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.

And with every prison consultation, he insists on spending an hour or two with the inmates, giving them a lecture, a pep talk, whatever the facility will allow. "I tell them they are going to fail unless they have hope above and beyond just surviving. I remind them about how good a cold apple tastes, about the wonders of privacy, the joys of owning your own bass boat. No one else is telling them that stuff."

Recently, however, Rollo has been joined by a chorus of academics and researchers alarmed at the staggering number of prisoners who are entering communities. The most notable among them is Jeremy Travis, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute and the former director of the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice.

"Travis commanded a great deal of public attention and began talking to the media about the problem around 1998," says Dr. Todd Clear, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York City. "He was really talking about parole, but he began using the term re-entry, which doesn't sound as dangerous and feels like a positive thing."

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.

Travis says he was only responding to the concerns of then Attorney General Janet Reno. "The crime rate was the lowest rate in a generation. The prison-building boom was virtually over across the country and the prison population is barely increasing," Travis explains. "Those facts make it easier for us to focus on what we should have been focusing on all along, the consequences of incarceration."

As a result, Congress created "The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative," which authorizes $100 million in federal grants to set up pre- and post-release programs. According to a July press release from Attorney General John Ashcroft, the money will target "education, job and life-skills training, and substance abuse treatment" for inmates and ex-convicts "while carefully monitoring their activities after release."

For his part, Jeremy Travis has impaneled a roundtable of academics, policy makers and practitioners who presented their findings in October 2000 in the hope of generating bold re-entry initiatives and further study. Rollo did not attend, but Travis calls his work "prophetic" and his voice "valuable in this national policy discussion."

Rollo calls this national policy discussion "bogus bullshit...I told Travis I can collect 20 ex-cons who could tell him everything he needed to know over a cup of coffee. It might not be scientifically validated, but it would be the truth."

Perhaps it's just the old ex-con in him who can never trust "the man," but Rollo worries that the system will use the re-entry issue to "inject life back into the corpse of the parole system," which some states (not Texas) have abolished altogether.

If Ned Rollo ruled the world of re-entry--and he would certainly like to--he would mandate that every inmate (except sexual predators) who comes out of prison be subject to some form of supervision for 60 months. "From the day a person walks into the penitentiary, five years of arrest-free living should be the universal goal of the system," he says. "If an ex-con makes it that long, that means they have made a fundamental lifestyle shift, and the chance of them reoffending is less than 5 percent." But until society gets over its bias against "doing favors for deviates"; until it recognizes "its social responsibility in teaching them to read or getting them a job"; until it acknowledges that "prison makes people three to five times more fucked-up than when they entered," he argues, "nothing will change."

Oddly, at the same time he rails against this new interest in re-entry as repackaged "political pap," he seeks validation from it. "I have been preparing for this moment for the last 30 years," he says. Over the past few weeks, he has learned that his newly revised edition of 99 Days and a Get Up will be used as the source material in prerelease programs at 20 federal institutions in five states as well as every prison run by the state of West Virginia. Not only will his book be required reading for every inmate being released from these facilities, each will take a course specifically designed around the material.

The rest of the world may finally be catching up with Ned Rollo, if only he will let it. His is a complex dance between "outlaw" and "inlaw," between high drama and low esteem, between feeling alienated from a society he seeks to embrace and beholden to a society he seeks to hold accountable. As he learned in Canada, it's not yet possible to distance himself from his past. Then again, he wouldn't want to: He can never lose touch with his rage and resentment--not if he wants to keep telling his story and not if he wants ex-cons to listen.

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