Blinding gray walls and the waters of the Mississippi

August 26, 2009

Editor’s note: The following is the third in a five-part series. The first part appeared in the Aug. 12-18, 2009, issue, and the second part appeared in the Aug. 19-25, 2009, issue.

By Joe McGehee

Staff Writer

Kieth Nielsen, or "Shaggy" as he was known in prison, sitting beneath the only tree in the yard at Menard Correctional Center in August 1987.

Kieth Nielsen, or "Shaggy" as he was known in prison, sitting beneath the only tree in the yard at Menard Correctional Center in August 1987.

“Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied. And that leaves only me to blame ’cause mama tried.”—Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”

After being convicted of capital murder for his role in a burglary that resulted in the death of the home’s owner, Kieth Nielsen was remanded to Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill., April 20, 1987. Though Nielsen had not pulled the trigger firing the ultimately fatal shot, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison for his role in the crime. Nielsen would turn 22 two days after arriving at Joliet, and knew he would not see the world outside of a prison until at least his mid-30s.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I was led into that place,” Nielsen, now 44, said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, but at the same time, I had no idea what went on behind the walls of a prison.”

Joliet Correctional Center has served as a reception and classification center for northern Illinois prisons since the early 1960s. The aging gray walls and antiquated accommodations were the setting for many new Illinois prisoners’ first month inside before receiving their final assignments to other facilities across the state. Nielsen was among the nearly 20,000 inmates Joliet Correctional Center held temporarily each year, before he was next shipped to Menard Psychiatric Center in Menard, Ill.

While housed in the “psych ward,” Nielsen received treatment for depression and suicidal tendencies. The Menard Correctional Center was built in 1878 adjacent to the city of Chester, Ill., on the banks of the Mississippi River. Nielsen’s cell had a window facing the mighty river, and he often used the roaring water as a source of comfort and a valuable way to pass the time.

“I used to sit on the end of my bunk and stare out at that river all day long,” Nielsen said. “The view never really changed, but I could find something to focus on every time I looked out that window through the bars.

“That was really the first time I had the chance to sit and think about what I had done [in his role that led to the murder], and how I’d been living my life up to that point,” Nielsen continued. “I faced a lot of ugly stuff for the first time in that tiny little cell staring at that river.”

Aided by the quiet power of one of the nation’s mightiest rivers, Nielsen began to review the circumstances that landed him behind the cold, gray walls of the state’s second-oldest prison, and largest maximum security prison at the time. He would spend hours gazing out at the water rolling by, with only the occasional barge or steamship to interrupt his contemplation.

Nielsen knew he would spend the “prime” years of his life without the normal freedoms afforded men his age on the “outside.” His role in the taking of a life, though indirect, would have a profound effect on him in the deafening silence and tedious monotony of life behind bars. While many young men his age were starting careers and families, Nielsen was finding himself and starting the long road to rehabilitation, with only the churning, muddy waters of the Mississippi River to comfort him.

While he was housed in many of Illinois’ higher-security prisons, Nielsen eventually was given the name “Shaggy” by his friends and acquaintances on the inside. Nielsen’s hair had grown long and red while he was serving time, so the name quickly stuck.

“I didn’t cut my hair for a couple years,” Nielsen said. “Everybody in there knew me as Shaggy, not Kieth; and even today when I see people I served time with, they still call me Shaggy.”

The loss of freedom associated with confinement in prison also translates into the loss of privilege. Many of the small things taken for granted on the outside turn to distant memories behind the razor wire-topped walls of prison.

For instance, a warm cup of coffee first thing in the morning is not readily available in prison. However, Nielsen learned from other inmates how to brew his own coffee each morning in his cell through the use of what is known as a “stinger.”

“One of the inmates taught me how to build a ‘stinger’ early on,” Nielsen said. “You don’t realize how much you’ll miss the little things like coffee when you go to prison.”

Given its name by the risk of electrical shock associated with its use, a “stinger” is constructed with two stainless steel paper clips, and a toothbrush used to keep the paper clips separate. Though he knew the chances of getting shocked, Nielsen used a “stinger” numerous times throughout his stay.

“You always had to be sure to never, ever let the two paper clips touch,” Nielsen said. “The trick is to bend the paper clips into a perfect ‘L’ shape, so that the two ends point straight down. You have to put the clips in one at a time, and if you let those things touch, it’s going to hurt.

“Once you get a paper clip in each pole of the outlet, you’ve got a complete circuit with power going through it,” Nielsen continued. “It gets hot quickly, then all you have to do is slide the cup beneath the outlet and let the paper clips rest in the water. After that, just add some instant coffee and you’re ready to go.”

