Editor’s note: The following is the fifth, and final, part 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, part three appeared in the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009, issue, and part four appeared in the Sept. 2-8, 2009, issue.
By Joe McGehee
November 2009 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Kieth Nielsen’s release from prison. Though it has not been easy, Nielsen has made the transition from prison life to life as a citizen. His road to this point has been rocky, but at the same time rewarding.
Nielsen was sentenced to 27 years in prison for capital murder charges stemming from a robbery gone horribly wrong in rural Winnebago County Aug. 16, 1986. Nielsen turned 22 two days after arriving at Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill., April 20, 1987. Nielsen’s spotless record while incarcerated led to good time served, ultimately reducing his sentence to just more than 14 years. He was 34 years old when he was released from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Ill., in November 1999.
Nielsen now heads his neighborhood watch program, and speaks with teen-agers in his neighborhood about the dangerous consequences of some of their actions. Many times, parents bring their young teen-age boys to Nielsen’s front porch on the west side of Rockford to listen to what their neighbor has to say about actions today causing pain and hardship in the future.
“My neighbors know where I’ve been, and what I’ve done,” Nielsen said. “I’ve tried to reach out to kids around here and tell them what can happen if they continue to make the wrong choices. Maybe if I can convince one kid to look at my life, and see where it’s taken me and what it’s cost me, they can hopefully avoid living a life like mine.”
Rather than merely trying to instill a sense of fear in teen-age boys, Nielsen simply gives a truthful, accurate description of his injuries, a vivid, horrifyingly realistic account of his time behind bars and an honest retelling of how tough his life has been as the result of mistakes he made in younger days.
Young men’s faces turn to stone holding the old newspaper clippings recounting the crime Nielsen was involved in. Their eyes bulge like those of toads while gazing on his scars and deformities to his legs stemming from his Aug. 5, 1984, motorcycle accident. They swallow nervously, and listen with the full attention normally given a police siren as Nielsen accurately describes the pain, the hurt and social stigma he deals with every day.
“Why should I try to scare anyone?” Nielsen said. “Scaring kids doesn’t do any good. Besides, they need to know the truth about consequences. The best thing, the only responsible thing I can do is show them the articles from my arrest and trial, tell them about the process and show them the scars.”
Nielsen recently spoke to an adult recovery group at Rosecrance Treatment Center about the dangers of drug addiction and substance abuse. Nielsen gained a sense of pride after speaking twice to a group of people his age struggling with some of the same issues he himself has struggled with. His struggles, and the heartache they have caused him and so many others around him, have become a driving force in Nielsen’s life almost a decade later.
He has also not forgotten the struggles he faced after being released from prison nearly 10 years ago. He often reflects on that time in his life and tries to determine how he could have made that transition easier for not only himself, but for other men and women facing the same reality in the future.
“I’ve tried to think back to that time and figure out what would’ve made it easier for me to start a new life,” Nielsen said. “I know I’m not the first ex-con to face these problems, and I won’t be the last. But, if my struggles could help someone just out of prison, I’d like to do that.
“If I would’ve felt like I was a part of the community, and had things like a steady job, friends and a place where people understood me, it would’ve been a lot easier,” Nielsen continued. “People don’t really understand how a steady job, a place where you know you have to be every day, can help someone coming out of prison. That stability is priceless.”
To this point, Nielsen has plans for opening a tire recycling business in the Rockford area, which would be staffed by recently-released ex-felons. Nielsen said his company, Think Green Tire Recycle of Rockford, would not only benefit men and women coming out of prison, but the entire area by providing a cost-effective and more permanent solution to Rockford’s problem with maintaining its streets.
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.
A 2008 report from the Urban Institute titled “Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry” showed that “…research suggests that finding and maintaining a legitimate job can reduce former prisoners’ chances of re-offending, and the higher the wage, the less likely it is that individuals will return to crime.”
Statistics released by the United States Department of Justice in October 2008 echoed this point: “Collectively, these results point to the importance of meaningful employment early after release in achieving longer-term reintegration success. All things equal, former prisoners who are able to secure a job, ideally at higher than minimum wage, by two months out are likely to successfully avoid recidivism the first eight to 12 months after release.”
Nielsen explained: “I didn’t really read too much research when I came up with the idea for this business. All I had to do was think back to when I got out, and try to figure out what would’ve helped me the most. Earning some money, and feeling like I owned—and had earned—everything I had, would’ve given me a lot more motivation to stay away from the life I was living before I went in.
