Juan Roldan served 25 years in prison. He was sent upstate in the mid-1980s, and at the time, he left behind a wife and a 16-month-old son. His crime was murder in the second degree and robbery, and he was 21 when he went to prison. He was formerly incarcerated at Rikers, Green Haven, Sing Sing, and other prison facilities in New York.
He explained, "With prison? I call it an 'emotional tsunami.' It takes you on a rollercoaster ride in a tsunami. That’s what prison is. I chose to not let it destroy me. I used the cell as my laboratory, as my library, as my learning center. I was able to turn it around."
For his excellent behavior and contributions to the prisons where he did his time, he was granted parole with no stipulations in 2010.
Roldan has since re-married and now lives happily in New York as a social worker and a chaplain.
This is his story.
Q: Which prisons did you go to?
Roldan: I served at Rikers Island for 16 months. From Rikers Island, back in the early 1980s, you went to Downstate Correctional Facility, I was there for reception and classification. I spent approximately 45 days there.
From Downstate, I went to Great Meadows Correctional Facility (also known as “Comstock”) [as a transfer] -- from there I went to Green Haven Correctional Facility to be in general population. Green Haven is a maximum security prison -- there I did 14 years.
Then I asked for a transfer and because I had done very well and because I had many leadership roles -- I was a teacher, a counselor. My record was par excellent. I wanted to continue my education, my transfer was approved, and then I went to Sing Sing. I went to school there; I spent 5 years there. And when my time came up, I requested a transfer to a medium facility and it was approved, and I went to Fishkill because I wanted to make it easy on my parents [to be close, so they could visit].
I graduated in 2010 with my Master’s degree. I was released July 2010 from Fishkill. I did exactly 25 years and some hours.
I was very fortunate; parole saw that a young man entered the facility -- into New York state prison system -- and they saw that before them was someone who was responsible, took responsibility for the crimes that I had committed, took responsibility for my own life while in there, and then I also assisted and helped many men achieve their goals in that 25-year process. They said this, so I’m not saying anything that they didn’t say to me.
I was in there -- at the parole board -- for approximately 30 minutes. Usually parole is anywhere from 1 minute to the average for parole when you’re in a hearing is maybe like 12 minutes. So, when you’re in there for 30 minutes like I was, they’re listening to you.
Two days later, they called me for the notice. It’s a very very nervous time. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been denied parole in the past or if this is your first time appearing. They called me, I went down, and I read it right outside the hallway. Later on -- I passed out. My voice was gone. My eyes rolled back. I was very, very fortunate.
I had gained what is like a “good time” thing, where for lifers -- it meets the criteria they [the parole board] is looking for. I had a achieved a Master’s degree, achieved a Bachelor’s degree, that you had no infractions or misbehavior reports in the last year, you had achieved your programming. If they had 7 bullets, I had achieved them all. What happens is that you apply, and you wait to see if you get granted. And I was granted, and that brings you up to the parole board earlier.
I can’t forget the victim in my life. One of the things I said in parole and that I’ll say in any interview: I believe my life and his are intertwined for the rest of my life because of the crime I committed.
Now, I’m a social worker. And I work to benefit other people’s lives. I tell people: I’m here to provide you with a service, I work for you. That’s how I give back.
Q: Did you leave family behind and what was that like? You mentioned a baby son. How did your prison time affect your relationship with your son?
Roldan: He was 16 months old. And it was very hard on me. I often found myself crying. You know, sad -- maybe even depressed -- at the fact that he was no longer a part of my life. On Rikers Island, I literally realized I had an angel in my hands. I held an angel. Pure innocence.
It was very very hard. I called every day. And it got to a point where -- my wife [then], Irma, she would get upset and say: You’re calling here every day, you’re calling here all the time, and I need a break. And then it got to a point where he was asking for me. I had just totally disappeared.
And she would come to visit me with him, but visiting on Rikers Island is very, very, extremely difficult. Even to this day. That has not changed. They don’t make it easy. It’s an hour visit, but you’re waiting like 5 hours. Anywhere from 3-5 hours. Maybe that process has lessened, but it was really hard.
For me, all I wanted to do was see my son and see my wife Irma. And when she started sharing with me -- the horror stories. Because Irma, she didn’t expect none of that. Irma graduated from Cathedral High School. Her family is wealthy. And she was just not used to any of that. Then bringing our son -- lugging him; he was big for his age. So it was very difficult for her to bring him to me, and it was difficult for me not to be with him.
