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Prison break

Ernie Medina busted out of the incarceration cycle to face life on the outside


Ernie Medina weaved in and out of prison over a 15-year - period. He recently revisited the neighborhood where he - was shot four times by Colorado Springs police before - his final stint behind bars. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Ernie Medina weaved in and out of prison over a 15-year period. He recently revisited the neighborhood where he was shot four times by Colorado Springs police before his final stint behind bars.

One month ago, Ernie Medina stepped from his navy blue pickup, slipped and fell on the ice near his apartment complex just south of downtown Colorado Springs.

Medina stood up and cradled his right arm, the one that cushioned his tumble, against his body. About 10 years earlier, Colorado Springs police had shot him in that same wrist, his other elbow, his stomach and chest in a four-hour scuffle that led to his third prison term.

By evening, Medina's "good arm" had swelled to twice its size. As was the case with his wobbly left arm, he couldn't lift his right beyond his breastbone.

"I can't eat," he told his wife Pat when she returned home from her job selling baby clothes at Wal-Mart.

The couple drove to the hospital, where Medina's arm was X-rayed for a possible broken bone that could have seriously hampered his work and his life. But the X-rays were clear.

Medina turned down a prescription for the painkiller Vicodin. Even the tiniest trace of the drug could rouse the addictions that brought him a total of eight years behind bars, thousands of dollars in court fees and countless urine analysis tests.

Medina, at 49, looks exactly his age despite decades of heavy cocaine use, much of it taking place in bathrooms all over Southern Colorado. His black hair, parted in the middle, is streaked with gray. He wears a black leather vest and a matching right-hand wrist cuff that hides a scar just below one of his four smeary tattoos.

Today, 2 years out of prison, Medina owns and supervises the construction company that bears his surname. He takes pride in that name, and as much as he's "tarnished" it, he's quick to differentiate himself from Colorado Springs' other Ernie Medina, a man sentenced to 72 years for his involvement in the gang shooting of a 13-year-old boy.

The free Medina lives in a high-ceilinged, sand-colored loft above his office. He keeps a cigarette-sized cell phone attached to his ear at all times. Every hour or so it rings with the title song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He always answers in one quick breath: "Yeah, this is Ernie."

By many standards, Medina has broken out of the prison-life cycle.

"You can't say that we are success stories until we die," he warns. "Any one of us, especially on an addiction, is subject to falling off the path. ... That is a possibility for me until the day I die."

On repeat

Colorado's Department of Corrections (DOC) keeps track of people like Medina, convicts who get caught in a revolving door of prison life. DOC statistics show that about half of those set free recidivate within a three-year period, consistent with the national average.

That percentage has remained fairly constant during the past decade. But the inmate population has skyrocketed at the same time, meaning thousands more are returning to prison for multiple terms. Between 1996 and 2006 the number of people incarcerated in Colorado nearly doubled, from 11,019 to 21,438.

Technical violations when a parolee fails a urine test, for example accounted for nearly 30 percent of prison admissions last year.

For Medina, new drug charges kept returning him to life behind bars.

Depending on whom you talk to, Medina went back to prison because he didn't learn his lesson, or because he couldn't get help on the outside. Medina leans toward the former conclusion; he contends that only a near-death vision in which he stood between Lazarus and Satan finally led him away from drugs.

Still, his life epitomizes some of the main questions about how former prisoners are treated. Access to housing, employment and obtaining valid identification cards can influence an ex-con's chances in the free world.

In terms of acquiring basic needs and services, Colorado ranked as the worst state in the country to get out of prison, according to a recent study by the New York-based Legal Action Center.

Returning to prison, the report shows, can be simpler than making it on the outside.

Thrown in

Medina grew up in Pueblo during the height of the Chicano movement, when Mexican-Americans were boycotting Coors beer because the company didn't hire them. At 15, he went to a party with a bottle of Coors and was badly beaten because of it.

Medina's face, he says, swelled to the size of a basketball. His father, a sergeant at the sheriff's department, came to pick him up at a friend's house, telling him "nobody draws Medina blood."

What he said next turned out to be a kind of prophecy.


"He told me, "OK, this is the deal,'" recalls Medina. ""You are going to end up in prison, or a ditch-digger for the rest of your life. So you are going to the service.'"

Medina's father helped him cheat on the entrance exam, and before he was 16 he joined the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army. He ended up at Fort Bragg, N.C., where, like so many GIs, he became a "jumping junkie," dropping mescaline and LSD. After 2 years, he was thrown out of the military for getting into a fistfight.

Medina hitchhiked back to Pueblo and married Elaine, a girl he had met when he was 12. They had one child together, and another two after they divorced a year and a half later. ("All I had to do was look at her and she was pregnant," he says.)

