Breaking the cycle: New Legacy aims to help ex-cons reintegrate and fight the pattern of recidivism

When he was 12 years old, Kenny Tilley used drugs for the first time with an older family member. In 2005, he served his first stint in prison for a robbery committed to support his habit. Over the next decade, he would be incarcerated several more times for drug-related offenses. Each time he was released, he tried to change his life, but it was hard to do when he kept returning to the same place where he started using drugs.

That changed in January after he was released, following a 14-month sentence for drug trafficking. Instead of going to live with his family, Tilley, 34, reported to the New Legacy Reentry Corp. at 1115 Garvin Place in Old Louisville.

New Legacy is a faith-based organization committed to breaking the cycle of chronic recidivism for ex-offenders who have been incarcerated for nonviolent, nonsexual crimes.

“I had a long career as a drug addict and a criminal. New Legacy gave me some breathing room to really think about my life,” Tilley told LEO. “When I got out, I didn’t have to worry about a place to live, or if I was going to be able to get a job. They helped me to get my ID, birth certificate and Social Security card. I’m in drug-court now and doing well. Being in a stable environment has really raised my self-worth.”

At this rate, Tilley would be an exception among Kentucky’s released felons.

Kentucky has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, greater than Russia’s or El Salvador’s, according to a 2015 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based non-profit, non-partisan organization that researches mass-criminalization issues. Our state imprisons 948 people per 100,000 residents compared to the national average of 716 people per 100,000. Kentucky also has a 41 percent recidivism rate. That is compared to 37.6 percent in Indiana and 46 percent in Tennessee. The national rate was 43.3 percent, according to a 2011 Pew Report.

Gisela Nelson and her husband, Paul Nelson Sr., founded New Legacy in 2011 with money generated by their construction company, Level of Excellence Construction. Felons apply while still imprisoned. If they are accepted, New Legacy provides transitional housing, a job at Level of Excellence (pay starts at $10 an hour, depending on experience), vocational training, and life-skills classes. In return, clients pay $90 a week, do chores around the building, meet weekly with a psychologist from Spalding University and attend Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous meetings. The two-year program is currently only open to men, but New Legacy hopes to eventually have a similar program for women. So far, 11 ex-felons have gone through the program. The group has room for 24 clients, but they prefer to keep the maximum at 17. There are currently seven people living in the building and working in the construction program.

The way Gisela Nelson sees it, a main factor in the revolving door of the criminal justice system is that the stigma of incarceration makes it hard for ex-felons to find employment. The Kentucky Legislature passed a bill, which Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law, that would allow people with a non-violent felony to have their records expunged after five years with no other arrests. This is aimed at making it easier for ex-felons to find work.

But Nelson believes something more is needed.

“These men — and women — still have a scarlet letter on them. We take people that come from traumatic backgrounds, and when they are released, we expect them to pay restitution [and] pay for oversight, and they can’t get a job because employers are afraid of what they might do. That is not a system that is set up for success. We need a cultural change that is going to put people in position to succeed. That is what New Legacy is about,” said Gisela Nelson, 53.

Stories of success

In the two months he’s been at New Legacy, Tilley said, he has made a plan for his life that doesn’t include drugs or crime. He and another New Legacy tenant plan to start a roofing company. They hope to be subcontractors for Level of Excellence Construction.

The Nelsons credit God with putting them on the path to New Legacy. The couple married 23 years ago, almost six months to the day after they met in church. Gisela Nelson was an Army brat. Her name was given to her by a family friend in West Germany. She grew up in Louisville and attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she got a bachelor’s degree in social work. Most of her work experience has been in the corporate setting, at IBM and at hospitals in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Paul Nelson, 67, said he comes from a well-to-do Pittsburgh family. His stepfather owned several businesses in the city. As a teenager, he used drugs, and he was homeless at one point. He got into construction because it was quick money that got him off the street.  He ended up working at J. Francis Restoration, a remodeling and contracting company, and became a foreman. The owner, also a recovering addict, tended to hire people who had some involvement with the criminal justice system. One such employee was a young man who was a good worker, but he had a history of robbery. One day some tools were missing from a worksite, and Paul Nelson was sure that the young man had taken them. Instead of getting the police involved, Nelson told the kid to bring back the tools, and, instead of firing him, Paul decided to mentor the young man.

“I raised three grown sons, so I understand young men. Men need to talk to other men, but it’s hard to give it up about our insides. That’s why the construction work is important because you spend so much time together,” he said.

After that first young man, the Nelsons fell into a pattern of meeting troubled young people and getting involved in their lives. In 1997, the couple formed Nelson’s Drywall, which became their current company, Level of Excellence, in 1999. As part of the Black Contractors Association, the company participated in the Youth Construction Initiative, which trained recent graduates who lacked direction, and former inmates, in construction. The young people were paid a stipend and then paired with an association member.

‘A person can only change when they are ready to change’

The Nelsons’ work became personal around 2000 when her nephew, Kent A. Fowler, was incarcerated, Gisela Nelson said. Fowler had moved from Southern Indiana to Pittsburgh to live with his aunt and uncle, because his parents felt like he was hanging out with the wrong people. But the Nelsons had kicked him out because he refused to follow their rules. After Fowler got in trouble, he was sentenced to boot camp. When his sentence was over, he was enrolled in the Youth Construction Initiative and assigned to work with Level of Excellence, which had a contract to do work at Carnegie Mellon University. Fowler hated construction, but he eventually turned the skills that he learned into a successful property management company. He is currently a life coach with an office at New Legacy. He also teaches a life-skills class for the New Legacy residents. Fowler doesn’t use his own story as motivation because, he said, the individual can decide his direction.

