra meal tray, a “scared bitch” he would kill when he gets out of jail. (In his failed appeal, Hernandez wrote that he had said, “I’m going to slap the shit out of them.”) He threatened officers several times. He punched one inmate, spit at another, and curses a lot. In one appeal—a failed one regarding whether he spit at an inmate—he gave all his explanations in hashtag format.
The sheriff’s office reports, as obtained by NBC Boston, end in March of 2015. Once he was convicted in April of that year, the responsibility for Hernandez shifted to the state’s corrections department. The first incident or discipline report to mention Hernandez while he was in prison isn’t about something he did; it’s three pages filed by two different sergeants explaining why they looked up Hernandez in April 2015, the same month he was sentenced to life. One sergeant wrote in his incident report that he looked up Hernandez to make sure there was no conflict with the booking of another inmate but, “I don’t think I ever looked past the initial Administrative/V-stat/Admin view screen.” Another wrote that he looked up Hernandez because he heard Hernandez’s inmate number and “without thinking properly” put it into the system. In the inevitable quasi-military syntax found in such reports, one sergeant closes his report with, “I apologize for my actions and will face any discipline for me.”
In May of that year, Hernandez had his first disciplinary report. On May 13, a perimeter security officer, shortened to IPS in many reports, said that he noticed a new tattoo on Hernandez’s neck: the word “lifetime” and, below it, “loyalty,” with a hand sign making the L and the ending Y. Behind “loyalty” was a five-point star, and below the star was “a skull head on a spider web with flames as a foundation.” This was confirmed by another officer the next day.
On May 16, another disciplinary report. An inner perimeter officer, “while randomly monitoring inmate phone calls,” noticed an inmate’s pin was used to make a phone call. Video showed the inmate using that pin was Hernandez, not the inmate assigned the number. The call lasted 14 minutes. Again, Hernandez was given “loss canteen.”
The next day, Hernandez was the subject of two disciplinary reports. The first one says that, about 9:25 a.m., Hernandez “assisted with a non-witnessed altercation by acting as a lookout.” The report doesn’t give much detail, thanks in part to everyone else’s name being redacted, except that two inmates were inside the cell for eight minutes, and during that time Hernandez was seen going in and out of the cell several times. A little more than 12 hours later, the next report picks up. Hernandez was “tampering with a locking device, and being insolent toward staff.”
For these violations, Hernandez racked up the following sanctions: 45 units of “loss visits,” 60 units of “loss canteen,” 30 units of “loss telephone,” and 10 units of disciplinary detention, which the reports said were balanced out by 10 credits he had for disciplinary detention.
On June 10, 2015, Hernandez reported that the power in his cell was out. In July, he was written up in a disciplinary report on the 15th when a corrections officer “found a curtain hanging from the top bunk” as well as a curtain “hung across the doorway, obstructing the view” into Hernandez’s cell. Hernandez was placed “on AA” (the report does not clarify what AA is) and given “loss canteen” for 15 days. Nine days later, the same officer noticed another fresh tattoo on Hernandez during a pat search of inmates entering a recreation yard. For this, Hernandez had “loss of yard” for 30 days.
He ends the month being found guilty of smoking a homemade cigarette. Loss of canteen again, this time 60 days.
By August, Hernandez is on his eighth disciplinary report. This time, he got in a fight, which would go on to be the subject, in the highly-documented life of a prison inmate, of 15 incident reports.
According to the reports, Hernandez, who had been assigned to a new cell, went inside and put down his things. The other inmate, whose name is redacted, went up to Hernandez and they “exchanged words.” What those were isn’t noted by any of the reports, but they resulted in the two “exchanging closed fist punches.” Two officers told the inmates to stop, but they didn’t. This led to “a spontaneous use of force” and a “chemical agent was dispersed,” two phrases used again and again in the reports. What ultimately broke up the fight was officers separating the two men; one inmate was grabbed by his right shoulder and Hernandez was “guided” to the ground by two officers who took control of his upper torso. After medical staff cleared him, Hernandez was offered a “decontamination shower,” which he refused.
Video surveillance would later show that Hernandez threw the first punch, documents said, after the unnamed inmate went up and tried to shake his hand.
The final disciplinary report on the fight says that video surveillance as well as “confidential information” found that the two men had gotten into the fight for a reason that was redacted. It later says that “both [redacted] have been known to feud with each other within the institution.” The details are redacted.
Hernandez had 10 units of disciplinary detention, as well as loss of gym.
