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.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald

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