Another childhood friend had married a woman from Mexico. Her family approached Medina one day, asking if he could vend their cocaine, marijuana and heroin in Colorado Springs, where he had recently moved. He agreed, and soon was dealing 150 to 250 pounds of drugs a month. At one point, he says, a third of the cocaine in Colorado Springs passed through his hands.

For a time, Medina didn't use the drugs he sold. Instead, he drank. In his late 20s he met Patricia Mondragon. Five years his senior, she had grown up several blocks from his home in Pueblo. She was divorced, like Medina, and had two children of her own.

Medina moved in with Pat. But within a year, he was shooting cocaine into his arms.

"When he was home, he was paranoid," she says. "He would be up at all hours of the night, sometimes running from one end of the house to the other. He would think someone was outside, that someone was trying to peek into the window. One time he covered all the windows in the bedroom and the bathroom so no one could see in."

In reality, the police were after Medina. When he was 30, in 1987, they chased his car, he says, barricading him in a six-block area off of Hancock Expressway in southeast Colorado Springs. He threw a briefcase full of drugs and cash onto a lawn as he sped around. But he still had guns and drug supplies in the vehicle.

He was sentenced to three years in DOC.

"The thought of going to prison," he says now, "everyone trips. "I can't do it. I can't go do time. I can't go do time.' And the emotions and all that are quite intense. You are going to have a number for the rest of your life. You say, "I won't be there for my kids or my wife.' It is a freaking ... I think about it now, and it is just a big old joke."

Out of work

Medina was paroled in 1991, rejoining Pat and her children in her southern Colorado Springs home. He went to work for Windsor Concrete, which had employed him before he was locked up, and would do so again, briefly, the second time he got out. A concrete worker for years, Medina never had trouble finding a job. But watching his fellow "soldiers" or convicts get out with little more than $100 in "gate money" (a DOC requirement unchanged since 1973), he grasped how tough re-entry could be.

Felons like Medina are regularly turned down for jobs. In Colorado, private employers can refuse anyone with a felony conviction. Public employers also can ask about criminal background information, but cannot require details of prior arrests. The state doesn't track unemployment rates of ex-felons.

"We are creating a growing segment of the population that is unemployable," says Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "Not just unemployed, but unemployable."

Two federal programs encourage businesses to hire ex-cons. One offers tax credits to employers, and the other provides bonding, a kind of insurance, for companies that take the risk. But since neither program is well-publicized, many employers and their would-be ex-con workers never connect.

Today, as a general contractor, Medina almost exclusively hires ex-prisoners. He has provided work for 15 so far, and last year he hired his first and only female construction worker. He also helped start a nonprofit called Christ Organizing New Saints, or C.O.N.S. for God. Still in its infancy, the program connects recently released people to construction and electrical jobs. So far, about eight former inmates have received help.

At a recent C.O.N.S. board meeting, Medina presented the eight-person group with a list of 300 ex-convict-friendly employers in Colorado Springs, which he got from DOC. A woman in the group called the businesses, reporting back that only two-thirds responded. Many wouldn't pick up the phone, had ceased hiring ex-cons or simply didn't exist.

"You start thinking, "Oh, these people are full of shit,'" says Medina. "They are blowing smoke up your butt."

Hanging on

His first time out of prison, Medina's Windsor Concrete job brought him $15 an hour. But he also had more than $4,300 to pay in court fees and other fines.

He went back to dealing.

"You know you hate the system," he says. "Everyone pisses, whines, and moans and complains. They are making you jump through hoops and pay these costs. You do what you [have to] do to get by to make it or fake it, to make everyone believe that you are sincere and you are going to do the right thing. You do that for as long as you can, and then your friends and the desire and the want to feel the way you felt before you got caught on the stuff starts creeping up, and you go back into it. Or you don't want to deal with the costs. You know you can make some fast, quick money. You get a front, a cuff, which is on credit. And you start selling dope again."

Medina left Pat's home to vend and use cocaine out of a string of South Nevada Avenue hotels. He did it, in part, to protect his family, he says. If the police picked him up, they could confiscate his property. Living in a motel, there was nothing to seize but the drugs.

On a recent January afternoon, he drove down Nevada Avenue in his pickup, pointing out his former drug dens.

"Major dope," he said, squinting through his sunglasses to the east side of the street.

Medinas wife Pat stayed with him through his multiple - prison terms. She questions whether the DOCs life-skills - classes do any good for convicts. - PHOTO BY NAOMI ZEVELOFF
  • Photo by Naomi Zeveloff
  • Medinas wife Pat stayed with him through his multiple prison terms. She questions whether the DOCs life-skills classes do any good for convicts.

A month after Medina got off parole, he was arrested again. It was his reckless driving, he says, that tipped off police. Court documents from the time show Medina had been drinking. He was slapped with another possession charge and two more years in prison, plus an extra six months for driving without a license.

