Mike Nolan blames no one but himself. He is forthright about how he went wrong as a teenager, seeking excitement and escape from his “boring” middle-class upbringing. Living on the edge gave him more than he bargained for, and he was convicted of murder at the age of 18 in 1974, and faced a 40- to 75-year sentence. He takes full responsibility for his mistakes.
“I screwed up,” he admits somberly. “Nobody did this but me.”
It didn’t take Nolan long to figure out that a major change was essential if he was ever to redeem himself. Six months into his incarceration, he vowed to leave the streets and gangs behind, and cut off communications with all but his close-knit family who, much to their credit and Nolan’s good fortune, never gave up on him.
“I saw what clinging to the street life did to other guys,” he says. “I decided then and there to work within the system just like you would a job on the outside.” He adopted a personal 16-hour-a-day work regimen, determined to earn the respect of those around him. And he was equally determined not to allow himself to be reduced to just another prison number. “You can call me Mike, Mike Nolan or just Nolan,” he recalls saying, “ but I’m not a number. I’m a human being.” He gave every job given to him – visiting room attendant, prison staff/inmate liaison, bureau of identification – his best effort.
He threw himself into his new endeavors with enthusiasm and persistence, earning his GED and an Associate’s degree, and followed that up with studies in the prison’s successful partnership program with Roosevelt University. He needs only to complete his thesis to graduate, and has used the skills learned in more than 60 credit hours in psychology as a hospice worker with fellow prisoners.
He is also a certified personal trainer, and designed a health program for inmates that has a one-year waiting list. And the non-profit New Life Organization he co-founded employed 75 inmates and brought in $1 million in annual revenues to the prison over six years.
His exemplary record and job performance – in nine different prisons – seemed to matter naught, however, and Nolan was turned down 24 times over 26 years by the Prisoner Review Board. Even as his hope flickered near extinction, however, he never gave up. A conscientious observer noticed several irregularities in his case. The statement of facts had inexplicably changed with each hearing, invariably building the case against him. The transcripts of his trial went missing.
As these factors came to light, the PRB gradually started to view his case more fairly, and in February 2007, six months shy of maxing out his sentence, he was finally granted parole.
Like most long-term prisoners, Nolan’s reintroduction to the free world was both daunting and frustrating, but he took it all in stride with his usual upbeat sense of humor. “The first time I used a cell phone,” he recalls with a laugh, “I’d talk into the microphone end and then move it up to my ear, back and forth. And the first time it vibrated in my hand, I threw the thing!” Among the many frustrations, he found that there was no official record of his existence; his social security number no longer existed in public records, which he learned painfully at a job interview shortly after his release. And with no credit record, utilities demanded a full year’s payment up front. Likewise, the phone company required fees for 12 months in advance.
Once again, Nolan reached within and found the strength to avoid despair, and went to work. He landed a job with an automotive maintenance firm, and got into their management-training program. He graduated into a sales job with US Messenger, and now is an Assistant Director supervising 20 employees in four separate company facilities. He is also in charge of marketing their services to other businesses, a position in which his independent nature, strong work ethic and upbeat personality serve him well.
Living testimony to the promise of genuine rehabilitation, Mike Nolan’s story can make you laugh and cry but, most importantly, has the power to inspire young men facing the lure of life on the street to never underestimate the value of a “boring” life pursuing the American dream.