The Ex-Con Game

How do we deal with the staggering number of prisoners re-entering society? Ned Rollo thinks he knows. He should. He's been there.

Rollo believes he knows the answer. What enrages him the most, he says, is that all this debate over process and programming discounts the inmates themselves. He brands this new re-entry debate an "academic sleight of hand" that is trying to breathe new life into the nation's dysfunctional parole system. He wonders where these researchers will be after the next serial killer grabs national headlines, changing the political winds and drying up their funding. If people truly want to understand what it's like to be an ex-con, if they're interested in what strategies are necessary to overcome the pathological mind-set convicts are forced to adopt, if they're looking for programs that will help inmates cope with their post-release alienation and rage, then all they have to do is ask him.

When he went down the first time in 1966, Ned Rollo had none of the typical excuses for landing in the joint: poverty, race, drugs, bad company, bad lawyer, badass judge. Yes, his father, an Air Force colonel, was emotionally distant and intolerant of his son's mistakes. And yes, his mother was unhappy in her marriage, hiding behind her social graces and her social drinking. But Rollo casts himself as a normal, middle-class teen who dealt with his parents' empty relationship by jumping into his Corvette, driving fast and chasing girls.

He claims that guns were just part of his Southern heritage. He got his first, a Colt .45, from his grandmother when he was 13. "When you add firearms to a macho immaturity, you are basically looking for someone to shoot," he says.

At the offices of OPEN Inc. in Garland, Rollo works with marketing manager Teri Hillyer to place his newly revised self-help book, 99 Days and a Get Up, in state and federal prisons across the country.
Mark Graham
At the offices of OPEN Inc. in Garland, Rollo works with marketing manager Teri Hillyer to place his newly revised self-help book, 99 Days and a Get Up, in state and federal prisons across the country.

He found that someone at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, where he attended college and dated a Tri Delt named Betty. They shared an antebellum house he rented close to campus; he lived on the second story, she and two female roommates on the first. One of her roommates had a boyfriend, who was always lurking around, Rollo says, and making Betty feel uncomfortable. "I had never met the guy, but I went into my macho protective role and told the roommate her boyfriend could not be in the house past midnight."

Nights later, after he had been out drinking with his fraternity brothers, he returned home to find the boyfriend's car in the driveway. It was 2:30 a.m. and Rollo was pissed, banging on the door and demanding the boyfriend leave. Rollo heard whispering inside, but no one answered. "If he's not out of here in 10 minutes," Rollo shouted, "I am going to blow his fucking brains out."

The way Rollo tells it, he raced upstairs, grabbed his .357 Magnum and rang Betty on the phone, but no one picked up. Imagining "some kind of Freddy Krueger scenario," he ran downstairs and beat on the door with his pistol, only this time it opened slowly. "Where is he?" Rollo hollered, stepping inside and catching a glimpse of the boyfriend, armed and moving toward him. Rollo claims he heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol cocking--but he fired first.

He thought he had acted in self-defense, doing the manly thing and rescuing his girlfriend from harm's way. The district attorney, however, branded Rollo the aggressor. But for his reckless actions, the entire incident could have been avoided. "The fact is, I shot him, and you can't give back a life," Rollo admits. "I had to live with the results." At 23, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years of hard labor at Louisiana's tough Angola State Prison.

Rollo cautions inmates in his newly revised book 99 Days and a Get Up: A Pre- & Post Release Survival Manual for Inmates & Their Loved Ones: "Every moment of captivity must be used to prepare for release so that personal fulfillment will be the final outcome." But Rollo must have found it impossible to prepare for life after prison during the horror show that was Angola.

"A month after I was there, these predators lit an old thing [elderly inmate] on fire," he recalls. "I woke up to his screams and put out their fun. They beat the shit out of me until I was pissing blood. When the guard came in, he put me in the hole for 10 days, buck naked with a blanket encrusted with feces." The life he had known died in the joint, he says, as it does for many inmates. "Two months before, I was sitting in the frat house, talking shit and plotting how we were going to fuck Susie."

To stay alive, he learned how to read people quickly, growing sensitized to every sideways glance or grumble. "The whole nature of the prison experience is subjective. Logic and rationality don't apply. Why else would someone kill over a pillowcase?"

What also kept him alive was his dream of what life would be like on the outside--those false expectations and illusions that Rollo warns inmates against. His father owned some lake property outside Shreveport. In his cell, Rollo would envision himself fishing right beside the modest A-frame house he built in his mind.

"When you are sitting in a cage, there is no way to reality-test your thoughts, so basically you hit the streets fragile," Rollo says. "Then when life pops the bubble, as it inevitably does, you may resort to violence, rage, escapism, drug use, acute depression. Which is why the recidivism rate is so high during the first few years after release."

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