He found a calling in prison

Times Staff Writer

PAT Nolan’s views on crime and punishment took root when he was 8 years old, delivering newspapers on the streets of Los Angeles. Time and again, neighborhood punks preyed on him -- stealing his bike, roughing him up and clouding his days with fear.

Two decades later, Nolan won a seat in the state Assembly, where those childhood scars drove him to fight for more prisons and tougher sentencing. Nothing, he believed, was too bad for the bad guys.

Then Nolan became one of the bad guys.

In the mid-1990s, in one of the Capitol’s most notorious political corruption cases, federal authorities convicted him of racketeering and 13 others of various charges in an FBI sting known as Shrimpscam. Suddenly, the lock-'em-up Republican legislator was on the wrong side of the bars.


Nolan’s 26 months in prison ended a red-hot political career but spawned a fascinating personal odyssey. Once a fiercely ambitious Assembly minority leader, considered a promising candidate for governor, he morphed into a humble, Bible-quoting ex-con who travels the country denouncing the American penal system as a failure.

Today, Nolan says most prisons are human warehouses that squander billions of tax dollars by doing nothing to guide inmates toward a productive future. The sad result -- in California, 70% of inmates are re-arrested within three years of release -- means more crime victims and fewer state dollars for schools, healthcare and other priorities, he says.

“If hospitals were failing to heal two out of three patients, would we continue to pour money into them?” Nolan asks. “Of course not. So shame on those who defend the status quo.”

Nolan spreads his message as president of Justice Fellowship, an arm of Virginia-based Prison Fellowship Ministries, formed by another Republican who spent time behind bars: onetime White House aide Charles Colson of Watergate fame.

Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Nolan to a “strike team” charged with overhauling California’s approach to imprisonment. The initiative follows passage of a $7.4-billion package that will add 53,000 beds to the system while boosting education, drug treatment and other services for the state’s 173,000 inmates.

Nolan’s personal saga fuels his message with passion and credibility. A burly 57-year-old with thick gray hair, a jowly face and bright blue eyes, he struggles with health problems, including Lyme disease and diabetes. Still, he bounces from state to state to spur new thinking on prisons and prisoners.

An author, lecturer and member of two respected national commissions on prison issues, Nolan frequently testifies before congressional committees and trumpets his cause on television talk shows. He punctuates his conversations with quotations from an eclectic array of sources, including Jesus, Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius and the French revolutionary Robespierre.

IN early May, in a Capitol homecoming of sorts, Nolan brought his message to Sacramento. He met privately with GOP lawmakers, hoping to chip away at the tough-on-crime mentality that many of them project publicly.

“I’ve sat on the dais, I know the political pressures they’re responding to,” he said during a pause at a downtown cafe. “I tell them that when I was in the Legislature, I really thought more prisons meant more public safety. I really thought that when a criminal went through the prison gate, I didn’t need to worry about him any more.”

That was a mistake, Nolan says now, because 95% of all prisoners eventually return home. Then, “they’re in line with me at Safeway, they’re at the park with my children, they’re next to me on the bus,” he says. “So I’d better hope they’ve turned their lives around.”

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) says Nolan’s dual experiences as politician and inmate make his pitch difficult to ignore.

“You can’t go through what Pat experienced without being fundamentally affected,” McClintock said. “It made it possible for him to humanize this issue in a very compelling way.”

Nolan is not the only conservative with a changed perspective on sentencing and the treatment of inmates. The debate over punishment is shifting in America, and Republicans are doing much of the talking.

Congress is weighing the Second Chance Act, a bill aimed at helping prisoners reenter society. The legislation -- co-sponsored by 27 Republicans -- marks a reversal of policies that made life tougher for parolees by cutting college grants, barring drug felons from receiving student loans and erecting other barriers to re-integrating.

“There is so much empirical evidence now on the ills of mass incarceration that it’s become almost impossible to ignore,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice and former corrections commissioner for New York City. “People like Pat Nolan are incredibly helpful because they are listened to in conservative circles in a way the wacky, liberal criminologists are not.”

The trajectory of Nolan’s life gave little hint that he would devote his prime years to helping felons shed their criminal ways.

The sixth of nine children, he grew up in the Crenshaw Boulevard neighborhood once known as Sugar Hill, the son of an accountant and a homemaker. As children, he and his siblings performed at festivals and Disneyland as the Nine Dancing Nolans, a singing group celebrating their Irish roots.

His interest in politics -- fanned when he volunteered for gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan in 1966 -- flourished when he enrolled at USC. With the university bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, he helped found a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a group that launched a generation of conservative politicians.

He also found time to learn horseback riding, and rode as Tommy Trojan in the 1974 Rose Parade.

