An excerpt from The Good Men Project book: Julio Medina’s story.
I shuffled into the Albany County courthouse, cuffed and shackled, to hear my sentence. My mom was there with my brothers and sisters. I was twenty-five at the time and the leader of a drug gang that included ten other people. The judge read my crimes: nine counts of conspiracy and various other offenses related to the hand grenades and the cache of machine guns the police had found. While the judge read, I ignored the reporters and cameras—it was a big case—and everyone else in the courtroom and looked at my mom. I saw her turn to my brothers and sisters and ask, “Who the hell is this guy they’re talking about?” I still get chills remembering the look on her face when she finally figured out the guy they were talking about was me. I was sentenced to seven years to life.
In prison it took a while for it to sink in, for me to realize that I belonged there, that this wasn’t a mistake. The first place they put me was Comstock, in upstate New York, probably one of the dirtiest, filthiest prisons there is. Rats ran back and forth on the bars all the time. We had to hang our food on the ceiling, and they’d still jump at it like trapeze artists. One day I was doing push-ups when a rat ran right over my back.
I eventually got transferred to Sing Sing, the most violent prison in the country. The corrections officers would search you before you went into the mess halls. They would throw you up against a wall and pat you down. One time when I was being searched I looked at this particular corrections officer, and he looked at me. I just nodded my head and went into the hall to eat. Afterward, this same guy came down to my cell.
“Yo, how’re you doing?” he asked.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “How’re you?”
“As you can see, I’m a corrections officer now.”
Then I recognized him. We grew up together in the projects. I was the godfather to his son. When we were eighteen, we robbed a bank together. He had gotten a job as a teller, and we arranged for me to come into the bank at a certain time, stick a gun in his face, and ask for all the money he had in his drawer. Afterward we split the take. But we got caught.
Seeing him made me think about how small a difference there can be between who goes to prison and who becomes a guard. It just depends on some decisions and choices we make.
I grew up in the South Bronx, the poorest area in the country at that time—not that it’s an excuse. Mom worked two, three jobs, and she drank. I’d come into the apartment sometimes and find her lying on the floor and I’d carry her to the bedroom.
I met my father only two or three times, when I made it back to Puerto Rico. Mom left there before I was born, to escape him; he once tried to run her over with a car. But when I was ten, Mom sent me to Puerto Rico to see him because she thought I needed to know who my dad was. When we met, two other men were with him. I didn’t know who they were. Before getting out of his car, my dad reached into his glove compartment, took out a long gun, and put it underneath his coat. We walked around a shopping mall with these two guys, who, I finally realized, were his bodyguards. I saw my father again more recently, about five years ago. We talked briefly, no more than eight minutes. He couldn’t have cared less about me, and that fucking tore me up.
In my projects in the South Bronx there were no attorneys or doctors, but there were drug dealers and pimps. Those were the guys I looked up to, the ones I wanted to be like. I did grow up with Tiny Archibald, who went on to play for the Boston Celtics, but I couldn’t play basketball, so that limited my options. The drug dealers had the cars, gave us tickets to the Apollo Theater, bought us brand-new baseball bats and gloves. We’d go to the park and play baseball with the stuff they gave us. We all thought they were so cool. I didn’t know they were killing people as part of their businesses.
My initial rite of passage was when I got my first package of drugs and sold them. I was fourteen years old then, and I was able to bring food into the house and take care of my family. I went to Catholic school. I even went to college at the state university at Albany, but I went there mostly for business. In Albany I was the college pharmacist; those kids had more money than my customers in the Bronx.
School wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to be a social worker and make $25,000 a year. I was determined to do better than that, but I channeled that energy in the wrong direction. I was arrested at fifteen, at sixteen, at eighteen. And then at twenty, I was sentenced to two and a half years for possessing and selling drugs. I was sent to a minimum-security camp.
At the camp, there were a lot of Colombians, a lot of Dominicans, who were serving short sentences. We were all making plans on how to get rich when we got out. I set up my whole organization right there. These guys would get the drugs from South America, and I would distribute the drugs. At the camp I taught myself the craft of drug dealing. I learned how to be the leader of a big-time drug gang.
In Sing Sing, my cell was so small that I could stand in the middle of it and touch both walls. Those walls were metal, so in the summer it got really hot in the cells. Most days it was 120 degrees. When the guards walked by, that was my air-conditioning—that little breeze they made. They sold little fans for the cells, but I refused to buy one. I wanted to feel every fucking day of that prison sentence.