Friends, or what Nielsen defined as “family members,” on the inside were a large part of his daily existence behind bars. Those among us who have not set foot behind the walls of a prison may never understand the role these “family members” played in Nielsen’s survival in prison, and ultimately his release from prison. Nielsen explained it this way: “You’re in there with a bunch of criminals, and everyone says they’re innocent. But, you know that about 99 percent of them are guilty. So, you learn pretty quickly that trust is a major issue in there.

“I learned early on that trust and respect are the only way to get anything in prison,” Nielsen continued. “You make a conscience choice to trust someone in prison, and you have to take your time and get to know people you plan on trusting.

“Plus, if you have people in there you knew on the outside, it makes it that much easier to trust them,” Nielsen said. “It helps pass the time if you have someone you’re friends with inside. I played a lot of chess, and I played against some of the best in there. I always kind of felt like we were all stuck in there together, and it didn’t make much sense to brawl over a bunch of stupid stuff.

“Prison is a tough place, and it’s even tougher if you have to face it alone,” Nielsen added. “We all know that old saying about ‘strength in numbers,’ and there is no place on earth where that saying is more true than prison. Having people you trust in there, that you know are watching your back, gives you an added sense of physical security in that very dangerous place.”

Scenes of horrific violence in our nation’s prisons and other detention centers are not a new occurrence. Historically, prisons have been among our most violent and dangerous places since man decided to lock up members of society they deemed unfit to live among the rest of the population.

In 1980, the murder rate in prison was almost five times as great as in the general population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the homicide rate in prison has dropped below the national average in recent years, but correctional facilities have seen a 27 percent increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults over the same period. Death, serious injury and other dangers lurk around every corner, and hide in any poorly-lit nook they can find in prison.

“One of the worst things I saw was two inmates getting shot down off a fence as they tried to escape,” Nielsen said. “I was standing maybe 50 feet from the fence that separated the pysch ward and the isolation area. I saw a guard lean out of his tower and fire a warning shot when he noticed the two inmates scaling the chain-link fence.

“One of the first things you learn inside is when you hear a gunshot, hit the ground, because the first shot is always a blank,” Nielsen continued. “All firearms are loaded with a blank round in the chamber, and every round after that first one is a live round.

“These two guys just kept on climbing, I guess thinking they could escape,” Nielsen said. “The next two shots fired were live rounds, and their bodies dropped off that fence like dead weight. I was standing so close to that fence I could hear that sickening ‘thud’ as their bodies fell against the concrete below them.”

Mama tried

Grief, remorse and regret soon began to flow just as powerfully through Nielsen’s conscience as the tugs and steamboats just beyond the bars of his cell window. The understanding that his actions caused the loss of a husband, father, brother, uncle and son soon settled on his shoulders, where it would stay for years. Though Nielsen was losing years of his life and freedom behind bars, he knew the loss suffered by the victim’s family was greater, and more permanent.

He began writing letters of apology to the victim’s family members, knowing these letters would never reach them, because Illinois state laws prevented contact with a victim’s family. Though he wrote the letters without the intention of mailing them, Nielsen used these letters as a way of sorting out all that he had done, and all that had happened as a result of his actions. The contents of the letters are now forgotten by Nielsen, but the act of writing them remains a vivid memory he will never lose.

“I just couldn’t stand it anymore,” Nielsen said. “I couldn’t stand knowing what I’d done, and needed some way of getting it out of my head. I never wrote to them for forgiveness. I knew that was asking too much. I just wanted some way of making sense of what happened, and I wanted to use this terrible mess as an example for others, and myself. I’ve never wanted or expected forgiveness for what I was involved in. I just wanted some way to live the rest of my life, and never be where I was—or the person I was—back then.”

Confined in his cell for years, Nielsen lived with the grief associated with being involved in the taking of a life. As expected, this personal pain, regret and shame drew Nielsen further inside himself.

“I became withdrawn while I was in prison,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t know who to trust—besides myself, and I wasn’t always sure of that—and my time inside gave me plenty of chances—and time—to look closer at myself, my situation, and how I wound up there. I had a couple friends I trusted inside, but not too many.

“You can’t really describe what it’s like inside a prison to someone who’s never been locked up,” Nielsen added. “No matter how hard I try, I could never really explain what it’s like to have all your freedom, and the people you love, taken away from you because of something you did.

“I didn’t understand it or believe it at first, but prison has a way of forcing you to adapt to your situation,” Nielsen continued. “I went from being a free young man, to a prisoner in what seemed like the blink of an eye. I lost everything important to me, but most importantly, I lost my mom. She died of cancer while I was inside.”

The loss of his mother, and attending her visitation with his hands and legs shackled, and escorted by corrections officers, proved to be a defining moment for Kieth. The guilt and sorrow he felt as the guards escorted him to view her earthly remains still makes itself visible today on his face, and in the cracking of his voice when he speaks of her.

Betty Nielsen was short, standing just a bit over 5 feet in height. Her long, onyx hair began to take on subtle shades of gray as she aged, making her hair look like an immense field of dark coal with shiny specks of silver. She had a solid, stocky frame, as most women from her generation did, capable of taking care of a family, dress store, or competition at a square-dancing contest.