After USC Law School, Nolan worked as an attorney for several years before making his first bid for the Assembly in 1978. In an upset election, he bested more veteran politicians after a door-to-door campaign anchored in his support for Proposition 13, California’s landmark property tax-cutting initiative.

NOLAN’S drive and charm quickly drew notice in the statehouse, and his staunchly conservative values prompted others to dub him and some GOP allies “the Cavemen.” By 1984, the lawmaker from Glendale had won a fight to become Republican leader and was plotting a course to capture a GOP majority in the lower house -- and the Assembly speakership for himself. He seemed headed for statewide office, or a high post in Washington.

But in 1994, the big dreams collapsed.

After he was secretly videotaped accepting checks from an undercover FBI agent, Nolan was accused of using his office to solicit illegal campaign contributions. Though proclaiming his innocence and denouncing the federal government’s tactics in the investigation, he ultimately pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge. Nolan said he accepted the plea bargain because he feared a longer sentence if convicted by a jury.

Today, Nolan avoids talk of his own case, calling it a “distraction” that diverts attention from his message. “If I get into it, it looks like I’m trying to justify or promote myself,” he says. “It’s in the past, and we can’t un-ring that bell.” But he does talk openly -- and soberly -- of the shock, loneliness and despair he experienced after tumbling from his position of political prestige to his lowly status as inmate No. 06833-97.

Although fear and isolation were the most obvious new realities, Nolan said the continual verbal abuse from prison officers was the most difficult to endure.

“You’re an amputee, cut off from family, community, job, church, and, with your stump still bleeding, you’re tossed into this boiling cauldron of anger, hatred, bitterness, sexual repression, and you’re totally disrespected -- screamed at -- by officers all the time,” Nolan recalled.

“You are sneered at with venom and told repeatedly, ‘You ain’t got nothing coming.’ The implication is that you are nothing, you’ve come from nothing and you will be nothing. You are worthless. You have no future. None.”

Nolan said he withstood the experience partly by renewing his Catholic faith. But he realized that for inmates who lacked his education and strong family support, the message that they were scum -- coupled with the absence of any meaningful job training, education or counseling -- was a recipe for disaster.

“As a legislator, I had assumed that our prisons were not only preparing people for success upon release, but also helping these damaged men develop a moral compass, and ensuring that they analyzed the bad decisions that got them in trouble,” Nolan said. “I was wrong.”

As his parole date approached, Nolan considered his options. A few insurance companies offered him work as a rainmaker, and there were research positions available at law firms. Then, through what he believes was divine intervention, an offer came from Colson and Prison Fellowship.

The job allowed him to campaign for change in a system that he felt was dangerously flawed and to spend more time with his wife, Gail, and three children, Courtney, Katie and Jamie.

“I really believed that God allowed me to go through this experience, all the pain of it, partly to prepare me to share with others the message that there is a better way, a way to have safer communities and help people leave prison better than when they came in,” Nolan said.

DURING his Sacramento visit, Nolan was a featured speaker at a conference urging employers to take a chance and hire parolees. It is one of his favorite topics.

As well-heeled executives nibbled on fruit salad, he began -- in a slow, soft voice -- to share his story of incarceration and remind the guests that more than 650,000 inmates leave American prisons and go home each year.

“There are not enough cops on the street to stop everyone tempted to do something bad,” Nolan told the crowd. “So we need to help them develop inner restraint and moral standards. And we need to give them jobs.”

A few heads nodded in agreement. But several guests murmured to each other about the risks they would face if they hired the wrong guy.

Nolan continued, relating the story of a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania where 70% of the workforce are ex-convicts screened by the state prison system. Supervisors sing their praises, saying the ex-felons’ work ethic and gratitude for a steady paycheck make them ideal employees.

“Give them a second chance, as we’ve been given a second chance, for our mistakes in life,” Nolan urged in closing. “That’s how we’ll build safer communities.”

After the conference, Nolan walked through downtown Sacramento. He looked tired, sweat glistening on his brow. Then he spotted a heavily tattooed man, an ex-felon named Rick Jaramillo who had attended the conference and stood to share his story.

Jaramillo, 41, spent nearly half his life cycling in and out of prison for drug dealing, auto theft and other crimes. Finally, he got his head straight and landed a rare spot in a prison job-training program. He now owns 17 residential centers designed to help parolees smoothly reenter the free world.

Nolan hurried over to Jaramillo, placed a hand on his massive shoulder.

“I just want you to know,” he said quietly, “how much I admire what you have done.”

They clasped hands, locked eyes, two ex-cons sharing a moment anchored in a common experience.

Then Pat Nolan trundled off to his next meeting, a man on a mission, spreading his gospel as best he can.