There are nearly 16,000 Marion County residents on some form of oversight by the Department of Corrections walking our streets on any given day. Marion County leads the country with 4,300 people wearing electronic monitoring bracelets on their ankles. To put that number into perspective, Los Angeles County only has 2,000.
Indiana spends $500 million per year on incarcerating adults, but when they’re released from prison, they find it difficult to secure employment. Statistics show that 85% of new offenses happen when an ex-offender is under-employed. It can be easy to fall into old habits when you don’t have anywhere to turn or a job to go to; it’s easy for a person without any support to fail.
“Ideally, you want employment when you come home because you know that’s part of your sanity in that moment,” said Andrea Ayietta, an employee at RecycleForce, a non-profit recycling company in Indianapolis. “I showed up at RecycleForce and told them I needed a job. They sent me to a job at a hotel first, and there was so much going on. I came back here and told them I can’t work there; just coming out of prison, that’s not the type of environment that I can work in, so is there anything else I can do? And that’s how I started in the program.”
RecycleForce offers one of the most comprehensive transitional job programs for ex-offenders. It provides around 300 formerly incarcerated men and women with workforce training, case management, peer mentorship, and job opportunities every year. The company also positively impacts the environment. Since 2006, RecycleForce has safely recycled more than 65 million pounds of electronic waste.
How RecycleForce Works
By taking electronic waste and other recyclables provided by residents and corporate partners, RecycleForce deconstructs these items, recycles the materials, and disposes of the waste. The scrap metals and other reusable materials collected are then sold to help pay for job training programs and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated men and women.
“If a person can’t find any income, it immediately pushes them back into the mindset of, ‘I need to go back to what I used to do,’ or it will be easy to influence them to pick up bad habits they were trying to stay away from,” said Jannett Keesling, president of Keys to Work. Keys to Work partners with RecycleForce to help transitional employees find competitive job placements.
RecycleForce is not only a job for ex-offenders, it’s a program. Employees get training along with certifications they can use at future jobs, such as OSHA training and forklift certifications.
“You’re not going to get another program that’s going to pay you to work and also get training,” said Ayietta. “When I first came here, I was in re-entry court and I had a lot of obligations as far as having to go to court, having case manager meetings, and going to see parole. So with my schedule and how trying it was at the beginning of re-entry, RecycleForce was the best that someone with those conditions could have. How many employers are going to let you leave and go to a parole meeting without giving you any grief or holding anything against your attendance?”
Most people who are here say they feel like they’ve been put into a family setting. There are programs available at RecycleForce to help with getting a driver’s license, bank account, child support, mental health, housing, connecting with family, and peer mentoring. Older employees help encourage the newer employees by saying “this is where I was and look at where I am now.” There’s a sense of belonging.
The population of women at RecycleForce is small but mighty. Most of them find it fascinating to venture into a new industry that they have never worked in, and since they’re coming from the penal system, it gives them more work opportunities. “Once these women got in trouble, they had to diversify their skillset to find more opportunities,” said Keesling. “Almost every one of these women have been able to find a job very quickly after they went through the training. Although it might be challenging having most of your coworkers be male, they have handled it with absolute grace.”
“How many employers are going to let you leave and go to a parole meeting without giving you any grief or holding anything against your attendance?”
Work is Therapy
People often have misconceptions about who ex-offenders are and what they’re like. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and chat with dozens of employees at RecycleForce and can say that they simply want the opportunity to succeed, the same opportunity given to everyone else. This group of individuals are dedicated, proud of the work that they do every day, and are ready to get back out there into the workforce.
“People are scared of what they don’t understand,” said Ayietta. “For someone who has never dealt with people who have been involved with the criminal justice system, it’s a scary thing. It’s getting them to know that I can be trusted, I am worth their time, I am worth you taking this chance on me because I put effort to show up here. That’s gotta show for something. Give someone an opportunity and watch what they can do with it.”
Studies have shown that RecycleForce’s benefits to the city are significant. The recidivism rate of RecycleForce participants is 25% versus 77% nationwide. Also, the increased employment that comes from RecycleForce’s program produces $1.20 in economic value for every dollar invested in the program.
“Indianapolis has come so far, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to re-entry, giving people resources, and making sure people succeed,” said Ayietta. “Not having one hand around their neck and one hand holding their chest back, but having both of your arms open and taking them in to show them I’m going to walk with you.”
How You Can Help
There are simple things you can do to help RecycleForce. First you can recycle your electronics with their drive-up recycling door. You can donate a piece of interview clothing, or even donate household furniture that is in good condition for employees that are getting a home for the first time.
If you want to get involved with a more hands-on approach, consider becoming a Trusted Mentor. Trusted Mentors partners with RecycleForce for person-to-person mentoring relationships that help with self-esteem, accountability, and reliability.
One of the biggest ways you can make an impact is by becoming an employer that gives ex-offenders the opportunity to make a living.
“Open up your heart a little bit more,” said Keesling. “Just give a person a chance and don’t be so quick to judge. Look beyond the crime and look at the person sitting in front of you. When most people have someone who believes in them, it changes their whole life.”
Editor’s Note: Rachel Hickey is a member of the RecycleForce board of directors.