Statistically, it is well known that if you wind up in prison and are lucky enough to get out, you will be going back some time soon. Julio Medina is someone who has beaten the odds. He was a long way from prison and his past life as a drug dealer when he stood beside President George W. Bush at the White House National Conference of Faith Based Community Initiatives in 2004.
Medina served 12 years in prison for his crime. He spent countless days and nights in his cell thinking about how could he change his life around and use his experience to help others. I met Julio in prison when we attended New York Theological Seminary while at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY. As soon as he was released from prison he put his plan into action to help others. He landed a job as a substance abuse counselor working with ex-offenders. He quickly came to realize that the men and women he counseled struggled to fit within a free society because of the defense mechanisms that they had built up to survive their prison experience. Julio vowed to help them break the cycle of recidivism he was witnessing.
In 1999, Julio opened Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem to assist formerly incarcerated men and women as they integrate back into the community. Since then the organization has expanded and has opened two additional centers in upstate New York. His organization offers social, economic, educational and spiritual support to individuals in transition from incarceration, drug addiction and homelessness. Exodus services include counseling; employment preparation; job, housing, health, and education referrals; and court and parole assistance. Exodus staff consists entirely of ex-offenders or individuals directly impacted by incarceration.
In 2002, Julio worked with me on Andrew Cuomo’s first campaign for governor of NYS. We staged a press conference at his church and community center. The center was the hub of many activities which included an after-school group with neighborhood youth and gang members and a speakers’ bureau of formerly incarcerated persons who make presentations to raise public awareness about prison conditions and the impact of incarceration on individuals and communities.
Its life-altering approach is based on a “contract,” an assessment tool and action plan, by which participants evaluate their status in areas of family, physical wellbeing, education/vocation, and community involvement. The self-evaluation is the basis for formulating goals and plans and encouraging each individual to take back control of his or her life.
Macky Alston captured Julio’s lifesaving organization in a documentary titled, Hard Road Home. Throughout the film its characters aspire to freedom and security “on the outside,” while grappling with the constant challenges posed by poverty, addiction and the relentlessness of rage and despair brought on from their incarceration. Medina says “Just when things look good, someone you’ve come to care about falls apart. Just when you have given up hope, someone beats the odds and hangs in.”
Julio Media is the first one to admit that life after prison is indeed a “hard road home.” But with the dedication of caring individuals like himself and the staff of Exodus, one can be assured that the cycle of recidivism can be broken if the correct ingredients are applied to those who reenter society.
Anthony Papa is manager of media relations with the Drug Policy Alliance.