BOISE – The 4-foot cross standing next to the entrance of Idaho’s largest prison complex has only been up for about a week, and it’s not yet clear how long prison officials will let it remain.
But for Andrea Fries, it still feels like a victory.
“Putting it up was tough, but empowering at the same time,” she said. “As we were digging this hole, the inmate vans were going by and I felt like they knew they weren’t forgotten, that Scott wasn’t forgotten.”
Scott Michael Hernandez, her 22-year-old son, was an inmate at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution when he hanged himself in his cell two years ago. Now a legal representative for Fries’ grandchild, Hernandez’s son, is suing the state for wrongful death on the child’s behalf.
Fries isn’t a party to the lawsuit. Instead, she’s fighting to make sure that Hernandez is remembered, asking news organizations to follow the lawsuit and trying to make a permanent memorial outside the prison walls.
She came up with the idea of the cross after seeing the smaller versions that pepper the state’s roads and highways, marking the place where someone has died in a car crash. She chose deck material to withstand the rain, and added Hernandez’s name in blue reflective letters so passing cars would see it in the dark.
Fries also called the Department of Transportation and the local sheriff’s office to make sure it was legal to put up the 4-foot cross. It was, they said, as long as she got it as close to the fence as possible.
“Now the guards, the warden, all them will never forget my son. They’ll drive by this every day,” Fries said. “The inmates being brought in will know that no matter what, there are people out there who care about them and who will never forget them.”
Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke said he hopes to work with Fries on a new placement for the cross, perhaps in one of the areas designated for demonstrators nearby. Department officials fear that others will see Fries’ cross and want to put up their own memorials near the front gate, eventually causing a security problem and possibly interfering with visibility for drivers.
“We’re looking at it from a legal perspective. … We want to be sympathetic to a mother who lost her son. We want to work with her on it, but because of some other issues we have not talked to her directly,” Reinke said.
One legal issue complicating the dialogue is the lawsuit brought on behalf of Hernandez’s son.
The federal lawsuit contends the Idaho Department of Correction knew Hernandez had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, but that department employees were indifferent and failed to provide him with reasonable mental health treatment. The lawsuit also contends that the state failed to appropriately monitor Hernandez and prevent him from killing himself.
Attorneys for the state have denied those claims, and the case is moving forward in federal court.
Reinke said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but said Hernandez’s suicide was a “really difficult event.”
“And that’s something we work 24-7 to try to avoid and prevent,” Reinke said. “But in this particular case this inmate was successful. The life and health of our inmate population is very important to us.”
Fries remembers Hernandez as a sweet and funny kid who could pull faces like comedian Jim Carrey and who loved the outdoors.
“He loved northern Idaho life, camping and hunting with his grandpa, camping with all of us. He was a real outdoorsman and wanted to be a drug and alcohol counselor when he grew up. He wanted to be able to make a difference,” she said.
But it’s clear his life was also troubled, his teen years spent bouncing between homes and juvenile detention centers.
Hernandez was within a few months of his expected release when he became suicidal again, Fries said.
She found out about his death when a prison official called her Post Falls home.
“I just lost it. I collapsed, I was screaming,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
That disbelief lasted as she made the trip south to Boise, as she asked the funeral home director to hold off on cremation so she could hold her child one last time.
“He was there on the metal table,” she said, weeping, “and I thought it was a mistake. I tried to breathe life back into him. I hung on to him. And I sang to him: ‘You are my sunshine,’ because that was our song. That’s what I sang when he was a baby.”