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.

Weiss advised Rollo to start knocking on doors, pitching to businessmen, lawyers and civic leaders. He had only limited success until he talked his way into the offices of John Stemmons, the de facto head of the business oligarchy that once ran this city. "I became the pet deviate of Mr. Stemmons and the boys," Rollo says. "I just told him what my dream was, and he trusted me--after he sent the chief of police [Billy Prince] over to talk to me."

Omar Harvey, then a banker managing Bill Clements' first gubernatorial campaign, recalls receiving a phone call from Stemmons. "'I got a real live murderer sitting across the desk from me, and he has some idea he can keep prisoners from going back to prison,'" he said. "'I want you to help him.'" Harvey would eventually become chairman of the board for OPEN Inc. It was hard to refuse Stemmons. Even Rollo shaved his beard, took off his leathers and donned a suit, "squaring up out of respect for him," he says. That way he would look more presentable on those Friday afternoons at Stemmons Towers when he would drink whiskey with "the boys" and tell stories about his life behind bars. Stemmons also recruited other OPEN board members, a virtual who's who of the Dallas business establishment: Avery Mays (construction), John Hill (Gifford-Hill & Co.), Joe B. Dealey (Belo Corp.), Alex Bickley (Dallas Citizens Council). He offered financial support, telling his big-check-writing cronies that Rollo was "just too mean to fail."

Insurance executive Charles Terrell was also pressed into service, becoming OPEN board chairman before heading the Texas Department of Criminal Justice under Governor Clements. Terrell says his time with Rollo made him "progressive" to issues of prisoner rehabilitation and education, but he also oversaw the largest prison-building boom in the state's history. "I love Ned, but I have thrown him out of my office at least three times. My passion and his passion could go in opposite directions."

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.

Rollo had a suite of offices in Stemmons Towers, a sizable staff and a growing reputation, appearing on national talk shows such as Good Morning America, Oprah and Donahue. Of course, his real work was still in the trenches: He and Greene managed support groups for ex-convicts and their families, parole preparation training that would help them sidestep the traps of coming home. It wasn't as though Rollo was getting rich off his nonprofit. ("Curtis Meadows once said they considered giving me an award for managing my poverty impeccably," he says.) But he was making a difference, feeling appreciated, being taken seriously--at least until 1987, when the Texas economy wilted and the largesse of his donors dried up.

John Stemmons told Rollo he couldn't carry him alone. His cause was too unpopular and couldn't compete with sick children or higher education. Rollo closed his office, lost his staff and set up shop in his small house in Garland, taking a "leap of faith," he says, and transforming OPEN from a "direct service agency for ex-convicts" into a publishing and distribution house for the self-help books he and Greene would write.

Times were hard, and they went on unemployment. Books had to be written as well as sold, and prison officials were not in a buying mood, not for anything that smacked of rehabilitation. "In 1987, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a policy statement saying they don't do rehabilitation," says Dr. Stephen C. Richards, a sociology professor at the University of Northern Kentucky and an ex-convict himself. "They said it wasn't their responsibility. They just warehouse inmates."

Despite research showing the best rehabilitative program is education, Congress, not wishing to reward criminals for their criminality, did away with student loan grants for inmates. Because few inmates had the resources to put themselves through school, prison college programs folded across the country. (Only 50 of this state's 150,000 inmates earned their bachelor's degrees in 2000.)

But Rollo persevered, writing nearly a dozen self-help handbooks for his inmate audience, employing frank language and prison-speak on such issues as getting a job, getting off drugs and making a successful transition into the community. It didn't hurt that Charles Terrell gave him access to the Texas prison system, which ordered more than 40,000 copies of the first printing of 99 Days and a Get Up. It also didn't hurt that Norval Morris, a law professor from the University of Chicago and an acquaintance from Rollo's early days in Chicago, helped him become a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections, which offers technical assistance and training to correctional facilities around the country. What Rollo says he soon discovered were fragmented bits of programming, counselors who taught life, parenting or job-hunting skills generically, but were too lazy or afraid to see those issues from the inmates' viewpoints.

He also pissed off a lot of people. "We have tried to tone Ned down, but he thinks we are trying to compromise him," Greene says. "He has this tendency to tell people they don't know what they are doing." Rollo calls it his "mad dog advocacy--going off on someone who is setting themselves up as an expert and doesn't know a convict from a Coke machine." Rollo is mellowing, though, Greene says, and he does make amends. By flipping from gruff to genteel, he diplomatically convinces people he was right in the first place. The National Institute of Corrections continues to use him as a technical adviser.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest