Life as a branded man
Editor’s note: The following is the fourth in a five-part series. Part one appeared in the Aug. 12-18, 2009, issue, part two appeared in the Aug. 19-25, 2009, issue, and part three appeared in the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009, issue.
By Joe McGehee
“I’d like to hold my head up, and be proud of who I am, but they won’t let my secrets go untold. I paid the debt I owed ’em, but they’re still not satisfied. Now I’m a branded man out in the cold.” —Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
After spending more than 14 years in prison for capital murder, Kieth Nielsen was released from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Ill., in November 1999, and returned to Rockford. After his release, finding and maintaining consistent employment proved difficult, just as it often does for many newly-released ex-felons.
According to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice survey conducted in five major U.S. cities, 65 percent of employers stated they would not knowingly hire an ex-offender, regardless of the offense. However, Nielsen maintained work cleaning floors, a skill he learned in prison, provided security for festivals and concerts, and operated a CNC machine, among other occupations.
The latest data from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics point out that the United States houses more than 2.3 million inmates in jails and prisons nationally. This staggering figure also reveals that even though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost a quarter of the world’s total prison population.
Currently, 751 people are incarcerated for every 100,000 citizens in our population. If you count only adults, that number is closer to one in 100 people locked up. China, which has four times the population of the United States, is running a distant second globally with 1.6 million people in prisons. On average, more than 500,000 former inmates are released from prisons and return to communities nationally each year.
The most current statistics available from the Illinois Department of Corrections show in 2005 the state admitted 42,248 inmates into our state’s prison, while releasing 42,060 inmates who had served time. The state’s recidivism rate was a whopping 51.8 percent.
The stability and repetition created by consistent, gainful employment is just part of the equation for easing recently-released ex-felons back into our neighborhoods. For many, the biggest hurdle to cross is settling back into a society where their roles are uncertain, and their standing in the community is vehemently scrutinized.
In “Less Than the Average Citizen: Stigma, Role Transition and the Civic Reintegration of Convicted Felons,” a public study in 2008,the authors state: “Moreover, the enduring stigma of a felony conviction imposes restrictions on parental rights, work opportunities, housing choices and myriad other social relationships, isolating ex-felons from their communities and fellow citizens. In short, both the rights and capacities of ex-offenders to attain full citizenship are threatened.”
Kieth Nielsen, now 44, stands a shade over 6 feet tall, and has a dimming shade of auburn hair nestled atop his head. His posture and stride are both noticeably hampered by a lifetime of continuous physical pain. His steps are measured and precise, allowing him to offset the pain he feels by taking smaller, consistent steps. The years of pain—both physical and mental—heaped upon his shoulders have bent his spine and closed his shoulders together tightly.
The only change in his posture comes when he laughs, as his shoulders release, his spine straightens, and his mouth opens to let loose with his unmistakable laugh. Watching him laugh is like seeing years of pain, remorse and weight being lifted off his shoulders temporarily before it all returns en masse as soon as his laughter stops.
His most notable physical traits are years of tattoos covering his upper torso, and the 20-year-old auburn goatee that hangs from his chin and is consistently stroked when he thinks or speaks. In terms of tattoos, Nielsen has a penchant for dragons, as at least five are permanently inked on his skin.
The stereotypical description of an ex-felon’s outward appearance is as old as prisons themselves. Many are decorated with tattoos clearly done in prison, with slogans and images so full of hate they almost leap off the skin. As expected, Nielsen and other newly-released felons have faced problems stemming not only from their re-entry into society, but their physical appearance as well.
“One of the toughest things to figure out was where I ‘fit’ in on the outside,” Nielsen said. “My ‘place’ in prison was told to me by the state; but when I got out, I just really didn’t feel like I belonged. People had a way of looking at me back then, and it felt like they were looking right through me, and they knew where I’d been and what I’d done.
“I needed something, or some place, where I felt like I fit in,” Nielsen continued. “All of my friends were either gone, dead or in prison. It wasn’t too long after I started feeling like this that I started drinking again.”
Nielsen had slipped back to the comfort of the bottle, knowing all along where those trappings had landed in the past. A quick scan through Nielsen’s past reveals alcohol as one of the prime ingredients in many of his life’s wrong turns.
Luckily for Nielsen, it was around this time he reconnected with an older, admired cousin. Craig H. Thompson was Kieth’s senior by five years. Growing up, Thompson played the role occupied normally by an older brother in Kieth’s life.
“I just always looked up to him, you know,” Nielsen said. “Maybe it was because I was younger and he was older, I don’t know. I just remember always looking up to Craig.”
Like Nielsen, Thompson had a past that included incarceration on felony charges. Most notably, Thompson served in California’s Soledad State Prison, historically one of the nation’s toughest prisons, and Folsom State Prison, which was immortalized by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Thompson was arrested for armed robbery in Rockford in 1978, and the judge presented the 18-year-old with two options: join the military, or join the Illinois penal system. Thompson chose the former, joined the United States Navy and was stationed in San Diego.
