NORTH DARTMOUTH — Inmate No. 174594, formerly No. 81 in your Patriots program, exercises alone in an 8-foot-by-12-foot padlocked cage in the courtyard of the Bristol County House of Correction.
For one hour a day, Aaron Hernandez gets to breathe fresh air and maybe get some sunshine amidst the chain-link fencing, roof, and razor wire. He does sit-ups, knee bends, and push-ups on the concrete floor, according to prison authorities.
Hernandez, charged in the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd, is not just in prison, but confined to a “special management unit.” He is kept away from other inmates because of his high profile. He started off in the medical unit, where doctors evaluated his mental health and the gang intelligence unit inspected his numerous tattoos for affiliations that could spark jailhouse violence.
Hernandez has denied any gang allegiance, but he is still not ready to mix with the jail’s general population, according to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson.
“We have to be very careful,” said Hodgson, adding that inmates could attack Hernandez “to raise their stature.”
For 21 hours per day, Hernandez is locked in a 7-foot-by-10-foot single cell. There is no air conditioning, no television, no coffee, and no weight room.
“This is not the Ritz,” said Hodgson.
According to the no-nonsense sheriff, Hernandez has been a model prisoner. “He’s been nothing but perfect,” said Hodgson. “I met with him when he first came in to lay the rules out. I said, ‘Here’s the deal. You won’t be treated any better or worse or get any special privileges here. If you have any issues or problems, tell command.’ He was very polite and very respectful. He didn’t seem nervous, he seemed very comfortable.”
Hodgson recently conducted a tour of the jail, excluding the double-tiered unit where Hernandez is kept along with seven other inmates. By interviewing other correction officers and inmates, it was possible to piece together Hernandez’s new daily life in jail.
When the thick cellblock doors clang shut, the sound is more jarring than the muskets fired after every Patriots score at Gillette Stadium.
“Every Sunday he went into a stadium where thousands of people cheered him and revered him,’’ said Hodgson. “In an instant he walks through our door, gets a new uniform, a longer number, and nobody’s cheering for him.”
Here, adoring fans are hard to come by. It’s clear from the comments of his fellow inmates, many in their early 20s, that there isn’t a lot of sympathy for Hernandez.
“He’s a punk,” says one young inmate wearing the tan uniform of the convicted. “He’s a bum,” says another. “I don’t care about him,’’ says a third inmate. “I’m worried about myself.”
Hodgson has warned staff not to ask for autographs, take pictures, or go out of their way to engage Hernandez.
The luxuries of Hernandez’s $1.3 million home have been replaced by an austere cell. Standard issue is a metal double bunk bed with an inch-thick mattress that is more like a workout mat. He is also issued a pillow, sheet, and blanket.
It is unlikely his 6-foot-1-inch frame fits without his feet touching the bed frame. There’s a metal toilet-sink combination — the toilet seat does not lift — and a tiny metal desk with an attached metal stool inside.
Hernandez’s day begins at 6 a.m. when a slot in the door is opened and his breakfast tray arrives.
“He’ll get an egg — one egg, and a portion of grits,’’ said Hodgson. “He’d likely get a small muffin square and a choice between milk or juice. We actually serve Tang now to cut costs. But believe it or not, it actually has a higher nutritional value than orange juice and it’s cheaper.’’
When Hernandez initially arrived, he asked about quenching his thirst. Officers pointed to the sink.
Hernandez has to clean his cell by 8, when officers inspect it for “proper decorum.”
“He has to make his bed, clean up, and make sure everything is neat,” said Hodgson. The bed must remain made all day.
Nothing is allowed on the walls. His window is divided into three narrow sections and faces the barbed-wire fencing and the woods. He has got a so-called mirror on the wall that is made of plastic. He addresses his jailers as “sir.”
“His cell is in perfect decorum,” said Hodgson. “He keeps a very neat cell.”
Hernandez is allowed to read up to two books at a time and write letters. There are no video cameras in his cell. The lights are turned off each night at 11.
“I know he likes to read,” says Hodgson. “We sent him down a copy of ‘Tuesdays With Morrie.’ I recommended he read it.”