I wanted to remember every time how, after my family came to visit me, I was strip searched, how I was dehumanized. After leaving my mother, I’d have to stand totally naked while a guard ran his fingers through my mouth and then my hair. He’d lift my nut sack, make sure there was nothing underneath, and then put my hands behind my ears, turn me around, and say, “Bottom of the left foot, bottom of the right foot. Uh oh, I didn’t see that left foot. Now move your toes around.” I would have to stand on one fucking leg, trying to balance, until this asshole decided to tell me to put my leg down. Then he’d tell me to spread them. I’d bend over so he could see in my asshole. He’d say, “I didn’t see that.” So I’d spread them again. I remember all this—vividly.
Even after I went to prison, my family worshipped me. They treated me as if I were a political prisoner or something. I had supported them when I was out, and to them I was still the head of the family. Then one day my favorite niece—this beautiful young woman who I adored—visited me at Sing Sing. She told me about her boyfriend, how she was so proud of him and how much I would like him. She couldn’t stop talking about this guy. I called home that night and talked to my sister, her mom. She told me that the boyfriend was the biggest drug dealer in New York, and that’s why I would like him. That shit hit me like a ton of bricks. I vowed right then that I’d never sell another drug. Even if I had to eat rocks and shovel shit when I got out, I was not going to be that guy anymore.
A year later, in my fifth year in Sing Sing, just after I turned thirty, I enrolled in a master’s degree program that the New York Theological Seminary ran at the prison. I got into the program thinking it might help me get out of prison—it would look good to the parole board. But the program gave me the tools to recognize I was more than a drug dealer. I’m a social dude. I can talk to African-Americans, Latinos, whites; I can transcend barriers that a lot of people can’t. The seminary allowed me to see that as a drug dealer, I made millions of dollars, had homes, traveled the world, but that my real gift as a dealer was that I knew my community. I could assess it. So why not assess the community to see what’s wrong with it and try to make positive changes?
I started thinking about what I could do even while I was still in prison. Sing Sing is all long-timers, lifers, gangbangers, so there’s constant violence. When somebody’s going to be stabbed, you move out of the way. You don’t want to get any blood on you because if you do, you have two options: talk and then get killed by another inmate, or be put in the box for not talking. So when someone was stabbed, you didn’t react with concern for this other human being. Instead you might say, “Oh God, you got stabbed, and now the blood is on me, so now they’re going to question me. You asshole!” He’s bleeding to death, and you’re mad at him because the stabbing took place close to you.
One day, after I started going to the seminary, I was walking toward the chapel when up ahead of me a guy got stabbed really badly. Everybody just kept walking. “It ain’t none of your business,” someone said. Guys were jumping over the body and the pool of blood. When I got to the man he was bleeding out onto the floor and, I swear to God, I could not walk over that blood. It was like something was pushing me to look at this man, look at what was happening here. Guys were like, “Yo! Yo!” But I could not move. All I could do is say, “This shit has to stop.”
The guys looked at me like I was crazy; at one time I was involved in half the stabbings at the prison. They started swearing at me, saying, “What the hell are you talking about?”
I said it again: “This just has to stop, man. We have to stop killing one another.”
Everything changed for me at that moment. Finances didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t matter if I traveled around the country, or if I could do whatever. It didn’t matter. It was like, how do I not help people? How do I not stop and look at the humanity in each person, man? How do I recognize that these are all God’s children, man? And how do we become part of that human family so that we don’t kill each other?
I got the guy up off the ground and got his blood spattered all over me. The guards came running to us and got me out of the way. They didn’t question me because they saw what I had done. They thought I was crazy for helping this guy.
After the stabbing, I started organizing gang interventions in the prison. We got permission from the warden to hang signs saying, “We love you, Daddy,” from the children whose fathers were in prison. In the hallway where most of the stabbings took place, the one on the way to the chapel, we hung posters with kids’ handprints and their fathers’ handprints on top of them. The posters had a great impact.
I dedicated my life to stopping the violence in prison, getting to the young people who are hard to talk to. They’d tell me, “We don’t want to hear this Martin Luther King shit again.” I’d say, “Brother, just give me a shot here, man.” I wasn’t preachy or talking about God or anything. I mostly listened and asked: “How do we change our reality, man? How do we make the best of our time here, man? How do we come out whole, if that’s possible? And how do we take care of our families and make sure that they don’t look at us and mimic our behavior?”
Getting out of prison after fifteen years was the tough part. I was well-off prior to prison. I had gotten rich off the drug trade. Now I was living with my mother for the first time since I was sixteen, in a tiny apartment. My brother was living there, too, and he was still getting high.
