Brandon Hill, “Mr. Hill” to his coworkers, wears a nondescript uniform to work each day. It consists of a blue hat and gray work shirt, nothing fancy. But Mr. Hill’s proud of it anyway, because this uniform shows that he has a job – on the outside. Hill, like many of his coworkers at RecycleForce, is an ex-offender, a man who did some serious time. At RecycleForce and in this article, all of the staff are referred to as Mr., Ms., Mrs. or Miss, titles that create a sense of seriousness and respect at work.
“Mr. Hill’s an example of a quiet leader,” says Gregg Keesling, RecycleForce’s Executive Director and a co-founder of the organization. “I can’t tell you how great this guy is, working hands-on, showing his team by example what good work looks like.”
|RecycleForce accepts recyclables at their drive-in dock at 1125 Brookside Avenue in Indianapolis, but they have also participated in special "ToxDrop" events at several sites, including Hinkle Fieldhouse and IU Health.|
|Justin Ferguson, a De-Manufacturing Specialist and Mentor at RecycleForce, describes the organization's work: “We don’t just recycle electronics, we recycle character.”|
|“Our people have become so efficient that we can’t keep supply up with their work,” says Gregg Keesling, Executive Director of RecycleForce, pictured above. “What we used to do in weeks, we now do in days.”|
For many recently released ex-offenders, it’s hard to find any type of job, never mind a leadership position. This is a job with a future, where Mr. Hill can learn skills while he learns how to live a new life outside of prison. RecycleForce provides ex-offenders with a chance to work and with an opportunity for a new chance. A 2006 study found that employment rates of formerly incarcerated men are about 6 percent lower than for similar men who have not been incarcerated. That gap is greater immediately following incarceration. And employment – or lack of – is a key indicator of recidivism.
Because employment is a condition for many parolees and rent is required in work-release centers, unemployment in those early days can be especially challenging. As a result, unemployment often leads to crime and parole violations, and, therefore, a return to prison.
Keesling and his partners at RecycleForce understood the challenges ex-felons face, and over the past seven years, RecycleForce diverted over 20 million pounds of waste away from landfills and back into manufacturing supply lines. And with help from The Indianapolis Foundation, Efroymson Family Fund, and The Glick Fund, they gave more than 400 ex-offenders gainful employment from 2005-2011 in order to do it.
No Longer Cast-Away
The employees at RecycleForce, who typically work for several months before finding stable positions with new employers, work hands-on with other people’s trash. From old televisions to malfunctioning thermometers, they transform piles of what most people see as junk into raw material that others are willing to buy.
“We take bottles, cans, old televisions, wax paper, Styrofoam, we get everything,” says Mr. Johnson who works at the public drive-in dock. “It’s pretty amazing, that we can take so many things. And it’s all free, though we do ask for a donation, especially for the old TVs.”
By breaking down old consumer goods, the workers help to fund the program that employs them. The gold from computer chips and copper from electrical equipment have value. After being sorted and then crushed by a large machine, mixed plastic pieces – of nearly every color and shape – are sold to suppliers in Asia where manufacturers are better-equipped than American factories to transform the resource into new products, adding to RecycleForce’s bottom line.
But crushed, stripped and salvaged junk doesn’t just pay for their salaries – it also helps pay for supportive services, counseling and job placement, and supplements grants from multiple funders. The workers’ efforts, as well as grants from a number of funders, do not just provide for salaries – they also help fund supportive services, counseling and job placement. With a focus on full re-entry – to work, to family and to independence - RecycleForce encourages ex-offenders including Mr. Hill to develop new perspectives on themselves.
“For a lot of these guys, it’s their first job, and beyond their first job, it’s the first time that people have seen them as leaders…as responsible…as needed,” says Keesling. “And these are typically felons, guys that society has largely given up on.”
New Lives Recycled, Repurposed
Gregg Keesling is familiar with the process of reinvention. He moved to Jamaica as a young man and spent decades in the Caribbean country. He opened a hotel, helped with community projects and enjoyed an ex-patriot lifestyle. But, ultimately, he returned to the United States, and Indianapolis, and founded RecycleForce.
RecycleForce’s model offers workers jobs skills, character development and personal counseling. With those assets, their workers move on to other jobs, facilitated through partnerships that the organization has developed with local employers. The recidivism rate for the workers that RecycleForce has placed has been 25 percent. That’s less than half Marion County’s general recidivism rate of 53 percent.
“We can’t just give up on guys, because we’re here to transition them into new people,” says Mr. Hill. “We do it with time and peer mentoring, and we find out what’s going in their lives. We help them to see a better perspective.”
Successful transitions rely on not only on the services and income that RecycleForce provides. For many workers, the opportunity to be seen as a productive person and to live a new life is central to their success.
“In my old life, the more money that I made was more money that was spent, and I never got anything out of it,” says Mr. Wilson, who came to RecycleForce a few weeks after his release following an 18-year sentence. “Now that I’m out and I’m here, I’ve got clothes in my closet, my television, my microwave, things that I earned, that I paid for, and I’ve got receipts for all of it.”
Read more about CICF's support of reentry, another environmental training program, and pre-release employment training programs, as well as a video focusing on RecycleForce's focus on environmental employment on Huffington Post.
Photos courtesy of RecycleForce.