Pat wavered during Medina's second stay in prison. By that time, he had persuaded her to marry him; they had a 15-minute wedding inside a jail. She realized her husband was a "habitual offender," as court files read, and she wondered how much time she would spend waiting for him.

Medina's sporadic contributions helped, but Pat knew how to raise her children alone, stretching the $22 per hour she earned as a Sears clerk. She didn't need another man. So she hung on.

It wasn't until several years later, when Medina was incarcerated again, that Pat found a vocabulary for her persistence. She had threatened to leave him. It was her or the drugs, she told him. But she never went through with it.

"There was a time at work at Wal-Mart. I was sitting in the break room having lunch, and there was a bunch of women sitting at a table and they were talking about so-and-so being in prison, and they shouldn't let him out and he is useless and they couldn't imagine why anybody would wait for him," she recalled recently.

"They were really, really putting men in prison down, and I told them, "My husband is there now and he is not useless, and I am waiting for him and I will wait for him as long as it takes.' They all looked at me like I was crazy, and some of them totally stopped speaking, and one asked me, "Well, why are you waiting for him? Why would you do that?'

"I said, "Because I love him and he is my husband.'"

Tripped up

When Medina was released in 1994, he was hired by M.A. Mortenson Co. to help complete a water-treatment center at the Air Force Academy. In part because he spent his time in prison lifting weights, he soon was promoted to lead man. Medina got a truck, bought tools for his crew and drove in and out of the base each day. For the time, he was clean.

Then, in April 1995, came the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal office building. Like other military facilities, the Air Force Academy went on lockdown, checking IDs of every person who entered.

Medina had been driving with no license. He was reported to police three days after the bombing, ultimately receiving three years of probation.

"They start the whole thing over," he says. "I am going, "I am trying, I am trying, and you are going to ruin things for me.'"

Though Medina hadn't had a license since he was a teen, he drove everywhere delivering drugs, going to bars and journeying between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. When police apprehended him, almost every drug charge he faced was accompanied by the same "no license" indictment, adding months to each prison sentence.

Worse, it prolonged the period of time before he could legally acquire a license. That specter followed him until finally, in 2004, he obtained a license.

Medina is not alone. An ex-con's capacity to make it outside prison often hinges on having a state ID or driver's license. Without either, a person can't apply for a job or housing, two parole requirements.

This restriction has rendered getting ID cards nearly impossible for many of the 8,954 people who left DOC last year. It also led, in part, to a class-action lawsuit filed in a Denver court in 2006. Several individuals joined Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to launch a complaint against the Department of Revenue (which controls Colorado ID requirements) demanding leniency in accepting DOC and other identification. The suit will go to trial in March.

Medina stopped driving to the Air Force Academy after the Oklahoma City bombing. He found a ride with another construction worker. Eventually, he began to sneak in drugs, snorting and later shooting up on frequent bathroom breaks.

"People start saying, "What is really up?' You are acting weird. Bouncing off walls. Then you start leaving blood drops, and then you leave an orange cap or a cotton ball, and rumors start spreading and people see you coming out, and everyone knows."

""Ernie, you straighten up or you are through,'" he remembers his boss telling him. "So I quit."

Shot back

Police busted Medina for the third time in 1996, just days before he planned to travel to Pennsylvania as part of an intricate drug deal. By then, Medina had violated his probation and a bondsman was tracking him. He stopped at Pat's house on Norwood Street, finally collapsing after a week of drug-induced sleepless nights. Pat thought he might die; he was skinny and incoherent. She called the bondsman thinking she'd let Medina "sober up" in jail and told him the door was unlocked.

When Medina woke up, the man had come for him. Medina asked for 15 minutes alone, but stalled for more than four hours, shooting up "liquid courage" as a SWAT team gathered outside the house.

In the late afternoon, Medina decided to goad the police into killing him.

"The math in my head says I am looking at roughly 150 years of doing time," he says, counting off several other drug charges he faced. "So what do I have to lose? Thirty-nine years old. Already been to the penitentiary twice. If I get anything over 15 or 20 years, I am going to die in prison. But if I am going to go back and die in prison, I might as well die today."

Medina slit his left wrist and let his blood drain into a cup. He placed a chrome stapler in his other hand and covered it partially with a blue towel. To the police outside, it looked exactly like a gun.

Medina oversees a construction site next to his - apartment. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Medina oversees a construction site next to his apartment.

He staggered out of the house as the SWAT team launched non-deadly, bean-bag rounds at his body. According to the police report, Medina kept walking forward. A police dog knocked him down, but he rose to his feet again. Then two policemen shot a total of five 9 mm rounds at him.

"From that point on, I have no recollection, no memory of anything except for what does it feel like to get shot," says Medina. "My description is in the Old Western days, [when] they were branding cattle; if you can imagine a branding iron, bright-red hot, being poked through you while you are alive, that is what it feels like to get shot."