The former Patriot is allowed to leave his cell three times per day, for an hour each time. In the morning, he can make collect calls and take a hot shower in a narrow stall.
Hernandez can also stretch his legs and walk 30 yards in the unit.
Seven other inmates can see him through the thick window in the metal cell door and possibly communicate with him, but he is not allowed to stop and converse with them. Sometimes he waves.
His uniform is now dark green, the color of pretrial prisoners. They look like New York Jets colors.
“Yeah, pretty close, but no white, all green,” said Hodgson. His pricy Pumas are gone, as is his lucrative endorsement contract. He now wears standard-issue prison tennis shoes.
In the afternoon, he gets out for an hour and is again allowed to make collect calls. At 5 p.m., he gets his exercise hour in one of three cages, though Hodgson refuses to call them that. “It’s a pen, all chain linked around with a chain-linked top,” he says.
Hernandez exercises alone under the supervision of a prison officer who sits in a small booth during inclement weather. “It’s strictly for fresh air and sit-ups and push-ups,” said Hodgson. “In his unit only one inmate can be out at a time. So he’s not intermingling with people face to face.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that Hernandez is locked in a cell “the size of a parking spot.” Some have described his status as “solitary confinement,” and call it akin to torture.
Hodgson dismisses such talk. “In solitary confinement you don’t get an hour of visits, you don’t get access to the commissary, you don’t get three hours out of your cell.’’
Hodgson says he is responsible for Hernandez’s safety and the safety of the other inmates.
Besides attorney visits, Hernandez is allowed one hour a week visitation from a list of five people he submits in advance so background checks can be completed.
Hodgson declined to say whether Hernandez’s fiancée or any former teammates have come to visit him.
Hodgson has met with Hernandez twice. Once on arrival and again after he was denied bail. “He said, ‘I’m fine,’ ’’ said Hodgson. “He’s basically adapting.”
He said Hernandez told him how the untimely death of his father, a former football player at Connecticut who died because of complications from a hernia operation in 2006, left him devastated.
The sheriff acknowledged Hernandez “presents well.” But said it gets him no special privileges here.
Hernandez has never complained about his treatment and has eaten all his meals. He has made only one special request, asking for more protein in his diet. That request was denied, according to Bernie Sullivan, a Bristol County spokesman.
Lunch on a recent day was a cheese burrito, served with two slices of bread and rice. A typical supper is a beef burger, rice and beans, green beans, fruit, fortified juice, and water.
Hernandez’s $40 million contract buys him next to nothing here. The maximum allowed in his commissary account is $80 a week to buy an assortment of dried soups, breakfast bars, and assorted toiletries in limited quantities.
The media circus is gone now, and so are the fans — although four women from Texas recently volunteered to send Hernandez money.
But here, dollars can’t buy you space or freedom.
“He came from a 7,100-square-foot home and he’s living in a cell that’s probably smaller than most of the bathrooms in his house,’’ said Hodgson.
Hernandez goes from the playbook of coach Bill Belichick to the rulebook of the Bristol County sheriff, who says he has been called Attila the Hun by liberals. Hodgson has been on the job since 1997 to the delight of taxpayers who don’t want pampered prisoners.
Hodgson is controversial. In 1999, he started a voluntary unpaid chain gang work unit and received a fax from China condemning it as a human rights violation. The irony makes him smile.
Sheriff Hodgson sees a silver lining in all the media attention. “I actually see media coverage as an opportunity for something good to come out of a bad situation,’’ he said. “Young kids particularly get to see what life is like for someone who has celebrity status. This is probably one of the greatest advertisements as to why you don’t ever want to come to jail. He had everything going for him.”
Ironically, Hernandez has one member of the Patriot family that supports him.
Mac Bledsoe, the father of Patriot Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Bledsoe, is a Bristol County auxiliary sheriff. His “Parenting With Dignity” program has been presented in the jail for the last 15 years.
Hernandez, 23, has an infant daughter, Avielle Janelle, born last November. If asked, Bledsoe would love to help mentor Hernandez.
“I’m just never ready to convict somebody by what I read in the papers,” Bledsoe said in a telephone interview. “He is innocent until proven guilty.”Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.