But I know that he remembers it -- because he’s 32 now. And I try to speak [to him] and my son is angry. He doesn’t want to talk to me. I saw him periodically throughout the 25 years, but as he got older, he was involved in sports, so his mother wasn’t bringing him up. I would write letters that would say -- if he and I are not connected somehow, this is going to cause an alienation and a riff. I foresaw the future in 1989.
People would tell Irma that she shouldn’t bring him to a prison because it would psychologically mess him up and she went with that.
When I came home in 2010, I waited a little while and I met with her and she would fill me in. She would update me periodically and fill me in on his growth and development. But when I first seen him, when he saw me -- he didn’t want to see me. We talked for hours, but he wasn’t feeling me. And I tried to speak to him again and we hung out a little bit in the East Village and in the West Village -- we went walking around, talking -- and he was critical. So those years apart, that alienation, whatever love and emotion he felt for me -- he’s not able to turn it around.
In New York State, they offer what they call “Family Reunion Program” -- they give families an opportunity to spend 72 hours with your family. So it has to be your wife, your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your children -- it has to be legal. He had been to a few of those where I had celebrated his birthdays. He had been there with me for a few of those, and we were together and close.
But I think that the fact that I wasn’t a part of his life -- he held onto that.
I have told my son, you don’t understand, in the 25 years I spent in prison: You were my guiding light.
I wanted you to see this kid who went in, who made terrible choices in his life, an instant moment in my life -- but look, I have 25 years of positive change. Not only did I change myself, but I changed the direction of other people who would have come home and been criminals again; I was a teacher and a counselor. I affected change in the prison system.
So my goal in the 25 years was to say to my own son -- yes, I served the 25 years, but look how I did it -- and I did it all for you. It was for you.
I think all my dreams I’m achieving. But that one dream hasn’t happened yet. Which is that me and my son can hang out together. That we can be together and go camping together. That me and my wife, and him and his wife, and maybe even his mother and her current husband can all get together and have dinner and hang out. Just hang out, be together, like friends. But that’s not happening. I keep it in prayer -- that’s all I can do.
Q: What needs to be improved within the U.S. prison system? What most needs to change for things to get better? To help other families going through this right now.
For Families -- Some prisons have playrooms and family rooms and places where fathers can be with their children outside of the sitting area. Sit and read to their children. And they have social workers and counselors there to assist with reading and books and toys and games and writing.
I know some prisons in New York provide that.
I know some places also provide reading stuff, where a father can read a book and read it into something [a recording] and a DVD [of the father’s voice] is sent to the child.
I know New York state provides Family Reunion visits -- maybe if they expanded the family reunion programs into more prisons and not just a few. And then to bring fathers down that are from the NYC 5 borough area -- so if you have fathers that are in Attica, Clinton, Auburn -- these prisons that pretty much border the Canadian border -- and bring them down so the hardship of being on a bus for 13 hours isn’t there [for the families], and give the fathers the opportunity to come down to the downstate area -- to, say, Fishkill, to bring these men down [to see families]. That’s good for the fathers because the trip is very long.
With Correctional Officers -- It’s always good to have friendlier or more personable correctional officers in the visiting area. So they know how to speak to people. I think if in these places you can have more personable, more social, more culturally sensitive correction officers in the visiting rooms and in the family reunion programs -- I think that will enhance and enrich the interaction between the incarcerated person and then the family. Sometimes what you have is the baddest and the meanest and the ugliest personality in a correctional officer in these settings where these families go. Approximately 85% of people in New York state prisons are men of color. Women of color -- whether you’re Latino, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Dominican, whatever it is. And then African-American, Jamaican. And what you have is an overwhelming staff of correction officers and support staff who are white and from the upstate region. All from upstate and they live near the Canadian border. And they don’t mingle with people of color from the five boroughs.
In a lot of these places [where correctional officers are from] -- the Ku Klux Klan is strong. I remember coming out of J Block (it was kind of like an honor block) and we would find KKK literature all over the place. That was very common.
I remember being in Comstock and something woke me up and I looked up towards the bars and there was a correctional officer clearly dressed in KKK outfit. Standing in front of the cell. I jumped up and freaked out and for about a month, I went to sleep with my clothes on.
