Retired prison warden Keith Nelson will tell you right off the bat, he’s not soft on crime. He’s a strong, imposing man and can meet your eyes with a stern look.
Peoria artist Jonathon Romain will tell you right off the bat, Nelson is responsible for making him the man he is today.
The two men met at Dixon Correctional Center when Nelson was assistant warden and Romain, who had just graduated from Bradley University, was doing time for a drug conviction.
Dixon was the largest medium security prison in the system with 2,200 inmates. It also had the oldest average age for prisoners.
During Nelson’s tenure, he had a prisoner who was paraplegic, others who were blind, an entire geriatric unit and a wheelchair unit –– people who were no longer a threat to anyone. He had inmates in their 70s and 80s and as young as 17.
“Everyone is someone’s son or brother, father or daughter,” he said. “One of the saddest things is to see someone die alone in prison.”
Nelson, who began his career as the leisure time and services supervisor at Danville Correctional Center, has seen the benefits of prison inmate programs, and he laments the elimination of these programs.
“These programs were once a priority, and unfortunately they no longer are,” he said, recalling his regret when the small engine repair class was cancelled for adults and was an option only for juvenile prisoners.
There were varsity sports teams, education, GED, art, drama and music programs.
“Everyone took pride in their accomplishments,” Nelson said. The programs were great motivators, and if there were any disciplinary infractions, privileges were lost. The programs also provided job skills that could be used once inmates were released.
“One of the most tragic mistakes made by the Department of Corrections was elimination of the education programs. Unfortunately, our prisons don’t provide services to help inmates transition into society,” he said, noting that most people, with the exception of psychotics and sociopaths, should be capable of transitioning back into society as productive citizens.
America incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, including China and North Korea due partly to “three strikes and you’re out” laws that Nelson calls “misguided.”
He attributes America’s attitude about prison and punishment to politics.
“Judges are elected, state’s attorneys are elected, sheriffs are elected. The entire criminal justice system is built on popular elections,” Nelson said, and an easy way to campaign is to be tough on crime.
“I believe in the reasons for incarcerating people, but I also believe in the need for justice and those must be balanced,” Nelson said.
He speaks not only with the authority of a professional career in corrections and as a scholar with a PhD except for completing a dissertation that was based on the film “Birth of a Nation,” but also as a family member of victims.
He grew up near Danville and his father was killed at age 53 in a racial shooting by two men who left a bar and said something like “let’s get us a n—–.” Nelson’s father was walking to a Masonic lodge when he was gunned down and killed. Two months prior to that, his brother, recently out of the military service, was shot and killed at age 29 in Montana.
Both deaths were at the hands of civilians with guns, but Nelson is a gun owner. He believes no one has a right to own an automatic assault weapon that has one purpose –– to kill a human being. He believes bump stocks should be outlawed. He believes in responsible gun ownership.
Nelsonsaid he’s glad he had a career in corrections because he met wonderful people on both sides.
He had bonding relationships with other inmates in addition to Romain.
“I didn’t form a friendship with Jonathon until his release. We had a good relationship while he was incarcerated. I respected his talent and dedication. He was bright, highly intelligent and respectful. He didn’t engage in nonsense,” Nelson recalled.
During one of his regular walks through the prison, Nelson first spotted Romain in the art room. Romain was drawing with pencil, pen and ink.
“I looked at him and saw his fantastic work. It was all black and white, and I told him if he used color the work would have more dimensions. He just laughed, but a few weeks later when I walked through the art room I saw he was painting in color,” Nelson said.
As assistant warden and then as warden, Nelson made regular visits throughout the prison, walked with inmates in the yard, talked with inmates and learned about their private lives.
“I never asked an inmate what crime they had committed. My job was to provide everything the law allowed,” Nelson said.
He saw people who belonged in prison and people who were in prison because of racism and political reasons. Yet, he still says he has faith in the concept of justice, but “I have questions about the implementation of justice.
“Today, COVID-19 is stalking every individual who’s incarcerated,” he said.
After his release from Dixon, Romain and Nelson developed their relationship into a friendship that has lasted years. Romain credits his former warden and now friend with his decision to become an artist. Romain and his wife Nikki are co-founders of ART Inc., (Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow), a not-for-profit community art program housed in the former Greeley School, 919 NE Jefferson St. Romain’s art is in private collections and museums throughout the country. His former warden owns a number of his pieces.
“Keith was instrumental in me becoming the man I am today,” Romain said. “Keith had empathy and a genuine desire to help the lives he touched.”