The Ex-Con Game
He grew anxious as he approached a customs official at the Ottawa airport, declaring that he had lost his fanny pack, which contained his drivers license and all his cash. It didn't help that he had this thing about authority figures, a holdover from his time in prison that made him seem brusque, unyielding and generally pissed off. But the penitentiary was a lifetime ago--or so he thought--and at 57, his demeanor was more eccentric than rebellious. His long graying hair--what was left of it--was tied in a more manageable ponytail. His dark eyes mirrored a curious mind rather than a criminal one. He wore a sports shirt and jeans, and there was no evidence of his biker leathers or his earring.
He presented other forms of identification, among them a prestigious invitation from the Canadian government to speak before an international conference on criminology, which was what brought him to Ottawa. As a nationally renowned expert on the reintegration of prisoners into society--a kind of Tony Robbins for the penitentiary set--he writes motivational self-help books for inmates, offering them a terse psychological road map for their return. As a consultant for the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections, he has trained correctional staff across the country on how to set up prison prerelease programs that accommodate the emotional and social needs of inmates. But the most telling evidence of his persuasive powers is that he could sell himself, an ex-convict helping other ex-convicts, to old guard Dallas business leaders--arch conservatives such as John Stemmons, Joe Dealey and Avery Mays, who encouraged and financed his endeavors, allowing him to work within the system while agitating against it.
But on April 30, 2000, none of this mattered to the Canadian customs official who seemed interested in only one question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
Yes, for manslaughter, he replied, drug delivery and firearms violations. Even though his crimes occurred more than 25 years earlier, he was hustled into a room where a young customs agent began to interrogate him: Who did he murder and why? Was he provoked? What kind of drugs did he deal?
Rollo says it felt as though "a tidal wave was cresting over the head" of the agent, and he could do nothing but drown. "I was invited here by your government," he explained. "I have all the paperwork, my letter of acceptance."
The customs agent allowed him to phone the conference organizers, who claimed there had to be some mistake. But there was no mistake as far as the agent was concerned. "We are deporting you," she said.
"Why? I've never committed a crime in Canada."
"You need a formal pardon from the Canadian government to be allowed access into this country." If he resisted boarding the next plane to Chicago, she said, he would be incarcerated. The agent and two armed guards then escorted Rollo to the plane. Turning to the agent, he again protested: "Ma'am, don't you understand that the first obligation of the law is reason?"
"I have an obligation to the citizens of Canada to protect them from criminal pollutants like you," he recalls her saying.
He boarded the plane and a day later returned to Dallas, stunned, bitter, questioning his own teachings. Never short of rhetorical swagger or grand gesture, he says he gathered all his notes for a book he had been working on and set fire to them in his back yard. The book was to be titled: On Becoming an Ex-Ex Con. "I realized that everything I believed to be true in terms of your ability to outdistance the past was blown away in that one moment. For 36 million Americans, being a felon is a lifelong disability," he says. "Until society is ready to re-enfranchise them and give them closure, how can you expect them to participate?"
Things don't just happen to Ned Rollo. His experiences are crushing blows, pivotal moments, captivating cliffhangers. He may be using this latest epiphany to stoke his own outrage, keeping himself in touch with his "ex-conness," which will then inform his work. But his sermonizing about the future is part of a growing national dialogue between academics, think-tankers and politicos, who are making the re-entry of prisoners the focus of much of their concern and some of their money.
The talk is being driven by the record number of convicts--630,000 nationwide, 36,000 in Texas alone--who each year re-enter communities that insist they become constructive members while doing little to accommodate their transition. Returning jobless, homeless, divorced, uneducated, unhealthy and just plain mean, ex-cons face the likely chance that they will be locked up again within three years of release. Even get-tough politicians are realizing that their mandatory sentences, drug war and multibillion-dollar prison boom have done little to curb recidivism other than put 1.3 million people behind bars. With 97 percent of these being released within a few years of their confinement, assisting their re-entry has been recast as a public safety issue. In July, Congress offered seed money to the states, funding $100 million for pre- and post-release programs through the Department of Justice. Prominent researchers are seeking grants from public and private foundations to discover which programs work and which don't, why some offenders succeed and others don't.
