The first time I met Julio Medina, we sat in his office in Harlem and talked for several hours. That conversation became the essay, “Blood Splattered.”
The second time I met him was at the gates of Sing Sing for the first stop on my book tour. He was running late, so to pass the time I stood up on top of a steep incline that began at the Hudson River and peeked at the visitors’ parking lot. As the sun came up, I watched the fog hang over the river and the guards with rifles circle the towers. I tried to peek over the barbed-wire-adorned cement walls to see into the massive old structure.
At the gates, I watched as one and then another doctor pulled into their parking spots and hurried inside with big black leather bags. I wondered what it must be like to minister to men locked up like animals. I tried to look into their eyes to see if there was fear or compassion or some mixture of both. I saw neither—just clinical detachment and a certain amount of weariness.
Julio finally arrived with an apology and a hug. We went through the gates together, the same gates that not too long ago he had left after more than a decade inside.
Inside the main entrance, we ran straight into a very large African-American female officer who was not happy to see us, even though I had filled out copious amounts of paperwork ahead of time and Julio was there to teach a graduate-level seminar.
I watched as Julio answered her questions and took off every article of clothing that might possibly be objectionable (he was dressed in a beautiful suit, tie, cufflinks, and shiny black shoes) before going through a metal detector. The alarm still went off. Julio smiled and walked over to the wall. He put his hands up on the cement and spread his legs, ready to be patted down. Something in the exchange made me sad—the way Julio expected to be mistreated, expected to be searched, expected to be treated like an inmate even though he was now a professor.
I didn’t expect to be told my paperwork was lost, that there was no way I could enter, that I should leave…but that’s what happened. Julio finally set off to find his class and told me to sit tight and, with a parting promise, “I will make this right; it’s just going to take some time.”
Ninety minutes later, the large officer at the front desk yelled my name. I was escorted down one long dark hall and through a locked gate, and then another and another and another by a silent officer. Finally, in the bowels of this mass of cement, fear, violence, and pain, I was led into a room with fluorescent lights and a dozen men in orange uniforms sitting at tables.
Julio was at the board writing with chalk but stopped in mid-sentence when he saw me coming. “Can I get you cup of coffee?” said a fortyish inmate with a white face and a pleasant smile—a man who, I later found out, had been inside for murder since his early twenties and would likely never get out. “We are so glad you came.”
Julio had each of his students introduce themselves and say how long they had been inside. Most, but not all, were African-American or Hispanic. All had double-digit years of incarceration. Over the course of the next couple of hours, I shared my story and they told me theirs. They cried. And so did I.
As I think back on that afternoon, now a couple years ago, the thing I remember most is seeing Julio in this prison that had claimed a chunk of his life light up as he talked to his brothers in this ordeal. Afterwards, I asked him why he did it. Why did he go back into the dungeon where he had experienced such suffering? Why did he endure being mistreated every time he went back into the prison that he had worked so hard to get out of?
“That is sacred ground,” he told me. “That’s where I decided to become a good man. I have to go back to remind myself, and to try to help the guys who everyone else has forgotten.”