Story and video by CDCR videographer Jeff Baur
As he stands staring through the chain link fence in the pedestrian sally port at California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, Robert Roldan’s mind races. The sound of the gate cracking instantly transports him back to the nearly 10 years he spent in the institution as an inmate.
“Literally, these doors just popped and I’m going into a place that I hated to be,” Roldan said. His visit this day, his first since he paroled in 2009, is one as a free man, returning with words of encouragement and inspiration for those men he served time with and worked side by side with in the Blind Project.
The Blind Project, a non-profit organization that services the needs of the visually and physically impaired community, is run by the Volunteers of Vacaville inside the prison walls at CMF. Roldan spent nine years in the program developing skills that would ultimately change the direction of his life.
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Roldan carefully strolls down the center of the hallway that leads to the Blind Project work area, his head on a swivel, taking it all in.
“It looks exactly the same,” he said. “It needs a paint job,” he added with a laugh.
The motivation for his return is to give back to a program that has given him so much. But his good intentions don’t come without some apprehension.
“A lot of trepidation…,” Roldan admitted. “I mean it’s one of those things where you don’t even know if these guys want you here.”
Program Director Sherry Dovichi led Roldan through the door into the Blind Project where he is greeted immediately by familiar faces. The inmate workers shake his hand, trying to process the image of their former co-worker now standing before them in street clothes instead of the usual prison blues.
His closest acquaintances even tease him about a few extra pounds that he didn’t have the last time they saw him.
“I told you someone was going to call me on that,” Roldan said with a smile.
Moving from room to room, Roldan has the attention of all the workers. He’s the success story they’ve all heard about for quite some time.
He’s the one that took his skills, made the most of his opportunity and started his own business. He’s the one who is now in a position to hire guys after they parole.
He’s the one that many of the current Blind Project workers are hoping to emulate after they are released.
Roldan started in the Blind Project as an oral transcriber and within a matter of months worked himself up to a coordinator position.
It was this experience as inmate coordinator, overseeing the day-to-day business operations and managing deadlines through department leads that built up his confidence enough for him to start his own Braille transcription business.
Roldan’s reputation for producing high quality Nemeth Braille has been rapidly spreading throughout the Braille community. Nemeth Braille is some of the most difficult Braille to produce because of all the mathematical and scientific information being translated.
“I’m never out of work,” Roldan said. “I’m actually turning down work because so many people start getting my name and calling me and saying, ‘We need this and we need it yesterday.’”
His work ethic was strong even as an inmate. He spoke nonchalantly about the numerous times he would take work back to his cell and spend weekends honing his transcription skills.
One inmate even labeled him a “work-a-holic.” Whatever drives Roldan from the inside, the inmates have taken notice.
As he addresses the small side room with a few inmate workers, Roldan speaks to the prisoners from a place of experience, not superiority.
“What I’ve found in these five years of being out is that your ability to turn out good Braille, high quality Braille with low errors and proper formatting is paramount to you getting a name out there and staying busy,” he said.
One prisoner propped against the wall in the doorway listened intently, scribbling notes down on his notepad from time to time.
Work continues in the Blind Project while Roldan drifts in and out of the different work areas. His conversations with the men rising above the clicking of a toothbrush cleaning an audio book tape player and the clacking of keys on a Braille transcription machine.
Roldan is attentive to everyone, answering all their questions, even ones from the newest workers, guys he doesn’t recognize. His encouragement always balanced with a healthy dose of reality about what will be expected of them in the workplace on the outside.
As the day’s work winds down for the Blind Project, Roldan made his way to the door saying his goodbyes along the way.
He’s not sure when he’ll return for his next visit but he feels confident that his words were well received.
“It’s just so good to know that they have that hope that I had hoped would come from me coming,” he said. With his visitor’s pass in hand, he begins walking toward the front gate, thankful that this trip to prison lasted one day instead of 10 years.
Here are some previous articles on some of CDCR’s rehablilitation efforts: