Keegan Rolenc drove south from Minneapolis, unsure if he would sleep in his bed or a jail cell that night.
After being out of prison for two months, Rolenc faced a criminal trial for an assault he committed as an inmate in 2015 — the same one that bought him three extra months in prison and a year in the state’s harshest solitary confinement unit. If found guilty, Rolenc was looking at another year and a half back in prison.
He sat at the Rice County courthouse that February day anxiously awaiting his turn, but his trial was postponed. He waited for weeks not knowing if he would remain free or go back to prison — a place he swore he’d never return to. Then he got a surprising e-mail: The prosecutor, who previously showed no signs of leniency, was offering probation instead.
Rice County Judge John T. Cajacob later made it official, citing a Star Tribune report about Rolenc’s time in solitary and commending Rolenc for surviving such long isolation with his sanity.
“After reading about it I can only say that that’s barbaric treatment,” said Cajacob. “My hat is off to you for not incurring any more time while you were there. You kept your cool. I don’t know how you did it.”
But Rolenc’s tribulation is far from over. He now joins the thousands of Minnesotans who have left prison after spending time — sometimes months or years — in isolation. While most inmates use their last year in prison to prepare to re-enter society by learning job or parenting skills, Rolenc spent his in a cell the size of a bathroom for 23 to 24 hours per day, removed from any meaningful human contact, reading books and writing in a journal.
This subpopulation of formerly incarcerated people faces greater challenges in acclimating back into society after being so far removed from it. Research links them to higher risk of reoffending and debilitating mental illnesses long after release, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), memory loss, hallucinations or panic attacks.
They also face immense challenges in finding a home, a job and a place in a society that does not always forgive, said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s prison project.
“This is a double whammy for them,” said Fettig. “They’ve been disabled by their experience in isolation, and they’re given no assistance into the community.”
In his year out, Rolenc has tried to stay disciplined and on the right path. But he’s also come to understand why so many in his position struggle to make it.
“A lot of times I feel like I’m blackballed for life because of my record,” Rolenc said. “Or at least I have to put all this time — 5, 10, 15 years — in between me and my record. But it’s like, how am I supposed to, as a young man, start a career doing something I actually want to do?
“I did what I did, and I served my time for it. And I’m trying to come home now and do the right thing.”
Life on the outside
While spending five years in prison for a drive-by shooting, Rolenc had plenty of time to think about what to do with his freedom. He fantasized about where he would eat or the places he’d take his son, Jamaal.
But he found the real world to be different from his dreams. He frequently felt overwhelmed and subdued, and his family and closest friends couldn’t understand why. He wanted to be around people, but he’d become so accustomed to being alone it was sometimes difficult.
“I think I was just kind of shocked a little bit,” he said. “I was happy. But it wasn’t what I envisioned for five years. I thought it was going to be the best day of my life getting out. But I was just kind of stuck.”
It was the little things that had changed. When he went to prison as a 19-year-old in 2011, Barack Obama was campaigning for a second term. Smartphones seemed like a relatively new phenomenon. People even dressed differently from what he remembered, with fitted clothes and skinny jeans coming back into style.
“When you get incarcerated, you get stuck in that year,” he said.
Rolenc searched for a job, but having spent most of his adult life in prison, he struggled to find anyone willing to give him a chance. He learned quickly that it was in his favor to be open in interviews about his criminal past. Yet he found himself repeatedly going through the same cycle: He would get positive responses in the interviews — several even offered him the job on the spot — but then the background check would come through and, “boom — they snatch the offer back,” he said. One potential employer for a temp job told him his record sounded like that of a “complete psycho.”
He found a temporary job working nights at a hotel in Minneapolis, but it was not his passion. He wanted to work with troubled kids who he thought he could help avoid making the mistakes he did.
Once he had a promising interview supervising kids after school in Robbinsdale. “ ‘You’d be great for this,’ ” he recalled the interviewer telling him. “ ‘We’ve never had this situation before. I’ve gotta talk to HR and see what they got to say about it.’ ”
But when the call finally came a few weeks later, it was bad news. They told him to try again in a couple of years.
Pushing for reform
Lawmakers and corrections officials are meanwhile in the process of reevaluating the state’s practices on solitary confinement, including whether inmates should go so quickly from isolation to the streets, as Rolenc did.
One year ago, the Star Tribune published a four-part series examining Minnesota’s use of solitary confinement, which found 700 people had gone directly from isolation to release over a six-year period.
Over 10 years, more than 1,600 inmates spent six months or more in isolation; 413 served one year or longer. Many struggled with severe mental illnesses, and some deteriorated in isolation, which led to more misbehavior and inevitably more segregation time. One inmate spent nine years going through this cycle, even with a pre-existing diagnosis of schizophrenia. His doctors eventually noted he experienced psychosis after so much time in isolation.
Corrections officials say they have implemented new policies that cap solitary confinement sentences to 90 days. “That’s dramatically less than in the past,” said Bruce Reiser, deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections.
Reiser said inmates can spend longer than 90 days with approval from an assistant commissioner, which has happened only a few times this year. They are working to get inmates out of segregation further in advance of release, and set them up with caseworkers to help them re-enter society, said Reiser.
DOC has also partnered with New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which has visited Minnesota prisons and will offer recommendations to reduce the use of isolation. Vera has also connected DOC with corrections officials in Ohio, Minnesota’s “mentor state,” for reform.
Reiser said there have been no significant changes in assaults on staff since they began phasing in the new policies.
Meanwhile, at the Legislature, Sharon Rolenc, Keegan’s mother, has become a voice in the push to reform solitary. Last year, when legislators announced a bill to create more oversight and regulate who can go to solitary and for how long, Sharon spoke at a news conference about Keegan’s experience.
The bill passed the House but failed last-minute budget negotiations. In November, Sharon and others met with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Warren Limmer to try to get him to push the bill next year.
“I’ll continue to fight for systemic change in our corrections system until it happens,” she said. “Just because I have Keegan home doesn’t mean I’m going to stop fighting for change.”
Rolenc wears his prison time on his skin. He has tattoos on his arms of each year he spent incarcerated. Other tattoos show sand passing through an hourglass. Tattoos on his wrists, pressed together, read: “Hard Times.”
This summer, Rolenc landed an apprenticeship as an electrician and is currently working on a project at Target Center. On weekends, he’s usually with Jamaal, who turned 7 in November. It was the first time he was able to attend a birthday party for his son.
Other nights he can be found at Circle of Discipline, a small boxing gym on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis. He started boxing competitively this summer as a way to channel his energy. So far, he’s won four out of five bouts.
He is now preparing for his next challenge: moving out of his mother’s house and getting his own apartment, a difficult process for those whose rental resumes include prison stays.
But above all, as he navigates the outside world, he remains optimistic that things will turn around. “I just tell myself, when your attitude’s right the facts don’t matter,” he said. “I know if I’m living right and doing right, something good’s going to come to me.”