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'Under Construction': Exodus Transitional Community - East Harlem, New York

April 28, 2014

Under-construction-logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

On these blocks in East Harlem it is easy to imagine the entire outside world as a penitentiary. If a man disappears, you can bet he's up at Sing Sing, or Greenhaven, or some other correctional facility with a pleasant-sounding name.

And, as if out of a timeless void, they return.

Earlier this spring, you may have recognized a face on 3rd Avenue that you hadn't seen since 1993. Maybe later that night the name came to you, Michael Rowe, that kid who had a penchant for flashy clothes and who worked at his uncle's Laundromat on East 124th Street. So he's back now, you think. Trees have grown tall since then. There's a giant IHOP on the corner now. That wasn't here back then.

Each year some 2,200 people return from incarceration to this small pocket of upper Manhattan —north from 119th to 126th Street, and east from Lexington over to 2nd Avenue — an area that takes ten minutes to cross on foot. Their return has earned the neighborhood the name the Reentry Corridor. They come back with a felony record and little chance of finding sustainable work, back to households that were unstable years ago and have not been helped by time. Many carry high hopes of making a new life, hopes ten or twenty or thirty years in the making. Within a year, more than half of them will be locked up again.

Fortunately, Michael Rowe wasted no time when he was released on April 2. A day later he came to Exodus Transitional Community, an organization that helps the formerly incarcerated begin to find a place in a society that has gone on without them, and that often seems intent on leaving them behind. Founded fourteen years ago by a former drug dealer, Exodus has succeeded in reducing the recidivism rate (a figure referring to the flow of released felons back to prison). In fact, Exodus participants return to prison at a rate less than half that of the national recidivism rate. Every day Rowe, a 41-year-old father of three who spent almost half his life behind bars, puts on a suit and comes to these offices, where window-unit air conditioners struggle against the city heat. "These are people who have made the transition successfully," he says. "I hope to emulate them."

For the formerly incarcerated, pitfalls and temptations are everywhere, and the sweet images of the better life one dreamed of in a cell often sting the eyes when recalled among the noise and indifference of 3rd Avenue. Through workforce training programs, parenting classes, and workshops on anger and addiction, Exodus equips participants to deal with many of the same realities that led them to make mistakes. Perhaps most importantly, the staff, almost all of whom were at one time incarcerated, are proof that it's possible to learn a new way to live. The instruction is intimate, and participants say it is a breath of fresh air after visits to larger, city-run service centers where a person often feels like little more than a number.

Exodus_image01At Exodus, the reception for new arrivals is unique. Julio Medina, the organization's founder and executive director, often greets newcomers himself — and does so with vivid memories of September 4, 1996, the day he was released after serving twelve years. "The first thing I always say is, 'Welcome home, what's your name? Did you eat? Where are you sleeping?'"

Medina looks at a man like Rowe and sees a father full of good intentions, a man who did not waste away in prison but who got an education and set goals for himself. Rowe has still not found work, but neither has he succumbed to despair. He is willing to talk about his life, how one day he was jumped for a blazer he was wearing and got shot in the leg. He was 18 and never thought of telling the police. Instead, he bought a pistol. Three months later, while he was picking his girlfriend up from her high school, he felt threatened by a group of guys and started shooting. He hit someone in the leg, and that young man bled to death.

Rowe's story, the story of a young man who becomes harsh to survive harsh surroundings, is all too common. According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans are more than nine times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, while Hispanics are more than four times as likely. Working in East Harlem, which is predominately black and Latino, Exodus has forged connections with every prison in the state, hoping that the men and women who return here will encounter an opportunity to thrive. The challenge, Medina says, is how to change the way the public sees formerly incarcerated individuals. "We're trying to tell the world, 'We committed a crime at a young age, but don't define us by the worst moment in our lives'."

On the Inside

In the Old Testament,the Book of Exodus includes a sequence in which the Israelites, recently set free from Egypt, wander in the desert. The thrill of freedom soon evaporates, however, and it is forty years before they find their collective footing. Medina chose the name of the organization with this in mind. "Most guys on the inside say, 'I can't wait to get out,' thinking that this is the Promised Land. They don't recognize that this is the wilderness."

Medina, a son of Puerto Rican immigrants who grew up to run a Bronx drug ring, began to get his life on track in prison. He earned a seminary degree behind bars and learned to associate with the guys who attended church services. Together they supported each other against the pressures of the prison yard, which are often grounds for substance abuse, rivalries, and violence.

