Education & Workforce Development and Environment and Government and Technology

Taking apart PCs, rebuilding lives: Workforce Inc. recycling program helps ex-prisoners prepare for employment

November 20, 2006

Timothy Smith spent 22 years behind bars for committing a violent crime he'd rather not talk about.

The Indianapolis native released from prison just two months ago cannot stop praising the transitional program meant to help him and other former inmates find jobs and rebuild their lives.

"This place has been a godsend for me," Smith said. "Coming out of prison, you don't have much of a job history. It gives you something to look forward to."

Smith, who entered the Indiana correctional system at age 18 and served time at Michigan City, Pendleton and Plainfield, is referring to the rehabilitation program developed by Workforce Inc., a local not-for-profit launched in 2003 by Gregg Keesling.

Keesling is prominent in local workforce development circles for founding Keys To Work Inc. in 1996. That jobplacement service catering to former felons, drug abusers and welfare recipients still exists and is led by Keesling's wife, Jannett. Its budget is smaller these days, though, because the federal government terminated Welfare to Work dollars, upon which the agency relied.

Unlike Keys to Work, which is a staffing company, Workforce uses grants to temporarily employ former felons and teach them a skill, and generates revenue through its for-profit arm, RecycleForce LLC. The agency is on Sherman Drive in the old Thomson plant.

Smith is working toward his forklift certification, for instance, while earning $7.50 an hour tearing down old computers whose parts are resold to recyclers.

"These are the types of jobs that can attract ex-offenders," Keesling said. "They can get their certifications, but the most important part is keeping them on the straight and narrow."

Part of that requires working 35-hour weeks and spending another five hours tending to child-support obligations, substanceabuse classes or meetings with probation officers.

After securing a few grants and a $106,000 loan from the Indiana Office of Energy and Defense Development, Recycle-Force began accepting computers and workers in October 2005. Since then, 21 of the 28 men seeking assistance have found full-time jobs, Keesling said.

There are 12 at the facility now, and those employed by Workforce can stay for up to six months. The goal is to serve 25 men at a time, or 50 annually. But that can't happen until more organizations start supplying computers.

College involvement integral

Workforce currently receives up to 100 machines a week, from universities, private companies and the city of Indianapolis and its ECycles program, in which residents can drop off electronic items year-round at specific sites. Others come from solid waste districts that are prohibited from disposing of computers in landfills. Mercury, nickel, cadmium and lead can be found in computer monitors, circuit boards and batteries.

Earlham College in Richmond recently signed on as a Workforce supplier and is preparing to transport its first shipment of computers by the end of the month.

Keesling's relationship with Earlham runs deep. He once attended the college, and his brother Gerry is coach of the Quakers football team. Earlham learned of Keesling's not-for-profit through Gerry's wife, who works at the school and is a member of its Information Technology Policy Committee.

The group is tasked with discarding outdated computers, a process that at one time consisted of nothing more than tossing the equipment into the trash. The college shelved the hazardous practice in 2001 and instead contracted with a metal-recycling firm. Earlham turned to the same company three years later, but was informed it no longer accepted monitors.

Earlham ultimately paid another recycler several thousand dollars to load 25 pallets of equipment, which left Tom Steffes, director of computing services, uneasy.

"I know darn well a lot of that stuff is being shipped to China," he said. "As a person who cares about the environment, that bothers me."

China's role as a dumping ground for the world's unwanted gadgets is an outgrowth of efforts by wealthy countries to protect their own environments. Many of the machines collected by recyclers can be disposed of far cheaper by selling them to Asian middlemen. The computers are broken into scrap and the copper and aluminum, and even gold found in older circuit boards is sold.

Praise from state

When Steffes at Earlham learned Workforce performs the same functions, the decision to contract with Keesling seemed obvious. Steffes declined to divulge the amount of the three-year deal, but said it is far cheaper than what the college previously paid for disposal.

Workforce operates on a $600,000 annual budget, including $400,000 earmarked for payroll. RecycleForce generates a portion of the funds.

While Workforce recruits and trains workers, RecycleForce receives income by selling the scrap stripped from computers. Oven-size boxes containing fans, circuit boards, copper wire and demagnetized hard drives made of aluminum and steel await pickup. Circuit boards can fetch up to $2 a pound, for example.

Keesling is confident his pool of candidates will never run dry. With a biannual budget of $1.2 billion, the Indiana Department of Correction is the state's secondlargest agency next to the Family and Social Services Administration.

His next step is to forge a partnership with the Plainfield Re-Entry Educational Facility, converted from a former juvenile correctional center. The program for inmates within two years of release started in January and prepares them for re-entry into society. Money-management courses are offered and, eventually, prisoners will be able to obtain driver's licenses. The facility can hold 450 inmates.

"As they get out, I'm going to need as many employers as possible, or they're going to turn to what they do best-drinking, doing drugs and breaking into people's cars," facility Superintendent Mike Lloyd said bluntly.

A never-ending supply of antiquated computers helps as well. For-profit companies such as locally based Asset Forwarding Corp. already are capitalizing on the stricter environmental regulations.

Asset CEO Mark Vander Kooy does not view RecycleForce as competition, mainly because Asset focuses on the corporate market. In fact, company revenue is up 800 percent this year, Vander Kooy said.

"Legislation is getting stricter, but I think people want to do the right thing," he said. "We live in Indianapolis, too, so Gregg's mission of helping offenders get back into society is a very positive and worthy goal."

Larry Jarrard, who served three years for dealing drugs, couldn't agree more.

"I'm just looking forward to getting a better job," he said.
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