Deputy Secretary Chris Lu and Regional Secretary's Representative Jen Mason visit RecycleForce in Indiana, July 2016.
At RecycleForce, we employ and serve higher risk offenders, most of whom are unemployable in the private sector because of their criminal history as well as a lack of basic literacy, numeracy and work skills.
Few served by RecycleForce have ever successfully held a job – many have never worked at all. A program that offers transitional employment and comprehensive supportive services is the best − and sometimes the only − way they can successfully reintegrate into the community and secure employment paying a living wage.
This July, Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu and Chicago Regional Representative for the Secretary of Labor Jen Mason visited RecycleForce to learn more about how our partnerships are helping to break the cycle of unemployment and crime for those returning to the community from prison. The rate of recidivism for those served by RecycleForce is less than half that of the national average.
A $1.36 million Training to Work grant from the Labor Department in 2015 allowed RecycleForce to train and employ 180 men and women referred to our program by Marion County, Indiana, work release facilities. Thanks to a second Training to Work grant, RecycleForce will train and employ an additional 170 or more men and women over the next year.
While workforce development and businesses typically operate on two separate tracks, RecycleForce has merged workforce development and business into a successful social enterprise – a business with a social mission.
Our social mission, to ensure that those leaving prison have every opportunity to successfully reintegrate into our community – is fully integrated with our recycling business. Our business model is electronic recycling; however, we accept virtually any recyclable material, much of which would be disposed of in landfills.
Challenges abound in operating a business in which 90 percent of the employees are under some form of criminal justice oversight. For example, on any given day about 20 percent of those employed miss work due to some oversight activity – going to a drug drop or a mandated appointment like an anger management class, counseling session, drug court check-in, or a home detention visit.
RecycleForce provides a flexible work schedule and a biometric time clock that incorporates accountability to these oversight responsibilities. Working in partnership with criminal justice oversight agencies, RecycleForce not only provides employment and hard- and soft-skills training, but helps monitor offenders during this transitional period from prison to community.
Deputy Secretary Lu meets RecycleForce employee Raheem Murray.
Nationally, this model is garnering much attention. REDF, with more than 18 years of experience providing funding and capacity building to employment-focused social enterprises in California, expanded nationally in 2016 to serve seven new cities, adding 22 social enterprises to its portfolio, RecycleForce being one. We are proving that social enterprises can develop business opportunities that create meaningful work for marginalized populations.
Mass incarceration has had a devastating impact on communities and families, and we believe the RecycleForce model can help repair some of the damage. Funding like that from the Labor Department and REDF not only provides more national exposure for our model, it is helping us refine and improve our program through better understanding of not only what is and is not working, but why.
“It’s been a good journey,” said RecycleForce employee Raheem Murray, who told Deputy Secretary Lu and Representative Mason during their visit. “It keeps me occupied and away from the things I used to do, staying away from the streets. It helped me grow as far as being a better person. RecycleForce not only recycles trash but they recycle lives. They’ve recycled mine.”
Gregg Keesling is the president of RecycleForce.