Ex-Con's Change of Heart Captured in New Film
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will remember civil rights leader Johnnie Carr, and we will look ahead to the work of another icon of that era. Lorraine Hansburry's "A Raisin in the Sun" airs tonight on ABC. Cast member Phylicia Rashad will speak with us.
But first, so often we think about prison as the end of the story, but for Julia Medina it may have been the launching pad for a new beginning. After 12 years behind bars, the former drug dealer and gang leader forged a new path for himself as a community leader.
He opened up the Exodus Transitional Community, a program in Harlem's New York that helps other ex-offenders get a fresh start. "Hard Road Home" is a new independent film that tells the story of the Exodus program. This is a tough subject, and we like to warn sensitive listeners that there is some language in "Hard Road Home," and you'll hear some of that in our conversation.
Joining us to discuss the film is director is director Macky Alston. Also with us is Julio Medina, founder of the Exodus program. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. JULIO MEDINA (Former Gang Leader): Thank you.
Mr. MACKY ALSTON (Director, "Hard Road Home"): Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Julio, before we talk about Exodus, which of course refers to the book about liberation, right?
Mr. MEDINA: Yes, it does.
MARTIN: Let's tell us - if you don't mind, if you'd tell us why you were in prison to begin with?
Mr. MEDINA: Oh, God. I was the leader of a drug gang. I was convicted by the Organized Crime Task Force of the Northern District of New York State, nothing, nothing at all to be proud of, just ignorant. And I thought there was an easier way in life to do these things, and of course they weren't, and I ended up spending 12 years of my life behind bars for that ignorance.
MARTIN: We have a clip from the film about what prompted your decision to change your life. Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of film, "Hard Road Home")
Mr. MEDINA: I remember I was in Eastern Correctional Facility, and my niece tells me how much I'm going to like her boyfriend, and I'm like yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. And when I call home that evening, my sister tells me, you know, why - you know why she kept asking you why you're going to like her boyfriend? I said no. She said because he's one of the biggest drug dealers in New York. And for me, that was a time to change, man. If that's the image that I left, if that's all they saw me as, it was time to change, man.
MARTIN: A very emotional moment, Julio. What is it about that moment that you think led you to change or to want to change?
Mr. MEDINA: You know, you look - and again, in that space of ignorance, you know, that I was living in, you're thinking that - I'm adorning my family with these gifts and clothes and paying for school and all these things, thinking that, you know, this is the way to provide, and they'll see me as this great uncle, and never realizing that all they ever saw me as - and maybe they didn't, but all they, you know, to hear a statement like that was basically she viewed me as a drug dealer.
And she wanted - she emulated her men in her life to be like her uncle, and I just -for me, you know, this was one of the moments where you stop and you say what the hell have I done, you know? How can I have destroyed the very people that I love? And I just went about, from that moment on, just trying to undo the great harm that I caused, and I think that's a story not only for myself personally but for so many people who seem to glamorize this drug dealer person.
I think we need to go back and turn the hands back of time a moment and re-do that image. So that's kind of my quest in life right now.
MARTIN: How did you get the idea for Exodus? What put that into your head?
Mr. MEDINA: The masters degree program at Sing Sing was one of the catalysts. You know, I went back and I went to school, and they have a program at Sing Sing, and you know, you start reading. You read the Book of Exodus, and you hear the many storage of bondage, wilderness and the promised land, and for us that bondage, you know, I would hear so many of the younger guys talk about they can't wait to get out to start their lives, and I was thinking, you know, they're waiting to get out. Why don't they start here? Why don't they kind of begin right where they're at? So I think it was important that we, Exodus begin to change that model and tell people, you know, in terms that they understand, what this image is and how it looks and how it's attainable. How can we get to that promised land without it being a rollback of continually going back to prison?
I mean, we're at an all-time high right now with recidivism rates at close to 60 percent throughout the country.
MARTIN: Well, we just have a very high incarceration rate, period. I think we have one of the highest, if not the highest in the developed world.
Mr. MEDINA: The highest, actually - yes we do.
MARTIN: So this is clearly a very important thing, if you can figure out how to help people break that cycle.
Macky, to you, how did you hear about this, and what made you want to make a film about this program?
Mr. ALSTON: Well, the thing that made me want to make the film was meeting Julio Medina. When I met him, I got hooked on following him, and then when I saw him in action, he changed my life.
MARTIN: What do you mean?