Four more reports show malfunctions with the electrical outlets in Hernandez’s cell, stretching from late 2015 into early 2016. On Dec. 3, 2015, he’s found with a weapon, described in the report as a “5 3/4 inch piece of metal sharpened to a point with a cloth handle and a wrist tether.” It was found in his personal belongings. This meant more disciplinary detention and loss of canteen. In February, he was hit in the face during a basketball game, leaving him with blood on his shirt and a bloody nose. In May, he said he lost his inmate ID card. In June, he got in another fight; that one generated 10 incident reports.
One corrections officer wrote that a fight was reported during the “movement of inmates.” Lt. Curtis Keezer saw Hernandez and the other inmates, whose name is redacted, “exchanging closed fist punches.” The other inmates around them were ordered to “lock in.” A lieutenant told the two men to separate and they didn’t, so the lieutenant “disbursed an application of chemical agent towards the inmates.” (Another report later clarifies this to be “MK-IV chemical agent.”) The inmates separated. One prison officer restrained the unnamed inmates. Two more restrained Hernandez: “I took control of inmate Hernandez’ left arm and left upper torso, and Sgt. Peterson took control of his right arm and right torso.” A third tried to get Hernandez in “restraints,” but the former NFL star resisted.
“Inmate Hernandez was agitated, resisting staff, and attempted to reengage with [redacted],” corrections officer Joseph Prato wrote. “He refused to comply with being placed in restraints, and Lt. Keezer issued an order to direct him to the floor. At this time, I applied pressure to his left torso and assisted responders in bringing Hernandez to the floor. CO Mitchell placed Hernandez in restraints at that time. Responders escorted both inmates to be medically cleared for segregation, and I had no further contact with any inmates.”
The punishment was more disciplinary detention, and 45 “units” of “loss visits.”
On Sept. 19, 2016, he was disciplined for having a homemade lighter. It was found after he refused to go through a metal detector during a strip search; Hernandez had stashed it in the waistband of his scrubs. Whatever he was using it to smoke has been redacted. He lost 30 units of gym. The next month, he was written up for “having another inmate locked in his cell.” The last report comes five months before his death. Hernandez reported that a light in his cell was broken.
There the prison reports end, at least until the day of Hernandez’s death. But days before his death, Hernandez was already in the news, courtesy of Boston sports-talk radio.
The opposite of the informational black box that is a U.S. prison or jail would be the roaring 24/7 noise pollution of sports-talk radio. It’s hard to know exactly when the public questioning of Aaron Hernandez’s sexuality began, but it started before he died and, to little surprise, seems to have begun on air in Boston. Two days before Hernandez’s death, journalist Michele McPhee appeared on the Kirk and Callahan show to plug her new book about the Boston Marathon bombing. First, though, they talked about Hernandez.
Callahan: “Michele knows the real motive for the murder of Odin Lloyd. And let’s just say that Odin Lloyd caught Aaron Hernandez in a compromising position.”
McPhee: “Let’s just say that Aaron Hernandez was a former tight end before he was kicked off the Patriots.”
Kirk: “Tight end on and off the field as well.”
Multiple people: “Yes”
Callahan (through giggles): “And then he became a wide receiver.”
Kirk: “So you think he’s comfortable in the prison lifestyle? He’s probably doing well for himself, uh, romantically perhaps.”
McPhee: “Well look it, he got a tattoo made out of, like, melted boot ink. Right, like melted boot rubber. He got a tattoo that says ‘lifetime’ which is kind of a chick Netflix, right? A whole chick network.”
Someone says “that’s true” in the background as McPhee talks.
Callahan: “Well, he is a beautiful young man.”
Kirk: “He really is.”
McPhee: “Let’s just say that Aaron Hernandez is known to kick with both feet.”
Kirk: “There you go.”
Callahan: “Wow. That’s big. And Odin Lloyd knew it and Odin Lloyd was, uh, telling people.”
McPhee: “He made the unfortunate move, Odin Loyd did, to say that out loud to somebody.”
They eventually got around to talking about McPhee’s book about the Boston Marathon bombing. McPhee said that one of her sources told her that one of the people involved in the bombing is “totally illegal.” That led to this brief exchange about 33 minutes in:
Kirk: “Straight or gay?”
Michele: “Well, that’s Aaron Hernandez.”
Kirk: “Oh right.”
McPhee would solidify the ready-made narrative with her own article about Hernandez’s suicide in Newsweek, headlined “Aaron Hernandez’s Sex Life Probed As Murder Motive, Police Source Says.” She followed that five days later with “‘I Think I’m Going To Hang It Up, Lol’: Aaron Hernandez Note To Prison Boyfriend.” By then, the story had already spread to the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Daily Mail, and Radar, among other outlets. TMZ reported on it by offering the staunch denials from Hernandez’s lawyer. This went on for more than a month, spreading until even the New Yorker worked the salacious story into its pages, fretting about “The Worrisome Reporting On Aaron Hernandez’s Sexuality.” That story quoted all the people you would expect—a Globe editor, a Boston sports-radio douchebag, an ethicist with the Poynter Institute. All of them talked about whether they thought it was okay to report, posthumously, on Hernandez’s sexuality.