For all of Medina's stumbling on his story he can't pin down the dates he entered and left prison, nor can he accurately sum up the charges against him he remembers exactly each point on his body where he was shot: right wrist, left elbow, upper chest and lower abdomen.

Medina spent months at Memorial Hospital before he went back to court for his sentencing. Over that time, he says, he decided to stop "kicking it" with Satan.

One afternoon in his hospital bed, he coughed and his gut, barely stitched together, burst open, sending his intestines onto the blanket in front of him. He went into shock and envisioned himself healed, standing between a "rich man" that was the devil and Lazarus, the New Testament character who resurfaced from the dead.

"That moment, that vision, that is what has changed me," says Medina. "Nothing else. Not a program, not a person. Not my wife, not my grandkids. None of them."

When Medina was well enough to appear in court, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of selling drugs, disturbing the peace and driving without a license. The judge let him off easy, he believes, because police shot at him when he was technically unarmed. He spent a total of 6 years behind bars, going to Comcor (a live-in community corrections facility) and then paroling with a tracking device attached to his body in 2004. If he stays clean, his parole will end in 2011.

While incarcerated, Medina entered more programs: GED, victim violence, parenting, Seven Habits, janitor instruction, landscaping, substance abuse, personal relationships.

"Did they change me? No." he says. "They helped me see where I was going wrong, or where I needed to work on something."

Medina's classes he keeps "diplomas" for each in a photo album reflect DOC's changing focus to re-entry. The thinking goes that if a prisoner is ready for life on the outside if he or she can reconnect with family, format a rsum and write a check that person is more likely to break out of the prison cycle.

But many in Colorado wonder if the curriculum actually corrects anything. Since 2002, the department has weathered a total of $12.4 million in budget cuts that eliminated 39 case managers and shrank several courses, including sex-offender and mental-health treatment as well as a labor program. Parole officers, charged with managing prisoners' re-entry into society, are overbooked. This year, DOC's parole officers managed caseloads of 85 prisoners each. The limit should be 60.

"[Corrections] is like, "Oh shit, we just locked up all these people, and now they can't find jobs or housing,'" says Donner. "I don't believe that just programming guarantees people will be successful when they get out. They still can't find a job."

Outside of the life-skills classes offered to prisoners on the inside, DOC has a "Community Re-Entry Unit" to provide emergency services to ex-cons who need help in their transition. It offers clothing, mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, shelter services and backpacks with hygiene items. But in fiscal year 2005, the unit served fewer than 1,400. That year, almost 9,000 left DOC.

Pat also has doubts about the thousands of dollars and several years her husband poured into Comcor rent and classes.

"He would do what they told him to do. That was the only way for him to get off paper [and clear his name]," she says. "I don't believe any of the classes that he went to or any of the places that he went to helped him truly realize what the drugs were doing to him."

DOC denies the programming might be ineffective.

"There are times that we hope people make it, and that is not the case," says Tim Hand, DOC assistant director for parole and community corrections. "But it does not happen from the lack of effort on our part to help them in their transition."

Touching ground

When Medina finally exited prison for the last time in 2004, he moved in with Pat, who was living in a "cockroach-infested place in the ghetto" on Chamberlin South, north of Fort Carson. She had taken a 50 percent pay cut when she left Sears for Wal-Mart, but she was satisfied with the apartment. She says today "it doesn't matter" where she lives.

Medina, on the other hand, vowed to move the couple out. With the help of a friend at a Christian ministry, he found a job pushing a broom at the construction site he now manages. Seven months later, they moved into the recently erected lofts south of downtown.

He was lucky. Just like employers, many landlords won't rent to people with criminal records, a bias that leaves ex-cons on precarious ground. According to DOC, 70 percent of people paroled to Denver are released homeless. This was also the case for 47 of the 146 ex-offenders paroled to Colorado Springs last month. And convicts historically have been excluded from federal housing programs.

At first, Pat worried that her husband was moving too fast.

"I was concerned about him wanting to get his general contractor's license. That seemed like a big step. But I also watched him study, and I could see the drive that he had in him. ... I always kind of try to keep him a little bit grounded so he doesn't go overboard. Sometimes he can do that. He gets a little carried away. He has great dreams, and I think that is a good thing. I guess in the back of my mind I worry that if things don't work out the way they should, that he is going to crash and burn."

For now, Medina is steady. He hasn't touched alcohol or drugs besides his Marlboro Lights for 10 years. But he feels like a teenager, he says. Now that he has a driver's license, he is working toward his first credit card.

Medina has survived the post-prison transition, but at least five ex-cons a week bang on the doors of his construction company, asking for employment, for anything.

"I would like to help [you] right now, but I don't have a position," he tells them. "There is not much I can do."

It's a kinder answer than some, but it's one they hear frequently. And it won't do anything to keep them from going back behind bars.

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