“A person can only change when they are ready to change. It came down to me making some hard decisions. I just decided that I got so derailed off my path that I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to live. I tell the guys at New Legacy all the time that it is all on them. There is nothing I can say, or my aunt and uncle can say, to make that person change.”

Growing Louisville roots

Gisela Nelson moved back to Louisville in 2003 because of an illness in her family. Her husband followed the next year after he had finished his work commitments in Pittsburgh. They worked with Fowler flipping houses, and then the Nelsons got the idea of buying houses, fixing them up and renting them out to ex-felons who were having trouble finding a place to live.

“We always thought that housing was the missing link with the Youth Construction Initiative. A lot of the guys would have something happen at home, and they wouldn’t show up for work the next day. We’d think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had them somewhere where you can put your hands on them.’ Then you could deal with whatever happened last night or this morning,” Gisela explained.

It was Fowler who found the Garvin Place building where New Legacy is housed, and it inspired the Nelsons to expand their vision. When the couple first took possession of the building, it was in horrible shape. A 2009 flood had left eight feet of water in the basement, and the two upper floors were in disrepair. The couple spent about $100,000 to get the building in shape with the ex-inmates in their construction program doing most of the work. New Legacy is leasing the building with an option to buy, but work has stopped because the organization can’t afford it right now.

New Legacy has never accepted government grants. The organization generates money through Level of Excellence, the property management company Nelson & Associations (it has 18 properties), and Gisela’s Main Event, a party-planning company. Paul Nelson said that public money could come with unwanted limitations on the religious aspects of their program. For the first 30 days, New Legacy tenants are required to attend some type of religious institution every week. The organization doesn’t discriminate. They currently have a Muslim tenant who attends a mosque, although most of the residents are Christians.

“Our goal is to be self-sufficient. Grants don’t come together all the time like you would like. To keep us from having to turn people away or shut down, we decided to do businesses. It also helps the people to come to an environment where something is happening,” he said.

That is not to say that New Legacy has received no help. According to the organization’s 2014 990 tax form, the most recent available, New Legacy took in $6,357 in donations and paid out $4,437 in expenses. Donations include $2,500 from Walmart, which also had employees volunteer to help with cleaning. General Electric also donated appliances, and Dare to Care provides food for the facility.

Louisville, another Detroit?

New Legacy is still evolving. The Nelsons realized earlier this year that they could not maintain their facility, or the organization, by themselves. A few months ago, they brought in business consultant William R. Mansfield II, and his wife, Melanie House-Mansfield, an educator, to provide direction. Mansfield works for Life Safety Services, a company that provides life and fire safety services for hospitals and commercial properties. But the Louisville native has also done consulting work for nonprofits in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. He is volunteering his time at New Legacy because he feels the organization can have substantial impact on our city.

“I’m a person who is about policy, infrastructure, and change,” Mansfield said. “About 14 weeks ago I sat down with Paul and Gisela and asked to see their business plan and executive summary for the nonprofit. Anytime an organization can’t provide me the minimal, it generally makes me draw a pause. But I saw that Paul and Gisela had a three-year track-record, they had a building, and they had a niche. That’s a good foundation.”

Mansfield sees the recidivism issue as a socioeconomic problem. In order to compete with nearby cities, including Nashville and Indianapolis, Mansfield said, Louisville needs a skilled workforce, but the capacity is being drained by the criminal-justice system. The children of the incarcerated are more likely than other kids to be incarcerated themselves because they do not consider themselves stakeholders in the city’s success. By helping formerly-incarcerated people reenter the workforce, Mansfield believes, the city can lower the rate of incarceration, and its expense, for the next generation.

“We’ve been very divided between the east and the west in this community for too long. My greatest fear from a social-economic standpoint is we are going down the slippery slope of being another Detroit, East Baltimore, or a Flint, Michigan. We’ve got to redefine who our stakeholders are, and we’ve got to get all the communities to feel empowered. The only way we are going to thrive in the 21st century is if all the people feel they have equity in the future.”

Expungement not enough

State Rep. Darryl Owens, D-43, was thinking about Kentucky’s future workforce when he sponsored House Bill 40, the expungement measure. Owens said rules limiting ex-felons from participating in certain careers contribute to the state’s recidivism rate. “You can’t even get a student loan if you got a felony on your record,” he said. “All across the state people are being penalized for a mistake they made five or 10 years ago. Expungement will go a long way toward reducing the hurdles for ex-felons, but it’s not the only answer. This problem requires a global solution. We need re-entry programs, we need drug rehabilitation facilities and we need education programs. A lot of partners are needed for this situation to improve.”

The bill had bipartisan support. Among its backers was a coalition that included the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, Kentucky Council of Churches, the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions and the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Mansfield believes expungement for ex-felons is good, but he also thinks those ex-prisoners need marketable skills. This is why he is working with the Nelsons to improve New Legacy. For the last couple of months, he has led a discussion group every Tuesday that includes people from many levels of Louisville society. Their recommendations include the development of an advisory board for New Legacy, and the creation of other sources of funding.

Ultimately, Mansfield would like New Legacy to become an incubator of other nonprofits and small businesses that complement it. The Nelsons have already begun to rent office space on the second floor of their building to other groups. Their tenants include property manager, Nelson and Associates, consulting firm Pinwheel Group and sobriety expert Darryl Turpin, who also teaches classes to New Legacy residents. The building currently has 10 offices available for rent.

Paul said he’s willing to give up a little space and control at New Legacy, as long as the organization’s ultimate goal is the same. “I believe for this New Legacy to succeed, we have to let (ex-felons) know that they have the capacity to dream again. Then we have to help them learn what their passions are. In the interim, this construction company keeps them housed and keeps them with us.” •