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.
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."
With credit for good time and some political pull, Rollo discharged his seven-year sentence in 30 months. No programs were offered to guide his re-entry and catch him if he stumbled. His jailers just opened the back gates and he walked through them a changed man. "I was an idiot when I came in. I thought I was an outlaw when I left. The world was my enemy."
Few things remain the same when an inmate is released from prison. "The world has changed, and you were not there to change with it," Rollo writes. Your first taste of freedom can be as exciting as it is overwhelming. In the pen, every choice was made for you. In the free world, you are confronted with nothing but choices. Your family, assuming you have any left, doesn't know how to deal with you and can never understand the hell you've been through.
Rollo returned to Shreveport to live his dream, but his father had other plans. He had bought a bar while he was in the pen, and his son began to bus tables. One night a drunk was hassling a barmaid, so Rollo picked up a baseball bat and told the guy to get out. His father intervened, but on the customer's behalf, telling Rollo he was the one who needed to leave. "It literally broke my heart," he says. "Fresh from the joint, I didn't need six weeks of information to know I was an embarrassment to my father. I knew I could not stay in that town."
The following day, an aunt gave him plane fare to Chicago. That is where Sara lived, one of his prison pen pals who had once written him that if he ever needed a place to live, he could stay with her. At the airport, he phoned to tell her he was on his way.
In Chicago, he worked in a factory for a time, did some part-time work on weekends, but only after badgering a department head at the Illinois Rehabilitation Commission did he receive the federal funding he needed to attend school. He was accepted to Roosevelt University in Chicago, which makes it its mission to "actively seek out underserved populations."
"Education brings a clean, fresh energy to your life that helps you redefine your self-image," he says. "You're not an ex-con; you are a student. And you're meeting a nicer group of people."
He broke up with Sara after a year. That's when he became the "happy hippie," a Harley-riding, kazoo-playing dope smoker who lived in a commune and dropped acid when he could get it, which was often. "I was still the outlaw, but marijuana took the edge off my hostility and fear. I was a real nice guy when I was stoned."
"He would come across as fierce and passionate about his ideas," recalls Frank Bulba, who would later become his roommate in Chicago. "And people, particularly women, were attracted to him. It certainly wasn't because of his good looks."
Majoring in psychology, he graduated in 1970. Three months later, he got his first "real job in the business," working for the Illinois Department of Corrections. As a residence counselor in a YMCA halfway house, he supervised freshly released convicts, doing bed checks and calling the police if they stayed too drunk too often.
If only he hadn't gone down the second time.
His father was dying; he had suffered a stroke and barely recognized anyone. The care he was getting at the Veterans Administration hospital, Rollo says, was a disgrace. His mother was falling apart and wanted her son to visit. "I felt some financial pressure to get my dad into a better hospital."
In Shreveport, his brother introduced him to a woman who told him she was selling amphetamines to "frustrated Air Force wives through three different beauty parlors," he says. She later phoned him in Chicago and said her source was drying up. She needed 5,000 hits of speed, and he needed money. Was he interested? At first he said no but then wrestled with his conscience. "People coming out of the pen are like functional schizophrenics, totally out of balance," Rollo says. "Here I am a teacher and a helper and a counselor; at the same time I am a drug fiend and a biker. I take pride in the fact that I can kill you or kiss you with equal sincerity."
A few phone calls later, he bought the dope, packed three pistols in his car and headed for Louisiana. On March 11, 1975, he drove to a restaurant parking lot in Shreveport where he met the woman--along with a dozen narcs. He was set up, beat up and tossed back in jail. His days as the happy hippie were done.
For a two-time loser with a history of violence, he got off relatively easy: five years of state time for the drug charge, four years of federal time for the firearms violations, the sentences to run concurrently.
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."
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."
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."
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 ithis "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.
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."
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.