The workers at Indy's RecycleForce understand the value of discarded objects.
Society cast them off, too — into the criminal justice system. After squaring up with the law, they all need a second shot — to be redeemed from frameworks in which the craziest realities somehow make sense. Realities in which selling drugs on the streets at 12 years old evolves into larger criminal operations, which can include murder, battery or rape. Or realities in which one ditches one's kids or sells one's body to feed addiction.
One of RecycleForce's top workers found himself homeless upon his release from prison, facing fees of $84 a week so Marion County Community Corrections could GPS monitor him under a downtown bridge along the interstate and an additional $40-$60 in outsourced, court-ordered counseling and polygraph fees. As a registered sex offender, Andrew King's options to find employment or housing were even more limited than other ex-offenders.
"It was very difficult," King recalled in a recent interview. "I was homeless living under a bridge, I couldn't figure out what to do. I applied to be a dishwasher, but they wouldn't hire me. I would have been the best dishwasher ever."
But he did have a woman at community corrections who took an interest in his case.
She helped connect him with the Veterans Affairs' housing services and an interview at RecycleForce, a local reclamation firm that has guided hundreds of ex-offenders' re-entry process.
With success after success notched to its credit, the firm has grown from two employees in 2006 to employ 16 full-time staff and around 50 ex-offenders cycling through its training programs on a given week. The program is designed to train them for the private-sector workforce and help them overcome any number obstacles that may prevent successful re-integration into society.
RecycleForce has grown steadily more efficient in its process and effective at identifying new markets. Its team has recycled more than 11 million pounds of materials since its inception. More than 200 ex-offenders have found permanent, unsubsidized employment through RecycleForce.
Becoming a person, not a number
As Calvin Houston, the firm's job development director, puts it, RecycleForce "is the only place in the whole state where you're more accepted if you have a criminal past."
He's had his own "brushes" with the law, which, when he deals with people emerging from the criminal justice system, adds to his credibility.
Houston manages the flow of services for all new clients, including the arrangement of a host of various training sessions, personal development, housing, probation negotiations and transportation assistance.
"We identify their barriers and eliminate them the best we can," Houston said during an interview in his office.
The goal is that after four months of the program, they're economically viable, set with a plan to handle their obligations to the courts, their children, themselves and society.
Houston estimated that as many as three-quarters of program participants have never held a straight job and none of them have been back in (relatively) free society for more than 180 days.
The classes cycle through phased training to affect basic behavior modifications to shed the habits they used to survive incarceration (such as dragging one's feet when approaching someone else from behind to make them aware of your presence). Instead workers focus on solidifying habits that coincide with success in the workplace such as arriving to work and returning from break on time and minimizing personal calls on the job.
How could you let them out?
"People are asking constantly what do we do," RecycleForce President Gregg Keesling said in a February interview.
"I think as much as anything we're just believing in people and empowering them." The public often makes the mistake of believing that RecycleForce is responsible for the release of people with such colorful criminal pasts, Keesling said.
"We don't bring them out," he said. " ... These people can be walking around and you wouldn't know ... it's better for people to be engaged in work and productive activities — especially when they're early release."
RecycleForce aims for 60-70 percent of its revenue to be generated by the sale of recycled material, according a report on nonprofit social enterprise funding models by Green For All YELL Working Group.
In the fiscal year ending June 2010, the firm hit that goal, reporting that sales of recycled material supplied nearly $400,000, or 60 percent of its income.
Still, grants and donations are critical as proven by the pay cuts coming due to a national Catholic group's recent refusal to honor the final $20,000 payment of a $40,000 Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant agreement to RecycleForce. The group cited AmeriCorps' offering of free condoms to RecycleForce workers, who face higher-than-average risk for HIV, STDs and Hepatitis due to incarceration. [See sidebar.]
The U.S. Department of Labor, however, recently awarded a $5.5 million grant to track the successful re-entry of RecyleForce members compared to a control group. Child support compliance, reducing recidivism and job placement are major parameters of what officials will measure.
RecycleForce will host 300 workers throughout the course of the grant. Two Christian ministries will also participate, NewLife Ministries, a home rehab service, and Changed Life, which is engaged in enterprises such small engine repair and manufacturing of items such as disposable communion cups. Each of those groups will take about 100 ex-offenders a piece. Another 500 study volunteers will be placed in the control group to test ex-offenders progress without additional support services.
The first class, which started in November, will graduate on March 16. One member already has a job. About eight new team members will start each week as the classes cycle through. Six people have already found permanent, full-time, unsubsidized employment.
"My goal is to make relationships with employers willing to give people a second chance," Houston said."I think we're giving them a great skill set for a warehouse professional."
In addition to forklift certification, team members can tackle certifications in the safe handling of hazardous materials, warehouse safety, and prevention of sexual harassment. Some examples of advancement include people earning commercial drivers' licenses, learning to read and entering a welding apprenticeship.
"I know who's got baby mamma drama, who's got a bus pass, who's gonna show up on time," Houston said. "When an employer calls, I want to give them the best I've got — I want to keep the line of communication open so when they call again, the employer won't have a problem trusting that I'm going to send him a great guy."