“Out west, a lot of states have been putting crumb rubber from recycled tires in their asphalt mix for years,” Nielsen said. “You can’t just feel the difference when you drive on those roads, but you can hear it as well because the consistent surface gives you a quiet, comfortable ride.”
Rubberized asphalt concrete, or asphalt rubber, is pavement material consisting of regular asphalt concrete mixed with crumb rubber created by grinding used tires that would otherwise be discarded or take up space in landfills. Asphalt rubber is the largest single market for ground rubber in the nation, as an estimated 220 million pounds, or 12 million tires, are used in asphalt mixes annually.
Arizona pioneered the use of asphalt rubber in the 1960s, citing its durability, but other states such as California, Florida, Texas, South Carolina and New Mexico have begun using rubberized asphalt as well. The Arizona Department of Transportation’s 2003 “Quiet Pavement Program” determined rubberized asphalt reduced noise alongside highways by up to 12 decibels, making this new asphalt mixture not only durable, but quieter as well.
Discarded tires, which are abundantly available, could be used to lessen the burden on area taxpayers as maintenance costs could be slashed, which would reduce the amount of tax dollars spent on maintaining our roads.
“There are old used tires everywhere,” Nielsen said. “People use up tires and then just get rid of them. We could use those tires to make our roads better and last longer; but those tires could also help people coming out of jail by giving them a job.”
Nielsen has already seen interest in Think Green Tire Recycle of Rockford from the United States Environmental Protection Agency because of the business’s “green” approach and the economic impact it could have on the area. Nielsen’s plans for running the business and making it profitable are all firmly grounded in the tenets of energy efficiency and renewable means, which are now more important than ever.
“The whole thing would be green,” Nielsen said. “From recycling tires and making our roads better, to using rain barrels to reduce our water usage, all of our plans are based on taking something we already have and making something better out of it.”
The recycling aspect is not just geared toward tires, but to some extent, the men and women Nielsen would employ.
“I just think this could change a lot of ex-felons’ lives after they get out,” Nielsen said. “We can give them the chance to make something better of themselves…make them better citizens, and make our city safer by lessening the chances of these people going back to a life of crime.”
‘Who I can be tomorrow’
Kieth Nielsen has lived a life many of us will never understand. He has been places—including prison—many of us will never tread. His life experiences have made him the man he is today, but at a very high cost. Nielsen has lost more than many of us will ever experience, but at the same time, found more than we could ever discover.
“My life hasn’t been easy,” Nielsen said. “All I can do is keep trying to make things better. I don’t think the stuff I’m doing now will erase what I’ve done in the past, but it feels good to do good things now.”
From his days growing up in Winnebago, to the time he spent behind the walls of a prison, to being released back into a new world that wanted no part of him, Nielsen has done one thing many in his position cannot accomplish: Kieth Nielsen has survived; he has ridden life’s wave of change and managed to not be dragged back out to sea by the undertow of the stigma associated with being an ex-felon. His journey has not been easy, but he has dedicated himself to learning each step along the way.
“My past has made me who I am today,” Nielsen said, “but I control who I can be tomorrow.”
It is a very selfless thing for a man to use his pain, his horror, his regrets to help others—especially those younger than he—avoid the same pitfalls that have filled his life. Think Green Tire Recycle of Rockford is one by product of Nielsen’s struggles, and his wish to see others live a better, easier life. Though he has never denied his past, he has not allowed it to become a fatal millstone around his neck capable of dragging him back into the dark corridors of his past. He has survived in spite of it.
“I live in pain every day,” Nielsen said. “The mental pain is just as fierce as the physical pain. But I’ve come too far now to give up and quit.”
Ultimately, Kieth Nielsen is your neighbor, regardless of his past. He is the man behind you in the line at the grocery store. He is a waving hand out the window of a passing truck. He has been through enough pain and heartache to last a lifetime; and if he has his way, he will translate this lifetime of pain into a means of bettering our city.
“I’ve done and seen enough to have plenty of good information to share,” Nielsen said. “I may not have learned everything the way I was supposed to, but what I’ve learned and lived through could help a lot of people, if they are willing to listen.
“Think Green Tire Recycle of Rockford could not only give us better roads, but it could also make Rockford a better place to live,” Nielsen said. “When this business gets off the ground, we could provide a better life for men and women just getting released from prison, which would make our city a safer, more positive place to live.
“Life is about trial and error,” Nielsen said. “It’s about getting knocked down, and somehow managing to get back up and keep on living.”
From the September 9-15, 2009 issue