Mr. ALSTON: You've got watch "Hard Road Home" to really know, but he is putting his life on the line every single day of the week, and I don't know if it's about atonement. I don't know if it's about his faith in God or just the fact that this is what gives his life meaning. But to see the degree to which he goes out on a limb for every single life he encounters, it is so compelling, and it's heroic.
MARTIN: Julio, when Macky says you're putting your life on the line, what's he talking about?
Mr. MEDINA: One of the things that we have, and that's just not myself, but the Exodus staff has - all of us are formerly incarcerated. You know, these things don't scare us. We lived these lives before, so you know, if we hear somebody come in and they're mad, or you know, there's a gun outside and they want to kill somebody or whatever it is, we're not running to the corners to cover.
We're confronting the guy. You know, do you want to go back? Do you want to take another life? Do you want to spend the rest of your life in prison? Do you want - you know, that's what we do every day. So just the fact that - it gets exhausting at times, and you go in every day with the hope that we can help one person.
MARTIN: I have a short clip that I want to play that speaks to the fact that, you know, everybody who walks in the door isn't necessarily ready to make a change. Let's play that.
(Soundbite of film, "Hard Road Home")
Unidentified Man: I don't need a job. I'd rather be out there hustling, get caught, go to jail, come back out, because that's just me. You what I'm saying. That's just who I'm going to be. I'm not going to kiss everybody's ass. I don't got to be like everybody else. I'm not going to kiss ass to get somewhere. It's not happening. If I've got to kiss ass, I don't need a job. I feel I will get what I gotta get, and to this day I'm still out here, right?
MARTIN: So Julio, how do you keep at it when you're faced with, you know, knuckleheads who really think that this is okay?
Mr. MEDINA: Let me tell you, Michel, those knuckleheads, I mean they're young, and they haven't seen - because I was one of those knuckleheads, and they just - you know, they're not exposed to anything but the projects and feeling as though the walls are just turning in - are just falling in all over me, and the only option that I have available, that I see readily available, is the drug dealer.
And I think our challenge is to get the young men and to be able to say there is another way. They'll listen to us.
MARTIN: I think I was asking you, Julio, how you maintain hope in the face of that kind of frustration and despair.
Mr. MEDINA: You know, I always say I hold on to small victories, Michel, and some of those small victories could be when we land someone a job who couldn't find a job, who's just struggling and so excited that he has this eight or nine dollar an hour job, or the other person who, for the first time in his life, completed a resume.
When I see things like that and people really changing their lives, I hold on to those victories because it kind of helps me to offset those things that don't go so well (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Macky, to a point you made earlier, I think some people, when they hear the premise of a film like this, might feel they've already heard it, and you know, yeah, it's hard for ex-offenders to sort of pull themselves together. A lot of people start out, you know, behind the eight-ball, and it's no surprise that it's, you know, hard to get out of that lifestyle.
So what do you think that will surprise people about this film that they might not have seen before?
Mr. ALSTON: I think the heart of the film is, again, the heroism of these people we write off. You've got formerly incarcerated, who are the clients, who are coming in the doors, and the people who are trying to help are also formerly incarcerated. So everybody's at risk, and everybody's in the boat together.
MARTIN: Julio, at one point in the film you kind of go missing, and your staff members can't find you, and they openly wonder if it means that you have backslid, that you have backslid. Was it painful for you to hear them say that, and I have to ask, was there a temptation? Was there the possibility that you were, you know, pulled in a different direction?
Mr. MEDINA: For me, it's - let me just say it's never been a temptation because it's been so clear. For me the mission has been so clear, for me. However, the vulnerability exists with all of us. I mean, we come out here, and we understand that, you know what, we lived in a prison cell all our lives. We never want to go back, but we know there's pitfalls. We know the challenges that we face daily. We know we have to circumvent them one way or another.
So to say, you know, it's because I've been out a while that everything is clear - no, it's - you know, you carry the scars of prison. If you spent the day in prison, you carry those scars forever. So you know, you're traumatized. You've been through - I've been through so many wars that you live, you live daily, and you hope that you make it to the end, you make it that promise land.
MARTIN: How are you doing?
Mr. MEDINA: I'm all right. I'm all right. It's a tough walk, but I'm doing okay.
MARTIN: All right. Julio Medina is the founder of the Exodus Transitional Community, a program that helps ex-offenders in Harlem. Macky Alston is the director of "Hard Road Home." It's a documentary about Exodus, and it airs tomorrow night on PBS as part of their Independent Lens film series. You'll want to check your local listings for details. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MEDINA: Thanks, Michel.
Mr. ALSTON: Thank you.
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