Nothing of much substance has come out since to support McPhee’s narrative, which without any hard proof still managed to go on for more than a month before dropping out of the headlines. That was long enough to occlude all discussion of the larger context within which Hernandez died, and to reduce his death to a joke without a punchline. Meanwhile, prison officials went about the task of investigating the death.
The day of Hernandez’s death, investigators interviewed his fellow inmates. Who or how many are impossible to know from the documents because all their names are redacted. The documents look like this:
These prisoners, whoever they were, had heard the rumors. One inmate told them “the 98.5 radio broadcast had been disrespectful saying he deserved what he got and had also mentioned that they had brought up the fact that Hernandez may be gay.”
The report does provide summaries, written by the investigators, of what the anonymous inmates said. One is a terse four lines, summarizing what “inmates assigned to the G2 Housing Unit” told them.
Consistent among the inmates interviewed was that Hernandez kept to himself, was very spiritual, appeared to be positive, liked to meditate and did not observe him to be acting differently or having any issues. Others indicated that they kept to themselves and did not get involved with Hernandez or any other inmates.
A second report says that it, too, includes the interviews with inmates in the G2 housing unit, once again represented by a long block of redacted names. As summarized by the inner-perimeter security officers, these inmates called Hernandez a “private inmate.” Even those who interacted with him daily described it as “a respectful relationship with only ‘Hi’ or ‘Bye’ type of reactions. Many inmates said they had congratulated Hernandez on his recent court decision.”
Those who were closer to Hernandez described him as excited after his verdict—describing him as “positive and even happily emotional, which was not usual for Hernandez—but overall, they said he was acting normal.
Another paragraph says it comes from inmates who said they were “tight” or “real close” with Hernandez. They, too, say nothing seemed wrong with Hernandez, but also note how he changed in prison, growing more spiritual.
The last source is a person “who claimed to be one of Hernandez’s closest friends.” This person says Hernandez was always spiritual, was looking forward to the future and talked about playing football again.
The very last summary is “one of the last inmates interviewed.” It’s mostly blacked out.
To read the official investigation is to retrace the steps of officers searching for something, anything, to explain what happened. An inmate, name inevitably redacted, is said via “intelligence” to have been inside Hernandez’s prison cell for about two hours on April 17. There’s an interview done and whatever happened is “referred to the Internal Affairs unit.” No inmates were removed or transferred from Hernandez’s housing unit during the week before. Hernandez’s property is rounded up by officials; a postmortem examination reveals that no drugs were found in his system. If anything definitive was found, of any kind, it was redacted.
Before his death, Hernandez made five phone calls, in which “Hernandez does not make any apparent indication of any intent to harm himself.” He went back to his cell, alone, around 8 p.m. The door stayed locked until an officer, doing checks, noticed that the window has been blocked. A note to Hernandez’s fianceé, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez—first revealed by prosecutors—promised her that she’ll be rich, but didn’t explain how or why.
The final report, dated May 4, reaches no conclusions about why Hernandez killed himself. There is no discussion of if any warning signs were missed or prevention of suicide going forward. The case is closed, it says, unless new information is uncovered.
“Suicide in prisons and jail is a very significant problem, and in a way that’s odd because these are environments of total control,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s national prison project, told me. “The staff controls where the prisoners are. What they do. They are under 24-hour surveillance. So, theoretically, there should be no suicides in prisons or jails. There should be no homicides in prisons or jails.
“But the reality is that suicide is much more common among incarcerated people than the general population, and there [are] a number of reasons for that.”
Fathi says there are several key contributing factors. People with mental illness are vastly overrepresented in prisons and jails, and mental-health care in prisons and jails is “by and large abysmal.” All of this is on top of the inherently stressful nature of jails and prisons.
“Prisons can be violent places. Particularly people who have recently been incarcerated and are facing a long period of time, maybe a life sentence, that’s an extraordinary stressor,” Fathi said. “Any type of violence perpetrated on someone by staff or other prisoners can be a trigger for suicide. And solitary confinement, which is endemic in our prison system, is a well known cause of suicide ...
“You put this all together—a needy population, inadequate mental health treatment, and a very stressful environment—and it is a recipe for suicide.”
This has been revisited, again and again, in Massachusetts. The day of Hernandez’s death, the Globe ran an article that recapped much of the work done by its Spotlight Team, and the half-hearted responses by government officials. Advocacy groups sued the corrections department in 2007 alleging civil rights violations, just as a Globe Spotlight series revealed deepening mental illness and misery behind the walls of the state’s prisons. From that recap:
That series also identified numerous problems, including botched background screenings on suicidal inmates, missing mental health records, and skipped security rounds by officers.