One day a teacher at the seminary told him he seemed like a community organizer. The same traits that had allowed him to excel at drug dealing — being personable, bilingual, ambitious — could be useful on the same streets, but with much more positive results. The genesis of Exodus Transitional Community was a series of sobering observations that Medina made, having witnessed friends intent on rejoining society to make a new life, only to have their dreams derailed. "We were seeing men who were strong on the inside, who were leaders on the inside, coming back in a year," he remembers. He started walking around the prison, writing his plans for Exodus on napkins.

Many of the services offered in the organization's offices on 3rd Avenue are quite similar to the ones at government-funded centers that try, often in vain, to reduce the rate of recidivism. But for Medina, the reason Exodus has found its success has everything to do with faith. He is clear that there is less funding for faith-based initiatives, but for him there is no other approach except the Christian belief that asserts "it's through our own wounds we're able to heal others."

Exodus_image02"For us, the faith is this holistic approach to reentry," he says. "It's the lens that talks about second and third chances. It's the lens that says we're all children of God. That there are no throwaway people."

Medina, 52, has now been out of prison longer than he was in. He wakes up every day at 4:00 a.m. while his wife and children sleep to begin emails and drafts of funding proposals, and at times he is still amazed at the changes in his life. Success in this field, even the survival of the organization, does not come easy, and he thinks, "The old Julio Medina would have found a shortcut a long time ago."

Even after all of Exodus' success with many of the six thousand participants who have come through its doors, and even though the organization's work was held up in 2004 by the president of the United States as a model for effective, faith-based initiatives, the words of a certain commissioner of the parole board still ring in Medina's ears. He had told the commissioner of his plans to help his community, to which the commissioner replied, "Don't give me none of that psycho babble bullshit about empowering your community. You're a vulture, and that's all you'll ever be."

Changing the Face

Over the years, Exodus has formed hiring partnerships with companies like California Pizza Kitchen and Target. But the obstacles to stability for a former prisoner often involve much more than employment. Jeff Dodson, an Exodus coach and facilitator, served seventeen and a half years for attempted murder. In prison he began to confront his anger, how for twenty years his temper had been a twisted outlet for the grief he felt at the sudden death of his mother when he was nine.

Long before he was released, Dodson was intent on working with former prisoners. Through a temp agency he got a job at Wal-Mart, stocking on the night shift. His managers wanted to hire him for a full-time position, but when they found out he had a criminal record, company policy forbid it. At 37, his first real job was snatched away like that, and he was forced into taking more temp work, often only one- or two-day contracts that barely covered his cost of transportation.

He was living with a cousin. But his parole officer informed him that state policy prohibits a former felon from living with someone who is on government assistance. He went to a homeless shelter but was told to leave after thirty days. "I said to my parole officer, 'Now what?' and my officer said, 'I don't know'." Fed up, he posted a page-long rant on Facebook about the lack of support available for people like him. It seemed the system was setting him up to fail.

But that rant was compelling enough to grab the attention of Medina, who called him that afternoon and soon offered him a job. Now Dodson helps new participants translate their visions into achievable goals through something called the Exodus Contract, an individualized agreement that includes goals for employment, education, family, spirituality, health, and community involvement. Dodson tells participants, "There is no timeline on change. Just because you made a poor decision in the past doesn't mean you have to make a poor decision today."

The instruction here is practical and calculated, but it is the relationships, as much as anything, that help a newly released individual keep despair at bay. Folks like Medina have been through reentry and know there are many relational challenges that go along with societal pressures.

Exodus_image03In prison, Michael Rowe married his high school girlfriend and fathered three children. He had a reoccurring dream of his children jumping on him in the morning to wake him up. Now, two months since he got out, he has to rub his eyes in disbelief when he wakes to sees his daughter sitting on his pillow.

Such joyful moments cause him to cry, but he's also learning that family life has its own difficulties and challenges. The other day he and his wife got into an argument — something that had never happened during the twenty-year stretch when they'd have a few conjugal weekend visits per year. Distraught, he came to Exodus, and Medina could see the worry on his face. When Rowe told him what had happened, Medina just smiled and nodded.

Not much time has passed since the argument, but Rowe can laugh about it now. He remembers, "The first thing Julio said is, 'This is reentry. It's not all peachy. Welcome to reentry'."

_____

For other profiles in the Under Construction series, click here (Center for Urban Families) and here (La Plazita Institute).

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