THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are There Good Men in Sing Sing?

To watch a video about my visit to Sing Sing, click here

***

The visitors parking lot is oddly quiet, quiet enough for me to hear birds singing. I stare at the expanse of the Hudson River as a mist rolls by. I might even say it's a beautiful morning, but I have a softball in my gut. I'm high on the hill, with a commanding view of the guard towers, the thirty-foot cement walls, and the prison behind those walls.

Every man has to come to his own definition of "being good." For me it means that when I'm scared, I don't lie about it or run away from my fears. Instead I walk directly toward them. That's what I am here at Sing Sing to do. And I'm here to bring The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood, the anthology I've edited, inside the prison -- physically and in spirit.

Julio Medina was an inmate at Sing Sing a decade ago. Now he returns here every week. This time I'm by his side. I'm a blond, 6-foot-3 venture capitalist who is scared shitless. Julio spent his childhood on the streets and became the head of the most powerful drug gang in the South Bronx. Eventually he was arrested and prosecuted, on drug and weapons charges. Julio remembers the look on his mother's face when he was sentenced to prison. He writes about that memory in "Blood-Spattered," one of the essays in The Good Men Project.

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.

Sing Sing is the first stop on my book tour. I'm not going to Barnes & Nobles. I'm not going to Harvard. I'm not going to some coffee shop. I've contributed and essay to the book, and like Julio's, it's about redemption. Our stories, different as they are, both are about making mistakes and then picking yourself up afterward. I have no idea what I am going to say to these guys I'm going to meet today, some of whom have killed people, but I am going to try to connect with them.

At the main gate a large African-American woman stands behind the bars. She gives Julio a hard time. "He isn't coming in," she says, pointing at me. "He's not on the cleared list." Julio tells me to wait. He knows how things work at Sing Sing.

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.

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.

Finally I am allowed in. After I've been processed, a prison minister comes to get me. We walk through gate after locked gate and down long corridor after long corridor. The minister tells me there are 1,800 men in Sing Sing. Fourteen of them are waiting for me in their seminary class. We walk into the classroom, the same one Julio sat in when he was an inmate. I am the guest lecturer today, and Julio is now the teacher.

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.

Each of the 14 men introduces himself in turn, saying how long his sentence is, how much time he has served, and why he is in the theological program. Among them, the minimum time served is 14 years, and the maximum is 32. Most are in for life. The men are black, white, Hispanic.

For forty five minutes I tell my story. I talk about calling my mother some thirteen years ago from a church parking lot to try to explain how, even though I had been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal days before for orchestrating the sale of major media company, I now had nowhere to go. My wife had thrown me out of the house because of my drinking and cheating. As I speak, the men laugh and cheer. When I'm finished, Julio asks each man to talk about his own turning point, when everything changed in his life.

Some talk about being convicted, others about arriving at Sing Sing. Some talk about not being able to hug their kids. Two talk about having to deal with the death of their mother behind bars. They say that my story, about being ashamed of myself when calling my mother, had reminded them of their mothers.

When you are in Sing Sing and your parent becomes critically ill, you can go to his or her death bed or funeral, but not both. Whichever one you choose, you go in shackles, accompanied by four armed guards. One inmate recounts how he was shuffling down the hospital hallway to see his mother for the last time. The nurses begged the guards to take the shackles off so that he could hug his mom goodbye. When they wouldn't do it, the nurses put a towel over the inmate's wrists, so his mother wouldn't have to see the shackles. With tears in his eyes he says his turning point was realizing that he could not even give his mother a real hug before she passed away. Julio had his epiphany in the prison yard. In addition to teaching at Sing Sing, he also runs the Exodus Transitional Community, a program he founded that every year helps some 500 former inmates adjust to life outside prison.

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.

After all the men had spoken, they approach me one by one. I had signed the books ahead of time, but they want me to inscribe their names with a personal note. In each one I write, "Thank you. You inspire me."

As I hand the book back, each man gives me a hug.