However, Thompson’s time in the Navy did not prevent him from joining the masses incarcerated in California’s correctional facilities. Thompson stole a weapon from an armory on the base where he was stationed, and eventually robbed a military post store. Thus began Thompson’s journey through California’s historic prisons.
“Growing up, he was my best friend in the world,” Nielsen said of Thompson. “And knowing he had been in prison never changed how I thought of him at all. When I think about it now, nothing would’ve ever changed him in my eyes.”
Thompson had experienced the fear, loneliness and isolation associated with being released from prison and rejoining society as an ex-felon. He had dealt with the stigma, or giant “X,” Nielsen could feel being seared into his back for everyone to see. And, at the moment Kieth needed someone or some advice the most, his older cousin was there.
“I told him I’d started drinking again, because I just didn’t know of any other way to deal with all this,” Nielsen said. “I was scared to death. There were so many questions running through my head that I didn’t have the answers to. I had no idea how to live my life on the outside.
“I was ‘institutionalized’ by the time I got out. I was used to prison…used to living there,” Nielsen continued. “I’d finally gotten used to living in prison; and being thrown out into the public was something I didn’t expect, and it bothered me.”
After being released, Nielsen moved into the home of his younger sister and her husband in Rockford. However, 30 days after his release, Nielsen’s sister and brother-in-law leased an apartment for him on the other side of town. This “tough love,” as Nielsen refers to it, was not well received by the newly-released ex-prisoner.
“Without me knowing it, they’d leased an apartment for me over at Great Oaks,” Nielsen said. “It was nice to have a place of my own, but I felt like they’d totally turned their backs on me at a very tough time.
“I had no idea that they’d only allow me to stay there for 30 days after getting out,” Nielsen continued. “I would’ve been more prepared for the move if they’d mentioned the fact that they were only going to house me for those first 30 days.
“It alienated me to be left out there all alone,” Nielsen said. “I was fresh out of prison, and it felt like they just wanted to wash their hands of me. But that whole situation helped me learn how to just walk away, and not say or do anything I’d regret.”
After living in the apartment his sister and her husband arranged for him for a couple months, Nielsen mainly lived from place to place, finding lodging where he could, when he could. Specifically, he noted his trouble maintaining employment and fitting in socially as the biggest obstacles to overcome in those days.
“Once you are institutionalized, you get used to knowing what to expect,” Nielsen said. “But on the outside, there isn’t any way of knowing what’s going to happen and when. There’s no schedule or person telling you what to do 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Thompson suggested Kieth go to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, mainly because of his understanding of the role alcohol had played in Kieth’s life, but also to provide him with a safe place to ease himself back into the social setting of life on the outside. This simple suggestion, and Nielsen following the advice, would give Kieth the comfort and acceptance he needed to begin putting together a life on the outside.
“I went to an AA meeting with him the next day,” Nielsen said. “It was a good place for me at the time because I could feel the love in the room, and that was something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
“For the first time since I’d been out, I was in a place where no one judged me,” Nielsen continued. “They treated me like family. These meetings became an everyday thing for me. I never missed a meeting. I felt like God was working through Craig, and helped him get me to the place where I was supposed to be at the time in order to get me back on track.
“More than anything, being around normal people, not being stared at suspiciously, and just feeling like I belonged somewhere made the biggest difference,” Nielsen said. “That’s probably the biggest reason I’m still a free man almost 10 years later.”
Phyllis Jensen, 56, has also played an important role in aiding Nielsen’s reintegration after prison. Described by Nielsen as his “girlfriend/caretaker,” Jensen has provided him with the sense of family he lacks. The two met soon after Nielsen’s release in November 1999, and have remained in each other’s lives since.
“I met Kieth at one of his lowest points,” Jensen said. “I could tell he needed someone to help, and I decided to do it.”
Jensen is tall and thin with an unmistakable laugh capable of filling many large spaces. Her round glasses accent the sharp lines and high cheek bones of her angular face. More often than not, Jensen’s face possesses a smile as wide as her jaws will allow.
Nielsen credits Jensen’s presence with helping keep him sober and healthy. She has been a consistent friend and caring soul in the times Nielsen has needed them most. Most importantly, however, she has provided Nielsen with a consistent, caring friend, which is not the easiest thing for many ex-felons to find on the outside.
“I’m the joker, and he’s the more serious one,” Jensen said. “I think we are both very happy with what we have and where we are in life right now.”
The bond shared between Nielsen and Jensen is much akin to the relationship shared between a boat and safe harbor when the waters begin to get choppy. When life’s waters begin swirling, they both cling to the safety the other offers.
“He makes me feel safe,” Jensen said. “And, I haven’t always had that in my life.”
Nielsen said: “She’s always there when I need her. She’s always given me a place to vent, to feel like I can get some of the stuff that’s in my head out of there. I’ve needed something like this my entire life, but have never had it before. It takes a huge weight off me dealing with my emotions.”
From the September 2-8, 2009 issue