So my point is you can’t have officers with this type of mentality.
Phone Calls -- Having the phone calls at a great rate. Because the calls -- the price -- it’s extortion.
About Fatherhood Programs / Having Children See Their Fathers Achieving Things --
Also having fatherhood programs, where men can study and read and understand what it would be to be a good father, a good dad. And then having them -- after they complete at 10, 15 week program -- then have them realize it’s not a program, it’s a process that has no end as a father. So you would graduate and it’s [the beginning of] a process. Have a graduation [from the program] and have these children come and see their fathers achieving. You don’t know if the last time this person saw their father was when he was being arrested. All my son knew was that I left one day and never returned. For others, mothers and fathers are being arrested in front of their children.
So at the end of day, if you can create something where a person is achieving and families can come and see that this parent has achieved. Then I think stuff like that goes a long way.
I know when I graduated with my first degree -- my mother who is 5’2 (and I’m 6’2), she put her hands on my shoulders and told me: I’m proud of you, my son. And she doesn’t know to this day, I almost fainted. My knees buckled when she said that.
Prison As An “Emotional Tsunami”
Roldan: With prison? I call it an “emotional tsunami.” It takes you on a roller coaster ride in a tsunami. That’s what prison is.
So it is devastating to the adolescents who I have met inside [i.e. people under 18 who go to prison]. It’s devastating to the adolescent who is doing prison time. It can and it does destroy them.
I chose to not let it destroy me. I used the cell as my laboratory, as my library, as my learning center. I was able to turn it around. Where I had reading material that was both educational and the other was entertainment. I was constantly listening to the news, to talk shows, to be updated on current events, to be politically minded. I call it socio-political consciousness.
But when you have a young guy who is 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 -- inside there. It is emotionally devastating because they are closer to their parents. Let me tell you something: When I got in, when I was first was given a phone call, I called my mom (not my wife). I was grown man, with a home, calling my mother. So, just imagine a child.
A few weeks ago, I was at a Presbyterian church and every year they have a “Church and Justice” event, where men who have graduated theological seminary run the church service. We’re the readers, the preachers, the ushers. They brought in adolescents -- young men of 16 to 18 years old who are in an alternative-to-incarceration program. It’s their last chance before they are sent upstate. One of the things that I said, as I introduced myself -- we were asked to speak to these young men. I said first and foremost: You must learn to love yourself. When you learn to love yourself, you will learn to love and respect the other. And I said it three times.
On Being Afraid
Roldan: Let me share something with you. I was afraid for 25 years. I was afraid. My whole life.
There are levels of fear. And I was afraid in prison because at any given moment anything can happen. So you are constantly watching. Constantly observing. You’re always on your toes. You can never really sleep.
About Language Used About the U.S. Prison System -- How It Must Change
Roldan: Please don’t call them “conjugal visits” -- they are family reunion visits.
Please do not call them “inmates” -- incarcerated men and women.
Stay away from the word “inmates.” Stay away from the word “convict.”
Don’t use the word “ex con,” “ex convict.”
The word to use I think is “incarcerated person” or “formerly incarcerated person.”
Words can stigmatize and words can hurt. If you still see me as an ex-convict, then reclassified me.
About Giving the Voiceless a Voice
Roldan: I appreciate you being interested in this. You want to give people a voice. You have have to understand that incarcerated men and women -- we’re like a voice in the desert. You know, you wonder if it’s being heard. You don’t know.
So we end up being a voice for the voiceless. And in this setting, I am no longer voiceless because you give my story a voice. The voice is no longer in the wilderness and it’s valued.
About Second Chances
Roldan: About a month ago now I was invited to speak at Fordham University, the theological school. I’m also a New York state chaplain, so I had a small shield on my label.
The moderator introduced me and mentioned I had spent 25 years in prison.
He mentioned my degrees and stuff like that. I welcomed everyone for coming.
And I said: Can anything good come out of Galilee?
I said again: Can anything good come out of Galilee? Come and see.
And then I said: Can anything good come out of Green Haven, Fishkill, Sing Sing, Comstock, Attica? Come and see.
I said: You’ve come and you’ve seen. And you’ve seen and you’ve heard.
I mentioned other people I know who are out and doing very very well now.
And I said: We’re here.
But we’re the voice of the voiceless.