Up the river at Sing-Sing, Christmas is a reminder of what might have been. Some men try to make the day festive-- they cook up cans of rice and beans on heating coils in their cells, or thrust their hands through steel bars to say "Merry Christmas."
But late at night, it's tough not to think of friends who stopped visiting and parents who died while their sons counted days.
After Christmas No. 9 in prison, Julio Medina wrote in his journal: "As always, the holidays are really depressing.
"Last night in A block, a man was stabbed in the heart and died," he continued. "Well, let me not complain because the man who was killed . . . will not have the possibility of spending Christmas with his family."
Today Medina is celebrating Christmas on the outside with his own family: his mother, his fiancee, and a slew of nephews and nieces. And he's sending Christmas cards to 200 men still in New York state prisons to tell them they have a friend when they get out.
At 40, he has a ministry degree that he earned in prison and is the director of the Exodus Transitional Community, an East Harlem-based program to help ex-offenders adjust to society. He and 11 staff members, mostly ex-offenders, counsel clients in finding jobs and housing and help them deal with losses, from the death of relatives to partners who didn't wait.
Prison Reclaims 43%
The aim is to help former inmates survive their newfound freedom so they don't join the 43% who end up back in prison.
Given Medina's boyish face and gentle manner, even his new friends at Sing-Sing Correctional Facility had a hard time believing he was the leader of a South Bronx drug gang with a seven-years-to-life sentence. But Sing-Sing was his fifth prison in nine years.
"By 15, my life of crime had begun," he says. He spent his youth in the South Bronx projects. His mother, a factory worker, sent her children to Roman Catholic school, "but I was tired of being poor, so on a small scale I began drug dealing," he says. At 16, he was arrested with a gun and placed on five years' probation.
A good student nonetheless, he finished high school and was accepted to the State University of New York at Albany. "Talk about transitions," he says. "I was a street guy, and I was totally lost." He left college for a time, then returned and was caught dealing drugs. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
Contacts made inside with other drug dealers helped him expand his operations when he got out--until the state's Organized Crime Task Force charged him with 12 counts of conspiracy.
Behind bars again, he recalls, "I turned off any feelings I may have had. Some guy would get stabbed, and I'd just be hoping no blood would get on me. Compassion is not a strength in prison. It's kill or be killed."
Not until five years into his sentence, he says, did he feel any desire to change.
"There was no thunderbolt," he says, "no breaking out in a sweat." But certain incidents stood out, like the visit from a favorite niece, who told him she wanted him to meet her boyfriend because he, too, was a big-time drug dealer.
"I thought, 'That's what she thinks of me.' "
He didn't want to be that person.
At the Eastern Correctional Facility in Upstate New York, he heard about a program leading to a certificate in Christian ministry.
One of the instructors, Lonnie McLeod, was a big, approachable man who would later become an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ.
"Julio was a tough guy in the vein of Jimmy Cagney," McLeod recalls, "small but lethal. He was a leader who had the power to tell others to destroy you. Still, I understood that . . . he could lead people up a positive path."
In Bible class, says Medina, "Lonnie sparked my interest. He made God human somehow. Jesus was so contemporary, like a cool guy. I'd been a doubter for so long. Now I thought, 'If there is a God, let me find out what he's about.'
"It wasn't one of those 'Hallelujah I was talking to the Holy Ghost' things. It was a gradual process."
So was praying. "In prison there's a lot of prayer going on: 'Shorten my sentence,' " Medina says. "I started saying, 'God, I will no longer destroy what you created.' "
In 1993 Medina was transferred to Sing-Sing to attend the master's degree program in ministry that had been offered by New York Theological Seminary at the prison since 1982. For the next year, Medina and more than a dozen men studied world religions, the Bible, the history of Christianity, theology and ethics in a program that focused on urban ministry and the biblical injunction to work with the poor and forgotten.
"I was a sponge," Medina says. "Within two months, I was waking up at 4 a.m. to read church history. I'd found my calling." He wanted to be a healing force in the communities where he'd done so much damage.
Medina was luckier than most when he was released in September 1996. He had family members to come home to, and he found a job as a drug treatment counselor.
But he saw too many parolees left homeless and jobless, too many who'd found God in prison but lost God when faced with countless rejections, too many who returned to prison for violating terms of parole.
Medina talked with his mentor, now the Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who offered him space in the Church of the Living Hope in East Harlem to start a program for ex-offenders. He received grants from a Presbyterian church and an anonymous donor. And Exodus opened its doors in March 1999.
The staff, which includes five seminary graduates, encourages ex-offenders to volunteer with churches, synagogues and mosques so they can learn work skills while they're giving back to the community.
On a recent weekday morning, a 50-year-old man who served 16 years for murder is sitting at a table while two Exodus staff members look for rooms and apartments that accept former prisoners.
"I'm going to find you a place," housing specialist Dawn Hurd, 38, assures the man, who is in treatment for heroin addiction.
"You know he's been out five years," another staff member tells her.
"His life's not together," she says, determined not to turn him away. "He's still in transition."
The staff receives about 500 cards a year from people in prison, mostly men, asking for help when they get out. They've seen 220 clients since they opened, and experience has taught them not to judge a person by his worst moment.
Still, on rare occasions even Medina finds a story troubling.
"We had a client who committed six child molestations," he says. "A bunch of feelings were running through me. Should I throw him out the window? But the more he talked, the more I saw I had to listen. He was abused by men for three years. In a group home he became a prostitute. You begin to say: 'If only he had had help.' As I sat there, God was present. Here you had a drug dealer and a child molester in one room, and God was present."
Although some programs won't accept convicted child molesters, the Exodus staff referred him to an organization that helped him find city housing.
Staff members also listen to one another, at weekly meetings where they talk about business as well as their own problems with housing, kids, spouses and ex-spouses.
"They're my counselors," says Amanda Jimenez, 27, the office manager.
At a recent meeting, the subject was Christmas.
Hurd says she's spending the holiday with parolees determined to keep out of prison. "The lonely hearts club," she says, smiling.
A former inmate visiting the community remarks that he "killed off" Christmas during his 30 years in prison, and now he has to relearn how to celebrate.
Jose Louis Reyes, 44, Exodus' assistant director, says he will be hanging out with "my extended family"--the Exodus staff. He is also helping with the program's second annual fund-raising drive for families in need and people with HIV/AIDS.
Medina and the others will carry beepers on the holiday in case their clients need help.
First Christmases on the outside can be particularly tough for parolees without family and activities to distract them from loneliness. "Holidays become like long weekends," says Reyes, when ex-offenders have too much time on their hands and can be particularly vulnerable to temptations like alcohol and drugs.
One man will be released just before the holidays, and the Exodus staff hopes to find him a place to stay so he doesn't have to sleep in a shelter.
In his office at the Church of the Living Hope, Medina finishes his Christmas cards to men like Sadiq Najee, 40, an Exodus board member still serving time in Sing-Sing for second-degree murder.
Christmas cards from friends who got out might be depressing for some prisoners. But not for Najee, who says that just thinking about Exodus brings him comfort. "It's a blessing," he says. "It shows I'm getting closer to the door."