The correction department hired a consultant, made several improvements to the segregation unit system, and attempted to reach a deal on the lawsuit.
However, those negotiations failed, and plans for change were shelved because of the state’s fiscal crisis.
The department then saw another sharp increase in suicides, with 13 prisoners killing themselves between 2009 and 2010, including three at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.
In response to an outcry from inmate advocates, the state rehired the consultant who had conducted the 2007 review.
The consultant said his subsequent review of the prisons, released in 2011, found that the Correction Department had once again made reforms, including increased training and new protocols for assessing inmates’ mental illnesses.
The department also created new alternatives to the segregation unit. In 2012, as part of a settlement of the advocates’ lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the department to maintain those alternatives.
Suicides at Massachusetts prisons have not been eliminated, though. Advocates for prisoners said earlier this year that they believed the state was illegally isolating mentally ill inmates, and the situation is even worse in jails. A few weeks after Hernandez’s death, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting highlighted the ugly fact that since 2012, more than twice as many people have died by suicide in Massachusetts jails than in the state’s prisons. That matches the national trend of rising rates of suicides in local jails, even when the jail population overall decreases. America’s largest mental health hospital is a Chicago jail.
“Many of the of people who are committing suicides in jails have never been sentenced,” said Brad Brockmann, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.
“In 1970, there were about 200,000 prisoners in the United States. Because of the war on drugs, ‘getting tough on crime,’ and de-institutionalization, we now have 2.3 million. Literally, in 40 years the complexion of corrections has changed considerably,” said Robert Dumond, a licensed and board certified clinical mental-health counselor who has worked on these issues with prison systems, including Massachusetts, since 1970. He also has testified before the U.S. Department of Justice about prison rape.
“There are more people in jail and prisons than in the entirety of hospitals nationwide,” Dumond said, adding that “corrections was never meant to be a mental health facility.”
Last month, researchers at Boston University announced that they had discovered evidence of CTE in Hernandez’s brain. This isn’t surprising if you’ve followed the research on football and the brain trauma it can cause; it also doesn’t mean that CTE caused either Hernandez’s murderous behavior or his suicide. That did not stop reporters and columnists from drawing the connection, seemingly thrilled to have finally found a way to explain Hernandez’s death that didn’t even involve parsing the ethics of outing a dead man. The Hernandez family’s lawyer, Jose Baez, made it easy, like when he was asked if he blamed Hernandez dying by suicide on CTE and responded, “We are still investigating everything. But the presumptive answer for that is yes.”
Alan Schwarz, the reporter to whom much of America owes its understanding of CTE, deftly dismantled this thinking, writing:
What does remain hard to understand—maddeningly so—is how truths about a group do not necessarily extend to all individuals within it. CTE does not inexorably seize the brain and control actions. Plenty of players, particularly those with early stages of the disease, seem to have been relatively unaffected by it, and no one knows why, whether it’s because of genetics or anything else. Further confounding matters, too many non-football-playing men act erratically and suffer from dementia to resolutely ascribe any specific case to football. Behavior at the individual level is too complicated, deriving from one’s parents, environment, trauma, experiences, genetics and so much more, to let CTE or anything stand alone as the explanation for their actions.
The history of reporting on the NFL and brain damage suggests that this sort of argument will find little purchase with commentators and reporters who either can’t understand the truth, or have no motivation to do so.
On April 23, 27-year-old Jesse J. Arvizo killed himself. His body was found in his Arizona prison cell—dubbed an “assigned housing location” in the cold parlance of a press release—and his cause of death was described as an “apparent act of self-harm.” His death would be followed by a morbid succession of inmate suicides in the Arizona prison system: James J. Krauss, 42, on May 4; Pedro S. Gonzalez, 60, on May 8; Dean L. Mills, 61, on May 13; Jonathan D. Wilson, 31, on Aug. 7. Several more inmates died in suspected homicides.
Their deaths generated a few stories in Arizona, but not didn’t get much attention beyond the southwestern state’s borders, which was no surprise. Their names were not Aaron Hernandez, after all. How little can Americans care about suicides behind bars? Even when one of the most famous inmates in America—a man who was a star in the nation’s richest and most popular sport, on a team so swathed in Americana that its mascot is a cartoon Patriot and its team colors are red, white, and blue—becomes part of a national epidemic, the broader wave of prison suicides will still be the last storyline considered. It will be given some thought in local news organizations, if that, and almost nowhere else.
“We heard about this because it was Aaron Hernandez,” Brockmann told me. “If it was anyone else, everyone would be going about their business.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.