My old friends came by. They drove up to the front of my building in these nice cars, and my mother watched from the terrace, nervous.
“Hey, what’s up guys? How you doing?” I asked them.
“Come on, man, let’s go,” one of them said to me.
“No, I’m not going anywhere.”
“What d’you mean? You know, we’ve been waiting for you!”
“Well then, you waited for the wrong guy if you were waiting for me, man. That guy died in prison.”
I didn’t want to go back to selling drugs, but I couldn’t find a job. I went on interview after interview after interview after interview. My girl was working, my mother worked. I was the only one in the house not working. I would paint something in the house just to try to contribute somehow. On the job interviews, everyone would ask me where I’d been during the last year. I just made things up. After three months I finally got a job, as a substance abuse counselor.
During my job search I decided that what I really wanted to do was help my brothers coming out of prison. I had earned a master’s degree, and I thought I had enough social skills to get work, but no one would hire me. I was one of the smartest guys coming out, so I couldn’t imagine what would happen to my boys who didn’t have GEDs and could barely read or write. I don’t mean to put my brothers down, but it’s pretty easy to be at the top of the heap in Sing Sing. Fifty percent of the convicted can’t read or write, and 20 percent of them are diagnosed with a mental-health issue, and I would say a lot more go undiagnosed. When I got turned down for jobs over and over again, the reality hit me: “Shit, if I’m having a hard time, what about those dudes I left behind?”
Just after I started my new job, one of my closest, closest friends came to me and said, “It’s time, now. We got to get to Washington. We have all these different deals happening in different states, and I need you to help me coordinate what’s going on.”
I told him, “I can’t do that, man. I don’t have the heart. That’s just not who I am.”
He put his hands in my face and said, “You’re a punk.” He pushed my face harder and harder. “And you’re a faggot. I knew it, man. I knew you were soft.”
He’s a tough guy, and I was a tough guy—two elephants looking at each other, flaring. He was getting to me. I was very close to letting anger get the better of me, but then I saw something deep in his eyes. He wished he could change positions with me. That’s what I saw. You got a second chance, Julio, to start off differently, man. I don’t have that chance. I’m entrenched in this thing. He would love to be in my rinky-dink suit, with my ten-dollar shoes from Payless and my funny tie, in my shitty little office. I saw that this was a smart guy, a very smart guy, who was trapped.
We never spoke again, but seeing him helped me realize how many other people want to be out of that life. You’re so steeped in it—your whole life has been based around selling drugs and other crimes—that there’s no way out. It’s no accident that 40 percent of inmates who get out end up back in prison within six months.
As soon as I got out, guys from Sing Sing started writing me and sending me their résumés, asking me what I thought of them. After work, I would sit down at my mother’s kitchen table and rework their résumés and write them letters telling them what they needed to do, what they needed to say. The onslaught of letters and résumés kept coming, kept coming, and I would ask myself, “Who’s out here to get people really prepared?”
In the letters I’d get questions like, “My wife’s been living without me for 10 years, how am I going to be able to contribute?” Or “Hey Julio, I was 16 when I went to prison. I’m 35 now. I’m a virgin; the only relationships I’ve had were with other men, so I don’t know where I am sexually.” There wasn’t a place for them to talk about any of that. There wasn’t a place for them to ask, “Yo man, I grew up in prison. I grew up in institutions. How do I make this adjustment out here?”
So ten years ago I walked away from my job and created Exodus. Call it faith, because I had no job, no money. I walked away because it was my calling. We now have 500 former inmates coming through our program every year. We teach life skills so my brothers and sisters can become productive members of society and don’t end up back in prison. Exodus helps inmates adjust to being fathers and sons, husbands and wives, good friends and neighbors on the outside. We help former inmates find and keep a job to support themselves, restore their dignity, and avoid resorting to crime.
I also teach at Sing Sing, in the same program I graduated from. I’ve met the President and senators, music and sports stars over these last ten years. PBS made a documentary about our program, Hard Road Home. But my greatest honor is to go back and teach the inmates, so I can show these men that they can change their lives.
My life changed that day I got blood on my prison uniform. God intervened that day. There was a hand on me. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t using drugs. I was in my right mind. A hand stopped me, and something said to me, you cannot cross over your brother’s blood.
Julio Medina served twelve years in prison for gang-related crimes. He emerged a changed man, dedicated to helping other inmates make the transition, once they were released from prison, from criminals to good men and good fathers. His organization, Exodus Transitional Community, has served more than 3,000 men and women and has become one of the country’s most successful reentry programs.
“Blood Spattered” is excerpted from The Good Men Project Book. Buy the book here.