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 generally couches his return to prison in highly cathartic terms: "a turning point in my life," "a moment of truth" that was sparked by news of his father's death. He would only be permitted to go to the funeral in shackles, he says, which he refused to do. "I was already bone-deep in embarrassment because I had gone back to zero and my attempts to reconstruct myself were a failure...I was at the bottom of the bottom. I could find no reason to keep breathing. That is when I had my breakthrough. I decided if I survived the experience, I would spend my life trying to do some measurable good, working with ex-convicts post-release."

He claims this "breakthrough" was the dream that sustained him for the next three years--that and a redhead named Mary. She was his cousin Moose's girlfriend, and both came to visit while he was doing his federal time in Texarkana. One day Moose stopped coming, but Mary didn't.

Rollo teaches that prison romances can be as illusory as they are common; all that uncertainty, adversity and pent-up passion forge intense emotional bonds between people, some of whom hardly know each other. Mary set up house for him in Dallas and waited. She was his exit plan; she and a job at the Dallas YMCA. "I wrote one of those pitiful convict letters to the director of the juvenile crime prevention program," Rollo says. "He interviewed me in prison and said he would find me a position whenever I was released."

The many faces of Ned, from top: frat boy, murderer, counselor, executive director, author.
The many faces of Ned, from top: frat boy, murderer, counselor, executive director, author.
Rollo worries that the current national debate concerning prisoner re-entry is a ruse to resuscitate the dying parole system and will fail to consider the needs of ex-convicts.
Mark Graham
Rollo worries that the current national debate concerning prisoner re-entry is a ruse to resuscitate the dying parole system and will fail to consider the needs of ex-convicts.

Yet, he was still at war with himself, he says. "The good part that wanted to serve was battling this real enraged person who was developing over those three years. So by the time they cut me loose in August 1977, I was one serious motherfucker." Two days after his release, he was working in Dallas, and Mary had left him, at least emotionally. She had become "the disco darling of too many dudes on Greenville Avenue," he says.

But this time out was different. He had a tangible purpose, a job in "human service" and a federal grant to fund his salary. But Rollo says when his boss resigned from his job, Rollo also resigned in protest. He was out of work, on parole and had no money, but he quickly convinced a nonprofit agency, Dallas Alliance for Business, to hire him as its offender employment specialist. Within six months, he had a staff of five ex-cons and he was getting positive publicity from the local press. "An ex-con doing this role reversal was real newsworthy in this town," he says.

Maybe a little too newsworthy for CEO volunteers at the Dallas Alliance for Business, he says, who took it upon themselves to hire a lawyer and fire him. "I am working 24-hour days. The focus of my existence was to make this thing work, and they pull it out from under me. The first two years out is just a house of cards for any ex-con." But rather than pistol-whip the closest CEO or lose himself in drugs, he decided to start his own nonprofit, which he called OPEN Inc. (Offender Preparation and Employment Network).

Katherine Greene was with him almost from the start. In 1980, while attending a seminar in Huntsville for jail librarians, she heard Rollo speak on the psychological needs of ex-convicts. "He has a strong personal energy and charm," she says. "He is so intense, it's disarming."

Later that day, they met at a barbecue, and that intensity translated into instant romance. He was persistent, seemed to know his mind so well. "It became important that we should redirect our lives," she says. A few months later they were married, and they became partners at home and at work. But after two years, the reality couldn't live up to the romance, and now they remain just partners at work.

Rollo began teaching a course to inmates in the Dallas County jail on post-release survival skills as part of a college prison program sponsored by El Centro College. Carl Gilroy was beginning the first of two prison terms, which would net him 20 years in the pen. He remembers being impressed with Rollo, who was this "great big fellow, long-haired and tough. But he was talking about feeling lonely and scared and ostracized by society. Convicts never talk like that." In the joint, any show of feelings is a sign of weakness. "He was the first one in my life to say, 'Running the streets and getting high is wrong, not because the law says so, or your family, but because it's wrong for you.' That changed me. I wound up getting my college degree in the pen."

Teaching that course brought Rollo to the attention of the Meadows Foundation, a private Dallas philanthropy that encouraged him to submit a grant proposal. "I worked with Ned to help him build capacity to receive the grant," says Bob Weiss, who was then the executive director of the Center for Non-Profit Management. "He was passionate, even prophetic on the issue of prisoner return, but he had no board, no structure to work with."

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