Though she could not bring anything to her son when she visited, she did bring a huge smile, a mother’s loving touch and a few moments of peace for her only son living in a world of constant violence and eardrum-shattering noise.

“My mom was everything to me,” Nielsen said, while choking back tears. “She always visited me in prison, and she was one of the few who always did. Even after the terrible thing I did, she never stopped loving me, never stopped being there for me. I’ll never forgive myself for not being there when she passed, and I decided that day to make my life better in her honor, because she tried to raise me better than I turned out back then.”

The woman who had given him life, who had prepared his meals, who had kissed his cheek gently each night before bed, and nursed him back to health after a near-fatal motorcycle accident, died peacefully after lymphoma cancer riddled her body. But Nielsen vowed to make this loss into something positive, to better himself and his future.

Menard Correctional Center would not be Nielsen’s, or “Shaggy’s,” final stop. He served time in Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Ill., Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., and was finally released from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Ill., in November 1999.

A branded man

Kieth was released from Hill Correctional Center Nov. 12, 1999, at approximately 9 a.m., after serving 14 years of a 27-year sentence. When Nielsen was convicted and started serving his time, the state of Illinois would match each day served with a day taken off the sentence for “good” time. Overall, Nielsen had a spotless record in prison, and used the time he served to ultimately reduce his overall sentence.

Nielsen’s accomplice was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but served 19 years and nine months by also having good time served take days off his sentence. Nielsen has not spoken to the young man responsible for pulling the trigger since the night of the murder.

“I haven’t had anything to say to him,” Nielsen said. “We went our separate ways, and I know it was for the best.”

His final act as a convict was donating his television, radio and fan to “family members” he would be leaving behind as he prepared to re-enter the world he was forced to leave at the age of 21.

Nielsen was 34 years old when the gates swung open for him, and released him back into a world he hardly remembered.

Though Nielsen was able to stay abreast of many of the world’s changes during his time in prison through watching CNN, nothing could have prepared him for the new world he was entering. In terms of technological advances, the differences between 1986 and 1999 are equal to the differences between The Flintstones and The Jetsons.

“I tried to stay as up to date as possible in prison by watching the news as often as I could,” Nielsen said. “But nothing could have prepared me for the changes the world had experienced while I was inside. For me, it was kind of like stepping onto a new planet when I got out.”

As is often the case for men and women just released from prison, Nielsen had trouble adjusting to life outside his cell. He found getting a job was tough outside the walls of prison. While in prison, Nielsen worked primarily late at night cleaning and polishing the prison’s floors.

“No one wanted to hire someone who had just gotten out of prison for capital murder,” Nielsen said. “I was a branded man. It was like I was wearing an ‘X.’”

In a 2008 study conducted by the Urban Institute titled “Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry,” 740 former male prisoners in Illinois, Ohio and Texas were surveyed as they tried to gain employment after serving their sentences and leaving prison. Among other things, the study found that “…once in the community, not only are many employers reluctant to hire convicted felons, but many former prisoners are barred from certain occupations.”

The study concluded: “Employment is an important component of the reentry process. Even more than a steady source of income, jobs can provide a sense of structure and responsibility to former prisoners as they struggle to reintegrate after release. Unfortunately, many will face a difficult path toward finding and keeping employment.”

Nielsen explained: “One of the first interviews I went to after getting out was with a lady who obviously didn’t trust me, or have any interest in hiring me. She kept asking me, over and over again, if ‘her employees would be safe around me.’ I left and never went back because working there would’ve never worked out if she started off with that view of me.

“I eventually got a job as a CNC operator,” Nielsen continued. “But the pain from my motorcycle wreck made it nearly impossible for me to go to work every day. I asked the boss to raise the platform I worked off of to ease the pain. But he refused, so I told him to shove that job up his a–.”

The Urban Institute study found “65 percent of the respondents had been employed at some point, but only 45 percent were currently employed” when final data were collected.

“I got a couple jobs finally, after getting out, but none of them seemed to last,” Nielsen added. “Having money was nice, but fitting in and feeling accepted would’ve been nice, too.”

For a newly-released former prisoner, readjusting to the world they spent so much time away from often proves to be difficult. Finding a person, or group of people who accept and understand them, can be the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.

Luckily for Nielsen, he would find the comfort and acceptance he sought, thanks, in large part, to the help of his cousin, himself a former inmate. Nielsen’s struggles on the outside were just beginning, but his story—and life—were about to change direction yet again.

Betty Nielsen, in an undated photo, was once a Realtor for Century 21 Able & Hart, Inc., in Rockford.

Betty Nielsen, in an undated photo, was once a Realtor for Century 21 Able & Hart, Inc., in Rockford.

from the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009 issue

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